I was heading to Washington D.C. this last weekend for no other reason than to get the hell out of town for a few days. I had a few hours to kill on the bus and my shiny new tiny 2-in-1 touchscreen laptop, so I thought I’d see how it would do running a few steam games in my lap. Seeing how I was heading towards the center of Government for the entire nation, the communist bureaucrat simulator Papers, Please felt appropriate. In Papers Please, you play as an immigration official for a fictional communist country during the cold war, stamping passports for people trying to enter the country. You’re given a rule book to reference while validating passports and daily bulletins with procedure changes you need to keep track of. Scrunched up in my tiny bus seat, I needed a game that wasn’t going to require a lot of fidgeting and quick reactions; a game where all you do is fill out paperwork sounded perfect.
The opening screen blared an ominous thumping anthem. The menu screen slowly bumped up the screen, standing still and jumping up a little more with each beat of the song. As the white on grey title letters took its head at the top of the screen, I already felt oppressed. I was informed that my name had been drawn in the labor lottery and I was assigned the position of border agent and I was to be assigned a class-8 apartment for me and my family. “Wait, No one told me I was supposed to have a family,” I thought to myself.
I sat in the border patrol office on my first day with nothing more than a bulletin congratulating me on my new position and a rule book and told to get to work. I flipped through the rule book before opening the gate. Inside was a map of the region with the countries that neighbored my home, Arstotzka. There was a page for each country with their seal and a list of their own immigration offices as well as one for Arstotzka which also had a list of all of the districts in the country as well. There was a list of the basic rules for entry and a list of the appropriate seals documents were supposed to have to be official. In the back there was a small diagram of the office with labels for the various tools with no real explanation and a warning not to distribute the rule book to anyone outside the Department of Admissions. I flipped through the book a few times until I felt like I had the gist of what I had to do and experimented with the tools a little bit to get a feel for them. The touchscreen was working great, all of the items were big enough for me to drag around the office easily and I didn’t have any trouble navigating the menus. Not really sure what to expect, I opened the gate and called over the loud speaker for the first entrant.
I was methodical. I poured over each passport, carefully checking every detail with my rule book to make sure they were valid. After a few people went through, it was already 6 pm and the day was over. “Alright, that was simple enough,” I thought to myself, until I saw the next screen. A budget was displayed with my earnings for the day and the status of my family members. Apparently I was being paid based on how many visas I processed each day and I had only made $20. I started with $30 in savings. Rent and heat each cost $20 and food was $10. I had already burned through all of my savings in the first day. Well, shit.
It was the second day and I had read the morning headlines and walked to work. I understood the rules of the game now and was ready to try to blast through as many visas as possible. The first entrant came up with his Kolchia visa and I rushed to flip through my rule book to the relevant information for Kolchia. My finger missed. And missed again. I kept smashing my finger on the button to flip through the pages and my touch screen wouldn’t register it. This was going to be a problem. I frantically tried to get through as many visas as possible, fighting would-be trespassers and my computer in equal measure, until an alarm sounded. I ignored it and kept focusing on the passport I was working on. I stamped it and went to give it to the entrant but he wouldn’t take it for some reason. I was confused. And then I heard a boom. I looked up and saw the last person I had let through the checkpoint had tossed a Molotov at the border guard before being gunned down. Had I fucked up? The border was closed early for the rest of the day. With the work day cut in half, I didn’t earn enough money to afford both food and heat for my family. I decided it was better to freeze than starve.
The next day I was to deny all Kolchians trying to enter the country. This made it easier to process some passports but I was still being too thorough and not getting through enough of them. At one point in the day a man came through, officially immigrating as a permanent resident. He told me his wife was coming right behind him and asked me to be nice to her. When his wife stepped up to the booth, she didn’t have a passport. I explained to her that she needed one and she couldn’t enter without one. She said that if she was sent back to Kolchia, she would be killed. I thought about my freezing family and how few people I had managed to process that day. Sorry lady, I needed the $5 and I don’t get paid when I approve invalid passports. She cursed me as her murderer. When I got home my son had grown sick from freezing the night before and needed medicine. There wasn’t money for both heat and food already, let alone medicine. Once again I choose to freeze and eat.
The next day, after pressure from Kolchia, Arstotzka decided to once again open its borders to Kolchians, however I was now also authorized to detain suspicious individuals. I was excited, hopefully I’d get a bonus for detaining individuals. I wielded my powers to detain very liberally, detaining people for even the slightest infractions or discrepancies in their paperwork. With a sick son and a cold family I desperately needed the money. I started trying to process passports a lot quicker and started making mistakes. The first two times I was given a warning, and then they started docking my pay. When the day was over I looked eagerly at the budget for the day. There was no bonus for detaining people, and my mistakes docked my pay to the point where I could not only not afford the medicine, heat or food I needed, but I also couldn’t afford my rent this time. I was informed that the great nation of Arstotzka does not tolerate delinquency in loan payments. I was to be sent to a labor camp until I had paid back my debts. I did not even last one week as a communist bureaucrat.