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A Former Bureaucrat Plays Papers, Please

Okay, so the title may be a bit of a stretch; I was never important enough to be a bureaucrat.  I was just a lowly, replaceable peon… not unlike the beleaguered border Inspector from Papers, Please.  I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game where I felt so much empathy for my PC as the nameless Inspector.  I knew what he was going through because, to a far lesser extent, I’ve been there myself.  And since I haven’t seen anyone talk about this game from somewhat of a first-hand experience, I decided to do something other than write a proper review.  After all, a game like Papers, Please deserves no less.

For those who have read the few previous articles where I’ve mentioned the job I had prior to finishing up college, I worked for seven years in emergency services, specifically as a 911 call taker/dispatcher (in the county I live they’re not separate positions).  In addition to handling every police, fire & medical emergency in the county, our office handled entering records into the national crime database.  Every missing person, stolen possession, warrant & protection order was handed down to our department.  And while this might sound interesting to every nosy person with a police scanner, most of the time it was a lot of paperwork & staring at computers.

Often during my Papers, Please playtime I felt like was having a PTSD flashback to my years in that box of an office.  People always think I’m joking, but I have nightmares about having to go back to work there.  Sitting at my little cubicle, papers spread across my desks, going through every single keystroke to make sure the person who entered the record got everything right.  Running criminal histories, making sure every previous alias, no matter how asinine, got entered.  Checking fingerprints.  Serial numbers.  And all while knowing there was just another person down the line who’d be checking my checking.  Ugh!  Layers upon layers of bureaucracy.  I’m all for checks & balances, but there’s a point when it just becomes a big circle jerk.

I’m not sure if my experience robotically checking records made the game any easier for me, though I do wish I’d had a discrepancy checker like the Inspector did.  It would’ve been a lot easier than just my eyes.  More importantly, I would’ve loved to have had a DETAIN or DENY option, both for dealing with the public & officials.  More than once did I think, “Can I just arrest you for wasting my time?” or, “Can we get a system that sends a shock through this person’s mobile?”.  The former usually came after being butt-dialed for the fiftieth time from the same number.  Seriously, stop sitting on $200+ pieces of technology.

But where Papers, Please really started hitting the empathy buttons was when the Inspector had to deal with the trickle down of politics.  Like the Inspector, at least in my playthroughs, I too know what it’s like to be chewed out by a supervisor for making a mistake at a job they don’t even know how to do, & holding your tongue when they cop an attitude because they have just enough power to let it go to their head.  To be lauded one minute & thrown under the bus the next, just for the person up the chain from me to make themselves look better.

It’s funny, because a lot people might have found how quickly rules & policies change in-game a bit unrealistic.  But while I’m sure this was an effort on Lucas Pope’s part to point out the ridiculousness & corruptness of the regime in Arstotzka, I know that crap happens!  I have been there!  I have seen local government change its mind at a moment’s notice.  I have seen how they make poor decisions without seeking counsel from parties who might know better.  I have been forced to follow protocols & procedures that I knew where doomed to fail, but nobody asked my opinion, despite being a veteran at the dispatch office (I’m not being facetious, either.  I was third most senior in my office for at least half my tenure there.).  I’ve had to change records from day-to-day because someone who made an unfairly greater amount of money than me decided they knew better.  I’ve seen the government set policies just to make a point, knowing full well they’d repeal them the next day.  Maybe a country’s government isn’t so quick to make such changes, but if nothing else, I can say that Papers, Please is an accurate representation of what happens when you give someone who’s never had any authority a little bit of power of another person’s life.  In short, it sucks.  One example that made me laugh was when, after doing my job & denying the Inspector’s supervisor’s friend entry for having the wrong paperwork, he petulantly told me, “There are no more plaques.”  As if I cared about his stupid Award of Sufficiency.  It reminded me of a time my supervisor in real life yelled at me for messing up a call (minor) because she took it as some personal attack on herself & was concerned about how it would make her look.  I could tell she wanted to argue, but couldn’t when my only response was, “Yes, I made a mistake.”  I got more enjoyment than I should have when she just stomped away after that with nothing else to say.

This isn’t all to say my past experiences meant I didn’t enjoy the game.  On the contrary.  Papers, Please in a uniquely compelling experience that I think every gamer can become absorbed in.  I just relate a little more than most gamers.  I was determined to get the Inspector out, no matter how many family members I leave behind (that last part is probably more a reflection of my estranged familial relations).

