papers please

In this episode of Counterweight, Eric Brasure and Joel “HM” Goodwin discuss the acclaimed Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013). Spoilers within.


01:40 “I would say I… liked it.”

04:20 “That’s my main problem with the game, it just doesn’t know when to quit.”

05:10 “It doesn’t have to be fun but the thing is Papers, Please was actually fun.”

07:00 “It was the moments like that where the game really came alive for me…”

12:20 “There’s some good and bad in the fact that the interface is a bit unreadable at times.”

21:00 “And that’s a moment of Cart Life there, I thought.”

24:10 “Oh, I didn’t know you could turn the photo around!”

27:00 “Here’s a game that is getting across what it feels like to do a good job.

32:00 “It’s oppressive in some ways, but it doesn’t feel oppressive enough at times.”

35:10 “We haven’t talked about the one big problem that I had with it, which was…”

42:40 “It does a lot of interesting things that I haven’t seen many other games do.”

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28 thoughts on “Counterweight 7: Papers, Please

  1. I was quite surprised this came out as negative as it did but there’s still plenty of positive in here. There is a lot of praise for the game that seems to overlook its flaws so I feel like we provide some balance. That’s right, fair and balanced. You heard it here first.

    Non spoiler version: I had a great time with Papers Please – for the first half of the game.

  2. Maybe we’ll get death threats from Papers Please fans!

    Please don’t send either of us death threats.

    Non spoiler version: I liked the game when it felt real. I disliked it when it felt gamey.

  3. I am only one hour into this game so maybe I should listen to the podcast after finishing it!

  4. I’ll probably come back with a longer comment, but for now wanted to point out the following: if you already played Papers, Please‘s 9-day-long beta, this podcast’s spoilers are minimal.

  5. Ah, thanks for adding that David. There’s not been much feedback on our “findings” so far – podcasts don’t tend to accrue many comments – so I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  6. OK, so, here’s a pretty big comment (no death threats though):

    I played The Republia Times when it came out, maybe found it via Free Indie Games, and lost all of my shit over it. Then I followed Pope’s stuff until I came across the Papers Please beta and, again, all shit lost. When the full version came out I played it and quickly stopped, just like with Cart Life, because it was a depressing chore and I dreaded going back to it (without failing to notice this was actually much more entertaining). Much like with Cart Life too, I rushed through it so I could get my Electron Dance fix without fearing too many spoilers.

    So that’s where I’m coming from. Also, I cheat a lot: To beat The Republia Times, I constantly clicked outside the screen so the game would pause and I could make more informed decisions without a time limit. With Papers Please, I printed seals and passport covers and issuing cities so I can watch them without even touching the in-game rulebook. And I’m considering taking screenshots to analyze them with the game paused. I try not to feel bad about it because it adds a layer of repetitive actions that feels very much like what the game tries to convey. It’s crazy how easy it is to cheat in Pope’s games, mostly I think because 90% of the action happens inside the player’s head, so some rules aren’t maintained at all by the game system (feels like an accidental Asphyx).

    Maybe that’s why sometimes it’s so cumbersome to highlight rules in the book. Most of the game happens in your head and the system’s not that good at interpreting what you think and making the game react to it. This moments happen, when you know what’s wrong about something yet you have to click an option so the game knows that you know something’s up.

    Time limits: the game has a perfectly fair time limit in my opinion, 31 days, though it would’ve definitely benefited from being more explicit about it. Maybe by doing the same as The Republia Times: telling you you have a certain number of days to do your job under close monitoring, and if you do it well you’ll be given more freedom or permanent employment.

    Maybe this “close monitoring” could’ve also explained the perfect judging machine? Like, it’s something you only have because you’re new to the job but eventually the machine will be moved to a more useful task? That bothered me a lot too. In fact, at the time I tried to come up with solutions to it. The craziest one: you approve someone for entry, and a flash-forward window comes up, showing that tomorrow you’ll receive a complaint about it.

    The interface could be considered obscure, yes, but I think many of us just got used to it by playing the beta, where you could actually make any number of mistakes and the only punishment was having less money, so that encouraged some of us to experiment and get acquainted with how things worked. Well, except for the “hang on wall” thing, I would’ve never guessed that was the wall without hearing this. And, of course, it’s no good for a game to trust that people played a demo in order to understand the game’s logic.

    Overall, I feel most of what you guys didn’t like about it comes from the expectations of seeing something more CartLife-y. Papers Please has texture and depth but it doesn’t come across as realistic to me. It is not that and it doesn’t try to be that. Having a more complete version of the story by meeting the family is certainly something Cart Life would do, but this game is more focused, and the personal life of the cog in the machine is only depicted as long as it serves to understand why does the cog stay in place.

