Lessons Learned from Papers, Please

Depressing By Design

The design of this game is fascinating. I don't know how much of it was intentional and how much is just happy coincidence, but it feels masterfully planned.

Your work environment is a booth, and the UI's design manages to give you a cramped feeling in a digital space.

At the top of the screen is a sort of overview of your checkpoint. A line of people stretches off into infinity, and never gets shorter. Past the checkpoint, guards stand watch and cars pass by. Whenever there is a person in the booth, the sounds of the outer world become muted. The effect is that you technically could be paying attention to what's going on, but in practice you generally won't notice something is going terribly wrong until the poop has really hit the fan.

The bottom half of the screen is dedicated to the booth's interior. On the left is a view of the person currently in your booth, along with their height and weight. There are spaces here for storing your instructions (which change daily) and your rule book. To the right, there's a small area where you can place documents for review.

As the days wear on, the number of documents you need to place here far outstrip the work area's ability to contain them. Really, you can only see two or perhaps three things side-by-side. There are often five or more documents that need to come together in order to determine whether or not a person is valid for entry. Constant shuffling of papers tends to ensue, until you develop a system to properly organize and efficiently deal with all the chaos.

After a few days, you're also responsible for border security. When a terrorist attack begins, an alarm sounds and a special lock appears on your desk. You've got to find the key to the lock to access your armaments, and then pick up the sniper rifle and use it, all within a few seconds. Failure to do so can yield your death, or the death of the people guarding the border.

I get the feeling that Papers, Please is supposed to be mindless drudgery. However, maybe it's a testament to my unusual not-quite-all-there brain patterns that I actually enjoyed the process. I'm not going to lie - there are a lot of things to master on the first few days. However, with some sticky notes, wiki pages, and a generous amount of experience, I found it easy and even somewhat fun.

I get that this game is trying to simulate life in a totalitarian police state. I think it also does a pretty good job of simulating any situation where you have to deal with a lot of anonymous people, many of whom wish to break the rules you've been tasked with upholding.

I don't want to directly compare totalitarian dictatorships with crappy customer service jobs, though. I think that this game makes concessions in order to be a simulation and not the real thing. I think those concessions make it fit pretty well with my experiences as someone who has been involved in crappy customer service responsibilities, though. In this way, I think it's possible to learn not only empathy towards those who live under these sorts of regimes, but also to learn something about dealing with other human beings.

Losing My Religion

It's easy in Papers, Please to assume that everyone is a criminal. After the first few "bad apples" sneak through, you start to get suspicious of everyone. And often, your suspicions are confirmed. This leads to a bad feedback loop, though, and soon you might find yourself detaining anyone with even a single typo in their documentation. After all, you're never going to see them again, and detaining them makes your life a tiny bit simpler along with giving you a bit more cash at the end of the day.

While the "people" in this game are just randomly generated blobs of pixels who are inherently not human, it's just as easy to dehumanize people in similar situations in real life. Sure, the rules of whatever system they're passing through are complicated, but as the player you understand it, right? It's not that hard. Just bring your passport, work permit, entry permit, and identification supplement, all in proper order, and present them at the border. If something's out of date, or the arbitrary rules have changed, well, you should have known that. A harsh response to such trivial mistakes is to be expected. We have high standards here in Arstotzka; we don't let just anyone in. After all, you might be a terrorist.

If you find yourself hating these interactions, and considering the people entering the checkpoint as meaningless, abusive pawns who must bow to your will, you're starting to understand.

Getting past this phase and realizing that you've been on both sides of this desk in real life before is something that I hope people can learn from this game. Whether you were in the booth or whether you were against the wall, in the other position the other side was an actual, real live person with hopes and dreams and reasons for doing what they're doing.

The game attempts to "zap" you back into feeling empathy at regular intervals as the days progress. Amidst the stream of random strangers, people come through who need your help for one reason or another. Will you bend or break the rules to help them?

Your Eternal Reward

Even when you're "playing it right," the rewards for good behavior are basically nonexistent. You have a "boss" but he only deigns to visit every 10 days. He criticizes every one of your mistakes, and even if you work perfectly the only benefit is a slightly more impressive (but basically still junk) plaque.

At the end of every day, you take whatever earnings you managed to scrape together over the course of the day home to your waiting family. They are totally and utterly dependent on you - all the bills are your responsibility. Failure to feed them and keep them warm will lead to their deaths.

Again here, though, the rewards are next to nothing. You never actually see your family. Aside from one photo, you otherwise never see their faces. The only time you return home is to make a quick budgetary decision and then go to sleep. The game only ends if you can't pay the rent or all of your family dies. Otherwise, your choices make little difference.

In other games, I might be tempted to critique this or bash a game for not adequately establishing the stakes or rewarding players when they succeed. Here, though, it again feels like a conscious decision. Your family is no more human than the neverending stream of people whose papers you stamp on a daily basis. Your only reward for all of your work is a depressing decision about how to allocate your inadequate funds toward your faceless family's survival.


As a game, Papers, Please is certainly unique. If you're afflicted by some terrible form of OCD, you might find it entertaining. Underneath the daily grind is a number of systems designed to drain and test your empathy and ethics.