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Checkmate: The Dystopian Game of Control

Carly Smith | 28 Nov 2013 16:00
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Classic dystopias like George Orwell's 1984 serve to both critique totalitarian regimes, such as Stalinism and Nazism, and warn of what life could be like if citizens hand over human rights to a government. Governments in this genre of fiction tend to encourage citizens to accept a lack of privacy by claiming to grant security, safety, and prosperity. In the beginning, life feels like a utopia. Crime rates decrease, political enemies are destroyed, and happiness swells within a united community. In reality, the government keeps its people under control with fear, and as history is rewritten, people forget what life was like before the constant surveillance.

Living in a dystopia is like playing a game - an incredibly unfair game, stripped of fun, in which every time you try to change the flow of the game, your opponent counters your move.

Living in a dystopia is like playing a game - an incredibly unfair game, stripped of fun, in which every time you try to change the flow of the game, your opponent counters your move.

Control is the name of the game in dystopias; whoever holds all the cards dictates the direction of the game. Dystopian fiction frequently portrays a protagonist at odds with a powerful body that regulates the flow of information for its own gain. We have protagonists like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a young woman who has struggled to survive in a poor environment and ultimately has to play along in the Capitol's game to save her family. We also have protagonists like Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs, a hacker with a criminal past who can control a city's central operating system for the goal of protecting his family. In one case, a character has little information compared to the antagonist, and in the other the character has so much control over information that the people traditionally with the power are terrified.

Let's take both of those and put them together.

"Papers, please."

In the "dystopian document thriller" Papers, Please, you handle physical information. Selected in a labor lottery, you play as an immigration official in a booth at the border of an Eastern bloc-like country named Arstotzka. In this game, the player has power over the citizens and travelers seeking entry to Arstotzka, but at the same time the player has to follow a list of instructions - discriminatory ones at times - from the government.

Life as the inspector isn't black and white. Your loyalties may lie with any number of groups, ranging from a revolutionary group, family, comrades, government, to Arstotzka itself. Staying steadfast to the government's wishes is an option, but most government officials and workers aren't unflinchingly dogmatic. Coworkers and senior officials will ask the player to accept visas for friends who shouldn't be granted entry. A great deal of people working for the government are like you - just trying to survive.

Let's say you toe the line and do your job without getting mixed up in revolutionary business: In the end, you continue your "good work." On the other hand, you could overthrow Arstotzka's government. Depending on your actions, two little words will be added. "Glory to (the new) Arstotzka."

A great deal of people working for the government are like you - just trying to survive.

Either way, Arstotzka remains the same. It is entirely possible the revolution brings about no real change. We see this in browser game The Republia Times, set in the same universe as Papers, Please, in which you play as a newspaper editor. If you choose to help dissidents foster a revolution, nothing changes other than the country's name. With this in mind, it's entirely appropriate to interpret that particular revolutionary ending of Papers, Please as a cycle of handing off government powers from one group to the next. In this interpretation, the player has no control over the future of Arstotzka despite the large number of endings. In the dystopian Arstotzka, the inspector, though he has control over information, has no control over society and politics. The point is not all revolutions bring about change. Some revolutions exist only to cement a different dictatorship in control.

The real beauty of Papers, Please comes from an ending in which you flee from Arstotzka. For the twenty-some days you've been stamping "approved" or "denied," for the first time someone else tells you, "Papers, please." Now all you can do is hope the "kachunk" sound comes from the use of the "approved" stamp. The role reversal is so striking because this is the only time you are the one being examined. With the knowledge that his passport is fake, he gives up control over his (fake) information by physically handing it over because it's the only option. This is the only way to get out of Arstotzka. Sometimes giving up control is the right choice. Taking this gamble comes from a surge of hope that things can be better.

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