By Isaac Smith
Games that don’t cost 60 bucks are cool.
I’m not knocking console games (okay, maybe I am a little bit), but the fact of the matter is this: if it’s an awesome game that’s going to occupy many hours of your free time, AND it’s a measly ten bucks, we’re on a roll here.
But I’m going to take it a step further: what if that game was also a powerful tool to put you in somebody else’s shoes? What if that game allowed you to experience life from a different perspective, even for just a brief moment in time? What if that game is the subject of today’s indie game review? What if that game is… “Papers, Please”?
The first thought that goes through your mind is: “What? It’s a pixel game! I mean, sure they can be addictive or whatever, but ‘powerful’? Go back to the 1980’s.” You’ve obviously never played FEZ, but I get the sentiment anyway. Having said that, I want to make it clear: graphics have no impact on the strength of this game. The developer, Lucas Pope, created an enormous amount of pixel faces, as well as a plethora of other art that brings home the scary, dystopian world, one probably close to the reality of the Soviet regime. It’s made with pixels, but that couldn’t be less relevant to how it makes you feel or how it immerses you in the experience.
The game itself puts you in the damp, secondhand shoes of a border control officer. You must simply take documents from potential immigrants, and check to see if they have everything needed for entry to the made-up country of Arstotzka. Each immigrant you process gets you a small amount of money, and at the end of the day, your rent, food, and heat are taken out. Most days, you barely have enough to break even. Other days get cut short by terrorist attacks, and although that takes a psychological toll, the monetary toll levied on you by the reduced number of processed immigrants quickly outweighs even the most horrific of events. If you manage to put away significant savings, you risk it being confiscated by a suspicious and corrupt government.
Games are excellent at giving players goals, and getting players to invest in achieving them. Unfortunately for the player of “Papers, Please,” achieving your goal of stability and survival often entails doing horrible things, and making difficult choices. I couldn’t play it for more than an hour at a time. It brings to a very emotional place the trials of everyone in these regimes, the border control officers included. What appears to be a “Rejected” stamp on your visa is actually a moral battle, and this game forces you to fight it.
I won’t say this game is perfect, however. It can get frustrating, it can get tedious, it can get repetitive. But even in those senses, a border control officer would be going through the exact same struggle of tedium: how would your feelings towards immigrants change if you had to constantly deal with complicated paperwork, rejecting unprepared citizens, and interrogating people?
It makes the game less enjoyable, sure. But less powerful? Not for me, probably not for you. If you’re looking for games that take you outside of your comfort zone, that force you into another perspective, that have a viewpoint and express it as art? This is something you won’t want to miss. You may not always be happy while playing it, but when it’s over, you will always be glad you played it.