Sarian, A. 2019. Ethical Self-Reflection in
Cultural Science Journal
11(1), pp. 41–53.
Ethical Self-Reflection in
Swinburne University of Technology, AU
This article argues that multiple endings and narrative memory within interactive narratives can
engender ethical self-reflection in relationship with broader discourses surrounding controversial
issues. It introduces the term ‘expressed self’ to describe this process. The expressed self is
how an interactive text ‘sees’ the player – through either their alignment, faction favour, flags,
etc – and is used to generate a personalised response to the player through their unlocked
ending. This concept is then applied to a close analysis of
by juxtaposing the
‘Antegrian Husband and Wife’ choice with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending. The manner in which
this process takes place has implications for the ways in which videogames and interactive
narratives engage with open literacy.
Keywords: Interactive Narrative; Multiple Endings; Player Choice; Expressed Self; Branching
Narratives; Alignment; Open Literacy
Lucas Pope’s border-control simulator Papers, Please (2013) was released shortly after a United Nation’s
paper titled Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge (UNHCR, 2013) which declared that the number
of internationally displaced people on earth had reached a 20-year high. As an interactive narrative with
multiple endings, Papers, Please interfaces with public discourses surrounding refugees, border control and
asylum in ways that have implications for the role that ‘open literacy’ plays in the realm of videogame nar-
ratives. It encourages the player to offer their own answer to the question: how do we respond to border
control? – and then offers them a nuanced takedown of that response. It does this not just at the end of the
experience, but by keeping track of the player’s long-term behaviour. In doing so it interfaces with broader
cultural discussions by directly interacting with a player’s long-term unconscious and instinctive responses
to moral dilemmas.
This article analyses Papers, Please through the expressed self. The expressed self is a new term that
describes the process whereby choices made by players in an interactive narrative are saved – either as
alignment, flags, character favour, etc. – resulting in a rough proxy of the player that the interactive text can
see and respond to. Papers, Please is one of the best examples of a choice-driven game in which the player’s
choices are accumulated into an expressed self which is then responded to in a way that exists indepen-
dently of any objective ‘win’ or ‘lose’ conditions. This article particularly focuses on the ‘Antegrian Husband
and Wife’ event, contrasting that with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending, showing how the two are thematically
connected. It will then tie this analysis back to a broader discussion regarding open literacy and how these
games can interface with larger discussions.
On its release, Papers, Please received widespread critical acclaim, including a 2014 BAFTA award (BAFTA
awards database, 2014), and The New Yorker’s ‘Best Game of 2013’ (Parkin, 2013). As an ad hoc explanation
for its commercial and critical success, games journalists quickly gave it the label of ‘empathy game’. A par-
ticularly strong example of this labelling can be found in Patrick Begley’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald
titled ‘“Empathy gaming” focuses on emotions and moral decisions’ (2014), which situates Papers, Please as
part of an ‘emerging category of…computer games’ that ‘can be used to discuss awkward, even painful sub-
jects.’ The flurry of conversation and fixation on ‘empathy’ came at a cost – critics and commentators failed
to identify how Papers, Please actually went about generating empathy beyond a surface-level observation of
its ‘moral dilemmas’. In 2016 games journalists such as Minoff (2016) and Ibister (2016) would go on to com-
pare the game to Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015) as constituting another example of an empathy game. Her
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Story has the player peruse police footage of a detective interviewing a woman suspected of murder – and
plays out similarly to a hypertext novel. Although both games do involve empathy, this comparison fails to
account for the unique approach that Papers, Please takes towards generating empathy. Subsequent ‘empa-
thy’ games such as Her Story, Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016), and That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games,
2016), while trying to live up to the example of ‘empathy’ set by Papers, Please, have all failed to reach its
commercial and critical success. In all cases a focus upon ‘empathy’ in Papers, Please has come about without
a deep understanding of the ludic and narrative structure that generated it to begin with. If games culture
wants a repeat of this game’s success, then it needs to be understood on more than a thematic level. This
article aims to do exactly that, examining how the game’s reflective choices give rise to an expressed self
that the game then goes on to critique, forcing the player to move past a simple understanding of narrative
themes and into a personal reflection on their own (in)humanity.
