‘Papers, Please’ and ‘The Kite’: Post-Soviet imagery and emotional response in indie games

Originally posted on 29/01/14 at http://playing.global.vladstrukov.com/

The gaming community are no strangers to Soviet imagery in big-name titles; from the Command and Conquer series, to the Call of Duty franchise, the Soviet Union has often featured in a war-like and violent capacity. However, perhaps because they are not subject to the whims of publishers and advertising companies, an altogether different representation of the former Eastern Bloc can be found in the games of small indie developers.

The games Papers, Please developed by the US-born, Japan-based Lucas Pope and Ukrainian studio Anate’s The Kite, both take a different approach to the utilisation of Communist and post-Communist worlds to convey a message. Both games attracted international attention from the indie gaming community in the last two years for the powerful emotional responses they elicit, as well as intriguing gameplay and novel concepts.

Papers, Please – taglined ‘a dystopian document thriller’ – places the player in the role of a border guard in the fictional Communist country of Arstotzka. It is then up to the player to either allow or deny people access to the country, dependent on identifying irregularities in their documents, wanted criminals, and the accepting of bribes. Set against a bleak background of totalitarian slogans, labour lotteries, and a Ministry of Admission, Papers, Please challenges the notion of the  dour-faced, unfeeling Communist government official by forcing the player into emotional quandaries in their role as a government worker.

In The Kite, the player controls Masha, a housewife struggling to feed in her son in the post-Soviet nineties. Against a backdrop of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and economic depression, the player is taken through scenes of dilapidated flats and aggressive youths in a quest to find their son, who has ran away following the vicious beating of the player by their husband. The game attracted attention from major US review sites even before its translation into English for its unflinching use of post-Soviet imagery to elicit a strong emotional response from the player and to encourage awareness of the problems of domestic abuse.

Ultimately, both games break the mould of how games have usually utilised Soviet and post-Soviet stories for Western audiences. Instead of characters such as the violent Serbian gangster Niko Bellic inGrand Theft Auto IV and Nazi-sympathetic Kazakh scientists in Call of Duty: Black-Ops, players are introduced to the ordinary people of Communism, the victims of the economic and social depression that plagued late- and post-Soviet countries. While indie games often lack the worldwide attention and advertising afforded to titles from big developers, the absence of pressure from advertising and publishing companies have allowed Pope and Anate Studios to present an emotional aspect to post-Communist stories not often seen before.

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