Jun 17, 2015

[Games] Papers, Please (PC)

I've heard a lot of good things about Papers, Please over and over again over the past few months, but it was only during this year's Steam Summer Sale that I finally got a copy for myself. And after my first playthrough, I ended up getting copies for two other people, thus pretty much negating any savings I might have gained through the sale.  But such is the nature of really good games - they're worth every penny every single time and you become eager to get more of your friends into the game as well.

And there so many things that I want to say about this game, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what I should talk about first. Papers please has been one of those unique gaming experiences that just blow your mind and I'm grateful to the development team for coming up with such a unique and clever game.

Papers, Please describes itself as "A Dystopian Document Thriller" and that remains to be the most accurate way to describe the game. It was created by Lucas Pope and is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS and soon for the PS Vita. For the most part it's a puzzle game,  but it feels like so much more.

The game is set in the fictional country of Arstotzka where the player is put in the role of an immigration officer after winning the labor lottery. The borders of the country have long been closed and the government has finally decided to start letting individuals enter the country once more. At this crucial checkpoint, the player will inspect the papers of each individual attempting to enter the country and determine whether or not they are eligible to do so, as ultimately indicated by the player stamping the individual's passport.

However each day, the rules for who is and isn't allowed into Arstotzka changes. On Day One, only citizens of Arstotzka are allowed entry and all foreigners are automatically denied entry. On Day Two, the government softens its stance and will now allow foreigners, for as long as they have a valid entry ticket for the day. People incorrectly allowed to enter the country or denied entry result in a memo from your superiors. A player can have up to two mistakes without penalty while all others incur deductions to the player's wages.

But beyond each day at the checkpoint, the player has other things to consider. First, you have a family including an uncle and your mother-in-law and you earn wages based on the number of people that you process in a day. This affects whether or not you have enough food for everyone, whether you can pay what is apparently a daily rent, and whether or not you have enough heat to stay warm. Being unable to pay for certain necessities will have consequence such as not paying the heat can make family members sick. Getting into debt will cause the game to end.

But beyond the routine of inspecting passports and entry permits, the game has a subtle narrative hidden in plain sight given the interactions with those at the checkpoint. The headline for the day might talk about a killer on the loose and eventually you might end up talking to him as he attempts to enter Arstotzka to escape capture. People all have their different reasons for wanting to enter what is clearly a country ruled by an authoritarian government of some sort. And it becomes up to you to decide what to do.

It's most interesting to me how the game is rather subversive by design . Like most games, it provides the player with a set of rules to follow in order to achieve "victory" such as earning enough money to feed your family. But at the same time, the player is put in a situation where it seems to move the game's plot forward if you instead break the rules and find out what happens. So what does the game really "want" in this case? Should you follow the rules and implement the increasingly crazy requirements for entry or should you focus on what the characters are saying and find a way to let them into the country? The fact that you are allowed up to two errors per day without incurring a cash penalty is the real clincher here - it gives the player a bit more wiggle room when needed.

The game promises 20 different endings including the first ending of debt. Thus there's tremendous replay value as you try to explore the various side stories and see what might come out in the end. should you take in your niece after your sister disappears? Should you help the silly old man who doesn't have a passport? Should you help a mother wanting to visit her sick son despite her lack of paperwork? As much as ministry has its conditions for entry. it's the player who decides what to do for each and every case.

Papers, Please is more than just a fast-paced puzzle game with a dystopian flavor to it. It's a brilliant piece of truly creative storytelling that manages to teach quite a lesson through what seems like a maddeningly complex routine. Thus the game fully deserves a full 5 information fields one needs to check out of a possible 5.

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