What Games Are: the power of little thauma

Perhaps it’s a time-of-life thing, or maybe overexposure to the same ideas, but it takes a lot to make me want to be a hero these days. It’s just so tedious to be faced with the prospect of slogging through hordes of nameless drones on the way to saving the world, especially if this quest will be dressed up in fantasy, hokey sci-fi or military fatigues.

I’ve seen all these worlds before, been all these roles and worn all these suits. Like any genre of anything whose ideas are overused, I’m too familiar with them. Now all I see are nudges and influences so blatant that I can pick out not only the games that inspired them, but the games that inspired those games. I just don’t believe I’m anything other than a walking drone, and that’s OK, but it doesn’t exactly capture the soul.

I should know better, but I had felt for a little while that there was no longer a game that could enlighten my soul. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of writing about games so much, often critically, that you become inured; if you’re not careful, you find yourself trapped in a negative space where failure only reinforces failure and there are no surprises.

Happily, I’m not there yet. I was just looking for my thaumas in all the wrong places. Where I had been looking at the grand sweeping epics, I just needed a dose of the small, the little, the inconsequential and the ordinary. Most especially what I needed was Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please.

In Pope’s world, I am not a hero. I am a low-level customs officer, and my job is very simple: to check the papers of a variety of entrants to my fictitious (yet amusingly Soviet-era like) country. My job is to catch the wayward, arrest the suspicious, and grant visas to those deserving. All in order to pay my rent and the medical bills of my family.

And here’s where it gets interesting: although it may sound similar, Papers, Please is not a kind of Diner Dash. It’s not frantic, and the interactions do not boil down to a series of abstract fetches. No, I open passports, look at entry visas, examine dates and pay attention to rules of the day. I do the job.

Papers, Please.

It’s like one of Ian Bogost’s persuasive games in some respects, in that as various entrants come to my desk, they tell me their stories and I am left with moral choices. One example is a young woman who fears she and her sister are being trafficked, and she gives me the name of her pimp. She begs me not to allow him through, since he will hurt them, but his papers are all in order when he arrives at my desk. What do I do?

Games with small subject matters have always had their place. From the simple joys of playing landlord in Monopoly through to the modern day of Papers, Please, there is often a singular joy to be found in the small situation. Relatively mundane tasks, such as running a studio in Game Dev Story or delivering the news in Paperboy, can provide wonderful experiences.

A lot of that is probably to do with resonance. In The Sims, a game built almost entirely out the mundane, Will Wright managed to attract millions of players to the idea that they could live middle-class digital lives and experience a new kind of joy. People saw something of themselves in those Sims, and this is a pattern that’s been repeated over and over, primarily in casual games.

For example, one of the most popular kinds of game out there is one in which you run a virtual farm. Whether we mean FarmVille or Hay Day, what are we actually talking about? Gardening. Creating small plots of tilled land. Planting and harvesting. And this ordinariness appeals to millions and millions of people every month.

There is tremendous value in the everyday, yet that value is not blockbuster-friendly. When E3 rolls around, games about the ordinary don’t tend to get featured, and instead become the curio pieces columnists write about in the backs of magazines. Furthermore, unlike other media, such games receive relatively little recognition; nobody that I’m aware of has ever seriously considered a farming game for Game Of The Year.

One the greatest works of literature is the story of two men walking the streets of Dublin in 1904, but is there any game with suitably microscopic subject matter that does likewise? Is there anything wrong with talking about such little games, or a reason that it’s always the overblown and the histrionic that get the spotlight?

We need to celebrate more games like Papers, Please or Cart Life, games where the mechanics of life become the mechanics of game, and the choices presented can be true quandaries. We need to talk about ordinariness in games as a valid part of what they are. Some of the most interesting choices come from very ordinary places. Do I choose to be kind or not? Do I choose to stamp a piece of paper one way or another? Do I choose to ask a question, or just rush someone along for expediency? These are the sorts of interaction that a little thauma is based upon. I may find out the consequences of my little action later, or I may skip on by obliviously. Not only am I playing the role of bureaucrat, I’m actually behaving as one. I’m there in that world every bit as much as I am supposed to be when I’m saving humanity from some universal threat whose name I’ve already forgotten.

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