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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 4

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."


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."

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