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No artwork can escape the imperative tentacles of ideology, and neither do videogames for that matter. What worries me the most is how distressingly easy it is and how willing games are — consciously or not, as if that mattered — to reproduce systems of oppression by means of game systems themselves; especially as the wave of on-the-nose systemic metaphors keeps pervading the medium’s fetishes. Our current canons are inclined to reward conservative game design as long as it is presented with a lacquer coat of innovation, as if novelty was inherently progressive; as if novelty wasn’t based on our historical amnesia.
It is hard, however, to draw the line in regard to the so-called political games since they openly reproduce such systems to debunk them afterwards. Whereas games are necessarily politicized, political games, as redundant as it sounds, tend to embrace an aestheticization of politics, namely, transforming actual social dynamics into aesthetic experiences of diverse nature. And well, this isn’t a misbegotten premise in and of itself, but leads to some serious problems when it comes to boy geniuses. There’s some kind of objectivist eagerness in their design, an attempt to rationalize abstract social systems they don’t quite understand beyond hollow metrics. They honestly think they can alienate themselves, their privileges, their power, from their framing.
And as much as the aforementioned notions of savvy design are shaped by these technocrats, they’re widespread among games of all kinds and sizes. It is urgent that we all call these practices into question. This is why revisiting Papers, Please is so necessary; not to condemn it, but to let it show us how influential the context is when setting the rules, and how the rules we don’t explicitly set often benefit privileged agents.
Papers, Please markets itself as a critique of the immigration system and sets that as its main political focus by placing you in a position of relative power: you — and I’m not making a concession and redeeming the player here — are the one who decide whether a person shall enter your country or not based on the validity of their paperwork. And even though this country is fictional, the game doesn’t make a real effort to hide its similarities with imperialist countries’ immigration policies. I mean, that’s kind of the point.
Nonetheless, the whole game depicts immigration as an universal problem and not as a systemic one; as a matter of low profile xenophobia and not, in fact, racism. It follows, ironically enough, a colonialist logic based on appropriating those narratives we, as white people, have been exploiting for years to feed our own. White people have disguised genocide as rationality for centuries and now we are pretending it’s okay to rationalize and neutralize racism, noting the implications of doing so, by virtue of game design.
But this whitewashing seems to be holistic. The visual style makes a real effort to achieve some sort of universality, taking the minimum risks and using a convenient palette which isn’t enough, by any means, to hide the game’s unwillingness to address race. Not to say that unawareness is an excuse, but I utterly doubt the art could be relegated to mere caprice or coincidence.
Although Papers, Please’s political honesty and concern about racism are null, as if the game didn’t instrumentalize it to push its particular agenda forward in the first place, this title focuses on a basic notion of systemic injustice: totalitarianism. It would’ve been, at that point, fairly excusable to depict totalitarianism as impartial, universal and what not. But that was just not the case. For some reason, and I’m guessing it’s the way western fictions tend to portray communism, the graphics are oddly specific, presenting Soviet imagery as the core of the visual style.
But as pleased as I am to finally witness a mild risk taken in this game, any trace of communism here stands out as anecdotal. In fact, the game as a whole, as you may have already guessed, is thoroughly embroiled in the roots of late capitalism.
From the outset, Papers, Please presents an avatar that, despite being locked in a booth all the time, enjoys an overwhelming freedom: he is the one who ultimately chooses the fate of hundreds of people and the cornerstone of the resulting state at the end of the game, whether he, from his cubicle, decides to start the revolution or not. This neoliberal fantasy of the exploited worker, who precisely by means of their exploitation obtains the greatest freedom of all, implies that the revolution is mechanically impossible unless you play until the very last day of the game; which is to say, unless you facilitate the avatar’s exploitation for as long playable time as possible. You cannot achieve this goal by acting in a truly revolutionary manner, as it could be by refusing to perpetuate the violence of a fascistic state, because the game vetoes this possibility with the excuse of an early game over which serves you as a warning and a lesson learned.
Videogame’s political consciousness appears to be neglected in general, with notable exceptions proving the rule inasmuch as they’re forced to grow on the outskirts. As a result, some design tendencies are left unexamined, uncriticized, and dogmatically permeate the canons of the industry. Right now I’m talking about moral choices, the neoliberal approach to videogame storytelling par excellence. Will I live to see the day when we stop mistaking empowerment for entitlement? The odds are against me.
Interactivity has been marketed as an inherently special and exclusive quality of videogames as a medium. As for the exclusiveness, dare I say I do not believe it is the case. But that’s certainly not my point here. My problem is the way in which the industry harness it as a quantitative determination of value. The way in which it turns from a potentially expressive resource into a marketing one. As a desperate effort to be considered appealing or straight-out valid videogames, those opting for more traditional storytelling practices apparently have something to prove and, apparently, the most efficient way to prove it is by basing the player’s identity in their role as a consumer.
