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Morality Systems: Papers, Please


Most people agree that morality systems in games are terrible, at least people who know what morality systems are.

Morality systems are either completely black and white – do you wish to choose the evil path, or the good path? – or they’re thinly veiled, lazy attempts to add some sort of replayability to the game.

These systems tend to be really hackneyed, offering you pointless decisions that really don’t make any difference in the long run, or, if the choices do make a difference, the morality system tempts the player to run through the game a second time not because they want to play the game again, but just to see what happens if they choose the other path – because forcing a player to interact with your game even if they really don’t want to is a recipe for rave reviews, right?

I want to talk about the most complex morality system I’ve seen in a game so far. The game is Papers, Please.


Papers, Please isn’t so much a game with a morality system as it is a morality system in game clothing. It’s one of the most engaging games I’ve ever played, yet the gameplay would be terrible – actually boring and awful – if it wasn’t for the incredible, nuanced, intricate morality system.

Papers, Please is a dystopian thriller about manning a border checkpoint, where you do the exciting work of…stamping passports and checking a plethora of other documents for inaccuracies.

That’s actually all you do. See what I said about the gameplay being potentially awful? It’s left-brained and analytical and those descriptors are not usually applied to activities that I actually want to do.


Yet I’ve logged quite a few hours in Papers, Please, playing with an intensity that left me drained when I was finished. Why do I love this game so much? The morality system.

There are a lot of moving parts to this system, so I’ll describe them one by one:

1. Family

This is the most obvious section of the morality system in Papers, Please. You have a family who you’re looking after. You’re told at the beginning of the game that you’ve won a labor lottery, and that you’re very lucky to have this job. At the end of each day of gameplay, you allocate the money that you’ve made for the day, paying for rent, food, heat, and other incidental needs. If you don’t make enough money during the day, you have to decide what budget items are not going to be covered that day. Then the next day, the game will report to you how your inadequacies to provide for your family affected them: they could be cold, sick, hungry, or even dead. Thus, it’s very important for you to make enough money, otherwise your failures as provider destroy your family.

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This is what makes the gameplay so compelling, by the way. You make money for every person that you let through the checkpoint successfully, but you get fined money if you let someone through who has inaccurate paperwork. Thus, you’re working as hard as you can to shovel people through the checkpoint so you can make money to provide for your family, but you also have to be incredibly accurate, or the fines will quickly outpace your meager income and your family will starve just the same.

You also have the option to take bribes, report people without cause for extra income, and perform other actions – making a moral choice each time – to make more money. Not only are you dealing with moral choices, you’re managing risk and reward, Attempting to strike a balance that will take care of your family.

It’s a compelling mixture.

But your family isn’t the only moral tug that you have to worry about, not by a long shot…you also have to consider

2. Individual Stories

People come through your checkpoint, and many of them have compelling stories that might make you change your behavior. One man begs you to be kind to his wife who doesn’t have proper documentation, a woman asks you to deny the passport of a man who is pursuing her, and there are many other stories ranging from the humorous to the positively heartbreaking. You can choose to do favors for people, but that usually ends up costing money that could go to your family, or putting you in greater risk of losing your job. I remember at one point I had to deny the visa of a woman who was coming to my country to see her son, because I had too many warnings and I couldn’t afford another fine. As I stamped “denied” on her passport, I begged her forgiveness…out loud.

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I felt compelled to apologize to a character in a computer game.

It’s not every game that can do that.

But, if you thought you were done making difficult choices, you also have to consider…

3. The Greater Good

Trying to avoid huge spoilers here, but at one point an organization contacts you and asks for favors. It seems that they’re trying to create change in a bad situation, but the favors they ask really cost you. You have to let people through the checkpoint and eat the fine, and eventually they ask you to help them assassinate people, among other things.

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The assassination, they make clear, is for the greater good of you and your country, but it doesn’t serve the immediate needs of your family, it seems like a huge risk with little personal reward, and it just…seems…evil.
Which is something that usually isn’t a problem in games with a morality system. All good and all evil are typically the only two options, and they rarely force players to struggle with what they, the player, believe is right. These polarized morality systems make gamers ask shallow, simple questions, like

“What kind of gameplay do I want?”
“What choices will make me look the coolest?”
“What path allows me to callously murder everyone around me?”

These systems have very little to do with making complex moral decisions, and more to do with giving the player the allusion that they have control of their own destiny. Yet the game funnels players who chose either path into the same ending anyway, revealing the moral choices as meaningless in the end.

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Papers, Please confronts you with a question that few other games dare: what is the moral thing to do? … And it provides no easy, tidy answers.

It forces you to delve into

4. Your Own Complex View of Morality

There are times in Papers, Please where I acted simply on my own Moral compass. You can choose to play the game any way you like: that’s why the game has so many endings, and why I’m going to purposely go back and make a few decisions that I didn’t feel comfortable making in my initial few playthroughs. But, the nature of Papers, Please forces you to ask yourself what you believe about situations with many moral variables. It forces you not to decide what kind of game you want to play, but to decide what kind of person you want to be, and that sets up some excruciating decisions in game.

I’ll give you an example. At one point a man comes to your checkpoint and gives you a picture: he says that the man in the picture killed his daughter – he also hands you a picture of her – and he requests that you allow the killer through the checkpoint so the father can hunt him down and kill him.

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It was a difficult choice, but after thinking about revenge and human worth and closure, I detained the man, protecting him and robbing the father of his revenge.

The important consideration here is not wether the decision I made was right, it’s the fact that I was forced, by a video game to go through that complex thought process, and many others like it. The game didn’t ask me to make a black-and-white decision, but rather to wade through a sea of grey, testing my own conscience, weighing multiple competing desires, teasing out the best decisions, making mistakes, and ultimately experiencing one of the most challenging, exhausting, and exhilarating encounters with great video game art that I’ve ever had.


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