This was submitted as part of the GDC Game Narrative Review Competition in 2014. Below you’ll discover why Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please won so many awards at the IGF.
It’s 1982 in the communist state of Arstotzka. A war has just ended with a neighboring nation, and the border-city of Grestin has been divided into two halves. On the Arstotzkan side of East Grestin, you play as an immigration agent at a border checkpoint.
Your job involves examining, questioning, and searching immigrants seeking passage. You must defend the wall, deny access to smugglers, terrorists, and spies, and feed your family on an extremely tight income. Morality comes into question, and the right answer is never clear; show mercy and risk your family’s wellbeing, or doom desperate travelers for the glory of Arstotzka. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and by the wall which separated West and East Berlin, Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is an emotional thriller that tests your empathy and your loyalty.
Inspector – The embodiment of the player’s actions and choices; he is the main character, an Arstotzkan native randomly selected in a labor lottery and tasked with multiple responsibilities as an immigration agent on the line between West and East Grestin. His duties include analyzing immigration papers, determining whether the document’s details are falsified, forged, or the owner is a spy, terrorist, or smuggler. He decides whether said person’s passage is accepted or denied. The Inspector is also in charge of defending the border and detaining wanted criminals. He and his family have moved from the country into East Grestin, the Arstotzkan-ruled half of Grestin, and between shifts at work, the Inspector must also feed his family, pay his rent, and heat his home. The Inspector’s family is very important to him. He resents his poor situation (living conditions, wages, and work hazards) which prevents him from adequately providing for his family, but he maintains an openly neutral facade for the sake of their safety.
Inspector’s Family – The members of the Inspector’s family include his wife, his young son, his mother-in-law, his uncle, and optionally his niece, if the player decides to adopt her later on. The family is heavily influenced by the Inspector’s actions every day in which he works the border checkpoint. The family often becomes hungry, sick, or cold depending on whether the Inspector has provided food, heat, or medicine day to day. The Inspector’s son admires his father as a stalwart hero and as a defender of the nation. The personalities of the rest of the family are largely unexplored.
The Order of the EZIC Star – A mysterious organization regularly sends hooded strangers to the Inspector’s station in order to propagate their agenda. EZIC, for short, hopes to further their cause with the aid of the Inspector. Their mission is to free Arstotzka from corruption by delaying political negotiations, assassinating key targets, and performing terrorist attacks. Agents of the Order attempt to persuade the Inspector to perform several tasks, including the bypass of security restrictions for immigrating members of the Order, the assassinations of opponents to the Order’s cause, the identity theft of a diplomat, and the allowing of the destruction of the East-West Grestin wall. The Order rewards the Inspector with money and the guarantee of his family’s safety if he cooperates. Alternatively, the Inspector has the option to turn EZIC agents over to the current Arstotzkan government, thereby working against the revolutionaries.
Dimitri – The man in charge of East Grestin’s Admissions is named Dimitri. He is the Inspector’s boss, and he shows up every 10 days to gauge the player’s loyalty to the Arstotzka regime, threatening penalties if the player starts slipping up—or worse, arrests the player for helping extremist groups such as EZIC. Dimitri is the symbol of ultimate loyalty to one’s government, yet he puts the player in peril when he orders the passage of an immigrant named Shae, despite any trouble her documents may bring. This apparent corruption places the player in a moral quandary.
Jorji Costava – Jorji is a recurring character whose attempts to bypass border security are humorous and pointless, at least at first. Jorji initially meets the Inspector with a crudely forged passport, but with each subsequent visit he learns from his mistakes and provides better documents. Jorji is a drug smuggler, so he knows a great deal about being streetwise. He relates his regular appearance to the fact that he often bribes the guards when he is arrested by the player. Even though he is constantly being denied access by the player, Jorji maintains a positive attitude and shows great compassion and respect for the player’s difficult circumstances, describing the player’s job as “hard.” Eventually, Jorji’s documents are valid and he is legally allowed passage into Arstotzka. Despite all his attempts that the player has foiled, Jorji decides to not hold a grudge, but instead he helps the player escape the politically-unstable Arstotzkan landscape through counterfeited passports.
Sergiu – Sergiu is a border guard that befriends the Inspector. They get along because they were both born in Nirsk. Sergiu protects the Inspector at the checkpoint for as long as he is stationed there, and later asks the Inspector to perform a favor for him—to allow the passage of his loved one, Elisa. Sergiu is a guard who favors mercy and kindness, and challenges the player to do the same.
Calensk – Calensk is another guard that befriends the Inspector, but for different reasons. Calensk offers the player a share of the monetary bonus he receives for every immigrant detained. His deal with the player symbolizes corruption, the greed and selfishness at the expense of other innocent people. He is the reverse of Sergiu.
