informa
/
9 min read
Featured Blog

To All Who Oppose, It’s The Gulag For YOU. Hail Arstotzka!

A deconstruction of the video game "Papers, Please" (Contains some strong language, and some spoilers)

Reposted from http://projectjupiter.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/to-all-who-oppose-its-the-gulag-for-you-hail-arstotzka/ Original author was myself.
 

It was brought to my attention that the following article doesn’t completely make clear the following: “Papers, Please” is a video game. As far as I am aware I am not, nor ever have been, a member of the bureaucratic wing of a fascist government. I may have found enjoyment in sadism from time to time.

“I had heard of Papers, Please briefly from time to time. It seemed like some dirty secret. No one would speak of it. Just those vile words 'have you played Papers, Please?' It kept me awake at night. Like a lustful flame building up in my heart. Screaming in my nightmares. Tally forth comrade. Become one of us. I must admit, the things I would come to learn about myself, I despise to this day. Yet I want more.” – Last words of Ian Unovski, to firing squad.

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, psychology professor at Stanford University, ran one of the most infamous experiments of all time. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Ordinary people, placed into a simulated prison. Some designated guards, some designated prisoners. Within a week, the “guards” had evolved to performing sadistic acts upon the “prisoners”, such as forcing them naked, demanding they perform simulated sexual behaviours upon each other, and making the prisoners defecate in buckets in their bedroom. Philip Zimbardo later termed this the “Lucifer Effect”, that is, how good people become evil.

As I played “Papers, Please”, I began to feel that effect come over me. As so many thoughts ran through my head, so many conflicting desires, it seemed almost as though I had become the inspector. I guess it’s a kind of sensory overload, just like music can make you feel certain ways. One day a gangsta, the next day a bad ass, two hours later I’m a seagull flying through a lurid landscape. As the demands came thick and fast, I began to question exactly how much can the brain consciously maintain.

In my first ‘life’ I took my job as immigration inspector fairly lax. Quickly I learnt the error of my ways. My meager pay was simply not enough to feed and shelter my family, they soon perished to illness. Shortly after, the first thought that would haunt me occurred. It dawned on me, almost gleefully, how much wealthier I was becoming without the need to support my mother and child. The uncle I cared not for anyway. As I took a second to reflect, the reality of extreme poverty came crashing down on me. But even in that moment I had no time to stop and wonder. There were more immigrants to process and the task would take all my attention.

I went to work each day, following instructions, until instructions became my thought, and my consciousness became a conduit. Papers here, papers there. Read, consume, employ. It was a simple jump to move from orders from superiors to following the demands of ‘terrorist’ organisations. Yet were they terrorists? I’m so confused, I only had the safety of my country on my mind. Why then did I sacrifice my life to kill another man? To save my country?

Then reality unrolled, and my life started again. Like parallel universes I saw it play again, but different. This time I knew more. It was like ground hog day, if Bill Murray had been a petty bureaucrat. As I reviewed my history, multiple histories even, it was almost existentialist, and left me wondering how do I create the perfect life. What WAS the perfect life? Whom did I owe loyalty to? The government? The terrorist factions? My wallet? My family? Personal survival? Does it even matter? All these things are in stark contrast when you’re a political “hit man”, paid by the “kill”.

It becomes apparent when you are paid by quota, and you need your quota just to survive, exactly how focused you must become. It becomes even more apparent just exactly what you will sacrifice to achieve your goals. Worst of all is how easy it is to justify the most vile of acts when you hide them behind the wall of paper that fills a bureaucracy. Turn a woman back to her death? Separate husband and wife? Shoot desperate refugees? Ok, so maybe that’s not even the worst of it, but I’m not even sure I’m ready to talk of that yet.

And there’s the other side. How tempting is corruption when you worry that your family may starve? A few dollars here, a few dollars there. A bonus he said. Now a criminal, do you let him through? Which is going to make you more money, the bribe or the fine? He’s a friend (well more or less) after all. The dictates that come down from the top, well it’s almost like we’re all criminals really and what’s good and evil anyway? More existentialist thought. God is dead. There is only Arstotzka.

