This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Papers, Please and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
The summer game drought period is kind of like the space between the legs of an attractive potential sex partner as you tell her your opinions on Japanese animation, in that it seems to be getting increasingly narrow and you could probably be having more fun with it than you currently are.
It used to be so straight forward: Good shit comes out at Christmas because the kids would want something to do after Christmas dinner once they've turned into lolloping gravy balloons. But now Christmas is the celebration of our lord and saviour Call of Duty, and everyone who doesn't want to try and compete shifts to post-Christmas or pre-Christmas or pre-pre-Christmas. It's like watching people on a train carriage shifting from a fat bloke in the middle sitting cupping himself with his legs wide open.
Consequently, the middle of this year has had a fairly fruitful harvest of risky new IP, some of which have taken more risks like, say, a bullet to the head. But this week saw two interesting new downloadable releases that I'd like to discuss for you now.
First up, the slightly redundantly named Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, part of the usual XBox Live Summer of Arcade flappery. Cus-Blah has long had an affinity for games about small children with big heads exploring scary worlds, and Brothers is kind of overdoing it with two of the little buggers, an older stronger one and a younger nimbler one who looks like time froze just as a water balloon full of custard was thrown at the back of his head.
But it wouldn't be a small child big-head XBLA game unless shit got real bleak real fucking fast. So obviously their mum's dead and their dad's dying from the old classic "unspecific persistent cough" disease. And the mum died Ni No Kuni style 'cause the younger brother drowned her or something and presumably the dad got ill from the older kid pissing in his cornflakes every morning, so it falls to the two boys to go to a perilous mission across the land to the magical tree where can be found the cure, passing through an odyssey of set-pieces and picture postcard fantasy environments with seemingly no relationship towards each other whatsoever. It's like a very very short NeverEnding Story, ironically.
The gameplay is best described as single-player co-op, and I know that sounds like saying "I'm not gay, I only suck off pantomime dames[Note 1]," but it is! You control Pissy McCornflakes with the left analog stick and left trigger, and Custardhead Drownedhismum with the right. This is regardless of where the brothers are in relation to each other so half the challenge is just figuring out how to navigate the path without wheeling round smashing into walls and furniture like the drunken abusive foster parent that inevitably lies in their future. Thank Christ there's no combat, it would've been like being Professor Stephen Hawking's tennis coach.
But without combat, what the hell is there? Well, there's puzzles, although a few exceptions these are puzzles in the action-adventure game sense, meaning not puzzles at all. You pull one lever then the other, it's not exactly Zork Nemesis. Sometimes there are things reminiscent of the old Gobliiins adventure games, where the puzzle is which brother to interact with the things with, but for the most part, the core gameplay is "keep moving forward". The strength lies in the storytelling which is mostly visuals, as the characters can only communicate in off-brand, Team Ico gibberish and occasional grief-racked sobs.
Brothers is a game of strung together moments, some very effective moments in well-designed environments, but they come and go quicker than an abusive foster parent's sex partners and I found the bridging narrative lacking. The game's so short and moves along so fast that I just didn't feel invested. Little Brother is the only character who gets any fleshing out. I'd have like to known why their dad was so fucking great that he was worth pulling a Saving Private Ryan for! All I saw him do was cough a lot and teach the older boy fishing in one brief flashback when either of them looked into it. So the emotional stuff feels a bit clumsy: no time for niceties, just gouge that chest cavity open and jam away at the heartstrings like a heavy metal guitarist whose hands have gone to sleep.
So in summary, Brothers holds the interest well enough while it lasts but quickly fades once consumed like a cheesy wotsit shaped like a willy.
The second game is Papers, Please, a bare 30 meg download on Steam that turned out to be one of the most strangely absorbing experiences I've had with indie games lately, and like a mysterious rash, I've been taking every opportunity to get people to look at it. The elevator pitch would probably have turned off all but investors with the least amount of fucks to give. Basically, it's a bureaucracy-'em-up. You play a border-control guard in a communist country and your job is to check the paperwork of incoming travelers, interrogating them over discrepancies and making the final decision of red stamp or green stamp, except there's some kind of secondary invisible checkpoint that instantly spots fuck-ups and fines you if you missed them, so one wonders why we're even here.
More layers of bureaucracy are added to the process over time: passports; permission to travel; permission to work; permission to piss; permission to use run-on sentences; until immigrants are handing you entire scrap-booking projects and if they spell their name with a different vowel once, then it's off to talk to the nice men with guns, in the building that people go into a lot but don't seem to come out of so much. But you get paid by how many you've processed in a day, so it's hard to sympathize when you have to put Spotty McBumblefuck through the X-ray machine 'cos his passport says he's a girl, and the last precious seconds of the day trickle out as you examine a picture of his hairy balls. Hey, you know who'd love to see your hairy balls? These nice men with guns!
That's the beauty of Papers, Please; it presents us constant moral choices, but makes it really hard to be a good person. Virtually all your money goes to rent and food, so while you could waive the rules to reunite a couple or turn away someone with hairy balls so catastrophic, they might level the city, you do it at the expense of your own family. You're a pivotal part of a thousand stories - some small, some big - and you have to decide if you want to create a better world or just look after you and yours. You're gazing up at a big complex state of affairs funneled down and glimpsed through the filter of your tiny little world of passport numbers and hairy ball sacks, the effect of which being that admitting someone that seemed legit and hearing the sound of the obnoxious printer giving me a citation seized my heart more than any number of dead mums.
Yeah, I got quibbles. There's a lot of telling without showing and the booth upgrades are about as much use as a Wi-Fi connection in the Auschwitz prison showers, but the important thing is that a genuinely engaging paperwork simulator is far worthier of your time than the 70,000th, slightly engaging gunfight. EA would never make something like this; for one thing, it would remind them too much of their customer support services.
More than his job's worth: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I have a lot of nostalgia for that temp job I once had validating building survey data, alright
Life just keeps getting interesting after you've drowned your mum
- This joke, as originally recorded, was "I'm not gay, I only suck off pre-op transsexuals," but was later changed in response to a viewer's concern about the seeming promotion of negative transsexual stereotypes. Yahtzee has since said in an Extra Punctuation column that he regrets the original joke.