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

Papers-Please-Logo

“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.

PapersPlease-contra

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.

Papers-Please-Glory-To-Arstotzka

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.

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  • Comments (11)
  1. “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.”

    I disagree. The game mechanics are fun, because they are clever and challenging throughout the game. But the events of the game are repulsive: the first time I played, the whole family died of sickness in less than a week, because I made too many mistakes. I started a new game immediately, paid close attention to the rule book, and tried to process people as fast as possible. Then I let too many people pass because their situation was dire, and got fired. I didn’t touch the game for a long time after that, because I couldn’t deal with all that misery and the inhumanity of the system.

    Besides, I don’t understand what you mean by this sentence. Seeing countless miserable people day after day, having to see them naked without their consent, putting them in jail just in case… isn’t it “appalling and repulsive” enough?

    To me, the whole point of creating “entertaining” mechanics in a game like Papers, please is to lead the player into difficult situations they would never have experienced otherwise. At first, you get “engrossed” in mastering the rules, then suddenly you realize what your quick decisions mean for the people you process. The moral and personal stakes are huge and obvious to any player, even if they didn’t buy Papers, please to play some kind of serious game.

    “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.”

    I get your point, but I was more under the impression that Pope chose that historical setting because it’s familiar to many players for all around the world. It allows the player to immediately understand the context of the game, i.e. a cold bureaucratic system pushed to its extremes (totalitarism). Besides, it doesn’t take much thinking to understand the analogy with modern Western countries.

    Though I do agree that the game has flaws, the biggest one being the Government gaining instant knowledge of the player’s missteps. It would have been more subtle to offer the player some leeway, only sanctionning the most obvious faults.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 22nd, 2014

    @Amandine

    “I disagree. The game mechanics are fun, because they are clever and challenging throughout the game. But the events of the game are repulsive (…)”

    The way you formally depict the events matters; by transforming the events into a “game”, you are in effect trivializing the circumstances, making the experience “fun”, and avoiding addressing the true horror of the situation. It is as unfortunate aesthetic choice as can be had, equivalent to making a screwball comedy of the Holocaust. These subject matters, when taken seriously, should feel dramatic and human, not abstract and cold and entertaining, which is how you tend to experience when you see everything through the lens of games.

    “Besides, it doesn’t take much thinking to understand the analogy with modern Western countries.”

    True, but if the game never makes any smart allusions to that effect, that is besides the matter. The game only addresses the totalitarian corpus, and in very literal fashion. My point is that so much could have been addressed, both textually and sub-textually, that such a predictable fictional context seems rather boring and superficial.

    Cheers!

  2. “by transforming the events into a “game”, you are in effect trivializing the circumstances, making the experience “fun”, and avoiding addressing the true horror of the situation.”

    I get the feeling you are making a distinction between games, which inherently trivialize dramatic events, and something I’d call “interactive experiences”, which can tackle a broader range of subjects and remain relevant. Maybe I’m wrong though, in this case I did not really understand your explanation. Do you think games are not an appropriate medium to depict dramatic and deeply human experiences?

    “These subject matters, when taken seriously, should feel dramatic and human, not abstract and cold and entertaining, which is how you tend to experience when you see everything through the lens of games. ”

    In the end, it all comes down to how we perceive the game. For instance, I personally do not perceive Papers, please as abstract and cold. On the contrary, I was deeply unsettled by how real my playthrough felt, and it made me question a lot about myself and what I would do if I were to take those kind of decisions for other people. Finally, I wouldn’t call the game entertaining, even though its mechanics are.

    “My point is that so much could have been addressed, both textually and sub-textually, that such a predictable fictional context seems rather boring and superficial.”

    True. I suppose I was ready to overlook these flaws because Papers, please is such a original game compared to the countless soulless games we get to play all the time. I believe the game has some good ideas, and more importantly, I liked how it pushed me to question my actions. Still, we should definitely strive for more, and I hope there will be developers willing to go further.

    • João
    • January 23rd, 2014

    é com prazer que vejo que encontraste um jogo que te inspirou a voltar à escrita! Espero que haja mais! Bom trabalho
    João

    • Mark
    • January 23rd, 2014

    You write, “An artifact about such horrors should never become enjoyable; it should always strive to be as appalling and repulsive to players as possible.”

    This looks like it’s going to become a pretty controversial sentence. Why should we assume that the unpleasantness of the source material isn’t obvious enough, and needs assistance from an unpleasant conveyance as well? You wouldn’t criticize, for example, a documentary film on this topic for having well-composed shots that make it insufficiently painful to view, or that its musical score should be replaced with atonal screeching, lest someone in the audience accidentally derive pleasure from something related to a Very Serious Matter.

    A game’s mechanics have the dual purpose; it not only has to be the functional component of the artifact, but they also have to educate the player about the existence and behavior of those components. If the game’s mechanics were unpleasant, its power to convey the unpleasantness of its subject matter would be lessened, not increased. The system itself is what’s horrible – but it becomes that much harder for the player to know that the system is horrible if the game mechanics which represent the system are poorly taught.

    There is the belief that because something is “played,” because it s “fun,” its gravity is necessarily diminished. Even people who are committed to the artistic power of games sometimes express the habit of thinking this way. Perhaps this is related to the way that the act of mastering a game-space entails the end of any shock about the subject matter, replaced with distance and dispassion; but if someone has become good enough at a game to speak blithely about strategy, they must already have learned it more than well enough to understand its message. Fun is learning; they are one and the same. The idea that a game can inhibit the uptake of its thesis by being too fun for its subject matter, however horrific, is absurd (though, as with all media, it is possible for poor design to result in the conveyance of a different message than intended).

