Movies based on existing video games tend to suck. Sure, I might have some guilty pleasure in the occasional viewing of the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter movie, but I would never tell you they’re good movies. At least those two examples had some excuse for their poor execution, however, seeing as they were among the first of their kind (in Mario’s case, the first), it’s understandable that studios would have trouble trying to translate the nature of a video game into the movie world.
Even now, however, when games have become more and more movie-like, filmmakers still can’t seem to get things right. And in fact, video game movies may be worse now than ever before (I said I take guilty pleasure in the cinematic versions of Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter, I can’t make that same claim for more recent entries). Granted, some (including myself) might argue that video games becoming more and more like movies makes actual movie adaptations of them entirely redundant, but at the very least it should allow them to be translated onto the silver screen with less appalling results than what we’ve been getting.
Well, it seems the video game movie curse has finally been lifted…if only partly.
I say only partly because, well, this strangely miraculous occurrence of a good video game movie comes in the form of a ten-minute short film. So while the short manages to successfully capture the essence of the game it’s based on, we still have to wait for a feature-length film based on a game to, well, not suck.
The short film in question is Papers, Please: The Short Film, based on the cult classic 2013 indie title, Papers, Please (one of my personal favorite indie titles, which I now feel I underrated in my original review).
Papers, Please was a game all about the immigration process, which may not sound like the most enticing video game concept, but managed to pull off its goals in spades. It managed to somehow be fun, while also being incredibly dramatic and forcing players to face serious ethical dilemmas in the role of a passport inspector in a war-torn nation.
The short film adaptation, released via YouTube in February of this year, manages to capture the game’s look and feel, as well as its unique sense of suspense and emotion (it probably doesn’t hurt that Lucas Pope, the creator/designer of Papers, Please, was one of the short’s writers).
Here is the short film for all of your viewing pleasure. Now let’s just hope that someone can make a video game feature film that so strongly embraces its source material while also providing a good movie in its own right.
Games like the Bioshock series, as well as indie darlings like Limbo and Braid all have one thing in common…
…They are all boring as Hell.
Okay, perhaps I should elaborate a bit. Each of these games, as well as many others that have been inspired in their wake in both the indie and mainstream gaming scenes, are all considered to be part of the “artistic” side of gaming, due to their emphasis on aspects like story and atmosphere over “fun.” They’re games that are tailor-made to push the question of “are video games art?” and often receive praise for the massive inputs of their creators over studios, with many people hailing these creators as the video game equivalents of auteurs.
But let’s take a moment to really think about that statement. Who’s to say video games weren’t always art? Just because they were originally created with “fun” in mind, does that really make them unartistic by nature?
It’s all too easy to argue that games like Super Mario World and Tetris, which never even attempt to be anything more than great games, are actually far greater artistic achievements than any ham-fisted Bioshock or Braid ever were. Both Mario World and Tetris, while maybe void of storytelling, are rich and deep in creativity. More specifically, a kind of creativity that is unique to the video game medium. Every stage in Mario World tries something new with the platforming genre, while Tetris is a simple formula that is never the same twice.
By comparison, it’s all-too easy to say that Bioshock simply has a lot of cinematics with a rather pedestrian attempt at social commentaries padded on to disguise what is otherwise a by-the-books first-person shooter. Similarly, Limbo is a platformer so empty in gameplay and content, that claiming it to be a game where all you do is go right wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement, and the only reason it’s remembered is because it throws some stylized visuals and atmosphere on top to compensate for its lack of anything else.
Point being, games like Super Mario World and Tetris have timelessly proven what video games, and video games alone, are capable of, whereas something like Bioshock (most specifically, Bioshock Infinite) and Limbo are rather inept in their own medium, and simply decorate what little they have with “themes” and “artsiness,” which only ends up making those attributes feel shoehorned and meaningless.
