Papers Please

Papers Please: This game puts the player in the position of an immigration officer of a dystopian country Arstotzka and thus has to decide who to admit or exclude from the country.

Game website:

Elemental Tetrahedral: The game is aesthetically pleasing, despite it not boasting of high quality 3D graphics and just opting for a 2D pixelated interface. Despite this low level of graphics, it manages to create a convincing world and story with the aid of suitable music where I am in the position of a immigration officer of a checkpoint that lets people into the country Arstotzka that is ruled by a corrupt government. The technology here would be any personal computer, since it does not require a high level of graphics. The mechanics are to make decisions about the people that pass through the checkpoint everyday as well as whether to admit some specifically important people to the story despite failing the specified immigration restrictions each day.


Figure 1: Checking of documents

The Lens of Problem Solving: I had to decide who to admit or exclude from the country based on a certain set of rules that are declared by the “ministry” of the country every day. There are warnings followed by penalization of money and followed by being fired and thus the game ending in the case of admitting too many illegal immigrants consecutively. Speed plays a factor as well as you are paid depending on the number of people that pass through the checkpoint each day with a given set of hours. One hidden problem would be that the money earned at the end of the day will be spent on food, heat and medicine for the family at the end of the day. I had to decide on certain days to not supply heat for my family due to limited cash which in turn led to them being cold and sick the next day, and thus I had to purchase medicine instead with my meager income.

The Lens of Challenge: The number of rules and restrictions increase day by day and it gets increasingly difficult to check for every single restriction for every person that passes the borders. There is a large variety in the rules and restrictions to pass each immigrant. In the later levels I needed to check not only for validity of the immigrant’s passport, but also whether the conversation between the immigrant and me was in accordance with the reason for entry document from the immigrant. I also needed to check whether the height and weight of the immigrant was valid with the ID ticket and if not, body scan the immigrant for contraband items. This variety kept the challenge of the game fresh and not mundane when all I was really doing was checking papers.

The Lens of Goals: The main short term goal in the game would be to survive the day without getting too many mistakes and thus result in being fired and the game ending. The game consists of twenty different endings which are reached depending on my reaction to certain immigrants and people that pass through the checkpoint. For me I found the long term goal to be able to finish and arrive at all twenty different endings eventually. For example there is a organisation, EZIC, that seeks to overthrow the unjust government in the country and depending on whether I admit the members of the organisation into the country I arrive at a different ending consequently.


Figure 2: Branches for different situations that lead to different endings

The Lens of Meaningful Choice: There are also varying conversations between the immigrants and the officer sometimes that try to “guilt trip” me into choosing to admit the immigrant even though he/she may be violating some rules, for example an immigrant begging or bribing the officer to admit their spouse or themselves. At times I find myself admitting an immigrant because “her son is in the country waiting for her” even though she has an invalid passport, since the only penalisation for me is just a warning slip from the ministry. It also makes me more cautious to not exceed the limited admissions for error since I have already given one “chance” for myself away for a virtual mother to reunite with her virtual son. The game successfully made me believe that I was making a meaningful choice through these interactions.

A friend’s observations:

The Lens of Meaningful Choice: He was not successfully “guilt tripped” into admitting any poor person that could not afford valid passports and just denied them entry without any hesitation. The game had not successfully imposed upon him the guilt of denying a woman from reuniting with her lost son, which indicated a certain level of detachment that he had from the game, and he may not have believed he was making a meaningful choice.

The Lens of Surprise: He was surprised when there was suddenly a terrorist attack on the customs which led to it shutting down for the day and abruptly cutting short his day. There were also some rules that were not explicitly stated that he missed, such as checking whether a person with long hair but had a passport that indicated the person was male needed a body scan before the person could be admitted. He was surprised at the depth of the game’s long list of rules and how it could trip up the player.

The Lens of Curiosity: He found himself being curious about what each ending entailed depending on the different meaningful choices he made such as admitting members of a revolution into the strict and unjust country that gave him such meagre pay from working everyday that could hardly feed his family. He was also curious what would result if he did or did not accept a monetary bribe to admit a particular important person into the country, or to admit someone that the boss had specifically asked him to allow entry. At each ending the game tells you which ending out of the twenty you have arrived at which invokes curiosity about the other respective endings.

The Lens of Story: The symbolic “Glory to Arstotzka” which is said by the officer and every person who has passed through the checkpoint and also at the end of each day somehow stuck with my friend and he himself even said it after one of the endings to the game. The sentence somehow can invoke two different types of feelings, one of which would be the obvious patriotism to the country, and the other being a feeling of being oppressed into saying it every single day as a form of propaganda from the government. This symbolic sentence was key to creating an ambience of being in this world where the country’s government was corrupt and supported the storyline of the officer that actually had the power to admit people that were going to overthrow this exact unjust government.


I found the difference in emotional investment between my friend and I into the game particularly when he was indifferent to whether or not the people that passed through the checkpoint “needed” to enter the country through the conversations. This indicated that what may resonate with one player may not affect another and it is important to try to create a game that successfully invokes intended feelings into most of their players as much as possible to be impactful. A game like this depends very much on the choices you make and whether or not the player is successfully “guilt tripped” into choosing something would lead to a different ending and therefore these conversations and ambience in the game play very important roles. I myself found the game to be quite successful in doing so despite the not realistic graphics. I realised that my friend had also turned the volume down while playing the game as he preferred to listen to his own music. This might have been a factor towards him being more emotionally detached from the game due to the lack of ambience.

Both of us found the game to be increasingly challenging, and despite a supposedly mundane game (to just check immigration papers) we did not find ourselves being bored even after a long period of time. This may have been due to the variety of papers provided to check for as well as checking the height and weight of the people that passed through. There was also a list of wanted criminals provided that we had to check and detain if they came to the checkpoint. Sometimes we also needed to check for specific names to admit or deny regardless of the validity of their documents. The game also successfully kept us curious at the end of each day about what would happen next, as there is some kind of “event” to take note of each day. For example on one of the days your direct boss, Dimitri, would ask you to admit a specific individual regardless of her papers. I had detained the person and Dimitri fired me and had me arrested. My friend on the other hand had admitted the person and was allowed to continue the game the next day, just getting away with a warning.


Figure 3: Glory to Arstotzka

The symbolic “Glory to Arstotzka” seems to have stuck with both of us, as discussing the game led to us randomly declaring this phrase during conversations. Even on the NUS Confessions Facebook page there was a post discussing this particular game, and many comments in reply consisted of this sentence as well. It seems the game has successfully created a symbol for this game and through the lens of resonance it is special for people who have played this game.

Ooh Jing


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