Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The past year has seen the rise of a microgenre of games about the police and policing. In some ways, it's to be expected. Games about police and policing have been kicking around every now again for the past couple decades, after all, and the recent past has given us some big ones. Doorkickers made a big splash as an indie strategy game about cops in 2014, Battlefield: Hardline took the familiar genre of the first-person shooter and put it in the context of cops and robbers in 2015, the SWAT franchise recently returned to the minds of the gaming public with the re-release of SWAT 4 earlier this year.
Nostalgia, blockbuster games, and indie hits are all ways of setting the stage for a resurgence, and the release of This Is The Police, Beat Cop, and the alpha for tactical game Police Stories in the last calendar year all seem to be following on a trend of games about cops.
That trend does not exist in a vacuum, though. It's been building right alongside a strong Leftist critique of policing and the institution of the police in the United States. This critique has happened in both a legal context, like the challenging of the racially-motivated Stop and Frisk procedure in New York, and in a social context, as in the massive ongoing protest movements that were born out of the extrajudicial killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and so many others that to list them out is literally overwhelming. In 2016, police in the U.S. killed 963 people. So far this year that number is 464, and it'll probably tick up between my writing this and your reading it.
So, on one hand, we have one of the biggest upticks in popular resentment against the police in the past twenty years in the United States. On the other hand, a rise in the creation of smaller, more independent games that deal with the police as central subjects.
What put me on the trail of these ideas is a conversation I had with Austin about this influx of games. What we noticed, beyond the fact that they exist, is where they hail from: This Is The Police is from a team based in Belarus (although the full team is more international); Beat Cop was developed in Poland; Police Stories hails from Russia. All of them tell different kinds of stories about police in the 1980s. Why, I wondered, have these games appeared at this moment?
The developers for Police Stories gave me the most succinct answer: They are the aftershock of the cops of film and television that the United States exported around the world in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. "We grew up watching American movies," they wrote to me in an email, "which used to portray cops as super-heroes or, at the very least, really brave guys."
Speaking on behalf of the Beat Cop team, Pawel Miechowski answered similarly for that game, explaining that "the only window to the West, or one of the very few, were cop shows broadcasted on TV on Thursday evenings." Miami Vice and Columbo stood in for America in the Polish media of the Cold War, and Beat Cop's 1980s aesthetic is a throwback to it.
Ilya Yanovich, game director on This Is The Police, also ties that game to America's TV cops, but only in terms of iconography and aesthetic. The game's gruff cops with American accents and giant chunky cellphones, he says, evoke Hollywood cops, but the storytelling is intended to be more a more "universal" story. Invoking Papers, Please, Yanovich says that This is The Police tackles "important issues that apply to all mankind."
The question of "why now?" appears to be answered with a market logic and an appeal to nostalgia and to the familiar trappings of the police and what policing is.
Many contemporary games are developed with a set of mechanics first and foremost. The forthcoming COD: WWII is a first-person shooter first and a WW2 game second. This is how ways of shooting, gun balances, and level design can jump from space to the Second World War with minimal conceptual change. The same goes for the much-loved open-world game, or the lightgun game, or the fighting game. There are broad conceptual categories that define what can be inside of them, and then each new game augments that broad category.
For the police game, it seems that both the content (or what the game is about) and the form (or how the game is shaped) determine each other. A police game, much like a strategy game, has a certain set of rules and expectations around it.
Ivan B. from Police Stories put is best: the "police setting has a really big potential in terms of game mechanics based on tactics, making split second decisions and teamwork." Beat Cop's Miechowski concurred: "Marketing-wise it's a topic you can easily communicate to people. What's Beat Cop about? It's a game about a beat cop—a dude who deals with parking tickets, mafia and shoplifters." Yanovich says much the same about the structural critique embodied in This Is The Police. When asked about the large, managed map of events in his game, he replied that those mechanics spring "from the issues that we wanted to address: power and corruption, the disintegration of social institutions, economic inequality, race and gender issues, all-consuming bureaucracy and the cruelty of the system."
