The player gets five credits for every person processed, and at the end of each day, the money is used to keep their family alive. The player decides how to spend their money on rent, heat, food, and medicine for your family of four dependents. People in line may have excellent sounding reasons as to why they should get to enter even if their papers aren't in order, but you have to balance humanitarianism, penalties from the government, and keeping your family healthy.
I think this is an amazing game, one that could really help reshape peer adult views on the state of video games. Yes--this is, in part, an article about me worrying about the image of video games in popular culture. If that's gross, bail out now! But not before you check out the game, it's excellent!
There's very little in Papers, Please that would titillate a pre-teen's interests. While there is a small bit of blood and violence, it's infrequent, and none of it happens because of the player, at least in the traditional manner. There's nudity as well (stylistic, drawn in the game's pixel style, and can be turned off), but it's not at all sexy, and is incorporated as part of the player's job. Deciding to use the body scanner in the game can make you as a player feel uncomfortable. There's typical elements of a FPS such as soldiers, guns, and barricades, but all of it viewed from the bureaucratic side of things. The actions required are skill-based, and time sensitive, but akin to skills developed in the business office, rather than with a controller. The game is difficult, but the second-to-second gameplay comprises analyzing text, correlating information, and following strict rules. It's something that sounds boring to most, but could definitely appeal to 50 and 60 year olds, when cast against the 1980's faux USSR background with the underlying intention of stopping illegal immigrants and supporting your family.
I'm fascinated with how real the characters feel whom you must process at your border station. In The Sims, the player has God-like control over each Sim, but must baby them, telling them exactly what to do: eat, watch TV, or talk to someone else. They feel like automatons, which is fine, as it serves that game. But in Papers, Please all the characters feel like complete people. I suppose it's from a mixture of the background data provided (via their papers), the tiny slice of their life you get to see, their realistic conversations with you, and your imagination. You don't get to follow them around the alley, and see their dull stare into the distance, or aimless wandering (such as in a GTA game). You see them for a moment, and they feel like real people with real problems. The God-like powers promised by a Sims game are realized here, but in a much more powerful way. When you admit or reject someone, you can imagine it having a real impact.
Situational DepthYour job in the game can have real consequences rendered. All sorts of situations related to border control are explored here, for instance, you could personally stop a human trafficker from getting through, if you know how to do your job. Or you could accidentally let a suicide bomber through, if you miss one crucial bit of information in an effort to process people more quickly and make more money. The depth achieved here, and the situations created is vibrant and memorable. Bribery, misery, compassion, bomb scares, police brutality--all of this and more happens right next to you, and sometimes you're even the cause of it.
Here's a game I think few adults would feel embarrassed to be caught playing. Many of my friends and relatives play Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds, but if I bring it up they dismiss as "just a dumb time waster." I think because of the concepts explored, and the agency provided to the player, many more adults could be shown the beneficial and positive artistic expression possible within a video game.
Playing Papers, Please made me recall an interview with Jenova Chen in which he laments the lack of appeal of games for adults.
"My biggest complaint for computer games so far is they are not good enough for adults. For adults to enjoy something, they need to have intellectual stimulation, something that's related to real life. Playing poker teaches you how to deceive people, and that's relevant to real life. A headshot with a sniper rifle is not relevant to real life. Games have to be relevant intellectually. You also need depth. You have the adventure -- the thrill of the adventure -- but you want the goosebumps too."
This game is a great place to start for many non-gaming adults. The setting is in the past but the concepts of border control, rivaling nations, and the human element are contemporary. The game is compelling both from what happens at your border job, and from how well you can provide for your family. This is a game that involves genuine sympathy and resolving conflicting responsibilities such as those to your direct boss (and the state), to your family, in addition to what seems morally right.
Few Traditional Game-like ElementsI think it's important for most non-gaming grown-ups, that very little of Papers, Please feels 'gamey'. There's no "morality meter"; you don't grow horns or wings based on how many people you help or hurt.You're paid by the state based on what they want to see happen. It certainly feels like a horrible totalitarian regime, but is it? When they tell you watch out for an enemy of the state and detain them, maybe he really did something bad. Or should you believe his story? Are enough other people's explanations starting to form a pattern in your mind?
Having a game that treats the player as a grown-up is as refreshing as having a dramatic game based on a world not too different from reality. While flights of fantasy involving time-travel, blood thirsty orcs, and terrifying aliens is lots of fun (Trust me--I love games with those things!) it's incredible to have a very compelling game, using fairly strict "real world" situations.
Avoiding the TragedyMake sure you try the game. It's 10 bucks over on Steam, but I think there's a free beta version available at the developer's site you could use as a demo. Next, get other people to try it. Non-gamers. Maybe your Dad, or Mom, or Uncle, or those guys and gals at work that talk about politics or sports. Get other people to check out a video game that's not all violence and sex, but still mature and deeply compelling, working with concepts everyone knows.
Nope, I don't get any kick-back here--I don't know the developer personally. I just want more people to play a video game and see the powerful work that can be done. Or maybe I do benefit from this--the whole industry could benefit from this. Pulling weight along with the likes of Flower, and Cart Life, maybe games such as Papers, Please can get the video game industry out of "The Tragedy of the Comics" within which we may be forever stuck.
(My current game in early development is about pigs that fly in space and eat tennis balls. It's shaping up to be really fun for gamers of all ages, but I'm 38 years old, and that explanation for my work was a little embarrassing to type.)