2013 in Review: Why I'll Never Finish Papers, Please

Universally praised for its disquieting undertones, Papers, Please is especially uncomfortable when you've been on the other side.

Article by Cassandra Khaw, .

I hate airports. Hate, hate, HATE airports. I frequently joke about how I live mostly in these facilities but the truth is that I'd be okay if I never stepped foot into another one. There's a kind of desperation that subsumes every airport that I've been in: furious delight intermingled with a rainbow of human anxieties, all locked together in comfortable travel gear and the rumble of luggage. And layered beneath all of that? An undercurrent of threat.

Crying babies. Arguing spouses. Fumbling first-time travellers who will invariably hold up the queue longer that they should. Incompetent staff. Terrorists. The inexorable grind of the seconds and minutes and hours. All threats in some capacity, all dangers, all things to watch out for as you press into long, snaking lines in an attempt to get somewhere. Anywhere. But no matter what you say or do in order to facilitate that movement, you can't operate on your own volition in airports. You move when you're told to move. You speak when you're ordered to speak.

The powerlessness drives me insane, each and every time.

Over the last year, I've had droves of people ask me if I've played Papers, Please, a question I always answer with some form of hesitation. Yes. Sort of. Kinda. I think I played one of the first prototypes of everyone's favorite dystopian document thriller. It was serendipity. I was working under Indiegames Blog's banner back then and was on the hunt for something cool. At the time, the game was mostly just a tech demo -- a skeleton of what it'd later become. I can't recall if I wrote about it, only that I marvelled at what it could potentially become.

Months passed. The game was released. Accolades rained like confetti. Friends and colleagues wrote a storm of smart, incisive articles about Papers, Please. And I ended up in a weird position; I advocated everyone purchasing the game but refused to ever complete it myself.

Here's why:

Papers, Please scares me. It evokes too many memories of too many hours of standing in line, frightened of the border crossing. More often than not, the transition between countries is easy: a smile, an understanding dialogue and a new tattoo of stamps on my water-warped passport before I'm sent on my way but that's not always the case. Sometimes, luck plays me a bad hand. Papers, Please is a vivid reminder of the time I came back from Iceland and had a cold-eyed woman droll, "Are you fucking him?" when I told her I was going to crash with the friend waiting for me outside, of the occasions when I'd be pulled aside so someone could scan my mammoth black laptop for explosives, of being incredulously and loudly interrogated about the exact dimensions of my job, of the security guard who told me the front of the line was for white people and not colored visitors.

By both nature and nurture, I'm a confrontational individual. I take challenges head-on. With fists, if necessary, and the authority of the righteously outraged otherwise. In airports, those avenues are taken away from me. My word against theirs, a poor weapon when the opponent wields the ability to arbitrarily order you back on another 36-hour flight. What remains is the right to stand, smile and answer every question with impeccable graciousness even as someone tunnels through my life for proof I won't be another weight on their society.

To be fair, I suppose I do hit a few wrong notes. I'm a Malaysian, something some see to see as synonymous as being Islamic. Given the constant fear-mongering over the religion, it isn't surprising that airport personnel have read my citizenship as a plausible threat. I'm female, not ugly and Chinese -- another vagrant possibly looking to marry into better standards of living? I write about video games for a living, a profession so esoteric it may as well be fiction, but own an impractically enormous laptop. Somewhere, somehow, I had to be lying about something.

Papers, Please makes me uncomfortable because it installs players at the crossroads of these decisions. Though the game never demands you stand there, breath taut behind an exhaustion-riddled smile, it makes you hold court over countless somnambulists, all frozen in transit. All desperate and tired and -- in my eyes, at least -- frightened. Even if they're just elegant contrivances, meant to test player wit and coerce an examination of personal morality, I can't stomach the idea of passing judgement over these people.

Papers, please. | Image Credit

What if they're trying to get home? What if they've made an awkward mistake? What if there's a story somewhere worth bending the rules for? What if there's not? What if I make a mistake and an explosions goes off? What if I'm the reason a hundred families learn they're missing a mother, a son, a loved one who erred only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if? What if, what if, what if..

In spite of the bile-tinted dread that it ferments in me, few games make me quite as grateful for their existence as Papers, Please. Much of the video game industry is built around Hollywood sensibilities. The monsters we face are terrible but often removed from reality. There are strings of viscera, buckets of blood and pitch-perfect screams but seldom the whimpering, bone-deep horrors people face on a daily basis. Fear is often clean in video games. These are things that you can escape once you've powered down, they say, nigh-impossible scenarios which will probably never occur in your lifetime.

Games like Papers, Please or Cart Life, on the other hand, serve as reminders that shit happens, that good people can be waylaid by unfortunate circumstances and bad decisions are sometimes made with the best intentions. The scenarios presented are real in a way zombie threats can never be: things we might all confront at some juncture of time and space, tribulations loved ones might face. They are uncomfortable and stomach-twisting and unnerving because life is never, ever easy. And the media we consume should, as a whole, stop saying otherwise.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #1 Funny_Colour_Blue 3 years ago
    "What if they're trying to get home? What if they've made an awkward mistake? What if there's a story somewhere worth bending the rules for? What if there's not? What if I make a mistake and an explosions goes off? What if I'm the reason a hundred families learn they're missing a mother, a son, a loved one who erred only by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if? What if, what if, what if..." - Compelling!

    Just hearing about it makes me feel anxious and yet I'd like to try it, at least once. But it's definitely not the game for me. :(
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #2 nadiaoxford 3 years ago
    I once got pulled by US border security for saying I write about video games for a living. The dude interrogating me simply did not believe such a profession (er, do I need to put quotes around that?) exists. When I told him I was on my way to look at a Family Guy video game, he crowed "That's a *cartoon*" and believed he'd caught me in some big lie.

    It was a nightmare, but every hassle I go through at the airport reminds me that travellers with dark skin and/or the "wrong" birth country on their passport go through far worse.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #3 Roto13 3 years ago
    @nadiaoxford The one time I've ever had to deal with crossing the border for video game writing shenanigans, I got a TSA guy who was very impressed and excited by the fact that I was going to E3.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Great article, thanks. Not played the game, but your write up really evoked the frustration and powerlessness of border crossing. Took me back to when I first met my English wife, and was frequently flying back and forth from Ireland. In those days Irish people were still perceived as a terrorist threat, so I got the lot - anything from "interviews" in quiet offices to full strip searches. Fun times...
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  • Avatar for Bauul #5 Bauul 3 years ago
    I've been playing it a bit recently. It's an excellent little game, but it's not really supposed to be about capturing the actual experience most of us have seen at customs check points, and nor does it.

    It's really about how you handle people over the long term, not about any individual encounter. For example, there's no real sense of conversation with the travelers. You don't interview them any more than one or two pre-scripted questions. Many of the probing questions mentioned in the article just don't happen in the game, it's not really designed for it.

    I was kind of gearing up to have arguments with stubborn passengers, but it never really happens to be honest. Most don't even complain if you deny them entry.

    I'm not saying it's a problem by any means, but if you're expecting in-depth interrogation scenes ala LA Noire, that's not what happens at all.
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