Some thoughts on... Papers, Please

Today, some thoughts on Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013).

The frontier as the limit of the human condition
In recent weeks, we have sadly witnessed an endless amount of news, images and discourses on the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, we all know it is not a new phenomenon. It is the new version of a story told for the thousandth time, which narrates the tale of those human beings who seek something very simple but, apparently, very difficult to achieve: a better life (or a life without a further ado, since it is often a matter of life or death). They escape from wars, famine, misery, all kinds of persecutions. It does not matter if what expects them on the other side of the multiple frontiers they have to cross, as if they were participating in a cruel obstacle race, is nothing particularly good; they are even ready to risk their lives in the process. Simply, they have no choice. Border after border, these people only yearn for one thing: reach their destination.

The frontier - that liminal space - is a place between two places; it's an universe with its own rules and meanings, which are different from those we find on both sides of the border. The frontier is a transit area but it is also a detention zone, where the authorities decide who enters and who stays out. It is in that paranormal borderline sphere where Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) takes place. We put ourselves in a Cerberus subaltern's shoes, precisely, to deal with other subalterns: the people piled up on the other side of the border who want to enter our territory, the glorious Arstotzka.

It is widely accepted that Lucas Pope's work recreates a frontier that reminds us of a former soviet republic. Definitely, it is almost impossible not to notice that the game exudes all those things that we would associate to what happened on the East side of the Iron Curtain: from the fictitious names of the countries to the dull aesthetic that impregnates its whole design, typical of the soviet bloc. However, the more time I spent as an Arstotzka's frontier inspector, the more it reminded me of the present. Passports, id cards, work passes, forms, entry visas, frisks, augmented security measures due to terrorist threats, full body scans, inquisitorial interrogations... Is all of this typical of extinct soviet republics or is this closer to how the frontiers of 'advanced' Western democracies work?

You have to make a tremendous effort in order to survive and provide for you family because everything depends, to a great extent, on how efficient you are in managing that crossing point we call the frontier. That means we are force to leave several human beings behind, maybe abandon them to a terrible fate. Fortunately, Papers, Please gives the player some leeway to, from time to time, make decisions that are against the rules and regulations. You can poke holes in the system, giving opportunities to those who had none. You might be creating a greater evil or damaging your own interests, but at least you are able to negotiate in the limits of that limit that is the frontier.

In any case, Papers, Please does not evoke a more or less distant past, but a very close situation, the present. So close that it hurts.


Some thoughts on... Among the Sleep

Today, some thoughts on Among the Sleep (Krillbite Studio, 2014).

The horrors of the quotidian
Among the Sleep (Krillbite Studio, 2014) is based on an interesting premise: we play the role of a toddler, which essentially determines our skills and point of view in the game. Not only is it about a matter of perspective (looking the world from below) or abilities (as toddlers, we will face difficulties opening doors, reaching high areas, lifting objects), but also about how to interpret the world and its stimuli (sounds, shadows, lights, spaces). The reading the infant does of reality, between magical and terrifying, is what principally feeds Krillobite Studio's title.

Wearing a footed pyjamas with a print of stars and crescent moons, we incarnate a nameless toddler who will have to unblock memories in order to unveil the true monster that haunts him in the darkness of a series of quotidian - but distorted by the child's imagination - landscapes. We will do it while crawling, climbing furniture and gliding down impossible slides. We won't we alone, though. We will be accompanied by a teddy bear called, hold your breath, Teddy. The bear works as an external narrator and a guide during the game. The developers use this narrative workaround to elude the unavoidable silence of the toddler. Teddy also plays a role in terms of mechanics: if we hug him, he will light up and help us see in the darkness.

The truth is that the title causes uneasiness and discomfort rather than fear, especially as the plot progresses and we start to be aware of certain elements: the disturbing drawings presumably done by the toddler, the multitude empty alcohol bottles, the intimidating presence of specific objects and quotidian events such as cloth hanged in a wardrobe, the noise of a slammed door, the crash of objects hitting the floor, and a woman sobbing in the distance. The more recognisable and mundane the environment is, far from other imaginative representations, the more it produces uneasiness (in this sense, the video game works better at the beginning and the end than in its middle development).

After all, the horrors of the quotidian are the worst of all. They are not supernatural and that's why they frighten us; these horrors can be real, anyone can experience them, and they happen in the heart of our private spaces, where we are supposed to feel safe: at home, with our loved ones. The quotidian horrors pollute and threaten our personal safe havens.

I won't unveil here how the misfortunes of the blue pyjamas toddler and his friend Teddy end, but the ending - although foreseeable to a certain extent - is disheartening. Interpreting the whole game experience in a tone of quotidian horrors reminds me that, as it was theorised by Hannah Arendt, evil can be banal and anyone, even the most normal and unexpected individuals, could be the monsters.