In “Papers, Please,” Empathy and Morality Collides With Desperation and Obligation

Sometimes, winning feels like selling out in the worst way.

Written by April-Lyn Caouette / Published on September 9, 2013

As the guards lead the screaming woman away, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. I was just doing my job, I assure myself. Her documents didn’t match. These are the rules. I need to get paid – my family is hungry.

“Papers, please,” I say to the next person in line outside the inspection booth. The line that never ends. “Glory to Arstotzka!” I shout over the intercom. “Entry is not guaranteed.”

"A woman from Kolechia has been waiting to see her son for four months. “Curse you,” she spits as I turn her away for having an expired passport."
On the surface, Papers, Please is a concept so simple that when I describe it, people balk at how dull it sounds. You have been selected for work as a border crossing inspector by the government of the communist country of Arstotzka. Each morning you walk to work and spend the day approving entry into the country based the accuracy, completeness, and authenticity of each applicant’s customs paperwork. Political turmoil rages in the area, and each day the requirements for entry become more stringent, making your job increasingly difficult. Every moment spent investigating potential discrepancies is a moment you could be spending on the next person in line.

The game feels frustratingly like work, but is strangely compelling. Try to process as many applicants as you can each day so you earn enough money to pay your rent, heat your apartment, feed your family, and provide medicine when they are sick. (And they will become sick – the winters in Arstotzka are brutally cold.) On my first day of work, the job is straightforward. But before I know it, I’m caught in a web of intrigue, bribery, compromise, and conspiracy. As my family grows colder and sicker, and the rules for entry get more complex, my pile of citations grows, and the fines I incur grow with it.


My own mounting despair is mirrored in the faces of immigrants, workers, visitors, and diplomats that pass by my inspection window. “Please help me,” reads the note one woman leaves me as she passes through. “There is a man in line who I do not trust. He has promised my sister and I good work, but I am afraid he will make us work in the brothel. Do not let him pass.” When the man in question comes through the line, his papers are perfectly in order. To turn him away will result in a fine. Fortunately this is my first citation of the day – a warning only.

A woman from Kolechia has been waiting to see her son for four months. “Curse you,” she spits as I turn her away for having an expired passport.

Then there is the woman whose husband has entered the country ahead of her. “Be kind to my wife – she is right behind me,” he says as he thanks me. Problem: she is lacking a necessary entry document. “We’ll be killed if we return to Antegria!” she cries. But my son is sick and will die if I can’t afford medicine for him. I take a deep breath, then let her pass. The fine for five credits prints moments later. I remember the verbal warning I received after I had received my 25th citation. “Don’t fail me again,” the official had said.

So far, none of my family has died, and I still have a job. I continue to tread the fine line between compassion for strangers and responsibility toward those in my care. One of the guards has struck a deal with me – he will share his bonus with me for detaining as many people as possible. In desperation, I have also let members of the shadowy underground resistance pass through unquestioned, and was rewarded with a large sum of money. My family is healthy and fed, but now the police are watching me carefully. One misstep could be my downfall.

“Glory to Arstotzka!” I hear myself call out over the tinny loudspeaker. “Next!”

About the Author:

April-Lyn Caouette has been playing video games since before she could read. She also likes cats, knitting, and the funny faces anime characters make when they have feelings. She occasionally tweets at @alcaouette.