[Game: Papers, Please, Lucas Pope, 2013]
Coherent Contradictions:

Exploring the Literary Qualities of Papers, Please from the Perspectives of the New Critics and the Russian Formalists



The self-sufficiency attributed to literature by both the New Critics and the Russian Formalists is indicative of an approach to art which renders legible, through close study, work in many fields aside from literature. Indeed, the practice of ‘close reading’ the relative coherence and ironic interplay of a work’s constituent elements can be as demonstrably successful in parsing a video game as it has been in parsing other contemporary subjects, such as film, painting, and photography.

The 2013 indie game Papers, Please, created by Lucas Pope, is perfectly amenable to analysis in this mode. This deceptively simple game centers on a middle-aged, male player-character who lives and supports his impoverished family in the dystopian country of Arstotska in 1982; he is an unwilling government employee staffing a border checkpoint, tasked with sifting the paperwork of would-be emigrants for discrepancies (as seen in fig. 1, below). Papers, Please is an expression, through both typical literary elements and unique ‘gamely’ elements, of the paradoxical situation of human agency within mechanical, menial work—and of power, even political power, within the disenfranchised individual.

Papers, Please Basic Screen - Papers, Please analysis - Lucas Pope - literary theory, new criticism, Russian formalism

Fig. 1: A typical Papers, Please screen, as it appears on the game-world’s second day, after the player has highlighted an incongruous relationship between the expiration date on a passport and the game-world’s date

The Visuals of Papers, Please:

The atmosphere of Papers, Please, as established through its minimalistic visuals, presents a bleak picture which is belied by sudden tonal changes. The color palette of the game is pale and warm, saturated with greys and browns, and non-player characters are muddy, impressionistic figures built of splotchy pixel art (fig. 1). This dedication to inoffensive, subdued, and largely static visuals reflects the mess of bureaucratic exactitude seen in the player-character’s instructions: at the beginning of each in-game day, stricter regulations are imposed on the paperwork.

In this way, as the demands of the player-character’s superiors grow more particular and multifarious, the sameness of the visuals becomes a source of frustration, with highly similar symbols and colors coalescing around lines of text on as many as seven documents under study simultaneously. What seems on the surface, then, to be a design choice geared toward evocation of boredom actually manages to heighten the tension and difficulty of the task at hand.[1]

Yet, the irony runs deeper than this, as, within this morass of repetition, significant patterns emerge: recurrent characters—for instance, one is a demanding member of an underground rebellion and another a light-hearted drug smuggler—assert the presence of the individual within a society where individual personality is subjugated to mechanistic obedience.

Further, the established order of the monotonous, endless grey line of emigrants is disrupted by the bright explosions and blood of terrorist attacks at the checkpoint, occurring around once per in-game week (fig. 2). These character-driven leitmotifs and violent caesuras punctuate with pathos and shock a tempo which seems superficially to be droll and predictable. In this way, the game is poetic; its basic structure resembles that of a poem, with the 31 in-game days across which its events unfold functioning like 31 lines of poetry, full of variations on and interruptions to a discernible rhythm.[2]

Papers, Please Bombing Detail - Papers, Please analysis - Lucas Pope - literary theory, new criticism, Russian formalism

Fig. 2: A detail of the upper right quadrant of the typical field of play in Papers, Please (shown in figure 1), right when the guards (blue) have shot a terrorist (black), just after the latter lobbed an explosive

The Sounds of Papers, Please:

The game’s sparse visual presentation is backed up by its spare use of sound: atypical of the medium, the primary gameplay of Papers, Please is entirely unaccompanied by music. The characters are nearly unvoiced, except for a modulated, mechanical sound issuing from each interlocutor in turn (the player-character’s mechanical sound resembles a decades-old computer choking out the word ‘papers,’ regardless of the length or content of the written line).

The most prevalent sound effects in the game are the soft shuffling of papers and the clacks of the ‘approved’ and ‘denied’ stamps. Only on the screens between workdays, when the player must tick or un-tick checkboxes to spend meager earnings on food or heat for the player-character’s suffering, unseen family (fig. 3) is music present in the game. And even then, the music is a spare, languid, lightly accompanied beat of one note moving one octave up and one octave down in martial determination ad infinitum.

Papers, Please Family Screen - Papers, Please analysis - Lucas Pope - literary theory, new criticism, Russian formalism

Fig. 3: The screen, as it appears in between Papers, Please‘s workdays, wherein the player can manage the player-character’s finances by ticking or unticking the circles marking the few optional charges

The machine-like precision and restraint of Papers, Please‘s aural assets foreground the hollowness and mechanical nature of the task set before the player-character. The lack of music also stresses efficiency and propriety over emotion and egalitarian ethics. The player-character himself seems somehow mechanical, making machine-like noises and attempting to arbitrate according to given algorithms. Indeed, missing a discrepancy or denying access to an emigrant with satisfactory paperwork results in an immediate, automatic printed citation landing on the player-character’s desk. The implication of this feature is that the player-character’s job is not only mechanized in nature, but is in fact presently being completed to a higher degree of quality by a mechanical system.

The Gameplay of Papers, Please:

The notion of gameplay as a formal element underscoring agency furthers the complication of Papers, Please‘s atmosphere and directly challenges this mechanistic portrait of the player-character. With the cognizance of the citation system’s flawless completion of the player-character’s stated objectives, he seems a redundant, malleable scapegoat and a mere cog in an enormous governmental machine. But herein lies the greatest irony of the game: as much as the player-character is devalued and disenfranchised, he wields large amounts of power and responsibility.

