How “Papers, Please” Reflects on Morality

How “Papers, Please” Reflects on Morality

Welcome to Arstotzka! Glory to Arstotzka! If you don’t know the basic premise of 2013’s
“Papers, Please”, You are a man living in the fictional country of Arstotzka with
your family. You win a labor lottery that places you in
the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint. Your job is to check passports and either
admit or deny entry to the people at your gate, and to also provide for your family
at home. Sounds pretty simple. But “Papers, Please” is a lot more complex
than first meets the eye. There are really 2 sides to this game. The first half is simply the game at face
value. You are asked to look at passports to see
if someone should be admitted or denied entry to Arstotzka. It starts out simple, but as days pass and
current events change the political landscape, more rules are created. By midway, you are often sifting through four
different documents looking for discrepancies. It is a test of speed and accuracy. You want to make sure you admit the correct
people, not just for the safety of your country, but also to avoid citations that affect how
much money you will bring home to your family. Thankfully, Arstotzka does allow you to get
two citations a day before they start docking your pay. At the same time, however, you don’t want
to take too long making sure someone’s information is correct, as you get paid for every person
you process in a day. You must optimize both your speed and accuracy,
though as the rules get more frantic, so do you, and it becomes easier to make a mistake. As it is, the game is fairly addicting and
fun. But to this point, you are nothing more than
a human machine – simply processing information, looking for discrepancies, following rules,
and repeating the same process again and again. “Papers, Please” could have simply been
a game about quick reflexes and repetition, but as you play, you discover that the game
is far more deep, and has you look at conflicting cases that bleed into moral ambiguity. It doesn’t take long before you are presented
with some really interesting cases in the game. These passports aren’t just piles of information
to sort. They’re people with stories. What do you do when a criminal shows up to
your gate but has all his paperwork in order? Should you let the woman who’s passport
is expired by one day in because she is seeking medical treatment? One of the cases in the game that tugged at
my heartstrings the most was (sair-jew) Sergiu and (elise-uh) Elisa. You meet a border security guard named Sergiu
who says he has a favor to ask of you. He met a beautiful girl named Elisa during
the war, and has just discovered she is coming to Arstotzka to be with him. When she does arrive to your gate, she explains
that the rest of her family is now gone, and Sergiu is all she has left. The problem is, she has a passport, but doesn’t
have the other required documents for entry. You should deny her. The game has taught you this. You’ve denied other people who don’t have
their proper paperwork without a second thought before. And if you let her pass to reunite with Sergiu,
it will negatively affect your own family at home that is barely scraping by. Do you put a stranger above your own family? Do you risk a citation and docked pay? Or is reuniting a woman with the only person
she has left worth it? If you do decide let her pass, you see her
and Sergiu run to each other and embrace each other, a sweet moment you get to witness as
a citation also pops up on the bottom of your screen. It’s moments like these that change your
strategy. This game is no longer just a test of the
mind, but also the heart. All of a sudden, the two citation warnings
you get before Arstotzka docks your pay become less about you being able to make mistakes
and more about you strategically using them to make decisions you want to make. You get approached by the mysterious order
named EZIC, which wants to revolutionize and rebuild Arstotzka. Do you betray your country and stand with
EZIC, hoping that they will build a better country? Or do you stay loyal? And since your clock is ticking down, you
don’t have all day to decide. You must choose quickly in the moment, and
trying to play both sides rarely works out. You must learn to let your ‘yes be yes’
and your ‘no be no.” This is what makes “Papers, Please” stand
out. The game makes it clear in the beginning that
to succeed, you must blindly follow orders. In the first couple of days, this is easy
to do. If someone doesn’t have their papers in
the right order, you turn them away. They may get mad at you, but sorry — that’s
the rules. You’re just doing your job. And while the general mechanic of the game
stays the same, as time goes on, it becomes harder to blindly obey orders. Political strife begins to boil. Terrorists try to attack your gate. Your son gets sick and you desperately need
money for medicine. People’s stories at the gate get more and
more personal. It’s bleak and depressing, and there is
a hint of desperation surrounding everything. You may begin to ask — Are some of the rules
Arstotzka puts in place dehumanizing, or are they for the good of the country? Is taking bribes okay because it allows you
to afford food for your family? Should you flee Arstotzka, or should you stay? How far should you follow rules and orders
when disobeying them could save someone’s life – or end it? “Papers, Please” does not provide answers. It merely creates conversation. There really isn’t a way to truly “play
the game correctly” or to be a traditional video game hero. In order to survive, you will have to compromise
at some point – whether morally or legally. It has a lot to say about the condition of
humanity and of society. But it is entirely up to you to decide how
to play. I love that many indie games explore themes
and concepts that are rarely explored by mainstream developers. “Papers, Please” is a unique gem because
while its concept is relatively simple, it uses it to have the player reflect more deeply
on morality and the human condition. Video games can be a very impactful medium,
and “Papers, Please” leverages its interactivity to create an experience that lasts long after
the gates of Grestin close. (pause)
Also, this game is amazing because Jorji is in it, and anyone who has played this game
knows that Jorji is the best guy ever. But anyways, I want to hear from you! Have you played “Papers, Please”? If so, what route do you like to play? This has been the Girl with the Controller,
and I hope you have a lovely day!

