Papers, Please

With Dark Souls III behind me, and while I wait for the inevitable time-eater that will be Civilization VI, I wanted to go back through my backlog of smaller games. Papers, Please is a simple little indie title that has been out for almost three years (at the time of this writing), and has been sitting in my Steam library, unplayed, for quite some time. Now seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.

I just paid to go to a second job that I don't get paid for

Papers, Please is a funny little game in that it is so dedicated to its theme that the game actually does start to feel almost like a real job. You have to click and drag to open up documents, sort through papers, check dates, make sure the document was issued in a valid city, and so on. It's a lot of mundane work, and if you miss any little detail, then you have an omniscient boss who will print out a citation. I quickly came to anticipate the sound of a citation being printed with a Pavlovian anxiety after sending applicants through, even for the ones whose documents I thought I had thoroughly checked. You get two warnings before your omniscient boss starts docking your pay, which keeps constant pressure on you to try to be as close to perfect as possible. Paying for this game is almost like paying for a second job that you, yourself, don't get paid for. And it's kind of a shitty job, at that.

It's not just the potential immigrants' problems that you have to think about. You have your own problems. Every day, you go home with a measly salary, and you have to pay daily for rent, heat, and food for yourself and your family. Maybe you kids or wife get sick, and you have to spend some precious extra dollars on medicine that night. And if your pay gets docked for letting in people with invalid passports, then you might have to go that night without food or heat or medicines, which will just make your family more likely to get sick.

Papers, Please - shuffling paperwork
Hooray! A game in which I get to shuffle paper work and perform bureaucratic government functions!

You'll also have people with invalid documents begging to let you in to the country so they can be re-united with their families, or because they're political refugees who will be killed if they go back to their own country...



The opening moments of DreadOut set the bar pretty low for what was to come. The visual quality varies wildly. The main character, Linda, looks and animates decent enough, but the other characters all look incredibly stiff and robotic. And they sound almost as stiff and robotic. I'm not sure if it's a matter of poor translation, cultural disconnects, or if it's a deliberate attempt by the developers at camp, but the dialogue and voice acting is cringe-worthy. It wasn't even laughably bad. It was just bad. Don't worry though, you won't have to put up with them for long. They'll disappear for the majority of act 1, rendering the game's futile attempts at early character-building moot, and likely leading to you forgetting that they ever existed until they reappear later. The ghosts and monsters themselves actually get better development and depth, as each one is given a thematic backstory, and its aesthetic design attempts to represent that theme - with varying degrees of success.

DreadOut - camp
Dialogue and voice-acting might have been going for deliberate camp, but ends up just being bad.

It's an indie game, so I don't expect its graphics to impress on any technical level. But what's presented on screen is often only passable for a PS2-era game, and there's very little artistry or detail in the majority of environments. Some of the environments are decent, and there's the occasional well-placed lighting or particle effect that helps to set a mood. That mood rarely lasts though, because you'll turn a corner and find repetitive environments and flat textures. It is very easy to get lost in a few areas of this game because so much of the environment looks the same. The school building was particularly bad, as all the classrooms had the same desks, chairs, and backpacks sitting around. Only two rooms in the entire building had unique decorations (a teacher's office and what appeared to be a biology lab). The difficult-to-read signposts and lack of any sort of in-game map just exacerbates the sameness of the game's environmental design.

DreadOut - black cat
"Aw, hello Mr. Kitty!"
Oh, you're a black cat and are
supposed to be scary. My bad..

Gameplay is less a mixed-bag, and is more universally terrible. Movement is very clunky. The camera loves to pivot around when you go through doors, leading to temporary disorientation as you try to figure out which direction the character is facing. It doesn't help that so much of the game looks the same, so it's easy to get turned around and confused (or outright lost) when the camera wigs out on you.

There's a blue vignette effect that indicates a nearby item that is designed to work as a player aid, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. It works through walls, which I guess is fine since it can let you know that you need to go into a nearby room. What isn't fine is that it also seems to work through floors and ceilings. So the game will nag you that a useful item or clue is nearby, but it might be on a different floor of the building. So you end up wandering back and forth trying to find it - which you never will because it's not there...


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Five Nights at Freddy's

Five Nights at Freddy's was recommended to me by some friends a couple years ago. They knew that I was interested in horror games, and that I was disappointed with the stock of horror games that were available at the time. I bought it at the time, but never got around to playing until recently.

The concept for the game is quite a good one. You work as a night watchman of a Chuck E. Cheese-style children's birthday party center. By day, there's four animatronic animals along the lines of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree that dance and sing songs to entertain children; but by night, these animatronic animals come to life, stalk the halls of the facility, and have been known to attack and kill anybody that they find. This is definitely the stuff of nightmares, and if your young child ever plays the game (or sees you playing it), he or she might never want to go to Chuck E. Cheese or Disneyland ever again. But as an adult, the game just doesn't quite do it for me.

I think the core problem is that the whole experience is built around providing semi-random jump scares. It might cause someone to jump the first one or two times it happens, but after that, you get pretty quickly desensitized to it. And once that happens, the game loses all of its effectiveness, even though it doesn't necessarily lose any of its borderline-unfair challenge.

