You Know a Game's Special When it Makes You Realise How Much of a Dickhead You Are

By Reader Liam Butler on at

Papers, Please is an indie game made by Lucas Pope, which did very well in the end-of-2013 round ups. This game picked up a big epiphany plank and twatted me around the head with it. Repeatedly.

Living in London can feel like a constant rush, as reflected in my inner-monologue:

"Why is this street so busy? Frigging hell. These people in front of me are walking so slowly! Don't they realise I've only allocated myself two hours of shopping time? Get out of my way!"

"Why does this conductor want to check my train ticket? There are automated barriers at each end of my journey. You're not needed any more. Go away. I have emails to write and tweets to send."

"Why is this person standing on the left on the tube escalator? I couldn't hate them more right now if they were Heinrich Himmler, returned from the dead with the sole intent of slapping my Mum about."

In the quest to spend every moment productively, there is a tendency to view people as obstacles.
I was reminded of this tendency when playing Papers, Please. It isn't a nice one. Papers, Please places you in the shoes (and state-issued uniform) of an Eastern Bloc bureaucrat. You are a citizen of Arstotzka, a dreary concrete totalitarian nightmare. You've been entered into the labour lottery, and have been assigned a role as an immigration inspector.

Your salary is linked to your productivity -- how many people you can process on a daily basis. But be careful: mistakes will be penalised. You'd best make sure that they look like their picture, that their documents have not expired, that their documents' issuing cities are kosher, that they have the correct immigration pass and work permit. All the while, you're aware of the ticking clock.

Don't get through enough people on a given day? That's alright, as long as you don't mind your family starving.

This is the clever bit. At the end of the day, you have to decide what your meagre salary gets spent on. If you've had a rubbish day, you get to choose whether to spend the day's takings on food or heat for the family. Best hope no-one gets sick -- medicine's expensive in Arstotzka.
It becomes a crushingly relentless push for productivity.

It gets worse: as the game progresses, new regulations are imposed. You'll find yourself checking for forged seals on documentation, subjecting certain countries' inhabitants to 'random searches', and ensuring that individuals aren't on 'most wanted' lists. All while you still have the same quota to meet. You'll spend a lot of time shuffling documents around on your very limited desk space.

The people I processed were nothing more than paperwork. Obstacles. I found myself becoming frustrated when someone didn't immediately present their passport. The act of reminding them took up valuable time that I could have spent being productive.

Without explanation, I turned away a mother who hadn't seen her son for six years. Her entry permit had expired. The game gives you the option to explain, but that's time I could spend processing someone else.

I let a known people trafficker into Arstotzka, despite having just been told by a girl that he intends to steal her passport and force her into prostitution. What else could I do? His papers were in order and I had a quota to meet.

I let in a man, but refused his wife. He had the right documents, she didn't. I did this despite her telling me that sending her back to her country would mean that she would be killed.

When I reflected on what I'd done, I realised what an utter ballbag I had been.

Yes, it's a game. Yes, they aren't people. Yes, they're just pixels with binary backstories. But I don't think it's too far removed from what can happen in real life. If you let it, that is.
London isn't full of bad people, but it is full of busy and preoccupied ones. Myself included.
Next time I find myself slipping into that familiar panic, I hope to remind myself of the following:

- Slow down
- Productivity isn't everything
- They're people, not obstacles

Thanks, Papers Please.

Liam is a displaced Yorkshireman living in London. He writes the blog Angry Flat Cap. It's unlikely that you've heard of it. Once, he was retweeted by The Guardian. He never misses an opportunity to inform people of this fact.

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