Friday, 6 November 2015

Papers, Please: gaming, story and motivation

Naomi Alderman – who knows what she's on about – wrote a recent column in the Guardian on the lack of understanding and appreciation "arts and literary types" – specifically those of us with an interest in the use of digital media for storytelling – tend to have for video games. There are, she said, games that experiment "with more interesting storytelling than any 'digital literature' project" she's seen, and "if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them."

She has a point. So I thought I'd try working my way through the 10 games she mentions. First up was Portal. Released in 1986, it's only now accessible through an emulator, and no amount of pressing left and right arrows or the space bar could get me past the first stage of the game. I have no idea whether this is because I am doing something wrong – pressing things in the wrong order, perhaps? – or because the emulator isn't functioning. In those far-off future days of which I dream, the ones where I have the time to either contact the person who runs the site or explore more permutations and combinations, I'll have another go.

Papers, Please

After that first failure, I bought and downloaded Papers, Please, a recent game that's accrued a long list of awards and commendations. And I started to play. It is, as Naomi wrote "sombre and engrossing". You – the player – employed as a border guard at a newly opened checkpoint, during an uneasy peace. It's November 1982, and relations between your country, Arstotzka, and neighbouring states are difficult. The introductory music is suggestive of a Fascist or Stalinist regime: the fact that the job comes with cheap, low-grade accommodation for you and your extended family points to the latter.

The game basically comes down to who you let into Arstotzka and who you keep out, how you do that, how much money you manage to earn in the process, and how you spend that.

I played twice: each game took about an hour (because I wasn't very good at it). On my first go, I lasted six Arstotzka work days, all my family died and I was sacked. On my second, I lasted seven days, kept my family alive and was sent to prison for getting into debt. These were (respectively) endings two and one of around 20. The game can last 31 Artotzka work days, and the tasks the player needs to complete to assess whether someone should be admitted or not (or arrested, if you get a lot further than I did) become more numerous and complicated over time. From the start, you need to sustain your focus and pay close attention to detail.

Playing and thinking

Repeatedly distracted by work, personal life and the nice man fixing the roof, I couldn't concentrate properly on playing. Add into that mix my poor hand-eye co-ordination and a general lack of interest in games per se, I soon found myself lacking the motivation to try again.

And that set me thinking about Naomi's article. About why, despite my engaged involvement in using digital media for telling stories in different ways, games don't appeal to me. It's not because I think they are a lesser art form. It's more that I can't find my way in. At least, I can't find a way in that satisfies me in the ways really good writing, film, theatre, music and audio do. Even with something as compelling as Papers, Please, I don't care enough about the story being told to solve the puzzles I need to solve in order to properly experience it.

This isn't, in any way, a criticism of the form. I would never claim that because I'm unmoved by video games they are a lower form of culture. On the contrary: I am awed and fascinated by the complexity of thought, design and technical processes required to create them. In fact, I could – and can – easily maintain focus and attention through an exploration of the mechanics and processes behind the games. That excites and entertains me. Playing doesn't. That's not limited to video games. I have a similar reaction to board (with the possible exceptions of Pictionary and Apples to Apples) and team games. So, in what way should I engage with the form? Is it a failure of literacy, or simply a preference? If I devoted more time and energy to the medium, would it start feeling more accessible and ?

Immersion and omniscience

Reflecting on my experience with Papers, Please, I wondered if this is partly about a desire to avoid immersion. To be able to keep an overall perspective, to figure the story out, think about connections, ramifications and consequences from an uninvolved POV. In other words, with the stuff I do for fun, I want to leave my mind more freedom than playing video games allows it. Taking this further, it's a plea for a particular kind of liberty: one that a disadvantaged border guard, working for almost nothing for a state that has control over his family's life and death can't possibly experience.


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