What is the embodiment of evil? Most would go for someone like Hitler. A larger-than-life character with a complete disdain for the suffering of others, yet still possessing the ability to charm millions. But evil is rarely performed by cartoon villains, sitting in their Fortress of Doom, cackling maniacally as they torture a kitten to death. Evil is performed by men in suits, golden pens in their chest pockets, and stamps in their hands. With a single move with their wrists, they sign death warrants, never seeing the consequences of their actions, maybe not even caring about them.
“It signifies the bureaucrat’s daily monotony. Except this bureaucrat sometimes gets to see the consequences of his actions right in front of him.”The banality of evil, a concept coined by Hannah Arendt during in her book about the Eichmann trial in 1963, is the assertion that many involved in terrible cruelty against their fellow human beings are in fact not “crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.” This applies well to Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope. In it, you step into the shoes of an immigration officer who recently “won” the job lottery, and is ready to assume his post.
The menu screen establishes the tone right from the start. The oppressive theme, with its repetitive percussion reminds you of Soviet marches, while the eagle emblem is reminiscent of the National Socialist leanings to Roman imagery. “Expect a Class-8 dwelling”, is the welcoming message as the new job at border control is assumed, as if all individual characteristics must disappear for the world to be systemized. As with every other totalitarian society before it, this country has long since abandoned the ideals that drove its founders.
The concept is simple. A long line of people are waiting in line at border control to get a chance at entering the glorious nation of Arstotzka. You must search through their documents for any discrepancies to determine whether they can be allowed inside. The main screen is divided into three parts. The upper part shows the area outside your booth, which occasionally comes to “life” as someone does something unexpected and you have to handle it. With guns. It’s like a grotesque version of a duckshoot. The lower left is where you receive documents, and interact with the applicants. To the right of that is your desk where you scrutinize documents and decide people’s fate. It signifies the bureaucrat’s daily monotony. Except this bureaucrat sometimes gets to see the consequences of his actions right in front of him.
At first this new job is rather simple. As long as they have a valid passport, they get inside. If not, they get a big red stamp in their passport and sent off to an uncertain future. But over time, the rules become increasingly draconian making life a pain for both those at border control and the people trying to get in. There’s a lot of details to keep hold of, and mistakes will be made on both sides of the line.
“You start to despise people who don’t have their documents in order.”Add to this a strict time constraint and stress levels are quite high after just a few in-game days. Since your salary depend on how many people you process during a day, you have a clear incentive to work fast, risking sloppiness. Otherwise, you may have to turn off the heat in your apartment, or stop buying food. Both of which affect your family. Having your family’s well-being depend on your competence as an immigration officer could have been a genius move, since it forces you to constantly weigh your own selfish motivations – if caring for your family can be described as such – against the well-being of innocent strangers. Unfortunately, it never really comes to fruition, because your family are only represented as blocks of text, and seen only at the end of the day. There’s no attachment to them, and that weakens the experience.
The time constraints are further compounded by the occasional terrorist attack, which halts operations for the rest of the day, reducing your income. The stress leads to more tiny mistakes and missing crucial information, which results in penalties and salary reductions. It’s a vicious circle. The only way to avoid failure is to remove emotion from the equation, and only look at the hard facts rather than the human realities. This job breeds hard men.
You start to despise people who don’t have their documents in order. How hard can it honestly be? It can’t be my job to make sure they’ve read the rules. Occasionally, someone shakes you out of that view though, because there are many tragic stories sprinkled throughout the story. They come to be reunited with spouses, see their children for the first time in years or simply hoping for a better life here. And you, with your big red stamp, send them away. Or worse, have them detained when some information has obviously been forged. Those are the worst. You press a button, and then a pair of border guards take them away. Apart from one, you never hear of anyone making it out of there, but considering the disregard Arstotzka has for human life your imagination can fill in the blanks. Moral quandaries soon manifest themselves. Breaking procedure by letting in a woman who has been separate from her family could result in punishment. Docked pay might mean missing out on affording family health care for a month.. It’s a lot harder to be altruistic then.
Here the main weakness of the game shows its face again, though. As these unfortunate people are represented only as drawings on a screen, and their words only as text, it’s difficult to connect with them. In a way they are dehumanized, reduced to common cases to which there’s an establish procedure of handling them. That’s also a valid interpretation. The reason they are dehumanized is to show how the immigration officer must distance himself from emotions.
“It’s as if the system has just become self-sustaining, and nobody really knows why the rules are the way they are.”At the same time as the events continue to vilify you and calls you out for being implicit in murder, it also sympathizes. You’re an anonymous immigration officer who didn’t choose to be put in this position. You were simply selected. The inhuman voice which comes out of the speakers on top of the booth isn’t really yours. Surely it’s manipulated to be more intimidating. This shows that – hypothetically – any one of us could find ourselves in morally grey territory such as the one presented here. Although that is eerily similar to the “Nuremberg defense”, i.e. that because you are not responsible for where you’ve ended up, you are not responsible for the consequences of your actions. But there’s always a choice. When you choose to think unselfishly, the game doesn’t directly punish you, the player. It simply leaves the immigration officer to an unknown, presumably deathly fate.
There is a glimmer of hope in all this, though, because there’s a secretive, cult-like group operating through you, trying to undermine the Arstotzkan rule from inside the country. You run a huge risk if you try to support them, and you don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. It could just be a dead end, and would compromise you and your family. The resolution isn’t shown until much later, and forces you to think back to earlier decisions. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. It’s choices like this that Papers, Please excels at delivering.
It’s also a criticism of bureaucracy. It’s never really clear who is in charge of Arstotzka. It’s as if the system has just become self-sustaining, and nobody really knows why the rules are the way they are. They have accepted the position they have in society, and then perform that duty as best they can. An example is the inspector who occasionally pops into your booth to check up on things. He merely looks through his rulebook, and if you’ve broken some minor rule – like putting personal items on the walls of your booth – you get jailed. It’s an absurd country where regulations overrule common sense. The most frightening thing, though, is that it’s impossible to stop this cycle. It’ll continue until the country breaks down.
Nothing suggests that matters are better elsewhere in the region. One of Lucas Pope’s other titles, The Republia Times, made for Ludum Dare is centered on the same concept of weighing personal safety versus the good interests of the nation. It takes place a neighboring state that utilizes just as brutal methods as Arstotzka, and censors its news. It’s so ironic when a refugee seeking asylum in Arstotzka says that he hopes “…that things are better here”. How sorely disappointed he’ll be. You cannot truly escape tyranny.
In the midst of this, you feel like a tiny player in a much bigger game. One of the inspectors even mentions that his position “…makes me responsible for you.” And not in a friendly manner, rather in the way that he sees you as a resource, not a human being. I’ll admit to say that I haven’t experienced all 20 endings yet, but none of them so far have been particularly “good”. Even if there’s something positive to take away from it, they always feel bittersweet. The last message you get when you fail utterly – and you will – is particularly chilling. It says that the “…border will remain open under a replacement inspector”. If you chose to be an idealist, everything you fought for will have been for naught, and you will rot away in a prison cell. But the system always survives.
Glory to Arstotzka!