Category Archives: Computer Games

My Life with Games (part 31)–Papers, Please

Are you nostalgic for the Cold War? Does the life of a petty bureaucrat sound thrilling and exciting? Want to grapple with the moral ambiguities of being the face of a system you can’t totally support? Then Papers, Please is the game for you!

Okay, yes, I could totally sell this one better. Like how this game is truly a game design tour de force. How the intersection of game mechanics made me feel more like I was playing a roleplaying game than a puzzle game. How there’s even something oddly enjoyable and thrilling about…well…doing paperwork.

But maybe here’s the best selling point of all. In his preface to The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Papers, Please is, in part, an exploration of this idea in video game form.

First, here’s a link to the trailer for the game.

The core of gameplay is the view that you see in the trailer. You are behind a desk, interviewing the various people attempting to cross the border at your crossing. You have a rulebook, giving the details of the various items you need to watch for. If you discover discrepancies in the paperwork, you highlight the discrepancy to ask the applicant for more information. Sometimes this resolves the issue, while sometimes it necessitates a denial of entry or even detaining the applicant for further questioning.

So that’s the game. Review paperwork, then stamp “Approved” or “Denied” as appropriate. Or, rather, that’s the core of the game.

See, you’re on a clock. So you’re doing this processing in realtime. It’s not that any one applicant has a clock. It’s just that your workday ends when you’re out of applicants to process. 

And that’s where the next aspect of the game enters play.

You are paid piecework. So, the more applicants you process, the more money you get paid. Mess up, and you’ll get citations, and eventually your pay will be docked.

And each day, you have to go home and pay the bills with the money you made. Because you have a family to feed and keep warm. You have to pay the rent. Get lax on these duties, and your family can get sick and even die. It happened in my playthrough. I lost two family members to disease because I couldn’t afford both food and heat, and then I couldn’t afford medicine.

So, your performance at the checkpoint directly impacts your ability to care for your family. 

With me so far?

Now comes the next twist.

The applicants you’re processing at the checkpoint aren’t ciphers. They have personality. They’ll talk to you. Sometimes they’ll ask you for favors, or they’ll overshare. Like the woman who mentioned that her husband had just gone ahead of her in line. Or the other woman who slipped me a note, telling me that the man behind her was her pimp, intent on selling her once they entered the country, and please, oh please, don’t let him through.

So, what about that, right? The pimp’s paperwork is in order. I’m supposed to let him through. But should I? 

 But there’s even more! Your country is embroiled in a tense geopolitical situation, which means that the rules for crossing becoming increasingly arcane and difficult to enforce. And then there are the foreign terrorists, hopping the wall and throwing bombs. And then there’s the homegrown resistance movement who appeals to your patriotism to aid them.

There’s probably even more. I’ve only played through the game once. But, without a doubt, the core gameplay activity of processing paperwork is only a small part of the overall game experience. 

This isn’t just a game about playing “One of these things doesn’t belong”. This is a game about morality at the intersection of competing loyalties.

By my count, my character had at least four competing loyalties: 

1) His government 

2) His family 

3) His country (not the same thing as his government) 

4) Humanity in general 

 Following the rules of applicant processing demonstrated loyalty to the government. Making enough money to provide for his family’s needs demonstrated loyalty to them. Aiding the resistance movement demonstrated loyalty to his country (at least in my mind!) And sometimes bending the rules at the checkpoint demonstrated loyalty to humanity.

But these loyalties do not live peacefully with each other. And, as the game goes on, you are forced to make choices between them.
In my game, I tried to juggle my responsibilities. I tried to do good work at the checkpoint, though I’ll admit that much of this was motivated by my desire to pay for my family’s needs. So, yeah, I accepted some kickback from one of the border guards for detaining people, but I didn’t change my actions. I figured that if I could get a little bit extra for food for my family while still doing my job, then there was no harm. I wasn’t looking for extra reasons to detain people, though maybe I was a bit harsher than I might otherwise have been. I mean, maybe. And I was a patriot! So when the resistance movement contacted me, I jumped at the chance to help.

