Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Games Review: Papers, Please

So, the Steam Holiday Sale came and went, bringing many heavily discounted offers and leaving with a chunk of my money. It could have been worse, I guess; a lot of the best offers were for games I already owned (thats a good thing, I think) and most of the games I bought were for games that were on the indie end of the market; the sort of small gems that have got a lot of press this year but I've never got around to buying. There's often some discussion as to whether these sorts of sales help developers, as people often wait until a game is cheap before getting it, but my own experience tells me I probably wouldn't have bought these games at all, normally. So surely half-a-sale is better than none. Anyway, the first of these that I loaded up and got into was Autocratic Bureaucracy Simulator, Papers, Please

Set up the fictional Republic of Artotska in late 1982, Papers, Please sets you as a Customs Inspector as the border is re-opened after many years. The game is simple enough; entrants come to your little booth, you check their paperwork (at first, just a passport), you stamp then in or out. You get paid based on the number of correct decisions, less fines for making too many errors. At the end of each (timed) day, you go home and see if you earned enough money to heat your flat and feed your family. Sounds simple enough, right? Well no. Because soon you're checking the entry tickets, which turn into entry permits. Oh, and workers need Work Permits. And Diplomatic Passports have different fields to be checked. And then, even better, the ant-Government Order of the Ezic Star want you to help them overthrow the tyranny of the state....

You wouldn't think a game about stamping paperwork could be so much fun. But right down at the core of it, this is a fun game. You're under time pressure to get through the checks, and the amount of information that you need to check constantly increases, so there is a satisfaction to getting through the day without error, or catching that really obscure error. Once the plot starts to kick in, you're being asked to let (or block) some people deliberately, and the game has a branching consequence tree that leads to many different endings, many of which seem to involve being shot. Glory to Artotska! 

But on top of this, the game doesn't let you off that easily. You are, after all, an agent of a repressive communist regime, and these people you arrest and are taken off under guard are probably about to suffer some nasty ends. Encounters throughout the game reinforce the human cost of your job, as the desperate, the lovelorn and the helpless all turn up needing passage and giving you the option to let them through. At the same time, stepping out of line is punished with threats and fines, and corruption is pretty much the only way to get through the game with your family intact. Papers Please has a point to make, and does so elegantly.