A visual representation of the play area, including a desk, a security cam footage of people in a line, and a headshot of the person currently being interacted with.

Not Just Hell: How Stressful Games Can Be Enjoyable

"Papers, Please" and a Soviet-looking bird logo.

Jean-Paul Sartre is known for one of the most egregiously misunderstood lines from the history of the stage. “Hell is other people,” has become the misanthrope’s greeting ever since No Exit’s original release. The entirety of the play consists of three cloyingly negative people arguing while trapped in a room. The point that is often missed, however, is that these characters could have easily been kind to each other, but they chose not to. While yes, Hell is other people, Sartre’s play is actually arguing that Heaven is, too.

And I don’t think my interpretation is a stretch seeing as how that play was released in Nazi-occupied France by a man who actively assisted the French resistance. In his essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, Sartre argued that people can only be judged by their actions, not on their intentions or beliefs. Such an argument isn’t often brought up in video games, which have a tendency (at least in popular titles) of avoiding moral ambiguity in favor of satisfying work/reward hooks. Even a BioShock or a Fallout will create the illusion of gray areas only to revert to the more familiar “good vs. evil” dichotomy before the end.

This month’s game sits among indie gems such as Cart Life (2011) or Depression Quest (2013) in that it plays on the monotony of everyday life, presents the player with increasingly difficult moral quandaries, and significantly changes the narrative based on the player’s choices. What is often missed in these games, or even refuted, is exactly how much fun they are. This issue of The Backlog is all about looking past the negative and finding pleasure where everyone else just sees Hell.

“Glory to Arstotzka.”

Papers, Please presents the player with a user interface consisting (on one half of the screen) of an over-the-counter view of a non-player character (NPC) and (on the other half) a work area with two sets of stamps; one stamp reads “DENIED” and the other, “APPROVED”. Throughout the game, the left side of the screen populates with an NPC asking entry into the fictional country of Arstotzka. The player’s job is to determine whether or not this character’s papers are valid and to stamp them accordingly.

A visual representation of the play area, including a desk, a security cam footage of people in a line, and a headshot of the person currently being interacted with.

The gameplay is intentionally repetitive and neatly delineated into separate work days. On the first day, the player must only check that someone’s passport belongs to Arstotzka and reject anyone whose doesn’t. After that, people from different countries will have temporary passes that must be verified. Then they will have work visas. Once the player nears the end of the game’s 30 days, they also have to make sure that ID photos match the pixelated graphics of the NPC, that the weight on the scale matches the ID photo (otherwise they could be smuggling weapons or drugs), and that the NPC isn’t on a national “Wanted” list. After every work day (which lasts, to the player, about 5 to 10 minutes), the player is shown an accounting of the money they made during the day as well as bills they have to pay, such as food, rent, and heat. They also see their family members’ health status. If a family member gets sick, then another bill for “medicine” will show up. If the player can’t afford all of the expenses, then they can choose which ones to skip and hope that their family members don’t starve, freeze, or succumb to their illness.

“You have been selected for a random search.”

A tally of income and expenses in which the player must pay for rent, food, and heat.

When I tell people that Papers, Please is one of my favorite games of all time, I get the same reaction as fans of bad movies; people either think I like it ironically or I’m trying to make a point. And I understand where they’re coming from. On the surface, the game appears frustrating. And it could be considered frustrating if it weren’t that the “frustrating” mechanics are part of its design. In a paper for the journal Games and Culture, Daniel Johnson writes that frustration is “The feeling that a game doesn’t work or doesn’t work as we might want or expect it to” (Johnson, 593). For the most part, Papers, Please works as expected. The mechanics are relatively simple and clearly explained. “The act of play becomes an act of administration, of laboring” (Johnson, 607). The only time that the game does not work as expected is in some of the consequences of the player’s choices.

“Where is my passport?”

The narrative of Papers, Please is two-fold. There is the immediate story of the player character needing to feed his family. In fact, it is possible for a player to only see this story because the other story, the metanarrative, is told outside of what is immediately placed before the player. At certain points throughout the game, shadowy characters will present items to the player character and then leave before they can be arrested. At one point, a shadowy character hands the player character poison and tells him to rub it on the passport of someone further back in line. The player then has the choice of following through with the orders or ignoring the poison. If the poison is given, then the person dies and the border closes down for the day, meaning that the player makes less money for their family. However, the poison could help cement the player character’s position within the resistance. But the player doesn’t really know what steps can help and which can prematurely end the game.