    You’re also pretty unfair with your selective memory: when the husband asks you to let the wife in and you refuse her, I believe she tells you she’ll be killed if she goes back and then she says “you have doomed me” as she slowly walks away. For me, it felt pretty shocking, and you can’t just summarize that with “and she just quietly walked away like nothing happened.” The fact that there’s no scandal doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful moment, and the fact that it didn’t move you doesn’t mean you get to forget that the character explicitly addresses what you say lacked addressing.

    And I really don’t get what you say about not being able to detain random people. I feels reasonable that a person in that position would have freedom to reject a passport at will, but not to detain someone without specific justification. This is how I see it: gameplay-wise, detention is only different to denying entry in that it takes longer, so in principle it’s pretty useless. During the beta, I really didn’t see how it could work. But then in the full version the guy comes telling you you’ll get a bonus for detaining people, and things are more clear. I started laughing at that point because I really felt the game was being genius. Now the time you lose by detaining someone is compensated by the bonus (or would be, if the guard stayed true to his word) and the game teaches you to do something that looks really bad just because it gives you a greater benefit.

    That’s, I think, the game’s main point: the machine works because the cogs fit. Here, come live in the shoes of a cog and you’ll see how the machine’s less glamorous rules start making sense. Come see why a miserable employee would actually want someone to be detained at the border. Why he’d want to spot a discrepancy in someone’s papers simply to justify the amount of time he puts into looking at them. Now that’s true of any bureaucratic machine, but it makes sense for the game to talk about the USSR. After all, the Soviet bureaucratic machine was one of the most formidable ones in human history.

    Come to think of it, bribes and corruption should’ve been the main source of income throughout the game, because yes, getting paid according to work efficiency makes no sense even for the most hypocritical of communisms.

    Also, come on, yeah it isn’t intuitive to turn a picture around to see someone’s back, but the scanner clearly takes two pictures.

    Also, this.

  7. Well, I think for me, there are two big objections in your comment, David. One, that Papers Please was never intended to be a Cart Life-esque verisimilitude simulator. And that is fine, I am perfectly willing to accept that as a criticism of that criticism of the game. However, to me, then I don’t really know what makes Papers Please all that interesting. It does some things really well but overall the experience doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts for me.

    Second, I can’t speak for Joel, but my problem with the game’s length was that it was way too long without being telegraphed in any way. I had no idea how long the game was going to drag this out for and to me it was a nightmare to think I didn’t know how much longer I had to do this.

    Come to think of it, maybe that was intentional. Still, I’m not a fan of torture games.

    I’m sure Joel will have many more eloquent comments on your comment, David. I’m not a writer, which I’m sure you can tell.

  8. David thanks for the long comment and I’ll write a worthy response later. It’s awful trying to write long comments by phone that are anything other than a stream of consciousness piece!

    Nice idea in the tweet. I trust Lucas Pope will pay you consultation fees for his next game!

  9. Finally got a listen in! Good stuff.
    I got “an” ending, but only because I was arrested – I have yet to make it all through the game and I’m at about day 15 or so, the halfway mark.

    Regarding detaining, it was annoying (and “gamey”) to me that I had no way to detain the guy who was repeatedly coming to the border with forged documents. I could detain lots of other people, but not him. I knew of course that eventually he was going to get the documents right, because it would have to work that way, right? Similarly if anyone has a really good sob story I just assume they aren’t allowed; if anyone seems kind of gross or corrupt of course their documents will be fine. In that way you can bypass most choices by playing the game on the meta level, I’ve discovered.

    I didn’t have a problem with the wall thing, oddly enough.

    I did have some difficulty at first when they started asking for “valid seals” on documents as I hadn’t flipped all the way yet to the back of the rule book to find those.

  10. @David

    I love that you “cheated” with the game this way. I never occurred to me – and there was probably part of me thinking this was the “one true way” I was supposed to play the game. Maybe I will do better too if I draw the seals on a separate piece of paper.

    As for the interface, I spent many a time wondering what I was doing wrong. The game made me feel, for example, that I had screwed up the “detain for money” subplot. I was detaining everyone I could, but the guard came in and asked why I wasn’t detaining enough people – as if I let some potential detainees slip through my fingers. Of course, this can be interpreted as a pure story moment, where your hands are actually tied and the guard comes in and moans regardless. But too much of Papers, Please is themed like a game: so this came across to me as feedback that I hadn’t figured out how to detain at whim.

