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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Papers, Please

I recently played the computer game, Papers, Please. It is set in a fictional dictatorship that looks like the USSR. You play a man who is assigned by lottery the job of border agent.

At the start of each work day you are shown newpaper headlines which affect the border rules. A shortage of jobs might lead to a requirement for foreigners traveling for work to have a work permit, for example. There is a long queue and travelers come to your desk one by one. There is some dialog ranging from “hello” to an elaborate sob story. You look at the papers presented and make sure all the rules are followed, then decide whether to stamp then entry visa with “APPROVED” or “DENIED”. You get paid according to the number of people you check through the border in a limited amount of time and you can get fined if you fail to follow the rules properly. At the end of each work day you are presented with bills and must check off which ones to pay. You must always pay rent, but must choose whether to buy heat, food or medicine. You are also shown whether your wife, son, uncle and mother-in-law are cold, hungry or ill. You might decide, for example, to buy medicine for your son instead of food for your mother-in-law.

All this is presented in a point-and-click, drag-and-drop, retro-style indie-game interface with a distinctly Soviet look and sound design.

Tension comes from trying to work quickly without making any mistakes. It’s easy enough to check that the passport has not expired and the work visa is valid, but not notice that the name on the work visa does not match the name on the passport. Rules get increasingly more complicated as the game progresses with more documentation being required and more information to check.

The game also gives you some moral agency. One man with valid papers says his wife is in the queue, but there is a minor discrepancy with her papers. Do you separate the couple, or take pity on them? Another woman says she will be killed if she is sent back home. Another begs you not to allow a certain man through as he is planning to sell her into prostitution. You can break the rules about twice per day and get away with it, but any more and you will get fined. Breaking the rules on purpose increases the risk of being fined for making a mistake.

All this means that while you might start with good intentions, before long you are weighing the lives of your family against the plight of the travelers. On my first play-through I sent various travelers to their doom to save my ill son, but ended up in jail when I decided to deny access to the pimp whose papers were valid, got fined, and could not afford the rent.

It’s a fun game and has an interesting lesson about how people are compromised by inhumane systems.

See also: Papers, Please cosplay and the short film.

20 comments to Papers, Please

  • Paul Marks

    Not realistic – I worked in a booth.

    Where are all the people shouting “I am going to fucking kill you!” and spitting in your face? Hence my pock marks from the diseases they gave me.

    Also one gets fat working in a booth (or sitting working a computer) – and that undermines health, so the health costs should go up over time.

    The system makes people nasty? Not really – as many people are nasty anyway.

  • Paul Marks

    Good film though – especially the end.

  • staghounds

    A couple of years ago we were waiting around at the US-Canadian border, and were chatting with the agent helping us. There was a bus full of Chinese people having their papers checked, and another similar one pulled in. I remarked on it, and he told us that the fall leaf time was full of these New York tour buses crammed with Chinese people. “Every so often there’s an Australian or Kiwi who didn’t know he would be the only English speaker on board. I feel sorry for them.”

    Without a moment’s hesitation, TheGirl said “Does your supervisor know that you still have feelings?”

  • twinkletoes42069

    Nah, Paperwork: The Game sucked

  • Włodek P.

    Not realistic – I worked in a booth.

    Writes someone who never lived under communism, I’m guessing. 😛

    Where are all the people shouting “I am going to fucking kill you!” and spitting in your face?

    Where? Those people are here. This is where spitting in the face of the guy in the booth gets you.

  • bobby b

    “It’s a fun game . . . “

    In one inebriated college-dorm session, we worked up a game in which the players were sharks, with a bunch of toddlers in life vests bobbing along the surface above us. You rolled dice, and got to bite off a chunk whose size corresponded with the number on your dice. It was a timed game, and at various intervals those sharks whose rolls had been low would die of starvation. Toddlers were added as others were torn apart.

    The aim of the discussion was “the most depressing board game possible.”

    I think it beat yours, but not by much. 😆

  • Mr Ed

    “the most depressing board game possible.”