Five Nights at Freddy's - security door
Keeping the security doors closed consumes power, sacrificing your long-term security.

You must spend five nights sitting in a security control room. There's two security doors and a series of camera, but there's also a limited supply of dwindling power. Closing the doors consumes power, looking through the cameras consumes power, turning the lights on consumes power. And if power runs out, you are left sitting in the dark for the rest of the night with no defense against the monstrous mechanical mascots.

The amount of nightmare logic that is required just to establish the setting is actually kind of interesting in its own right. What kind of a place operates with dwindling power? How poorly-maintained is this facility? How does it maintain power during the day? Is it even safe for kids during the day? Why would the doors require power to stay closed? You also get voicemails each night from the former night watchman, who casually talks about the increasingly-complex behaviors of the mascots, new strategies for dealing with them, and so on. These phone messages are very well-acted and well-delivered. All of this contributes to the game's incredible uncanny setting, and everything seems to be in the perfect place to create an incredible horror experience based on powerlessness and creeping tension.

But then the actual gameplay starts, and the excellent atmosphere starts to buckle...


Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.

Learning from failures and forgetting successes

Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.

Second chances

Soma - monster
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.

Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish...


The Swapper - title

Since I have some extra time off for this holiday season, I'm trying to go through some of my backlog of shorter indie Steam games in between bouts of Cities: Skylines and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. One such game is Facepalm Games' 2013's sci-fi indie hit, The Swapper, which I picked up in a Steam sale like a year ago. The game has also been ported to many consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One, and Wii U, and the ports were developed by Curve Digital.

Making my clones do the deadly work

The Swapper seems to owe a lot to Valve's mega-hit Portal. Both games' central mechanics revolve around the player character using a futuristic non-weaponized gun (with 2 settings) to solve platforming puzzles and explore an environment. Portal is in full 3-D, whereas The Swapper is a more traditional 2-D side-scroller. The bigger difference however, is that the gun of The Swapper doesn't fire portable wormholes; instead, it allows the player character to instantly create clones of herself, and to swap her consciousness into one of the clones. Once created, these copies move in tandem with the copy that is currently being controlled by the player. The key to the puzzles is to maneuver yourself so that your clones can reach otherwise inaccessible areas or activate switches.

The Swapper - synchronized movement
All your clones move in synchronization, making relative spacing very important for solving puzzles.

The space station is laid out in an unbelievable, but serviceable, series of puzzle rooms joined together by modest platforming sections. At first, the platforming between puzzles is interesting because it kept me thinking along the lines of solving puzzles rather than just moving from place to place. But there's a lot of exploration and backtracking, and having to navigate the corridors between puzzle rooms quickly became tedious once using the swapper gun became second nature and automatic. Fortunately, the game provides handy teleporters to allow you to quickly move to key sections of the station, so the backtracking never became as problematic as it could have been.

The puzzles themselves start off fairly simple, requiring that the player simply point the gun and clone herself in order to reach a platform or cross a gap and collect alien orbs that you use to unlock new areas of the space station. The challenge quickly escalates. Soon, obstacles start getting thrown at you, such as colored lights that prevent certain operations of the swapper gun, forcing you to have to find more elaborate ways around the lights in order to reach your destination. You have to start using careful positioning, choreographed movement, gravity, momentum, and inertia in order to successfully solve the puzzles. And all this escalation seems to happen naturally based on the increasing complexity of the levels, rather than through the introduction of new mechanics or controls.

The Swapper - difficult puzzle
About an hour into the game, I ran into a puzzle that took almost an hour of trial-and-error for me to solve.

About an hour into the game, the difficulty suddenly spiked, and I ran into one puzzle in particular that took me quite a while to figure out. I even had to leave it and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. I thought maybe I was missing some kind of upgrade or needed to learn some technique that the game hadn't tutorialized yet, but that wasn't the case. Eventually, I figured it out, and the solution seemed head-smacking obvious, but I probably spent a good hour on that one puzzle (approximately half of my time with the game, up to that point).

There are also some other sci-fi mechanics such as the occasional zero-g spacewalk, gravity inversion (allowing you to "fall" up and walk on the ceilings), and so on. These all flow fairly seamlessly into the game; although, I did feel that the gravity inversion felt a little unnecessary when it was introduced. After all, the game teaches you fairly early how to use the swapper gun to effectively fly by repeatedly swapping to clones created above you. This "flying", is, however, limited by the number of clones that you can create, and it's still subject to being blocked by colored lights. So gravity inversion felt superficial when introduced as a means of navigating the station. Once the gravity inversion was introduced into the puzzles, though, I recognized its value.

The Swapper - zero-G spacewalk
You'll also perform the occasional zero-G spacewalk or invert gravity.

Any problems that I had in solving a puzzle were purely intellectual. Every control and mechanic is intuitive and comfortable, movement is responsive, and I almost never struggled with making the character do what I wanted her to do. All in all, the game plays near-perfectly. The puzzles are appropriately challenging; although, the exploratory nature of the game means that difficulty can wobble back and forth a bit depending on which puzzle rooms you reach first...

Grid Clock Widget
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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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