That was morally grueling in its own way. At first, the resistance only wanted me to look the other way when certain people were coming through. though, as the news came out about bombings against government buildings, I knew that I was culpable. And then came the day when they asked me to kill. And, God help me, I did.

Things came to a head when my superiors announced that there would be an audit of my actions at the checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that I could come through that audit without incident. One of the regulars at the checkpoint had told me about a way to get forged passports to get across the border to a neighboring country. (It was an…unusual…relationship.) But it required real passports from that country as a base. So I began confiscating appropriate passports from people coming through the checkpoint. The day before the audit, and I’m still one passport short. I’m going to lose a family member.

I can’t risk it. I have to leave tonight. So I get three passports for me, my wife and my child. My wife’s mother heads for her hometown to try to disappear within the borders of our country. I don’t know if she made it.

As the game ends, I wait at another border checkpoint. This time, I’m the one clutching bad paperwork, praying that the clerk is unattentive. I hand over our papers. He goes back into the office.

I hear one stamp. I hear a second stamp.

Then there’s a pause. It feels like eternity.

And then a third stamp. I heave a sigh of relief. Then, we cross the border, safe but exiles.

Papers Please was a morally exhausting game.  I tried to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I always did. I know that I screwed over perfectly innocent people at the end of the game in my mad dash to get passports for my family.

Papers Please was also an amazing game. There are apparently 15-20 possible endings for the game, which means that your playthrough could be totally different than mine. I’m also impressed by its ability to take core gameplay that doesn’t seem all that interesting and make it fascinating.

But even more, I appreciate that this game managed to make an artful statement through the application of game mechanics, not merely narrative. And it’s an important lesson.

The System will not save you. The System will not give you the guidance you need. The System can never encompass the entirety of a situation. The System can never replace wisdom. The System cannot tell you what is right. And so, at times, the System must be resisted. It must be fought. It must be overturned.

Or, to quote from the Foundation series, “Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what it right.”

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My Life with Games (part 30)–Flower

Last year, due to the generosity of my father-in-law, we were able to purchase a PlayStation 4 for Crystal and me. This was pretty exciting, because, you know, video games! Also, Sony has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with those weird, offbeat indie game companies that make the sorts of games that fascinate me. So the PS4 was a shoo-in. And, yes, I’ve played a couple of AAA games, but most of my gaming has been with indies.

Like Flower.

Flower is one of those games that seems like a conscious effort to see how far the video game formula can be successfully stretched. It’s not very long; the playthrough video I’m using for this post is only 100 minutes or so, which is the length of a shortish movie. The concept is weird, as I’ll explain in a few minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s all that difficult to play; Hope (age 5) was able to play through it with only occasional assistance from me.

And yet, what a profound experience.

SPOILER TAG: yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I’m going to be hyperlinking a lot in this post to a playthrough of Flower. This way you can actually see and hear what I’m describing.

So here’s the conceit of the game. You are a gust of wind, or the dream of a flower, or a dancing flower petal (the game is kinda vague on this point) that is flying around a landscape filled with flowers. It is your job to touch all the necessary flowers to open the next segment, where you will find more flowers to touch. When you touch a flower, the game plays a musical note, based on which flower you touched. Some sounds like chimes, while others are choral stabs. So your flight is a musical experience. In addition, as you touch flowers, you accumulate more flower petals in your wake. So, you begin as a single petal, and you become this multi-colored streamer of beauty, swooping and twisting in the breeze.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Don’t worry about watching too much; you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

Pretty, isn’t it?

But there are other things going on. The main menu shows each level as a flower in a pot on the window sill of an apartment. Each level opens with a little cutscene of a dark, broken city, which contrasts sharply with the bright colors of the gameplay levels.

Or does it?

Because as you proceed through the levels, the sun is going down. You progress from daylight on levels 1 and 2 to sunset on level 3 and twilight on level 4. The world is getting darker around you as you flit from flower to flower.

And then there’s The Moment.