    I would like to play the alternate universe Papers, Please where there wasn’t any gamey feedback. The game already does a good job of not letting you know the consequences of many ordinary decisions, but I think it could do better making you wonder if you let “bad people” through. The game wants you to feel complicit in certain atrocities and suggests that all the bombings and shootings are the result of you letting terrorists through. But it didn’t feel like it was anything to do with me because I soon grasped on a replay that those story events happened whatever I did. (Here’s another problem with “learning decision trees” because it can screw with your empathy in a fictional game narrative.)

    The Cart Life comparison, to be honest, was forced on us. It was often mentioned in relation to Cart Life and the game took pride of place on many game sites/mainstream reviews draped in the kind of language I’d have expected to be used on Cart Life. But I did say to Eric afterwards that I think we’d have warmed to some of its human aspects more if we hadn’t played Cart Life. As a result, this excellent attempt of humanzining mechanics came off poorer for the comparison: it just didn’t trigger the same responses either of us had experienced in Cart Life, yet the reviews imply others did. Here’s one of the latest, and this just wasn’t my experience at all. The author identifies that “it’s easy to get lost in the mix of mechanics and message”: that some of us need to be told the game is meant to be more human and affecting than just dealing with resource management.

    I’ve written about how we must “take up the role” the game expects of us, because if we subvert the system too much, then we’re not going to get the experience that was intended. (We start to segue into issues of “who is the author” of course, but in a game like Papers, Please, it is clear what Pope is trying to get out of his players.) But here some of the more gamey aspects do it some harm, such as parts of the interface, the abstraction of a family as some circles with status vs the more real immigrants at your booth, and the shoot-with-gun-for-high-score. (It feels like this game should not be about money.) The game thwarts my attempt to live in that role.

    Now this isn’t going to be everybody’s story as evinced by the swell of love for Papers, Please. It’s difficult to find discussion of the game that isn’t positive. But I can’t help seeing some missteps here – or maybe even deliberate attempts to go a more conventional route – which means it missed out on being An Important Game. I don’t think Eric concurs on this but, in many ways, it is so close. Instead, is is just another data point on the great path, more proof that there is great value in mundane mechanics with simulated (heavily scripted, even) human interaction.

    There were many moments when I thought: damn it, what am I going to do now? Quick, quick, make a decision! Some of the story curveballs are clever and I think, without a doubt, that everyone should play this game.

    I absolutely loved the first half of the game and was sure I was going to talk about it in glowing terms. But for the remainder of the game I cared less for the immigrants than I did for the resource management; I saw avatars and numbers. This is a lesson in itself, that the abstraction that bureaucracy foists upon us destroys our relationship with the people we serve. But I was expecting to care a lot more than I did, because when all I see is avatars and numbers, then my brain identifies what I am doing is a game. I stopped caring… and I was hoping for more than that.

    @Amanda: On detaining… you’ll get your chance.

  11. So cool that you automatically thought of drawing you cheatsheet. I made mine out of screenshots to play the demo, and when the full version came out a fan made a far more complete one.

    I should say that I realize I’m being way too defensive about this game. It certainly is cool/original/interesting to have some place on the internet to talk about Papers Please’s shortcomings. I wouldn’t say everyone loves the game, but it is one of those games that people just don’t talk about if they don’t like it, so all the discussion that does happen ends up being very positive.

    I wonder though, why am I so defensive about it? After all, your biggest complaint is about the game’s second half, and I haven’t even played that part. That’s right, I took the $1000 and the new apartment and got arrested. Back when I was losing it over the demo, if someone had told me the finished version was going to have a first person shooter minigame, I would’ve considered it some sort of joke. And it’s not mere fanboyism on my part, though I do like Pope’s work very much.

    Maybe it comes down to the Cart Life comparison (and I know I was just dismissing it but now for some reason I’m bringing it back): Papers Please fills the void many of us had when we wanted to enjoy this awesome, thought-provoking, critically acclaimed retail simulator that in practice turned out to be pretty boring to us.

    Despite the profound moments I had in Cart Life, it’s like some Eastern European cinema: it’s something you have to work through, something you know you’ll be better for but it isn’t really engaging in the way that you want it to be. Papers Please shows us that anything can be made engaging, and we don’t have to lose the engagement to put you in another’s shoes.Extra Credits: Games You Might Not Have Tried #6

    But now it seems I’m talking about Papers Please like I would about Spec Ops: The Line. You know, like something someone would want to think of as thought-provoking because they enjoyed it and they want to think they enjoy intellectual stuff.

    Maybe some people are artificially compelled to say Papers Please is smarter than it actually is, just because they enjoyed it so much? Maybe some people are artificially compelled to say they enjoyed Cart Life more than they actually did, just because it is so smart? Maybe that’s why they tend to be mentioned together, because they complement each other? Maybe this theory is too binary to apply to anything real?

