Monday, December 16, 2013

Indie-Cember: Papers, Please

Papers, Please
  • Developer/Lead Designer: Lucas Pope 
  • Release: PC/Mac, 8 August 2013 
  • Genre: Puzzle 
  • Players: 1 
  • Rarity/Cost: DLC, US$10
The nice thing about the indie game scene, as is becoming increasingly apparent given the glut of bland shooters that the triple-A publishers appear increasingly reliant on, is its willingness to take chances on unconventional genres. I mean, gone are the days where paying for something like Silent Service (NES, 1989) or Wall Street Kid (NES, 1990) was considered acceptable. So it is with some degree of interest that I chanced upon the likes of Papers, Please near the end of this past summer. This game, it turns out, was inspired by its creator Lucas Pope's experiences as an American living abroad in Japan, and all of the immigration finagling he had to deal with.1 The closest thing I could compare Papers, Please to is one of those spot-the-differences puzzles, albeit with immigration documents. So does the game manage to make this concept compelling, and if so, how? Read on.

The story has a simple setup: In the fictional, faux-communist nation of Arstotzka, the government has just opened a border crossing and you have been drafted to control the flow of immigrants. You do this by examining the documents of everyone who tries to enter the country. Like the story, the gameplay also starts off simply. On the first day, your only rule is to deny people who, according to their passports, are not Arstotzkan citizens. The next day, you get to allow anyone whose documents have not expired. From then on, new conditions are introduced almost every day. When something in someone's papers breaks one of the rules or contradicts another document, you have to click on the X icon in the lower-right corner of the screen, click on the conflicting evidence, and interrogate him or her on it. You could save time by just denying entry then and there, but sometimes people will present additional papers on questioning, so you can't just assume anything. Plus, later on, you'll have to use a reason-for-denial stamp or else face a penalty. And just a few days into the game, you are granted the ability to arrest people instead of simply denying them entry, which for functionality's sake is pretty much the same thing until one of the guards comes along and pays you a small bonus for everyone you detain. In following this format, Papers, Please does a good job of setting up the basics early on, with plenty of room to experiment with new concepts as the game goes on.
You must search for discrepancies and interrogate the person about them.
Certainly a concept like this could never make for an interesting game unless the story was up to snuff, but thankfully, Papers, Please has this checkpoint covered, so to speak. The immigrants who attempts to filter through your office are for the most part randomly-generated, but there are also a great deal of scripted events. For example, say a husband has his papers in order, but next in line is his wife who has an error in one of her papers. According to the rules, you would have to separate them. But what would happen if you let her through? Or say a journalist attempts to enter with naught but press credentials, which your superiors won't accept? Would you prefer to face her newspaper-based wrath, or would you let her in and accept the penalty? And then there's the sub-plot involving the mysterious anti-government organisation EZIC (not to be confused with Ezio of Assassin's Creed II). Are their goals worth pursuing, and what will happen if you do or don't complete their requests?

With all the stories presented by the numerous NPCs of Papers, Please, there are a whopping 20 endings to be had. Although admittedly, many of them are similar to one another and are just glorified Game Over screens. Luckily, you've got a fair bit of room in order to experiment and discover them, but not without penalty. If you make a mistake, intentionally or otherwise, you miss out on the pay you would've gotten for processing that immigrant, you'll get a citation by the invisible officials who rather redundantly check your work behind the scenes, and starting with the third mistake per day, you get an additional monetary penalty. Oh and by the way, that printer sound which accompanies those citations is scarier than any jump scare I could imagine in a video game, thus making those seconds after you stamp a guy's passport and wait for said noise an oddly tense moment. But your progress gets saved after each day, so if you're not satisfied with your performance on a given day, you're welcome to quit before saving and not lose that much progress. Even better, you can jump back to any previous day, and your progress from then on will be saved in a new timeline.
New forms of documentation come into play throughout the game.
But say you'd prefer to soldier on and play this game by the book. No problem, it's just one of the many ways to experience Papers, Please. Your incentive to keep making money is to provide food and heat for your family, but let me tell you, I'd feel much more compelled to do so if they weren't represented simply by icons on a status screen. Let's see, what else can I pick on... The graphics have a pixellated, late-80s aesthetic which undoubtedly made the game simpler to design, and thus enabled the developer to focus on writing stories for all those characters, but the lack of detail can make it difficult to compare people's faces with their passport photographs, for example. Also, why do the people in this universe have multi-coloured skin? If I had to guess, it's either to stay in line with the palette limitations he's trying to emulate, or to diffuse our expectations involving race. If so, then well played, mister Pope.

Just because Papers, Please employs a set of nations and peoples unlike our own, that doesn't mean we can't gleam some insight into our own world from it. When you have a repressive system, say the Arstotzkan border controls, there are people who play by its rules, and there are people who run counter to the system, either in the form of bribery or simple requests. As such, moral choices are pervasive in this game, and for once they're not always good versus evil. More often than not the situations force us to choose between reason and emotion; in literary terms, these are conflicts of an Apollonian versus Dionysian nature (or if you'd rather, a Spock vs. McCoy nature). And the possibility that breaking the rules may yield something more interesting, if not better, down the line is a much-needed way to spice up the concept. So whether you feel like making a difference in someone else's virtual life or you'd prefer to look out for number one, there's no wrong way to play Papers, Please -- except to not play it at all.

+ Unique, simple, and evolving gameplay.
+ Many branching storylines and endings to find.
+ Engrossing use of scripted events.

- The pixelised art style is an acquired taste.

Controls: 4 passports out of 5
Design: 5 passports out of 5
Graphics: 3 passports out of 5
Audio: 4 passports out of 5
Value: 4 passports out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Gwaltney, Javy (April 14, 2013). "Glory To Arstotzka: Papers, Please And An Interview With Its Creator". CultureMass.

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