There were moments that highlighted the absurdity of being in any public service job.  Having people wanting you to bend the rules for them.  To which my usual response — in the game & real life — was, “I’m not getting in trouble for you.”  Granted, I did have the Inspector bend the rules sometimes.  Only if I hadn’t gotten any citations yet.  I like to think of myself as a utilitarian.  Papers, Please really gets you in the mindset of looking out for yourself.  My typical response to their lame excuses for discrepancies was, “Don’t care.”  They should be grateful I didn’t detain them on clerical errors.  A particularly hilarious moment, for me at least, was dealing with the Order.  I did enough for them to keep asking for favors, but not enough that they didn’t try to kill me in the end.  My first & second endings involved either going to jail for them & them wimping out in their revolution, or stopping their plans in the end but having been associated enough with them to go to jail for it.  Guess that’s what I get for trusting masked men with ill-defined goals.  I guess I was as much a sheep as the rest of the chattel.

In the end, though, I suppose that’s Papers, Please’s greatest strength.  You are just another cog in the wheel.  The Inspector’s story is just one of many.  You don’t really “win.”  You just try to survive & eek out some sort of existence.  Kinda depressing, but it does make getting an ending where you live all the more rewarding.

– GamerDame

Title: Papers, Please
Consoles: PC, Mac, iOS, Vita
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: 3909 LLC
Publisher: 3909 LLC
Release Date: August 8, 2013

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Filed under 5, Indie, PC, Reviews

Game Review: The Old City Leviathan

Sometimes I feel like I have a personal vendetta against philosophy.  As interesting as I may find it, there were many times during my studies when I would’ve killed to have a time machine for the sole purpose of going back & yelling at the person whose work I was reading to tell them, “Get to the point!”.  Were they getting paid by the word?  How hard was it to say, “Let people think you’re a good person but secretly do whatever you feel is necessary regardless of ethics”?  There; I just summed up the entirety of Machiavelli’s The Prince in one sentence.  Or maybe I’m just bitter because I was always the one who had to explain the books to my classmates because making high schooler’s read ancient classics is an exercise in futility.

The point is that while I enjoy studying philosophy in theory (dissect that), it’s far too easy to slip into pointless rumination & navel-gazing, until I just want to tell to suck it up & contribute something useful to society.

Why go on this little tangent?  Because a recent indie game I finished, The Old City: Leviathan, at times teeters on the edge between insight & uselessness.

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The Old City is the first title released by PostMod Softworks, & as the name implies, is set entirely in what is known as “The Old City” (to the point that’s how it’s listed on welcome signs).  We find ourselves thrust into the shoes of Jonah, a mix of wanderer/scavenger/historian, who despite living in a fallen society has plenty of time to ponder the nature of the universe.  Jonah’s goal, & by extension your own, is to reach the surface & hopefully uncover some insight into what’s been happening.  But it’s not so easy, for as the game warns you in the opening screen, “You are about to inhabit a broken mind.  Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy.”

At its core, The Old City is an exploration game — or as more commonly deemed, a walking simulator.  There’s no fighting.  No enemies.  No inventory.  You merely wander to your heart’s content, occasionally finding notes to read from those gone before you.


20170530180033_1Narrative: At the end of the day, I find myself with very mixed feelings about The Old City’s story & how it’s portrayed.  At times, I actually really enjoyed it.  While it had a slow start as you spend time escaping a sewer while getting immersed into this strange dystopian world, when the game starts playing with your perceptions, it really gets interesting.  There’s a strong sense of disconnect with the world around you.  I started questioning if the monologuing was my own, or some alien “parasite” like it referred to itself.  Was I Jonah?  Was the voice Jonah?  Was I Leviathan?  Fortunately, these questions (at least) are answered if you take the time to immerse yourself in the game.

I also enjoyed how Leviathan was framed as, maybe not quite a split personality, but more a coping mechanism the player developed to protect their fragile human mind from the sheer depressiveness of this new world.  I liked the whole  mixing reality with the fantasy, & how at times entire levels will play out like dreams, making you question what exactly happened.  The height of intrigue for me, however, was seeing what becomes of the world after this fantastical layer of reality disappears.  Once the veil was torn & I really saw the world for what it is, I completely sympathized with the character & understood why he preferred his fantasy to reality.  While not as drastic as something like Cry of Fear, where everything is basically a delusion, it’s very effective at making its point.

