Library Overflow: Reading Every Book On My Bookshelf (2/346)

tumblr_ou8m8ktUC41woletmo1_500.jpg

SOMETHING NEW; a book to read for the first time

I have to admit, this book was hard for me to read at first. I think that might be the point, but eventually it drew me in and I finished 200+ pages in one sitting. It is an unflinching first person slave narrative that is also in the fantasy genre, a speculative fiction time travel story. A black woman from 1967, Dana, is thrown through time again and again without her consent to go back and save the son of a white slave owning plantation owner, and because the boy happens to be her distant ancestor Dana finds herself trying to make excuses for him and the time he lives in even to her detriment and dehumanization. She struggles with blending in, especially since in her case that means posing as a slave, and her predicament is not made any kinder when she learns that her only way to transport home is to believe, with her whole heart, that her life is in grave danger and that she is about to die. In that way Dana and the boy, Rufus, are tied. Dana is called to him when he is about to die, and Dana can only be freed from the hell of a Maryland plantation decades from the Civil War when she truly and completely believes that she is going to die. 

Octavia Butler is one of my favorite science fiction writers and I know many people I respect consider this to be her best work. I’ve only just finished reading it, but I think I am inclined to agree. It is a time travel story I’ve not seen before – namely, a time travel story from a black author dealing with the very, very painful realities of history that anyone of color, though African Americans especially,  that might make someone pause at the possibility of a trip through time. It is not a fun thing, it is not an exciting opportunity that Dana is offered benevolently, but something she has to endure in the hopes if she survives long enough that she can just go home. 

Dana’s struggle with dehumanization is intense and all encompassing, having to struggle between staying silent or speaking up when she watches friends she’s made on the plantation sold or beaten or raped, struggling with the extended trip to the plantation with her white husband accidentally in tow, and most of all her struggle with continually saving Rufus while torn between thinking she can save him from being like any other white person and feeling crushing immeasurable guilt for the actions of another slave owner that she keeps saving the life of (even if she tells herself it’s only to ensure she can be born, her ancestor’s parents being Rufus and the enslaved woman Alice). Dana continually says she doesn’t have the kind of endurance of her ancestors, the slaves whose lives she’s getting a first hand encounter with now, but she is an incredibly strong, brave heroine in a world where there’s no right answers, no happy ending. Like Harlan Ellison is quoted as saying on the cover, this is a novel I think I’m going to keep coming back to. I am floored by this amazing novel, completely and utterly rocked.

Library Overflow: Reading Every Book on My Shelves (1/346)

Good Omens.jpg

SOMETHING OLD; a book to reread

Some books feel like coming home. I’m not sure if I could really tell you the first time I read Good Omens (sometime in college maybe?) because I’m certain the book came in this worn, dropped in the bath, dogeared condition. It’s always felt like a comfortable, curl up by the fire, know every word but it still stirs feelings inside you book. Perhaps that Catholic upbringing of mine has something to do with how familiar the themes of the book seem, as well as the gentle way the grandiose has become familiarly mundane out of sheer infectious contact with humanity.  It might just be the readable, welcoming writing style of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who write like they’re the best of friends welcoming you into the secret they’ve been whispering and laughing about for hours. 

Good Omens is a book about the end of the world. It is about the forces of good and evil speeding toward Armageddon with reckless abandon and, I would say, bloodlust on both sides. Every supernatural character we do not spend a lot of time with sees humanity as a bore, or at the very least as something inconsequential to the grand final battle to come. Even our purported main characters, an angel and a demon, do little to actually resolve the main plot – which is preventing the Anti-Christ from bringing about the Apocalypse – instead bumbling about trying to be not too good and not too evil respectively, having grown comfortable on Earth and each harboring a certain fondness for the human race at large. 

It’s ultimately a story about love, and not the romantic kind for once, at the center of it. It is an optimistic, hilarious book that, even in my hiatus from reading as a whole, I’ve reread more times than I can count. So help me, this little book about the almost end of the world makes me hope. 

