Choice and Consequence in ‘Papers, Please’

[1 July 2014]

By Eric Swain

Choices in video games are often given to us in a moment. The game slows down, highlighting that what is being presented to us right now is a choice. Most games effectively pause during these moments to give the player the chance to consider the scenario. Some, like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, up the pressure to choose by adding a timer. Still, though, the event is highlighted as a choice.

For choices to matter, they need consequences. But within the safe boundaries of a video game, creating a consequence by external means is an ineffective measure of making them matter, as the rewards in terms of the game itself often end up being considered more than the moral or narrative implications of the choice. Last week, I left off by asking if the player’s own emotional state should be the measure by which we understand a game’s consequences. Yet, such an attempt would have to be outside of those special moments. The player’s emotional state is a continuous thing that is affected by the moment to moment play of the game. One game that was mentioned in response to the original post, in what has now become a series, that has created a real sense of emotional consequence to the player’s action was Papers, Please.

Here we have a game whose entire mechanical concern is giving a pass or fail to the people coming through a border checkpoint. What the gameplay amounts to is essentially an information matching game. The people wishing to pass through, give you their papers, and the player matches the relevant information to what your little book says is permissible. And there is also a timer that represents the work day. At this level, there is no moral or ethical dilemmas to be explored. It is a purely skill based exercise. How fast and thorough can you be? Left to just this, the game becomes a high score chaser, but then Papers, Please complicates the situation. The player receives money at the end of the day for each successfully processed individual and gets docked pay for each mistake made past the first two. That money is then used at the end of each day to pay the living expenses for your family—rent, food, heat and medicine.

Now you are working towards a goal and one that the game effectively resets each day. Satisfying the needs of your family becomes more difficult should you fail to make enough one day, leaving someone you love hungry or sick. Additionally, expenses pile up as their needs become greater. Also, the game is stacked in favor of not earning enough early on as you are still getting the hang of things. As time goes on, you’ll have memorized many of the place names and international facts that you need to know through the sheer repetition of fact checking, but early on, you will end up looking everything up to make sure that all the people who pass through have paperwork that is in order. This learning curve will slow you down. As you get better at processing people, the game complicates your ability to do so, as the government will add new rules and regulations (almost arbitrarily at times) nearly every day—something new that you have to watch out for or a new form that has to be processed or notarized.

Still at this point, the game continues to offer a skill based challenge. The fate of your family may be under threat, but it is still wholly predicated on your ability to do your job well. That fate is still a consequence of the player’s work speed and attention to detail. The mechanics grind at the player and may even be demoralizing. The buzzer that sounds when the pink slip of a citation prints out to let the player know that that player has improperly processed someone can even cause irritation or dread. The moral considerations that the game presents you with are a result of the purely narrative elements that are placed upon rather rote mechanics.

Papers, Please attachs names, faces, and stories to the people passing through your little booth. Most are simply people that you process with little trouble or incident. Others upend the mechanical system in play by presenting circumstances that the rules have no consideration for. Without the right paperwork, the person could be a terrorist trying to take down the glorious country of Arstotzka or a drug smuggler or sick or a wanted criminal. If your paperwork isn’t in order is the rationale for keeping people out, and all of these reasons are very real concerns. Yet, the game has no consideration for the person whose paperwork would have been in order had they made it to the front of the line the day before the rules altered. Or for the malicious character whose papers are all in order. See, the individuals that pass through your booth don’t always just stand there. They talk.

One man comes through without trouble and says his wife is right behind him. Her paperwork is incomplete. The game never pauses or highlights the moment, but it has created a choice whose consequences are born from the layered systems that your actions are built around. Maybe you’ve been skillful enough up to this point in the day that letting her through won’t be a problem at all. Suffer a warning and move on. But then a woman comes through saying the man behind her is selling her into sexual slavery and to please not let him through. If we take the woman at her word (and we have no reason not to, since her paperwork is fine), he is a criminal, but as far as immigration is concerned, he is free to pass. These are the two most often cited examples of Papers, Please confronting the player with challenges of being someone with power and authority governed by a rulebook, even someone with the meager power and authority of a border inspection officer.

