Thursday, January 2, 2014

Choice and Oppression in Papers, Please

PopMatters is still on vacation this week, so no big article from me quite yet. However, I want to give a little sneak peak of the article today anyway, mostly to cover an important issue I didn't have space for and to spend a little more time talking about film.

My next article is about Papers, Please, the much-adored indie game from Lucas Pope in which players control a border guard in the fictional autocracy of Arstotzka. Scott's already written a great article about The Banality of Evil in the game, I highly suggest you read. It captures expertly how the mundanity of the game reveals the poisonous system as its core. My article on the other hand discusses activism in the game and the terrible options the protagonist has as an individual within a massive and largely invisible system of oppression. The game makes some fascinating, albeit depressing, arguments.

My biggest concern after writing the piece is how we might interpret or judge the player character in Papers, Please. In particular, I wonder if we can judge the person within that position as someone lacking agency or whether instead we see him as someone refusing to throw himself upon the instruments of his own oppression. I know, I know, the border guard is just an excuse to play the game, but while doing so, I had to ask myself, why don't I just refuse? If I know I am complicit in serving this autocratic regime, why don't I just rebel? Indeed, in my future post, I argue Papers, Please makes a compelling argument that structure change demands a huge investment on the part of those rebelling against it.

I think the answer in Papers, Please, as in reality, is a lot more complicated. It sounds strange to say aloud, but there is a complicity in brutal survival, even while survival is itself a form of dissent. The protagonist of the game, for the most part, is barely surviving, and in that act of survival is a strange dichotomous existence.

A good comparison may actually be 12 Years a Slave, the latest and critically-praised film by Steve McQueen. The story follows Solomon Northrup, a free man who is captured and worked as a slave for the titular twelve years. Two scenes stand out as particularly significant. In the first, Solomon shares a sexual encounter with a fellow slave. It is not romantic or sexually charged. On the contrary, it is a short, desperate, and sorrowful embrace of human contact. The second scene is an extended take of Solomon in a group of gospel singers. He stands silently before joining in, lifting his voice to great heights while he wears a multifaceted look of both anger and solace.

Both of these scenes in 12 Years a Slave show Solomon's momentary acceptance of his place within an alien system. In some ways he does not identify as a slave, but in these moments he makes a decision, within a constrained environment, to both embrace and in doing so reject his position within the system of slavery. Survival comes at great cost, and at times can feel like complicity.

I mean no judgement here, good or bad, and I don't mean to equate the horrors of slavery with Cold War politics or the like. Still, the protagonist of the film, and the protagonist of Papers, Please, have meaningful albeit constrained decisions within their system of oppression. It is not impressive, it's incredibly important, that Papers, Please can evoke through the deeply mixed feelings the destitute and exploited feel towards decision making within the system that keeps them oppressed.

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