The Stanley Parable: Choice in Games

The Stanley Parable is a 2013 game by Galactic Cafe, and everything I have to say about it constitutes as a spoiler. No article will ever do experiencing this game justice. Do yourself a favor and download it from Steam, right now, and play through it a couple times before you read on wards. Knowing anything at all will only taint the first experience of it and that would be a severe injustice. The Stanley Parable was both a gift and a delight to play, each time I have picked it up. 

Though I feel that discussing it with those who have not played it would be only a detriment to those who haven't experienced it yet, the game does open up a discussion about the nature of choice in games that I think is worth having. 

I played through the Stanley Parable with a big, stupid grin plastered to my face the entire time. The comforting voice in my ear, slowly starting to lose patience with me and really form a repartee with my silent protagonist, was something quiet magical. Remember those I mentioned spoilers? Consider this the point of no return. The two doors, if you will. The door on your left and the door on your right. The whole of the game can be boiled down into the choices presented by the narrator, whom has set up Stanley, the player character, as someone who always follows orders. So, if the narrator says, "Stanley walked through the door on the left," then it can be reasonably assumed by reasonable people that Stanely will... 

... do as the player chooses 

The first path I chose was to follow the voice's instructions. Hey, what can I say, I wanted to see what happened if I played as myself, which translates out to playing as someone afraid of conflict. Yes, even with the invisible man in the sky telling me where to go. The second play through was purposefully contrite, jumping off of platforms and interrupting him, and it was quite a different narrator. He went from coddling and perhaps benevolent, to snarky and sarcastic and exasperated. He took me into Minecraft and then out of Minecraft after bemoaning how open ended it all was. He took me into Portal and laughed his best Glad0s laugh. I then proceeded to play bits of Portal, with another invisible antagonist insulting me. I cannot think of another game -- another form of media -- where I was spirited back into a different experience, a different game and story that I remembered fondly, and have it be part of the new game. The game I was playing was jumping from game to game like some cartoon might when doing a genre mash-up episode! It spoke to the little, excitable child in me, while the adult was too busy grinning through it to truly think until the experience was mostly through. 

This second play through was more eye opening than the first, where the narrator berates Stanley (the player character) for having so many ideas about the perfect video game, contending that he doesn't need "your" advice or "your" ratings, as a very pointed dig at the video gaming audience. The main character is introduced as a man whose only job is to push buttons. The monitor in front of him told him when to push buttons, for how long, and the game says that though this sounds quite boring, Stanley never questions it. I, meanwhile, needed no tutorial to know that WASD would move Stanley and that moving the mouse would cause him to look around. I am Stanley, and Stanley is me. 

The game brings to light some interesting questions of designing and writing a video game around player actions. What is it that we know about players? Well, number one, is that generally they tend to want to touch everything, want to explore everything, want to push boundaries in what the game is allowing them to do. The Stanley Parable embraces this as few games do by making it a key design feature. Even in the hunt for achievements, a hallmark of modern gaming, the developers are poking fun at their audience to great effect. Everyone I know who has played the game has done so with a similar reaction to mine: with a big, stupid grin splitting our faces. 

To steal a quote, "The Stanley Parable is smart, truly funny and loves to wrongfoot its players." By presenting choice in such an engaging and, yes, funny manner (Portal I think proved quite well that having a funny platform for your otherwise serious themed game was an A+ strategy), the Stanley Parable serves as a neat little box of what many major gaming studios are more ineptly trying to explore. The concept of choice is quickly becoming ever present in video games, from moral choice systems in everything from sprawling fantasy epics to first person shooters, to the resurgence of a choose-your-own-adventure sub-genre of gaming. It's a popular system and it is not hard to see why. Video games are uniquely equipped to handle to concept of choice. Books, movies, television, comics, and other media struggle to impart the simple choice so effortlessly presented by the Stanley Parable: which door do you choose? 

