Review: Why Papers, Please is much better than Gone Home

NOTE: This initial section is free of spoilers. I will clearly mark where spoilers begin. It is not recommended that you read that section unless you have finished Gone Home and played a lot of Papers, Please or don’t plan to play either at all.

I normally don’t do game reviews on here but I felt compelled to this time. This past week saw the release of two high-profile indie games: The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home and Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please. These have both been getting a lot of attention and with good reason. They’re both titles that try to do things very differently and focus on conveying unique and moving stories through play. I had never heard of Lucas Pope before this but The Fullbright Company is headed by Steve Gaynor, who was the creative lead behind the incredible Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2. The reviews of Papers, Please have been positive and it’s selling well as far as I can tell but Gone Home has been receiving rather stunning acclaim. Nearly every review is a perfect score or near to it and even The New York Times has been singing its praise. It’s also been outselling Papers, Please on Steam by a decent margin. I finished Gone Home in two sittings yesterday and I have put about five hours into Papers, Please without having yet reached the end. However, I’ve experienced a lot of what it offers and what it’s trying to convey. As seems to be often the case, my opinion differs from the common group think quite a bit as I think Papers, Please is not only a far superior game to Gone Home but is also a substantially better value at $10, half of what The Fullbright Company is asking for their creation. Rather than just do a straight up review of both, this is going to be a bit of a comparison to try to make that case.

Gone Home is honestly not that much of a game so much as it is an interactive story. It’s 1995 and you come home from a European trip to find your parents and your sister are all gone with no real explanation as to why. You wander around your house, looking at objects and through them, you are told what is a fairly moving family story. There’s no combat, no scares, no interaction with another live person. It’s just you, the house and your sister’s journal entries. Now don’t misunderstand me, that’s how this title has been billed from the very beginning. The Fullbright Company didn’t mislead anyone and I applaud them for taking this creative approach. It’s been done before but not often and rarely very well. One of the things Gone Home has been lauded for is how it’s able to convey a narrative with no guns, swords, violence or really, any direct conflict whatsoever. That is indeed unusual but certainly not unheard of. In fact, my favourite game of all time, The Longest Journey does something very similar and with much deeper narrative and character development. Gone Home is a game anyone with any skill level can pick up and play and it rewards patience and a willingness to check every single nook and cranny for clues. In the end, you are treated to a story that can make you cry, smile and ponder all at the same time.

The problem is, both the story and the mechanics of Gone Home are basic and I dare say, cliché. Yes, you can look at every object in the house and you can complete the story without hearing every journal entry and piece of back story. The problem is that 95% of the objects you will come across are meaningless and serve as little more than padding. When you find something that has relevance to the narrative, it’s made very clear to you so as you can’t miss the point. By the end of the title’s very short length (I finished it in just over two hours and only missed I think three journal entries), you know the key points of the story regardless of what you missed because you can’t get to the end without discovering certain key elements. The story is also touching, topical, brilliantly voice acted and has some great accompanying music (especially Chris Remo’s poignant yet haunting ambient score) but in the end, it’s something reminiscent of an after school special (do they even still have those?) It discusses important subject matter but it’s far from original and aside from a “draw your own conclusions” ending, you can see all its major developments coming a mile away and there’s no twists or big revelations. You’ll know what’s going to happen before most of it does and that saps a lot of the magic they still could have infused into what I think is otherwise, a very generic, sappy narrative. Being a linear experience, Gone Home also has no replay value, aside from going back to find any journal entries you missed, something that won’t be appealing to most people I don’t think. That it takes place in 1995 means little to the overall story as the main point of conflict could easily happen today as well. It just serves as a vehicle for the story to talk about things like Super Nintendo and The X-Files while also avoiding the necessity to use things like e-mail and smartphones to convey narrative points. That part is kind of cool for people my age though and I do like that they’ve made discovering the story a very analog, tactile experience.

Conversely, I think Papers, Please has a far more interesting tale to tell and does a masterful job of conveying it and the myriad of choices you make that directly impact it through its mechanics. Rather than deal with a modern, topical issue, this game throws you back to the Cold War era, tasking you with being a document screener at the border of a fictional country that totally isn’t communist Russia (honest!) and where you must try to support your family’s ever-increasing expenses while getting paid piece work. As the days progress, the rules under which you’re forced to operate become more and more complex and difficult and frequently, random events will be thrown in that disrupt the flow of everything and present you with a myriad of different choices which can impact the story and lead you to one of what I believe are twenty different endings. In Papers, Please, there really is no winning, only losing in the best way possible. Make no mistake, this is a game that has a point to make but rather than do it through heavy-handed exposition that’s largely delivered through object triggers, the game play itself is the vehicle for the message. Nearly everything you’re told about the world you inhabit and the conflicts you’re involved in is communicated through and during actual game play and it frequently requires you to think on your feet and make snap decisions that you may regret later on. There are only a handful of times where you aren’t under pressure and this really helps convey the oppressive, dismal and often, very dark circumstances in which your character is under. It certainly doesn’t have the presentation of Gone Home but it doesn’t need them either. It’s simple, 8-bit graphics do as good a job of conveying emotion and depth as Gone Home’s super high-resolution object textures. There is violence in the game where there is none at all in Gone Home but it’s very measured and all done with a purpose and never recklessly.