Rebels may request that the player-character become complicit in the murder of a government official; criminals may attempt to bribe their way into the country; people aware of their insufficient paperwork may make emotional appeals for approval. Regardless of the regulations, the player is free to approve or deny anyone for any reason, and only face a small fine, while one or more lives often depend upon which decision is made. It is this freedom itself, and not necessarily which choice the player ultimately makes, which affirms the player-character’s agency.

The muted sounds and sights of the precisely engineered system at the border checkpoint are contrasted sharply by the bright flashes and cacophonous interjection of the terrorists’ bombs and guns (fig. 2); in much the same way, each structure controlling and de-personalizing the player-character is balanced against the far-reaching ramifications of the power vested in the player-character by that structure.

Time in Papers, Please:

The complex relationship of Papers, Please to temporal reality completes the picture of the game’s ironic structure. Despite the minimalism described above, the soundtrack does contain one jaunty, up-tempo piece of music. This piece is present in three of the game’s 20 possible endings. The endings, in general, follow a formula of describing the (usually grim) fate of the player-character and his family in slideshow format, ending with the simple, haunting maxim, “Glory to Arstotska.”[3]

The three exceptions to this formula are those encountered if the player-character has survived and not been arrested for all 31 days of the game, and are the result of three disparate paths: escaping Arstotska, inciting a full-scale revolution, or thoroughly suppressing the revolution. In each, there is an implication of success and hope for the player-character.

Yet one can assume from the relative brevity of the game (the full in-game month takes approximately four hours to complete) and from the branching nature of the game’s save system (Fig. 4) that any given player is expected to experience more than one of these mutually exclusive endings. Thus, their conflicting nature, tonal equivalence, and extra-temporal viability introduce a tremendous ambiguity: if none of the endings are subordinated, one is left with simultaneous contradictions.

Yet these multiple playthroughs do cohere: there is some sense that the hopefulness of any given ending is tinged by the equal validity of any other ending. As Brooks called Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “History Without Footnotes” (139), so Papers, Please could be termed ‘politics without footnotes;’ in broad strokes, it is the power struggle between the individual and the government as the working out of many alternative timelines.

Papers, Please Branching Saves - Papers, Please analysis - Lucas Pope - literary theory, new criticism, Russian formalism

Fig. 4: Papers, Please‘s save system, which depicts alternate save states as alternate, conflicting timelines which branch off of each other


Papers, Please presents humanity by attempting to mechanize humanity, and presents power by attempting to remove power. What remains is an odd exercise whose rebellion against traditional game-design dogma—which advocates always avoiding boring, menial, or politicized subject matter—reveals the value of gameplay and interactive variability as core elements of ‘gameliness.’[4] The game toys with the form of gaming as an inherently free and open (because interactive) event for the player by imposing sharp time restrictions and harsh penalties on gameplay, thus paradoxically highlighting the amount of freedom which the player maintains despite the restrictions.

The thrill of the mundane and the power of the powerless surface in Papers, Please‘s matrix as direct results of its efforts to defamiliarize the mundane and the powerless in its surreal art and audio and in the player’s necessary subjectification of the player-character. At last, the equivalent tone across the disparate ‘successful’ endings presents not a note of pessimism about ever truly affecting one’s circumstances, but an expression of sustained hope. One sees in the positive tone of those endings the interplay between, on the one hand, the limits authority can place on freedom and power, and, on the other hand, the implicit definition of a person’s remaining freedom and power contained within the limiting act.[5]


[1] Cleanth Brooks observes a similarly conflicted role in Keats’ urn when he zeroes in on the speaker’s address of it as a “Cold Pastoral.” That phrase becomes a succinct expression of the urn’s position as dead, inanimate, and inhuman at the same time as being lively, warm, and idealized (Brooks “Keats’s”).

[2] These interruptions by the political actions and character dramas in the otherwise straightforward flow of the game introduce what John Crowe Ransom calls textures, or indeterminacies of sound and meaning (Ransom 298-304).

[3] This maxim only confronts the player as haunting after living a while in the world of the game. It is a sentiment given weight by the support of its context, much like Shakespeare’s line, “Ripeness is all,” as explored by Cleanth Brooks when drawing an analogy between dramatic structure and the ironic structure of poetry (Brooks “Irony” 2).

[4] These efforts, as detailed above in the paragraphs on gameplay and variable timelines, focus on what makes a game ‘gamely’ in much the same way that the Russian Formalists pursued the ‘scientific’ endeavor of focusing on what makes a work of literature ‘literary.’ In this context, the experience discernible in the game across multiple playthroughs becomes a kind of ‘artistic baring of the device’ as described by the Russian Formalists, and especially favored by Victor Shklovsky—as is the subsequent concern of defamiliarization (Shklovsky 12-13).

[5] I would like to extend a special thank you to Professor Alan Liu, eminent in the field of Digital Humanities and among advocates for the Humanities more generally, without whose brilliant instruction this article would not have been possible. This is not intended in any way to indicate the Professor’s endorsement of any of my ideas.

Works Cited:

Brooks, Cleanth. “Irony as a Principle of Structure.” 1949. Web.

Brooks, Cleanth. “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes.” The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. 1947. Web.

Ransom, John Crowe. “Wanted: An Ontological Critic.” The New Criticism. 1941. 279-316. Web.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. 2nd ed. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska, 2012. 1-24. Print.

[Game: Papers, Please, Lucas Pope, 2013]
Coherent Contradictions:

Exploring the Literary Qualities of Papers, Please from the Perspectives of the New Critics and the Russian Formalists

was last modified: August 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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