One of the most interesting discussions of choices in games was given by Extra Credits, which I have linked below. The stress in the video is a question of choice vs consequence, for example how and when does the player make the decision and get the result. The Stanley Parable uses the narrator to help guide the player in these choices, to help the player see through Stanley what we can find out about ourselves in these choices that we make. Do we immediately rebel in the game world against a voice telling us what to do? Is that a commentary on us as people or on the video games we have been raised on, teaching us that if we do not fully explore we may never get a chance to backtrack? What is it about us that makes us yearn for some completionist trophy, to compulsively seek out every possible ending? Video games, like the Stanley Parable, offer us a truly unique and interactive way to explore these questions and more, in a way that has not been possible before in traditional media. It is one of the most exciting things to watch for in the industry, I believe, and I look forwards to seeing what video games are able to do with the simple tool of choice in the future. 

No Win Scenario: Telltale's The Walking Dead Season One

Following the immense success of AMC's television adaption of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, video game studio Telltale Games took the next swing at adapting the graphic novel.  Debuting in 2012, Telltale's Walking Dead The point-and-click, choose-your-own-adventure, episodic style video game blew expectations out of the water. The studio earned numerous "Game of the Year" awards across critical platforms, along with praise for the unique art style, visceral moral choice system, as well as strong writing and voice acting. This was not the only attempt at a video game property based upon the popular graphic novel, but it has been the most successful one to date.

2013's Walking Dead: Survival Instinct hedged its bets by basing the story around one of the show's most popular characters, Daryl Dixon. Unfortunately, not even allowing players to step into the crossbow wielding badass could help Survival Instinct battle the tepid critical reaction. IGN touted that Survival Instinct "gives licensed games a bad name" and others bemoaned the massive missteps taken with a promising franchise, when 2012's Telltale game was such a success. While Survival Instinct is directly based upon the world the AMC show created, Telltale instead crafted new characters within the existing rules of the zombie apocalypse. Why was the point-and-click, classical adventure style game triumph over the seemingly more zombie-friendly FPS? Does Telltale's Walking Dead give licensed games a good name?

In my estimation, what it ultimately boils down to is the episodic format of the game, which in turn allowed more of a focus upon character development and story.  By choosing to release five short episodes periodically rather than trying to come out with a single completed game, Telltale allowed themselves room to breathe. You play as Lee Everett, a man who is heading towards jail when the zombie apocalypse starts after a conviction for murdering the state senator that was sleeping with his wife. After freeing himself from a wrecked police car, he finds a young girl named Clementine who is all on her own. Her parents are stuck in Atlanta, likely killed, and her babysitter has gone decidedly green and flesh-eating. Lee decided that he cannot leave a child alone in the zombie apocalypse and promises to take care of her. Thus begins the epic that is Telltale's Walking Dead. Lee and Clementine, moving throughout the apocalypse, with a rapidly dwindling number of survivors in their main crew. The decisions that the player makes affect not only Lee's chances of survival, but the group's as well. Do you prioritize saving the group? Protecting and feeding yourself? Or do you prioritize the little girl, Clementine, whom Lee has appointed himself guardian for? Is it possible to help everyone? 

The short answer is no. It is not possible to help everyone. It is not even possible to help most people, sometimes including yourself (Lee) and Clementine. 

When writing on Telltale's latest venture, I touched upon how Telltale's Game of Thrones expertly mirrored the subversion of audience expectations in regards to how to play the titular game. Playing the typical video game hero is not an ideal that can be clung to within the Game of Thrones, and neither can it be adhered to in Telltale's Walking Dead. Sure, you can throw yourself at the noble hero archetype with all your might, but all those speeches and promises will only earn enemies. Telltale's Game of Thrones reiterates that such nobility has no standing in the real world, while Telltale's the Walking Dead revels in throwing the player into impossible situations before standing back and crossing its arms expectantly over its chest, eyebrows half raised as if to ask, okay what now tough guy? 

