One of the greatest strengths interactive media like video games has over other forms of entertainment is a sense of agency. Players are not merely spectators, they’re active participants; their actions and decisions affect the outcome. Choice plays a role in every game, from the simplest action platformers where you decide which direction to go or which weapon to use, to epic RPGs where lives, perhaps even the fate of entire civilizations, depend on your choices. As with all gameplay elements, though, this can be done well or done poorly. The worst types of choices in games are those where they have no significant impact – whatever option you pick, the outcome remains the same, and you feel you have less of a role in the story. Or, if of the options presented to you one has a clear advantage, then no serious thought is required since you already know what the best result is. Moral choices fall into this trap easily, with most simply offering two scenarios; being virtuous, or being evil just for the hell of it. Games that explore player choice well, like those developed by Bioware and Black Isle, never present them as basic black and white. They need to be situations where there is no clear cut “right” or “wrong” answer, but instead you have to decide which is the lesser of two evils, or where you find that the choice you thought was best has unintended consequences later on. That makes them feel more like actual moral dilemmas, like your decisions have weight and aren’t simply arbitrary. The illusion of choice can also be implemented well if, even if your decision has no substantial impact on how the game progresses, you’re made to feel as though your judgment affected the outcome. I recently played three independent PC titles that approach the issue of player choice in their own distinct ways through minimalist design.

Papers, Please (developed by Lucas Pope, published by 3909 LLC): Even a small cog in the machine can have a significant impact. The government of the communist nation Arstotkza has selected you to serve as a border guard. Every day you must process immigrants and visitors who seek entry to the country, denying them if they lack the proper documentation. A rote, seemingly boring task, but it’s far from simple. Several immigrants are desperate to enter Arstotkza for various reasons (reuniting with a family member, escaping a brutal regime) but are missing the necessary paperwork. Granting them entry to the country would be noble, but you’re penalized for wrongful authorizations, meaning less money to provide for your family. Should they suffer for the mistakes of another? Some desperate immigrants will offer bribes to compensate for the loss you’ll incur, but that carries the risk of closer scrutiny from your superiors and possible arrest. Further complicating matters is the underground rebel group EZIC which seeks your aide in getting their agents into the country so they can overthrow the communist regime. Helping them could make things better for the people of your country (assuming their motives are pure), but again means that you’ll suffer financially and could draw suspicion from the government. You can be a patriotic citizen and refuse to assist the troublemakers, but then that makes you a potential target for their planned uprising. Papers, Please handles the issue of moral choice incredibly well, since for all these scenarios and others, there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer; someone will always suffer regardless of your actions, and the harsh financial punishments you’re subjected to for failing to do your job correctly make it much harder to be generous to the immigrants. Whether you choose to put yourself, your family and your country first or be kind to the desperate have a strong impact on how events unfold (though you never see these actions directly; you’re instead informed through each day’s newspaper headlines), whether you and your family will live comfortably, need to flee, become a prisoner of the state, or end up starting the revolution. Some of your choices also have unpredictable outcomes that can prematurely end your game. I went through one of my playthroughs as a loyal citizen to the state, so I turned over information that an EZIC operative gave me to a government inspector, but then was arrested myself as possessing that information made me a suspected collaborator.

