Glory to Arstotzka: Papers, Please and Procedural Rhetoric

In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost defines procedures as what structures behaviour and how things work in terms of the operation of systems (Bogost, 3). Rhetoric can be defined as “the art of persuasion” (Bogost,15). Together, they make procedural rhetoric, which is “the practice of authoring arguments through processes” (Bogost, 29). Implementing procedural rhetoric within games is important to discuss due to the fact that “videogames are often interactive [and] require user action to complete their procedural representations” (Bogost, 45). Papers, Please, a game developed by Lucas Pope, presents a procedural rhetoric about the limitations and restrictions on living standards of the working class in a totalitarian government, which, in this case, is represented by the imaginary country of Arstotzka.

Papers, Please begins with the user being appointed to run the newly opened checkpoint, and is only allowed to let Arstotzkans through. Slowly, foreigners are permitted entry, but they are heavily assessed on the basis of their documentation, originating city, appearance, and presumed gender. Foreigners who wish to enter for work, or those who wish to immigrate into Arstotzka, must have the proper forms alongside their passports and supplement identification. Those coming from the neighboring country Kolechia are segregated and searched for weapons and contraband, in fear of a terrorist attack. Other countries such as Impor and United Federation are singled out during gameplay as well. Suspicious individuals are fingerprinted, cross-examined, and detained if they put up a fight.

The following will detail the procedures that occur on any of the 31 typical days in the game.

Rulebook Regulations

The very first thing that the user sees and interacts with on any given day are the regulations posted in the rulebook, which is updated almost every morning. As the game progresses, more and more papers are required for entry into Arstotzka: from a simple passport to an entry ticket, to a more detailed entry permit, to special case documents like work passes and diplomat authorizations. This increases the pressure on the player to check every detail in a short amount of time, as well as on the travelers to stay informed and meet all the requirements prescribed by the government.

Papers Please Entry Ticket

The constantly changing rules seem arbitrary. Travelers who were allowed to enter one day must be denied the next, even if they did nothing wrong. This process illustrates how individuals can be gravely affected by inconsiderate politics. At one point in the game, for example, the fictitious country Impor introduces trade sanctions against Arstotzka, to which the Arstotzkan government reacts by denying the entry of all Impor citizens. Thus, many Imporians are kept from meeting family members or from working in Arstotzka, although they have all the required documents.

Papers Please Impor instructions

As Bogost points out in Persuasive Games, more than one procedure can be applied in various situations: “When the human clerks and supervisors in the retail store agree to forgo their written policy, they are not really ‘breaking procedure’. Instead, they are mustering new processes – for example, a process for promoting repeat business, or for preventing a commotion – and seamlessly blending them with the procedure for product returns” (Bogost, 6). By forcing the player to make the decision whether or not to follow the rulebook in certain morally ambiguous situations, Papers, Please includes such underlying processes next to the immigration procedures, which makes it more realistic. It shows that laws are not always universally right and that, sometimes, it is up to individuals to know which procedure to follow – government regulations or moral codes. In one of these situations the player receives a note from a woman, asking to keep a man named Dari Ludum from forcing her into prostitution. Ludum indeed shows up at the border a while later. According to the rulebook, he should be allowed to enter, but the player has the power to detain him nonetheless, in order to save the woman. The newspaper shows the outcome of the player’s decision the next day.

Papers Please Dari Ludum

Papers Please Dari Ludum news dead dancers Papers Please Dari Ludum news arrested

In addition to moral codes, the process of bribery can motivate the player to break the rules of the rulebook.


The regulations that Arstotzka decides on require a human element (interactions between player and non-playable characters [NPCs]) in order to be implemented. One process that truly highlights the human element to the game’s mechanics is the bribery that takes place between the player and several groups of NPCs. Bribery by definition involves the breaking of established rules in the name of self interest. The player is rewarded with additional credits for going against the rules for the typical bribe.

There are countless examples of said process throughout the game but two in particular warrant more attention.

On Day 9, there is a guard by the name of Calensk that offers 5 credits for every two people detained. The actual payment for detainments is made every two days. The guard makes this deal since he is paid more for each person detained. Thus, as the player, you must decide whether or not to detain people for simple things, such as missing the seal on the entry permit, in order to receive additional credits.

One NPC in the game by the name of Jorji Costava offers 10 credits for a green stamp despite having contraband. This occurs on two separate occasions.