In Papers, Please the player takes on the role of a border control officer in the fictitious totalitarian nation
of Arstotzka. Each day the player must try to process as many would be entrants as possible, while following
a byzantine number of rules and regulations. They can declare that each person is either accepted or denied
with a stamp. Allowing people through with mistakes in their paperwork tends to lead to ‘citations’ – mon-
etary penalties. The player is not paid enough to provide for their family – and so the game’s narrative
presents them with many opportunities to engage in petty corruption, bribery, treason, or bureaucratic
disdain for the many incoming visitors in order to survive. Interspersed among the entrants are individu-
als with stories. While most entrants are a simple game of the player reading their documentation, these
entrants have a unique dialogue and trigger special events. An example of one such story is a husband
who enters with the correct paperwork, only to be followed by his eager wife who has a minor error on her
paperwork. Opportunities such as this provide a fictional opportunity for the player to do the ‘right’ thing
– without any apparent ludic rewards. Papers, Please has 20 endings – three of which are ‘good’ endings
while the rest are ‘game over’ states that encourage the player to try again. Each of the good endings elicits
self-reflection on the part of the player, with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending in particular communicating
to players the impact of their moral complicity. The three ‘good’ endings of Papers, Please are as follows:
−The first involves completing ‘missions” for a mysterious group called EZIC, which intends to over-
throw Arstotzka’s authoritarian government by destroying the border checkpoint that the player
guards. The first ending requires that the player commits treason by finishing at least 4 of EZIC’s 5
possible missions. The uncertainty and danger of aiding EZIC forms part of a player’s moral trade
off – they are told repeatedly that they are under close investigation, and the player witnesses
constant terror attacks against the border that they are guarding. To serve EZIC is to break the law
for an uncertain end result.
−The second involves fleeing Arstotzka using forged papers. The second ending requires drone-like
obedience from the player. The player must embody the ‘banality of evil’ – doing what is neces-
sary and as a result becoming complicit in the inherent inhumanity of the border control system.
−The third involves simply surviving to the end of the game as an obedient border control officer.
The third ending requires the player to save up large sums of money. The only way they can do
that is to repeatedly turn away many applicants who have sympathetic and personal reasons for
passing through the checkpoint but false or incomplete paperwork. They also need to engage in
extensive corruption – for which the game provides the player with many opportunities. It is this
third ‘good’ ending – which ends in the player and their family fleeing their country as refugees –
that particularly encapsulates the notion of an authorial response to the expressed self.
This article invokes Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ and Max Weber’s notion of ‘rational authority’ in its
description of Papers, Please. The phrase ‘banality of evil’ appears in Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A
Report on the Banality of Evil (1964). In it she documents the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann,
a major organizer of the Holocaust. She argues that Eichmann’s evil did not come from psychopathy or
monstrous malice but that instead he was an ordinary man who followed orders. This ties in with sociolo-
gist Max Weber’s notion of rational authority and the iron cage. These concepts refer to the way in which
politics is organised in modern bureaucracies as regimented and regulated processes, which ensure that
each individual agent enforces the policies of the bureaucracy consistently and rationally without recourse
to personal morality or individual preference. Jason Morrissette (2017) creates a connection between Weber
and Papers, Please. He argues that the game is essentially about the conflict between rationally applying
the law and acting with impartial compassion. However, like much of game’s culture’s discussion sur-
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
rounding Papers, Please, Morrissette largely confines his analysis to the surface-level moral dilemmas of the
game. Papers, Please goes further in its exploration of the ‘iron cage’ by placing players in a broader posi-
tion, similar to many contemporary border-control officers in the contemporary West. Zygmunt Bauman
(1989) argues that the same rational authority that efficient modern governance relies upon is just as
capable of impersonally and efficiently carrying out mass atrocities. This is fundamentally what Papers,
Please explores – the moral status of the individual in a system of rational authority, and whether or not
they choose to become a bureaucrat.
Continental philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser depict power as something that
creates subjects – by loyally following the rules of the Weberian iron cage players become a bureaucrat.
As such the use of the expressed self in Papers, Please becomes a very real, literally coded depiction of the
player coming into being, being ‘gilded’ by the iron cage and becoming a subject that the game is pressur-
ing them to become. It is worth noting that each of the three ‘good’ endings represents a different form
of subjectification. The player who chooses to follow the orders of the game’s anti-authoritarian terrorist
group EZIC, for example, is not so much rebelling against a bureaucratic system as becoming a ‘good terror-
ist’ and embedding themselves within an alternative organisation. None of this makes the expressed self,
interactivity, Foucault and Althusser’s observed process of subjectification or even rational authority ‘bad’
per se. Much in the same way that modern governments can utilise rational authority towards positive ends,
Papers, Please itself is using these tools to achieve a positive effect. In this instance, it is to discover how play-
ers when placed within a rational bureaucracy attempt to express themselves and find agency within that
situation. It then uses the same tools that it is critiquing, i.e. standardising the player through a set of rules,
in order to launch a personalised response in the form of a player-tailored ending.