It becomes quickly apparent that Lee is not the master of his own destiny. He is shifted from bad situation to worse situation, clinging desperately to Clementine along the way, forced to watch as the group around him is decimated by both the living and the dead. The revolving cast of characters around Lee and Clementine argue, shout, fight, and sabotage their way though the apocalypse, each with their own agenda, each with their own to protect. It becomes apparent that each character is sizing those up around them and making a distinct list of people they would not lose sleep over needing to bash their brains with a cinder block should they suddenly stop breathing. The decisions you make influence which allies you have backing your decision making process, which enemies you have earned the ire of, and the game quickly becomes navigating these dangerous people you're surviving with as much as it is about surviving the walkers.

As with the comics, the main thesis of the Walking Dead game is that the biggest threat to the group is people, rather than walkers. People are smart, they are volatile, they are more selfish and able to lie. Manipulate. Change allegiances. Is Lee an understanding, generally cool guy? Is he the violent type, who is as comfortable with threats against the living as he is with decapitating zombies? The player decides just how uncomfortable the apocalypse is, with plenty of opportunity to turn on other survivors. 

The final episode of Telltale's Walking Dead's first season is the crowning glory of a game filled to the brim with emotional moments. I played the final episode half curled in the fetal position, so tense that I slammed my fingers against the keyboard prompts with too much force. The final episode ties the loose, hanging strings of previous potentially winnable scenarios into big, lavish bow of eventual defeat. Winning the game goes from surviving to that happy ending, to instead sacrificing yourself so that another might have that shot. To lose the player character in the manner he was lost, slowly having to impart to a little girl that it wouldn't be okay, was the more jarring, emotional experience I have ever had within a video game.

Walking Dead is all about the no win scenarios, because in the end, the survivors were the true walking dead all along. 

FTL: Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master

logo.jpg

Looking for an easy to learn but rather cruelly unforgiving science fiction game packed with action and fear? FTL: Faster Than Light, science fiction indie game from developers Subset Games, might just be for you. It is a top-down, real time strategy game wherein the player controls the crew of a single spaceship, fleeing across many sectors to get important information to the Federation. All the while your meager ship is being chased down by the Rebels, far more powerful and better equipped than your fleeing vessel. As you travel through progressively more dangerous systems, you can spend parts to upgrade your ship's existing systems, purchase new ones, hire crew, or simply seek to expedite your journey to the Federation base to the tune of some really awesome music

Where FTL thrives is in the often difficult to conquer concept: replay value. As has been noted by nearly every reviewer, most playthroughs of FTL will inevitably and invariably end the same way.  The game uses a randomization system to ensure that no two playthroughs of FTL are the same, making each ship's attempted journey unique. There are plenty of different ships and ship variations to choose from as well, each with a different strength/weaknesses match-up. The race of the crew -- ranging from basic human to combat hardened Mantises to lumbering Rock people -- have their own strengths as well, building up specialties over time, and if they are killed it is akin to losing part of your offensive or defensive capability. 

The makeup of your ship, what systems you have, and what crew you have manning them influences which threats turn your daring rescue of a civilian vessel into a slow death by asphyxiation while the scout returns to let the Rebel Fleet know just where to find your corpse. 

 Who needs oxygen anyway? Oh wait, I do. I need oxygen. 

Who needs oxygen anyway? Oh wait, I do. I need oxygen. 

If ten sectors of this battle for survival isn't enough, as soon as you get to the Federation they tell you to turn around and fight the excessively overpowered Rebel Flagship not once, not twice, but three times before you finally triumph. Even playing on Easy mode, FTL reminds players that this is not a fair galaxy. 

FTL: Faster Than Light is a game of patience, of hoarding every bit of scrap you can, of trying to figure out the best style of play for you and then perfecting it. I think it serves as an excellent example of the old adage "easy to learn, difficult to master" with the accessibility of its gameplay combined with the steepness of its difficulty curve. With more the thirty hours clocked in the game, I have come close to beating it only twice. To close, here are the top ten things I have learned while playing FTL. 

