Okay, so the title may be a bit of a stretch; I was never important enough to be a bureaucrat. I was just a lowly, replaceable peon… not unlike the beleaguered border Inspector from Papers, Please. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game where I felt so much empathy for my PC as the nameless Inspector. I knew what he was going through because, to a far lesser extent, I’ve been there myself. And since I haven’t seen anyone talk about this game from somewhat of a first-hand experience, I decided to do something other than write a proper review. After all, a game like Papers, Please deserves no less.
For those who have read the few previous articles where I’ve mentioned the job I had prior to finishing up college, I worked for seven years in emergency services, specifically as a 911 call taker/dispatcher (in the county I live they’re not separate positions). In addition to handling every police, fire & medical emergency in the county, our office handled entering records into the national crime database. Every missing person, stolen possession, warrant & protection order was handed down to our department. And while this might sound interesting to every nosy person with a police scanner, most of the time it was a lot of paperwork & staring at computers.
Often during my Papers, Please playtime I felt like was having a PTSD flashback to my years in that box of an office. People always think I’m joking, but I have nightmares about having to go back to work there. Sitting at my little cubicle, papers spread across my desks, going through every single keystroke to make sure the person who entered the record got everything right. Running criminal histories, making sure every previous alias, no matter how asinine, got entered. Checking fingerprints. Serial numbers. And all while knowing there was just another person down the line who’d be checking my checking. Ugh! Layers upon layers of bureaucracy. I’m all for checks & balances, but there’s a point when it just becomes a big circle jerk.
I’m not sure if my experience robotically checking records made the game any easier for me, though I do wish I’d had a discrepancy checker like the Inspector did. It would’ve been a lot easier than just my eyes. More importantly, I would’ve loved to have had a DETAIN or DENY option, both for dealing with the public & officials. More than once did I think, “Can I just arrest you for wasting my time?” or, “Can we get a system that sends a shock through this person’s mobile?”. The former usually came after being butt-dialed for the fiftieth time from the same number. Seriously, stop sitting on $200+ pieces of technology.
But where Papers, Please really started hitting the empathy buttons was when the Inspector had to deal with the trickle down of politics. Like the Inspector, at least in my playthroughs, I too know what it’s like to be chewed out by a supervisor for making a mistake at a job they don’t even know how to do, & holding your tongue when they cop an attitude because they have just enough power to let it go to their head. To be lauded one minute & thrown under the bus the next, just for the person up the chain from me to make themselves look better.
It’s funny, because a lot people might have found how quickly rules & policies change in-game a bit unrealistic. But while I’m sure this was an effort on Lucas Pope’s part to point out the ridiculousness & corruptness of the regime in Arstotzka, I know that crap happens! I have been there! I have seen local government change its mind at a moment’s notice. I have seen how they make poor decisions without seeking counsel from parties who might know better. I have been forced to follow protocols & procedures that I knew where doomed to fail, but nobody asked my opinion, despite being a veteran at the dispatch office (I’m not being facetious, either. I was third most senior in my office for at least half my tenure there.). I’ve had to change records from day-to-day because someone who made an unfairly greater amount of money than me decided they knew better. I’ve seen the government set policies just to make a point, knowing full well they’d repeal them the next day. Maybe a country’s government isn’t so quick to make such changes, but if nothing else, I can say that Papers, Please is an accurate representation of what happens when you give someone who’s never had any authority a little bit of power of another person’s life. In short, it sucks. One example that made me laugh was when, after doing my job & denying the Inspector’s supervisor’s friend entry for having the wrong paperwork, he petulantly told me, “There are no more plaques.” As if I cared about his stupid Award of Sufficiency. It reminded me of a time my supervisor in real life yelled at me for messing up a call (minor) because she took it as some personal attack on herself & was concerned about how it would make her look. I could tell she wanted to argue, but couldn’t when my only response was, “Yes, I made a mistake.” I got more enjoyment than I should have when she just stomped away after that with nothing else to say.
This isn’t all to say my past experiences meant I didn’t enjoy the game. On the contrary. Papers, Please in a uniquely compelling experience that I think every gamer can become absorbed in. I just relate a little more than most gamers. I was determined to get the Inspector out, no matter how many family members I leave behind (that last part is probably more a reflection of my estranged familial relations).
There were moments that highlighted the absurdity of being in any public service job. Having people wanting you to bend the rules for them. To which my usual response — in the game & real life — was, “I’m not getting in trouble for you.” Granted, I did have the Inspector bend the rules sometimes. Only if I hadn’t gotten any citations yet. I like to think of myself as a utilitarian. Papers, Please really gets you in the mindset of looking out for yourself. My typical response to their lame excuses for discrepancies was, “Don’t care.” They should be grateful I didn’t detain them on clerical errors. A particularly hilarious moment, for me at least, was dealing with the Order. I did enough for them to keep asking for favors, but not enough that they didn’t try to kill me in the end. My first & second endings involved either going to jail for them & them wimping out in their revolution, or stopping their plans in the end but having been associated enough with them to go to jail for it. Guess that’s what I get for trusting masked men with ill-defined goals. I guess I was as much a sheep as the rest of the chattel.
In the end, though, I suppose that’s Papers, Please’s greatest strength. You are just another cog in the wheel. The Inspector’s story is just one of many. You don’t really “win.” You just try to survive & eek out some sort of existence. Kinda depressing, but it does make getting an ending where you live all the more rewarding.
Title: Papers, Please
Consoles: PC, Mac, iOS, Vita
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: 3909 LLC
Publisher: 3909 LLC Release Date: August 8, 2013