The entire premise of Lucas Pope's video game Papers, Please is simple, if somewhat bizarre: a border officer, selected through a job lottery in a fictional communist country called Arstotzka, shuffles through entrants’ paperwork to determine whether or not they can pass.a
Papers, Please involves unexpectedly engaging gameplay. The core of the game revolves around inspecting passports to see if they are forged or expired, and ultimately approving or denying entry. More and more rules are phased in, from entry passes and work permits to passport confiscation and certifications of health. All throughout, you must make enough money to make rent and support your family, and avoid receiving citations for wrongly admitting or denying possible entrants.
Ultimately, there are 20 possible endings to the game, reached through pivotal decisions. Papers, Please is not mindless rote work; there are moments of moral dilemma during which you might accept a citation to permit a wife to enter with her husband or choose whether or not to accept bribes for entry. At several crucial points, you have to decide whether or not to aid a secret society looking to fix the corrupt Arstotzkan government.
The unique design and gameplay has given Papers, Please largely positive reviews from critics, along with a 10/10 rating on Steam. The official game website recounts various accolades, including being named The New Yorker’s Best Game of 2013.
But one of the most striking points of praise highlighted on the site is from PC game review site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which recounts, “[Papers, Please is] peculiarly engrossing, darkly ominous, and a fascinating exploration of morality versus progress.”
Papers, Please is an empathy game. And from there, we step into the uniquely messy territory of video game morality.
“Please note that these videos are purely made for fun and not to make any political statements. (◡‿◡✿),” popular streamer PewDiePie’s gameplay video for Papers, Please reads.
It’s a necessary disclaimer. There isn’t really a way of making an apolitical game that is centered around border control in a communist country reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc. From the beginning, video games like these place entertainers in a weird position that only video games can. After all, it might feel somewhat awkward to play a game involving turning people away at a border for the entertainment of the masses.
To draw a connection from Papers, Please to the current state of American border control would be to over–exaggerate the game’s political application. For one, Arstotzka, created in the image of a run–down, communist country, is a far cry from the American polity. For another, the game might have been somewhat less enjoyable if the player were forced to take children away from their parents or maintain concentration camps for detained entrants.
Papers, Please paints a stereotypical picture of what border control looks like—barbed wire fences, long lines, Soviet–esque decorations, a job lottery, communism. Without a doubt, the game is meant to raise discomfort with borders, but it’s easy to decry the stringent border methods as portrayed, and far less easy to then apply that same logic to extant immigration systems in a multiplicity of powerful nations.
A particularly peculiar mechanic in the game involves the inspection of possible entrants’ genders. Just as you can highlight discrepancies in height, weight, or appearance, you can highlight seeming discrepancies in gender and then perform a full–body search to confirm whether or not the entrant matches what is on their passport. The game is even kind enough to give you the option of turning nudity on or off, when it prints out photos of the person’s back and front. If nudity is on, you have the opportunity to inspect the person’s genitals, to see if it matches with the listed sex on their passport. It’s a deeply uncomfortable routine to perform, especially in light of how transgender people are often mistreated in TSA searches.
In the game, to reject someone for “mismatching sex” is to legitimize an association of genitals to gender. To permit them anyway leads to receiving an in–game citation. Papers, Please provides neither condemnation nor adulation. It would be easy to say that because the game is generally anti–border control, it is certainly condemning these processes as well. However, the inclusion of a mechanic is, quite frankly, gratuitous.
But the aesthetic of the game is compelling and stark, and at least on the surface level, the morality of the game is clear. To any audience that’s not interested in reckoning with larger themes on border policy or gender, there is no reason to find fault with the story of the game. Given the political intrigue, it’s not at all surprising that Papers, Please has been adapted into a fan–made short film with over 10 million views on YouTube.
Of course, any sort of political discourse centers around whether or not you view the politics of the game as important.
For what Papers, Please is trying to do from a gameplay standpoint, it succeeds, and quite brilliantly at that. It makes paperwork fun, but also drudgery enough so that it serves a facile moralistic point about border policy.
However, if we are considering Papers, Please as art, as an Ars Technica review does, it may be worth considering the larger politics and implications of the game. Regardless of what you believe the game is intending to say, it allows for reflection on the particular genre of empathy games.
Even if all the aforementioned issues were to be eventually called out by the game, it would feel overly chiding, a frustrating double bind. After all, it was the game itself that included the mechanic. If it is to lecture you on your biological essentialism, perhaps it simply shouldn’t have given you the option, and punished you if you failed to obey. Similarly, if the game were to eventually scold you for working towards the end goal of detaining and turning away people applying for entry (i.e. actually playing the game) then it feels like an unpleasant and unavoidable "gotcha!"
Empathy games are a fraught genre because a true empathy game probably wouldn’t be very enjoyable, and video games are meant to be enjoyed. In that light, Papers, Please deserves scrutiny and reflection. But still, without a shadow of a doubt, the game is also a whole lot of fun.
You can buy Papers, Please for $9.99 on Steam.