  1. BUY FUEL. THERE IS NOTHING MORE EMBARRASSING THAN EXPLORING A SECTOR ONLY TO HAVE TO WAIT, WITH YOUR DISTRESS BEACON BLINKING, FOR THE ENTIRE REBEL FLEET TO SHOW UP AND LAUGH MOCKINGLY AT YOUR PLIGHT. 
  2. NEBULAS ARE SCARY AND HAVE A NEGATIVE RISK/RETURN RATIO.
  3. AVOID THE MANTIS HOMEWORLDS. JUST DON'T GO THERE. UNLESS YOU HAVE THE ADVANCED EDITION AND THE ALIENS WHO DON'T NEED OXYGEN AND YOU CAN JUST OPEN ALL THE DOORS AND RUN AROUND THE SHIP LIKE BENNY FUCKING HILL DON'T DO IT. 
  4. ZOLTANS ARE NICE. I LIKE THEM THEY MAKE SURE MY OXYGEN DOESN'T LOSE POWER AND THEN NOT COME BACK ON BECAUSE I FORGET TO CLICK ON IT IN THE MIDDLE OF BATTLE.
  5. ROCK PEOPLE ARE SUPER FUNNY TO WATCH TRYING TO PUT OUT A FIRE.
  6. BEAM WEAPONS RULE BUT THEY CAN'T TAKE DOWN MORE THAN ONE SHIELD YOU MORON.
  7. YEAH YOU PROBABLY NEED OFFENSIVE DRONES THAT TAKE DOWN SHIELDS IDIOT. 
  8. LOOK YOU DEFINITELY NEED TO TAKE THAT SHIELD DOWN. 
  9. BEAM WEAPONS =/= EFFECTIVE SHIELD DESTROYERS.
  10. BUY THE BEST DOORS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE SO YOU CAN COWER BEHIND THEM WHEN YOU ARE INEVITABLY BOARDED AND CAN'T FIGHT THEM OFF WITH YOUR FLIMSY CREW OF HAPPY ZOLTANS.
 source: reddit.com

source: reddit.com

I Honestly Can't Tell If I'm Doing a Good Job Or Not: Telltale's Game of Thrones

Alternative title: I Honestly Don't Know What I Was Expecting.

Massive spoilers through the third season of Game of Thrones, and undoubtedly the fourth season soon, as the game is entrenched in the lore, violence, and political intrigue of the show. Without those three pillars, the game does not exist at all. The player is to take control of various members of House Forrester, a small Northern house famed for their Ironwood trees which are practically immune to flames. The game ominously promises that the decisions of one Forrester will affect the situations and safety of the other family members. After one episode, I do not doubt for a second that I've already made some massive mistakes that will come back to haunt me. (I will keep spoilers for the episode at a minimum, but please go play it!) 

From the word go, the playable characters position as precarious (earned simply by existing in Westeros) shifts to downright fucked in a matter of moments. The Forresters are a Northern family, and thus historically sworn to the Starks. In the opening scene, we see several members of House Forrester -- Lord Forrester, the eldest son and heir Rodrick, plus their men to include playable character squire Gared Tuttle -- drinking and celebrating. They are sworn to Robb Stark, a fact that set tension locking my gut, and yet they are drinking, they are happy. Rodrick gladly (and perhaps a bit drunkenly) announces that he's to be in the vanguard. Vanguard of what? At this point, I'm almost sure of where I am, where Gared Tuttle and his happy compatriots are, and already I am seeking escape. Instead, they send the squires for wine. It isn't until we are nearly all the way across camp that the camera pans up to reveal the ominous shadow of the Twins. The Red Wedding, the in-game text helpfully reads, by way of a date. 

The Red Wedding. With you, there, as a Stark supporter. The tone of the game is set in the first scene, and I don't know what else I was expecting from a Game of Thrones video game. Any game that opens with the scene that was the most brutal thing I've seen on television to date is not in the general vicinity of fucking around. 