What of these so-called “video game auteurs?” Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, are often seen as artistic visionaries in the video game medium. But why, exactly? For the simple reason that they have more creative control over their projects, more or less. While having such input and influence on one’s creations is something any creator strives for, it also doesn’t innately make everything they touch a work of genius. This may be an unpopular statement in this day and age, but big studios are very much capable of creating art. While it may be easier for personal artistry to shine through when a creation is helmed by an individual, that doesn’t necessarily make them innately superior on an artistic level (after all, when George Lucas had full control of Star Wars, we ended up with the prequels. Disney gave us The Force Awakens).
I am very much in support of the Andy Warhol view that the desire to make money off of one’s art doesn’t demean its value as art. If anything, I’d have more respect for someone who creates something and has a desire of making money off of it, than some pretentious hipster who gives the same, generic “I’m not in it for the money” spiel whose work oozes with self-righteousness.
Long story short, it’s not only possible for a big budget, major studio game to be art, but they’ve actually accomplished this feat countless times through the decades. Often times, they did it without needing to tout their own horns.
Jonathan Blow, for example, is always quick to speak about why games “need to be something more,” and yet is quick to make blanket statements like “I don’t play Japanese games anymore.” or refers to games like Farmville as being “inherently evil.” Basically, it’s the same kind of hypocritical, self-indulgent jargon you always here from such pseudo-artists. They love talking about their own work as artistic intellectuals, and then write off differing works with ignorant blanket statements and name-calling. I can’t remember ever hearing of Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright giving themselves such pats on the back.
Then we have Ken Levine, a man who loves implementing social commentaries into his games, but does so about as effectively as a college freshman in his first week of a political science course. The allegories are so blatant they can hardly be called allegories at all (Gee, d’ya think the dude named Andrew Ryan is like, referencing Ayn Rand?), and his themes often have prominent contradictions (Bioshock Infinite can’t give itself enough praise for pointing out the ugliness of prejudice…and then showcases a blatant prejudice against the religious… so I guess open-mindedness only goes so far). The point is people will hail the likes of Ken Levin as artistic geniuses simply because the themes are attempted, but it seems like no one ever stops to actually analyses how effectively (or should I say ineffectively) they are implemented. Just because the man has a voice and puts it in his games doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.
The major problem here is that there has been a growing mentality that these kind of games are art, and games that may only aim to be “fun” or “creative” are not. It’s starting to grow into something much worse, with some people even having the mindset that any game that emphasizes entertainment and gameplay is inherently bad, and that only these pretentious “artsy” games are good. It’s a similar mindset to what some film critics and film award committees have, where they’ll only praise/award the works that conveniently pander to their preferred styles and ideals.
What makes this all the more concerning (should I say depressing?) is that, for the longest time, video games were seemingly immune to such things. Because of the unique nature of video games as a medium, no one used to care about how much plot was in Mario or what social commentaries games were carrying. There were still plenty of games with complex plots, and games with themes and commentaries, but they coexisted within the realms of “fun” and “entertainment.” No one wanted games to be anything more than fun, but when they had other attributes, it was seen as a bonus, not the sole requirement.
This put video games in a very unique spot that made it one of the few mediums that could be appreciated for its artistry and enjoyed for its fun factor. Perhaps the only other medium to prominently showcase this combination is animated cinema (most other films choose a side between artsy and entertaining, whereas animated films seem more readily able to be both). But while animated films continue to keep a hold of that combination, it seems like video games are becoming more willing to abandon it in favor of pandering to the “artistic” crowd.
It’s still very much possible for artsy games to still be great games, with the likes of Undertale and Papers, Please proving that indie games can be genuinely rich from an artistic level and engaging from a gameplay standpoint, and titles like Shadow of the Colossus being able to tell stories as only a video game can, while still being a fun game to play. But then we have this increasing wave of developers who, like Jonathan Blow, claim that “video games don’t need to be fun,” which really just seems like a convenient way for them to justify the lack of actual game design in their titles. Perhaps a game doesn’t need to be immediately “fun” on the surface, but it should definitely be engaging to play. No amount of atmosphere, story or social commentary can entice me to pick up a controller if the game itself is flat-out boring.
