The Process Genre in Videogames: In the Shadow of Papers, Please

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The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016)

Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to its completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that strike the same notes? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

In this entry, I turn not to one game, but to a whole slew of them. Particularly, I will be looking at games that have popped up in the wake of Lucas Pope’s lauded Papers, Please (3909, 2013), which I considered earlier in the series, here.

Where do we go from here?

In his classic book on genre theory Film/Genre, Rich Altman differentiates what he calls the critic’s game from what he calls the producer’s game. The point of the distinction is basically this: most critics tend to take the existence of a “genre” as a given. They think it is thier job to adequately describe it, and talk about which films belong in it, but they don’t question the base assumption that there are genres. Film producers, on the other hand, don’t think about genre very much at all—despite the fact that they create them! Making a new film in a given genre rarely starts from the point “well, we’ve got a genre here; let’s make another film in it.” Instead, it’s a constant matter of second-guessing what magic formula made a previous movie popular. There is a substantial amount of tinkering here, and things can evolve in wildly different directions from a given starting point. Altman’s point is that historians of genre should stop thinking so much like critics, and understand the producer’s game better. When necessary, we should interrogate the rigid forms that hindsight endows us with.[i]

Keeping the “producer’s game” in mind, it has been fascinating to see the spreading influence of Papers, Please in the years since 2013. There are, as far as I can tell, two main evolutionary branches that have come from game developers toying with its formula, trying to reproduce some of its magic. Sometimes, both of these branches are present within a single game, as certain developers refrain from straying very far from the basic template. At other points, though, the branches don’t touch at all. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years, as the space between these branches widen. Will one die off? Or will Papers, Please be responsible for popularizing two distinct forms of game?

The first branch of influence exerted by Papers, Please can be seen in the games that have popped up in its wake that put their emphasis on one single simulated desktop, or place of work. Going through a chronological sweep of some recent games in this branch: Limbs Repair Station (Rezoner, 2014) is about sitting at a repair desk and repairing bionic hands. Yes, bionic hands—the game was originally created for a cyberpunk-themed game jam.

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VA-11 Hall-A (Sukeban Games, 2016), meanwhile, is about standing at a bar—not a desk, admittedly, but for our purposes I think it’s close enough—and serving drinks. Weirdly enough, it also has a cyberpunk theme. (I haven’t played this one yet, but Matthew Matosis has posted a good video review of it, complete with Papers, Please comparisons, here.)

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Finally, the forthcoming Relay (Jons Games, 2017) is about sitting at a telegraph operator’s desk and decoding incoming morse code signals.

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The elements of Papers, Please that these games adapt are those that most readily and recognizably fit within the “process genre,” as I’ve laid it out in my previous posts. They’re all about going to work, about having a physical space in front of you in which you manipulate the objects of your profession—whether that profession is bartender, telegraph operator, or cyborg part repairperson. There’s a certain “Heidegger’s workshop” quality to them, as they attempt to simulate the feeling of being surrounded by familiar equipment, knowing the purpose and place of every physical item represented on the screen.

The second branch is less interested in the accurate simulation of a physical workspace, and more interested in the dystopian dimensions of Papers, Please. A slew of recent games have moved beyond border-patrolling into other sorts of uncomfortable and potentially privacy-invading measures that various individuals have to undertake in despotic regimes: censorship and spying, in particular.

Some of these games admittedly slip away from the mold of the process genre. But what good are categories, if we can’t do anything interesting with them? I think it’s worth discussing the extent to which “work” still persists as a theme in these games, as they take the formula of Papers, Please and bend it in different directions.

A note: All the games discussed below came out in 2016, so I guess this post doubles as another “interesting games of 2016” post.

Privacy, censorship, and careers

The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016) perfectly combines the two trails of Papers, Please‘s influence. It is, like the games mentioned above, a game about sitting at a desk: this time, about sitting at a desk of a newspaper editor, going through possible articles with your red pen, mapping out the paper’s editorial stance, and figuring out how both layout and advertising can boost readership among your city’s different districts.

It is simultaneously a dystopian thriller. The Loyalist government of your country has decided to crack down on the independent press, putting you in a tight spot. Do you crater completely in the face of their whims, turning your rag into pure-propaganda publication? Or do you edit with your conscience, boldly allowing clearly anti-government articles to pass through, while keeping censorship just appeased enough (and your few pro-Loyalist journalists just comfortable enough) by throwing in the odd puff piece about a new statue of the President being erected?