One of the largest bribes that can be given in the game is 1000 credits that is given for helping the Revolutionary Group.

Interactions with Revolutionary Group

One series of interactions that emphasizes the player’s ability of rule breaking for self interest and the interest of others is the dealings with the Ezic order. There is a revolutionary group in Papers, Please by the name of Ezic that wants to rebel and create a new Arstotzka. In order to do so, a member of the group offers you several tasks to complete. These tasks given to you throughout the game include allowing entrance despite incorrect paperwork, poisoning a person’s passport, assassinating a given target and confiscating a diplomat’s passport.

Papers Please EZIC guy

Rob Parker refers to the ‘path of least resistance’ in his essay titled “The Art of Papers, Please” in which he argues that the game promotes doing what you are told in a timely manner regardless of moral values (Parker). There is no time to consider the ethics of a decision, as time is a scarce resource for players. Due to the time sensitive nature of working in the booth, players must decide if simply interacting with members of Ezic serves their best interest as losing too much time guarantees a poor allocation of salary among family members at the end of the day.

Matheson argues that, “a game makes claims about the system that it simulates by simulating it in a particular fashion” (Matheson). There is a reason Arstotzka aptly resembles the real world Soviet Union. The fictitious totalitarian government of Arstotzka forces harsh restrictions and terrible living standards on the player. It is implied that Ezic strives for a better society for the citizens of Arstotzka. New Arstotzka is considered by many to be one of the few ‘positive’ endings. The actions asked of the player by Ezic are quite terrible in nature. Taking into account that the player must kill multiple people in the name of Ezic, it is natural for players to start to wonder if the end justifies the means. Motivation and the greater good are concepts illustrated by Ezic’s involvement in the game world that justify breaking the established rules. Rule breaking for Ezic and for general bribes in the game affect the principal process of the game: accepting or rejecting a person’s passport.

Accepting/Rejecting Passports

Based on this knowledge, the player must go about clearing citizens to pass through Arstotzka’s border, keeping in mind regulations, bribery, and revolutionary groups. This is the main procedure that Papers, Please is based upon: the user assessing the citizens’ passports based on perceived credibility, which will either allow them to go through the border or prevent them from entering. Janet Murray’s definition of procedurality is reflected here, as she explains it as “defining ability to execute a series of rules” (Bogost, 4). The user must implement rules given by the totalitarian government in order to continue the game.

Discrepancies occur when there is any hint of forged documentation. The person in question is thus interrogated and has to face the possibility of being rejected or detained.

Papers Please Nat1

This illustrates how “procedurality … consists of the rules and mechanics of a game that provide a context for embodied action and choices, in turn reacting to that action with an immediate feedback loop” (Colby). It is the user’s responsibility to assess the citizen’s credibility, which will lead to either a desirable or undesirable outcome. In one case, United Federation citizen Antoine Dieulesaint’s passport photo does not match his face. An interrogation begins when the user states, “This does not look like you,” to which Dieulesaint replies, “I had surgery.”

Papers Please Nat2

He is then fingerprinted as a preventative security measure.

Papers Please Nat3

Other discrepancies may occur when the citizen’s passport is expired (“It must be a typographical error,” one citizen rebuts), or when it dons a forged stamp (“I know nothing about this,” says another).

If there is incongruence between the person’s appearance and the gender indicated on their passport, they are x-rayed on the spot. This is the case with Obristan citizen Justin Lanken, who appears to be male, but is said to be female on his documents. This discrepancy leads to an interrogation, where the user states, “Your passport says you are female,” to which Lanken questions, “Why do you ask?” When x-rayed, Lanken is revealed to have male genitalia.

Papers Please Nat4

He is detained as a consequence to having ‘forged’ his passport. The scan reveals the citizen’s ‘true’ gender, which runs the risk of seeming transphobic for judging based on physical appearance and not mental self-concepts. In Papers, Please, however, the user is forced to consider the given information at face value in order to proceed. They must act purely on what they see, lest they be reprimanded and have their family reap the consequences as well. Any lapse in judgement will reduce the user’s salary, which makes them less capable of providing for the ones who wait for them at home.

