August 31, 2013 1 Comment
There’s a John Steinbeck novel titled The Winter of Our Discontent that reminds me a great deal of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please. That title is borrowed from a line in a Shakespeare play about an abysmal king, Richard III, who was about as immoral as immoral can get. After playing this game for several hours, I now have a newfound appreciation for just what that line means; the whole of this interactive experience is a “winter of discontent” to be sure, and begs the question: Is it possible to be a good man in a thoroughly corrupt society? From my experience here the answer is a resounding, “Nyet, comrade.”
Set in the winter of 1982 against the bleak, grey backdrop of the fictional Communist nation of Arstotzka, the player is cast in the role of a “lucky” lottery winner who wins a job in the big city as an Immigration Inspector on the newly opened Arstotzkian border. It’s your job to inspect the various documents that people present to you to cross that border. If their documents pass muster, they can enter glorious Arstotzka. If not, you can send them packing back to wherever it is they came from. The more people you process in a typical work day, the more money you get. The more money you get, the more “luxuries” (e.g. food, heat and medicine) you can provide for your family, who always seem to be either sick, cold or hungry.
This is where the true madness and/or genius of Papers, Please sets in. Each day, you are saddled with new regulations and requirements that slow down the immigration process because you need to scrutinize each and every shred of information for inconsistencies. When that process is slowed down, you don’t make a great deal of money because you aren’t processing enough immigrants. When you don’t make a great deal of money, you can’t afford the things your family needs and then they’ll start dropping like flies.
Of course, various factions and individuals will offer you money to help their cause or look the other way when shady things are going down, but accepting those kinds of bribes have consequences and soon, the agents of the Arstotzkian government will be visiting you at work with rather pointed questions to ask.
And this is where my major issue with this game arises: Does what I described above sound like fun to anyone? I’m certain the dictionary definition of “fun” doesn’t include words like immigration, passport, government officials or border in that definition. Of course, there have been morality choices in games before, but none have seemed as “real” or consequential (at least to me) as they do in Papers, Please. I mean, if I made a decision that pissed off Jack in Mass Effect 2, she doesn’t want to be my pal, and then she ultimately dies at the end of the game because of that, should I be upset? I can tell you right now that I didn’t shed a tear because it’s just a game … and she was a temperamental pain in the dick anyway.
What it boils down to, I suppose, is that Papers, Please blurred the line between a fictional game world and reality a little too well for my liking. Making the decisions this game forced me to make made me uncomfortable … perhaps because I remember the Cold War tales of Communist woe all too well and never was (and never will be, unfortunately) the commander of a kick-ass spaceship.
When it comes to overall presentation, I would swear this was a game that I was playing on a Commodore Amiga (or some other computer of that era) emulator. Of course, I know differently, but the graphics and overall gameplay definitely have that late ’80s, early ’90s vibe going on. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I personally dig games with a distinctly retro vibe, but gamers of the last couple generations may not get it and be put off by that. Something else that should be mentioned regarding the presentation in Papers, Please is the music, especially the theme song, which is a crushingly sad tune, like something ripped from a Kafka-esque nightmare. I don’t know if it has a title, but I took to calling it “The Dirge of Endless Oppression.” It’s not particularly bad; it’s just goddamn depressing.
I played Papers, Please for about 10 hours and I, for the life of me, could not get a “good” ending. I was always going to debtors prison, getting arrested for other infractions, or my whole family was dying on me because I couldn’t consistently feed them, keep the heat on or get them medicine. And maybe that’s the point here. The point being that there are no good endings in this life…it’s just a relentless winter of discontent. I know that’s a very desolate outlook on things in general, but that’s the mindset this game put me in and, in case I haven’t made that clear, I don’t really like that. Ultimately, I play video games to have fun and escape the trials and tribulations of real life for a few hours. Being cast in the role of an early 80’s, Soviet Bloc immigration official is not my idea of a cracking good time.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Papers, Please is an important game, much like Gone Home, and it’s one that I think everyone should at least try because it does break some new ground in terms of game mechanics and narrative structure. It reminds me of some of the movies I had to watch while taking film theory courses in college: interesting in a classroom environment because you are seeing and learning different things, but not something I would seek out and enjoy on my own time.
If you think of Papers, Please as this generation’s Oregon Trail, but with intensely depressing Communist bureaucracy in the place of dysentery, you’ll do just fine. People should play this game more for its educational and historical value, but since many of today’s gamers don’t have the perspective someone of my age and/or generation has, they may enjoy it simply as a piece of entertainment, whereas I have a rather difficult time doing that. As an extension of those thoughts, I think both Papers, Please and Gone Home should be shown to all the asinine, irresponsible media types who constantly assail video games as over-indulgent, blood-spattered-kill-festivals, to let them see (and hopefully understand) that there are thought-provoking games out there. Alas, these thought-provoking games never have the marketing budgets that the over-indulgent, blood-spattered-kill-festival games have, so they tend to fly under the radar of the general public, which is obviously unfortunate for all of us who love and cherish the gaming lifestyle.
Papers, Please was developed by Lucas Pope.
This game cost $9.99 in American swine dollars; I wonder what that works out to in rubles, comrade?
Papers, Please is available on Steam.
Papers, Please is Indie Gamer Guy approved and now hold the fifth spot on the Leaderboard.
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