Saturday, June 8, 2013

Papers, Please, and the Joys of Being Mindlessly Amoral

In my gaming experience (now stretching, ugh, 24 years), I've portrayed: floating talking skulls, item shop merchants, sentient meat, a fake hacker, God, Satan, a Japanese death pinball, and a shrunken planet with a ray gun. It's STILL weird to be playing (and enjoying) a game about being an immigration checkpoint attendant.

Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope, is still in beta, but it's already compellingly playable. Set in the same post-Soviet dystopia as Pope's previous game, The Republia Times (in which your role was editor-in-chief of the state-controlled newspaper, ordered, at gun point, to keep the people happy and docile through story selection), Papers, Please is, mechanically, very simple. Potential immigrants step up to your window, give you their documents, and wait as you peruse them for forgeries or mistakes. If you don't find any, you take your giant stamper machine and CLUNK "Approved" on their passports. If they do, you reject them (or interrogate them to figure out the meaning behind the discrepancies). The heart of the gameplay is a series of very basic rules that you apply to every set of documents - are the dates right? The issuing country? Do they have the right visa? It's essentially a game of pattern recognition and anal-retentive detail-noticing, and with the wrong implementation, it could be incredibly dry. But somehow, here, it isn't.

A huge part of that is the interface. Almost everything is done in-game, with no need for menus. Your desk is your interface - you shuffle the documents around on it, pull out your stamping machine, fumble through your instruction manual. If you need an added feature (say, to search or fingerprint a subject), a button pops out on the desk. Besides a few opening instructions, almost everything exists in-game, and it gives your job a pleasantly tactile feel.

Adding to that feeling is the solid CLUNK of the stamping machine. It's hard to overstate how good it feels to CLUNK a document with a big, satisfying stamp. It gives a happy little climax to every encounter - CLUNK! Denied! Go away, forger! CLUNK! Welcome to glorious free state of Arstotzka, citizen! I don't know where Pope got that sound file, but it's the game's true star. CLUNK! I am seriously considering pausing writing this to play the game some more, just so I can get my CLUNK! fix.

This lady SEEMS on the level...

That joy in tiny detail, in the pleasures of executing bureaucracy, is what makes the game intellectually fascinating. Pope has done a lot of great work in making each immigrant seem unique through a very effective randomization system (along with several scripted immigrants who build up the 'story', so far as it goes during the beta). They'll praise Arstotzka as you let them in, or complain bitterly about having to travel though your hayseed country, or tell you a sob story when you ask them why they're trying to pass some expired bullshit through YOUR checkpoint. CLUNK! Bye, lady! Because, sorry, lady, but I'm on a timer. I could take the time to resolve your issue, but every time I CLUNK! my CLUNK!er, I get $5, and every night I've got to feed my family, pay my rent, and make sure the heat is on. Every day has JUST enough time for an efficient CLUNK!er to make enough to keep their son from getting sick and leaving their wife hungry, but it's close. Too close to spend a lot of time worrying about the people you're sending away unhappy.
That's the genius of Pope's game - it presents situations where empathy is called for, and then makes that empathy harmful, or at least inconvenient, for the player. For every second you spend asking someone for an extra document, or double-checking their fingerprints, you could just CLUNK! them and send them away, with you, at least, none the worse for wear. The game has scripted characters who offer more tangible moral choices, but the game's most effective moral lesson is that it's remarkably easy (and, in fact, kind of quietly pleasant), to turn off your humanity in favor of efficiency. (Or even patriotism! There's something about the game's bombastic, tuba-y soundtrack that gives me a certain pride in protecting my fair Arstotzka from these filthy, dangerous immigrants!)

But I don't like her face. Clunk!

"They're just video game characters, though," I hear you say. And that's the point! Papers, Please, even in its uncompleted beta form, with most of the story segments absent, functions as a beautiful simulation of how it feels when you stop treating people like people, and just as inconvenient, artificial things to be dealt with as quickly as possible. I can't wait to see what the final version can do.


Papers, Please is currently in beta, and can be found here. Release date for the full game is sometime this summer, and it'll cost REDACTED PLEASE PLAY THIS WEIRD LITTLE MINI-GAME TO LEARN GAME PRICE, ALL GLORY TO WONDERFUL ARSTOTZKA

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