  12. While I was playing the game, I enjoyed exploring how all the systems worked. It was another level of the bureaucracy, the fact that some things just aren’t well explained or in the rule book that’s supposed to have everything, like something was lost between the departments.

    The finger-printing, aliases and detaining (among many other aspects of the game) only come to the forefront if you really poke at them, and I liked poking at things to see what would happen.

    I personally am one of those people who really like the tactile nature of the game, the way things fold or open from one screen to the other, the way the sound effects enhance that, the press of the stamp, and the effect of positioning the passport slightly wrong during that. So exploring that tactile nature was what I wanted to do. Thus how I learned that if there are 2 details wrong on someone then you can detain them.

    For the most part I agree with your criticisms of the gamisms in Papers Please, but on the other hand they are there right from the start. As you mentioned the newspaper article and the per person payments imply a sense of freedom over your destiny that you really shouldn’t have in a totalitarian world, and it does mess with the suspension of disbelief (or cause ludo-narrative dissonance, whichever you prefer to use). However since it was all right there from the beginning of the game, you should know what you’re getting into, and perhaps choose to overlook certain gamisms as you might in other games.

    In comparison, I found Cart Life nearly unplayable because of the extent that it chooses to not telegraph anything that might happen. Whereas Papers Please gives you relative certainty about most things except for the end of the game, Cart Life seemed to give me no certainty about anything, from how to solve my problems, to my goals in the game, to how systems worked, I was completely lost all the time. In that sense I would say, it hit its mark, but lost me immediately because of it. A certain amount of gamisms and metaphor may allow us to take in potentially deeper matters that we would otherwise pass by.

    Also interesting is that you didn’t talk about the sense of power or lack of power you get during the game. It’s a constant tug-o-war in which during the day you feel like the master of all these peoples lives, with them at your fingertips, to fail them or let them through. Even if its a sort of false power since you get punished whenever you do something wrong, its enough power, freedom and opportunity to make you feel like you’re in control. And then at the end of the day when you realise you didn’t get enough people through, you feel that power ripped away from you as you can’t deal with the problems that start happening to your family, or as you watch your money taken away. The game constantly deals with the struggle to try and gain some power, and as such provide for your family, within this slightly obfuscated world that keeps working against you. And ping-ponging you back and forth between feeling like judge, jury and executioner, and the executed.

    Perhaps, its also because I accepted the gamisms early on, but I really enjoyed just seeing all the ways he manages to expand on the basic concept of dragging objects around on your desk. Lining up a punch hole card and a code card to reveal the name of someone you have to let through and the unfolding of a poisonous powder that you have to press into a passport. Even just the paperwork, as you guys mentioned, feels really really good, confiscating passports, handing out temp passport slips, seeing journalists id’s, and letting in diplomats, comparing fingerprint read-outs, health documents, asylum seeker grants. It just folds out so much further than I expected.

    The game in general does a really good job of manipulating the horizon in the game, mechanically during the day the horizon keeps pushing out in a really pleasant way, over the course of the game though the horizon feels menacing, with no idea of when it will ever end. Both of which feel completely intentional to me.

    In any case I’ve rambled on long enough, but I think I’ll finish on one last point. In a world where the majority of gamers are used to 95% gamism and 5% reality, they might need games like Papers Please that are 50/50 to help bridge the gap to games that are fiction but based completely in reality, which really isn’t a genre in games yet. We’re seeing more of them pop-up, like Cart Life or “Gone Home”, and even documentaries like “That Dragon, Cancer” or “Dys4ia”, but they are a long way from being palatable to a larger public. Not just because of their content, but because of the majority of the audiences expectation.

  13. @David

    I draw a lot of things for my games. With Miasmata I was recently trying to plot a route because I was flipping constantly between two different maps; I never even thought of screenshotting. It’s a strange thing, but drawing seems permissible like I’m expected to do it… but a screenshot? That’s downright cheating… for some reason. I guess it’s too exact and not messy enough. I guess. I dunno.

    I don’t think we need to worry about being “defensive” of cutting edge games. We’re worried they will sink without a trace. I’ve not been too overtly defensive of Cart Life, because I wanted everyone to feel they could say NO to the game, but I took issue with Nick Fortugno’s commentary on the game as well those who label it as “bleak”, because they worm their way into the public consciousness. A consciousness that hasn’t played the game.

    Recently, I had a Twitter discussion with Thomas Grip of Frictional Games (Penumbra/Amnesia) in which Cart Life came up. He was surprised to learn that Cart Life had “win” conditions, i.e. having not played it, he thought all endings were bad. And where did that impression come from? From practically every review pigeon-holing it as that “bleak” game.

    So, man, I totally understand the defensive thing when it comes to fragile pieces of work way off the mainstream.

