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.