The Art of Papers, Please

Juul's The Art of Failure Meets Lucas Pope's 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.


  1. So it sounds like winning the game is the ultimate failure… of being a decent human being? But can we not still think of this in terms of Juul’s notion of investing time and failing? Perhaps in the sense of investing time but failing in the endeavor to bring about some good, either on the micro or macro (via EZIC) level.

    I wonder why we can’t take seriously the player-imposed goals. It is because Juul tends to study games more than players that you won’t let him off the hook here? If so, I think this is more a lesson about the risks and rewards of different scholarly approaches than an abject failure.

    • Gerald: I think what makes Papers, Please such an interesting example, is its ambivalence towards both fail-states and win-states. Both are treated in largely the same way. Just as the game has a similarly ambivalent attitude toward “bringing about some good” – the game is full of little instances that require you to balance the macro against the micro, often in such a way that you really can’t suss out which the “best” option is, and pick the one that works best for you as the player. Although, since the fail and win states are often quite ambiguous, measuring player-set goals through any of the game’s mechanics is tricky save for in broad strokes: “I want to make it through the game with my whole family” for example, gets very hazy toward the end of the game, especially when the option to flee the country presents itself.

      Also, EZIC’s story has several different “endings” – all with their own sense of resolution and all with their own ambiguous gestures toward doing “good” on the macro level.

      I am generally fascinated with player-imposed goals, which I’ve written about before. I feel like that’s super fertile ground. However, I feel like assigning a binary “fail/success” approach to them misses the point. Especially when so much great work has already been done on paratexts and gaming capital. When Juul brings in attribution theory and “learned helplessness” to address “spectacular failure,” it gestures at but misses much of the nuance of sharing gaming “let’s play” videos and after-action reports online within gaming communities. So, in response to your point, yes, Juul seems a little thin on the player end of things. (Although, I would suggest that the text itself is a little too anemic on a whole.)

      And finally, yes. While it doesn’t come across in the article, I *do* feel like Juul has some value at certain points, and perhaps this is also an issue with the speed of publishing, but the text feels either too fractured, or too attached to the term “failure” to be wholly endorsed. At least, in this instance.

      And finally, the purpose of our Commentary articles is not to express completely formalized views, so much as “think out loud” in a space that encourages discussion. So thank you for commenting!

  2. My book has an entire chapter (chapter 5) about games where the goals of the player and the player-character do not align.

    And the question of failing against personal goals is discussed pretty extensively (say permadeath playthroughs and spectacular failures in Skate 2).

    The fact that something deviates from or parodies game conventions does not make it a lesser experience – rather that is much what is so interesting about many games (such as Papers, Please) these days.


    • Jesper,
      Absolutely. I would also generally agree with your point that games are fascinating tools for exploring audience culpability. However, were I to turn this into a longer/more formal paper, I would probably still examine the paratextual motivations for sharing the videos of “spectacular failures” or permadeath playthroughs online. As for the section on goals of the player/player-character – I thought it fascinating, but the impression I received from it was that removing player agency went hand-in-hand with the tragic in game design. And while it’s possible to charge Papers, Please with removing the option for players to “do real good in the world” I’d suggest that Papers, Please simply takes a more ambivalent approach to that and rather asks the player what it means to “do good” in the world.

      As for your final point, I agree 100%. If anything, the games that are challenging those traditional design decisions are the ones that captivate my heart and mind more than any big-budget monstrosity.

      Also, I wanted to personally thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Part of the purpose of these commentary articles is to create a space for scholars to get outside their comfort zones and “think out loud” in a way that promotes more thoughtful conversation than, say, in a more formal/conference setting. It really means a lot to me that you took the time.

      • Coming back to this …

        I was saying that mainstream titles (at least) tend to deal with the tragic by removing player agency, Red Dead Redemption being the case in point. They do not have to go hand in hand, but they mostly seem to so far.

        I think I agree with your Papers, Please discussion in general, but not so much with your analysis of my book. As far as I can tell, you seem to be mostly criticizing it by pointing to phenomena that I already discuss at great length. The discussion of tragic games concerns situations where player and player-character goals do not align, and I discuss games of deception and complicity such as Train. So I am not sure to say when you write that my real/fictional failure definition is “predicated on the goals of the player and the ostensible goals of the player character generally lining up” – the whole point of that definition is to be able to discuss situations where they don’t line up!

        To sum up: the book says that the subjectively most important failures are the ones that concern our personal goals, and that the “official” goal of a game may or may line up with that. Furthermore, I discuss how games have traditionally aligned player and player-character goals, and how tragic games are interesting because they require them to be misaligned.

        Within this framework, it is pretty straightforward to discuss Papers, Please as a game that openly sets up an ambiguous situation of asking the player to work for a goal is immediate relevant for the player-character, while also signaling this as quite inhumane. I think the interesting thing here is that it goes beyond the simple inversion of say “Don’t eat the mushroom”.

        • I’ve been meaning to jump into this discussion for a while, and this seems like a good opportunity. I haven’t had the chance to play Papers, Please (which is the obvious reason why I *hadn’t* jumped in yet), but I have read Art of Failure, and I’ve found it a pretty useful tool in explaining my personal reaction to a few different games that had a very real emotional impact on me. I have a lot of sympathy for the Kendall Walton/make-believe argument to explain how we respond to fictional things (hence my review of his book on this site, and one of the reasons I was happy to do our recent Bateman interview), but Jesper’s summary above–“the book says that the subjectively most important failures are the ones that concern our personal goals, and that the “official” goal of a game may or may line up with that”–really resonated with me.