    I will say Papers, Please is a very smart game, it’s very clever, but it doesn’t get everything right. I can see the Cart Life parallels and I get why it comes up. However I can’t find anyone taking a potshot at the shooting aspect apart from this comment. We live in a small critical sphere that maligns the “dumb-brained” shooting in the standard FPS – yet Papers, Please gets a pass on adding shooting to a paperwork game. We can’t ignore the flaws in our best works if we want to be taken seriously. It’s the GTA problem which will get top scores on this cycle regardless of what it does.

    I’m terrible for ignoring flaws and I don’t like to “stick the knife in” with some indie who is trying to make a go of things. I usually find it impossible to write about games I don’t like but I should be honest when there are elements that do bug me in a game I want to talk about. I can’t lie that Starseed Pilgrim became frustrating; I can’t pretend Papers, Please lost my attention.

    @John IG

    The podcast format is more rambly. I used to write complex notes ahead of recording Counterweight and then made sure I steered the conversation through each point I wanted to make… but it wasn’t a conversation any more. I wasn’t listening to Eric and the result was a bit stilted IMO. I now kick these off without notes and we just talk out what comes to mind, because at least there’s a more natural back-and-forth. This is all a very long way of saying that I’d be more analytical if I was writing about it: the powerless position of apparent power is very interesting. I obliquely referred to it with a reference to The Wire, but this is one of the things that is great about the game.

    But I didn’t like some of the gamey abstractions that messed with that. Have you played Introversion Software’s Uplink? You can do a really rubbish job as a hacker and there’s no immediate feedback: a few days later you are arrested. I was expecting a similar experience in Papers Please (uh oh expectations…) where how badly you were doing was so far removed from the consequences that you felt nervous. How much power did you have? How much were your masters scrutinising you? I was also expecting it to be more mundane, as opposed to being the “nexus of great events” you seemed to be (YMMV on that particular criticism, of course, that point could be argued in length).

    But I loved Cart Life, of course, and you’re right in the sense that Papers Please might be considered a better stepping stone, a way to beguile those over into games with reduced feedback, nuanced consequences and unexpected decisions.

    I’m with you on the the “analogue” nature of the interface – it wasn’t all buttons to press and hotspots – because that opens up dark holes where secrets can be hidden. (Did anyone here touch the poison? I didn’t but pretty sure that’s where one ending can be found. I remember feeling *anxious* about even holding that envelope!)

    I never thought of labelling That Dragon, Cancer and Dys4ia as “documentaries” as usually documentaries are developed by an independent observer, but that’s an interesting way of categorising those sorts of games. (Aside from getting into the tedious “they aren’t games” discussion.)

    These are great comments. Even if David’s head is stuck in a toilet.

  14. @John IG – when I saw your comment, I wanted to nitpick your use of “ludonarrative dissonance” but then I thought I was being semantical. Then I saw this, and, well:

    The per-person payments MIGHT be ludonarrative dissonance; the newspaper article definitely isn’t. It’s just two parts of the narrative not matching. I think “suspension of disbelief” is probably better in both cases.

  15. @HM: Hmmm, maybe, autobiographical is what I should have used? Of course you have to consider the perspective being subjective. So that poses a new question, are there any “documentary” games?

    @Amanda: You are totally correct, the newspaper article is just pure narrative dissonance, but in general I was referring to the power you feel as player through your choices (for instance gaming the system by paying heat, and then paying for food, as well as the payment per person) that was at odds with the totalitarian narrative.

    Of course it could just be the totalitarian narrative is not perfectly constructed to begin with, and the gameplay is coherent with that flawed narrative? Coherent flaws, is that a thing?

  16. @Amanda: Wow, the comments on Errant Signal really go down a rabbit hole of opinions after awhile, which is a shame. In any case I like the term ludonarrative dissonance in general, but I should probably be a bit more careful in describing the aspects that contribute to it in any partiular game.

    @HM: Oh, and I just wanted to say I don’t mind the podcast being more rambly, I can understand how a too planned out podcast can really kill conversation. However if something sounds overly negative, it can be because the positives might have been glossed over as if they’re assumed while they haven’t really been communicated to the audience, and the rambly nature can lead to a lack of overview of what’s been said or not said.

  17. @John IG Oh I really like Ludonarrative Dissonance too. I think it’s pretty useful; it’s just something a little specific.

    Also – and not to go down another weird rabbit hole – while LD is a thing, and we can discuss it, I am not sure that eliminating it from a game is something that turns out to matter. Deadpool, thematically, has the least ludonarrative dissonance of any game I’ve recently played; this did not make hit a hit with critics or even really notable.