Would we rather see video games continue to go down a similar path to animated films, which can create works that are unique to their medium, can be both fun and artful, and that we all remember? Or would we prefer them to go the route of the Oscar-bait/arthouse film, which might give a few pretentious snobs something to yammer about for a few minutes, and then have no lasting appeal or value?
Video games have always been art, but the more they try to prove that they’ve “become” art, the more they lose the things that made them art to begin with.
Papers, Please is an indie game created by lone developer Lucas Pope. Originally released via Steam in 2013, Papers, Please turns the immigration process into a surprisingly addicting video game.
The setting of Papers, Please is the fictional dystopian nation of Arstotzka, which has recently ended a lengthy war with rival nation Kolechia. A wall now separates the city of Grestin, with the east side of the city being a part of Arstotzka, while the west side is part of Kolechia. Players take control of a border control officer, who has been randomly selected via lottery for the position, forcefully moving him and his family to a place his government deems convenient. Your job is to look through the papers of those trying to cross the border and search for any discrepancies. If someone’s papers are all in order, you may let them pass. If not, you have to deny them access to Arstotzka.
This all starts out easy enough, as the first two game days only require the player to inspect passports, but as tensions between nations increase (there are five other nations in addition to Arstotzka and Kolechia), new and stricter laws go into effect. People are required to show more and more papers and identifications, leaving players to memorize all the information from their handbook and whatever papers are provided to obsessive-compulsive levels.
There is an even bigger catch to all of this. The player is rewarded with five credits (Arstotzka’s currency) for every person they successfully allow or deny access to the country, so the more people you manage to go through in one of the game’s days, the more money you have to pay rent and take care of your family (which includes a wife, son, mother-in-law and uncle). Should the player make a mistake in their proceedings, they won’t receive the credits. And three mistakes on a given day will begin costing the player money.
This already makes the player’s job difficult, but to add more heft to the game, the player is often given steep moral choices. You may allow a man into the country after he has shown all of his papers, and then when his wife fails to provide the same documents, you will have to decide either to let her through at the expense of your family, or send her back to her war-torn nation and separate her from her husband so your family remains healthy.
It’s honestly some of the best usage of player choice I’ve seen in a game, since it rarely presents players with blatantly right and wrong options. Instead it asks players to make morally ambiguous choices and emotional sacrifices.
What’s really impressive is how much variety Papers, Please manages to squeeze into its limited concept. Players may have to scan people in search of smugglers, detain international criminals if they can find a face matching that on a wanted poster, and even take bribes as a further means to help their family (but be warned, the Arstotzkan government makes sure its citizens don’t make too much money, and should the player get greedy they may be the subject of an investigation). Just when you think you have the game figured out, it adds an extra layer to the formula in the very next game day. To top this versatility off, the game features twenty different possible endings, depending on your performance, the decisions you make, and the people you choose to help (or hinder) along the way.
The player can earn small bonuses in the form of hotkeys. Initially, the player is left to the cursor alone to shuffle through all the game’s documents and stamps which, as you might imagine, can take time. If you manage to unlock the hotkeys, you can shave off precious seconds so that you can get through more people faster, thus earning a bigger paycheck at the end of the day.
On the downside, the number of hotkeys you can unlock are pretty limited, and you can’t gain a hotkey to use the loudspeaker to move the line forward after you’ve finished processing someone (which may not sound like a big deal, except the loudspeaker is pretty small on-screen and dcently removed from most of the other objects you interact with, meaning it will always end up costing you some time despite your best efforts). And admittedly, some points of the game may end up being more stressful than fun, as looking at every tiny detail of every single document as the clock ticks away can sometimes grow tedious.
So while Papers, Please may not be a game for everybody, it is a unique achievement among video games. One that proves the medium can take pretty much any concept – no matter how mundane it may seem – and with the right amount of ingenuity and proper execution, can turn it into a compelling and fun experience.