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.