The Art of Papers, Please

Juul's The Art of Failure Meets Lucas Pope's Papers, Please

Commentary - Papers Please

There’s a certain dehumanizing impulse that comes with mastering game systems. It is articulated through the dissonance between Nathan Drake as-he-appears-in-cutscenes and the Nathan Drake whose actions correspond to a controller’s thumbsticks. It is the reason why genetic algorithms have been used to plan the “perfect” build order in StarCraft 2. Processes are fertile ground for privileging economy of action and thought. This is so ingrained in contemporary game design that player progress is often measured by the increasing complexity of game mechanics: by adding new abilities, introducing more difficult foes, more challenging environments, etc.

In his 2013 book, The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul briefly examines the motivations of players that obsessively “min-max” or optimize their gaming strategy, often to the detriment of their sense of fun; players will find an effective strategy and continue to use it, even though it turns what should be a fun experience into a mind-numbing, repetitive chore (60-61). Juul suggests that this behaviour illustrates what he calls the “paradox of failure,” which is “the combination of a short-term goal of avoiding failure and an aesthetic goal of engaging in an activity that includes failure” (62). He goes on to say that designers must “[make] sure that the path of least resistance is also the most interesting one” (62). Juul’s general point is that games (and in particular, video games) are always a form of emotional gambling, and his main assertion in the text is “failure in games tells us that we are flawed and deficient. As such, video games are the art of failure, the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience and experiment with failure” (30).

It is this focus on failure and human flaws that, on the surface, suggests a useful convergence between Papers, Please (2013) and Juul’s The Art of Failure. Papers, Please is a game in which its ever-changing rules create a claustrophobic experience for the player, who feels as though the game’s processes actively work against them, rather than in the service of gradual mastery or slowly-mounting difficulty. Rather than concern itself with traditional fail states, Papers, Please exposes the player to ambiguous failure and typically treats “failure” as an “ending.”

Set in a dystopian version of the 1980s, the player takes on the role of an immigration officer for Arstotzka, a fictional Eastern Bloc country. Every day, the player receives edicts that make their job more difficult. Even when these edicts add new mechanics (new document types, lists of wanted criminals, etc.) it is also an agglomeration of newer, more subtle points of failure for the player. In addition to the steady difficulty creep of ensuring that the documents of every NPC are in order, players must also provide for their family. For every NPC that is successfully processed and properly approved or denied, the player receives $5. If the player approves someone with faulty documentation, or rejects someone that should have been cleared, they are not paid and receive a warning. After 3 warnings, they are then docked $5 for every subsequent error. Fail to make enough money to cover rent at the end of the day, and the game ends. Fail to make enough money to feed your family and pay for heat, and your family will fall ill. If you are not able to provide medication soon enough, a sick family member will die. Lose all of your family members and, again, the game ends.

Add to these constraints the very real possibility that a terrorist attack will cut the day short – every day is on a timer, meaning fewer NPCs will be processed – and Papers, Please quickly convinces the player that the optimum strategy is to immediately reject suspicious documents, ignore pleas for mercy or assistance as every doubt entertained is wasted time and a step closer to losing a loved one or ending the game entirely. Without being pedantic, Papers, Please perfectly critiques that dehumanizing impulse of mastery even as it introduces a moral dimension that goes well beyond simple binary choices. Players are neither Hitler reincarnate nor a saint. They’re just doing their level best in a situation where every new rule, every new mechanic works against them. The only thing that the player needs to excel in Papers, Please, is time, which becomes ever more scarce and important as the game progresses.

In Papers, Please, the question is: can you, the player, live with yourself if you follow the “path of least resistance” or optimal strategy in terms of the game’s mechanics. To return to Juul’s suggestion that designers must make the path of least resistance the “most interesting,” designer Lucas Pope did not create a balanced world for the player – the “path of least resistance” is interesting only in retrospect. It demands that players engage completely with the mechanics and ignore any narrative justification for their actions beyond the premise of the game; players are only faced with the consequences of those actions in an ending cutscene. It embodies what it means to be an unthinking cog in a great uncaring machine in a way that leaves the player with a real feeling of culpability. Which is to say, players taking the “path of least resistance” actively ignore Pope’s excellent narrative elements, which taunt with their alluring suggestions of escape from the banality of checking documentation. However, it is at this point that Papers, Please illuminates a few of my problems with what Juul has to say in The Art of Failure.

Juul asserts throughout his text that “failure” is an intrinsic aspect to games, which raises the question: how does this work for games without fail states, or games that do not conform to traditionally-defined fail states. In fact, when asked about Every Day the Same Dream (2009), a game in which players are presented with an “everyday” routine not unlike Papers, Please and also features a non-traditional approach to fail states, Juul’s response was a little problematic.

