Friday, 7 February 2014

Papers, Please: An Extensive Appraisal

With all these large development teams big-budgets spent on motion-capture, film-like cutscenes, top-notch voice actors and an elaborate script, a 2D pixel-art game about paperwork tells a better story than any other game this year. It has no voice acting, apart from the 4 separate sound clips of gurble used to indicate speech, it has no cinematic, 20 minute-long cutscenes that make you feel as if you're watching a movie instead of playing a game, the faces that you see past the desk and on the passports were seemingly made on MS Paint, and it was made by one guy. Let that sink it for a moment. One guy, with inexpensive tools and access to Steam Greenlight, told a deeper, more personal, intricate and well-structured story than any video game that came out in 2013. Maybe I'm giving it too much credit, because I like the indie game revolution and it's good to see such a humble game get huge amounts of credit (GOTY awards from Wired, The New Yorker, Ars Technica), but after playing the game a few times, I feel as if I can pin down what I felt was important and resonant about Papers, Please.
From what I've read from different players, the interpretation of Papers, Please different from player to player. Some say it's about a totalitarian government, some say it's about the struggles and emotional toll of a soul-crushingly depressing desk-job, and others think it's just a game about checking paperwork. All of those things are true, but for me, Papers, Please was about mainly power, moral choice and all of its consequences. Moral choice mechanics are handled so poorly in most games, with a binary 'Good' or 'Evil' option. It's what brought down Infamous for me. With these mechanics, it's not about doing what makes sense, or doing what you want, it's about doing whatever will get you the most points so you can get your next upgrade. It's an incredibly stupid mechanic which doesn't belong in any game, indie or big-budget. With Papers, Please, it's not about getting your upgrades, it's about doing the right thing. Your family is on the line here. If you follow the rules with extreme rigour and haste, you will feed your family, but along the way you run into a law-abiding citizen with a minor discrepancy, or a criminal with the correct paperwork, and you must decide between breaking the rules and doing the right thing, or abiding by the rules despite the moral injustice, but you and your family are fed, sheltered and well. What matters most to you?

A main point of criticism for the game was the the central gameplay mechanic was boring. You check paperwork, you either decline or approve their paperwork. It seems boring, but that's not really what is at the centre of the game. The gameplay is intentionally soul-crushingly tedious, to emphasise the bleak and hopeless atmosphere of the game, but it becomes bleaker and less hopeful when your day is interrupted by a terrorist attack, or when someone curses at you for not letting them through, or when that annoying printing sound points out that you've forgotten to check all the discrepancies that no normal human being would really look for or care about; it all takes a toll on you. At the end of the day, you get your paycheck, and here lies even more emotional tolls. All of your money goes to feed your family and maintain their well-being. We can all relate to a family here. We're not using this money for a greater cause, like craft anti-alien weapons or save the world, we're simply working to feed our family. It's certainly relatable if nothing else, and it's what engrosses us; you instantly care about providing and maintaining a family system. 

The thing is, your wife and son and mother in law and uncle don't have a name, or a face, or a personality of any kind. It simply says their title, and their state of well-being. Could this be an allusion to the middle-class underachievers in a dead-end job working like a clockwork orange to provide for a family that they don't talk to with no hope or variety in their life? Could the inspector be Lester Burnham or a similar character?  Could be, but when taking on the role of a border-patrol inspector, you have the choice to overthrow the totalitarian government you are victim to by way of a rebel group requiring your help to let the right people in (with the wrong paperwork) and the bad people out (with the right paperwork), potentially putting some excitement and fulfilment in your life. Or not. You can carry on with your routine like the bloody coward you are. 

It's been 6 months since its release, and over a month since it was awarded numerous Game of the Year awards, but it still remains distinct in my memory. A game about paperwork manages to stick with me longer than The Last of Us and certainly Beyond: Two Souls, and in traditional game terms, it shouldn't be traditionally fun or engaging, let alone artistically resonant and a hallmark of game design. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that Papers, Please gets to me more than Telltale's Walking Dead. 'How so?', you may ask, to which I answer, 'Play the god-damn game. It's beautifully bleak, soul-crushing, depressing and claustrophobic, but suprising, morally-questioning, often-hilarious and thought-provoking'. Eat that, Triple-A games industry.