The game is high tension, far higher tension than any zombie threat (though Telltale's Walking Dead was heartbreaking), but the player might lose track of this if they've forgotten some of the nuances or even characters from the show. This episode serves to remind the player just what world they've stepped into. Game of Thrones excels at a subversion of what the audience has come to expect, and the game mirrors this theme expertly. 

I've seen reviewers criticize this episode as boring, but I really must wonder if we were playing the same game. If anything, I would say that the game assumes that you've been paying attention, that if you are a fan of the show/books that you would come to play this game. There is no initiation for the casual fan, or for the person who had not seen or read anything of Game of Thrones, which I had been bracing to endure. Instead, Telltale does not patronize the player. They assume you've been paying attention, that you know what that means,  and pushes through the story without holding the player's hand. "Lord Ramsay Snow is coming to see you," the game tells you. If you know who Ramsay Snow is, you'll be dreading that conversation since it is brought up early on. If you don't know who Ramsay Snow is, then the tension inherent in hearing the name will build much slower, or not at all. 

Integrating characters with the same actors as the television show, Telltale's story pits the playable characters up against people in Westeros that I, playing as Stark supporters in the tumultuous and violent North, simply did not wish to cross paths with. Queen Regent Cersei Lannister was every bit as scornful in person as I expected, but I would gladly have met with Cersei again and again if it only meant that I would have to control a character in the same room as Ramsay Snow. 

But even with the characters that you perhaps did want to meet -- Margery Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister -- there is an underlying threat. It is one thing to watch these two play the game of thrones, to cheer on their victories or laugh at their quips, but it is another thing entirely to be beholden to them or to make deals with them. It did not strike me until I was leaving the throne room with Tyrion beside me that every one in King's Landing would sleep well at night if they squashed my little noble, Mira Forrester, under their heel. She's a handmaiden, she's from the North, and her house is very close to being in outright disfavor. If I make decisions to make Margery and Tyrion happy, am I guaranteed safety any more than if I allied myself with Cersei? What are the odds that Tyrion would sell me out to get one over on his sister, or perhaps to protect Sansa Stark? The player is also in the uncomfortable position of knowing what is to come, that there is another wedding on the horizon, and it served to invoke a sense of dread within me about the coming storylines that I have not shaken. Instinct was to go for the helpful Tyrion over the extremely antagonistic Cersei, but it does not strike me as a wise alliance. 

Telltale's Game of Thrones is every bit as violent and unforgiving as the real Game of Thrones. It does not shy away from the harder subjects, nor does it shy away from killing people off in what can only be called Game of Thrones style. It is violent and shocking, and Telltale has already convinced me of their ability to survive killing off multiple characters in their Walking Dead game. I am eager to see what is to come, after such a strong start. I would also appreciate it if Ramsay Snow would stay away from me for the remainder of the series. If I could never see him again, that would be fantastic (though Iwan Rheon does such a phenomenal job, as always).

                                                  You are never far enough away from me, Ramsay.

                                                 You are never far enough away from me, Ramsay.

Every Day the Same Dream and the Trapped Narrator

Every Day the Same Dream is a 2D art game from Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini, developed in just six days for the Experimental Gameplay Project in 2009. It is available to play in its entirety for free online, playing with the video game idea of "play again" to make it an emotionally charged part of the game itself, rather than simply GAME OVER. Pedercini says, "Every Day the Same Dream is a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor." The narrator is trapped within the letterbox of his world, able to move left or right only, leaving the player frustrated and with a sense of building anxiety as the game continues onward. 