In all three of these games, "the police" is a package of narrative tropes and structural functions in the world. There are rules that come with being the police, and the very act of policing requires the negotiation and violation of those rules. This Is The Police is about a corrupt police chief manipulating what is legal and what is not for his own personal gain. Police Stories attaches score to legality, and its tagline is literally "shooting first is not an option," but you can shoot as many people you want in the currently available demo as long and they're not civilians. Beat Cop has you writing tickets, but the opportunity to take a bribe or help out a street criminal is nearly always available.
The American narrative of corrupt police making their way in a world of grey morality, which is the product of both real life and valorized Raymond Chandler protagonist copies, made it into those 1980s television shows. The heroic and conflicted American cop was exported around the world, and now we're getting the strange reflection presented back to us by diverse development teams around the world. Cops as funny guys. Cops as people making hard decisions, but dealing with it somehow. Cops as people who navigate rulesets so that they always come out on top.
They aren't necessarily heroes, but they're never villains. They're rough around the edges, and maybe they're a little racist, but that's the package of being the police (in TITP, I had a cop use a slur for Japanese people right out of the 1940s in a mission report; in Beat Cop, a civilian barks slurs right out of the Vietnam War, and another character told me to be concerned about the local black street gang with language that made me think the devs were taking some noncritical cues from Quentin Tarantino).
It's all presented as good fun, as if it were just part of a genre that comes part-in-parcel with the setting. We all know that Miami Vice is a fiction, and we don't mistake it for what real policing is. The racism, the dodging of accountability, and the manipulation of public opinion just comes with the territory.
When I started looking into these international games about American police, I was trying to understand how their treatment of cops was different than our own. But the more I played, the more I realized that the way these games talk about police isn't out of the ordinary. On the contrary, the core of these games is a representation of the world that we live in. The current backlash against the police (and policing in general) that has swept the United States is centered on how police navigate the ruleset that governs them. Of course, we call that ruleset "the law."
The recent trial of Jeronimo Yanez throws this into sharp focus. Yanez is the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castille. You will notice that I did not write "murder" here, and that is because the law has determined that it was not one. Standing beside the car, Yanez smelled marijuana. As he testified at his trial, the recognition that Castille was smoking weed in a car with a child, and thus risking her lungs and risking her life via secondhand smoke, meant that Yanez's life could be forfeit at any moment. In that moment, Yanez believed that Castille smoking marijuana meant that Castille might kill him at the drop of a hat. Then he shot Castille.
The claim is patently absurd. The time between Yanez approaching the car window and firing shots into Castille's body was about 40 seconds (and warning, though this video is not graphic, it can be hard to watch ). Yanez certainly did not run a complex moral calculus about the volatility of secondhand smoke. Watching the video, as horrible as it is, makes that incredibly clear. The shift from talking about brake lights to unleashing several shots at point-blank range is quick, without thought, without reasoning.
The act of running a legal defense for this officer is like playing a game. It is about knowing the exact terms that the legal system demands, the preconceived ideas that a jury will have about policing, and then manipulating that knowledge for maximal gain. The Yanez testimony and acquittal, much like Darren Wilson's and a dozen others before him, is based on the same kind of mechanical operation as our police games. The manipulation of the world around the police to protect them from legal backlash is fun in Beat Cop, and it's the core of a story about a corrupt world in We Are The Police, and it is the score system in Police Stories, and it is the very mechanism through which real-life extrajudicial murders are managed by policing agencies to manage exactly how accountable real-world police are for their actions.
I'm not bashing the creators of these games. They are, after all, only creating games, and each of the people that I spoke to over email was reflective about what a game about the police can mean. What is worth focusing on and thinking about in the future is how the fantasy of the exciting, heroic cop jumps from media representation to actual life (and then back again).
These games are holding a mirror up to the world, though. They show us a world where police can always squeak by without consequence and where the rules of engagement always bend toward forgiveness of those figures and rarely justice for all. And that world, that fake world presented to us within the game, that's the world we live in now. How those worlds operate is how our world operates. And that gives me pause.