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In combining the two halves of Papers, Please, the working-at-your-desk half and the life-under-tyranny half, The Westport Independent very clearly signals itself as a descendent of Papers. (This lineage is further cemented by the fact that Lucas Pope’s immediate predecessor to Papers, Please, 2012’s The Republia Times: Orwellian Desktop Publishing, was itself about being a newspaper editor under a censorial regime.)  Setting up this comparison perhaps didn’t do The Westport Independent any favors: It seems not to have fared too well in the critical sphere.

I agree with the critical consensus that the game falls well short of Papers, and it is worth poking into why, exactly, this is. I can’t speak for anyone, but a good deal of it has to do with pressure, and the lack thereof.

In the simplest gameplay terms, The Westport Independent lacks the time pressure of Papers, PleasePapers, Please was all about processing entrants as fast as you possibly could, and a large part of its rhetorical beauty lay in the fact that you just didn’t have much time to think about the moral dilemmas you encountered in your job. Doing things the “correct” way, as quickly as possible, becomes an increasingly urgent goal as the game nears its end and you are trying to discover how to get yourself and your family through the month alive. The way in which this sense of panic subtly pushes players towards conformism and moral cowardice while doing their job is one of the game’s masterstrokes.

The Westport Independent loses this element. There are no time pressures. Time stops as you do your job. Days go by quickly, but not because they are hurried: instead, it’s just because your duties don’t take up all that much time. Edit a few articles, arrange them in a layout, tweak your advertising, and you’re done. This has a deleterious effect on the game’s sense of urgency.

But the missing time management element is not the only reason the game suffers from a lack of pressure. Another issue is the elusive nature of the character you play. In Papers, Please, labor has concrete consequences for your character. Yes, your work serves the ends of the state. But it also heats your family’s home, and keeps your sick relatives alive. There’s a sense of personal stakes to the game, which goes far in illustrating how a sense of personal moral responsibility can be eroded when one is lucky enough to find work in lean economic times.

The Westport Independent is, by contrast, weirdly un-specific about who, exactly, “you” are. The Independent‘s reporters get names—Anne, Frank, Julie, and Phil—as well as political leanings, and even hits of backstories (Phil, for instance, is caring for his brother during the game’s events, who is confined to a wheelchair due to injury). The game’s multiple endings go into detail about the fates of these characters: the rebel-leaning reporters will get blacklisted or imprisoned if your editorial stance helps the Loyalist party cement their power, whereas your Loyalist-leaning reporters will be in danger of violent retaliation if you stoke revolutionary fervor. But you, yourself, as an editor, seem to be far above the fray. Yes, you get stern letters from the government, and yes, your paper can be shut down. But the intra-week bits of dialogue between the paper’s employees never include you, and your fate is conspicuously absent from the game’s finale.

The systems at work in The Westport Independent are actually quite deep: There are plenty of things under the hood to discern as you try and figure out how to boost paper popularity in the various districts, and most efficiently sway opinion without alienating your reporters or angering the government. But the whole experience is hurt by the way the responsibility you have for the paper feels washed free of personal consequence. Going the pro-government route counts as the game’s “easy mode” (there’s nothing remotely challenging about the game if this path is taken), and going the anti-government route is the “hard mode.” The choice between these, though, feels abstract and insubstantial. In the end, after all, you’re just the management. You have a comfortable buffer that those toiling below you don’t enjoy the privilege of. Your work doesn’t carry with it the same severity of consequence as in Papers, Please, and therefore doesn’t arrive with the same sense of urgency and moral compromise.

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The next two games I’ll be looking at ditch the “desk” aspect of Papers, Please entirely, and retain only its paranoid-dystopian themes. Instead of a physical desk, both of them take place entirely on screens, either of desktop computers or of smartphones. In doing so, they blend influence from Papers, Please with the “simulated computer UI” genre that was pioneered by Uplink (Introversion Software, 2001) and had a banner year in 2015 with Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015) and Nina Freeman’s marvelous Cibele (Star Maid Games, 2015).

Orwell (Osmotic Studios, 2016) finds players adopting the role of a professional snoop, monitoring the online presence and communications of citizens of The Nation through a PRISM-like domestic surveillance program. Your average day at the job includes sketching out the political positions and social connections of a person of interest, using a combination of social network posts, employment information, personal blogs, and spied-on text message conversations to determine their feelings on the current government administration, and track their influence on their peers.

