Through the opening of Papers Please (2014) we are established as a border agent in a fictional communist country. In 2014 when the game was released, many reviewers and commenters spoke of the game being ‘about communism.’ Whilst the game utilises a kitsch dystopian Eastern bloc aesthetic to the fictional nation Arstotzka, rarely ever are such themes explored. Moreover the notion of a crumbling Stalinist state of the 1980s seems to be implying as a lens to look at the extremities of politics of borders themselves. The game avoids any overtly didactic or singular messages, showing the maintenance of borders to be both oppressive for many citizens but also at the forefront of issues around terror and security.
From a ludic perspective as a player I am continuously and simultaneously asked to negotiate between my own ethical code as a player, an interpretation of my faceless avatar’s ethics, the legalistic border policies and the ethics of their interpretation as well my avatar’s own ability to survive in opposition to the game’s fail state (i.e. failing to ensure enough citizens are correctly processed at the border to feed my impoverished yet faceless relatives). There is here a constant question of self-preservation vs empathetic actions.
Thus this game appears inherently ethically complex at all stages through its design. I experience stress, boredom, empathy, guilt and fraughtness in reaction to the decisions of agency the game provides, through its simulation of a border official, especially through its limitations of agency provided to the player. This speaks well to Salen & Zimmerman’s position on the necessity of rules to create a possibility space (as mentioned in Bogost’s piece on rhetoric). More erratically the game’s design both relies on a degree of individual reactive procedurality (as defined by Murray in Bogost) along with recurringly scripted moments.
Overall Papers Please offers an unusually powerful experience for a game in that its playthrough creates immersion through drama and both limitations to ethical agency that interrelate with the real limitations that borders impose on everyday lives.