At its core, Every Day the Same Dream  hinges upon the idea that the player, having once commuted to the soulless factory of clones that is "work" and for all appearances the "correct" manner to spend the day, will then attempt to do anything to disrupt this monotonous routine. Gamers are typically contrarins, seeking to push the boundaries of whatever sandbox they are given to play in, and the game excels at exploiting this innate desire to stress-test any experience to the breaking point. The aesthetic of the game is monochrome and stifling, the repetition frustrating, and through this understanding of player tendencies Every Day the Same Dream gives the experience of playing out an existential struggle. 

The game -- or "interactive experience" depending upon which side of the fence you are on -- is a prime example of how mechanics can impose limitations upon the player's experience, and thus help serve the story or message. The 2D format is also constricting, adding to the game's atmosphere.  Reviews have praised the game for its masterclass intelligent design and for the manner in which the mechanics serve the experience. As Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra noted, if this game were a work of prose, it would be a piece of flash fiction rather than a rounded out short story. The game is stark with its message without being overtly heavy handed, and offers very little by way of text outside of the generic identifying features. The heavy soundtrack thrumming throughout also adds to this oppressive atmosphere, where the small narrator is rarely the focal point in the room, losing to color or large set piece. The narrator is small, and so therefore the player is small -- unable to do more than obey or subtly disobey. 

Games are a unique in terms of the stories we consume in that they require a human touch to engage. Reading a short story does not require physical action on the readers part to physically move through the story. Watching a movie does not require the audience do more than pay attention. Games offer a unique perspective in that they require players to do things. You must walk from bedroom to kitchen to hallway to elevator in order to progress, or else you will be standing beside your alarm clock forever while the music thrums at you. Games are immersive in ways that other media is not, and this required action allows for unique stories to be told. 

By trapping the narrator in such a small, letterbox space, the player feels trapped vicariously. By seeking to add spontaneity to a monotonous routine, the player explores the game's central message further. Every Day the Same Dream is a crisp and clear example of mechanics serving as primary storyteller, the simple left-or-right design demonstrating an awareness of the innate human desire for disobedience. It is experimental, but a grand example of storytelling through the basic design pieces.

The Difficulty of Being a "Good Person" in Papers, Please

Indie game Papers, Please offers an engaging and fascinating experience almost entirely through the mechanics of the game itself. As an immigration officer at a hotly contested checkpoint, you are responsible for the flow of people into your glorious country of Arstotzka. The game is effectively a bureaucratic, paper-pushing simulator, but it surprised many by earning critical acclaim when it debuted. You work for a dystopian society, enforcing laws you did not influence or draft, and must chose day-to-day what sort of person you are while processing people as fast as you can. There are a myriad of endings, hardly any of them pleasant, but which begs the question: is it possible to play Papers, Please and end up as a "good person" at the end of the game? In short, not really. The mechanics see to that. 

"[Papers, Please] presents constant moral choices but makes it really hard to be a good person," says Zero Punctuation's Yahtzee in his review. You are not the hero. You are just some guy who got picked in the labor lottery to work on this checkpoint, got handed a rulebook, rent, and the responsibility to be the sole breadwinner of your family of five (yourself included). Penalties are imposed upon your pay for each mistake you make and your salary is dependent on the speed with which your process people accurately through the checkpoint. Admitting personable Jorji might mean you don't have the money to buy medicine for your sick son. Denying a man who intends to sell women into sexual slavery but who has the right paperwork will earn you a citation, and possible reduction in pay. You only get two warnings per day, then your pay begins to be docked for errors. Are you good enough at your job to take the hit when someone who needs medical treatment and has all of yesterday's correct paperwork comes through, do you risk the lives of your family, do you risk your freedom, or do you do your job as mandated and disconnect yourself from emotionally attaching to the world around you? 

