Papers, Please: a critical view at border policies through a dystopian lens

Papers, Please: a critical view at border policies through a dystopian lens

I have come across no game that captures the spirit of immigration on the ground-level like Papers, Please does. While stamping entry visas on passports and double-checking work permits for forgery might sound boring on paper, to me it was finally a chance to be on the other side. To experience what it feels like to control another person’s entire life based on my own judgement. Or so I thought at first.

Moral Quandaries

Immigration in most countries is notorious for being an expensive, drawn-out process – and that’s when you have the choice of putting in an application well in advance, planning out all the steps. What about refugees, who often can’t provide all documentation and might require support at the borders itself? What about migrants fleeing persecution in their countries who  aren’t legally recognized as refugees? How do you decide which case is legitimate and which one isn’t? What if a genuine applicant makes an error with their paperwork, and what if a smuggler turns in spotless documents?

A screenshot of documents from Papers, Please
A closer look
Image: Papers, Please/Lucas Pope

Papers, Please revels in posing such questions, shortly after putting you in charge of a new border post. War has recently ended with neighbouring Kolechia, and more people are queuing up to enter your country, Arstotzka, than you can keep up with. My excitement and sense of obligation to a moral compass faded away along with the illusion of choice. I quickly learnt that not abiding by the Ministry of Admission’s strict border regulations – even accidentally – meant docked pay, which in turn meant I would have to choose between food and heat later that night. How do you balance your morality with your need for basic human necessities? Can you afford to allow a persecuted migrant into the country if it means your sick son goes without medicine? The game is hell-bent on finding out just how benevolent you can be when it comes down to sacrificing your own family’s survival.    

Border Patrol

Another aspect of Papers, Please is the constantly shifting border entry requirements. In response to developing geo-political situations along with the Arstotzkan authoritarian regime’s power plays, visitors and immigrants alike are required to present various documents. Sometimes it’s an entry ticket which later morphs into a pass along with supplementing ID, at other times it’s mandatory state ID for citizens. These increasingly complex and frequent changes meant to ‘simplify’ border entry end up affecting both the migrants and the officials. Immigrants complain about having to shell out more money to obtain the necessary permits and documents, while playing as the official I found myself slipping up more often as I struggled to keep every single requirement in mind when checking documents. Inevitably, the number of people I could successfully process through the checkpoint in a day went down over the days.

In another instance, an outbreak of polio in the United Federation meant a complete ban on travelers from that country, chilling evoking similar steps taken by countries during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (which ultimately resulted in an enquiry from the Australian Human Rights Commission).

A strange tension hangs in the air even for the migrants processed successfully through the border checkpoint. ‘Do not cause trouble,’ they are instructed, before being allowed into the country, a subtle reminder of their status of tolerated outsider rather than a legal resident of Arstotzka. This otherness or alienation of migrants from mainstream society has been heavily documented both in academic research and real life incidents.

Until the Bitter End

In Papers, Please, when terrorist attacks at the border escalate, the authoritarian regime doesn’t hesitate to confiscate the passports of its own citizens coming back home. Each day, the situation worsens until it starts becoming clear – loyalty to Arstotzka and the job isn’t going to save me. Torn between escaping to another country alone and staying put with my family, I ultimately decided to stay instead of fleeing by myself. All I will say is I possibly received one of the bleakest of the 20 possible endings to the story.

Conclusion

Overall, Papers, Please is a brilliant dissection of border policies and immigration, of the fine line between enforcing law and aiding tyranny. With timeless commentary and a thought-provoking premise, this doomed balancing act of survival and morality is one that leaves you a changed person. 

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