Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Papers Please by Lucas Pope

There has been a lot of ink shed (of both the real and virtual varieties) about how much “moral choice” systems in video games suck.  Often you’re given the opportunity to be either the paragon of virtue or a monument to vice, without much in between, and usually the “evil” choice involves going around murdering everyone you meet, even when there’s no particular reason for it or direct benefit to you from doing so.  There’s really a paucity of nuanced evil in the world of video game design.  And that’s why all those AAA game developers need to sit down and take a page from this independent developer who’s managed to put together the best moral simulator that I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, if you can get through this and not have an emotional reaction then you need to turn in your Homo sapiens card, no joke.

First, the mechanics.  The game takes place in the early 1980s in a fictional shithole Eastern European Communist dictatorship.  You have won a labor lottery and been assigned to work as a border control agent.  When you open up your shop, a stream of pathetic sad sacks will file into your checkpoint and present you with various documents so they can enter the country.  Personally, you’ve got some family members dependent on your salary for food, rent, and heat.  You need $55 per day to cover your basic expenses, and you get paid $5 for everyone who gets processed through the checkpoint, so you need to see 11 people per day in order to not draw down your savings.  If you run out of money, your family members will get sick, raising your expenses as you need to get medicine for them.  If you can't come up with the cash, they'll die.  If you go seriously into the red you may be imprisoned for debt yourself.

The interface is claustrophobic and well-designed to never give you quite enough room to spread out.  You have sufficient but not ample time, and although the documents start out simple enough, your bosses at the start of every day tend to throw in various requirements and by the end of the game there will be twenty or twenty five different failure points for documents.  If you let in someone with a discrepancy in their paperwork, you get cited.  If you turn away someone without a discrepancy, you get cited.  More than two citations in one day and you start getting substantial fines, meaning you can’t beat the clock by just letting everyone in, or turning everyone away.  Your superiors are apparently omniscient about this since if you make a mistake, you will be cited.  And you won’t get paid for your last “client” if you go past 6 p.m.

The gameplay itself is pretty simple; the would-be traveler presents you a passport and supporting documents, which you check for internal consistency and accuracy.  Do they look like their passport picture?  Appropriate identifying information?  Does the information on their passport match their visa?  Are any of the stamps or seals forged?  Have any documents expired?  Did they get their polio vaccination within three years?  Do they happen to be on a most wanted list somewhere?  Did they get the right kind of permit?  Okay, proceed, citizen.

All of that said, it doesn’t necessarily sound all that fun.  In fact, if you were me, you might say that sounds a lot like that summer job I had in the business office of a tile factory where I had to keep cross-checking dates and SKUs on a bunch of triplicate forms in an ancient computer system.  And maybe you’ve had a job like that too.  But the presentation is amusing enough that you really get to make a puzzle out of it – it’s satisfying to spot the minor error and hit that red stamp.  And then when you do approve someone you tense up for a minute while you wait to see if you made a mistake.

Now if that was it, I wouldn’t have made that statement about “moral choices”.  The fact is that this is one of the most interesting game ideas that I’ve ever seen.  You are a cog and a peon, and that’s about all you’ll ever amount to, regardless of what choices you make.  And right away you start getting to make them.

In addition to the randomly generated wretches in line, you’ve got a fair number of scripted encounters.  Some of these are desperate people who need asylum, or want to visit their loved ones, or need surgery, or so forth.  These people will inevitably have paperwork deficiencies.  Do you want to let them in anyway, despite the fact that you’ll get a citation for that and it may take food out of the mouths of your family?  Or do you deny them, in deference to the arbitrary rules of your superiors, who are a bunch of dicks and treat you like a dog?  It’s up to you, and while most of these choices don’t have long lasting repercussions, some of them do, and they aren’t immediately obvious.

You also have the opportunity to take bribes to let undesirable sorts such as drug dealers and sex traffickers into the country.  You can make your own rules about what you will and won’t tolerate; you sometimes even have the option to take the bribe and then deny the people anyway.  At one point along the game you gain the ability to detain suspicious people; this is not necessarily better than just denying them, since it takes longer and interrupts your work flow, but one of the guards offers to split his detainee processing fee with you, which makes it profitable to detain everybody you can, even when they are probably innocent of anything more serious than not catching a clerical error.  Is it worth sending people to the mercies of the secret police for minor offenses to pad your own wallet?  Up to you.

And this secret society of revolutionaries – do you help smuggle their members through the checkpoint?  Do you accept their huge bribes?  Can they help you if you are caught, and are they in fact any better than the current regime?  Will you help out your friend the border guard and allow his girlfriend through the checkpoint?  Will you hang the artwork made by your son on the wall, although it’s against regulations?  Are you prepared to refuse your bosses’ girlfriend admission although she has neglected to get anything close to the proper documentation?

Up to you.

This is a rare game where you’re not going to really “win” anything and all of the endings are, fittingly, ambiguous at best.  In one path you keep your head down and stick to legitimate graft, and are rewarded with the opportunity to enter an endless game mode, where you can keep analyzing paperwork forever or until you screw up enough.  In other words, a pie eating contest with a prize of more pie.  Way to go, comrade, I’m sure selling out all your ideals was worth it.  Of course if you don’t sell out your ideals it may end up going much worse for you personally, and who even knows about the general population.

In short, this game has managed to encapsulate the typicality of bureaucratic evil.  Instead of grand acts of malice for little discernible reason you have the opportunity to engage in petty acts of tyranny for totally understandable, if ultimately futile, reasons, such as if you decide to go ahead and take the citation to reject the perfectly valid visas of people who lip off to you.

If there’s anything negative to say about it, it’s mostly that it’s made by a single developer in a couple of months, so it’s pretty short and I’m not sure that it has all that much replay value.  Still, if there were elements like this in bigger titles it would increase the sophistication of video game plots by a huge degree.  And you will actually get annoyed at people who hold up the line by forgetting to give you the paperwork, and how you have to keep telling people to check the back of their ticket for the passport phone confiscation hotline.  Seriously, don’t these people read the bulletins?  I’m trying to do my job here.

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