Allocating Salary

The difficult decisions made by the player throughout every work day culminate to the process of salary allocation. The procedure reveals that you are the sole receiver of income, having to provide for the numerous members of your family, even being given the option of taking in another member as the game progresses. This emphasizes the harsh working-class lifestyle within a totalitarian country and how the household may have to rely on a single source of income. The player is provided with a home containing bare necessities; while having to pay expensive rent, in addition to: heating, food and medicine costs at the end of each day (depending on whether your family is cold, hungry or sick). The player receives merely five dollars per person he/she allows through the border, and receives deductions from their pay for each mistake (the player is only allocated two free passes per day). The distribution of salary lingers in the back of the player’s mind while interacting with different procedures, placing importance on providing for their loved-ones. The aforementioned process is influenced by many factors found within the game: the addition of rules and regulations for border patrol, bonuses, bribes as well as work efficiency.

Rui Craveirinha brings up an important point in his review: “[t]he simulation [in Papers, Please] drives home the dilemma of a man living in a totalitarian state: live poorly and let your family suffer whilst keeping your ethics untouched, or cave in and play the game […] as it pressures you to, by becoming a cog in the state machine of repression and violence” (Craveirinha). The player is then challenged with multiple ways to improve their home life (upgrade to a better class dwelling), as well as improve work efficiency, represented by booth upgrades. The player must then make a choice between short term and long term effect on their family: will they feed their family right away, or will they skip heating/food costs for a day in order to upgrade their booth which will possibly increase work efficiency/income?

Papers Please salary allocation

Much like most of the games procedures, allocating salary relates to the morals and values of the player. The players might accept any given bribe in order to provide for their family or to make up for their lack of efficiency during the working day (as seen in the screenshot above; the player having over one thousand dollars to spend). Other players may deny these bribes, or “gifts”, finding it immoral to accept them, despite their difficult living situation. There are many different ways to go about handling one’s money that it is difficult to stand at an objective point of view, for what might be important for one player (upgrading to a Class-7 dwelling, certain booth upgrades) might be trivial to the next. The reliance on subjectivity within the game places the player in the shoes of a working-class citizen living in a totalitarian country, and how they would go about certain situations, which ties in with the rhetoric presented by Papers, Please.

The effectiveness of meaningful player interactions within a game is influenced by the way the game utilizes procedures, as opposed to the player being told what to do.  Bogost states that “the total number… of user actions is not necessarily important; rather, the relevance of the interaction in the context of the representational goals of the system is paramount” (Bogost, 46). In Papers, Please, the representation of the limitations and restrictions on living standards of the working class in a totalitarian government is introduced through meaningful processes – rules and regulations, participation within a revolutionary group, border control and the allocation of salary. It is important to note that these processes not only influence us as players, but allow us to reflect upon these processes in a “real world” application.  Consider this essay, for example: the way in which it is presented is, in and of itself, a carefully prepared process designed to elicit desirable responses from readers – just another example of how procedurality can structure behaviour.


Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. 3-46. Print.

Colby, Richard. “Writing and Assessing Procedural Rhetoric in Student-produced Video Games.” ScienceDirect. Elsevier VD, Mar. 2014. Web. <;.

Craveirinha, Rui. “Videogame Utopia: Passage Denied, a “Papers Please” Review.” MetaGame. 13 Jan. 2014. Web. <;.

Matheson, Calum. “Procedural Rhetoric Beyond Persuasion: First Strike and the Compulsion to Repeat.” Games and Culture (2014): 1-18. 2014. Web. <;.

Parker, Rob. “The Art of Papers, Please.” First Person Scholar. 23 Oct. 2013. Web. <;.

Additional Readings

Lucas Pope’s Development Log

Papers, Please Wiki : Characters, Endings, Timeline

Jessica Turcotte
Alex Marcarelli
Julia Stoll
Natasha Truttmann
Krista Barrette-Nunes


2 thoughts on “Glory to Arstotzka: Papers, Please and Procedural Rhetoric

  1. Discussion Questions:

    How does Papers, Please make meaningful use of its processes ? Do these processes make the message/expression more clear?

    Would Lucas Pope be able to convey the rhetoric presented in Papers, Please without the aspect of procedurality? If yes, how would it be conveyed?

    Does Papers, Please employ a unique procedural representation or does it borrow it from another game? How does this affect the effectiveness of the procedural rhetoric?

    Does Papers, Please go beyond the face value of the given information, or must the user act purely on a superficial level? How does procedurality in the game sway the user’s decisions?

    Salen, Zimmerman “the rules of the games make fundamentally different arguments, despite having similar structures and game dynamics”. Are there any games that appear to contain the same structure as Papers, Please, while presenting a completely different rules?

    When breaking the rules is so fun and easy, what is the game trying to say?


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