  18. @Amanda: Oh no, definitely not, that’s why I like the term, dissonance implies that they aren’t always connected, but it doesn’t imply an inherent failure (such as a term like mismatch might).

    However I do hope the term, among other tools, allows games to get to the point where a majority of players understand game design is a narrative tool, and how you use game design in relation to the narrative is important. Even if the implementation of the mechanics and story are less than stellar (as might have been the case in Deadpool).

  19. “But now it seems I’m talking about Papers Please like I would about Spec Ops: The Line. You know, like something someone would want to think of as thought-provoking because they enjoyed it and they want to think they enjoy intellectual stuff.”

    Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate.

    But I’ve been in a bad mood for about a week, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

  20. That said…

    I don’t know. Games really bum me out a lot of the time because I think they’re capable of doing really interesting things without being all fucking stupid about it. The shooting minigame in Papers Please almost made me stop playing. It was that bad. I was like, “okay, game, you’re doing a lot of fucking stupid shit, but you’re also doing a lot of really interesting shit, and I’ll keep on keepin’ on” and then the Ministry of Justice is all “hey checkpoint dude you’ll GET A BONUS for shooting people.”

    Come the fuck on.

    Cart Life was like this game that seemed to come from space, or an alternate dimension, or under the ocean. It was just so… perfect. It felt like it was made by a real person about real people, and that the real person that made the game understood what a human motivation looked like and was able to translate that into game form without being all fucking stupid about it.

    I don’t know.

  21. @John: I think there are games that could be accurately described as “documentary” but I’m not sure I’ve played them. I wish I could recall. Autobiographical sounds better fitting, yes. I like seeing different terms being thrown into the arena here, it is helpful to have something which sounds more precise than “personal games” because most one-developer games are… personal. (And I’ve never been happy with the term “confessional” I adopted to describe personal writing.)

    In terms of the podcast, I didn’t intend to talk so much about the negatives but somehow 45 minutes wound up that way! When I’m writing it’s usually the other way around; negatives barely get a look-in.

    Let me add another point to the Papers, Please discussion. When we go back to the early moment with the husband and wife coming through separately, and she says she’ll be killed if she stays behind. Here’s the thing: I did not assume that was true. I considered all the dialogue suspicious, not because it was my role to do so, but because I assumed Pope was going to take advantage of good intentions and twist them. When the badge/coin was deposited after I did let her through, I was a bit disappointed: it was a piece of immediate feedback that I did a “good thing” when in reality you’d need a lot more convincing when you know evildoers want to infiltrate the country. (Or possibly a wad of cash.) Despite this, I approached every sob story sceptically. Again, this is possibly what was intended, but a lot of writing on the game talks up the emotional inflection of these events in an almost mawkish way. I feel like I was not playing the same game. I guess it’s the conflict of conventional game design – here’s the game giving you truthful info, and here’s the feedback – and the school of Cart Life, where you don’t know what you’re actually doing.

    @Amanda: When I’ve used “ludonarrative dissonance” I’ve tended to think of it as where the mechanics break the story: I think the last time I referred to it was during Leon Loves Tetris, describing the mass-murder in Bioshock Infinite. It may well be that I am slipping in usage to describe any sort of ‘break’ between gameplay and theme. Now I feel like I should stop using the term at all =)

    Also, I think LD does matter, but more like the additional 5%. It’s not a serious impediment for many games – players are able to buy into a fun game at the expense of coherent story. However, something that is not intended to be fun might give us pause if it doesn’t tie up, because we have nothing to distract us from it. Nonetheless, I think truly great games will minimise LD. It’s 5% of a game’s value, not 50%. Which then makes a lot of our critical writing look kind of rubbish, spending pages and pages ranting about something relatively unimportant. I’m not excluding myself from that.

    It’s possible in ten years, the great “narrative-driven” games will look back at “silly gun-led stories of the 2010s”. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m at a particular crossroads on this right now. Maybe LD is something of fashion: right now, only a palmful of critics find their games entirely destroyed by it (or controversially — at least write as if that is the case). In the future, maybe it’ll be the norm. Parser-driven text adventures used to be considered the pinnacle of intelligent videogaming but now you’re considered a bit of a niche player “into word-guessing frustration” if you still play that sort of thing.

    Players have actually complained of LD-like aspects over the years. You see such concerns pop up in comments here and there but they were always spotty and never stopped anyone buying the latest GTA.

    @David: Ludolavatory dissonance.

    @Eric: Yes. You are in a bad mood. Go back to your room for a full hour. I didn’t have your extreme reaction to the introduction of shooting, but there was a sense of disappointment for me. But have we been spoiled by Cart Life? I don’t want to be a whiner about the rest of gaming just because I loved that game.

