Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I'm Playing: Papers, Please

It finally happened, you guys. I bit the bullet and installed Steam. I could no longer resist the siren song of all the indie games available on the platform. Grudgingly, I have expanded my PC gaming beyond Wesnoth and Minecraft!

JV was over the moon about this and got me some Steam credit for Christmas. I sat on it until the Winter Sale, and immediately pounced on Papers, Please. This was a game I first heard about via NPR. Considering that NPR reports on games once every never, that's how you know this is a must-play game.

Jorji is my favorite. 
People talk a lot about video games as art these days. Gamers in particular (a demographic I only tangentially belong to, if that) often get their undies in a bunch over the perceived legitimacy of their favorite pastime. I've always found that irritating, to be honest. Here's a hint: people aren't treating you like a child because you like video games. It's because you're acting like a child in every other respect

That's a rant for another day, though. What was I talking about? Video games! Art! 

There's never going to be a satisfactory definition for art ("Art"). It will always include things that still don't pass the "sniff test"; it will always exclude things that by all rights belong. But playing Papers, Please got me to thinking about Art and how it applies to video games. I had three different friends who don't know each other at all tell me on three different platforms that when it comes to video games as art/Art, Papers Please is a prime candidate. The last game I had heard people talk about in the same way was Heavy Rain. What is it about these games that connects them to art? What about them is different from other games? 

Even though I just said there's never going to be a satisfactory definition for Art, I'm going to circle back to that for a moment and propose a rough definition here: successfully and meaningfully conveying an experience. If only because that is what Papers, Please does well, and in particular what makes its gameplay aspects so crucial to that conveyance.

If we are going to talk about video games as art, beyond just the escapist route of games-as-narrative-method, then I think that is the route writers and developers are going to need to go. We have plenty of story-telling media: books, movies, graphic novels, etc. But they are all one-way, top-down experiences; games are inherently interactive. Even when there is just one narrative in the game and one ending you can get, you play and progress the story of a game differently than the story in a movie or a novel progresses. 

People have started to see the value of games by introducing choice elements into the story. Fable is a classic example of this: as you make good or evil choices, the story and your appearance change accordingly. Of course, the problem with Fable and other games that hopped on that MORAL CHOICES!! bandwagon is that the moral choices are painfully stark (my perennial favorite Jade Empire is guilty of this as well): do you save the children from the burning orphanage or let loose another fireball so it burns all the faster?

Much realism. So moral. Very wow.

Moral choices like that are now par for the course with many Western RPGs these days, and thankfully have become a bit better implemented. Stopping at this trick of moral choices isn't really enough to successfully and meaningfully convey experience, though, even if it is the first step of connecting the player to the game beyond mere clicking or button mashing.

Heavy Rain took this idea of "outcome of game events changing the story" and applied in a slightly different way that nonetheless made a lot of difference. No longer is it about moral choices, or at least, only moral choices: Heavy Rain is also about your success and failure. How well you handle a task can change the track of the story.

But did Heavy Rain "successfully and meaningfully convey an experience"? That is harder to say. The draw of Heavy Rain is in the story, which I can say without spoilers is dramatic and intense and kind of fucked-up right from the get-go. Even with the different endings (I think there are four or five?) and the player-story interaction, the gameplay is still primarily a means of taking you through a preset story, even though you can now effect it in more meaningful ways than many other games. The fact that the narrative is still the artistic focus of Heavy Rain is underscored by the fact that there are already noises about adapting it for a live-action movie. (It would be a great movie. I would watch it.) The story of the game is what's "Art" about it, not the gameplay aspect. This is highlighted by the fact that rather than play through the game itself, I looked up the ending online. I didn't want to have the protracted experience of playing the game; I just wanted to finish the story.

That is where Papers, Please differs from Heavy Rain. By taking one narrow aspect of life—working as a border control agent—and gamifying it, Papers, Please  manages to convey the stress, confusion, and moral ambiguity of working as a government agent who is simultaneously a tiny cog in a massive machine and the arbiter of people's lives and even deaths. There is a general track that the "story" takes: some of the papers you process will be randomly generated, but others will more or less repeat. There are always triggered events that will shorten work days, lead to new rules and regulations, and sometimes both. Like Heavy Rain, how well you manage these events has an effect on the world at large, the bulk of which you only read in headlines. If you deny or allow a known sex trafficker, dozens of dancers at a sketchy nightclub are murdered. But if you manage to get him detained, you break up a sex-trafficking ring.

The experience conveyed by Papers, Please is one that is well-suited to the challenges and stresses of a video game environment. There is not overmuch of a story here, no well-paced plot with rising action, climax, and denouement. It, like life, is just an endless series of puzzles, with themes or miniature stories here and there, and stress. Lots and lots of stress. You couldn't adapt it to a movie or a novel and have the same experience. Papers, Please has to be a game, in a way that Heavy Rain doesn't.

There is also an endless mode, with a few different submodes:

I haven't tried any of them yet. I want to clear all of the story mode endings first.

What else should I get in Steam's Winter Sale, you guys? For Linux, please!!


  1. Aaaahhh Steam!!! I'm so proud of you, hahahah! Good luck with the sale, once things are under $5 I find them hard to pass on :P Papers, Please is something I've been eyeing for awhile. I like your insight on it which makes me want to play even more! I think its on sale now, too....

    1. Yeah, Papers Please is part of this Winter Sale! I forget how much it is in USD though since I'm doing all my shopping in Euro. If I can't find anything on sale that I like, I'm going to get Cave Story, but that would use up the rest of my Steam balance and two or three games is better than just one game. =P