Going by first impressions alone, it’s difficult to accurately discern why Papers Please and The Westport Independent are so popular; in particular the award-winning former by Lucas Pope. There’s no blood-soaked, heart-throbbing, gun-fuelled action within a million light years of these two games. No shouty space marines, or gung-ho glory boys in sight. Instead, Papers Please and The Westport Independent focus on bureaucracy. We detest its ever-present slimy tentacles, busily tampering with our lives in almost every conceivable way. It’s a genre that does not exactly scream best-seller (or even videogame material), especially within a medium dominated by blockbuster action epics. Yet, somehow, both games have garnered substantial critical and commercial attention. Such success might appear as incomprehensible as the United States presidential election maelstrom, yet it comes down to one simple premise. Real, tangible questionable morality.
Let’s focus on The Westport Independent first of all. Developed by Coffee Stain Studios, the studio behind – of all things – Goat Simulator, the game places you in the role of the editor of a newspaper, appropriately titled The Westport Independent. From the left-wing liberalism and insanity of Goat Simulator, The Westport Independent takes a curious shift of tone towards the depressive and totalitarian. The game begins with the local regime passing the Public Culture Bill, which will result in government censorship and control over the media.
From there you have twelve weeks in which to decide the political stance of your newspaper, dictating the stories and target audience for the paper. The control you wield over the people is worryingly enormous. You alone have the potential to do shape the future of your country. Perhaps you want brainwash the masses into accepting ever-tightening oppression and restriction brought about by the government, spinning even the most diabolical acts of the regime into sunshine and rainbows in an effort to slave off losing your job, or even your life. Or maybe you’d prefer to spark rebellion amongst the citizens by openly slandering the nation’s rulers, as the country spirals towards a police state. It calls in question the momentous power brandished by the news conglomerates in reality, and such insight helps give The Westport Independent an air of relevance to a world outside videogames.
Papers Please similarly places you as the indirect arbiter of the lives of thousands, as you take the role of a border-control guard in the fictional oppressive communist state of Arstotzka. Every day, people wait in line at your booth as they try to gain access into Arstozka, seeking new lives in the glorious state. It’s your job to sift through the mountains of paperwork to discern the genuine applicants from the deceiving forgeries. The system increases in complex every day, and soon you’ll be close to breaking as you juggle your duties to be thorough, and the need to dispatch the hopefuls as speedily as possible. It’s a wonderful and tense combination which provides an abundance of challenge and entertainment all in one package. On its own it would certainly prove to be a competent concept, yet what makes Papers Please the darling of the industry and fans, as with The Westport Independent, is the addition of morality.
Both games willingly question your morals. The Westport Independent forces you to decide between yourself, the lives of your writers, and the future of the country as a whole. Counteracting the president might lead to revolution, yet at the cost of not only your life, but those of your writing team and even innocents on the streets. Standing idly by might seem like the safe option, but the people, in particular the poor, will suffer more than ever under the oppressive heel of the autocratic regime. You feel responsible for the lives of many people, and the moral dichotomy adds a level of personal emotional investment which is rarely seen within the industry.
Papers Please also delves into moral choice, yet on a more raw, personal level. You hold the hopes and lives of the people in your hands, and it’s through your choices whether or not they gain access to a new life in Arstotzka. Over the course of the game you’ll be presented with moral qualms which will challenge your position between duty and good morals. Choosing to obey your superiors will keep food on the table for your family, yet might condemn an innocent life to death. On the other hand, helping those who have don’t possess the right documents to enter the country might seem like the right thing to do morally, yet you’re putting your own family in immense danger as a result. The addition of the family adds that extra level of emotional attachment. Your choices not only impact you, but the ones you love.
Forget the stale, barebones rule of three morality systems from the likes of Fallout 3 and inFamous: Second Son .These games offer merely a sliver of the emotional engagement seen in The Westport Independent and Papers Please. The latter works deal with a real crisis of conscience. They cause you to delve deep within yourself, to question whether or not you are a good person. Morality isn’t shoehorned in as a trendy afterthought, in a failed attempt to present their games as ‘innovative’ and ‘emotional’. There is a real sense of choice, not between the simple concepts of right and wrong, but something far deeper, that of duty and rights, safety and danger. Even these breakdowns are too simple to encompass the gravity and fluidity of the morality within these two games.
The complex morality is what makes these two games so popular amongst players and critics alike. They go beyond the norm, reflecting just how difficult it is to do the right thing. It’s as close an approximation to the real-life issues of morality you can get in videogames right now, and puts to shame the half-baked attempts made by other games. Papers Please spawned The Westport Independent, and here’s hoping that more games follow suit in the future. Providing an deep, emotion experience, wrapped up in the skin of good game mechanics, is clearly in demand by fans, and more of the like can only be a good thing when pitted against a market oversaturated by single-minded, violent action spectacle.
Got more thoughts about narrative and morality in gaming? Let us know in the comments below!