The familiar sound of a red “DENIED” stamp going “KA-CHUNK” is all too familiar for those who have experienced Papers, Please. Most players describe their play-throughas an emotionally intense and stressful plot sequence, yet the game is remarkably unique in that the human player, not the fictional protagonist, undergoes the most dramatic transformation. Through the use of authentic choice-making which tests the player’s empathic response, a large cast of subsidiary characters that act as archetypal mirrors reflecting on the player’s psychological condition, and multiple endings serving as instructive “view sequences,” Papers, Please is able to boast interesting and psychologically authentic interactivity.
The premise of Papers, Please is based on moral ambiguity—what is right and what is wrong is never clear. Choices are made through selfish and unselfish desires, and they ultimately lead to dramatic action and resolution. Wrong choices and right choices are both defined by the player’s own psychology and code of ethics, but each choice in the plot has an interesting consequence, and it is easy for the player to make “right” or “wrong” choices equally. For example, on Day 5 of the game’s sequence, the player is acquainted with the style of moral dilemma that makes Papers, Please so compelling. The ninth immigrant is a female who is married to the previous entrant. Her husband has asked you to allow her through, even though her papers will not be in order. It is the player’s decision to make: allow the entry and reunite a married couple, or perform the lawful action and deny her entry, separating the two lovers for an undetermined amount of time. Either choice will lead towards resolution of the story exposition, but the player will potentially suffer guilt for one of two reasons: forcing the separation of a married couple, or receiving a citation for inadequate performance, putting your family in jeopardy and your job at risk. The “right” or “moral” decision almost always has a consequence that damages the player’s personal investments, i.e. an in-game family which is tied to a personal “score” of how well you are able to provide for them. Scenarios similar to the husband/wife quandary appear all throughout the game’s plot. Depending on the player’s personal psychological condition, these quandaries may be harder or easier to solve than others; examples include the separation of mother and son, advocating corruption and human trafficking, denying a man’s personal justice, and rightfully or wrongfully detaining suspicious characters. To summarize, each choice pits the player’s conscience (set of values) against the player’s self-image (selfish choices), resulting in authentic choice-making. The tension of choice-making is also enhanced by the game’s enforced and mandatory efficiency: a timer runs down during each inspection, and the player’s paycheck will only accrue if immigrants are handled in a timely manner.
The large cast of characters showcased in Papers, Please is rife with carefully crafted personalities, some of which are closely tied to the player’s own psychological circumstances. Specific characters—such as Jorji Costava, Sergiu, and Calensk—act as mirrors that show the player alternate archetypal paths which may be explored in the game’s narrative and premise. Other characters, such as Dimitri, are also symbolic representations of common character archetypes like the Shadow, or the Trickster, popularized by Joseph Campbell . The development of these characters shines a light on the player’s own development of his or her self-image. They will seduce the player to make “wrong” choices (Shapeshifter), guide the player towards “right” choices (Mentor), or test the player’s decision-making and code of ethics with a moral challenge (Threshold Guardian). Jorji Costava is the typical Trickster. He provides comedic relief with his quaint, carefree dialogue and slowly transforms the player’s perspective through his multiple dealings with the player. The player witnesses the absurdity and futility of strict border control as Jorji is able to bribe his way out of prison on more than one occasion, and takes his time with constructing perfect counterfeit documents. Jorji has patience and sympathy for the player, and eventually forces a change in the player’s path: near the end of the game, the player becomes trapped in a hopeless situation. Jorji offers an escape route for the player through the use of counterfeit passports. This finally justifies Jorji’s importance to the plot and reflects back onto the player; all of these inspections, these strict procedures and protocol have been pointless and dispiriting from the beginning. Jorji, at first symbolizing illegality and corruption, becomes a symbol of survival and hope, whereas the player has symbolized rigid, emotionless structure up to this point. Calensk, another character in Papers, Please, acts as a Shapeshifter towards the player. He is a security guard assigned to the border checkpoint where the player has been stationed. His interactions with the player are cold—he offers a deal where the player will receive monetary bonuses for each immigrant detained. The player must confront this seduction and decide whether to detain immigrants, wrongfully or rightfully, in order to receive a boost to income. Calensk is not usually trustworthy, as the cuts he gives back to the player may be lower than promised as a result of unforeseen circumstances. The shady, backdoor deal with Calensk examines the player’s psychological condition from a darker angle—Calensk may also morph into a Shadow, representing the player’s darkest desires or rejected qualities (desperation and compromised moral compass). On the other hand, Sergiu, another security guard, is the reversal of Calensk both in motive and personality. Sergiu’s motivation is derived from love—specifically, his lover, Elise, and his interactions with the player are warm, gentle, and kind. Despite these qualities, Sergiu forces the player to undergo a quandary. Sergiu begs the player to show mercy for Elise, and allow her passage through the border. Elise’s papers are not in order, and by this time Sergiu has proven to be a real friend, one of the only friends the player may have at this point. Just as Calensk did, Sergiu tests the player’s choice-making, but this time from the role of Threshold Guardian. For some players, the choice is more easily made than Calensk’s shady deal, but it is highly symbolic of the change in the player’s perception of the game’s rules. While some characters are rendered as strict archetypes—such as Dimitri, possibly the main antagonist, who represents unyielding Arstotzkan loyalty as the player’s boss, and as the primary Shadow—most characters are subject to dynamic change. Mostly dependent on the player’s psychological state, almost every subsidiary character may take the role of any archetype according to the current player’s own standards of morality, code of ethics, or subjective goals. For example, the most psychologically ambiguous set of characters are the agents of the Order of the EZIC Star. To some players, they may appear as conniving, manipulative Shapeshifters, as their main goal is revolution and an end to Arstotzkan corruption. To others, they may be Mentors, guiding the player towards the morally “right” decision of rebellion. The mutability of certain characters lends to the intense, personal interpretation each player will form while experiencing Papers, Please.
