The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 4

By RPS on December 4th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

Hmmmmmm. Okay. And just look into here… Thank you. Place your thumb here… Thank you. Okay. Yes. Yes, you can proceed to open door number 2.

It’s Papers, Please!

Alec: “Roleplaying game” – now there’s a term we’ve managed to make mean the sum total of diddly squat and naff all over the years. Sure, games that fall under its bailiwick do indeed entail playing a role, but be that role space marine, fancy-trousered elf or cola-quaffing post-apocalyptic survivalist, all it really means is “killer.” Sometimes it can be a killer who occasionally chooses not to kill, or to say words that make him or her feel as though he or she is something more than a killer. But killer, ultimately, is their role, and their goal is killing.

Papers, Please is a real role-playing game: it puts you inside the skin of another and makes them feel what they feel, do what they have to do, suffer like they suffer, perpetrate like the perpetrate. In a way, the role you play could still be said to be “killer”, but indirectly so, and with consequences far more haunting. What happened to that old man I turned away from the gates of the country I serve? What horrors did the younger man of dubious intent and suspect paperwork, who I let in even though I knew I shouldn’t, bring about once he was granted passage? What terrible fate has befallen my family because of my inability to perform my duties correctly?

Killer. Worse than a killer; a killer who may never see his victims, may never even know if they were victims, and who never meant for them to be killed, but has to live with the guilt of it regardless.

Or perhaps, as I play that role, I could choose not to have that guilt. Efficiency! Duty! Country! Fear. Absolute, overwhelming, fear. Worse than any guilt.

Papers, Please is as powerful a game as I’ve ever played. It doesn’t just have me play a role – it trepans me, forces the role through the ragged hole in my skull and into my brain, where it squats there like some demon parasite, forcing me to suffer, forcing me to cause suffering, forcing me to keep on going, doing these terrible things even though everything in me tells me ‘no, get away from this, it will pollute you.’ But I stay, both because it is a videogame with videogame challenges, as confident an operate of Skinner’s monstrous box as any Farmville or Diablo, and also because I feel I am learning something important. Learning how to play a role that, thank all the gods I do not believe in, I am so very far away from in reality.

John: I missed the point of Papers, Please, and still thought it was incredible. In my first few plays through, I was incompetent enough that I didn’t get to see the depth and complexity it eventually reaches, and yet still found it to be an utterly absorbing and fascinating game. I think that speaks much of why this is one of 2013′s most extraordinary games.

As Matt Lees recently pointed out on Charlie Brooker’s recent How Videogames Changed The World, Papers, Please is a game that has you experience guilt. And that, as he also pointed out, is unique to gaming. You can feel empathy with guilt in a great book or movie, you can get caught up in someone else’s mess, but here the guilt is your own. It’s not, at the same time, obviously – sorry to anyone who hasn’t realised, but the crudely-drawn characters are only pretend people in a pretend country. But it’s your agency here (sorry to use that overtrodden word) that makes the difference. It’s your own realisation that you’d rather see injustice happen to keep your family alive, despite what noble moral values you may think you hold going in. And then it’s that ghostly slip into corruption. You weren’t corrupt. Now you are corrupt. You don’t remember the day or moment it happened.

For me, it was when I was detaining someone “just in case”. That’s when I knew I’d fallen. “Just in case”. God, isn’t that the concept at the centre of humanity’s failings? Isn’t that the rationale behind the monstrosity of places like Guantanamo Bay? I’ll ruin this person’s entire life, and that of their family, just in case. Just in case I get a financial penalty, in case this brings about my third ticking off of the day. And yes, part of this is actually because it’s a game – this decision is most prudent in my continued success at playing this. And there Papers, Please reveals its masterstroke: it’s a game where continued success may well be the moment you stop playing.

Nathan: Many games have driven me to take breaks while playing them. A particularly tough puzzler might require a breather lest it spark a meltdown in my smoking, sparking brain reactor, and you can only go on so many multi-hour MMO dungeon runs before it’s time for a little fresh air. Oh, and there was that one time I marathoned a bunch of first-person shooters, downtime be damned. I dreamed in explosions for weeks afterward.

