How an Arstotzkan Border Agent Does Money

Arstotzka is a fictional country in the acclaimed computer game Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Players examine travel documents for discrepancies before stamping Approved or Denied on applicants’ passports to earn a daily wage.  It starts as a puzzle game — applying escalating entry rules as quickly and accurately as possible each during each five-minute “day.” Eventually you have to decide whether the rules should be followed. Branching save-game paths allow you to explore various scenarios easily. Check out the official trailer for game play and an inspiring national anthem.

Jobs are scarce in post-war Arstotzka, so I was excited to win a job lottery for work at the new border crossing. It even comes with a subsidized apartment for my family within walking distance of work. In my cramped border booth, I examine people’s documents to determine if they will be allowed entrance into my country. Like any job, it has its ups and downs.

The salary sucks, but at least I get paid daily by volume. Every day I allocate my meagre earnings to rent, food, and utilities. At first, my family would suffer when I couldn’t cover the essentials. But I’ve gotten faster and I’m able to save a bit. Those savings come in handy when there’s a security incident that ends the workday early. Or when an upgraded apartment becomes available!

Each workday flies by in minutes. Every day there are additional regulations and restrictions to be implemented. I appreciate the instant feedback on my mistakes (but I don’t appreciate the docked pay that comes with each citation). The work can be challenging and repetitive but I love working with the variety of applicants. Many are rude, others are combative, and some are just desperate. The humorous ones are a refreshing relief. There is just enough time between applicants to have a quick sip of coffee. It’s impossible to imagine how much I treasure this sip.

Even though I’m just a low-level state employee, my job feels impactful! I often see references to my agency in my morning paper, and we’re always updating our border regulations to reflect current events. Sometimes it’s hard to turn people away. Occasionally I can intervene on someone’s behalf.

There are signs that things are getting worse. I’ll willingly apply racist body scans to keep my job, though. (We tell them they’re “random.”) Security threats have me feeling less safe in my workplace, anyway — not to mention all of the people who want to slip me cash in exchange for a passport stamp. It’s hard to turn down bribes when my son is sick because I couldn’t afford to heat our apartment after they raised the rent. Plus, to do my job quickly enough to earn a living, I have to pay out-of-pocket to upgrade my booth and create quick-reference sheets to make sense of the increasingly byzantine rules.

A recent influx of refugees is forcing me to find a balance between compassion, keeping my job, and feeding my family. Other things are happening that I can’t talk about. Still, at the end of each day, I remember that I’m lucky to have this job. I won the lottery!

randomthoughts’ friends in the passport office are horrified that he loves this game. Try it anyway! It’s super inexpensive and only needs a very basic computer to run.

Photo credit: Papers, Please screenshot.

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