24 April 2013

A Game of High-Stakes Bureaucracy

I suppose you'd be justified if you think the idea of a game based on checking papers at a border-crossing sounds like it could be a little boring. But if you're like me, then the forthcoming game Papers, Please will quickly start to win you over. It begins when you realize that far from simply pestering commuters at a rather benign border-crossing in Northern Europe or some such place, you're actually working for the paranoid government of a fictional Soviet-era republic just reopening its borders after a bitter war. Then there are the visuals, the stark simplicity of which evoke both old school gaming and the bleak, repressive world in which the characters live. And while it does of course involve the repetitive, machine-like tasks that constitute the job, the game is primarily concerned with capturing the humanity of the situation—that of your character and of the countless souls who come before you with the hope of making it into the country.

I first heard about the game over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun and was very much intrigued, but instead of trying the beta I decided to hold off until the full game was released. Then tonight Nerd³ posted a play-through of the first few levels and I was at the download page before the video was done. As the RPS article extolls (but which I couldn't really appreciate until I saw it in action) there's a certain appeal just in the "tangibility" of the game. Despite it being about checking forms it's actually quite engaging to play, both from the interactivity and the sense of power over people's lives. You manually take their documents and spread them on your desk as you compare names with names, numbers with numbers, and photos with faces. And then of course there's punching down that great big stamp, leaving an indelible mark of your judgment and sealing their fate one way or the other.

The game makes sure that you're considering their fate. Many of the characters will give you details of their lives, often as they're begging you to overlook a problem with their documents and let them into the country. Refusing them will sometimes be done with the knowledge that you may well be sending them to their death. So why not just play the nice guy and let everybody in? Well for one thing it's guaranteed that not all those sob-stories are true. But gameplay-wise, it's because making errors will result in some of your pay being docked. And that money isn't just an expression of how well you're doing the job, it's also necessary to keep your character's family alive. As you might imagine, you're not very well paid, so turning a blind eye and letting a person through to be with their wife may mean your family doesn't get to eat, or that your son can't get the medicine he needs. And while what I said about feeling a certain sense of power is true, you still have rules you must follow and appropriately there are often moments when you're left feeling powerless.

In addition to moral dilemmas, the tasks of your job are also working against you. Things start off straightforwardly enough, with your concerns mainly being passport photographs and expiration dates. But there are ebbs and flows in the political climate of the gameworld and each in-game day gives you new or different documents to process and details be watchful for. By several days in you'll find yourself having to check a foreign citizen's passport, entry permit, and work pass each for internal consistency and for agreement with each other. And while the forms pile up, the work day doesn't get any longer. Given that you're paid based on how many people you're able to process, there's a constant sense of urgency. But of course if you rush and get sloppy you run the risk of being fined for an oversight. And I want to clarify that in the screenshot above that discrepancy with the stamp on the entry permit wasn't automatically highlighted for the player. They had notice the fraudulent stamp themself and then manually link it to the images of the approved stamps in the in-game handbook using the "Highlight Discrepancies" feature. That gives you the option to question them about the discrepancy; in this case it's a clear-cut case of a forgery, but there are other discrepancies you can find that may have legitimate explanations.

I think the game is excellent and I can't wait for the full release. You can play the beta now by downloading it here, which lets you play up to Day 8. While most of the people are randomized, there is a distinct progression to the game, so I'd caution against replaying it too much before the final release. I personally played it twice: the first time I failed miserably a few days in and the next time I successfully made it to Day 8; despite wanting to play some more I think I'll leave it at that so that everything is still fresh when it's released. You could also complement or replace a couple play-throughs with watching Nerd³'s video; he plays up to Day 3, which is enough to give you a good idea of how the game works without showing too much of it (and of course he's also hilarious, so you should go and watch all the rest of his videos, too). And lastly, if you use Steam and would like to see Papers, Please get the "Greenlight," you can vote for it here.

Enjoy, folks, and glory to Arstotzka.

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