Papers, Please had me reeling after about 40 minutes, and not in a way any game before it had managed. I felt weary, my limbs physically heavy, while playing it. Even during early in-game “days,” the weight of the despicable actions I was performing and the reverberations they sent through the rest of my character’s tiny, gray world felt utterly inescapable. Senses-engulfing. Oppressive.

If I had to sum up Papers, Please in one word, that’s what I’d pick: oppressive.

The word’s meaning, of course, operates on multiple levels. Papers, Please is a game about systemic oppression – about the not-entirely-willing cogs in the wheels of these endlessly ravenous, paranoid machines. Pawns in a giant game of fear and control. But that’s the thing: these systems – no matter what sorts of monsters they might mutate into – cannot ever be entirely bereft of soul. They’re made up of human beings. There will always be a human element to them, bound and silenced though it might be.

In Papers, Please, I was trapped in the grinding, mashing, mutilating teeth of that machine. I did so, so, so many things I hated and disagreed with. I nearly quit on a couple occasions. “I’m better than this,” I thought. “My intentions are good. I am a good person. I have to be. I must be. That will never change.”

“Right?”

But the scariest – and therefore, most illuminating – moments were the ones in which my mindset naturally, gradually fell into perfect sync with that of the system I so vehemently despised. Seeds of mistrust were quickly sown. A few botched attempts at being The Good Guy – of believing that empathy and understanding can overcome all, make friends of enemies – resulted in penalties, murder, and terrorism. I became paranoid, sick with stress. If anyone even seemed suspicious, they were getting detained – their basic rights to privacy and freedom torn off their backs just like that. I couldn’t take any chances. People’s lives were in my hands, and back home, my family was counting on me. People pleaded to be let through, but how could I trust them? It was their well-being versus that of me and mine. I picked mine. Every time.

Many people accuse games of being escapist entertainment. Papers, Please is a game you escape from, not to. Upon finishing it (because no, I definitely didn’t “beat” it), I went outside and just sat on the ground. I took a deep breath. Here it was: my break, far beyond my breaking point. I was done. But the game definitely wasn’t done with me. I still think about it every time I look at colossal, formerly-radiation-emitting airport scanners (which I used to be utterly terrified of), or when I hear about things like the NSA’s multifarious surveillance hydra. China’s Internet censorship. Countless corrupt governments all over the world. There are people running those things, guiding them and being shaped by them. I think of how little it takes for good intentions to turn sour – for good people to be corrupted by machines far beyond their (or anyone’s) control.

But in that moment, when I’d just finished Papers, Please, I thought of a Reddit AMA I’d read a few months prior. It was hosted by the son of a former Soviet Red Army sergeant who’d been stationed in a Siberian prison camp. The son was translating, and the father was sharing all of his stories. His viewpoints seemed like those of a good man, an upstanding one, even. But he’d done horrible things. His explanation, in light of what I’d done while playing the game, became all the more chilling:

“We knew. But the reality is we didn’t really care much. We were too busy trying to survive, to shoot a stray dog so we could eat.”

“They were masters of propaganda. They knew how to talk to the hungry. When you’re hungry and naked, you’ll believe anyone who can make an argument while showing you a scapegoat.”

Back to the calendar!

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45 Comments »

  1. Hodge says:

    I thought this one might have taken out the top spot (and it sounds like it came close). Brilliant game.

    • RaveTurned says:

      M.O.A. Citation

      Protocol Violated
      Papers, Please not awarded correct placement

      PENALTY ASSESSED – 5 CREDITS

      Glory to Arstotzka!

    • Revolving Ocelot says:

      I reckon Rogue Legacy will take the top spot. Just started NG+ on it. It is kicking my arse all over once again.

      As for Papers Please, like the post further below, I don’t think I can bring myself to play this. I did suffer through Spec Ops, and came out the other side a little more morose for it.

