We. The Revolution: Genre and the Guillotine

Ah, I’m excited about this, I’ve been wanting to write more around genre in video games for a while. We. The Revolution is a 2019 game where you play a judge on the Revolutionary Tribunal, which was the court established during the French Revolution. In terms of setup, it’s very similar to Papers, Please: you’re a government official under an unstable regime, and you make decisions based on the pragmatics of survival rather than from any high-flying ideas about truth or justice. Both games are about hypocrisy, where you live among the trappings of powerful cultural symbols (such as justice) but see none of what they purport to represent. They are hollow and inauthentic, made into mockeries by a corrupted government.

The settings of these games are pretty obvious contenders for that set-up – you’ve got a Soviet satellite country in the case of Papers, Please, and the revolutionary court during the Reign of Terror for We. The Revolution. And the similar game mechanics carry the theme through beautifully. In We. The Revolution, as in Papers, Please, you carry out tasks as part of a government administration. Your decisions are governed by how they affect your likelihood of survival within the system rather than any broader concerns about what might be right or proper to the job at hand. For instance, in We. The Revolution, there are different factions who will have different responses to your verdict. Say a commoner is selling bread made with sawdust because he doesn’t have enough flour. If you sentence him to jail, the other commoners will be angry with you. They’ll see you as punishing starving, struggling citizens who’re just trying to cope. And if you upset the commoners too much, they’ll grab you in the street and fucking kill you. Innocent or guilty matters less than your standing with the factions and whether or not you can afford to make certain decisions.

And so this is where the genre thing becomes interesting. When we compare these two games, Papers, Please and We. The Revolution, we see how they explore these similar ideas in different ways. For instance, in Papers, Please, you never really find out much about the people trying to cross the border. The game incentivizes you to work at speed. You don’t need to know anything about people except for whether or not they have the relevant papers – and that reductive approach actually insulates you from the tragedy of your decisions. Understanding that process of insulation fuels the horror of Papers, Please – you realize how this system is distancing you from the cost of your actions, and it’s scary. In We. The Revolution, on the other hand, you’re a judge, and you need to sway the jury’s vote with specific leading questions. That means you have to get up close and personal with the lives that you’re interfering with – and that’s a whole different sort of horror. You reach right into these private lives and pull out details to prompt a specific response. These deep, intimate, personal details become part of your spectacle; they lose their integrity as part of a human life and become theatrics oriented towards either the guillotine or acquittal, or towards the paupers or the revolutionaries.

The two games, then, have very different approaches, even while their game mechanics and setting are very similar. Papers, Please relies on your imagination, encouraging you to imagine the lives of the people you’re dealing with while keeping you at arm’s length from the actual details. Their humanity is often suggested, rather than shown. We. The Revolution, on the other hand, asks you to get right into the messy details – and to misuse those details in pursuit of your goals. It’s more personal, the characters are more fleshed out, and as a result, it feels grubbier. You get closer to the people you’re hurting. Plus, you’ll often encounter moral quandaries created by your own actions. Early in my first playthrough, a soldier asked me for permission to use violence against protestors if they started getting violent themselves. I signed off, and then he killed thirty-plus people and ended up straight back in my court for mass murder. I sent him to the guillotine, because everyone wanted that outcome, and he just stared at me the whole time. That’s him below, talking about how judges are the real murderers.

We. The Revolution thus gives you a degree of responsibility in a highly volatile environment, and tells you to shift the blame when something goes wrong. In Papers, Please, by contrast, you’re only ever a low-level bureaucratic gremlin. You can in a sense abdicate moral responsibility by leaning into your powerlessness, and accepting the power of the state over and above you. That is, you can accept your position as a meaningless cog – again, this is part of that game’s approach to dehumanization. We. The Revolution blocks that avenue by saddling you with actual power. You have an agency that the protagonist of Papers, Please does not, and that agency makes your decisions harder to live with. The system in Papers, Please wants to dull your senses, and turn you into a cog in the machine. The system in We. The Revolution wants to turn you into a psychopath, where you consciously reject your sense of empathy in order to stay afloat. Papers, Please tries to obscure the human cost of your actions, whereas We. The Revolution is more ambitious. It wants you to see what you’re doing, and it doesn’t want you to care.

You could probably trace those differences back to the different political systems in each game, if you wanted. The communist state of Papers, Please isn’t interested in you having your own independent thoughts. It’s trying to break you down, obtain your obedience rather than your initiative. We. The Revolution is more focused on showing the incoherence of the revolutionary period, and the mercenary pragmatism that arose from it. Even then, though – I think some of the differences just come down to how the games exist in relation to each other. In my opinion, We. The Revolution is the more creatively ambitious of the two, exploring a broader range of human emotion and experience. It goes deeper and further into its premise, whereas Papers, Please always has a sort of plodding monotony to it. You could argue that monotony is exactly appropriate for what that game is trying to achieve, but – I just sense a bit more creative verve from We. The Revolution. Papers, Please was the first of its kind, a groundbreaking game that gave us a new way of experiencing political systems and our place within them. We. The Revolution very much feels like a successor, building on the insights of that earlier text and taking the creative vision to much greater heights. And again, that’s part of how genre works. Each new text builds on the ones that come before it. It’s an iterative, cumulative process. Papers, Please did it first, and then We. The Revolution took what it saw and did something bigger, better, and much fucking scarier.

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