I feel my skills improving each day. Information that I once checked slowly and carefully, now it becomes obvious with a mere glance. Like a well oiled machine, I become one with the bureaucracy. I see my quota rising. I’ll be payed well today. Sure the odd innocent person may have been sent to a life in prison or worse. But no system can run so efficiently without the occasional false positive.

Rationality, I began to relish it. Efficiency, utility, rationality, security. These became my mantra. Then they became my religion. No other game has ever engrossed me so. I had to get back. To finish my work. To meet my quota. To practice my religion. It haunts me when I’m not at that desk. Is it really my deep repressed fantasy to be a petty servant to a corrupt system?

Maybe it’s something more. I know the truth but I’m afraid to say it. It scratches my sadistic itch. And every time I found an inconsistency, every time I caught a person on a lie (accidental or otherwise), I felt that pleasure build inside me. That pleasure that we all know too well even if we choose to deny it. It’s the pleasure a corrupt cop feels when he catches a black man among the hens. The pleasure of the parent who sees their child breaking the rules and goes for the whip. The (is it almost erotic?) pleasure that a politician feels as he turns the foreign hordes away to live in poverty and worse.

At first it was the bribes and kick backs that made me turn a blind eye to the reality of my situation. Oh sure, I said to myself, it’s not right but I have to think of myself. I have to think of my family. I have to think of my pay. And I’ll never move into that fancier home if I don’t start making more money. Each time I caught someone out I knew I was a little better off and that tickled my fancy. Then it made me smile. I noticed how much easier it was to find a simple mistake and send them away. Having to carefully vet an immigrants full details took so long, I reached my quota much faster when the bad eggs came along.

Slowly I felt myself transform. I began, at first, to hate those people. As if my mind could not accept that I was in the common practice of evil deeds. Simpler to believe they were the bad person. I went, almost invisibly, from abuser to hero. I was the Odysseus in my own personal epic.

Till the final transformation. I began to relish my work. Each time I sent someone away I secretly imagined what horrible things would happen to them. And I began to enjoy what I saw. This was my real shame. This was my truth, and finally I’d turned from good honest every man, into corrupt, efficient, evil Ian. And boy was I efficient. I was good at what I did and I could do it with the utmost of detachment. “Sucks to be you,” I would silently say to myself when an immigrant was begging for their life. Sure, I could try to tell you that, it’s just a game after all. And maybe it could all be seen as just a sick kind of black humor. But on some level I enjoyed what I felt.

I’m still not sure there isn’t more I can find. That’s part of what has me itching to return. Like a good painting, each time you look it draws you in deeper. You notice more. A subtle stroke here, a laughing child there. I could go on, even now. The spartan graphics that pull you right in, almost like the crumbling nations such as Arstotzka might inhabit. The crime rings. The lack of judicial…well anything. The stories that you see in each and every person you meet. The intrigue. The distopian overtones. The music, the constant drone. You start to lust for that music after a hard days work. And even then, why so compelling to do a days work? All I knew is I wanted more.

What a world that’s been created. You can almost imagine the whole of it. The warring states. The corrupt political manoeuvres. What led Arstotzka to the place you live? And now, crumbling, you can almost read the minds of the priviledged few. They can see the writing on the wall and the clamps come down to save their position no matter the cost.

And just as I was starting to feel invulnerable I felt those clamps coming down on me. And I knew, I was nothing more than a rabbit trapped in a cage. I dared not even try to escape. I carried out my orders more efficiently, not questioning once lest my own loyalty be questioned. And finally I survived. I won(?). Or at least, the inspector did. What was left of him. The sad broken shell of a once proud man.

Go to Arstotzka. It is fun for the whole family. Would visit again.

Latest Jobs

Treyarch

Playa Vista, California
6.20.22
Audio Engineer

Digital Extremes

London, Ontario, Canada
6.20.22
Communications Director

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, California
6.20.22
Senior Producer

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
6.20.22
Lead UI Programmer
More Jobs   

CONNECT WITH US

Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter

@gamedevdotcom

Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Register
Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Subscribe
Follow us

@gamedevdotcom

Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more