It has become a set of dual clichés: in videogames, you either save the princess, or you save the world. Those are the only sets of storytelling stakes offered. The only things that can imbue our actions with importance is to tie our success or failure to the fate of humankind, or the fate of a particular monarchic lineage.
Which is, frankly, alarmingly dumb. By way of contrast, here are some of the resolutions of the great works of cinema: A boy loses respect for his father after the father resorts to thievery. A group of reporters trying to decipher a newspaper tycoon’s last words ponder whether it’s truly possible to know and understand another person. A man and his dying wife are struck by the kindness of their widowed daughter-in-law. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance in any of these scenarios. The stakes in play are emotional, familial, and cultural.
So, whenever a game comes along that gives you a different motivation for caring about its central conflict, that is something to be savored and celebrated. The games listed here all roundly reject tired “save the princess/save the world” narrative stakes. Instead, they offer up goals, character motivations, and resoultions that are more personal, more intimate, or more philosophical. There is, if it can be said, much more at stake in these games than the fate of the world.
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 their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.
On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.