How Papers Please Steals Your Time
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How Papers Please Steals Your Time

Lucas Pope’s 2013 game Papers Please has been rightfully celebrated for the way it utilises aesthetics and gameplay to provide the experience of being a powerless arm of an authoritarian dictatorship. Papers Please has a simple central concept: you are an immigration officer, checking passports and entry documents for a seemingly endless line of desperate people, hoping they can enter the glorious country of Askrokia. This framing allows the opportunity to explore complex issues of bureaucracy, borders, and the way the state controls individual freedoms. The player seemingly has little agency, yet directly controls the lives of every applicant that enters their booth. And yet the player is still dependent on their job to ensure their family’s survival. It is not only through paperwork and armed guards that Askrokia maintains its power, but from the way it controls the player’s limited and valuable time. 

The core gameplay loop of Papers Please designates work as of the utmost importance. Each day is split in two. Most of the day is spent in the immigration booth, looking over papers until the horn signals the end of the day. This is followed by a brief, static screen of white and green text on a black background. The player distributes their meager earnings amongst heat and food, choosing whether that day the family will starve or freeze (unless the player is able to earn enough money for both). This screen is the entirety of the player’s home life, and is the most frequent interaction they have with their in-game family. If a full day can take six minutes to complete, this section can take less than 30 seconds. It is brief, undetailed, and abstract. Meanwhile, the world of work is active, busy, and engaging. The lack of time spent at home priorities work as essential and important, with the player’s family as an afterthought. This structure highlights the way Papers Please uses time to indicate importance to the player. Home life is a brief and temporary distraction from the real game—work. 

There is very little time to waste playing Papers Please. In the bottom right of the screen, a continuously ticking clock acts as a reminder that the day is finite. Therefore, there is a constant pressure on the back of the player’s mind. Time is fleeting, and yet in order to do a consistently good job, the player must navigate an increasingly large pile of papers, thoroughly examining them for mistakes and inconsistencies. The contrast between the attention to detail the job requires and the fast-paced nature the game imposes on the player invokes constant stress. There is no chance for second guessing, as every moment the player takes to double check a date or passport number means less time to process the rest of the line. 

Not only must the player fight the ticking clock, but they must adapt to and deal with the increasing number of daily changes to the job itself. This difficulty spike ensures the game remains challenging and engaging for the player from beginning to end, while adding to the feeling of panic and wasted time. Each new day, the parameters of the work changes, and the player must adapt quickly and without failure. The mass of paper given by a single NPC can be overwhelming, with the player cross-checking multiple complex documents. And yet the line does not go down. And still the clock ticks. 

Altogether, this leads to a dehumanisation of the desperate people coming through the checkpoint. If the player is under pressure to get through as many people as possible to earn money to support their family, it is not worth taking the time to dwell on individual cases. Most of the NPCs are generic, only offering a non-committal grumble or comment upon being examined. Compared to the story NPCs, who may offer the player a moral choice or some levity during a stressful day, these randomly generated NPCs are no more than paperwork to get through, another task to complete. 

The way Papers Please uses time encourages the player to dismiss these unimportant NPCs and not see them as complex humans in their own right (which here, they aren’t). Moral choices are offered at key moments throughout the game. What is unacknowledged is that every single stamp of the passport is a moral choice, where the player weighs up enacting the violence and power of the state against potentially risking their family’s safety and comfort. Every decision is made in the moment, with no time for the player to deliberate or reflect. 

The dominance of complex, intricate work performed under pressure throughout Papers Please illustrates the way that bureaucratic systems limit the worker’s ability to engage with their wider political situation or enact change. Headlines from the daily newspaper hint at wider societal changes. This trickles down to the player in the form of new game mechanics or complications of existing procedures. However, the player is unable to directly interact, resist, or engage with the wider system. All interactions are mediated through the world of work, which is tightly controlled. The player character—Immigration Officer—is unable to conceive of wider political structures because their day is centered around difficult and time consuming work. There is no space to consider alternatives.  

The revolutionary group EZIC that offers the player the option to overthrow the state can only be engaged with during work time. This external source is able to interrupt the workspace to offer an alternate solution, but the Immigration Officer is unable to independently conceive of a way to resist the government and the harmful policies it forces them to enact daily. 

Time is an essential resource in Papers Please. Tightly controlled by the state of Askrokia, the player is made aware of just how limited their time is, and how important it is for them to maximise it to sustain their family. Structurally, Papers Please is focused on work as the primary site of interactivity and agency, as it is the place the player is most able to directly interact and experience the game from. This player’s time is severely regimented and segmented, with little to no space or time for them to reflect or exist outside the boundaries of work. This, paired with gameplay that increases in difficulty while still expecting the player to process a standard number of applicants, means there is very little opportunity to explore or engage with the wider political system of their own accord without severe risk. This focus on time as a limited and precious resource encourages the player to view the NPCs visiting the checkpoint not as humans, but as chores to complete. This demonstrates the way oppressive regimes use the control of time and labour to dehumanise individuals and maintain the wider system. Who has time to change the world when there is still work to do and little time left in the day?  

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