Tuesday
Aug272013

QCF: Papers, Please

 

oral choices in most games are easy. Save enough little sisters in Bioshock- you get the good ending, kill any and you're the worlds biggest monster. These choices are so ultimately binary that it's easy to even forget that they're questions of morality to begin with. Even when dealing with a complex issue, there's always a prompt telling you what kind of decision you made, regardless of your reasoning. "Yes and no" or "right and wrong" stick firmly into our heads to the point where we'll always know where our choices take us and what kind of end game they'll eventually lead us to.

 

However, Papers, Please doesn't play by those rules. In fact, it doesn't really play by any. There's no right or wrong here, only moral uncertainty and shades of horrific grays that lead to an experience which is devastatingly horrific, monotonous, and perplexing fun at the same time. Basically, it's one of the most interesting and creative video games you'll play all year.

Just don't expect to leave it feeling good about yourself.

Welcome to Arstotzka! A fictional, yet shockingly realistic communist state which has luckily granted you with a job at the border as an immigration inspector. Events start off incredibly easy from here. Deny certain immigrants, let the right ones through. However, these are only the basics and once you get to grips with your most powerful tools, a set of rubber stamps, you'll soon be sent the arduous task of combing through paperwork trying to find any tiny discrepancies you can. And it's not like you have room to make any mistakes. Let the wrong person in or kick the wrong guy out and you'll receive a citation, meaning you'll be paid a little less by the end of your shift. Fortunately, you get two free mistakes. However, you'll find yourself wanting more free passes as it gets harder and harder to keep track of the new rules and regulations being forced upon you daily.

 

 

 

A seemingly never-ending line of immigrants faces you every day, and if you don't get through as many as possible correctly, you simply won't have enough money to keep your invisible family alive. Even with a handy rule book by your side, there's always bound to be something simple you've missed, be it the persons weight or even their correct gender. And sometimes, people won't even put up with your assumptions anyways; they'll fight for their right to get in, which is when you'll need to correctly identify them. But don't worry -- you'll get the tools to do so, and if you can stomach violating some of their basic human rights then you'll be one step closer to denying them out of or accepting them into your glorious communist nightmare.

 

Suffice to say, there's a lot to keep track of. Papers, Please manages to keep the core gameplay (which remember, is virtual paperwork) fresh by mixing things up constantly and adding various new mechanics to monitor. You'll find yourself trying to work as fast as possible to get as much cash as you can, but with the dizzying amount of things to check through there's always a feeling that you've left out some rule or minimal archaic detail. What should be a monotonous experience then never gets dull, as I always felt a tension whenever anyone left my booth. Papers, Please is a deceptively nerve-wracking experience, and this is before you even enter the morally ambiguous territory.

 

Throughout the campaign you'll meet a varying degree of characters, all with personal histories and stories to tell. Immigrants will beg you to let them in, and denying them entry is practically a death sentence. But again, I have a family to feed and I don't know if I can go through choosing to either let them starve or go cold for a night again. You only have two free mistakes, after all, and unless you're a super-skilled brainiac you will be needing those. This is just one of many difficult choices that Papers, Please throws at you, but what makes this style of storytelling so unique in videogames is that it actually treats you like an adult. You won't need to see a text box saying that you made the "good" or "evil" choice, because the choices aren't so simple. You'll see the consequences of your actions across newspaper headlines, and with 20 endings you'll never be sure what route you're heading towards. Even if you do want to remain "neutral" or "good," trying to actually make that decision gets just as hard as anything else.

 

What is "good" in this world? Will it help you out? Again, you have a family to feed and letting them all die terminates your game. With this and the fact that I actually ended up developing a relationship with this world, self-preservation became the key for me. But just how far was I willing to go? This is something that Papers, Please flirts with throughout, and forces you to confront by the end of its short but perfectly concise story.

 

 

Through five intense hours, Papers, Please weaves political satire, emotional tangents, and even spy espionage into a complete narrative which you only see a small slice of. This makes the world feel infinitely bigger, but since the whole game takes place on one screen and one booth, it also feels very intimate. This is perhaps why I felt so attached to the characters that I saw repeatedly. Recurring NPCs make their way through your booth and you'll be forced into dealing with them like you would any other immigrant. However, they'll start sharing conversations and your workers will even begin to liaise with you. There's one character in particular that I actually grew affectionate for by the end of the game, and who started out as a joke became maybe my biggest ally in a world filled with corruption -- corruption that I even had a part in. Papers, Please manages to introduce many characters and is so well-written that these people start to feel almost real, which in turn creates horrible implications for anyone you have screwed over in this unemotional regime for personal gain.

 

This isn't to say that the game is a total downer. In fact, Papers, Please manages to inject moments of pitch dark comedy into the mix giving me some relief in an otherwise terrifying and taxing experience. However, this is short lived, as Papers, Please takes more twists and turns towards some of the most tense final minutes I've played in a game so far. Near the end of the story I was so invested into this world and my role inside it that I played on the literal edge of my seat, heart pumping furiously, trying to make sure I could escape Arstotzka once and for all.

 

But then again, that was just my ending. Depending on how you play, your choices could end up leaving you in an entirely different situation, which makes this game truly something special. In a game dealing with how the common man handles things in a cruel dystopian world, people are actually discovering the closest to how that would feel themselves and just what they might be prepared to do in that universe. Papers, Please is a game ripe for discussion, which is why I encourage everyone, not just conventional gamers, to give it a try. Sure, it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but those willing to put themselves into it will find a great reward, and maybe even something personal about themselves.

 

The thing that makes Papers, Please so frustrating to describe is that, mechanically, it's unlike any other game I've played. It's almost impossible to put into a box without attaching any labels that seem to contradict itself. Papers, Please could be best described as a "Phoenix Wright-styled puzzle game." You do interrogate people, after all, and you'll often need the correct evidence to succeed in your accusations, lest you gain a dreaded citation. Or could it be a simulation game? I did have to manage my funds and deciding what I could and couldn't go without became an essential part of the experience. The closest genre description I've seen so far is "thriller," and that weirdly enough sums up the entire game perfectly because there is no genre description for it. It is simply unlike any videogame I have played before.

 

 

Throughout my whole experience, Papers, Please didn't play with any established conventions at all. Whether it was plot, gameplay, or visuals, it managed to stay fresh in nearly every aspect. The sounds especially give great satisfaction and horror, and while the visuals seem gritty and aesthetically unpleasing, I can't think of a better look to suit this oppressive universe.

 

It's bleak, contradictory, and unfair. It's monotonous, yet fun. It's horrific, yet oddly funny. But make no mistake: Papers, Please will likely be one of the most distressing and morally complex experiences the videogame industry will have to offer for a while.

 

A common phrase throughout Papers, Please is "glory to Arstotzka." But what I found out is that there is no glory -- not even for ourselves.

 

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