Papers, Please exemplifies the use of a response to an expressed self. The response is particularly relevant
to understanding the game. This concept will be illuminated by contrasting the ‘Antegrian Husband and
Wife’ event with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending. ‘Snowier Pastures’ does not just present the player with
their expressed self, but it comments upon it. Even more uniquely, the player feels judged on a narra-
tive level even while the ending is presented as a ludic victory. This shows how the response is distinct
from a ludic win/lose condition. The player still ‘wins’, but they do not escape criticism from the game’s
Thus we can discuss two openly conflicting elements of Papers, Please: its semiotic overlay and ludic
mechanics. The semiotic overlay of the game has two primary components: the first is its visual architec-
ture and the second is its textual dialogue. Developer Lucas Pope has set Papers, Please in the dreary world
of his earlier game The Republica Times (2012). In this world, a series of authoritarian nation states vie for
supremacy in a fraught web of constant warfare and diplomatic unease. The art, style and mood of these
states, particularly that of the player’s home nation Arstotzka, are all designed to evoke the imagery of twen-
tieth century authoritarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Allusions to these
regimes are numerous, including:
1. The phonetic similarity of the name “Arstotzka” to the word “Aristocracy” – indicating a society
based on class hierarchy;
2. The use of a ‘labor lottery’ to allocate work is reminiscent of the centrally planned economy of
the Soviet Union (Figure 1);
3. The eagle logo emblazoned upon the passports of Arstotzka citizens bears a strong visual
resemblance to the Reichsadler eagle herald of the German Nazi regime (Figure 2);
4. The phrase ‘Obristan above all’, uttered at the end of the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending is strongly
evocative of the Nazi slogan ‘Deutschland über alles’;
5. The symbol of a hammer displayed during the Arstotzkan lottery is reminiscent of the Soviet
hammer and sickle emblem.
Such examples are pervasive and litter the environment of the game. They directly indicate to the player
that they are living and working as part of an authoritarian regime. When asked in an interview about the
authoritarian imagery of the game, Lucas Pope replied that he tried to evoke an authoritarian society based
on a ‘collection of tropes’ and that ‘I worked pretty hard to make it so it wasn’t specifically anything.’ He
went on to note that when instructing translators, he advises them never to use the word ‘comrade’ to avoid
any explicit connection with communism. He justifies this by stating that ‘to me, it’s richer that it’s not spe-
cifically anything’ and that ‘I wanted to show that in politics, all sides of any kind of issue have some justifi-
cation. There’s not just the good guys and the bad guys – even the bad guys have some justification for why
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
they want to do something’ (Cullen, 2014). As such, the visual imagery of the game immediately informs the
player of the type of society in which they are complicit by playing off of a ‘collection of tropes’ that exist in
the collective unconscious as a result of the history of twentieth-century authoritarianism.
Although Pope cautions against viewing the regime in simplistic binary terms, the legacy of authoritarian-
ism in the west flavours the visual architecture of Papers, Please, and indicates to the player that their side is
not necessarily the right one, nor is what they are doing necessarily ethical or justified. The dialogue of the
game feeds into the bleak atmosphere, with applicants pleading with the player as their claims are variously
rejected or accepted.
This all clashes with the ludic world of the game, which encourages a cold approach to processing the
applicants so that the player can acquire enough money to feed their children and to achieve one of the
game’s three ‘good’ endings. The events of the game present the player with a sequence of reflective choices.
These choices then create a body of accumulated memory. Papers, Please utilizes this body by responding
to it and making it a subject of criticism. This occurs in a particularly poignant manner during the ‘Snowier
Pastures’ ending, and understanding the expressed self is a key element of how that ending delivers its cri-
tique of the player’s behaviour.
The Expressed Self
The term ‘expressed self’ is new, although similar ideas have been explored in prior game studies literature.
These include Miguel Sicart’s ‘second self’ (Sicart, 2009), Grant Tavinor’s ‘fictive self’ (Tavinor, 2009),
Marie-Laure Ryan’s notion of ‘narrative memory’ informing the outcome of endings in interactive narra-
Figure 1: “The October Lottery” (Source: Papers, Please).
Figure 2: “Glory to Arstotzka” (Source: Papers, Please).
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tive (Ryan, 2015), and Barry Atkin’s observation that accumulated memory allows a machine to ‘see’ a user
(Atkins, 2013). A similar idea can also be found in the field of software studies, that of Estee Beck’s ‘invisible
digital identity’ (Beck, 2016).