I think these are both very interesting games in their own way but in the end, I think Papers, Please deserves a lot more love than it’s getting. It’s substantially longer (I’m at almost six hours and haven’t finished one playthrough yet), it encourages and rewards repeated play and it’s decides to not only portray a rich and detailed story but it does it in a (partially) fictional past and let’s the game play and its choices drive the narrative for you. Gone Home on the other hand delivers a well-told, yet very cliché drama in a linear format that will take you maybe four hours to get through if you’re very thorough, while not really providing meaningful incentives to be thorough. On top of that, it also costs twice as much. Value for money and taste are subjective of course but through the lens most game critics tend to operate, I find it rather shocking that Gone Home has received such universal acclaim, while Papers, Please has received generally good-but-not-great reviews for what I think is a much more important experience. If you’re into indie games and have the budget, it may very well be worth buying them both and making your own call. If however, you can only choose one right now, I would recommend Papers, Please without a second thought. Gone Home would be far more worth it when it’s $10 or even $5 in an upcoming Steam sale.

From this point on, I will be going into heavy spoiler discussion of both games. DO NOT READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU HAVE FINISHED GONE HOME AND PLAYED A LOT OF PAPERS, PLEASE OR HAVE NO PLANS TO EVER PLAY EITHER TITLE!

As I said above, my problem with Gone Home’s story is that while it’s well told through some absolutely fantastic voice acting, it’s super cliché, generic drama. When your character arrives home after returning from a long European trip with no notice, she finds an empty house with a cryptic note from her younger sister saying she’s gone. As you explore the house, you find out that a lot happened while you were gone. Your sister met a girl at school and as she gets to know her, she discovers they have romantic feelings for each other and that she is in fact a lesbian. Their relationship gets hot and steamy quickly but they keep it very much on the hush hush from everyone. Why? Because your parents are religious (demonstrated by the fact that there is a bible to be found within close proximity of several objects that trigger journal entries about your sister’s homosexuality) and they very much would disapprove. Subtle, eh? Your sister’s lover also proves to have a rebellious bent to her, something that starts to blend into your sister’s life as well, eventually leading her to get into trouble at school and making her peers suspicious about just what she and this other girl are up to.

You also find out through the environments the game will tour you through that your father was once a successful fiction author, who essentially had one hit book and then flamed out, never coming close to that success again. He’s now been reduced to writing reviews of home theater equipment just to keep making money off his writing. Slightly unique implementation but again, a tired and generic trope. Meanwhile, your mother has ended up on the fast track up through her career with the local forest service and has become the family breadwinner, while also entering into an affair with a co-worker. This combined with the surprise revelation of your sister’s lesbian relationship (of course) creates a huge conflict in the family and especially the marriage. Your sister’s relationship also begins to unravel as she finds out that her lover had planned to join the army from a young age and when she goes away, they will probably never see each other again.

You find out close to the end of the game that the reason your house is empty is because your parents are away at a troubled marriage retreat (which they told your sister was a vacation to celebrate their anniversary.) While mourning the loss of her lover, your sister gets a phone call from her, saying that she can’t live without her and she’s ditching out on the army and that she should just come get her so they can run away together. The “draw your own conclusions” ending is because that’s where everything is left. Does your parent’s marriage survive? Does your sister meet her lover? Do they get in trouble because her lover ditched out on the army? Do you ever seen them again? Who knows!

Now, there is nothing wrong with this kind of ending and I think it suits Gone Home very well. I also want to make it clear that despite all my criticisms, I do think the story is very well told, emotional and heavy. I don’t cry easily and this game didn’t cause me to but I was very moved and heavy hearted as I watched the credits roll and was thinking about the ending quite a bit throughout the day. It’s not a bad story and certainly a very good version of this one. The thing is, stories like this have been done a million times before. The way in which Gone Home conveyed this one may have been a bit different but the story itself isn’t and there’s not really a lot of originality on display here and the major points kind of hit you over the head with little subtlety. I’ve seen other dramatic stories (even in games) that had a deeper impact on me and there was a lot more “game” involved in them to boot. This story is ultimately just another teenage drama.

