Allow me to indulge in one of the classic video game review cliches and open with a quote. Newton’s third law states that “For every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction.” I would like to add Griffin’s corollary: “For every successful indie game, the reaction will be roughly five million derivative games attempting to capitalise on the success of the first.”
This brings us to Out of the Box (which so clearly wishes it was called Outside the Box but can’t quite manage to figure out how to make the pun work) by Nuclear Tales. Out of the Box involves playing as a recently released convict who finds work as a bouncer at a club owned by a prison buddy. Our hero wants to escape the criminal life and refuses to take part in any crime, but is aware that there are occasions he will have to look the other way with regards to the door policy for the benefit of the various criminal enterprises operating out of the nightclub.
You’re responsible for handling the line, ensuring no fights get out of hand and letting as many people in as you can while making sure everyone is of legal age and maintains a certain standard of dress. Astute readers may have already figured out that this is a pretty direct ripoff of Papers Please. Early on in the game. modified IDs begin to make an appearance requiring closer examination, and that comparison becomes impossible to ignore.
But I don’t want to give the impression that the game being derivative makes it bad; anyone who has read my reviews will know that I rarely have any issue with that sort of thing. It’s about implementation. Papers Please had a consistent, bleak art style that reinforced the grim tone of the game. It had a genuine feeling of pressure to get things right consistently. Let me give you an example of how minor differences in the presentation of two simple mechanics can allow one game to succeed while the other fails.
In Papers Please, making a mistake has near-instantaneous feedback. It lets you know immediately with a loud buzzer and a notification to tell you what you missed, a notification that stays on your desk for the remainder of that particular day. In Out of the Box, you can let multiples of the wrong people in before receiving any word that you have made a mistake.
In Papers Please you have your cost deducted at the end of every day. Failing to make enough money has a direct effect on your family and wellbeing. In Out of the Box, costs are deducted every four days, a total sum of the previous four days work.
In both cases, the problem is obvious. The game simply isn’t giving players enough direct feedback to allow them to feel the tension that made Lucas Pope’s game feel so heavy and intense.
There are other problems as well. The game’s cartoony art style doesn’t create enough distinct appearances to make it feasible to approximate someone’s age by sight. This means you have basically no choice but to card everyone, which results in an angry line, a half-empty club and a sudden and abrupt firing.
The method by which fights are resolved is entirely arbitrary. If you see a fight starting, you have to talk to one of the two participants to calm them down. If they do, you can let them into the club, if they don’t you may have to punch them in the face. But there is no method behind that – it’s completely random. Something as simple as a choice of whether you want to be calming or stern or conciliatory with different characters giving off different tells as to which would be the most effective approach would vastly increase your sense of agency.
Perhaps the biggest thing missing though is any sense kinaesthetics. One of the core appeals of Papers Please and indeed a lot of these games that simulate what would be a boring job is the actual sensation of interacting with things. Papers Please has you shuffling through multiple documents, all laid out on an actual desk. Out of the Box has nothing like that. There are a series of buttons at the bottom left of the screen that govern all of your interactions with the game. There’s nothing to click on within the actual game window outside of choosing your next customer.
You know, I’ve been spending this whole review trying to think of something that I could make an Outside the Box punchline for and I’ve come up with nothing. It’s only just occurred to me why that is. Out of the Box certainly doesn’t bring anything new to this type of game, but that’s not its problem. The problem is that it isn’t even executing its unoriginal ideas well. Maybe they should be looking inside the box and fixing what’s there first.
Now, perhaps you think I’m being unfair in comparing this game so directly with Papers Please. The developer even states that while they’re aware of the similarity, they intended an extremely different tone with this game, wanting “a light and entertaining time management experience with a fun plot.” But that’s not what these mechanics encourage. Struggling to pay your bills, having to catch small details in order to do your job, the pressures of finding employment while living as an ex-con are not conducive to this type of story. So not only are the mechanics not well executed, they don’t even fit with the tone that the game is trying to create.
Honestly, the best thing about this game is being able to punch Donald Trump in the face at one point, and I’m pretty sure that got me fired.