There are twenty endings that a player can achieve in Papers, Please. Most of these endings are the result of clearly wrong choices, such as instant death, running out of money, failing to safeguard your family’s health and wellbeing, or being arrested. Other endings specifically offer resolution to the story and premise, resolution to the player’s inner conflict, and a dramatic climax. These endings include: sacrificing yourself for the cause of the Order of the EZIC Star, escaping at the last second across the border, rising against Arstotzka alongside the EZIC Order, and remaining severely loyal to Arstotzka. Each ending, whether wrong or right according to the player’s own set of beliefs or goals, segues into a short cutscene that outlines the result of your specific choices. These “view sequences” can sometimes be instructive, and provide hints that help the player achieve a different, stronger ending, much like the dynamic newspaper headlines that appear between each session of play. The game also allows the player to replay specific days from the plot sequence, in case of catastrophic failure. Multiple endings and a helpful checkpoint system encourage players to explore numerous possible outcomes in the narrative arc on a deep, authentic, interactive level.
Through a series of realistic choices, difficult quandaries, a set of believable and psychologically stimulating characters, and the use of several satisfying endings, Papers, Please achieves a greater emotional depth, one that taps into the player’s own psychological condition, than most modern video games. And because the game narratively performs so well while peering through the lens of document sorting (of all things) is definitely a reason why this game should be considered excellent interactive storytelling, one of the best of its kind.
In Papers, Please, the richest experiences are derived from quandaries, or impossible decisions. These dilemmas challenge the player’s morals, ethics, loyalty, and selfishness throughout the storyline. On top of every decision the player is forced to make, the threat of having a family member die is paramount. For every act of mercy, your family will suffer the cost. By your government, you are asked to remain fiercely loyal to Arstotzka. By the immigrants, you are asked to show mercy at the expense of you and your family’s safety. And by revolutionaries, you are asked to actively work against your country—for the good of all, and potentially endangering everything you love. The quandaries presented throughout the story test your empathic response to family, to fear, to love, and to revenge. The player is asked to decide whether to separate a husband and wife, allow or deny the boss’ girlfriend through the gate or a guard’s girlfriend through the gate, and whether to let a serial murderer escape justice or not. The strongest moment in the experience occurs when the player resolves a quandary for the first time by bending the rules of the game and establishing a new moral course.
In the EZIC story arc, where the player is tasked with duties that will eventually help overturn the Arstotzkan government, several choices made by the player have unexpectedly weak consequences. Up until then, Papers, Please has proven itself to be a game of weighing consequences and balancing risks. When a mysterious hooded stranger approaches your station with special decoders, deadly poisons, and secret messages, the first instinct involves the expectation of serious consequences associated with disobeying. Unfortunately, failing tasks assigned by EZIC agents results in harmless penalties, if any at all. The lack of dramatic costs when disobeying the revolutionary faction weakens their importance to the player and to the plot sequence. This reveals the EZIC Order storyline to be strictly optional, with no real value other than satisfying an opportunity to rise against Arstotzka.
Out of the possible twenty endings in Papers, Please, the eighteenth ending is the most impactful in terms of emotion, delivery, and resolution of the story conflict. Ending 18 begins when Jorji Costava offers you and your family a way out of Arstotzka through the use of counterfeited passports. Upon successfully obtaining enough passports for your family, you may flee to the neighboring country of Obristan. In the final cutscene, you face the border checkpoint agent with your family and your crudely fake counterfeit passports. After a deliberate pause, the checkpoint agent stamps each of your family member’s passports for approval. The player has undergone the story’s dramatic conflict and denied over 200 immigrants by the end of the game, but the story’s conflict is resolved with a “ka-chunk” of the approval stamp for each family member you have saved. Miraculously, you were shown pity at the border checkpoint—an ironic act of kindness that the player could not have easily performed in the past. The lysis, or resolution of the story conflict, ends with the player achieving redemption through mercy.
