Archive for January, 2014

Videogame Utopia: Passage Denied, a “Papers Please” review

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“Papers Please” is the sort of independent videogame that we need. Being “independent” means nothing if the creative leeway this status affords does not translate into a design that is personal, expressive and uncompromised by commercial goals. Incidentally, most hits in this dubious category are either designed with market considerations in mind, or derived from videogames that were, therefore replicating these values (“Super Meat Boy” or “Fez” being classic examples of this). “Papers Please” fortunately sits on the other corner of the indie spectrum. Following Bogost’s procedural rhetoric and seemingly inspired by Frasca’s “September 12”, Brathwaite’s “Train” and Molleindustria’s socio-political essays, Lucas Pope’s game is driven by a need to design games’ whose very systemic properties are meaningful enough that they can be explored semantically by the player. A game with a message or a political pamphlet made mechanical construction perhaps, where one can enjoy playing a game that boasts all its functional traits – goals, rules, rewards, penalties – but whose simulational qualities are inscribed with rhetoric on real issues.

In this case, the artifact addresses the day to day work of a checkpoint officer in a totalitarian state. In a dreary, grey and oppressive country, where the only remnant of color is propaganda red, you’re tasked with deciding whether or not people can pass customs, perusing their papers to see if they are in accord with the tyrannical laws of the state. You sit in your metal cubicle, standing in front of an endless line of desperate people attempting to enter, only to then dive into a monstrous amalgam of rules, documents and detection tools that tell you who to pass and who not to pass. It takes real effort to become adept at carefully verifying the validity of passports and safe conducts, searching for all sorts of inconsistencies in their documentation, checking if all procedures are correct, and in extreme cases, go as far as perform cavity searches of suspects to check if any contraband or weapons are being transported.

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An endless parade of bleak visages and broken spirits pass you by, most of which you’ll find with a fake passport, illegal immigrant status or what the state calls a terrorist. At that point you have the power to let these poor devils pass or reject their entry altogether, maybe even have them arrested. In some cases, breaking the law is the moral thing to do – desperate wives separated from their husbands, unemployed men seeking work, freedom fighters seeking to end war and dictatorship – you’ll encounter many instances where you wish to let these people go. However, whenever you fail to comply with the rules – not spotting an illegal, missing a step in the directives or rejecting a legal entry – somehow the state magically becomes aware of this fact and charges you, either with a fine or worse (this is, from a simulational point of view, rather incoherent, and a lax design decision so as to make the rhetoric stick out). To build pressure, you need the money from your work pay to make ends meet and provide your family with food, heat and medicine (in a bit of design reminiscent of online propaganda game SPENT). If you don’t work diligently, fast and according to the law, you and your family will suffer, eventually ending the game in tragedy.

The simulation drives home the dilemma of a man living in a totalitarian state: live poorly and let your family suffer whilst keeping your ethics untouched, or cave in and play the game (the real and metaphorical one) as it pressures you to, by becoming a cog in the state machine of repression and violence. Different balances between these two approaches lead to different outcomes, and though the ends are many, few (if any) have a bright epilogue. It is a very coherent work in its political message, and the experience can often be so bleak and morally abhorrent as the author set out to accomplish. But, like all the artifacts in this procedural line, it is also a title that suffers from a blunt agenda, as on-the-nose in its discourse as can be found in other media, the subject shouted at you with no nuance.

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Also questionable is the choice for Soviet iconography aesthetic dominating the visual and aural style of the game, making it too easy to dismiss it as a critique of totalitarian states such as North-Korea or China. Cold war anti-communist propaganda is old and retreaded ground, not particularly challenging to devise or interpret. What value is there in being brashly outspoken against left-wing dictatorships? It’d be far more interesting to note that democracies (such as the United States) also present the same fascist tendencies in their customs office processes, but sadly, because there is no symbolic ambiguity or subtlety in its rendering of what constitutes a totalitarian state, wider-reaching sub-texts are never contemplated. The game just never troubles itself going that extra-mile of innuendo and expressiveness that might make it an interesting essay on dictatorships (a brilliant and recent example of how explore the subject would be Robert Edwards’ “Land of the Blind” film). As per tradition, videogames tend to have this paternalist tone that drives authors to feel the need to spell everything out very clearly for their audience as if they were very dumb (another case in point of this flaw would be “Gone Home”), leaving very little for us to dissect or conjure.

Truth be told, such is not a big issue… in fact, considering how most games are so bereft of any expressive punch whatsoever, its lack of textual density is easy to dismiss. Its greatest detriment is actually that the game can become quite entertaining to play. An artifact about such horrors should never become enjoyable; it should always strive to be as appalling and repulsive to players as possible. But that’s not what happens when you make a game with challenges and goals and structured conflict and well-balanced mechanics… it becomes engrossing, and soon transforms you into that dreaded customs officer that is trying to be super-efficient and amoral and cold and cynical in his work, only you have ‘fun’ while doing so. And so, though the mechanical underpinning of the game is analogous to the emotionless customs drones that audit entries, playing the system becomes as enjoyable as a round of “SimCity” or “Civilization”. As such, from an ethical perspective, this becomes a very questionable design. More naturalist representations of your foul deeds (something very difficult to achieve on a small budget) could go a long way in making you feel more empathy with the human element of the story, but we believe the fault here is systemic and ideological, not just a matter of execution.

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Simulation titles that follow Bogost’s line of understanding of what constitutes a videogame tend to have this problem: they believe in a utopia where systems and rules and mechanics can be full of meaning, forgetting that as humans, we are not Cartesian machines, for we also think with our senses and emotions and understand the world by touching, seeing and hearing it. Because of this, disregarding the sensual dimensions of videogames in favor of their computational complexity always results in this dystopia of rote intellectual artifacts incapable of eliciting powerful emotional resonance and true introspection. “Papers Please” deserves applause for bearing one of the most honest authorial voices of the independent scene of the past year, and for at least having an agenda that goes beyond mere enjoyment in a medium obsessed by it… but its provocative theme demanded a sophistication it does not know and an ambition to go beyond this adolescent notion of videogames as amusing procedural manifestos.