A talented writer in his own right, this week honorary Rogue, Kevin, drops by to give us his take on the doubleplusgood (and bad) qualities of indie darling Papers, Please!
I like creativity in a video game. Moral choice systems that actually affect the gameplay, level design that forces you to get out of your comfort zone, and rogue-like elements that randomize your encounters really add to that beloved sense of immersion that I always find myself desperately seeking. A good film can make us look at a social issue in a different light, and a good song can make us appreciate problems we’ve never considered. A good, creative video game is no different. Spec Ops: The Line made me re-examine the entire player-character relationship, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell handed me a gun and then forced me not to use it.
There’s a reason I’m always banging on the “games are art” drum; because, like art, a good game leaves an impression on you, and while it’s definitely not for everyone, Papers, Please, essentially a bureaucratic red tape simulator, does that. Taking place in a fictional Slavic country called Arstotzka, the player takes on the role of a border checkpoint officer, examining the paperwork of people entering the country and deciding whether or not you should allow them to come in. You must work efficient but quickly; at the end of the day, your meager earnings are divided up to keep your family alive in this depression-rich Dystopian world. Each day, the requirements for passing the checkpoint become more and more complex, forcing the player to think on their feet and make quick, questionable decisions. Performance and choices made will result in one of twenty unique endings.
I’m going to start by saying I love this game, and most people won’t. It’s boring, it’s depressing, it’s complicated, and I’m still not really sure if there’s a way to win that’s satisfying. However, I’m pretty sure that’s the point. Every single bit of this game’s design, from the logo, to the music, to the bland paperwork, and the rundown look of the characters themselves, reeks of depression era communism, and it just works. When you call for the next applicant, your voice is a horrible gurgling over the loudspeaker. When an applicant has been proven suspicious, they’re dragged away by armed guards – and you really get the feeling they’re not going to the sort of prison you or I know. These guys are going to some kind of gulag, and they’ll never be seen again. Dialogue exchange occurs in text, always written in slightly amusing broken English. “Where is passport?” “I am sorry, I have here.” I myself found I would occasionally speak in a stereotypical Russian accent while examining the papers, I was so immersed.
When you play this game, you get the feeling that every character is absolutely miserable in this world, and I love it. The gameplay is relatively simple, but ramps up the difficulty fast. You have a desk, an area to view documents, and an amusing retro overlay of the checkpoint above it all. Applicants hand you their documents depending on where they come from and what they’re doing, and your job is to seek out discrepancies; mismatched dates, ID numbers, names, issuing cities, and more are to be considered, and as fast as possible. You can question the applicants for more information, get their fingerprints, search them, and eventually, stamp their passport with either “Entry Granted” or “Entry Denied”. It starts out easy; you only allow citizens from Arstotzka, then you allow foreigners with a valid entry ticket, then you allow foreigners with a valid entry permit, etc., until your desk is so cluttered with paperwork you can’t see the bottom. You get thrown curveballs in the form of sob stories from desperate would-be immigrants who will bribe you, or secret organizations that beg you to choose a side in this nation’s grim civil war. You end up making some pretty tough choices. What’s more important to you? Turning the heat back on so your uncle can stop being sick, or stopping a petty drug dealer from entering Arstotzka? But you’d better keep up; the work day is short, and you need to pay the rent, and provide food and heat for your family, who are relying desperately on the small earnings you’re making to survive.
If you thought it sounded boring, you’re right. The whole game is a simulation of how truly dreadful this sort of world is, and while Arstotzka is fictional enough, the issues the game deals with are very real and very important. I found myself truly immersed in my role, turning into a moody anti-government shill, taking whatever came my way to just to make sure I could get to the next day. I hated Arstotzka for paying me so little and making the job so complicated. At one point I was handed keys to a weapon box to stop terrorist attacks, and I thought, “I’m not qualified for this! You guys hired me two weeks ago!” I ended up not caring about the uproar I caused on the other side of the Grestin checkpoint, and as a result, I was hauled off to prison under suspicion of treason, with my family booted back into the ghettos of Arstotzka. An appropriate ending for such a dreary game, really. But is there a game in the world (except Portal) with no problems whatsoever? Of course not, and the ones I have with Papers, Please are fairly minor.
For instance, certain aspects of the discrepancies are incredibly hard to deal with; eventually, I gave up on trying to figure out anybody’s height, because their hair could be anywhere from one to sixteen inches tall, apparently. Additionally, the game’s graphical style causes everyone’s fingerprints to look pretty damn similar, which is sort of fixed by the fact that you can cheat and use the godly “discrepancy checker” tool. However, that may fail you. Knowing what two items to highlight can be tricky, at times, especially later on in the game when your rulebook gets to be biblical in length. However, these are small complaints, and they’re for a game that’s supposed to be hard. I think if you’re not at least a little irritated while playing it, it’s not doing its job. That aside, one aspect of the game is almost world-breaking for me: every time you mess up someone’s paperwork, you get a citation, and eventually get fined. Every single time. Which means that your job as a border officer is completely redundant, because someone is just behind you and able to spot all errors with 100% efficiency. While citations and supervisors do make the game more realistic, the fact that every mistake is logged reminded me that I was playing a game – and a game that wants to annoy me. It’d be fine if it were every other mistake, or every couple of mistakes, but having this unseen higher-up be completely infallible is just sort of stupid. In the end, if you like to play games as an experience, I recommend Papers, Please. You won’t have fun, exactly, not with what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want to play it if you’re a big fan of, say, Call of Duty. But, maybe, if you’re like me, you’ll see it for its message. You’ll notice what the developers were trying to get you to see, and you’ll smirk a little, appreciating the world of art that is video games that much more.