      • mouton says:

        Haha, who could have thought :D

      • The Random One says:

        My bet for GotY is Gone Home. But I’m surprised to see P,P so early in the calendar – it’s a strong contender.

        • Inglourious Badger says:

          (Aware you may be trolling but….) THE CALENDAR DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY! The last game is GotY. Everything else is in a random order. Simples.

          • Lambchops says:

            I have a feeling the order is about as random as the order reality TV show contestants are revealed as being safe; ie massaged to produce some dramatic tension.

            Still doesn’t mean the order they are revealed is the order the games are rated though!

            Plus I wouldn’t put it past RPS to try and subvert that expectation, but even then is a choice to to make the results completely random is still a definite choice (sorry, this is what playing the Stanley Parable for the first time the other night has done to me!).

  2. Meat Circus says:

    A firm contender for goatee, and a game that I can barely bring myself to play.

    • Erzerpel says:

      I second that emotion!

    • Drake Sigar says:

      The Walking Dead broke me down on an emotional level last year, this year it was Paper’s Please. These are the rare games that have you walking away from the computer and reflecting in silence at what you’d just been part of. It shows games have much more offer than an adrenaline rush, or a limited spectrum of feelings tightly associated with fun.

    • quietone says:

      Indeed. This year has been good for the emotionally involving games. Gone Home was deeply moving, but this one…I felt like one of Milgram’s subjects. In Gone Home I felt sympathy for the girl and her world. Here, I was merely nauseated with myself and the things I was doing. I could kill a gazillion bystanders in GTA, no problem, except that is boring. I cannot reject a passport in Papers, Please without hating myself for it.

      Impressive.

  3. zachforrest says:

    The Leveson enquiry’s key finding: bailiwick is a word that you can say

  4. Lanfranc says:

    I got this game last week, have finished it three times so far, and each ending has been more horrifying than the last. Glory to Arstotzka.

  5. moocow says:

    minor pedantry: John – it was Neil Druckmann (he of The Last Of Us) who talked about the guilt in Papers, Please being unique to games. Lees made the insightful comments about slipping into corruption unnoticed.

    • Thirith says:

      Not sure I agree with the point, though. I can think of a number of stories in other media that make me feel complicit in a character’s crimes, even cheer for them, and regardless of whether that character comes to feel guilt, that moment when I realise I’ve ben cheering on a monster makes me feel as guilty as killing yet another magnificent beast in Shadow of the Colossus. The sensation isn’t necessarily 100% identical, but I think it’s fair to call that emotional reaction guilt, unless we’re not talking about “feeling guilt” but about “being guilty” (and even then it’s not necessarily all that clear cut).

  6. kregg says:

    came for the calendar reveal, stayed for the dongs.

  7. MuscleHorse says:

    Will probably pick this up in the Christmas sale. Every other time it’s been on sale, I haven’t been depressed enough to play it.

    • mouton says:

      It’s not depressing per se. It has a bunch of funny elements and positive outcomes. It’s just about how the whole atmosphere, the system that slowly, barely noticeably but surely grinds you down.

  8. Timberwolf says:

    I am a horrible person, driven only by an intense sense of self-preservation. I start to resent the people whose papers are all present and correct, not for denying my opportunities for bribes from guards but because every person I let through the checkpoint brings uncertainty. Have I missed something? Will the printer buzz with a penalty assessment moments later? After a run of correct passports I will get complacent, start making mistakes.

    People who can be denied are my friends. A forged seal, an expired pass or a fraudulent name represent a comfortable security, one where I can safely send them away to their horrible fate knowing that I will not get in trouble for what I have done. There is no joy in the power, but there is safety.

    I am a horrible person.

  9. Person of Interest says:

    This was linked a week or two ago, but in case interested folks missed it: Lucas Pope, the creator of Papers, Please, kept a development log through the entire process. You’ll want to read it if you’re a fan of the game! I got the impression that Pope’s a true gentleman and astoundingly talented. http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=29750

    You can skip to his post-mortem, if you desire. This post of his links to all the other post-mortem posts: http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=29750.msg968764#msg968764

    • Lambchops says:

      Cheers for that.

