Papers, Please clones should not be a thing. Not because engaging gameplay can’t emerge from mundane tasks, or because imitative development is lame and unoriginal, as you’d expect. But because the method by which Papers, Please made its mundane tasks engaging is notoriously inexplicable. When your target player state hinges on a balance of grim reality, cartoonish bureaucracy, and moral imperative, the chances of another developer reaching that target are virtually nil. Such is the case with Tech Support: Error Unknown, a well-intentioned and well-presented challenger that inevitably fumbles with the all-important nuance.
First, I have to admit that Tech Support is only a Papers, Please clone in the sense that Half-Life is a Doom clone – that is, they’re conceptually identical but mechanically distinct. Both games see you employed by a shady institution at odds with a well-meaning terrorist outfit, both ask that you navigate the political obstacle course by balancing financial pressures with your own moral compass, and both require attending to everyday citizens according to an ever-widening ruleset. The primary difference, of course, is that instead of a border officer for a crumbling communist nation, Tech Support casts players as…a telecom tech support agent.
It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it completely reinvents the gameplay. The need to actually interact with clients transforms the limited allow/reject/detain interactivity into a more complex decision tree facilitated by a fairly intuitive system of chat commands. As you progress, you’ll be asked to relay communications, assess subordinates, remotely manipulate customers’ devices, upsell services for extra cash, spread viruses, and blackmail targets. Not a bad feature set for what it is, even if most of it isn’t used to its full potential. It’s also presented in a masterclass of diegetic presentation. From the extra settings unlocked via command prompt to the memorable soundtrack controlled through an in-universe interface, every detail feels authentic.
It’s all very technically impressive, but it’s also partly to blame for why Tech Support ultimately fails to engage: it feels too real. Dealing with toxic, uncooperative characters and intentionally incompetent outsourced labor doesn’t feel like a game based on a customer service job; it feels like a customer service job. What’s more, it makes it nearly impossible to sympathize with those at the heart of the game’s moral dilemma, underlining its recurrent lack of impact. Giving people better deals on phone repairs just doesn’t have the humanitarian weight to it that reuniting families in Papers, Please had. Additionally, instead of small, regular payments for food, etc., personal costs in Tech Support are usually lump sums that arrive out of nowhere, making them feel like cheap drama rather than a constant, important consideration.
I have a theory that this was all intentional to a degree, as a demonstration of the alienating nature of day-in-day-out office work. Everything, including communicating with loved ones and carrying out guerilla warfare, is conducted through the lens of the protagonist’s job, and it’s all so sterile and routine that it becomes hard not to see your customers as tools and obstacles for your own goals. Nothing explicitly indicates this, so it might be just projection on my part, but it’s also more interesting than the actual story we’re given. Issues of privacy and corruption are raised, and the moral landscape is adeptly painted with different shades of grey, but once again, there’s no real impact. Every route available to players progresses exactly the way you expect it to.
Deeper meaning or not, any game that feels like work isn’t looking at a hearty recommendation, and Tech Support: Error Unknown feels like work. Not immediately, because it’s very cleverly designed, and its eerily accurate production values feel more like a means to an end. Unfortunately, that end is profoundly dull, and after that’s been discovered, the only thing left is competently implemented novelty, which probably won’t be enough to hold players’ attention.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Iceberg Interactive.
Tech Support: Error Unknown brings its own ideas to life in great detail, but it's missing the emotional core of Papers, Please.