Games

Experiencing the Banality of Evil in 'Papers, Please'

Papers, Please conveys the insidious weight of bureaucracy, one passport at a time.

I once moved to the U.K. for an extended period of time. I can recall very few situations more stressful than that customs line: Did I have all my papers? What questions were they going to ask? What would happen if I got waived through but my wife didn't? In terms of "immigrations," it was a relatively mild one. We had given up our apartment and jobs in the U.S., but if we got denied, we still had friends and family to help us out. We weren't going to be secreted away by fascist goons, and the laws of both the U.S. and the U.K. were fairly navigable in the grand scheme of things. Still, watching the border officer review all our paperwork was tense. The seconds it took for her to reach for her stamp felt like years. What was going through her mind while she looked at our documents?

Lucas Pope's Papers, Please offers one possible explanation, albeit one set in a much more dramatic environment. It's a game where you play as an immigration inspector who has to process paperwork and make the decision whether to allow people to cross the border. Your job is simple: grant or deny people passage to the country. However, as the game goes on, the human cost of of your decision for both you and those you evaluate becomes apparent, leading to some uncomfortable realizations about the power of social structures.

The game's drab colors, plodding music, and over all down-trodden environment set the tone for a process that rewards emotional detachment. As a border agent, you get paid for each person you let through, but you're docked pay for mistakes, so you don't really want to spend more time than absolutely necessary on any one person.

Things look bland, but they feel frantic as you try to make evaluations both quickly and carefully. Each document must be manually dragged from the counter to your inspection table. Unless you have a good memory, you'll be leafing through the rulebook and daily policy change notices to double check passports for discrepancies. Even the way you physically array a collection of documents can obscure a crucial piece of information at the bottom of a heap of papers.

Success in Papers, Please bestows the same satisfaction games like Diner Dash or The Sims do. Setting up and executing efficient procedures is rewarding, both in terms of in-game currency and in that portion of your brain that likes processing chaos and refining it into order. Therein lies the problem and the deeper message of Papers, Please. The raw material you're processing is people.

Papers, Please is a terrifying and elegant illustration of how inhumanity is created through systems. Sure, you can choose not to stop any immigrants, but then how will you pay the rent or feed your family (actions you're forced to face at the end of every in-game day)? Some immigrants plead with you and say that sending them back to their former country is as good as a death sentence. Other people who seem suspect probably should be denied, but their papers are in order. Is going with your gut either fair or worth the fine of erroneously denying them? Processing people quickly means abdicating your personal moral code and ceasing to question authority in order to survive. Put in this position, people wind up doing some horrible things.

I think teachers could employ Papers, Please as a way to teach students about the banality of evil. In much the same way that Oregon Trail simulated the various hardships of American western expansion, Papers, Please provides some systemic weight to abstract intellectual concepts. I don't know if this is the case for most kids, but I always thought I'd be smart or brave enough to stand up to flaunt the rules of a corrupt society. Why not just "refuse" to follow the rules? The answer is that the ideal reality and the practical reality can't co-exist without sacrifice and that sacrifice has to be made by somebody.

This takes us back to why I find border checkpoints so terrifying. It's rare that you get to see the machinations of a gargantuan set of rules responsible for structuring modern society so plainly. At the tip of the spear are people whose entire lives hinge on being able to conform to those rules regardless if said rules are biased against you personally or are corrupt in a broader sense. The concept of how close we are to a situation where "man is wolf to man" becomes startlingly clear whether you're the one waiting for the stamp or you're the one charged with deciding whether or not to bestow it.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.