Video game corner: Papers, Please

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By Willem Weinstein

Recent video games tend to follow some sort of moral code in order to seem more realistic. This way, players can make choices in the game that reflect their personal philosophies. Several Bioware games, for example, offer multiple choice scenarios in which players must choose between A) the moral path; B) a somewhat flawed reaction; or C) murder.

Similaryly, in the Infamous franchise, players must decide which side—good or bad—will give the best upgrades.

In the real world, moral quandaries do not often come down to either an A or B option. A real moral choice is much more complicated than just picking between two black and white options. This brings me to a recent game by indie game developer Lucus Pope called Papers, Please.

The  game takes place in the fictional country Arstotzka, where the player acts as a border control agent working to keep out undesirables from the country, while letting in those who fit the criteria. This is done based on the amount of identification that potential immigrants need to present.

The objective of the game is simple: Do your job and earn money for your family to pay for rent and food. If you mess up and let someone in who you should not have, then you are fined a certain amount of cash depending on how badly you messed up. Essentially this is Bureaucracy: The Game, in which the gameplay is a very immersive paperwork simulator.

What sets this game apart and makes it so engaging, despite how unappealing its premise sounds, is the way it presents moral choice. The way you make money for you family is by earning cash for each applicant you screen each day.

The reason why this game’s moral choice system is so potent is that it forces the player to make a real decision on whether to scan each applicant carefully to see if they should be allowed in or turned away. Another option is to send everyone who shows up to the borders to the nice men with guns who take away undesirables.

Obviously, it would not be as impressive to me if those were the only two options, but the point is that, as the player, you are forced to make grey area compromises in which you are not sure if some applicant’s picture truly matches him in real life or if his story has a few too many holes in it to be believable. You may be forced to send these individuals to the Gulag or risk not being able to support your family or eat that day.

It is quite an attack on the player’s supposed moral center to create a situation in which decisions have consequences not only for the players themselves, but also for the other people that may have needlessly “disappeared.”

This is ultimately a game, and the stakes in it can’t really be compared to a real life situation, but if you are willing to immerse yourself in the experience and feel an actual emotional investment in the choices you make, Papers, Please is one of  the most engaging games released in a long time.

 

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