Juul initially tries to brush Every Day the Same Dream off as anomalous, a parody of traditional game design. Then he shifts to talking about games as a sort of personal goal-setting, not unlike players self-imposing their own sets of rules, which certainly comes up later in the book in the form of a triad of goals that players largely set for themselves: Completable goals (typically to be completed once, like a single-player campaign), Transient goals (things to be repeated, like winning a certain amount of multiplayer matches) and Improvement goals (fixated on continuous personal improvement). And finally, Juul traps himself, fluttering helplessly against the cage of ill-defined failure and success that he himself built, especially as the fail/success binary applies to subjective, personal experiences. And for Juul, “games are always personal” (90). For Juul’s text to work, it requires that games meet it on its own terms – traditional game design with pre-designed fail states (or players that are already engaged in setting their own voluntary constraints – which, as I’ve noted before, are often already in the service of critiquing traditional game design).

Fundamentally, Juul’s failure lies in his definition of failure: “there are two types of failure in games: real failure occurs when a player invests time into playing a game and fails; fictional failure is what befalls the character(s) in the fictional game world” (25). Both are predicated on the goals of the player and the ostensible goals of the player character generally lining up. This is immediately problematic in any game that attempts to explore the fissures between a player’s expertise and how that articulates itself through amoral or asocial behaviour. While Papers, Please is the putative topic of this article, I’ve had to spend far more words than I’d like trying to shore up Juul’s concept of “failure” to the game. Make no mistake, Papers, Please is just one game among many that already does more with failure than Juul manages to throughout his entire text. Papers, Please does this by dint of its non-traditional approach to narrative.

Early on, the player is contacted by a mysterious group of revolutionaries, EZIC. They ask you to break the rules. EZIC’s initial requests are benign enough: let through some people who do not have proper documentation. However, as the game progresses, EZIC will demand more of the player. They will give you absurd amounts of money (which, in turn, will arouse suspicion from your neighbours). They will ask you to kill. They co-opt the player’s story such that it is folded into the story of revolution, of resisting a corrupt regime. It is EZIC’s story of resistance that most closely resembles traditional video game narratives, where the player must act for an ephemeral “greater good.” However, following EZIC’s instructions has also led to my death or arrest many, many times.

The way that Papers, Please handles fail states is this: if a player can’t pay their rent, they’re sent to debtor’s prison and the game ends. They can then reload the last day they completed and continue on with their story. If a player loses all their family members, the game ends again, but they can roll back to whatever day they wish and play from there. If the player follows EZIC’s instructions closely, they will eventually be arrested. The game ends, and the player can continue from their latest day or hop all the way back to the day that EZIC first contacted them. What Juul might consider real failures are just endings to one particular story. One instance of a player interacting with the game. Every ending is treated exactly the same way, with a few screens of text and graphics that outline the player’s fate. Most of which are predictably bleak, and would constitute a Juul-ian “fictional failure,” but the harsh sting of those fictional fail states is subverted by the game’s bleak atmosphere. The player anticipates that things are not going to go well for their character, and adjusts their expectations accordingly. The only time that the game clearly expresses any sort of preference in terms of player behaviour is with “Endless mode.” Initially, players only have access to Story mode. To unlock “Endless mode,” players must end the game with their job intact. This means that they must ignore EZIC. They must incur as few citations as possible. They must sublimate any heroic impulses and ignore the NPCs that ask for help. They must “master” the game by being unsympathetic, by privileging game processes over their humanity.

Be a good, unthinking and obedient cog within the game’s machinations and Papers, Please will reward you for it. It is as potent an indictment of game mastery as I have encountered, and 2013 has seen its share of AAA titles that have tried to complicate the heroic narrative tropes that accompany mechanical mastery or otherwise critique the affective inhumanity of procedural mastery – often problematically, and rarely with resounding success. At every turn, these huge budget games have had to kowtow to certain established design decisions. Whether it’s by including incongruous arena-style combat sections or by insisting that a female protagonist cannot resonate with some putative target demographic until she is forced through a slasher film apotheosis into a survivor/“final girl” figure, these AAA titles compromise too much (or just have too much going on) for me to accept that their criticism is successful. In a year in which the games industry at large has started making efforts across the board to address its pervasive privileging of mastery, it’s all the more impressive that a small indie game like Papers, Please manages to outdo them all. And yet, it is a good sign that there have been so many games that gleefully complicate the concept of player “failure” and “success” in 2013. It makes it harder for Juul to write off Papers, Please as a simple deviation from traditional game design.