Flower is a testament to the power of effective user experience design. By the time you reach level 4, the game has instructed you well through patterns and wordless hints. You have learned that accomplishing a given task unlocks a new area, and you’ve learned what that unlocking looks like. For example, on level 4, you are led from area to area by a series of street lights that turn on as you complete tasks. The lights on the electrical wires turn on, one by one, leading to the next lamp, which initiates the next area. (It looks like this.)

And that’s why The Moment works so well. Check it out.

The black smoke. The pulsating red light. The dying grass. Suddenly the idyllic world you have been playing has been desecrated. Ahead of you lies wreckage and ruin. But the game has taught you well. You must go forward. And so, suddenly, you find yourself moving through a wasteland of pollution and metal. Lightning flashes in the distance above a dark, twisted citadel. The level terminates, and you find yourself feeling, “What happened to my beautiful, happy, relaxing game?”

Which brings you to level 5.

I consider level 5 of Flower to be one of the crowning achievements of video game design. All the work of the previous four levels begins to pay off here.

The color is gone. The sun is gone. Instead, rain pounds out of a black sky, occasionally lit by lightning. All around you, twisted girders punch out of the ground. High voltage electrical wires crisscross across the sky.

And then, as you attempt to find and touch the flowers huddled around the level, you discover something new. If you touch one of the girders, you receive a powerful electrical jolt. The screen shakes and flashes, you hear a zapping sound, and even the controller shakes and buzzes. You feel like you’ve been zapped. Every person I’ve watched play this game yelps and almost drops the controller the first time it happens.

And worse, the petals that you have been accumulating burn up into wisps of smoke.

When I played this game for the first time, I suddenly began to be afraid that it was possible to die in this game, burning up in a flare of electricity.

So, on level 5, you do not swoop and flit through the air. Rather, you crawl through metallic wreckage, oppressed by the sky, threatened by the land, dwarfed by the dark landscape that you wander. I’ll be honest; it felt like passing through Mordor.

The level reaches its climax as you are hurdled down a series of canyons, where spearlike girders thrust out of the canyon walls as you desperately try to avoid being “shocked” over and over again. Pieces of metal fall from overhangs as you try to dodge, and you are so far from the happy place where you started in level 1.

And then, physically and emotionally exhausted, you emerge from the canyons, and before you is the city. Walls made of grey buildings forbid you, and yet the end level swirl beckons.

Admittedly, this is where the game gets a little heavy-handed, but in the moment, I didn’t care.

Because, as you head toward the end of the level, it simply fades out, returning you to the main menu, with level 6 unlocked.

And, of course, you dive right in, because you can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, right?

Level 6 starts right where level 5 left off. The end level swirl is still there, so that’s where you head. And when you enter it, everything changes.

A single flower grows up, but then it begins to radiate power. And, with an explosion of light, color and life bursts back into the world.

The color returns to the grass. Flowers sprout up. And you…you are glowing brightly with power.

The grey forbidding city still stands before you, its entrance webbed over with girders. But something feels different. So you head into the girders, braced for that terrible electrical shock feeling.

Instead, the girders explode before you, and you enter into the city.

The first area is covered with girders, but now you can destroy them. As you fly around, shattering metal, buildings grow from the ground and take on color. Where there was once greyness and death, there is color and life.

The emotion has shifted, too. At the beginning of the game, you are happy and carefree. Levels 4 and 5 destroy that. But, in Level 6, the mood changes again. You aren’t carefree anymore, true, but neither are you afraid. You are focused and determined. You have discovered your strength, and there is a battle to be won. Every time you hurl yourself at another piece of metal, it feels like punching back at the darkness. You have passed the trial of night, and you have now come to usher in the day.

As you work through the level, you can still see the citadel of twisted iron in the distance. Clearly that is where you must go. And, eventually, you arrive at the gate of the tower. It looks like the entrance to hell. And yet, as you storm in, it cannot stop you. The once-fearful girders that spear from the ground fall before you as you force your way inside. And then you are at the base of the tower, shattering it from within as you ascend.

And then, as you burst out of the top of the tower, there is a moment of transcendent beauty. And the world holds its breath as, in a final eruption of life and color, the metal tower is transformed into a giant cherry blossom tree, showering blossoms upon the newly reborn city.