      I had wondered about why they let you make mistakes when citation guy was clearly on top of things and had accepted it a necessary mechanic for the game to work; good to see that the dev had spent some time wrestling it and was willing to keep a bit of implausibility rather than break the mechanics. Still can’t help think there might be another interesting way around this but alas I’m not smart enough to think of one myself!

  10. Kollega says:

    I will never, ever play Papers, Please. Call it what you want – weakness, cowardice, an unwillingness to face the horrifying, crushing, Orwellian reality. But I already know how horrible the real world is, and whenever I think of it, I start contemplating terrorism, suicide, and other appropriately horrible things. Games, for me, are a means of escaping this horror, a means of pretending that some things I do might change something for the better, however small and insignificant it may be.

    And incidentially, this is why I will never, ever play Spec Ops: The Line either.

    • mouton says:

      Weren’t you Russian? If so, then Papers Please will make a considerably smaller impact on you than on the Western folk.

      • Kollega says:

        I am Russian, but thoroughly Western in terms of values. I’m not going to brush off Stalin’s terror campaigns as “something that had to happen”, for instance. And so, facing the horrors of totalitarian bureaucracy is still very troubling for me… just because it’s part and parcel of living here doesn’t mean that I feel any better about it. So if I can avoid it, I’d rather do so.

  11. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I love games that make you question your beliefs. Civ 5 made me do that as I found myself driven to recruit spies and attack other countries before their suspiciously massed armies attacked me. I don’t know why The Establishment is so against video games. They seem to be a great tool for selling us their ways of thinking.

  12. sophof says:

    The problem with this game is that I played it once and since then haven’t been able to convince myself to play again. That’s also the good thing about it I guess…

    • Lambchops says:

      I don’t think a second play is necessary really; depending on whether you are slightly odd and find that you want more than about 4 hours of stamping passports!

      Guess you could replay the days at the end, find a few more endings but a full second play through doesn’t seem necessary to appreciate the game fully.

      Have to say I’m bemused that anyone would ever want to play “endless” mode, but I guess there are some masochists out there who might enjoy that sort of thing.

  13. Pliqu3011 says:

    Maybe a bit off-topic, but is that “Shaddy Safadi” from the first screenshot a reference to the quite well-known concept artist?

  14. Lambchops says:

    Just played this earlier this week. It is indeed excellent.

    I doubt I’ll return to it as part of it’s success is the mundane nature of the data sorting task, it does have its satisfactions, particularly the big stamps and the tense wait to see if citations are forthcoming. However I think the devs realised that it may start to try players patience and wisely streamlined things somewhat at the endgame to allow you to focus on how the plot was going to pan out.

    While I was intrigued to see the outcomes of various other choices I could have made I did this via the medium of Wikis and Youtube; the game was a brilliant experience and is certainly one of the most successful games at engendering feelings of guilt and self doubt (Walking Dead comes closest, and thanks to Clem engenders stronger emotional bonds but ultimately during that you tend to feel like you are doing “the right thing TM” and don’t tend to guilt as much).

    Something that could only have worked as effectively as it did due to the gaming medium, wonderful aesthetics and design, makes you think. A triumph and a must play.

  15. Inglourious Badger says:

    Oooh, the first game on the list I thought was contender for GotY. Such an original piece of work in terms of gameplay (and there is gameplay, this isn’t another ‘art-game’ hand holding exercise), setting, style and that guilt-ridden emotional reaction.

    Must confess I haven’t finished it yet (except for the “you’re in debt so you and your family must go to prison” ending) I can only play a day at a time without getting overwhelmed with your conflicting priorities and losing the concentration needed to play it well. Repetitious gameplay probably is it’s weakest point, but so is most every games. It wouldn’t have the same impact if you didn’t sit at that same desk every day, and the complexity and story ramp up all the time so I’m not sure what people are complaining about there. Presumably off to play FPSes and MMOs instead. They’re not repetitive at all.