          In fact, what it made me think of was the tragedy I accidentally created in Christine Love’s Analog: A Hate Story (spoilers ahead). For those unfamiliar with the game, the basic plot of the game is that you play a space forager who has stumbled onto a derelict vessel, and, with the help of the remaining AIs, you piece together what happened from the ship’s records (it’s possibly the only game I can think of where sorting through files is presented–successfully–as the exciting main action). And at the end of the game, you have to choose which, if either, AI you’ll rescue, and which will remain alone on the empty vessel forever. The game’s a visual novel, and, recognizing that register, I was deliberately playing it as a dating sim, deliberately choosing the answers to cultivate one of the AI’s interests, a course of action that, outside any context but a videogame, is fairly disturbing. And following that course of action, I promise to free her. Then I found out what actually happened to the ship’s inhabitants, and my gut response–not one I’m particularly proud of–was that I’d been seducing a monster, that we both deserved to be punished, her for what she did and me for perpetuating the cycle, and I immediately leave with no explanation, stranding her on the empty vessel for eternity and ending the game.

          A lot of that makes more sense in the context of the game. Anyway, the game has several other endings, most a lot happier than the one I created. But that tragic ending is the real one for me, because it was the emotionally moving one. The game’s an interesting case in terms of player-created goals and tragedy because I can’t really say my goals diverged from the PC; it’s too much of a blank slate for that. But the tragedy came about because my goals as player–to “win” the dating sim I constructed–ran so contrary to the torment the AI was going through. So in this case, it was very much a misalignment of game goals and player goals that created the tragedy.

          It strikes me that another interesting game to consider in this regard is the text adventure “The Baron,” but that would be a discussion that would make A Hate Story’s ending look positively saccharine.

    • I wonder if this conversation is moving in the direction of viewing Papers Please as a less a game and more a toy?

      Jesper, you seem to have a fairly strong notion of player imposed goals, especially in regard to spectacular failure. But in these instances its not failure by the player’s standards, only the game’s. However, as Rob notes in his comment, the discussion of tragedy and fictional failure in Ch 5 does seem to presume games in which there is no possible outcome but the tragedy. So then the reverse: not failure by the game’s standards; only the player’s. This begs the question: Does Paper’s Please have a definitive (even from the designer’s standpoint) goal rule such that failure is actually possible?

      Rob, you suggest, in your reply to my earlier question, that Papers Please is ambivalent about both fail- and win states. In that case, why evaluate it against Art of Failure and vice-versa? Doesn’t Jesper’s more formalist work to explicate the conventional parameters of game failure make possible the type of thinking you’re engaging in when you look to the norms of play communities?

      Is it appropriate to apply the ideas from Art of Failure to Papers Please? Is it game enough? Or is it what Turkle would call an evocative object; something to play with and therefore to think with?

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • It’s interesting because I see Papers, Please as very much a game and less a toy, or a “play-space”. There are rules upon rules and even if there’s no “win” state in the conventional sense, there are certainly fail states. The “end of a story” is still precipitated by failing to adhere to the game’s rules, however impossible they might be. On Caillois’ ludus/paidia spectrum, I’d put Papers, Please very close to ludus. So on that level, I think Juul’s text works great here, but not necessarily in the way that Rob’s applied it.

        But Gerald you’re right, for a game like, say, Santa Ragione’s Street Song, which is almost pure paidia, ahem I’m not sure Juul’s approach works, or that it’s meant to for that matter.

        • Agreed. I’m very suspicious of over-determining what the term “game” means in a broad sense, simply because I’m reluctant to contribute to a discourse that could be used to minimize or exclude game designers that are genuinely trying to do something different that falls outside of “normative” playing experiences.

          I’m doubly suspicious of removing that tag from Papers, Please because it certainly engages with gamelike structures more than, say, Proteus or Dear Esther does.

          When I first read through Juul’s text, I had the superficial feeling that it would be applicable, but as I progressed, I was astonished at the emotional weight that Juul places on fail-states, and how that contrasts with the general ambivalence of Papers, Please. Certainly, were I to formalize this and make it into some kind of paper, I’d take a very different approach.

      • As I was saying above, I think Papers, Please is a perfect fit for the ideas from the Art of Failure (but I would think that, wouldn’t I), because the book is much about questions of official goals vs. player goals and player goals vs. player-character goals. (And this article is probably a testament to the relevance of the book here, albeit in a backhanded way.)

        I discuss tragic games in the sense of completeable games where the player-character has to suffer and often self-destruct in order for the player to complete the game. I chose this angle because it is the most flagrant inversion of the standard expectation of the heroic player-character. In a game with several tragic endings and one happy one, I think we tend to assume that we have completed the game once we get to the happy one, so we don’t think of it as a tragic game, only a game with some tragic endings that we by default assume are failure states. There are many other possible and existing games, but I chose to focus on the clearest examples.

        I think you could argue for the toy-aspect of Papers, Please but as other people note, it’s also very restrictive. It certainly asks us to take a step back and consider what are goals are.

        • This is getting into speculative territory perhaps, but are there play experiences without any ludic goals, period? Or does something stop being a play experience in the absence of goals?

          When I think about many Twine games, not only are there no “game” imposed goals, but there are often no “player” defined goals either. Well, apart from satisfying certain aesthetic desires I suppose, but then that doesn’t differentiate these games from movies or books or painting or any other medium.

          It seems to me that Twine resists the discourses of failure, success and even goals entirely. And that’s at least part of the reason why so many refuse to grant Twine games “game” status.

          Not that I think any one book has to comprehensively account for every ludic genre. This (very enjoyable) discussion has just got me thinking about non-conventional play experiences apart from those you address in the book.

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