Tag: dystopian

Papers, Please – A Love/Hate Relationship

Courtesy Lucas Pope
Glory to Arstotzka.

Let me be clear right from the off: I adore the fact that Papers, Please exists.

For those of you who don’t know, Papers, Please is a video game described as “a dystopian document thriller.” You are a citizen in Arstotzka, a fictional country ruled by an authoritarian regime, and you are tasked with monitoring one of its border posts. You examine the documentation of someone entering the country, look for discrepancies, and then bring down the stamp to either approve or deny their entry. You can detain people trying to smuggle contraband or weapons into the country, and your earnings are based on how many people you process in a given day, less any mistakes you make.

In a market dominated by first-person shooters, sports simulations, and massively multiplayer online games, it’s fantastic that Papers, Please even grabbed a toehold on the market, let alone climbing to success. Most of the reactions to the game have been entirely positive. Personally, I think it’s a deeply immersive and very atmospheric experience, with dashes of humor and some very real moral dilemmas that add to the emergent narrative that comes with every person that steps into the booth. Despite not having top-end graphics, the stories both spoken and implied by those giving you their passports and awaiting judgment is some of the most involving story-driven gameplay I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

It’s so involving, in fact, that I can barely play it.

You see, dispensing your tasks requires you to compare the would-be visitor’s documents with several sources you have yourself – a guide to various neighbor countries, their seals and cities, different permits to allow, etc. The money you earn has to be split between your family’s needs, and if you don’t make a certain amount, you’ll have to choose between food, heat, and medicine. Finally, if you miss something, the antiquated dot matrix printer in your booth begins to chatter, telling you how you messed up and how much it’s going to cost you.

It’s this last bit that really affects me. You could even say it triggers me. I have enough problems in dayjobs where a detail slips by me, or the alignment of an element is off by a pixel, or the timing of an animation is not quite what a client was looking for. I’ll think a task is done, on time and without incident, when news hits me like a hammer that no, there’s more work to do, and I know it reflects badly upon me and my self-esteem takes another blow and I feel the crushing inevitability of time and decay as I re-open my assets and go back to something I thought I’d actually done well for a change. And now a game is invoking that feeling? No, thank you.

I bought Papers, Please and I do not regret it. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and Lucas Pope deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing it to life. Maybe, at some point down the road, when I feel less like the sword of Damocles is hanging over me every time I open a new task, I’ll return to that cramped little checkpoint on the border of Arstotzka. There are good puzzles, good stories, and good design all over and throughout it, and I do recommend it. I just hope that someday, I can play the game without that paralyzing sense of dread that I feel during business hours all too often.

Movie Review: Equilibrium

It seems that the general audience of dystopian fiction like action with their social commentary. From The Road Warrior to The Matrix, Fallout to The Last Of Us, many tales set in a world of ruin follow their heroes from one action sequence to another. Considering the less than favorable reaction that people had to the film adaptation of R M’s The Road, maybe the action route is the way to go. One of the best examples of a movie that mixes its action with an interesting standpoint on the human condition is Equilibrium, a film from 2000 that appears to be aging gracefully.

Courtesy Dimension Films

In the aftermath of World War III, the survivors gathered to determine how to prevent their extinction. To curtail future wars and aggression, they introduced humanity to a drug called Prozium, which suppresses human emotion. Within the city of Libria, all citizens are required to take the drug, a universal law enforced by the exceptionally trained and singularly uncompromising Grammaton Cleric. Some have fled Libria into the area called the Nether, trying to live and feel on their own terms. But the Cleric are hunting them down. The greatest among the Cleric is John Preston, a stoic and implacable example of Libria’s new order. But then John’s partner and mentor begins to feel…

It’s clear from the outset that the foundation of Equilibrium is some unholy union between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The austerity of Libria and its harsh stance against emotion are indicative of a leadership that suppresses its populace, a feature in both novels. The presence of “Father” and the ways in which the Cleric execute their duties are strongly reminiscent of “Big Brother” and the thoughtcrimes of 1984, while Prozium’s direct manipulation of people’s minds and emotions harken to the psychological manipulation and manipulative eugenics of Brave New World. The focus on emotional suppression as opposed to direct thoughtcrimes is an interesting one, but neither of the novels have as many visceral gunfights as Equilibrium does.

Courtesy Dimension Films
The gunfights having their own aesthetic and energy compared to other movies is a true strength.

In addition to its classic dystopian influence, and a good amount of Yeats, Equilibrium has the gun katas. The ‘martial art’ of the Grammaton Cleric, the gun katas are a high-energy method for fighting with firearms that emphasizes rapidly changing body movements, precise aim, and dodging incoming fire. Much like the martial arts in a movie that is often compared to Equilibrium, The Matrix, the gun katas are one of the main draws of the film, other than its theme. Unlike The Matrix, the “cool factor” of the martial arts do not overwhelm the story, and remain fresh and interesting even as multiple fights happen. It seems like Preston is always doing something slightly different in each fight, which keeps the audience engaged as the story rolls along.

If Equilibrium has a flaw, its that the film feels a bit like going to a dystopian sci-fi buffet. It borrows a little from this source, a little from that source, and the result can feel a bit like a hodgepodge that struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. Long-standing sci-fi aficionados may get annoyed at this approach. There’s also the fact that burrowing as much as it does from other sources causes the movie to both struggle to find an identity of its own and maintain a feeling of originality in its story. V for Vendetta may feel like a more grounded dystopia, and The Matrix for all of its flaws does have a somewhat unique aesthetic and world, putting Equilibrium squarely in the “average” category when it comes to story and world-building. Neither of those are why I’d recommend this film, however.

Prozium - Courtesy Dimension Films
Proof that it’s not natural to be a completely stoic action hero (looking at you, Master Chief).

I’ve mentioned Equilibrium in the past, regarding how characters that emote reasonably are easier for an audience to relate to. And the courses the characters take when it comes to feeling, not feeling, and beginning to feel again are extremely relatable. Over and above the theme and the action, the characters may be the best draw of the film. They easily could have pushed their emotions and reactions into camp or overwrought territory. Instead, the cast keeps their feelings understated and nuanced. Christian Bale may have had a terrible Batman voice, but he also shows that he is capable of transmitting a variety of emotions from someone unused to them and uncomfortable with them without saying a single word.

Stuff I Like: The gun katas are pretty cool. None of the cast phones it in. The film has a solid foundation and inspiration.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The film has to work really hard to maintain its own identity given how much it borrows from other sources.
Stuff I Love: The puppy, the red ribbon, Sean Bean, and the scene in the library. The fact that Preston does not succeed in everything he attempts. The presence of subtlety in an over-the-top action movie. The emphasis on the importance of human emotion, and how the positive aspects of it can overcome the negative.

Bottom Line: Equilibrium may not be the best action film ever made, or the best sci-fi dystopia film, but it’s straightforward and earnest message coupled with some unique visuals and excellent cast do make it a favorite. A film does not have to be entirely flawless to earn a recommendation or repeated viewings, and Equilibrium is an excellent example of this. Available on Netflix and other sources, it’s great for its fresh take on classic material, even if it’s been ground that’s been tread before.

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