Every once in a while, a man who plays video games like Splinter Cell, Halo or Gears of War asks himself a very important question; if I really am a grown man, why am I still playing games where you just bad guys?! If you think about it, most M rated video games amount to little more then bloody, sex crazed interactive GI Joe cartoons. Splinter Cell is about a commando that fights enemies of the state (Michael Bay, anyone?), Halo is about a commando cyborg that fights aliens (similar to the movie, uh… Aliens) and Gears of War you pretty much face off against both at the same time. They rarely let the gameplay or the story of the game itself go any deeper then that, and even though the rating is technically for “ages 17 and up” the content seems to target a teenage middle school demographic. Fortunately, for every ten Halo and COD games, we get something like Papers, Please. The game takes place in the fictional communist country of Arstotzka. You just won the lottery for a job as a customs agent, and your basically the one who has to stamp the passports for people crossing the border into your country. You have to double check their passports, make sure all the rules are followed (they change daily) and support your family’s overall well being with whatever money you can scrape up on the job.
It’s the kind of game that reminds us that “Mature” isn’t just a warning to protect little Johnny from shooting zombies and hookers. With less technology then a game from two decades ago, Papers Please delves into issues ranging from security vs. privacy to terrorism, socialism, and foreign policy. Words rarely used in the modern FPS. That’s not to say that this indie classic is not without its fair share of flaws. Papers Please is like any other piece of work; it has its ups and downs. While I would gladly recommend anyone buy it for the price tag alone ($9.99), I suggest you read the Seven Word Synopsis for not only an understanding of why you should buy this game, but why games like this earn an M rating far more then other so-called “Mature” titles like GTA and the like. Not that GTA was a bad game, of course; it just takes more then F-bombs and crude sex humor to be adult in the true sense.
As always, lets start with the good.
If you read a review on this game already, you already know that this is a different experience. Whereas most games commit to simply looking pretty while you kill things that are dubbed arbitrarily as evil henchmen to the boss you fight at the end, Papers Please takes a different approach to not only gameplay and story but morality in general. Not once, not twice, but almost every time I played this game, I come away with a sense of fear, guilt, uncertainty and wonder.
This game is not “fun” in the traditional sense. Much the same way the movie Schindler’s list wasn’t, or the novel Grapes of Wrath. Both of which are revered classics, despite their disturbing and provocative subject matter. Subjects like targeting ethnic groups for “random searches” and the weight of helping someone in desperate need versus loyalty to your job and country come into play very early. It only becomes darker, deeper, and more intricate as the game goes on. And every time the rabbit hole gets deeper, the game sends an important and powerful message that reflects not only the moral ambiguities of life an liberty, but the reality of how they affect you and what you can do about it. The fact is the game is made to intricately point out these themes not only with dialogue or backstory, but through the core mechanics. You collect wages for every passport you check, you need to use the wages to pay rent, heat, and food, and if you don’t pay heat or food your family will suffer until you catch up. Neglect it long enough, and your family will die one by one. Balancing that is the fact that every time you deny or approve a passport that you shouldn’t, you get a fine, and that doing the right thing often means denying or approving someone wrongfully. Plus the number of citations you get in general affect your advancement in the game differently, with ending for every outcome. Part of you will want to play this game again and again, and the other would rather think of something more pleasant. The game’s message hits home in the age of NSA domestic spying, terrorist threats, and heightened concerns for national security. Penny Arcade said it best – safety is an illusion, and we are all F’ed.
I was thinking about knock on the games less then sophisticated graphics, but given the price and probable budget the team had to work with making it, it’s more fitting to leave that for the summary and point out a more serious price to pay while playing this game – attention to detail. Unlike many games where you can practically play on autopilot if the difficulty isn’t cranked too high, Papers Please demands that you pay attention, work quickly and efficiently, and be aware of what your doing constantly. I actually like this, only because it forces you to feel the tension of working as a public servant, but I wouldn’t list it as bad if it didn’t have serious drawbacks. For one thing, you need to read each document carefully and notice what every face looks like. Plus the rules for what passes and what doesn’t changes with every day that passes in the game, forcing you to waste precious time making money just figuring out what the new rules are. It’s easy to waste time just trying to understand how to play, making this game hard to pick up and play. If you want to devote some time and effort to experiencing Papers Please, do it during the evening you are alone and/or free, and learn the controls before you even select start. Make sure you know how to pause it, cuz time is money in this game. I think the difficulty is well placed and confirms my point of this being a game that actually is mature even more. After all, learning about new countries’ regulations on the fly while stamping passports and checking for terrorist contraband to select nationalities will keep out little Timmy better then stamping a white “M” on the bottom left hand corner. Hell, most punk teenaged boys look for that M rating. Just ask your clerk at GameStop. He’ll tell you how many kids buy GTA V on a daily basis. I bet none of them have even heard of Papers Please, for better or for worse. Design marks a games audience better then censorship any day of the week. This game only proves it.
Affordable Zeitgeist Critique
Fancy words up there, huh Billy Bob? For those of you reading this and scratching their heads, let me save you guys the trouble of fetching a dictionary; zeitgeist is a word of german origin that means “spirit of the times”. Basically conveys what life and culture is like during a certain era (usually the current one) and what it says about humanity as a whole. My Grandkids will one day be playing this game, and I will be able to use it as an example of how terrorism shocked the nation and how drastic security measures were at the time. They will probably criticize my era for doing things like invading privacy and singling out minorities to prevent terrorism. Such things will reflect how we were and how they are now. That is zeitgeist; knowing who you are and what you are when. Papers Please paints a dark picture to that affect, but only because its true.
Critique is easier to define, and most of you probably know what it means. To be perfectly clear, a critique is different from a criticism in the fact that it doesn’t just review, commentate, or nitpick a work, a critique is more of a careful analysis. This analysis often borders on satire, and is meant to put the themes presented in a clearer light. I call this game a “zeitgeist critique” because it’s basically just that; a careful and educated analysis of our current state of affairs. Although it may not stay current for very long. It was release a few years ago, and while we haven’t completely ended our occupation of the middle east, regulations for terrorism are starting to relax, and the days when we regard the zeitgiest Papers Please is critiquing as past may come sooner then we think. That being said, you still can’t bring liquids on board an airliner, and I can easily remember a time this piece of pixelated art represents, and I’m not even 30 years old yet. So yeah; this game’s underlying themes are still relevant.
I won’t insult your intelligence by defining affordable, so I will only say this; even though this game is dirt cheap on the steam store, I wouldn’t recommend this game to anyone who is inexperienced and/or unfamiliar with electronic games in general. While it technically is a “point and click” game, what it is your pointing and click involves a great deal of multi-tasking and attention. You have been warned.
If that doesn’t scare you off, and the price is right for you, by all means go to your local Steam Store and buy Papers Please, please. It’s not as pretty as Halo, but the game behind the graphics is a breath of fresh air. The cloud it comes from sure is ominous, though…
Next game up for review is RUST. But before that, I got a surprise for you guys.