Orwell wrings some satisfying role-play out of the familiar security-vs.-freedom quandaries of the surveillance state. (A moment fairly early on, in which players can successfully thwart a bombing if they’re quick on their toes, goes far in encouraging complicity with the program’s aims, adding some much-appreciated texture to the game’s moral universe.) It doesn’t, though, foster the same sense of the daily grind of morally-compromised labor.

I want to emphasize that this isn’t because Orwell ditches the conceit of a desk. Knowledge work is how a significant chunk of this planet’s population earns its daily bread these days, so one would imagine that the process genre might be able to survive the shift to a computer-desktop workspace.

Mostly, it’s just because the concept of “work” dissolves into such an abstraction in Orwell. You have work days, which breaks the game into five distinct acts, but, as in Westport Independent, these days are marked off by player actions and triggered events, rather than by an actual ticking clock. You also never collect a paycheck—although the game includes the nice touch of opening with a string of legal agreements for new employees to sign off on, any mention of compensation is conspicuously absent.

All of these are strikes against the game having a strong “process genre” feel to it. The actions players actually undertake in the game—basically, clicking on already-highlighted sections of text, and dragging and dropping them to forward them to your superior—further this generic drift away from Papers, Please. It’s true that the game’s fictional internet surveillance system shares striking parallels with the US’s real-life PRISM program. But the actions the game’s interface allows, and the convoluted attempts to explain why the player must interact with data in this way, make the whole conceit feel rather fanciful. In other words, the game’s data-collection system may be terrifyingly close to reality, but the actual job the player holds is transparently constructed for the purposes of videogame storytelling.

This doesn’t sink Orwell. Far from it, in fact: the game succeeds brilliantly as a compelling bit of mass-market electronic literature. There’s something satisfyingly intimate about learning about these fictional characters by perusing their online presence, from a professor’s course offerings listed on a university website to an opinion writer’s online flame wars and conspicuously-removed social media status updates. The fact that I’m able to peruse Nina Maternova’s profile on a dating website gives me a sense of her as a character in a way that I’m not used to encountering.

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Oh, Nina. “There isn’t really much to say?” You need to spice up your profile. Show some confidence! Get a friend to help you. Maybe Juliet—she seems on top of things.

And the harassment that Cassandra Watergate gets in the comments to one of her blogposts is so utterly, heartbreakingly real. The doxxing-related threats, the nauseatingly detailed descriptions of violence against women’s bodies, the “how dare you have things set to private, thereby trampling my FREE SPEECH” crusading, familiar to any woman who has ever disabled comments on her YouTube channel. You even get the accidental double-posts!

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All of this is to say, I suppose, that Orwell is quite good at turning spying into a compelling storytelling mechanic, expertly playing up a morally-fraught but undeniably satisfying voyeuristic impulse. It stumbles when it tries to make spying seem like a job. In the end, the workaday minutia of the intelligence-gathering process is just not its primary interest.

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Realism!

At the far end of the spectrum, we have a game that abandons pretense of being about working life altogether. Replica (Somi, 2016), from South Korean developers Somi, shares significant mechanical and thematic overlap with Orwell: again, you are confined to a single electronic screen (this time, a smartphone, rather than a computer desktop), doing what you can to aid the state in a privacy-destroying investigation of a terror suspect. The game’s narrative frame, however, establishes that you’re not a professional spy, but instead a private citizen who has been detained, and who is being forced to snoop both to ensure their own release and to establish their competency in this arena, in case the state might need them to keep tabs on fellow citizens in the future.

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Replica‘s surveillance doesn’t test the suspension of belief as much as Orwell‘s does. Rather than dragging and dropping highlighted text, the game actually rewards good detective work, such as checking the dates on photos of birthdays and then inputting them as potential PIN numbers to unlock the phone’s various accounts and protected files. However satisfying this may be, however, the overall frame gets us far from the issue of labor, and the game’s focus on one single incident removes the sense of a gradual drip of consequence. Despite the clear influence of Papers, Please on Replica (an overt influence, at that: in one of the game’s endings, the Papers, Please “deny” stamp makes an Easter-egg cameo), we see to have reached the limits of the process genre here. The producer’s game at work—rapid evolution outside of the critic’s categories!

[i]. Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

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