There has been a lot of talk about the morality of Papers, Please. How it makes you an awful person, how you'll learn to stop caring about the little people and identify with the oppressor, the state. It's all true. By the end of your first week guarding the boarder into Arstotzka you'll be completely desensitized to even the most heart wrenching of hard-luck stories, a finger permanently poised on the DETAIN button.
But the devil in to Papers, Please doesn't end there. While the game is masterful at making you a villain, it's the way they do it that's impressive. Little annoyances. Tiny petty things that accumulate and snowball until they turn you into a monster.
Papers, Please is very good at making you flustered. The game is filled with dirty little tricks that pile on the stress. You wouldn't think it, but one of the worst parts of receiving a citation from the faceless and terrifying M.O.A (your Soviet overseers) isn't the idea of landing in a Gulag, or not being able to pay the rent at the end of the day – it's those fucking little slips of paper that you can't do anything with. Another piece of clutter on the desk.
As the days stretch on and more and more rules are added, desk space becomes a precious commodity in Papers, Please. With all the changing regulations it just makes sense to have the rule book out on the desk full time. Sure, fine. Then they need you to start screening for wanted criminals, so you need to keep the paper out, or at least the part with the pictures. Eventually the M.O.A demands work passes, entry permits, vaccination documentation, diplomatic seals, and on and on, and this fuck-face needs to be finger printed and that means two more pieces of paper on the desk, and where the hell did I put the key to the gun locker – screw it, EVERYBODY GETS DETAINED.
The accumulation of paper work doesn't just make it harder to collaborate all the sundry bits on a rules and regulations level, it makes it literally harder to do your job. Every handwritten note, business card, picture, or brochure a traveller leaves on your desk is just another piece of clutter that makes it harder to do what you need to do. The late addition of a third stamp in the game is infuriating. I cursed the lovely crayon drawing your son makes for you and the family photo your wife sends with you for inspiration, just more cluttery bullshit I had to hury away anytime the Supervisor rolled around, lest I get in trouble for having unapproved ornaments in the workplace. Look, the wife and kid, they mean well, but Jesus Christ just... stop already.
I remember in one of my Criminology classes we studied stress in the police force. In every book I read, in every interview I watched, the police never complained much about violent altercations; the very real possibility that they could be shot on any day during the line of duty never seemed to bother them. But the cheap ballpoint pens in the office that never worked? You could feel the officer's back knot up. They complained about paperwork, swing-shifts, supervisors that told them one thing in the morning and another thing at lunch.
In Papers, Please it's much the same. Terrorist bombings are a pain to deal with, but at least they break up the monotony. It's the chronic day-to-day stuff that really wears you down.
Where Papers, Please is a superb simulator of the steady erosion the daily grind takes on the soul and the million little cuts that inevitably turn us into all the things we claim to hate, Gone Home is the opposite. It's a veritable celebration of the transcendent bliss of the little things. The things, places, moments, and connections that keep us from being crushed under the daily drudgery.
As you explore the Greenbrier homestead you find the debris of several lives. Tucked in-between couch cushions and tucked into messy drawers are all the bits and pieces that make this family tick. Joyous dumb things like hastily written move-lists for Street Fighter, trashy romance novels, boot-leg VHS tapes with sci-fi's and horror flicks recorded in SLP, embarrassing school trophies and self-written motivational notes. Private heartaches, novel ideas crumbled up in the waste-bin, a schedule filled with cancelled plans, and self-help books.
Gone Home probably isn't the game you think it is. It wears a bit of a spooky facade at points, but it's not really a ghost story, the only thing haunting the Greenbrier home is teenage confusion and yearning, the natural strain years put on a marriage, and the tiny victories that keep them going, the happiness they find.
Where Papers, Please crams you into that fast-paced pressure cooker of a boarder checkpoint and piles on scraps and detritus until you can barely breath, Gone Home lets you drift above it, to explore and appreciate every little piece of the Greenbrier family at your leisure. They both deal with families and the minutia that make up their lives, but come at it from entirely different perspectives. I played them back to back left feeling exultant and downtrodden at the same time.
It is a triumph for the industry that either of these games could exist and thrive. The fact that they could be released within a week of each other and both meet critical, and I assume, commercial success is staggering.