This literature regarding selfhood in games emerged partly as a response to the ‘narrative paradox’. The
narrative paradox is the conflict that exists between narrative and interactivity within a game. Narrative
demands a level of linearity in order to produce a tight narrative arc; interactivity demands the expansion
of different paths (Muckherjee, 2015, pp. 1–9). This problem can be thematically linked to the ‘combinato-
rial explosion’ often seen in traditional branching-path texts. The exponential proliferation of different
pathways requires ever-greater effort on the part of the author, making a wholly non-linear interactive nar-
rative impractical due to time and effort constraints (Ryan, p. 15). In response to this issue, many academics
placed a special priority on the player avatar, and specifically the avatar as a player-centric phenomenologi-
cal experience. Marie-Laure Ryan (2015) singles out what she calls the Flowchart as the ‘best way to recon-
cile a reasonably dramatic narrative with some degree of interactivity’ (2015: 171). The Flowchart is built
around small episodes that branch out, then to re-join at a single node. Choices and decisions are saved in
the memory of the text, whether through changes to the avatar or by turning on flags. This ‘narrative mem-
ory’ then influences the outcome of later episodes and dictates the final ending that the player can access.
Ryan explains that this ‘use of memory makes it possible to include nontrivial choices at every stage in the
story and to make the end dependent on the middle (2015: 172). The Flowchart design is most commonly
used in story-heavy computer roleplaying games, with the avatar being used to track player choices. It is
also the way in which the narrative of Papers, Please is structured. Grant Tavinor (2009) explores a similar
concept with his notion of the fictive self. The fictive self becomes the locus of meaning for players as they
make choices. Different narrative events beget choices, which are then saved as changes at the level of the
avatar. The cumulative changes to the player avatar then create an image – Tavinor’s fictive self – of events
tying the avatar together to become the player’s personal ‘narrative’ that emerges from their experiences
(2009: 122–3). Finally, Sicart’s own notion of ‘the second self’ is explored (Sicart, 2011). His ‘second self’
is about the hermeneutic relationship that exists between the player and their ‘second self’, which is the
subject that emerges within the game as an internal power-relationship. He uses the language of Foucault
to articulate this, stating that ‘Power creates subjects, and so games create players’ and that ‘Games create
subjectivities because they operate as power structures’ (2011: 68–9). What unites this research is a focus
on the ‘avatar’ as both a central locus of meaning in the fusion of gameplay and narrative and as a solution
to the narrative paradox.
This research also goes beyond the literal avatar that one may gaze at visually as they play a game, and
instead observes the emergence of a second ludic subject with its own distinct unifying narrative. While
most of this research focuses on the hermeneutic circle between the player and their ludic subject, the
expressed self builds upon this research by situating the expressed self as a phenomenological experience
of Ryan’s ‘narrative memory’, something that is not only understood by the player as a product of their
self-expression, but is also something that is utilised by games as a rough proxy by which they can ‘see’ the
player, and respond to them personally and directly. Thus, the expressed self is an actualisation of Barry
Atkin’s (2003) observation, that the ‘essential characteristic of what is termed interactivity in relation to the
computer game is that it must watch the reader (2003: 146).
A similar concept called the ‘invisible digital identity’ (IDI) has also been coined in the field of software
studies (Beck, 2016). The IDI refers to the user of a social media platform, or search engine, as seen and con-
structed by that platform (2006: 125–128). It contrasts with the Visible Digital Identity (VDI), which refers
to a user’s carefully constructed and curated digital identity (2006: 126). If the VDI refers to a user’s LinkedIn
profile, Instagram pictures, and Twitter posts, then the IDI refers to the unseen and hidden variables used
by various algorithms to construct an image of that user. This image can then be responded to in a variety
of ways, such as through tailored newsfeeds, search engine results, and advertising. The context and set of
circumstances that the IDI describes differs from the literary gaming context that the expressed self as a
term is designed to analyse. Because of this, fully adopting the IDI to a study of literary gaming goes beyond
the scope of this paper. However, it is worth observing that the notion of a ‘self’ as constructed out of a
user’s/player’s interactions, before being processed by algorithms (whether simple or complex) and provid-
ing tailor-made content to a user/player is a phenomenon that that is not exclusive to game narratives, and
parallels similar trends within broader digital media. The expressed self therefore takes these broad, cross-
disciplinary understandings of constructed digital selves, and synthesises it into a way that can be applied
to the study of interactive narratives.