Despite most of the story pieced together through the voice in the player’s head & pieces of journals left lying around, The Old City also uses the environment to tell its story.  I didn’t notice it at first, but there were lots of little hints in the environment.  Some of my favorite examples were the soda cans labeled “NO ORDER” & a box in seemingly every room marked “MAKE THE LEAP,” which directly plays in to the ending.  And while the reading can ramble, it’s realistic for what a crazy person who has too much free time would right.  Not to mention several little sparks of insight.

That being said, I do feel that The Old City’s story & philosophical themes are a bit more than your average gamer can stomach.  Most people probably won’t be able to hold their breath to get to the level the game’s monologuing wants.  A quick way to tell how lost you’ll be is how familiar you are with the concepts such as Gnosticism, Relativism, & Nihilism.  Not having working knowlege of these concepts won’t prevent you from understanding the overall story, but you probably won’t enjoy it either.  On a purely subjective level, I grew annoyed with the excessive soliloquizing in the last few chapters as it veered from inquisitive speculation to full-blown navel-gazing.  Personally, I neither like nor agree with any of the concepts I named a few sentences ago.  But I do understand the thematic importance of having a character named Jonah diving into the belly of his Leviathan (ie. his delusions) before he can bridge the gap between his fantasies & reality.

In the end, while I fully expect this type of story won’t appeal to your average gamer, from my own personal opinion, I enjoyed The Old City’s story.  While it got a bit rambling toward the end, & is deliberately set up as a prologue of sorts to a larger story (clearly spelled out on their homepage), I found it an intriguing, at times thought-provoking experience when it tied its philosophy into the actual game.

Score: 4


20170530205754_1Mechanics: In comparison to the vastness of discussion the plot can produce, the gameplay is cut-and-dry.  It’s an exploration game.  You walk.  A lot.  I highly recommend utilizing the controller support, otherwise you’ll be like me & longing for a auto-walk.  You can “run,” which is more like power walking.  You can “interact”, which is relegated to opening doors &  few instances of pushing buttons.  You can zoom in, so either you’re sticking your face right up to something or you have extendo-eyeballs.  But it’s useful for reading notes & exploring in general.  And you can jump.  Strangely, you can’t jump on or over anything.  I honestly think this was added just so players wouldn’t get stuck on the iffy collision detection.  I got stuck on railways & crates a lot.

And that’s it.  If there’s anything else to say about the mechanics, it’s that the chapters tend to play out a similar way.  You can either go straight toward the exit or explore around, typically entering some delusional state that reveals a bit of Jonah’s psyche before being plonked back near the exit to continue on.  But this is only toward the beginning, really, so it didn’t feel tedious or repetitive.

Other than that, there’s not much to say.  What little there is in terms of actual gameplay works to serve its purpose, & nothing more.

Score: 3


20170530174154_1Aesthetics: I’m not sure what engine The Old City was built in, but it is a gorgeous game.  I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time getting the perfect angle to take a screenshot in a game.  But it’s not just the graphical quality, although there is some spectacular lighting effects.  No, I think the game’s strength is in the variety & scope of the environments.  Each level has its own theme.  While you start in a dark, damp sewer, you don’t stay there for long.  You’ll travel through an office building, then reach the surface & traverse a water treatment plant.  Then you’ll be in a dream world with floating islands, mythical creatures & giant statues.  I oohed & aahed a lot during this game.

The sound direction is pretty good, as well.  Whether it was ambient noises, such as pipes leaking or the waves crashing on the shore, or musical accompaniment, I found all the sounds to help set the mood of whatever scene or environment I was in.  The single voiceactor in the game, while a bit prone to ramble, did an admirable job of portraying proper emotion during his ramblings.

Score: 4


Replay Value: Low.  Although very time-efficient at 5 hours, I doubt there’s much reason to play a second time.  There are only a handful of notes to collect, & you can always replay a specific chapter once you’ve cleared it.  Think of it like going to a pretty but desolate location.  Go through, take lots of screenshots, & be done.

Score: 2


Breakdown

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Final Score: 3

Final Word: The Old City Leviathan is a beautiful, at times thought-provoking game set in an interesting world.  However, despite this, I have a hard time recommending it to most gamers due to the heavy philosophical themes & lack of interactivity.  At best, I’d say if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind going on a brief, nihilistic sightseeing tour or thought you could like Dear Esther if it had a interesting story, check it out.

– GamerDame

Title: The Old City Leviathan
Consoles: PC
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: PostMod Softworks
Publisher: PostMod Softworks
Release Date: December 3, 2014

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Filed under 3, Indie, PC, Reviews