This Is the Police isn't a video game that's been made explicitly in reaction to the many stories we hear, coming from the US in particular, of police brutality and corruption. But its arrival, in the summer of 2016, certainly coincides with what feels like an escalation of incidents involving officers who aren't protecting or serving as they might, to say the least.
"You know, it's really easy to get this sort of coincidence, because instances of police corruption, or malpractice, happen all the time," says Ilya Yanovich, the game director of This Is the Police, and co-founder of its Belarusian makers, Weappy Studio. "It's happened a lot here in Belarus, but police not doing their job properly is an international thing that we see happening all the time. We're in a situation right now in the United States, and some parts of Europe, where it seems more highlighted, that things happen more frequently; but I think it's generally just a massive problem, a big issue, worldwide."
This Is the Police is the debut title from the Minsk-based studio, and it's striking both in theme and aesthetic. Visually, the strategy game is reminiscent of Delphine Software's Another World and Flashback, with bold colours and slight detailing. "Those games have definitely inspired our style," says Yanovich, "but we think the game looks pretty fresh, as I don't think the style is used too much. We wanted to represent the police as some kind of force of nature, so we made the officers faceless."
The role you play, too, is intriguing. You're Jack Boyd, an officer on the edge of retirement from the fictional city of Freeburg's (not quite) finest. In 180 days, Jack has to make a six-figure sum of money, because of a situation he's gotten himself into with the mafia. At the beginning of the game, Yanovich explains, Jack replaces a deputy who was in deep with the crooks in question, and therefore takes on his responsibilities. That means getting his hands dirty – but the player need not keep things that way.
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"You could choose to arrest members of the mafia, and from then, you can play the game as straight as you can," says the director. "Or, at least, you can try to, by taking on gangs in the city, and earning bonuses for that. So, after a point you can earn the money that Jack needs relatively honestly, but it's very difficult."
Weappy aren't making it easy for Jack, and the player, to do the right thing. "Pretty much the whole game is about choosing between bad and bad," says Yanovich. "It's hard to tell what level of evil any direction is, sometimes; although it's less about different levels of bad, and more different kinds of bad."
And choosing one of these bads to side with will almost certainly bring the other one out in arms against you, putting Jack in situations where the very darkest courses of action must be taken to keep his vital organs operational. This will range from dealing drugs and accepting bribes to administering torture, all in a day's work should you decide your Jack's a man of few upstanding morals.
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This all plays out in a city deliberately stripped of identifiers. "The time the game's set in is the mid-1980s, and we're trying not to be too specific about where it's happening, as we didn't mean for it to give the impression of being in the United States," says Yanovich. "We started to develop the game before these reports of police brutality started coming out of the United States, as regularly as they have been. We knew we wanted to make it as universal as possible, so we have no clear signs about what country this is. There are no flags, nothing like that."
It remains to be seen if all of this grittiness, for want of a better word, will make the game compelling, adding layers of shade to Jack's story, or feel crass against a real-world backdrop of police officers making wrong decisions in the heat of the moment. The actor playing Jack feels like an odd fit – that's Jon St John, a man best known as the titular antihero of the Duke Nukem series, heard dishing out such choice lines as "my balls, your face" and "quit bleeding, pussy" in 2011's deplorable Duke Nukem Forever. I suppose the player will get used to it over the course of what's said to be a 25-hour campaign, just as long as he doesn't start with the smut to the detriment of what could be one of 2016's most fascinating gaming narratives.
This Is the Police is released for PC and Mac on July the 28th. Find more information on the game at its official website.