I've seen a lot of posts (both reviews and comments on social media) protesting how gross playing Papers, Please makes a lot of players feel. A lot of the vitriol and emotional discomfort seems to be directed primarily towards having to match genders from passport to entrant, and if the genders don't appear to match then you as the border checkpoint guard are authorized to strip search them through a full body scanner. The ability to dehumanize your fellow man is handed out like rewards for a job well done, and all the while the game presents a constant stream of xenophobic, transphobic, and downright cruel viewpoints from the characters who have power over you. If someone's name is spelled differently on their entry ticket and their passport, detain them as a spy and you'll get a little reward for your efforts to protect Arstotzka. If someone can't prove they have more than one name, off to questioning. As the game progresses, you have more and more tools at your disposal to "deal with" troublesome influences trying to enter Arstotzka than just the little "deny" stamp you have at the very start. 

The mechanics of the game reflect an Eastern-Bloc-reminiscent society intending to put the player in the very difficult shoes of a minor cog in the wheel of bureaucracy. In an interview with Scott Shackford, creator Lucas Pope admits that was his intention all along: not always a clear cut good and evil, but an unpleasant narrative about the realities of living in under such an oppressive regime. Pope also admits that he was not intending to make a sweeping political statement about good and evil, or even simply good vs. bad immigration policy, but rather the world as seen by the lowly grunt who must enforce the policy, for better or for worse. What is striking though is that the game commits to showing this through gameplay. Often you do not see results of people who go into detention centers, though sometimes little stick people come out. Most of the main action is relegated to blocky, pixelated stick figures. Even your own family, ostensibly your driving force behind your comittment to going to work every day, get little more than simple lines of text reading SON, WIFE, UNCLE, and MOTHER-IN-LAW. And yet, it speaks to the power of the gameplay that when something bad happens to any of them it still provokes a visceral reaction within the player. 

 Periodic visits from people like your boss, guards who work the checkpoint, and secret police like M. Vonel here add layers of threatening complexity to the game.

Periodic visits from people like your boss, guards who work the checkpoint, and secret police like M. Vonel here add layers of threatening complexity to the game.

What can you do, then? There are very few good options. Even if you the player opts to do nothing more than to do your job to the letter of the law, there is no guarantee of a "good" ending, nor of safety for you or your family. There are terrorist attacks, people trying to kill you and the guards you work with, and you are suddenly given a key to unlock a gun case to defend yourself. There are visits from the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Admission, directives from your boss to ignore the law for a "friend" of his or else, offers to join a terrorist organization, bribes and in a few cases bribes so extravagant that they serve only as blackmail fodder, plus the weighing responsibility over the lives of your family. Reuniting the couple may be worth the citation, if only because it might chip away at the rock-hard guilt growing in your gut. Perhaps it is possible to be a "good person" to a chosen few, if you manage to do your job well enough to allow for brief periods of humanity. Perhaps that is enough. 

Papers, Please is a thought experiment of a game that tells its story almost entirely through the mechanics of the game itself. It places players in a difficult, unique perspective and lets them figure out how they would react. It is easy for audiences and players to assume that they would be the one "good person" or the "hero" in any given situation presented by a movie, book, or video game, often just by virtue of living vicariously through the main character. What Papers, Please excels at is giving the player both limited scope and power, surrounding them with trappings to keep them docile. I recoiled in fear to hear the citation printing after admitting someone wrongly, fearful that there would be another explosion at the checkpoint and it would be my fault. I laughed out loud when I was given a plaque of SUFFICIENCE, which I instantly hung proudly in my booth with realization only coming after I took a step back from the game. Little rebellions, like reuniting the couple or accepting bribes from "good people" were enough to make me culpable to this regime for another day, to make me come back to work. The game is an immersive art piece,  and while it may be hard to play as this heroic "good person" figure that video games have promised we absolutely are, playing as just another person trying to get through the day with enough money to keep his own happy, healthy, and fed can be as eye-opening and special an experience as any of the massive triple-A games that seat the player as the very extra special chosen one.

"I think games are growing quickly as a legitimate form of expression like movies, books, art, etc," says Pope. "As it gets easier to make games, and as people who grew up playing video games their entire life mature, we'll see more and more varied stories being told this way. And because games are interactive, I think the potential to affect others will be much stronger with games than with other media."

Glory to Arstozka.