Why are these people remembered over so many other individuals? Well, these two incidents are immediate and emotionally charged. The implications of them are easily understood, and they also are moments of choice that come very early in the game. The thing is, we never see, nor hear from these individuals again. In their stories, we are simply serve as an extra that caused them relief or hardship. From our point of view, they are another of the many faces that pass before us every single day. They are the first moral challenge to our position, but regardless what the player eventually chooses to do in his or her playthrough, the consequences of these moments are disconnected from the stories, but they may affect ours. We commit a moral wrong while being protected legally, or we take the demerit and the potential pay loss for the day.

The pay loss per infraction is equivalent to processing a single individual. It may not sound like much, but if you aren’t perfect in your work, those infractions add up. A single one could end up being the difference between eating tonight or going hungry for both you and your family. And then there are the circumstances outside your control. More than one day in the game ends prematurely because of a suicide bomber’s attack that forces the border to close early. The first of these is a suicide bomber whose paperwork was all in order. However many people you managed to process that day will account for how much you made that day. I remember one day where the checkpoint was closed after two people came through. Hope you had some savings.

These two stories are immediate in both their implications and their impact. Though, lets be clear that these more emotionally charged situations keep coming up. No pressure. Later, the game presents us with some decisions that are less about the morality of a particular circumstance, but that deal with a larger issue. About halfway through the game a body scanner is introduced, much like the ones being forced into American airports that take nude photos of the subject. This is to verify that the person in question isn’t hiding contraband when their weight doesn’t match their passport. Put on a few pounds, get naked for the camera.  Or to verify their gender matches their passport. The rules do not recognize transgendered people or non-binaries. About two thirds of the way through the game (for a reason that I cannot remember right now), you have to reject an international reporter for a big publication because her paperwork isn’t correct. She threatens you with an expose on the poor treatment that she received at the border crossing if you reject her credentials. The matter of freedom of the press and freedom of information are for the moment in your hands. This particular situation adds another moral dimension into the mix because all you’ve said is “Papers, please” and “You are missing such and such” and she is being an asshole about it.

Personal dimensions are also added as another consideration for your decisions. There’s an old guy, Jorji Costava, that appears first on day 3 and wants to enter the country, but doesn’t have a passport. You turn him away. Then the next day, he comes in with an obviously faked passport that looks like it was drawn with a crayon. Finally on day 6, he comes with a valid passport, but not the now needed entry ticket. Eventually, he will get everything in order and can be let in without a citation. He appears several times later on as a drug smuggler. At one point, he offers you a bribe to let him through, and the last time that you see him he comes just to give you some money as a thank you for your help.

You build a rapport with him over time. It’s difficult not to like the guy. He is always cheerful, and no matter what you do he always has a smile on his face. He may be a drug smuggler, but you get to know him over time. You may follow the rules and send him into the building that no one ever seems to come out of for criminal offenses or you could just let the nice man through. He’ll even pay you double what your fine would be.

Another person that gains a bit of a rapport with the player is Sergiu Volda, a guard that appears a little over halfway through from your home town. He’s been assigned to protect your station from further attacks, and you talk to him a for few days, which is nice break from the monotony of the job. Later on, if he’s still alive (his aim isn’t what it used to be), he will come to ask you for a favor. The love of his life, Elisa, is coming through the crossing soon and if you could please send her through—despite her having no documentation. You aren’t being offered compensation, just a sincere thanks from a friend. And honestly, the small little animation of her walking out of the booth and then running right into Sergiu’s arms was all I needed to make me feel good about my choice.

We have moved from the legal, to the ethical, now to the personal. And again nothing ever changes about the game systems themselves. You are still an operator sitting in that booth, shuffling through paperwork, trying to beat the clock. The moral choices are layered on top of the action of the game not as a system of its own, but as a complication to the systems at play. This works because dealing with these moments challenges the system, and if you accept those challenges, you are financially hurt by them. If you reject the challenges and continue on as before, that weight and dread of the grind takes on a new dimension: guilt. Papers, Please is a game where actions do have consequences, but most of it relies on the emotional state and investment of the player. While there is sometimes monetary trickery (bribes and guard corruption) or unexpected changes in stature (your wife’s sister dies and her daughter comes to live with you bringing along the family savings), most of it hinges on your personal situation and whims. Maybe that couple got lucky and wont be separated because you have been flawless so far. Maybe that woman is consigned to a horrible existence because your family is sick, and you cannot afford one more citation if you want to keep the heat on.

