Trial of Fame: Papers, Please

What is “Trial of Fame”?

“Trial of Fame” is our series of articles in which authors and friends of our blog play a ‘cult game’ for the first time in their lifes and tell us about the experience. With this, we hope to provide a new interesting perspective on these popular titles. If you would like to contribute a text, please write us via our contact form or via direct message on Twitter.

“Papers, Please” by Lucas Pope, (Alain Dellepiane, Elisa Di Fiore, Matteo Scarabelli & Paolo Ceccotti), Josué Monchan, Ramón Méndez González, Words of Magic, Rolf Klischewski, Jogabilidade (André Campos, Ricardo Dias, Eduardo Fonseca & Bruno Izidro), Lazy Games (Natalia Dubrovskaya, Vyacheslav Belyaev & Olga Tsykalova), PLAYISM (Shunji Mizutani, Josh Weatherford & Gen Yoshimasu) & Keiko Pope.

“Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. […] Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.”

What makes a cult classic video game? Does it have to be a transgressive think piece, bold in message and subversive in mechanics? A paradigm shift for the medium at large, or simply a novel spectacle in the midst of the mainstream? Do cult classics share anything in common, or are they merely defined by the type of audience they attract? I spent ten hours under great stress stamping passports, asking myself the above questions while playing indie darling and cult classic “Papers, Please”, a dystopian immigration bureaucracy simulator created by Lucas Pope in 2013.

Written mnemonic about the countries and their capitals plus emblems in "Papers, Please", created by Steven Harmon

On my first day of work as an immigration inspector at the Arstotzka checkpoint in Grestin, I fumbled around, ran myself into debt, and got arrested for delinquency. At that moment, I realized that you cannot play this game passively. “Papers Please” feels dated, not because of the pixel art aesthetic or minimalist sound design, but because it was the first game since “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” where I felt the need to pull out a pen and paper and write a cheat sheet for myself. It was the first game I have played in a long time that made me think. Even after getting familiar with the core loop, I continued to second guess myself and choked under pressure. I experienced the Hawthorne effect firsthand; the micromanaging citations I received after making a mistake made me incredibly anxious about how long I spent inspecting each person.

With each passing day, I transformed more and more into a well-oiled cog in a dehumanizing machine, optimizing not only my speed, accuracy, and risk assessment, but also my wealth. I neglected my family every other night and let them freeze because it was cheaper to buy medicine for the resulting cold than to pay the horrendous heating bills. I made many morally emaciated snap decisions without a second thought because I was not paid to think, but to successfully process every paper before the end of the day. If I were playing on easy mode, a change of which would grant a baseline universal basic income, my family’s basic needs would not be in constant peril, and I could achieve self-actualization by taking the time to be strategic with my citations.

Screenshot of "Papers, Please"

Without living paycheck-to-paycheck, I could have become a saint of Arstotzka. Instead, I befriended a charming drug dealer, accepted bribes, and turned down the desperate pleas of people who had nowhere else to go – all with the levity of a baseball umpire shouting “You are outta here!” Matters only became worse as I began playing “Papers, Please” with my girlfriend; together, we turned what would have otherwise been an emotionally draining slog into a playful co-op game of “I spy”. As much as the game wanted me to relinquish myself to a flow state of heartless conformity, I found myself replaying certain days over and over again to save characters – to achieve mastery not for the glory of the Arstotzka or a high score, but for my own conscience.

To me, this video game is the closest we may get to ethically replicating the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments, and perhaps the closest many will get to empathizing with customs officers. However, what makes the game truly stand out as a cult classic are the fleeting moments of compassion amidst an oppressive regime. The cult following of “Papers, Please” is not only for the mere act of identifying fakes afront a cold backdrop, but also for the positive attitude of Jorji Costava, the warmth of Sergiu and Elisa, and the pride and patriotism in a job well done. [NEXT!]