Papers, Please is a whole other animal and while it won’t necessarily have the gut-wrenching impact of Gone Home, I think it’s also moving in its own way and it doesn’t brow beat it’s over-arching points into you, it lets the game play tell things organically. Your primary motivation is simple: Earn enough money through your piece work border job to pay your rent, food, heat and buy medicine for your family on occasion. If you fail to do any of these things on a regular basis, your family will suffer and potentially even die. The game is purposefully cold and calculated about this, portraying your family the way an oppressive bureaucracy might view them. You never see their faces, you never even speak to them. You are just shown a status icon for each one at the end of the day and are given an emotionless, typed out line of text indicating their needs. If you ultimately fail one of them, it will simply say “Your wife/son/uncle/etc. has died.” That’s it. In my first play through which I’ve yet to complete, I have lost both my son and uncle because I couldn’t make enough money to get them medicine they needed. When the game coldly informed me of that, I didn’t feel my heart sink into my stomach but I did feel an immense sense of failure, that I’d let these faceless people down and was a bad person for it. That I got anywhere near as worked up over a change in an icon as I did over a fully voice-acted monologue with sad music behind it speaks volumes to what Papers, Please can do.

This is to say nothing of the experience of actually playing the game. You are put under immense pressure to shuffle people through your border as fast as possible while adhering to a maddening set of ever-changing rules. I was never leaning back in my chair the whole time because I was so intently staring at the screen so I didn’t miss anything. You always have a quota to meet to pay the bills but every missed detail results in both an immediate penalty and a larger punishment that can come later. My only real gripe here is that though border agents like yourself are apparently required, the government somehow omnisciently knows every time you make a mistake so they can punish you. If they already know the answers, why am I needed at all? It’s honestly a minor thing to get over though. As the days go by, more and more choices are thrown at you. Multiple people will offer you bribes to either break the rules outright or to subvert them in ways that don’t come with direct punishment, but require you to live with the knowledge that you screwed over honest people. You’re also presented with opportunities to help a rebel organisation, multiple terrorist attacks will close your post early and sometimes, the government will just seize heaps of your savings because it’s a dictatorship and they say so. It’s difficult, oppressive, unfair and a remarkable slight of insight into what it must have been like for someone trying to scrape by in one of these Cold War countries.

Papers, Please is not a pleasant game at all. Unlike Gone Home which is designed to be sad but also uplifting, this is not designed to make you feel happy. It’s playing to work. It’s designed to inform and create sympathy and it does is almost entirely through playing it, not through reading, not through audio logs but simply by playing the game and succeeding or not at it. I think this shows incredible talent and creativity on Lucas Pope’s part and makes Papers, Please stand apart not only against Gone Home but indeed against almost any other video game we’ve seen so far. I’ve played a lot of games and I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I ever seen a game with such a dark, oppressive tone to it that after hours of playing, I didn’t want to put down and kept saying “Just one more work day!”

That Papers, Please comes with a price tag half of what Gone Home is asking and is already been three times longer an experience for me with no signs of ending yet, I think the value proposition is obvious. I want to state again that despite all the negative points I’ve raised about Gone Home (which I focused on mostly because they’ve not been discussed at all everywhere else I’ve looked), I don’t think it’s a bad product and I don’t regret my time spent with it. I think Papers, Please is a far superior value, a more unique story, has more unique mechanics and does a better job of storytelling through game play instead of just being another narrative sightseeing tour, the likes of which indie developers constantly slam on the AAA industry for having too many of. Gone Home is good but it shares many of the traits of the AAA industry in which its developers originated and walked away from.

If you can only afford one right now, my recommendation without hesitation is to get Papers, Please and wait for Gone Home to go on sale. Gone Home is worth experiencing but not for $20.

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15 Responses to Review: Why Papers, Please is much better than Gone Home

  1. I am a big fan of Papers, Please and have been playing it constantly. But I must say that having unlocked the Endless mode, it was a big disappointment to me. With such an addictive Story mode, Endless mode had nothing more to offer and I actually went back to playing the Story mode. I have a blog written on what I like about the game and where I think there could be improvements – http://shringarpangal.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/papers-please-glory-to-arstotzka/

    • I honestly haven’t even tried Endless mode yet but when I envisioned how it would work, I could see how that would detract from things because there’s no urgency and weight to your choices like there is in Story mode. It comes across as kind of a practice mode for me really. There are definitely a few things he could improve on with the game but he’s got a great base here. I do hope it succeeds enough to make him expand on it.

      • I could not have put that better. You are perfectly right. It did feel exactly like practice mode which usually happens in the start of the game and not after you “unlock” a level. But that said, I really wish him the best and hope he succeeds too. The game kept me up several nights and I must have never enjoyed coming “back to work” after work so much 🙂 Great idea and an even better execution.

      • For sure! And like I said in my post, I really like the fact that even though it’s trying to tell a moving story, it’s not using a modern “common” issue (don’t like common but it’s the best I can do) but is making the story out of something rooted in history that’s really not relevant any more and I think that’s a much greater challenge and accomplishment than telling another teenage drama tale like Gone Home did (albeit well.) Like you said, Papers, Please is a game based around soul-crushing work and yet some how, it’s fun.

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