Time for a Story

Time. And Stories. These are the things that struck me while play­ing Papers, Please, one of those new titles vying for my time right now. In Papers, Please, you play at being a bor­der offi­cial for the fic­tion­al state of Arstotzka, and your job is to check the papers of trav­el­ers and make sure they are in accor­dance with the immi­gra­tion rules. These rules, by the way, lit­er­al­ly change every day. Arstotzka is a bureau­cra­cy, and they’ll have you know it.

You’re not just a bor­der guard, but also a man with a fam­i­ly to take care of. This is no easy feat, since the glo­ri­ous com­mu­nist state of Arstotzka has elect­ed to pay you per migrant processed, rather than per hour. On the one hand, you’re inclined to quick­ly process peo­ple — wow, I already sound like a creepy man­ag­er — so you can pay your bills, but on the other hand, you’ll want to be dili­gent, because you get fined for every mis­take made in the immi­gra­tion process, i.e. for let­ting the wrong peo­ple through and keep­ing the right peo­ple out.

With rules get­ting more com­pli­cat­ed each day, you can quick­ly see where this is going. Before long, you’ll be drown­ing in pass­ports, work per­mits, fin­ger­print slips, and audio tran­scripts. On my first playthrough, I quick­ly ended up in trou­ble, and unable to afford food, heat­ing, and med­i­cine, my mother-in-law, uncle, and son died after a week or so. After two weeks, the gov­ern­ment found out that I had accept­ed a wad of cash in bribes from under­ground resis­tance types, and I got a visit from the Minister of Admission him­self (all Herr Flick style). He prompt­ly threw me and my sick wife in jail. Game over.

Some of the points made by the game in this way are obvi­ous, though no less pow­er­ful for it. By starv­ing you for time and money, the glo­ri­ous state forces you to treat immi­grants as items on an assem­bly line, rather than as peo­ple. It’s either you or them. This is made more pow­er­ful by the tiny hints you get when peo­ple are stand­ing in front of you in your booth. Sometimes some­one looks much older than the pic­ture in their pass­port. “The years have not been kind,” the woman replies when asked. Some peo­ple come to work as engi­neers or ath­letes, oth­ers in the food indus­try, accord­ing to their per­mits. One woman whis­pers to you that she is going to be forced into pros­ti­tu­tion by a man com­ing up later in the queue. I deny him access, though with the money I lost I could have fed my son for anoth­er day. The game, unlike Arstotzka, refus­es to let you for­get that all immi­grants are peo­ples with (hi)stories, not just bits of paper and pho­tos, or stand-ins for their coun­try of ori­gin.


Incidentally, I’m cur­rent­ly read­ing a col­lec­tion of folk­tales and myths told by refugees who migrat­ed to the Netherlands in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies. These peo­ple came from all over the world and were allowed into a coun­try where peo­ple — or at least some of them — chose to accept them. The peo­ple who pub­lished the col­lec­tion (The Dutch Council for Refugees) and the read­ers who bought it were also inter­est­ed in the sto­ries these peo­ple had to tell. They are pre­sent­ed along­side short per­son­al his­to­ries of the sto­ry­tellers and their coun­try of ori­gin.

If this makes Holland sound like an open-minded utopia to match the dystopia of Arstotzka, allow me to cor­rect that view. Of course, my coun­try never was a utopia for out­siders in the first place, though sure­ly it was bet­ter than other places. In the past fif­teen years or so it has soured. Nowadays I live in a coun­try where immi­grants are not just talked about in terms of “waves” — no, they are a ver­i­ta­ble “tsuna­mi.” You don’t have to be a schol­ar of polit­i­cal lan­guage to spot the con­no­ta­tions in using exact­ly that word to describe a group peo­ple. “In other news,” refugees are some­times detained in prison as they await the pro­cess­ing of the requests for asy­lum, and there is sys­temic mal­prac­tice in this pro­cess­ing.

The rest of the world is seen as a bur­den that many Dutch politi­cians and cit­i­zens would rather be rid of. We’ve got our own prob­lems: an eco­nom­ic cri­sis exac­er­bat­ed by the poli­cies of our own gov­ern­ment, which insists on pur­pose­ful­ly doing the wrong things. That most of us are still priv­i­leged as all hell doesn’t seem to mat­ter. We have no time to treat immi­grants as peo­ple, or to lis­ten to their sto­ries.

If I would level one crit­i­cism as Papers, Please, it would be that Arstotzka is explic­it­ly pic­tured as a Soviet-era com­mu­nist dystopia. This detracts need­less­ly from the fact that self-absorbed bureau­cra­cies can arise in var­i­ous polit­i­cal sys­tems. If there’s any sys­tem in the world today that doesn’t like us spend­ing time on other peo­ple, it’s bureau­cra­tized cap­i­tal­ism.

That other new game that’s been com­pet­ing for my time this week is Gone Home. Many peo­ple have been writ­ing about how the story of Sam + Lonnie affect­ed us (or less so), and I’d say it’s one type of game we could use more of. But it’s also a game about time. About the search for lost time — the nos­tal­gia of teenage life that many play­ers are bound to feel, me includ­ed. For me, it was the sum­mer of 2000 in Rome (I was 15), when I real­ly got to know the love of my life (now my wife).I can recall most of the music I had play­ing at the time, and the music she let me lis­ten to, and even the chart hits of that time that were play­ing every­where in the back­ground. The fact that Sam’s story about her strug­gles with sex­u­al­i­ty and friend­ship is inti­mate­ly bound up with her musi­cal mat­u­ra­tion and entry into a sub­cul­ture is vital to the atmos­phere of the game, and some­thing that I iden­ti­fy with a lot, even though our sound­tracks may be dif­fer­ent.

Gone Home is also a game about hav­ing time. Katie has the time and the means to go off gal­li­vant­i­ng in Europe while her par­ents are in a mar­i­tal cri­sis and her lit­tle sis­ter is going through her own prob­lems. Coming home, time sud­den­ly becomes short as she is con­front­ed with an empty house and has to try and piece togeth­er where every­one went. We have the time to play Katie and pay atten­tion to the many small details of the Greenbriars’ lives and his­to­ries.

There are other sto­ries: father Terry’s trou­bled career as a writer, and his dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship with his own father, and his uncle Oscar, the orig­i­nal owner of the “psy­cho house” that forms the space of Gone Home. Then there’s the moth­er Jan and her flir­ta­tion with a new col­league, her cor­re­spon­dence with her friend, and so forth.

We have the time, and the game allows us to take it. There is no tick­ing clock, no out­side respon­si­bil­i­ty Katie has to be mind­ful of. If you’ve been able to play Gone Home this week, that means you’re priv­i­leged, if only to the degree of hav­ing the time and the means to play a video game. Maybe you’re not as priv­i­leged as Katie, but it’s some­thing to be thank­ful for nonethe­less, and one of the things that Gone Home has to teach us.

Papers, Please, in turn, teach­es us to think about other peo­ple as peo­ple, to lis­ten to their sto­ries, and to make sure we don’t end up in a sit­u­a­tion where we don’t have the time to do that any­more. It is a game about the vital basics of being an eth­i­cal human being, and the forces that seek to sup­press that human­i­ty.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.