It is through the expressed self that an interactive text can see the player, and an example of this can
be found in Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks and branching novels. In a branching novel,
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
there exists a textual footpath of choices and the path made by the reader as they navigate the story. Such
map views are characteristic even of 1st-generation hypertext. An example of this can be seen on the web-
site Writing.com where interactive e-novels have a ‘Story Outline’ function that allows users to view each
branching e-novel from a top-down view and to navigate directly to a different section. Each location in
each e-novel is marked by the choices needing to be made in order to reach that section – effectively a
textual coordinate system. For example: “1” is the first lexia; “1–1” is the lexia that follows once you have
chosen the first option on the first page; “1–2–3–3” is reached by first choosing the second option on
lexia one, then the third option, then the third option after that. The significance of the expressed self in
the eyes of the text’s implied author is that it gives them a rough image of who the reader is. For example,
lexia “1–2–2” might be only reachable through constant deceit, as such the implied author can respond by
punishing the reader for their deceptive behaviour. Figure 3 shows an example from a story titled ‘Mystical
There exist a few different ways in which an expressed self can be manifested to the player. An expressed
self can be instantiated within the outcome of the narrative; it can be presented to the player at the end of
the process with no commentary; or it can be metaphorical. An instantiated expressed self is what occurs
in Papers, Please. It involves a literal body of flags, numerical values and code being generated to create an
image of the player, which then not only determines the outcome of the game’s narrative but also infuses
that outcome with a veiled commentary on the player’s behaviour. An expressed self becomes instantiated
when the text’s accumulated memory of the chooser ultimately determines the final outcome of the text.
Conversely, it is common for games such as Firewatch or Pippin Barr’s The Trolley Problem (2011) simply
to take the player’s expressed self and show it to them directly without any response – these are a presented
form of the expressed self. Barr’s game is an unusually direct example of this phenomenon. In it, the player
must respond to a variety of different ‘trolley problem’ thought experiments. At the end, the player is pre-
sented with a summary of how they responded to each Trolley Problem with no judgement or commentary
on the part of the game. Miguel Sicart (2013) commends this approach, arguing that the game ‘presents ethi-
cal gameplay not in choices but in how these choices are interpreted’, and that players ‘are left alone with
their choice to make sense of them and what they say about them. They are left alone with their principles’
(2013: 7). This is a good example of a presented expressed self in play, lacking any sort of strong authorial
pushback or commentary but nonetheless providing the player with something upon which to reflect.
A metaphorical expressed self is particularly common in games such as Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) and
Mass Effect 3. Here the ending is determined by a single choice made at the end of the experience.
Figure 3: “Mystical Forest” (Source: Writing.com).
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This choice functions as a representation of the player’s overall reply to the broad themes of the game.
Through this, the ending that follows can perform as a response to the player’s broad understanding
and reaction to these themes. Although the endings of a game like Deus Ex do not serve as a response
to the player’s instantiated expressed self – as they do not involve narrative memory – they do serve as a
response to their personal emotional response to the game’s themes. That is, they employ the expressed
self in a strictly metaphorical sense, attempting to replicate what a game such as Papers, Please achieves,
but without the burden of having to personalize the ending using narrative memory. Although margin-
ally effective, the response generated by this model erases the significance of prior choices made by the
player, generating a perception that the player lacked any real agency in the process. In addition, the
response generated by this model does not carry the weight that it would otherwise have in a game with
an instantiated expressed self as it is constructed using only a bare minimum of player feedback. The
metaphorical expressed self lies at the heart of the outrage that game culture was expressing towards
Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead. Papers, Please, in contrast, successfully generates a sense of agency
by delivering endings which do not just respond to the player’s understanding of the game’s themes, but
to their actual in-game behaviour via their instantiated expressed self. It is for this reason that Papers,
Please generates not only a sense of agency, but also a response that more directly critiques the player’s
A possible criticism of the expressed self as a term is that players do not necessarily choose their authen-
tic selves. Because of this, there is a limit to the extent that a response to the expressed self can be read
as a response to the ‘player’, which may be as fictive as the game. Players make choices for any number
of reasons, such as pure escapism, narrative exploration or power-play. Although it’s true that there isn’t
a perfect equivalence between a player and their expressed self, and that the response that a game can
provide to an expressed self will not perfectly match a response that could be delivered to a real life player,
players do often choose in a way that is informed by their real-world habits and values. Studies in player
expression in games show that the avatar often serves as a ‘reflection’ for the player. Nicholas Taylor, Chris
Kampe and Kristina Bell’s in-depth study of player behaviour in Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead (2015)
is an empirical study that conducts its analysis with the understanding that the avatar is a reflection of the
self ‘viewed voyeuristically’ and that ‘game avatars are seen as externalized representations of our anxie-
ties and desires’. They note that players, when articulating their choices, simultaneously move between
identifying with their avatar and distancing themselves from it. Amanda Lange’s empirical study (2014)
similarly employs a large dataset to uncover how players engage with good/evil alignment systems in video
games. Her conclusion is that ‘Gamers are most interested in exploring a character whose moral choices
closely match to their own’ (2014: 1). Ferchaud and Oliver (2019) expand upon this finding, where they
conclude that players not only prefer to play characters who match their moral compass, but that when
they do so they begin to refer to their avatar with first person pronouns (‘I did this’). Players often engage in
identification with their avatars to such an extent that they expand their sense of self so as to include them,
a finding that emerges from (Slater et al., 2014). These data indicate that players more often than not do
choose as their authentic selves, and that when they do so that they personally identify with the avatar that
enacts those choices. Although the relationship between the player and the expressed self that emerges
through their choices in Papers, Please is not perfectly equivalent, the expressed self that does emerge can
reasonably be taken to be a rough proxy of the player (unless deliberate fictionalizing tactics are used by
the player). Literary reception theorist Wolfgang Iser observes how a ‘text cannot adapt itself to each reader
it comes into contact with’ (1980: 107). Yet the expressed self enables an interactive text to do exactly that.
