When I was a kid we used to play “magasin” (“shop” in French). We’d gather all sorts of objects from my parents’ house and put them on display in the basement. We’d rip up small pieces of paper to write out prices for each object, and then we’d use Monopoly money to complete the simulation. One of us would be the shopkeeper and everyone else was a customer; walking in, grabbing an object, inspecting it, bringing it to the register, exchanging money, then leaving.
After a while we would switch the roles. Maybe this time the prices are higher. Maybe this time the customer is having a bad day. Maybe you’re 5 cents short and you try to talk your way out of it, because what’s 5 cents really?
To me, the basis of any game is simulacrum. The earliest of games that we enact as children are simulations of adult experiences. We play shop, we play school, we play war, we play doctor (though that one is a different beast altogether.)
Thirty years later we’re still playing at things that we’re not; adult voices speaking nonsense as glimpsed from the children’s table. Maybe we understand a few words of what they’re saying. Maybe we’ll build a story from that and pretend.
Someone made a game called Papers, Please that I’ve been particularly obsessed with lately. In it, you play an immigration inspector in the fictional border town of East Grestin, Arstotzka. I could describe the setting further (80’s, cold war, Russian state, communism) but it would do the game disservice.
Gameplay is deceptively simple at first. On Day 1, potential entrants hand you their passport and you must approve or decline them. If they are natives to Arstotzka, they’re in. If not, denied. On Day 2, things get more complex. Maybe SOME people can get in, but not all of them. Maybe they need an entry ticket, or a work pass, or medical records. Each subsequent day throws in new instructions that you must follow. If you choose not to follow the rules, it means less money at the end of the day. And less money means you have to make hard choices. What’s more important to your dying son, his daily dose or medicine or actual food in his belly? Oops, your wife is now also sick. And there goes your mother-in-law. Better follow the rules, however ruthless they may seem… and sometimes a little bribe goes a long way if it means your family is provided for…
Papers, Please is a grim adult reality as overheard from the children’s table. There are no dates here, no History, no archaic figureheads, only the rules of the game and how you choose to obey them or not, and how you choose to feel about the path that you take. The “moral dilemmas” are not quantifiable. The game doesn’t make them dilemmas; you do.
And you don’t realize it at first, as one person after the other begs you to make an exception for them… and you ignore them, and follow the rules so that you can provide for your family. And you stamp their papers and send them back to whatever untold horror forced them to your mercy. Until one particular story strikes a chord with you and you tell yourself that you’ll make this one exception for this one person. Just this one time. And the consequences of that choice stay with you long after you’ve gone to bed, where the voices at the adult table still trouble your sleep, even though for once you can make out more words than you normally would.
And yet it still doesn’t seem to make you a better person.