    Like Alec said, in terms of delivering a game in which you play a role it is a brilliant role playing game.

  16. apa says:

    Nathan’s feelings mirror mine. I only played the demo and even that was chilling. Reviewers in magazines and other sites who shout “glory to arstotzka” without seeing what the game reveals make me sick. I fear that there are people in developed, nice, comfortable western countries who really do not understand oppression, inequality and human rights violations.

    I like to think that my satire radar was broken and the reviewers were just joking.

  17. Danda says:

    I agree with many other people here: this game is one of the best of the year. Maybe not THE best because it’s so damn oppressive, but it’s excellent anyway.

  18. Bluerps says:

    I’m with the people who will probably never play this. I’ve bought it, and I believe that it is an amazing game and I will bring it up in every discussion in which someone claims that all games are Call of Duty, but I don’t think I’ll ever play it. Why would I want to inflict this on myself?

  19. strangeloup says:

    I really like the concept of Papers Please, but I found the perhaps-deliberate busywork of the actual gameplay made me disconnect from the fiction.

    Also, given that I’ve struggled with severe depression for most of my life, I’m pretty good at making myself feel like a terrible person without a game doing it too. Nine and a half times out of ten I’ll take the escapism instead.

  20. cpt_freakout says:

    To everyone saying you won’t play this because of the sadness/real world reminder: I hear you, but you should still play it! Like a good horror movie, it will make you think about a lot of things that are not necessarily sad or depressing, in the sense that it might bring to the fore certain fundamental things about yourself that you might have ignored. That is, of course, if you play along and identify with the game. For instance, you can help the insurgents, and how that pans out depends on your in-game actions, but how you interpret it depends solely on who you are, which will produce questions you might have not had before. I know this all sounds very vague, but I do think that this game is, more than anything, putting you on questioning, not in the inquisitorial sense but simply as raising a kind of self-awareness not usually produced by videogames. TL;DR: give it a shot sometime!

  21. Moth Bones says:

    I can’t bring myself to play this. In addition to the bleak premise, it sounds like a simulator of working for the DWP (for non-UK readers, this is the department of government in charge of welfare benefits and specifically their withdrawal, which plunges people into penury on often laughable grounds). Is it a British game? If so, I strongly suspect they also had in mind the sanctions regime, and the pressure on DWP staff to sanction as many claimants as possible.

    I mean, it sounds terrific and valuable, but it’s too close to home for me right now.

  22. Hordriss says:

    Definitely one of my games of the year.

  23. colorlessness says:

    Yeah, I thought this was GOTY, but what do I know? Curious to see what RPS actually chooses as goatee then.

  24. Vinraith says:

    I have no idea why anyone would want to play this game. I’m not saying it’s poorly done, I’m not saying it’s an unimportant message, I just can’t imagine using what little gaming time I have to check pretend paperwork and get depressed about it.

    • Damien Stark says:

      I feel the need to reply to this, since I almost always agree with your take on things – to the point that I often have something to say, scroll down, see “oh good, Vinraith already said it” and move on.

      It’s not nearly as bad as they’re making it sound. The gameplay can actually be quite fun! Sure it sounds dull, but mechanically it’s no less dull than “I just picked up two new weapons, let me scroll through my inventory to compare the damage numbers and identify the character class most benefitted by them then click Equip on one item and Sell on another”.

      Optimizing the layout of documents on your desk for quick reference and maximum efficiency really is no more tedious than optimizing character builds for an RPG or build orders for an RTS. As Timbewolf says above, finding a discrepancy actually made me happy and excited, whereas finding everything in order and stamping Approved actually made me briefly nervous and worried.

      Lastly, there are some genuine moments of humor or humanity in there as well. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s not all “Life is miserable and you’re miserable and both are your fault”. I can say that while everyone is correct about the message and experience and viewpoint, I actually enjoyed playing it and am glad I did.

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