The notion of an ‘implied reader’ has played a large part in reader response theory, and represents a limita-
tion to the ways in which a text can specify its target audience. An author does not know who precisely is
going to read their work; however, they can target a generalised audience in the hope that the work will
connect with them. The expressed self bypasses this concern and opens up a space for literary games to
be able to create narrower subsets of ‘implied readers’, albeit via an imprecise proxy. The expressed self
therefore represents a unique interactive affordance which can more precisely narrow down who the player
is, what their values are, and in turn provide that player with a response that speaks to the player more
directly than would be possible in a linear narrative. If an author of a non-interactive book can challenge
the assumptions of an ‘implied reader’ in a specific cultural context, without knowing who the reader is,
then it follows that interactivity can be used to deliver more pointed responses to a player who is actively
feeding a game information about their instincts, habits and values. This framework applies particularly
well to Papers, Please, and this is the dynamic that emerges when the ‘Antegrian Husband and Wife’ choice
is juxtaposed with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending.
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Reflective Choice – Antegrian Husband and Wife
Interspersed among the stream of applicants presenting at Arstotzka’s strict border are specific characters
whose detailed backstories provide the player with acute moral choices. These events often provide the
player with a reason why they should let the applicant through the border, even if there are flaws in their
paperwork. There are other examples, such as those involving corruption. But the primary focus of most
events is to provide the player with choices in which they must choose between the ludic demands of Papers,
Please – where they reject, imprison and humiliate applicants in order to earn money – and the narrative
overlay, which elicits sympathy and respect for the applicants. The ‘Antegrian husband and wife’ event of the
game is a particularly strong example of the conflict between the ludic and narrative elements of Papers,
Please. This specific event, and many others like it, signal a pattern of behaviour to the game. This pattern
allows the game to craft an expressed self of the player to which it can then respond in one of the game’s
three ‘good’ endings.
The semiotic side of this event is primarily expressed through dialogue, with visuals being less significant.
This event ties in thematically with the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending that will be explored later. Here, however,
the player is in a position where they can deny entry to a refugee family based on faulty paperwork. In
‘Snowier Pastures’ the roles are reversed and the player instead becomes the refugee with a family in tow
and flawed paperwork. As such this event/ending dyad presents both sides of the citizen/refugee divide, a
divide that dominated the debates surrounding migration during the development phase of Papers, Please.
The event is straightforward. A man passes through the checkpoint with correct paperwork. He mentions
that he is ‘free from Antegrian tyranny’ and asks the player to ‘be kind to my wife, she is just after me’. The
wife arrives immediately afterwards, but has incorrect paperwork. While the player peruses her paperwork,
she asks ‘Did you see my husband? He made it through, yes?’ When the player interrogates her over her lack
of an ‘entry permit’, she pleads, saying ‘Please, I beg you. They would not give me permit. I have no choice. I
will be killed if I return to Antegria.’ (Figure 4).
Figure 4: “Antegrian Wife” (Source: Papers, Please).