The closing scenes show the city again. All is clean and sunlit. Even spaces that you saw earlier in the game are clean. And the closing image is of a little flower, growing in the crack of a sidewalk. And…fade out.

***

When I sat down to play Flower, I was looking for a light, mindless game. I was wanting something cute and simple. I was taking a mental health day, and I wasn’t really in the mood to be challenged. So, I was especially susceptible to the bait-and-switch that the game inflicts on its players. I was caught completely off-guard by The Moment and the raw emotion of the last third of the game.

I won’t lie; when the game was finished, I lay back on my bed, emotionally wrung out by the journey I had just taken.

Part of it was my appreciation for the game’s stance on “the city”. The city isn’t evil. It’s just been overtaken by darkness. It is in need of rescue. Level 6 is all about the redemption of the city. You free it from bondage and make it a place fit for human habitation again.

But there was a price. And the price was a passing through darkness. As a player, you are not equipped at the beginning of the game to face the darkness. No, rather you must pass through the night yourself. And, in some way, that is what qualifies you to become a part of the redemption of the city.

In other words, this game told me my story back to me.

What if my suffering isn’t just coincidence? What if it is a necessary part of my becoming what I want to be? What if I need to suffer in order to feel, to care, to empathize with others? To be able to sit across from someone and truly engage with their sorrow? What if I need to hurt in order to find the passion to shield and shelter others?

What if I needed to crawl between an oppressive sky and a dead earth, simply to be ready, willing, and able to bring color and life into the lives of others?

What if it hasn’t all been in vain?

P.S. Thanks to Catfroman for the four-part playthrough that I used. Note that this was the PS3 version. The PS4 version is even prettier. The links to each video are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.


It’s a poem! No, it’s a game!

It’s “Today I Die”!

Check this one out. It’ll take ten minutes, and it will satisfy your emo gaming needs.

You know, if you have some.


The Wii and the Goodness of God

So, the big news at the Ben-Ezra house is that we acquired a Nintendo Wii. This is a really clever game console with a really nifty interface. In general, you just move the controller around. I have the game with tennis that they briefly show in the linked video. You really do just play like that. With the different games that I’ve played, I’ve discovered that there’s a bit of a learning curve to the controls, but once you get the hang of the control scheme, it’s quite intuitive. For example, we just got Worms: A Space Oddity. You actually throw your grenades by swinging the controller. Nuff said. It’s really cool.

And all of this made me consider the goodness of God. Getting a Wii isn’t a necessity. It’s definitely above and beyond just food and shelter. Yet, He gave it to us, because He loves us and He delights in our delight. Really, this thing has made me geek out in so many ways….

I think of what it’s like when I give my children a gift. They squeal and jump up and down and run off to play with it. And I sit there and smile, watching them.

I think that’s what God is doing right now.


Geeky cool

Legos and Portal. Two great tastes that taste great together.


But do I really need the degree?

Illinois Central College is going to begin offering a degree in game design.

HT: Yehuda Berlinger

(P.S. Yes, I was reading an Israeli blogger who informed me about something happening in my home town. The Internet is weird.)


Weighted Companion Cube lives!

Look!

I’ll need to check this out for myself, obviously….


Portal end credits music

This is really funny. FYI, there are spoilers, if you’re planning on playing the game. If not, well then, don’t worry about it.

Plus, cake!


Yay! Portals!

So, today I did a strange thing (at least for me).

I bought a computer game.

Yep. I purchased a copy of Portal. This is a first-person shooter puzzle game. You have no weapons, just a “gun” that creates a portal between two locations. The maps are all puzzles that you need to work through, using some twisted logic and occasionally snappy reflexes. To get a feel for what it’s like, you should check out the trailer. Hopefully, people will also begin making mods for this game, too, so that the puzzles can just keep going.

This game makes me smile.


September 12

It’s a bit simplistic, I admit. Still, this simulation was disturbing enough to make me think. Call it “games as political art” or something like that.

I remember seeing another example of this, called “Darfur is Dying“. And, at the same time, it reminded me of Aztecs with Nukes. The impact that games have is very interesting to me. I’ll have to roll this around a bit more in my head.