Polygon’s review of Papers, Please by Justin McElroy describes the monotony of checking numbers, comparing values, and reducing the “living, breathing humans in front of your window to a series of documents”  as essential to the experience. “After the hundredth time or so, double and triple checking, it can get very, very boring. But that boredom, that tedium, is the key to the game.”  Justin also writes that players will be forced to abuse their power to protect the ones they love, and that they’ll never ask themselves “How could those people just go along with that?” again, because they’ll know the answer. Polygon gives Papers, Please an 8 out of 10.
Evan Lahti of PC Gamer defines Papers, Please as a mental-emotional tug-of-war stimulated through paperwork. Evan owes the impressiveness of the game to its perfect pacing. Despite this, Evan goes on to say that the scripted encounters with each character “shows the limitations of being a game made by a single person,”  and criticizes the in-game family, the “crux of your motivation,”  as being misrepresented through nothing but text. PC Gamer gives Papers, Please a score of 87 out of 100.
GameSpot’s review focuses on the real moral quandaries in Papers, Please. Britton Peele writes about how the choices the player must make are “so relatable that your conscience speaks to you more than it does in most other games.”  Britton describes how, usually, there are no practical benefits for doing the “moral thing,” and in fact, being immoral tends to make the player’s life easier. “The only thing keeping you from doing the wrong thing is your own conscience.”  GameSpot gives Papers, Please an 8 out of 10, citing foremost the moral choices and the fact that they feel like they matter.
- Wrong choices can be just as interesting as right choices.
When the plot sequence of a given game is essentially an outline of player-made decisions, each branch has the potential to offer just as much of an interesting outcome as any “right” choice, which normally leads to a game win.
- Minor characters can be powerful mirrors of the player’s psychological condition.
Non-playable characters, however seemingly unimportant to the plot, can contribute to the narrative as strong psychological reflections, highlighting the player’s dilemma, marking various paths in which the player may take, and even foreshadowing the resolution of major internal conflict.
- Endings, whether right or wrong, can be instructive when explored.
Despite branching narratives being difficult to implement in larger games, having multiple, “choose your own adventure” style endings can benefit the player’s experience if the endings are explorable from a literal, and even psychological, perspective.
- Social commentary can be more effective when “shown”, not “told.”
Even though Lucas Pope has clearly stated that his game, Papers, Please was not explicitly intended to be social commentary , the game did effectively breach issues in politics, gender, and ethics. As players, we are not told what to think, or given any sweeping generalizations about certain issues in the game. Once the issue crops up itself through gameplay, the commentary begins once we, as players, make our own choice as to how to deal with it.
- Failing to meet player expectations of consistency with outcomes can be misleading.
Papers, Please is stressful, emotionally taxing, and exhausting. When the game presents serious consequences for player-made choices that fall outside the established standard of “national loyalty,” players may tend to expect more consequences when denying themselves other avenues of exposition. For example, when failing to complete tasks assigned by the Order of the EZIC Star, the consequences for doing so are less impactful than what the player has become accustomed towards. This has the possibility of the player interpreting the EZIC story arc as less important, or simply optional.
Papers, Please is a game that brilliantly challenges the player’s own conscience against the player’s self-image. It asks each player the same question: What would you do in this impossible situation? Options arise where you are asked to remain loyal or provide mercy, work against corruption or actively contribute to it. A constant threat to the safety of the player’s fictional family forces most players to undergo a metamorphosis themselves. Despite the threat of severe penalties, players may accept bribes, participate in a revolution, or even sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation. In a desperate situation, where feeding your family and heating your home is barely manageable, most players are forced to bend their morals and the rules of the system in order to survive. In the end, each player’s own code of ethics is confronted and put to intense scrutiny, making Papers, Please a powerful emotional experience.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1968. Print.
- McElroy, Justin. “Papers, Please Review: Mundane Tyranny.” Polygon. N.p., 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <http://www.polygon.com/2013/8/9/4606420/papers-please-review-mundane-tyranny>
- Lahti, Evan. “Papers, Please review.” PC Gamer. N.p., 8 Aug. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. <http://www.pcgamer.com/review/papers-please-review/>.
- Peele, Britton. “Papers, Please Review.” GameSpot. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. < http://www.gamespot.com/papers-please/>.
- Khan, Zarmena. “‘Papers, Please’ Developer Lucas Pope Talks about His Thriller Immigration Game and More.” Pixel Enemy. N.p., 25 June 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. <http://pixelenemy.com/papers-please-developer-lucas-pope-talks-about-his-thriller-immigration-game-and-more/>.