Critical Analysis: Papers, Please

Luke Pope’s Papers, Please is a game that, like the Soviet-era society it emulates with its art style, hides a sophisticated political message behind simple mechanics. The player stamps to allow random people access to Arstotzka, or stamps to deny them. Only the people queueing at the Grestin checkpoint aren’t random. Some are spies, others terrorists, diplomats, smugglers, sons, daughters, criminals, and so on. The game crafts larger events behind minute interchanges. Player mistakes shape the story of larger events, but really this is less about branching narratives and more about creating a game space that makes the player feel the effects of The State behind and all around him.

The game is simple in its interactions, but the pixel-art interface serves as a little window onto a much, much larger world, affected directly by the player’s events. The first two screens of gameplay are testament to this: a newspaper, which the player quickly learns will both react to mistakes and foreshadow future events; and the small Grestin inspection point. The latter is more interesting: the inspection hut is actually a very small part of the screen. On the main part of the screen is a long line of people from outside Arstotzka’s borders and a long road leading into the country the player is protecting. Immediately after game start, a car flies past on the road, catching the eye. There are guards. The areas beyond are far more interesting than the actual gameplay HUD, which is kept extremely basic as the player slowly learns on the job. The first thing learned is that foreigners are not allowed in. Pope has already created a world beyond the game’s screen. Each person who approaches that window is representative of an Other, a State beyond glorious Arstotzka, and in admitting only Arstotzkans in the game’s first challenge, the player has to cross-reference each passport flag to the names of all the places beyond the line of applicants and the road. Each person admitted is free within the country to wait for a bus to take them away. When those admitted blow themselves up near the bus, the world is affected on a much larger level than just this screen: newspaper headlines scream the next day, guards run, the player’s family suffers, and new laws affect future applicants and Arstotzkans. Creating this world imbues the game’s own space with meaning for the player.

Henry Jenkins, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” outlines how games create stories with space alone1. Jenkins references Michel de Certeau, a French architectural philosopher who outlined how places take on meaning:

A space2 exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is, in a sense, actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities.3

Taken more practically, De Certeau suggests actions within a given area lend meaning—something that rings true with both narrative theories and the concept of agency in game design. In Papers, Please, a small, barely interactive game space is given an ambiguous, moral, subjective meaning by the context of the actions taken within it. De Certeau goes onto say that, “space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization….4” The small player actions and game reactions create a moral space that motivates future player decisions, contextualized through his own tabulated life in Arstotzka. Pope’s uses interactive space to create an aesthetic upon which the player must weigh moral actions.

Small player choices—especially his mistakes—will affect the branching storyline in Papers, Please. On a micro level, the choices are simple enough, with simple enough consequences. Show complete indifference to a sob story and the applicant will cuss the player out in a bad approximation of a Russian accent. Violate protocol and the player will immediately receive a citation, begging the question of why the eye in the sky doesn’t just do the player’s job for him. The State is lurking, and faster than the player. In a time-constrained game, that has a significant affect on the player’s psyche. There is a rush to process people to gain money and feed a family. There is a rush to do this faster than anyone can write citation reports. All these micro-interactions create a branching narrative for the player and the broader State, to which the ground-level applicants react in turn. Aside from being nicely realistic, this also adds a level of difficulty through narrative misdirection: contrast a sob story with maximum citations for a day and there is a moral choice to be made based on suspicion, random chance, and overwhelming information. By creating a massive narrative structure behind the player, the game uses error and emotional attachment to shape the player’s experience of his own life and work, further enhancing the all-powerful sense of State.

The game’s narrative design creates a certain implied message about the omnipresence of state regulation, but this is never stated. Pope’s art style is hardly beautiful, and though no doubt partly a product of scope, this is also as close to the game gets to a direct message about Soviet-era state control. The world looks like an awful place to live. Given the moral nature of the choices presented to the player, the historically-relevant political space created in the game, and the game’s overall depth, it is surprising that Pope never really dispenses a message about his politicized world, despite satirizing many parts of it with the writing, the headlines, the sob stories, and such. With more research, Pope’s implied considerations of Soviet-era existence could have been actualized. The lack of any forced narrative arc grants the player deeper choice, but oddly for a game with such depth of agency, Papers, Please doesn’t have a huge amount of natural replayability beyond the desire to achieve the 20 different endings. When that becomes the strategy, it reduces the game’s moralism to simple pattern recognition. It is very possible to recognize which faces and objects are significant at which branch points, creating a kind of suspicion that isn’t necessarily unrealistic but which does represent a degenerate strategy: players who can remember events can manipulate the micro-interactions to influence what will happen beyond the limits of the Grestin border checkpoint. The rules can be manipulated without any real game repercussion, just success. Oddly, this gives the player control over the Game and the State and reduces any meaning within the space into simple gameplay. Pope had an opportunity to make his simple little checkpoint mean something and what he got was more a sequence of interactive events and less of a piece of fiction. The gameplay adds depth of entertainment in exchange for purpose. It creates space but only uses it to create a feeling, nothing more. It builds a huge world, then doesn’t do anything with it. That creates a game that is very addictive but leaves its implied message as a subtle vestige of some smart mechanics.

Pope has created a game that uses a limited space to create a lot of meaning beyond its borders, allowing the game to support an interesting player story in addition to challenging gameplay. It does this by letting micro-interactions with people affect and be affected by both the player’s dramatic situation in-game and emotional situation outside of it. This is very smart narrative design, creating a sense of a State that affects player decisions and contextualizes the game. It also gives Papers, Please a strong implied message about historical totalitarianism, but the game emphasizes its gameplay depth above its message, letting players play but meaning they increasingly play for no reason other than game success.

1Jenkins, Henry, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Ed. Pat Harrington and Noah Frup-Waldrop. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. Web. 9 Nov 2012. Available at

2Note that De Certeau’s works were initially written in French, so the term espace is more accurate and has a slightly different meaning in French, encompassing more of what we would, in English, call a “place,” as in “a happening place.” De Certeau uses place (lieu) to refer to a stationary, fixed location.

3De Certeau, Michel, “Spatial Stories.” What Is Architecture? Ed. Andrew Ballantyne. New York: Routledge, 2002. Web. 13 Feb 2013. Available at,+place,+space&ots=gp1u-AsreU&sig=mx6x_TNpzpc-bkFHibRiaCuqyw8#v=onepage&q=Michel%20De%20Certeau%2C%20place%2C%20space&f=false


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