Papers, Please: Do Games Have To Be Fun to Be Engaging? Not Really

_I purchased Papers, Please after watching somebody stream it. I’m not entirely sure why. The gameplay housed within delivers all of the fun you’d expect from bureaucracy and sifting through paperwork in a “Spot the differences between the two pictures” only the pictures are actually things like dates and names on passports and work permits. The gameplay is not exhilarating. Spotting discrepancies does not give you a sense of fulfillment. You do not feel accomplished when you go through 5 different pieces of paper someone handed you, meticulously look them all over, approve entry, and you don’t get a violation notice.

So why is Papers, Please still completely engaging?

_You are Nameless McNoface. Your name has been pulled from the job lottery and you are the new immigration inspector at the western border of Russia Arstotzka. Arstotzka is a communist state. The game plays out over the course of the first month of the border opening.

There’s…a lot happening in Papers, Please. A lot of stuff I’m not sure how to describe without ruining some of the experience. But I’m gonna try. And will probably spoil a bunch of it. It’s ok.

_Day 1: You show up to work. There is only one rule: Arstotzka citizens allowed entry, all others denied. So all you do is check the country, allow Arstotzkans entry, deny everybody else. Simple. The next day, you get a memo: Foreigners are allowed entry, as long as their information checks out. Cool…until somebody hops the wall and lobs a grenade at the guards. It’s suspected it was some dirty foreigners, still bitter at Arstotzka over the war, so security is increased at the border and non-citizens require an entry ticket. Next day, the press prints a story on the smuggling occurring at the border. Security is tightened again, and more papers are required. Every day, things continue escalating. What started as just checking a passport becomes a passport and an entry ticket, which becomes a passport and an entry slip, then a work permit, then an ID card…and so-on. All in the name of public safety.

In the form of video game, Lucas Pope showcases the slippery the slope of fear culture. With every attack, Arstotzkan leaders instill more safety measures at the border to protect their citizens. By the end of the month, you’re checking people’s weight, height and gender with x-ray machines, checking their background on names changes, you can see their immunization records for the past 3 years, among other things. Want to know how quickly a government can start invading its citizens privacy? Papers, Please can show you.

_After a few days, a strange masked man shows up and hands you a slip of paper to read. It says that the Arstotzkan system needs to be taken down and that you should help them in their cause. You’re not given an option to directly tell him yes or no before he leaves. You choice comes via letting their people through or turning them away. Is terrorism an acceptable form of rebellion against a government you disagree with?

Past the political aspect, the game also gives you emotional choices. While most people you’ll see in a given day are randomized, every day usually has one scripted character. They might tell you about how excited they are to move to Arstotzka with their wife…and then you find that his wife has expired documents. Are you willing to split up a family just to save yourself from getting a citation? Or a man asks you to let a wanted criminal through who killed his daughter, wanting you to obtain his information to he can track him down and make him pay in a way the authorities never would.

_If all of this sounds pretty deep for a game about immigration bureaucracy, it’s because it kind of is. Part of the reason it’s so engrossing is how believable it is. You’re not in the shoes of a one man army soldier amassing a confirmed kill count that would make Simo Hayha look like a grunt. You’re not starting from humble beginnings to miraculously save the world. You’re not surviving a zombie apocalypse. You’re just a guy, randomly assigned to a crappy post, trying to do his job. People giving you sob stories about how they want to visit their son for the first time in 10 years with expired papers? If you’re worked, you’ve been there. “It’s my son’s birthday and he really wants a Ninja Turtles bike.” “Aw crap, I left my ID in the car.” We’ve been there, probably on both sides of the story. It’s a relatable situation in a believable scenario. It’s what makes the game so powerful.

_Video games, while held in higher esteem now than it was even 5 year ago, are still fighting for respectability. The front lines for “video games as art” is in the indie circle. There are games like Braid, Limbo or The Path, which seem to have been made specifically to tell people “Look! It’s art!” [Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Better than taking a dump and just declaring it art because it’s a unique snowflake. And I fucking love Braid]. I have no idea if Papers, Please is trying to be art. But it succeeds at it.

“Glory to Arstotzka.”

“Cause no trouble.”

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