Sorting through paperwork definitely doesn’t sound like it would be too fun or engaging, but Papers, Please manages to make this mundane activity intriguing by turning it into a puzzle. You start off with basic instructions like validating passports and entry visas to make sure they’re up to date and contain all the correct information, denying anyone with discrepancies in their forms. As the game progresses, more conditions and regulations are added such as inspecting seals to make sure they aren’t forgeries, or running citizens from a nation Arstotkza is currently having hostile relations with through a full body scan to make sure they aren’t carrying any contraband or weapons. In addition to newly enforced rules, you also have to check for minor discrepancies such as the immigrant’s height, weight, appearance, the city they had their passport authorized in, even their gender in some cases. The challenge is making sure to adhere to all requirements even though it’s easy to forget ones that were introduced early on. There were several times I ran into a situation where I thought I’d done a thorough inspection, including fingerprinting and a body scan, only to be penalized because I didn’t notice the person’s name was spelled differently on each of their forms or their passport had expired. Since you’re only paid for every person correctly processed in a work day and penalized for mistakes (the first two instances in a day result in no pay, any after that and money is deducted), you need to develop a system to inspect as many documents as possible and pinpoint the problem areas quickly so you don’t get fined. Almost all the money you earn is taken away each day as rent at your state-owned apartment, heat and food, providing a greater incentive to work very efficiently so that your family doesn’t go hungry or get sick from the cold. Upgrades to the inspection booth become available over time, but the only two that are really beneficial, tabs to navigate the sections of the rule book faster and instant inspection mode, aren’t unlocked until halfway through the game. Since the story is set in 1982, the visuals and sound are reminiscent of an early MS-DOS or Apple game, aesthetics that complement the plot well. The possible entrants have a limited number of faces that eventually repeat, while the player character is hardly seen. Charactes have no voives, just electronic rasps that accompany their speech bubbles. It reflects how communist nations viewed their people – identities were not important; they were all interchangeable, faceless, servants to the state. The drab color palette and harsh dirge-like music that plays at the start and end of each day convey the bleak, oppressive lives of the Arstotkzan people. Papers, Please accomplishes the rare feat of building a rich plot and immersing players into a world with very few elements. It’s unique, absorbing, and one of the best independent titles I’ve played this year.

The Stanley Parable (developed by William Pugh and Davey Wreden, published by Galactic Cafe): Artificial freedom and the illusion of choice are hilariously skewed in the HD remake of Davey Wreden’s acclaimed Source mod. Office drone Stanley is content to do his menial work day in, day out, without ever questioning his lot in life. One day, he receives no orders, prompting him to seek out the reason he isn’t being given instructions only to find that the entire building is empty. An ethereal voice narrates Stanley’s journey and the actions he’s supposed to take, but will Stanley continue to follow any order he’s given, or will he finally make his own decisions? When creating a metagame that deconstructs narrative or mechanical elements, there’s always a risk that the end result will come off as pretentious, self-indulgent navel gazing. Thankfully, The Stanley Parable doesn’t fall into that trap; it provides an entertaining, engaging time by keeping things simple. Aside from being a silent protagonist, Stanley cannot interact with any other characters, so the character can never make any truly meaningful choices. All decisions simply boil down to picking which direction to take or whether to press a button. The bare bones format allowed Wreden to get across his intended message, how so many games will constrain a player by making assumptions about their experiences and guide them towards making decisions rather than allowing them greater freedom of agency, in a basic yet effective manner. Many possible paths exist, all laid out in advance, but to experience each of them you have to think outside the box. Disobeying the narrator will reveal some outcomes, but others are found through exploiting intentional glitches, sequence breaking, or simply doing nothing. It’s a perfect demonstration of how even with the limitations of programming, a game can still provide a great sense of agency by providing the player with opportunities to deviate from one pre-set path and partake in something unexpected, even though that has also been predetermined for them. Area-specific dialogue or room layouts can also change slightly on successive playthroughs, allowing the game to feel a bit more organic and not a series of constantly repeated sequences.

What really sells The Stanley Parable is its humor, most of it provided by Kevan Brighting’s ever present unseen narrator. Much like Rucks from Bastion, the narrator’s exposition is dynamic and changes based on what decisions Stanley makes, but he is more interested in making sure the protagonist follows the story laid out for him. Whenever you deviate from the instructions, the narrator will attempt to get you back on the track he wants you to follow, either by gentle persuasion, mild irritation, childish insults, or thinly-veiled threats. His demeanor changes based on how disobedient you are; sometimes he’ll become malicious, other times sympathetic, almost pleading with Stanley to let the story unfold as he envisioned it. If you reach an area before you’re supposed to or perform an action that was “unintended” you could glitch the game, leaving the narrator confused and desperate to find a way to get the story back on track. Some of the funniest moments are the narrator’s exasperation over Stanley refusing to leave a broom closet, eventually assuming that the only reason he’s still there is because the player died and calling for another person to resume the game, a meeting room projecting slides with bizarre corporate logic that the management from Dilbert would find idiotic, an instructional video on the importance of choice which presents the right decision as feeding starving children in third world countries and the wrong choice is setting orphans on fire, and my personal favorite, getting stuck in a loop where the game is constantly restarted because the narrator has lost the story, requiring him and Stanley to team up and find it. There are a few serious moments as well, such as Stanley having an existential crisis as he becomes aware of the illogical situation he’s in, hints at a loving wife he’s been neglecting, and the ending where he finds “true” freedom. Of course, the thrill comes from directly experiencing these, so I don’t wish to go into too much detail out of fear of spoiling them. As a Source engine mod, the environments are simple 3D structures without too much detail, but they’re all sharp and crisp, and there are some nice little touches put in like the absurd scribblings on whiteboards. The soundtrack is sparse, with only short segments of synthetic instrumentation to create soothing, triumphant, or frantic music depending on the situation. Most of the noises you hear are there to amplify the vacant nature of the world, such as the echoing of Stanley’s footsteps or creaking doors. Few games have made me laugh as hard as The Stanley Parable. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking some clever interactive comedy.