14 thoughts on “How “Papers, Please” Reflects on Morality”

  1. Love games like this, but have a hard time playing them. This War of Mine was another one that followed a similar pattern of increasingly complex morality scenarios, with the basic drives centred around things like needing food or supplies for your group of survivors. Great video, thanks!

  2. Game Score Fanfare

    I adore Papers, Please, but it makes me feel like an absolute monster. I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I'm so quick to deny people if they don't have the correct paperwork. Like I don't care if I just let your husband through, you don't have the right paperwork and I have a starving family at home! I think it's the time pressure that does it to me – there's no time to dwell on the moral ambiguity of this situation when my son is sick and his birthday is coming up and every dollar counts! Give me all your bribes, I don't care I need money! It revealed an evil part of me I didn't know existed, hahaha.

  3. This is actually the kind of game that says a lot about the player holding the controller. I think most of peoples' choices reflect what THEY would do if they were in the same position. That kind of experience(or "test") is rare, not only for gaming but for any other art out there.

    Well said once again, I am really enjoying your content Keep it up!

  4. Oh goodness. This game! I love the question of morality in it (though I have to say that I can never get through fast enough to see more of the story XD). Makes one think about our world and what is right and wrong.

    Also great video!!!!

  5. I don't have anything to add that I can word better than what's already been said (despite there being only 4 comments lol) except that this video is criminally underviewed. You just earned a new sub my friend.

  6. I really need to play more Papers, Please at some point. I only took the time to get one ending, but it was such a great game.

  7. just recently got in touch with this game, my girlfriend got it and I've been watching/back-seat playing as she goes through it. Like you got into, it makes you reflect more heavily on the morals, and a lot of that is due to the 3 free mistakes each day. Like, games do this crap with choices all the time but something about this game's risk/reward structure for everything makes it feel more real. Aaah! Like, the part where the sister's child needs a home, it suuuuuuucked so bad when we couldn't afford to adopt her and she went missing the next day. Like, it's just text on a screen, but the repetition and impact of actions makes it feel real oooouf okay

  8. I love this content. So glad to find a gem like you from my recommend. Keep up the great work! Just Subbed!! <3

  9. I'm gonna second that guy and recommend This War of Mine. Would love to know your thoughts on that game. 😉

  10. What made this game great is how it treats you like a robot, but forces you to be human. The game instructs and rewards you for playing like a robot. Everything down to the text, narration, tutorials, gameplay, and even the title of the game feels very robotic and unemotional. But then your presented with all sorts of emotionally loaded stimuli: the depressing colors and dithered art style. The ugly and sad looking faces, people harassing you, people begging you, terrorism, segregation, your son's drawings being pinned on the wall…

    The first thing that made me even feel human in this game is how you can freely organize your desk as you please. And the fact that denying a begging immigrant took multiple specific steps… It's little details like these that make a game impactful imo

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