  22. Is there something like LD in other narrative-driven disciplines? And I mean “is there a name for it,” ’cause I’m pretty sure it exists. Many a time I read stories and felt the genre conventions interrupting the sense of verisimilitude: “You’re writing a letter two weeks after the fact, how and why would you possibly transcribe an entire conversation you had with some dude?” “Why would you waste time writing that the ship is sinking as it sinks? Run!” “Why would you narrate the day you met you current spouse in your memoirs and fail to mention that fact, leaving room for doubt all through the story about whether or not you were gonna end up together?” Maybe analyzing how it works in other mediums can shed some light into how we think of it in games.

    @HM: I find it interesting, all the talk about terrorism and spies and stuff. I never assumed it was true. It struck me during the beta, how people were aware that the paper’s headlines could be caused by my actions, it just never felt right for me (except maybe specific arrests when you got to talk with the victims).

    Since the first terrorist attacks you see happen are with people that had all papers in order, I just thought the spy stuff was all exaggerated by my employers and I instantly assumed any person with forged documents was just poor people trying to escape their country like it happens all the time at any point in history with people I’m used to sympathize with. After all, real spies generally have accurately forged documents beyond the capacities of regular working folk behind a desk.

    To me, Papers Please was always about illegal immigration, and since I already expected the game to be smart, the last thing I thought was that the illegal immigrant was going to be a real villain in the game. And I really don’t think it is, though I still haven’t delved into the second half of the game and I probably should before continuing my defense of it.

  23. As we were leaving Elysium I said to my wife, “There’s been a lot of talk lately about games which are trying to make big important points about stuff but where you’re actually just shooting a lot of people in the face. That movie reminded me of that.”

    The other examples you mention don’t strike me as quite the same as LD the way we talk about it; they’re more examples of suspension of disbelief (or not). It’s a convention of literature that there’s exact dialogue even when we’re ostensibly reading a document someone’s writing; there can be works that interrogate that (read Kobo Abe’s The Box Man and see what happens on page 100) and works that disrupt our suspension of disbelief by foregrounding their scenario too much (David Lodge’s Therapy is an offender here, and I just read Enchantress from the Stars an old YA by Sylvia Engdahl which tries to handwave away the fact that it’s a document being sent by the narrator which has extensive sections from the viewpoints of two other characters, and probably shouldn’t have bothered), but in general it seems more along the lines of “Why are the characters in the game saying the same line every time I talk to them?” rather than “Why is my character supposed to be sympathetic when he’s just straight-up killing thousands of people?”

  24. I’m quite late to the party if only because I’m also late to Papers Please. I too am guilty of only finishing the game twice. Once by the thousand dollar incarceration and once by securing a new Arstotzka. I’m also guilty of not reading all the comments yet.

    I have to agree with a lot of the discussion I’ve heard so far. There are plenty of flaws for a game that has so many opportunities and otherwise did so much else right. We play this from a critical eye and we see places where things could have been improved and rightly so. I think many of us felt cheated by the 20 endings. Cheated by the lack of emotional finale. Cheated by the lack of purpose in actions like feeding your family. Cheated by the gaminess of the interface. However, I’d like to offer a different perspective that makes it possible for me to think positively about the game and even recommend it. That is like life itself, do not think of Papers Please as a means to an end. Instead, savour each day in its own light.

    When I reflect back on my play, it wasn’t the big finales that caught me. They were the little ‘side quests’ that have no bearing on the ending that stand out. The hero of this game isn’t you. Its not the Ezic either. It’s Jori’s positive attitude that for a brief second, breaks your relentless concentration. It’s the barely noticeable twinge when you deny the immigrant’s wife. It’s the brief ‘oops’ moment when you realise you could have given that love note to the lonely girl. It’s that time you scoff at your son’s wish for a birthday present. It’s the time you get frustrated because no one told you how to tap the table and the rule because you’re new to your job. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    When I look back it’s these small breaks in continuity that are the highlights. I think our initial impressions fault these moments for not being bigger. At best we are rewarded with a token. Doesn’t it seem obvious that these events should have taken a bigger role? Don’t they deserve their own ending? Shouldn’t they contribute to some sort of karma score?

    I think they should. But I’m not dissatisfied that they don’t. Because each of those many moments is a subtle reminder of what it means to be human. Its a reminder that life doesn’t have a karma system. No one gives you a token for your good deeds. No one will notice you keyed your neighbour’s car. Yet if you reflect back on your life, those moments, should you pay attention to them, can provide more meaning than those big ticket items. Others might measure you by your degrees, your promotions and the metal you wear around your finger. But you’ll likely remember less obvious things on your journey to those rites of passage.