The Yawhg (developed by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer, published by Damian’s Games): If the end of everything you knew was fast approaching, how would you prepare? The Yawhg asks that question by giving you control of up to four characters residing in a medieval fantasy village which will be attacked in six weeks by a destructive force, the eponymous Yawhg. During each turn, you select from one of eight areas around the village where your character will spend the week, their actions building various stats depending on where they are and which of two activities they do (for example, brewing potions in the alchemy lab increases mind and magic, while cleaning the lab only increases mind and provides some wealth; hunting in the woods increases finesse and provides wealth from the pelts sold, but cutting wood increases strength and finesse). A random occurrence also takes place after completing the central task, offering two options for how to resolve it, each depending on a different stat. Having a high enough level will allow you to succeed and increase other stats, but if your level is too low, you will fail and could suffer a penalty. Since these events are randomly determined, there are good odds that you’ll encounter one that requires a high level in your first or second area you’ve visited, guaranteeing failure since your skills aren’t developed enough. Only one character can be in a specified location during a weekly cycle, so you have to determine whether you want to round them all out evenly or let them specialize in certain areas. Once the Yawgh has wreaked its havoc, though, it’s up to you to decide how your characters will help rebuild the town. Will the skills they’ve acquired be enough to rise up from the rubble, or will they fail, leaving their town a pit of death and decay?

The simplistic gameplay and relatively short play time (a full game can be completed in less than 10 minutes) may lead some players to think there’s nothing of substance, but The Yawhg boasts stellar writing to add considerable depth. Each weekly cycle starts with a foreboding warning about the approach of the Yawhg, the devastation left in its wake when it last attacked, homes and lives reduced to nothingness. It creates a palpable sense of impending dread, making you truly nervous about the arrival of an entity that you never even see. The random events after an event are also well scripted, providing a simple but vivid description of how your characters fare based on your decision, so you can feel their exhilaration or disappointment depending on how things turn out. Actions in one area can also have an impact elsewhere in the town, adding a bit of life to a relatively static world. For example, failure to contain a mass of leeches in the local hospital will lead them to infest waterways in the slums, or a monster you refused to slay could wander into the village and destroy a building, preventing anyone from going there for the rest of the game. Even the end game is more complex than simply rebuilding the town – based on the skills you developed and the role you took on, there’s no guarantee that your characters will live happily ever after. Emily Carroll’s artwork accentuates the medieval fantasy theme with expository images designed to look like vibrant scenes from an illustrated manuscript. Regretfully though, these pictures only depict a standard action, and not a random event or the outcome, which prevents you from fully experiencing the impact of your decisions. Music also compliments the setting, with slow guitar and violin tracks creating somber, haunting tunes evocative of medieval instrumental pieces, each accompanied with a beautiful vocal performance from Halina Heron. The Yawhg may not last long and doesn’t offer much in terms of gameplay, but there’s a high replay value in running your characters through the many different scenarios to see the outcomes. It’s an interactive fairy tale you’ll want to revisit many times.

In ranking all these games, I’ve run into the same situation from my first art game review. They are all worth your time for the fantastic stories they tell. But if I had to pick the best of the three, Papers, Please would definitely come out on top due to how original it is. I hope to see more titles from all of these developers in the future; they all have great creative potential.

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