The young man hands over his passport and entry visa. I check his passport number on both documents and study the image carefully. The stamp on the visa seems a little odd, and the picture not quite the same. I query him further.
“It is an old picture” he tells me. I hand him a card and he provides his fingerprints, meanwhile I search the official record of known criminals…his name and face are not there.
I check the fingerprints against the records and they do match, he was telling the truth. But what is this? It seems his entry visa says he has come to work but I don’t see a work permit.
“Where is your permit? All citizens must have a permit.” He hands over his permit. He is an artist. The permit is out of date and I challenge him.
Suddenly his mood changes. “Do not send me back, they torture me there.” He pleads.
I am torn. My hand hovers over the stamp to deny him entry. If I let him through then it will be a black mark against my name. I have already made two mistakes today and this time they will dock my pay. I have a wife and a sick child at home. My mother-in-law has already died as I couldn't afford to heat our tiny home.
He slips a 5 credit note over the counter “Please help me” he says. Part of me wants to help, but I know I cannot. I could detain him and have him interrogated for lying on his passport. I tell him this. I will be kind and just send him back to where he came. I stamp “access denied” on the documents and hand them back to him.
“No!” He says “This is shit. I will not leave.” Suddenly alarms are going off everywhere. “I will blow myself up. We will all die here.”
My protective shutter slams down and two guards run into the room with guns raised. Through the shutters I see the silhouette of the man being bludgeoned by the butt of a rifle. He is dragged out of the room and taken off for questioning.
The siren sounds all clear and I am left genuinely shocked by the sudden turn of events.
The game begins with your being promoted to a new post. Your family are all relocated to a Class 8 apartment and you begin work the next day. Things start out simple enough. Check names and dates of birth. Check the issuing cities of documents and that the photos match. For each passport you deal with you are given 5 credits. These go towards paying your rent, food, heating and medicine should someone become sick. It is a hard life. If you see 10 people a day you are lucky and fairly soon your family are suffering from cold, hunger and sickness. This forces you to pick up the pace. But every mistake is penalized.
Pretty soon however the rules begin to change. A spate of terrorist attacks means that foreigners now require visas, work passes and other documents. All of these need to be checked. Discrepancies now give you two options. Deny entry or have the suspect “detained” by the guards who have been drafted in to guard the area. To start with it is just as easy to deny entry as it is to have someone detained, but soon the border guard makes you an offer. He gets paid for interrogations, so for every two people you detain he will give you 5 credits. You now have a choice to make every time you spot a mistake. Do you send the person back or earn a few extra credits to support your family or up your high score?
Then there is the young girl who comes to you to ask for help. She is just 20 years old. She says that she is going to work in a dancing club, but that she does not trust the man who has come to collect her. She tells you his name and walks through. A few minutes later the man in question arrives. His passport is in order. You could deny him entry but this would be another black mark against you. You let him through and hope for the best. Two days later the papers report that three dancers have been found dead at an Arstotzkan club. You pray that this wasn’t the same one.
Whilst "Papers, Please" is clearly still a game and therefore of limited historical accuracy, it does an excellent job of forcing you to consider the actions and choices of those people who had positions of power in regimes such as those in ex-Soviet countries (and indeed today). I am usually not a huge fan of games which give you life and death freedoms. I have never really got on with the Grand Theft Auto genre for example as most of the "fun" stuff I couldn't bring myself to do, even in a game. However "Papers, Please" is not gratuitous in the way it deals with the issue. If you play it through properly, then every decision you make will be a carefully considered one. Some of course will lead to your own downfall at the hands of the authorities.
Equally, being a game, one of the major motivations is of course to get the highest score, to unlock all of the 20 possible endings. But to do these things, you are forced to take some fairly unpleasant courses of action: shooting down refugees as they make a run for it; splitting up husbands and wives; complying will all state directives to the letter; and so on. It does not take long playing a game to set aside your moral scruples about the virtual characters of the game in order to achieve your goals. Arendt’s phrase about the “banality of evil” really came back to me here. How easy it was to make decisions based on the rule book I had been given, especially when it made my own life easier. How much harder to give up my “score” to let a fleeing dissident or the passport-less wife of a Arstotzkan citizen through. The scary realization is that this was really no different from those border guards who did this in real life on say the border between East and West Germany. Reality is warped by domestic pressures, the threat of arrest (or in this case the termination of the game) and extrinsic rewards.
Papers, Please is not so much a game as a dark and disturbing exploration of the mentalities of the men and women who held power in Communist Europe. As a game I am not sure it succeeds, it is not actually that fun to play. But on the level of exploring human motivation, it is a masterpiece.
"Papers, Please" is available for iPad, PC, Mac and Linux here: http://papersplea.se
For another way of exploring these issues, you might like to watch the brilliant "Lives of Others".