    So I do recommend the game as it is. The author has cleverly placed enough moments to generate meaning. Yet they are subtle enough to generate an existential frame of mind. That’s it. I wish I was a better writer and knew how to end an essay. Well back to my engineering job. Anyone want a business card?

  25. So in my previous post I attempted very poorly to convey my thoughts about not seeking a rewarding game from an ending but rather in the moments of the game itself much in a similar way where one find rewarding game play in a sandbox game or an MMORPG where user generated content is key to satisfaction. In this case I suggest its instead a focus between you and the author.

    Regarding LD (hey look ma! I learned a new word!). There are certainly plenty of immersion breaking points, some of which I addressed. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect our critical minds to approach the husband and wife immigration situation and attempt to predict the author’s intentions from our post-modern gaming view. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take satisfaction from that event. If that we’re the case, foreshadowing would be a suicidal literary technique. Instead we ought to embrace the skillfulness the author sets up such a simple cliche situation and still manage to give pause for thought and maybe even a bit of analysis (To be fair its not cliche because this is the first piece on immigration I’ve encountered. But its such an obvious dilemma to throw at the player that we’re quick to call it simplistic of “gamey”). We have to admit, if the dilema was so simple, you would have glanced over it. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t beat you on the head like the white phosphorous scene of Spec Ops.

    This is where I see the biggest contrast (not better nor worse) than cart life. Where cart life demands you figure out life in preparation for hopefully a good big high emotion ending, Papers please eschews it. The rewards are small and scattered throughout from the start. This is why people, myself included, felt the 2nd half of the game was tedious and lacking lustre. We are so used to building for the big ending. We expect an artsy game to have a profound message at the end in the form of a tomb stone and a fade to black. As post-modern we are, we still expect a big finish. So shame on us for not accepting that a game about manual labour doesn’t abide by that convention and letting that get in our was of enjoying a game. Yes the game is imperfect and it could have used more player testing, but the rewards and joys are right there if you allow yourself to seek them. Interact with the author instead of trying to find his faults. Let yourself chuckle out loud when you find yourself accepting Jori’s drug money. Not because it’s supposed to be brilliant comic relief and you didn’t see it coming, but because that’s exactly the place a skilled craftsman would place it. Its moments like that that bring luster to an otherwise dull life.

  26. Yeah, I’ve been trying to return to these comments but the whole Expo thang blew me away there. And there were drinks at work. And I was ill. Wait, I’m still ill.

    @David: The concept of keeping a story consistent and believable is well-acknowledged in literature and film but we’ve got this extra term because there’s an extra component, a sort of ill-defined extra dimension to a game – also known as the player. So we have to keep a story consistent and believable but ALSO devise gameplay that doesn’t threaten that setup. Most of the time, though, developers will just fallback to something which is gamey without upsetting the apple cart too much. We can wander around FPS “safe areas” for a long time like some sort of mute asshole staring into people’s faces – but such social repercussions aren’t embedded in the game, because it’s a game. It would be get annoying really quickly.

    It’s interesting you “never assumed it was true”. I think this is a difference of assumed context. I assumed it Papers, Please would try to trip me up, although noticing the terrorist events were unavoidable setpieces made me realise that perhaps I was assuming too much. Nonetheless, I still felt that I was here to stop real terrorists – maybe I had no control over big-picture events, but surely I had derailed some small stories behind the scenes – so perhaps the game’s internal propaganda had affected me. On the other hand, EZIC needed your help to work their particular, erm, magic.

    If the game is about illegal immigration, I do wonder about the heavy emphasis on activists, terrorism and criminals. As Eric suggested, perhaps it would have been better set in a Western democracy-alike rather than a fictional communist country from the 80s.

    @mavericknm: Welcome to Electron Dance! It’s not often the site receives a new purveyor of walls of text!

    Indeed, it is those breaks in the continuity that are the best bits. It makes me wonder if the game might have been better for focusing more on those small-scale human stories than getting carried away with larger-than-life pseudo-spy plots. I mean, going back to Cart Life once again, there were only small scale stories and there was no obvious “karma score” or feedback in that game. It’d make me a little anxious if Papers, Please had assigned a karma score to your activities – as it effectively does with your in-game family.

    I’m not sure I can agree on the lack of a “big ending” being a differentiator because Cart Life’s “good” Andrus ending is remarkably dull – but it means something in the wake of a playthrough where you fail Andrus. I think Papers, Please is trying for the big splash at the end, because it signals the upcoming audit early in the game and there’s some tension about what is going to happen when that audit comes.

    The ending of my game, which I didn’t go into the podcast in detail, was very interesting because it was so horrible. And it was a direct consequence of how I had played the game. I really liked my ending!

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