As a point of contrast I would like to briefly mention Watch Dogs.

In Watch Dogs, you can walk around the city with your smartphone out and alongside a picture of the person that it is aimed at, your phone will tell you the occupation, the annual income, the age, and a random factoid about every person that you pass. Some of these individuals will have hackable smartphones, which will allow you to listen in on their calls, to read their text message conversations, to steal their music, and (most notably) to hack their bank account. To steal or not to steal, that is the question. The only information that you have to work with is what they look like, what they do for a living, and a random piece of information about their life. In one of the earlier demos of the game, Ubisoft showed off some of the game’s sandbox systems, one of which was looking into people’s lives and stealing money from their bank accounts. The target in the demo was a well off man in a suit who was a “Tobacco Executive” making 6 figures and on the side was also a “Pro-Life Lobbyist.” For a good number of people this is a perfect target. Only for a few would it not be acceptable to rob them of a couple hundred dollars.

I have not met Mr. Tobacco Executive/Pro-Life Lobbyist. And while I admit stealing from an “Objectivist” was somewhat satisfying, mostly who I encounter are 65 year old, $20,000 a year pensioners with two mortgages. The problem is not that I’m being offered two classes of people (and everyone in between) and being asked if I would steal from them for my own ends. That is simply a system in the game, and the information about these people is a complication. However, it really isn’t. There is no consequence of any kind for my actions. The information isn’t a complication. It is trivia. I don’t know these people because they aren’t people. They aren’t the troubled war hero Sergiu waiting for his lady love. They aren’t the affable Jorji come to make the drab day a little more entertaining with his antics. They are one dimensional ciphers that will neither notice nor react to my actions. I am not under threat of punishment should I take the moral high road and remain a little less wealthy. I am not under threat of punishment should I take the low road and rob them blind regardless of who they may be.

Money in Watch Dogs is for unlocking new outfits, new guns, new cars, nothing that puts pressure on the player if they don’t have these things. The protagonist isn’t under pressure because he can’t pay for food or for his son’s medicine. Money is just a number. Part of the set up in both games is allowing the player to fill in the gaps between the little pieces of information that is being offered. In Papers, Please, we don’t know people’s stories beyond our little booth, but we understand the implications of them. Also, the characters react —if only for a few moments. You get called all sorts of things for rejecting people and wasting their time in line. Meanwhile, Watch Dogs requires the player to build an entire person from three data points that ultimately are meaningless in defining who they are. Maybe Mr. Tobacco Executive/Pro-Life Lobbyist is funding road construction and medicine distribution in Africa and just happens to hold a belief that I disagree with and an occupation that historically has been filled by assholes. I don’t know him, not even a little. I never heard him speak or witnessed any behavior other than him walking past me on the sidewalk.

Both games are relying on the player to make a connection to the entities that they are effecting in their digital worlds. I say entities instead of characters because while those in Papers, Please could be described as characters, the random passersby in Watch Dogs cannot. Both rely on the player to feel something regarding how they act, but while Papers, Please makes the player feel guilty, Watch Dogs only creates ambivalence. Would you feel morally bad for taking money from a floating ATM machine? Trying to integrate moral meaning through choices made during the course of play and not as a singular special moment requires the player to make that moment for themselves. They have to care, and they have to understand what it is that they are doing.

I want to emphasize the reason the moral choices in Papers, Please work (and the very thing that I’ve been trying to convey over three posts now) is not because they are disconnected from external reward systems or actively balk at a simple black and white binary, but because they offer dimension and ambiguity to the process of choosing. The circumstances matter with Auntie Greenleaf and her magical tree in The Wolf Among Us because the specifics offer multiple facets to your options. The circumstances in games like inFamous and Fable fail to offer moral choices because there are no specifics to consider at all. And the circumstances matter in Papers, Please because what was supposed to be simple has been crushed by complexity and too many goods are weighed against one another. Morality is not black and white, good and evil, order and chaos, with us or against us. Morality is everyone is right about something and what you feel is more important. Complexity matters.

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