Papers, Please is an indie game that very effectively expresses its values via gameplay. There are several values that Papers, Please though the most evident one is its critique of ineffective, corrupt governments (represented by Arstotzka, the dystopian soviet inspired country where the game takes place) and the rigid unfeeling bureaucratic institutions (the border crossing where the player works) that are a common stereotype of them. At the start of the game players are presented with a simple objective: let the right people into the country and keep the wrong people out. What qualifies as “right” and “wrong” shifts with each new round, which is experienced in the form of a day at work. Sometimes a person’s photo ID does not match their appearance, other times they are from a neighboring country that is hostile to yours. Such constraints constitute the game’s mechanics on a technical level, though they also express values. The ever-changing requirements for entry highlight how fickle our perceptions of right and wrong our, and the government’s role in influencing them. For example, a trade embargo on another country leads to citizens of that country having to be denied. Overnight individuals who had no choice in the affairs of their government are vilified and detained while simply trying to go about their everyday lives. Especially given the US’s treatment of refugees and immigrants from “undesirable” countries, this message is one that can impact players’ perceptions and behavior towards people in similar situations in the real world.
While this surface-level relationship between values and mechanics is striking in its own right, it continues to develop in complexity the longer players play Papers, Please. While it’s not the first game to evolve in a way that “redefines its own…experiences”, the possible ways they can be redefined highlight the complexity of its message. (Zimmerman) Players can choose to work with EZIC, an organization that claims to want to bring down the Arstotzka’s government, but there are multiple ways this ending can go. Even if players help EZIC at several points in the game, they can choose to betray them at multiple points, such as shooting one of their terrorists or refusing to let the members into the country. It poses players with a hard moral dilemma, as both sides can sound right. If players aid EZIC they are betraying their government, risking the safety and security of their family. But is this such a bad thing when their government is bad? Or might whatever change EZIC wants be worse than what’s already there? While the mechanics of Papers, Please pose moral questions in their own right, the game’s narrative and multiple endings reveal that morality itself is not easy to define.
Papers, Please is available on Steam.
Papers Please. Lucas Pope, 2013.
Zimmerman, Eric. “Play as Research: The Iterative Design Process.” 2003. PDF.