Papers, Please awards haul is a big win for gaming

Opinion

Astonishing to consider that a year ago Papers, Please was barely on the game industry's hype radar.

This small game, in which the player takes on the role of a border-guard working for a violent and oppressive regime, is a long way from the mainstream view of games, so often assumed to be frivolities and dumb escapism.

As the player, you represent the full and awesome power of bureaucracy, with power over the lives of others. You are also tasked with preserving the future of an evil regime. You can do things that make you feel like a better person, like reuniting families who lack the correct papers, but you are putting the lives and safety of your own family at grave risk.

It's a situation that isn't "fun" in the traditional sense, but gaming allows the player to feel like they control the lives of others, for good or ill. It's one thing to talk about the banality of evil when it comes to faceless bureaucracy, but it's quite another when the player is asked to become a cog in that machine.

When it arrived last summer, commentators, bloggers and critics began to take notice. Positive reactions brought this striking and upsetting game to the attention of many players

Last night, Papers, Please picked up three independent Game Festival Awards including the grand prize as well as Game Developers Choice Awards for Innovation and Best Downloadable.

It was a remarkable haul for a game that takes a spot-the-difference mechanic and elevates it to searing political commentary, urging the player to reconsider uncomfortable self-delusions about the nature of good and evil.

Papers, Please managed to capture indie gaming's newfound confidence not merely to create fun diversions, but to say something meaningful, in ways that no other medium can emulate.

"Games are in a unique position to address ideas and change opinions over books and movies and television," said creator Lucas Pope in a backstage interview with Polygon after the awards ceremony. "I think it's a great thing."

Papers, Please has helped mainstream media to finally understand that games have moved on, significantly, since the days of Pac-Man. It has been cited by numerous outlets, from NBC to The New Yorker, as an example of gaming's potential to test story-telling boundaries.

It is also significant that, according to Pope, the game has thus far sold an impressive 500,000 copies. Judging by the cheers and applause that greeted every award, most of the press and industry presence at the awards show had played it as well. This wasn't a niche title, it had broken through to a fairly wide audience.

"People come up to me and say how much the game means to them," said Pope, as he accepted his first award of the night. "That means a whole lot to me."

"More and more different kinds of games are being made," said Steve Gaynor, one of the developers behind Gone Home, which picked up a GDCA for Best Debut. "I think [tonight's awards] show the breadth of stuff that is coming out, and giving us more topics to talk about."

Picking up an honor for her outstanding work on documentary series Tropes vs Women in Games, Anita Sarkeesian talked about how games are being taken seriously, as an agency of social commentary and as a catalyst for social change. Her work, she said, was an attempt to understand games in the context of their larger role in our culture.

Pope said that he hopes his success will inspire fellow developers. "I had some idea that people would enjoy the game but I didn't think it would have this sort of impact. Some people at GDC have come up to me and said that it was an inspiration to them which is really the highest form of praise."

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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