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 23rd, 2014

    Hi Mark!

    Controversy: isn’t that the whole point of criticism? To have conflicting opinions that continuously question an artistic medium’s status quo, thus driving it forward?

    Unto the matter proper:

    “You wouldn’t criticize, for example, a documentary film …”

    I wouldn’t? Actually I would. Have you ever seen “Nuit et Brouillard” or “Shoah”? These are probably the two best documentaries ever on the Holocaust; they are extremely displeasing to watch, and part of it lies in how they make visual and aural poetry out of the horrible historical events they have you imagine. It doesn’t have to be “painful”, it just has to resonate with the material in some interesting, complex, nuanced way. And games and fun don’t cut it…

    In all artistic mediums form is everything, and the way you draw emotional resonance from viewers is by means of these plastic dimensions. Videogames have, besides visual and aural compositions, interactive constructs, and it is also by them that we establish meaning and emotion. By imbuing a game – a challenge, a rule-set, penalties and rewards, a freytag dramatic arc – into this subject, not only do you mindlessly appropriate a common, standardized structure, but you also forfeit interaction as a meaningful conveyor of your message.

    Depicting serious matters by use of the same tropes and mechanisms as Monopoly or Scrabble or Chess makes no sense from my aesthetic point of view. If you want your audience to experience the true madness and despair of these events, interaction should be the dimension that drives home that emotional punch, establishing hopelessness and fear and anxiety, not distance and dispassion and fun and pleasure and mastery and challenge and learning. Art is not the same as a history book. If a matter is horrible then art must recreate it horrible.

    “If the game’s mechanics were unpleasant, its power to convey the unpleasantness of its subject matter would be lessened, not increased.”

    You implicitly portray players as bored little children that whenever emotionally challenged stop interacting with the artifact. That is the problem: this paternalist stance that says that games must be fun throughout so as to guarantee that players stay on board, and if and only if they stay, we can then have a message to tell them, preferably in systemic components. Take care, controversy ahead: Art can be hard, difficult, displeasing, sad, frustrating, horrible. Games however, apparently must be fun, and therein lies the rub.

    “The system itself is what’s horrible…”

    The system can be interpreted by players as being horrible, and that of course is true for “Papers Please” (even though once again, I’d point out that is clear and obvious and uninteresting). However, I’d contest this is like watching an entertaining film about war, say, like “Private Ryan” – you know its subject is being portrayed as wrong, and the film may point that out textually even, yet ethically I find myself questioning if the film is indeed about the true horrors of war, for if it is, why am I watching a film about the tragic heroics of these soldiers, that in the end are morally justified in their actions with a grander sense of purpose and justice, having conquered their enemy, even if through sacrifice? Is this a great film about the horrors of war? Not really (it has other valences, but that is beyond this here point). Analogically, in “Papers”, the day to day horrors of this customs office are portrayed as a challenge in a game, waiting to be (successfully) conquered and whose tension and ultimate mastery is to be enjoyed by players.

    On “strategy” and “game-space” and “fun” and “learning” I will say this: these words are the vocabulary associated with traditional games. Positioning videogames in respect to that particular family of artifacts is defensible, though in my view, actually distances it from art (go to history, when were traditional games ever seen as part of artistic tradition?) Those words have no bearing in discussing art that I know of – there is no strategy in reading Shakespeare, nor exploring the game-space of meanings in a Picasso, nor fun in contemplating Michelangelo, nor any learning to be done in watching an Alan Resnais film. Hence, these words mean nothing to me in this debate. If videogames are about artistic expression, then one must adopt a different vocabulary that matches a different mindset.

    Thanks for the comments!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 23rd, 2014

    @João
    Olá João,

    Não tenho deixado de escrever, apenas esta coluna é que tem andado esquecida. A ver se reanimo estas andanças.

    Um abraço!

    • ThirteenthLetter
    • January 23rd, 2014

    “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…”

    There is plenty of value in being brashly outspoken against left-wing dictatorships. Consider how a country like, say, Cuba, gets only pro forma criticism outside of the Fox News bubble, and it’s not considered socially unacceptable to advocate that form of government in the way it would be to advocate a right-wing dictatorship. Indeed despite decades of examples about why it’s a bad idea countries like Venezuela and Argentina are running down that path just as hard as they can. It’s clear that not enough people realize how bad this form of government is.

    As well, why do you think every game has to be about how the United States does something bad? There are plenty of games where the US government is the villain, including even some alleged rah-rah bro-shooters like Modern Warfare 2. It’s kind of nice to _not_ be in the defendant’s box for once.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 24th, 2014

    Dear FOX correspondent, thank you for your insightful comment!

    • ThirteenthLetter
    • January 24th, 2014

    @ruicraveirinha

    You must not have a lot of confidence in your point of view if all you can do is sneer at people who disagree instead of actually engage with their objections.

    • Mark
    • January 24th, 2014

    Good points. I suppose I was thinking in terms of games’ value as didactic tools rather than experiential ones. Is the goal to make the player understand the subject matter itself, or to understand the feeling of having experienced the subject matter?

    When I say that fun is learning, I mean that sound game design is functionally indistinguishable from sound pedagogy. But if the effect of the mechanics is to teach, then mastering them characterizes the relationship between player and subject matter as an academic one, with all the necessary dispassion that implies. And for someone who makes a habit of interpreting things critically, it’s easy to forget about the difference between a thing’s thesis and its affect.

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