In my last post, I described my experience playing Train, Brenda Brathwaite’s tabletop game about the banality of evil. I gave special attention to Ian Bogost’s account of the game’s “gestural ambiguity.” Train makes its players engage with the dreary moment-to-moment operations of a Nazi beaurocracy, and thereby elicits—what exactly? Empathy with the beaurocrats? Horror at the often abstract and morally detached nature of simply following instructions or simply doing a job? Maybe both, and maybe neither. Bogost sees the game’s stubborn open-endedness as its most remarkable and unsettling success.
“But Train is a tabletop game, not a digital one,” Bogost remarks. And then he issues something like a challenge: “Is it even possible to translate the gestural ambiguity of such an experience into a video game?” His provisional answers involve changes in input, the literal introduction of gestures. Dance Dance Revolution and such.
But for my money, Lucas Pope’s “dystopian document thriller” Papers, Please is the best answer that anyone has posed to Bogost’s question. The game manages to translate a whole lot of Train’s most interesting gestural aspects into videogame form, while also throwing in some clever gut-punches all its own.
Papers, Please takes place in 1982, in the fictional (though Soviet-inflected) totalitarian state of Arstotzka. It casts the player as a border agent who, as the title suggests, must decipher transit documents in order to decide who can gain admittance to the country and who cannot. The tasks at hand are more openly banal than those in Train, and here there is a far more specific setting and a somewhat more explicit narrative, but the spirit is very much the same.
One by one, people file into your dingy little booth, and you always greet them by saying “Papers, please.” Have their documents expired? Does their photo look like them? Is their city of issuance actually in the country their passport purports to be from? You’ve got to keep track of all that, and obey whatever directives might appear in your daily briefing, using only an in-game rulebook and a quick eye. And the quantity and complexity of the documents only increases as the days and weeks roll on. Strip searches soon follow.
Make a mistake, or make an exception out of pity, and some omniscient manager will find out. At first you’ll just get a warning, but eventually your pay will get docked and feeding your family will become that much harder.
Despite being controlled with a mouse or trackpad, the game’s actions feel clumsily tactile. That’s not to say that the controls are loose or unresponsive, but rather that the game purposefully requires a bit of functionally superfluous dragging and dropping. The act of taking someone’s passport, stamping it, and then handing it back to them carries a gestural gravity that comes naturally to tabletop games like train, but that takes careful (and somewhat counterintuitive) design work in a videogame—a good faith attempt to give physical actions weight and intentionality, despite their lack of actual physicality.
And Papers, Please applies the same artificial, anaerobic restrictiveness to conversation. If the player wants to ask someone for their passport, the only way to do so is to click on the empty counter, and then click on the line in the rulebook that says passports are required. If the player wants to catch someone in a lie, the only way to do so is to click on some piece of evidence, and then click on the contradictory line in the border station’s always-running audio transcript. The player is directly, mechanically barred from acting outside of Arstotzka’s procedures and regulations, and from engaging in inventive extralegal heroics.
Like Train, and like Pope’s previous creation The Republica Times, this is game about expediency and duty colliding at full speed with empathy and moral sense. We would all like to believe that, if we suddenly found ourselves acting as cogs in some vast unethical political machine, we would refuse to follow our orders, refuse to comply. But Papers, Please quickly disabuses players of that comforting notion. No, there is no such thing as a truly totalizing institution, and yes, rebellion is always possible. But that kind of uprightness sometimes comes at a price that individual citizens are unwilling or unable to pay.
It’s not about sympathy for the devil so much as sympathy for the guy who’s stuck doing the devil’s paperwork. We’ve all had jobs from which we felt disconnected and bosses we didn’t much like. It’s obvious from the outside that this is different, this border business, but how obvious would it be from within?
That transcript is always running, isn’t it? So, ahem: Glory to Arstotzka.