One of the possible points of frustration comes from not fully understanding the consequences of the various choices. If the player makes the wrong choice at the wrong time, their player character can go to jail and have their family sent to a work camp. If the player expected something different from this, they could feel cheated. “The player has many choices to make,” writes Johnson, “and some of these affect the larger stakes of the game’s narrative universe. These decisions, however, often appear inconsequential at the time they are made due to their obscurity within the behind the scenes game of political chess being waged by government agents and terrorist spies” (Johnson, 606). At certain points during the game, newspaper headlines will hint at a larger story taking place. Sometimes the narrative is only implied. For example, when the game requires the player to x-ray people in order to check for weapons, it can be presumed that, the reason to check people, is because foreigners are entering the country with weapons. This isn’t always made explicit, nor is understanding this necessary to completing one of the games many endings.

“Papers, please.”

Where I have found the most fun is in exploring the potential narratives, which involves finding as many early fail states as possible. Getting a “Game Over” screen is, in my mind, a part of the game. In fact, the screen where you select save states has a series of 20 dots in the upper right-hand corner that each represents a different possible ending. Once you’ve achieved an ending (even a “bad” one), the dot turns from dark gray to white. While the game doesn’t explicitly say that you need to accomplish all endings, this is as much an achievement as anything else.

Screenshot of game in which player is talking with a woman who begs to be let through the border.

I enjoy experiencing every emotion that Papers, Please has to experience. Sometimes that is joy at completing the stated objectives. Sometimes it is laughter at the surprising spattering of humor.However, most of the time what Papers, Please makes me experience is discomfort.

“Cause no trouble.”

Games journalist Cassandra Khaw writes that she will never finish Papers, Please because, “It evokes too many memories of too many hours of standing in line, frightened of the border crossing” (Khaw). She describes her encounters at airports in which her Malaysian complexion is often confused for Middle Eastern, about how her oversized laptop is consistently inspected for explosives, and how a stranger once asked about the male friend picking her up, “Are you fucking him?” 

Papers, Please makes me uncomfortable,” says Khaw, “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.” The reason she doesn’t want to play is because “I can’t stomach the idea of passing judgment over these people.”

And Khaw has a good point. After all, not everyone wants to experience every emotion. This is why “trigger warnings” exist. On the other hand, some people do want to experience these feelings. This is why emotionally oppressive movies like Audition (1999) and Straw Dogs (1971) exist. Art is a great outlet for people to experience emotions they would’t want to experience in real life, such as grief, trauma, fear, rage, etc. For the early part of their lifespan as a medium, video games veered away from eliciting these emotions. In a recent article on Gamasutra, video game designer Stieg Hedlund wrote about how most popular titles mimic the milieu of blockbuster movies, saying, “I think the error here […] is that a medium has been mistaken for a genre. Every game does not need to be the equivalent of an action movie” (Hedlund).

Even in Khaw’s essay about why she won’t play the game, she goes on to say, “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.” She talks about how important it is to have these experiences available to the game-playing public, that we need monsters that are closer to our real fears and insecurities. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I know that experiencing these emotional voyages that don’t appear “joyous” or “exciting” are still worth experiencing, especially through art, where the ramifications are only immediate. This is why Papers, Please should be experienced: not because it’s “fun”, but because it’s more than just “fun”.

References, Sources, & Citations

  • Hedlund, Stieg. (25 Jul 2016). “The Wish Fulfilment Idée Fixe”. Gamasutra. Retrieved from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/StiegHedlund/20160725/277810/The_Wish_Fulfilment_Ide_Fixe.php
  • Johnson, Daniel. (08 Jan 2015). “Animated Frustration or the Ambivalence of Player Agency”. Games and Culture, doi: 10.1177/1555412014567229
  • Khaw, Cassandra. (26 Dec 2013). “2013 in Review: Why I’ll Never Finish Papers, Please”. USgamer. Retrieved from http://www.usgamer.net/articles/2013-in-review-why-ill-never-finish-papers-please
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1956). “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, trans. Philip Mairet. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman. Meridian Publishing Company, 1989. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm
Images courtesy of Maze Rats, Moby Games and Lucas Pope


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