Indie Rock: Papers Please
- Updated: March 27, 2013
Something keeps happening to me, where what is clearly a bug or a failing on my part within a game actually informs some incredible emergent narrative and I feel like I have to dedicate an entire column to telling you about it. We did this with Auti-Sim a few weeks ago, now here’s another strange and excellent mistake.
Papers Please charges you with maintaining a border into your country. Every day you receive new instructions that change who can be allowed in. You’ll start only letting natives across, then open up to those with a valid permit, then those with a permit and the right ticket. The challenge is in looking for inconsistencies that suggest you’ve been handed forgeries or otherwise unacceptable passes. Maybe the photo isn’t right, maybe the expiry date has already come and gone. You’re doing this with an incentive to process as many people as possible in your shift because you’ve a family to care for at home and bills that need to be paid daily, but your wages are based on how many people you correctly assign approval or failure to while you’re working.
So, here’s the story: I’m performing my role in policing our borders diligently and with haste. I’ve turned away a few people that, when pressed about the inconsistencies of their documents, couldn’t provide me with further proof of their right to pass, but I’ve let in the fair few that have checked out perfectly. An older gentleman comes up to my counter and starts shouting out spiel about how the country I’m guarding is great and glorified, but he doesn’t hand over any papers.
I’ve no way to tell him to get lost without pounding red ink into something with the correct stamp. I can’t even wave him through because there’s no way in the game for me to do that without handing something back to him. I try closing the shutters and desperately calling the next person through, but there’s seemingly no way for me to get rid of him within the game’s mechanics. This will seemingly last forever, with the work day ending, everyone else leaving and him stuck in front of my desk refusing to move.
It conjures up an image of a guy with no hope in his own country trying to get through using the only means available to him, his tenacity and confidence in the face of a bureaucratic process that can’t abide him being used as a weapon. He’ll argue against the system because he’s got nothing to lose by refusing to give up and constantly keeping your attention. He can waste your day and deny you the chance of earning more money because he has the upper hand in his endless well of patience, whereas you have an incentive to deal with these situations as quickly impossible.
Since there was no way for me to tell him to just come through anyway, as if so overcome by banality it no longer matters at all that he shouldn’t cross, we’re stuck staring at each other forever. This impasse meant that the two of us are trapped here – him having found a way to annoy me using my government’s own systems and me having no way to prevent it – but my character is seemingly so staunch in his beliefs that the man is not supposed to pass that he just wastes the entire day and sacrifices the well-being of his dependants as a result.
The rest of the game tries to do similar things (on purpose, presuming this really is a bug in this build and I’m not just terrible) where you’ll be propositioned with situations that go against your role and test where your allegiances lie. Is it with the government that provides your housing and work and as an extension the family at home that need you, or is it with people who can benefit greatly by your actions if you choose to bend the rules slightly?
It’s not done yet, and if you want, you can possibly get your name put in as one of the migrants in the finished product.
I feel it’s necessary to bring up a point raised at this year’s GDC during a panel hosted by the curators of freeindiegam.es. It’s a website that often provides a lot of the games that make it into this column and it’s an inarguably great bookmark to check in on every day for a brief new game to try out.
At the panel, the team of Terry Cavanagh (Super Hexagon, VVVVVV) and Porpentine (Howling Dogs) made a suggestion that the majority of the press is so caught up in trying to discuss what the biggest games are, they’re inadvertently missing out on the most interesting and the most diverse experiences that are being produced. Porpentine ended the panel by sharing “It isn’t that women and queers and people of color aren’t making games; it’s that they aren’t being covered sufficiently and they are not being recognized.”
I want to figure out what this means for this feature every week, and that’ll come into effect soon, but for now let this serve as a suggestion to go to that website and play some excellent games. Pick any one of them, they’re all important. They’re all great and they won’t cost you a penny to play.