Papers, Please (2013, PC)

By Meekrob / January 3, 2014

I've been reading a lot of people's games of the year lists (Giant Bomb, et al.), and continue to see Papers, Please listed amongst the best games of 2013. I hadn't played it yet, so I decided to give it a try. After several playthroughs, I have to say that not only do I not understand the acclaim that the game has been getting, I think it’s one of the worst titles I’ve played all year.
   To begin with, it’s fundamentally a boring, simple mechanic. You compare line items in documents against line items in other documents, or against low quality sprites, or against diagrams and maps, or against the absence of these things. Strangely enough, the fact that the mechanics are tedious is echoed in the sentiments of many of the people who are giving the game acclaim. They try to justify this by insisting that it enforces the game's message — that living under an oppressive government sucks. Well no shit. I didn’t realize that was a controversial opinion and people needed to play a boring game in order to be convinced of it.

Man or woman? It's an "indie" game alright

   To make matters worse in my mind, it can’t even manage to implement its limited mechanics well. The system for identifying discrepancies is non-intuitive and clunky, but is required for everything. The tiny desk space you are given becomes cluttered and lacks any kind of decent tabbing system. The poor artwork makes everything even more painful. You are asked to compare low quality sprites to an even lower quality graphic that represents their passport photo. You are asked to identify gender from these sprites. You are asked to identify low resolution monocolor blots on a body scan and recognize whether they look like a weapon or not. You are asked to compare two different low resolution copies of fingerprints. All of these require additional use of the awful discrepancy checker interface.
   One of the arguments that people will make is that it’s supposed to be a pain in the ass. As a sign of self-recognition of this fact, the game offers upgrades to your booth as you progress which make it less of a pain in the ass (but still a pain). The player is supposed to hate their job and the fact that they have to do it, but they must do it to keep themselves out of jail and their family alive. Except that my “family” means nothing to me. I never see them. They are line items on a screen that I see at the end of every day. All I care about is doing well at the game I am playing. If I do well at that game, then the status of my family stays well, but that is an indirect result of my actual goal. It's never the thing I'm striving for.
   This leads me to the real disconnect I have with the people who praise the game. You are made to make moral choices. Some of the people in your line have sob stories about why they need to be allowed into the country. The dilemma is that they do not have the correct documents and thus, according to the rules of the game, should not be allowed in. Following those rules will allow your family to do well, so in theory you now have to choose between possibly sacrificing the well-being of your family for the sake of rescuing this stranger. Except the thing is, I don’t care about any of them. I don’t care about this person I’ve never met in my line, and I don’t care about my family that I never see. All I care about is the challenge presented to me by the game. That’s all I’m doing. Playing a game by comparing documents. Not saving lives. These people aren’t real to me. They’re ugly sprites with flat dialog from people I’ve never seen before and will never see again. There’s nothing unique about any of them. I don’t have to witness the consequences of my actions. Once they’re gone from my window, they’re gone from my mind forever. So I just keep checking documents, letting the right ones through and blocking the wrong ones. Most of the time I don't even look at what they've said. I open up the transcript, compare their reason for visiting and expected stay against what's in their documents, and that's it. Because that's all the game has made me care about.

   I have formed emotional attachments within games. I’ve played games where I felt conflicted about the decisions I was forced to make because the people I was affecting mattered to me (e.g. the soldiers in Halo: Combat Evolved). There's been times when I’ve felt like garbage playing something because my actions hurt people. I felt none of these things with Papers, Please. All I wanted to do was approve the people who should be allowed in and reject the others. To play the (bad) game at Papers, Please's core.
   This is not an enjoyable game to play. Apparently, it’s not supposed to be. But it also doesn’t drive home whatever message it’s trying to send. Tyrannical governments suck. We sacrifice a lot for our loved ones to the point of hurting others. Ok. That’s true. But I feel exactly the same about those concepts now as before playing. I care nothing for the people in this game. No remorse, no sympathy. In the end, I’m trying my hardest to do well at a game that isn’t fun when I could easily be playing something far better.