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At this point it is worth explaining the way that finance and currency work in Papers, Please, in order to
understand whence the moral ambiguity of this event arises. The player is paid a small amount of money for
each applicant processed. Admitting applicants with incorrect paperwork can result in financial penalties
and future negative narrative consequences. At the end of each day, the player must manage their family’s
finances, choosing how much money to spend on necessities such as Food, Heat and Medicine. The player’s
legal income is insufficient to cover these necessities. Failing to care for your family or to cover financial
debts can lead to ‘bad’ endings where the player fails and must restart from the last day to try again. As such,
the game encourages what might be called ‘evil’ choices, immoral behaviours that go against a player’s moral
intuitions. By choosing to allow the wife through, the player risks losing income that could be used to pay
for basic needs. The event serves as what Sicart would describe as a Wicked Problem (2013: 105–106), provid-
ing the player with a clash of priorities between aiding a stranger and feeding their family.
In this event – as with many others like it – the game’s moral and ludic demands clash. The narrative
overlay prompts sympathy on the part of the player. The characters are refugees fleeing death, with practical
reasons for their incorrect paperwork. Pleading requests such as ‘be kind to my wife’ and ‘Please, I beg you’
place a moral onus upon the player, making them complicit not only in the refugees’ ability to cross over
into Arstotzka, but also in their continued survival beyond this short interaction. Sicart (2013) provides one
of the possible elements of a Wicked Problem as presenting an ethical gameplay dilemma which has ‘some
solutions that make the procedural and semantic levels collide, suggesting no optimal strategies that have
emotional, cultural, and contextual value’ (2013: 105–106). In this case there exists a direct clash between
the ‘semantic’ and the ‘procedural’. The ‘procedural’ level requires the player to adopt the cold logic of bor-
der control bureaucracy, whereas the ‘semantic’ level engenders sympathy and a refusal to engage in the
crueller elements of their job. To behave coldly towards the fleeing Antegrian couple is but one of many
possible actions the player can take throughout the game. If they repeatedly behave in this manner it cre-
ates an image of the player – a cruel yet lawful bureaucrat who is willing to do anything to survive. It is this
expressed self to which the game responds when the player unlocks the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending.
Response to the Expressed self
In order to unlock the ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending at the game’s conclusion, the player must amass a large
amount of credits.1 In order to do this, they must manifest not only a coldness towards characters such as
the Antegrian couple, but also engage in petty corruption and bribery. Finally, towards the end of the game
the player must illegally confiscate the passports of applicants from the nation of Obristan, which they may
then pay to have altered so that the player may escape with their family. The ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending takes
the player’s role from the ‘Antegrian husband and wife’ event directly and reverses it. In doing so the player
is forced to consider the hypocrisy of their actions. The name of the ending itself reflects its dual nature – it
is both a ‘good’ ending and a representation of ludic success, and yet it is simultaneously a critique of the
player’s moral behaviour and an example of a response in action.
After fulfilling the requisite goals to unlock this ending, the player and their family board a train to
Obristan with forged passports. They are provided with an image of an Obristan border security guard stand-
ing behind his security booth – a mirrored reversal of the normal position of power that the player occupied
throughout the game. Now the player is the one who is vulnerable, with a story of seeking refuge from
danger and bearing forged documentation. The ending sequence then provides the player with the follow-
ing exposition overlaid with still images as they attempt to cross the border into Obristan.
You board the late train to the Northern Territories. It is nearly empty. You pay for the hastily forged
passports and re-entry tickets. They look terrible. You reach the border crossing at dawn. The line is
immense. Six hours later (at the Obristan border).
[Inspector] your documents.
[Inspector] Are you entering alone?
1 When played on the popular gaming platform “Steam”, this ending provides an achievement called “Snowier Pastures”. As such I
have named this ending after the corresponding achievement.
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
No, my family as well
[Inspector] Hand over all documents now.
We come to visit relatives.
[Inspector] I do not care why you come. Wait here. (the shutters close)
*KACHUNK* (the sound a stamp makes; repeated once for each family member; the shutters open after
a short pause)
[Inspector] Welcome to Obristan. Next!
Obristan above all
The image of the guard watching the player from an elevated position behind a desk labelled “OBRISTAN
IMMIGRATION” is an ironic mirroring of the player’s own former position as a powerful and callous border
security guard (Figure 7). Much of the scene’s dialogue and exposition is designed to elicit retrospective
empathy for the many travellers that the player had turned away. The image of an ‘immense line’ (Figure 5)
merges with the large throng of people the player needs to process during gameplay. The exposition, dia-
logue and process of passing the Obristan border – handing over documents (forged), providing an explana-
tion (a lie), waiting for the guard to return as they process the documentation – are all designed to mimic
the unbearable tension and anxiety that applicants at the player’s own border had to endure as the player
applied the same mechanistic process to them (Figure 6). ‘I do not care why you come. Wait here’ echoes the
cold and disinterested approach that the player must have taken to reach this ending and reflects it back at
them, albeit with a positive outcome. This is the game responding not only to the last few choices that the
Figure 5: “Immense Line” (Source: Papers, Please).