Moral choices in general support this mandatory principle of interactive value, with few other stimuli besides the market itself, thus configuring their nature inescapably. Placing the player in a position of privilege and immunity — in the end, they have payed for the right to consume a product as they please, with no actual consequences attached — isn’t the best starting point to present a moral dilemma.
The already unbalanced power dynamics the choices mimic and speciously present as equal in the game are reinforced by the estrangement of the player from their power in that particular narrative. And well, given the kind of decisions they have to make, the narratives from their society as well. I mean, when you give power to the player, you have to be careful about the implications of doing so — a great power carries a great responsibility, if you will.
Papers, Please, as many other games, depraves morality and fetishizes violence using the player’s free will as a blatant excuse. But there is no such thing as free will in a market-based scenery, within a market-based society. Since those conditions — or the latter at least — are absolutely unavoidable, the implementation of moral systems deserve to be managed with honesty and I refuse to settle for less. However, this is not even a matter of how Papers, Please handles morality. The narrative framework in which those decisions take place is painfully exclusionary, therein lies the problem.
Papers, Please’s narrative structure relies on a bunch of characters scattered in time who appear to have the right to tell their own story. They’re the ones to bring up actual dilemmas, since the rest of the migrants are nothing but mechanical props. I should clarify I don’t think this is a bad decision, but a necessary one. The game attempts to portray subjects as objects; as tedious, bureaucratic tasks, to show how the state alienates people on an ethical level. But the game betrays its own premise by inclining the players toward a fixed path of chauvinistic morals.
The representation of humankind these characters embody is limited by the consumer’s ego of the player. They’re there to spice up a monotonous gameplay which was intended to be monotonous in the first place; to keep the player stuck to the game. Accomplishments are often translated into steam achievements —yeah, you can only succeed by making specific decisions. As a consequence, most stories lack any kind of political or human depth and, moreover, reveal the structural morbidity this game assumes as proper representation.
At a certain moment of the game, yet early if I remember well, a couple of sisters beg you to help them: this man has promised them good jobs but they’re afraid he’ll force them to work at a brothel. To put it roughly, the dilemma here is whether these helpless women get murdered or not. It seems like they have their own story, but they don’t: at the end of the day, it is your story. The outcome is revealed through the newspaper to uplift you as a hero. Or maybe not, since they end up dead in two of the three possible outcomes as a way to harden the puzzle — women’s lives cannot be that obviously deserving of your mercy!
Even if the game makes some stories stand out, there are explicit biases in terms of narrative agency. In this game, a broken watch is more relevant and dignified than these women. But let’s go further. I think it’s time to talk about the lowest kind of aggression Papers, Please reproduces: the utter viciousness this videogame shows when it comes to the depiction of violence trans people suffer on a daily basis.
Trans people, unlike the not-that-lucky-either sisters, do not stop the stream of the game at any moment to spring up a new story; their existence is much more subtle. Bear with me, you’ll see what I’m talking about in a moment.
When checking for discrepancies, there’s the possibility of someone having had facial surgery. The procedure is surprisingly short and frequent compared to the unlikelihood of that sort of situation. When it comes to a person whose ID doesn’t match your preconceived notions of gender — and here we are talking about you, the player, and not the fascistic state the story takes place in — the game’s rules demand you to follow an extremely morbid and violent process. First, you interpellate this person’s gender and then force them to get naked so you can scrutiny their body and, based on their genitalia, determine whether they are allowed in your country or not. Finally, you can forcefully incarcerate this person if you want to. Throughout these procedures, the person doesn’t articulate a single complaint besides a perfectly interchangeable line of dialogue. Trans people remain voiceless all the way. We don’t even appear on newspapers.
This is not criticism. This is hegemonic brutality. The game does present trans people as a gameplay gimmick and erases our identity completely. Following the game’s logic, trans people don’t exist and therefore, anyone fitting this category in the discrepancies’ system — specially trans women — is probably wearing a costume, trying to trick you into let them in — doesn’t this rhetoric sound familiar? Papers, Please doesn’t have enough with the whitewashing of immigration; it also appropriates all the bureaucratic difficulties trans people face when trying to be legally valid, resulting in lots of institutionalized exclusion.
At last, the game does create an individualistic environment in which ourselves and our possessions — our family, for instance, since they are treated as more of a capital asset — are sharply differentiated from the rest on an ontological level. Invisible walls are built between Us — that is to say, the quintessential gamer — and the Others, those traditionally banned from their narrative territories. It seems like we are not allowed to enter. Oh, what a bitter irony.