Sunday, September 8, 2013
I love fiction surrounding totalitarian dystopias. 1984 many well be my favorite novel of all time, and Brave New World sits pretty high up there, too. Sadly, though the basic setting of crumbling, fearful societies policed ruthlessly by oppressive, virtually omnipotent governments is common in gaming, the application is generally superficial. It's kind of the cyberpunk alternative to a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a world at war with futuristic monsters, since those three pillars of action seem to be the only versions of the future where running around shooting people is an acceptable pastime. A dystopian game that feels genuinely grim and hopeless, which leaves the player with little power to affect the monolithic hand of his oppressors, is a rare commodity.
Papers, Please is that rare game. You are a 1980s bureaucrat: a rubber stamp serving as the inspector at a militarized border checkpoint on the way into Arstotzka, which is basically a German-meets-Soviet totalitarian nation. All day you sit in your booth examining increasingly complex sets of travel documents and deciding if the person in front of you will gain entrance to the country. On the surface this may seem very dull. Admittedly the game is not what I would call "action-packed," but a number of interesting sub-plots involving covert political movements, government officials, terrorists, drug runners, and the desperate people who beg and bribe and coerce you for entrance all serve to flesh out the slate-grey world you inhabit.
I've been fighting not to overuse the word "oppressive" in this article, but that really is the best term for almost everything about the game. The music and sound is oppressive, with monotonous marching themes and crackling orders barked indistinctly over loudspeakers. The graphics are oppressive, consisting of a primitive and largely colorless 16-bit rendering of a desk setting and an overview of the guarded area outside your booth. The writing is oppressive, making you feel nearly as trapped and powerless as the nervous souls awaiting your judgement. Even the game mechanics are oppressive, forcing you to maintain vigilant focus as you balance quality control with speed so you can bring home enough of a paycheck to keep your family afloat for another day.
There are obviously some downsides, largely self-evident ones, to playing a game that consists of examining paperwork in a darkly depressing environment while a demanding employer looks over your shoulder, criticizing your failures and basically ignoring your successes. One could be forgiven for thinking this just sounds like a bad office job. The tension, atmosphere, and genuine immersive involvement of this game more than compensate for those flaws, though. Everything on your desk can be handled and moved and shuffled and organized in a way that feels so much more real than you might expect. This tangibility, small as it may seem, greatly enhances gameplay. More importantly, though, the player's moral compass is tested in far more interesting and subtle ways than the typical "this is the good decision, that is the evil decision" method we see so often in modern games. Instead, you inhabit a grey area, and you try to do what you can while recognizing the simple fact that your can't afford to help everyone. In the same vein, you can't even play the full-on heartlessly obedient government stooge, as it's virtually impossible to keep your bills paid and your family alive unless you dip a hand into the cookie jar of bribery and mutual favors now and then.
The closest game to this that I can think of would be Cart Life, and some older gamers may feel that it plays a bit like a dark, micro-managed Oregon Trail. In reality I don't think there's anything else out there quite like this game. I'd heartily recommend it to anybody who has a degree of patience and an interest in dystopian fiction, because I think those gamers will find that Papers, Please gives a big payoff for a modest price.