Figure 6: “Six hours later” (Source: Papers, Please).
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
player made at the end of the game but to the collected body of accumulated choices made by the player
during all of their experience as a border control guard. Papers, Please taunts the ‘successful’ player in its
final moments, reminding the player of their own abject cruelty.
It is particularly important that the player succeeds and passes through this checkpoint. If the player had
been rejected, then players could simply rationalize that this was a ‘bad’ ending and then go back to try
another. By allowing the player through, the game provides them with a particularly resonant clash between
semiotic and ludic dimensions. The ending plays a specific Victory tune as they pass through the border,
which is markedly upbeat and celebratory. The ending is also a reward for good gameplay, including com-
pleting objectives, not making mistakes, gaining rewards. Yet, the power reversal presented by the situation
reflects the player’s own hypocrisy back at them. The player has treated the many applicants to the Arstotzka
border with one standard, and has subsequently expected, and received, a different one from the Obristan
guard. Through this, the player’s expressed self forms the foil, while the naïve yet accepting Obristan guard
acts as an unconventional exemplar with their (potentially deliberate) incompetence allowing the player to
survive an otherwise inhuman and byzantine system of borders and checkpoints.
The name of the ending itself, ‘Snowier Pastures’, reflects its dual nature as both a ludic victory condi-
tion and an authorial pushback against the player. The ending’s name is a play on the common expres-
sion ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’: a foreign land or new environment that
is ‘greener’ or better than the old. While ‘greener’ indicates the warmth of spring, ‘snowier’ indicates
coldness and callousness. ‘Snowier Pastures’ reminds the player of the phrase it evokes – a new environ-
ment. Yet at the same time the allusion to the cold reflects the player’s own moral nature, a cold-hearted
Eichmannesque bureaucrat. The ending’s name, then, calls to mind both its status as a ludic victory – a
new environment discovered as a result of the player’s mastery of the games mechanics – as well as its
demonstration of a moral failing, with the game criticising the player’s moral coldness. The ‘fence’ in
the original expression is also worth noting, offering a hidden allusion to the many borders and barriers
within the Papers, Please setting.
The ‘Snowier Pastures’ ending challenges the player directly, responding to the accumulated body of their
choices. The specificity of this reaction, and the ways in which this ending reverses the player’s position of
power while exposing their own moral bankruptcy, is a personalized reaction that can only take place amidst
a ludic system that can save and systematize the player’s overall behaviour. This contrasts with simply show-
ing the player their body (e.g. as displayed by Telltale’s ‘survey screen’ at the end of each of their episodes) or
disciplining it (as done by a Choose Your Own Adventure novel that punishes bad choices with a bad ending).
The game instead says something, not to an implied player, but to an actual, individualized player, as seen
through their expressed self. This is a unique form of expression, and one that can elicit self-reflection on
the part of the real player in a way that cannot be achieved in a non-interactive narrative.
It is significant that interactive narrative, multiple endings, branching pathways and narrative memory sys-
tems are being used by a game to interface with larger discussions surrounding migration, refugee rights and
border control. Although the game appears to take a largely pro-refugee position, it is worth noting that the
other side is also given credence. For example, there are events where the player must use their border cross-
Figure 7: “Obristan Immigration” (Source: Papers, Please).
Sarian: Ethical Self-Reection in
ing to catch international criminals. All of the endings criticise the player to some extent. Here Papers, Please
works to add ambiguity to the player’s pre-existing biases regarding border control, without fully attacking
their beliefs. While it is important to look at the discourses surrounding border control surrounding current
issues like the US-Mexico border crisis, it is also worthwhile to see how these discourses are informed by and
in some instances are a product of various media forms that try to sway, influence and frame these discus-
sions. In doing so Papers, Please serves as an example of Open Literacy, emerging through the medium of
interactive narrative in a way that tries to enhance and complicate the player’s beliefs surrounding topical
and controversial conversations taking place in their broader cultural context.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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How to cite this article: Sarian, A. 2019. Ethical Self-Reection in
Cultural Science Journal
pp. 41–53. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/csci.122
Submitted: 12 November 2019 Accepted: 12 November 2019 Published: 10 December 2019
Copyright: © 2019 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/
Cultural Science Journal
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