    Not whilst Cluedo is still played.

    But there was a Wallace and Gromit board game, Fleeced, which made Cluedo seem bearable.

  • bobby b

    Had forgotten that one. Colonel Mustard in the study with a lead pipe?

  • Mr Ed

    I am almost completely ignorant of the Gaming world, it strikes me as incredible that people would pay for this, but surely they do. I note from the FAQs that it describes it as follows:

    What’s the setup?
    The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

    Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists.

    So it’s a bit like one side of Texarkana after the Union collapses and Shelob is the President for Life of Arkansas, or wasn’t it like that in the 1980s anyway?

    This game really should replace all Civil Service and Local Government entrance tests. It’s just a question of what is a ‘pass’ and what is a ‘fail’. Could someone kinldy persuade Mrs May and Mr Corbyn to play it, and be filmed doing so?

  • No; Professor Plum in the conservatory with Miss Scarlett.

  • No; Professor Plum in the conservatory with Miss Scarlett.

    Presumably with “the Viagra”.

  • The last Toryboy

    Glory to Arsztotska!

  • Long ago, my family and friends included “Contraband” in the games we played. Each player in turn is the customs officer for one complete play of the card deck, while the others are the people entering the country. As returning holidaymaker, you decide to pay the duty on the items the cards give you, or else you lie and tell the customs officer player you have less or nothing in your luggage, paying duty on whatever you admit to carrying. The officer can let you through or disbelieve you and search your luggage. If they find something, they get a much larger payment from you but (most unrealistically) they have to pay you a fine for defamation if they search you and find you were telling the truth. The winner is the one with the most money at the end.

    Extending the OP game to become multi-player, with each in turn being the officer while the others are assigned roles – genuine immigrant, terrorist sympathiser, refugee from danger, benefit tourist, industrial spy, petty criminal, etc. – would seem quite possible.

    Another variant would be to have periods when your superior tells you the government wishes to ignore certain immigration checks, but not openly admit this or repeal them. Failure to obey risks being demoted (less pay) but later, after a change of government, you risk fines if your paperwork making it appear you followed the un-repealed rules is not good enough. That one could quite naturally be combined with a variant skin, giving a UK or US appearance to the customs post.

  • Paul Marks

    Quite so Wlodek P. – and I am sorry if my light hearted (but truthful) comments offended you.

    Also the game does seem to be post Marxist (it is not a Marxist state) – and people are trying to get IN not get OUT. And the film makes clear that there are terrorists about – they are not some sort of myth the local government has invented.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way Wlodek P. you are quite wrong – the vast majority of the victims of Marxism had never spat in the face of anyone and never threatened the death of anyone. They were NOT being punished for actual crimes.

  • Paul, I don’t think Wlodek was suggesting that “the vast majority of the victims of Marxism” – or indeed, any but a tiny minority of them – had ever done anything, let alone even as little as spat in the face of an official. In a joke of the communist era, a camp commandant walks down the line of new arrivals.

    “How long are you in for?” “Ten years sir, and I’ve done nothing!”

    “How long are you in for?” “Ten years sir, and I’ve done nothing!”

    “How long are you in for?” “Twenty years sir, and I’ve done nothing!”

    “Lying swine”, replies the commandant. “In the Peoples Republic, no-one gets twenty years for nothing.”

    Wlodek was merely noting that if being an official in the UK can include being spat on then we are still a very free a country compared to many.

  • Włodek P.

    By the way Wlodek P. you are quite wrong

    Not really. Sure, most victims of communism died because of who they were rather than what they did, but spitting in the face of a functionary would be a sure way to go to the front of a queue you never want to be in.

  • Eric

    I am almost completely ignorant of the Gaming world, it strikes me as incredible that people would pay for this, but surely they do.

    People play it for the same reason they play other games. It’s fun.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Bobby B, Mr Ed, I suppose the theme is depressing but the mechanics are fun. 😀

  • Mr Ed


    So you’ll do ok under Mr Corbyn then. 😉