We've played as soldiers, space engineers and ancient heroes hundreds of times in video games. But despite seeing them in real life almost every day, in the flesh or on our TV screens, it's relatively rare that we ever pick up a pad and assume the role of a police officer, performing letter-of-the-law duties. Naturally, there have been examples, but they come fleetingly: in March 2015 we were handed our badge and gun in Battlefield Hardline, and very quickly, purposefully, forgot about the whole thing. Before and since we've seen L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs, LA Cops and The Evil Within – all of which cast the player as an officer of some description. But it's debatable whether the practical side of these titles is the lasting impression of the experiences, dominated as they are by extra-curricular distractions and genre dressings.
Several of these efforts attempt to instil a sense of freedom with undercover or vigilante characters infiltrating and disrupting criminal organisations, able to indulge in some petty and reckless crimes themselves, and renouncing any responsibility of duty and protection. Others simply focus on investigating crimes and murders – the by the book stuff. But they all fail to address the current mood and atmosphere of law enforcement, whether that's in a positive or negative light. One cop game though, ten years old in 2016, manages to feel more relevant today than any other – even if its portrayal of police shootings feels wholly inappropriate set against the nightly news.
Urban Chaos: Riot Response was made by London's Rocksteady Studios, three years before the team produced Batman: Arkham Asylum and set itself on a path of award wins and tremendous commercial success. In the PlayStation 2 and (original) Xbox game, you donned the uniform of Nick Mason, a member of the elite "Zero Tolerance" taskforce called T-Zero, and attempted to combat violent gangs running amok through a fictional near-future city, almost exclusively dealing with the problem at hand by the use of lethal force. Urban Chaos is a game that, played today in the wake of years of well-documented fatal shootings by American police, takes a much more sinister tone then originally intended. With so many high-profile cases of police killings in the last two years alone, the concept of an armed and authorised police officer killing dozens, if not hundreds, as a means of having "fun" is troubling – even more so when that officer is portrayed as a hero for his actions.
'Urban Chaos: Riot Response', PlayStation 2 trailer
Paul Saunders was one of the senior designers on Urban Chaos. I caught up with him to discuss the game, its representation of the police and how the game feels when experienced today. He is a veteran of game development, having worked in the field since the 8bit days.
"I was taken off the project I was on at that time, which was going to be a sort of Dirty Harry thing, and put onto Roll Call – which was the working title for Urban Chaos: Riot Response – during the last month when it was at Argonaut Software, before that studio closed. A few months after that some of the Argonaut team set up Rocksteady, and got me back in to work on the project until completion."
"We developed that sort of narrative, with questions like, 'Are the police being too violent?' because those kind of stories were happening in the press at the time as well." – Paul Saunders
Despite the uneasy parallels with today's controversially extreme side of law enforcement, Paul describes how Urban Chaos was originally built to emulate action movies with their larger than life heroes, rather than deliver any political or social commentary. "When we did it, it was always supposed to be a Hollywood blockbuster, like an action film. It wasn't supposed to be a serious cop game. It was never realistic, and there are these almost comedic scenes of violence in it, every now and then."
This is certainly true – there are some ridiculous set pieces scattered throughout the game. At the climax of one level, the player is tasked with shooting a criminal off a building and into the whirling blades of a passing helicopter. But there is more to Urban Chaos than its black and white, cop against criminal story, something that makes it possibly more relevant to today's climate than when it was first released.
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Gameplay is broken up by news reports of the state and mood of the city. Paul says that they "wanted to try and make heroes out of the police and fire brigade and paramedics", but the game itself explicitly questions the acts of violence committed by the police in the name of restoring order. In one entirely exaggerated instance, a police helicopter fires on a gang entrenched inside a building with heavy artillery. Although it is made clear that all civilians were evacuated before the siege, an in-game news reporter on the scene questions the authority of the police in taking such a course of action, and criticises the devastation they created: "Maybe [T-Zero] did get permission, but from up here, I can only see 100 years of history wiped off the face of the city. Is this the behaviour we expected from T-Zero?"
This is a running theme of Urban Chaos, as cutscenes continuously cast doubt on the powers of T-Zero. We see this kind of reporting every day in 2016 – The Guardian is keeping a record of the number of people killed by police in America, with the count at the time of writing standing at 849. That's just this year – the same system was used in 2015, with the "result" come December the 31st an astonishing 1,146.
"We developed that sort of narrative, with questions like, 'Are the police being too violent?' because those kind of stories were happening in the press at the time as well," Paul remembers. "I think they've always happened." This may be the case, but as the police become more militarised, and more scrutinised, Paul admits that the situation today is very different from when Urban Chaos was released.
"I do find it somewhat scary that a lot of the things in Urban Chaos that were, at the time, over the top and tongue in cheek are more of a reality today." – Paul Saunders
"With Urban Chaos, I think we could get away with it because the antagonists were these masked arsonist groups. They were almost like robots or aliens. They weren't representative of any people or any groups that I could imagine today. We wanted to focus on protecting people, not oppressing them. I think you could do a police game today so long as it's about the protection of the innocent and wasn't about the oppression of people, which is pretty much what we're seeing going on at the moment."
"I do find it somewhat scary that a lot of the things in Urban Chaos that were, at the time, over the top and tongue in cheek are more of a reality today," he continues. "You look at how militarised our own British police force has become, and that's kind of worrying."
Perhaps it's not the public perspective on the police that has made video game adaptations of today's practices so scarce and sometimes problematic – just how closely should Hardline have mirrored the policing of contemporary America, given its primary purpose was to entertain? Rather, perhaps it is police forces' perspective of themselves that is hamstringing development. While the idea of playing as an officer of the law seems harmless, a decade of tension between the public and the police is only beginning to galvanise in the news and public imagination. Much like armed forces committing war crimes, police shootings are becoming harder to hide, and harder still to justify as they become more prevalent, making any game depicting these events immediately controversial. What would Hardline's message have really been had it tried to comment on the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, for example, at the same time as including "hilarious reload animations"?
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Urban Chaos may have accidentally found the balance necessary to create a police game for the heated here and now, strategically delving into the complex ethical issues concerning killing to keep the peace. Urban Chaos lets you decide where you draw the line, and while it is impossible to change the course of events, you are directly asked to consider your actions, and your task force is accused of having a "casual disregard for innocent lives" by the in-game Channel 7 News. Other law enforcement games may come along to defend or moralise the actions of the police, but with its unintentional blend of over exaggerated, questionable actions and uncommon prophesising, Urban Chaos narratively stands up well to the test of time. But Paul questions whether or not we need the kind of policing seen in the game at all today – whether, perhaps, it does more harm than good.
"I grew up during the IRA years, when there were bomb threats and bomb scares every single week," he concludes. "That was the age we lived in back then. It's odd that the police weren't militarised, but we got by without it. So I don't understand why, when we still have terrorists today, we need the kind of military police seen in Urban Chaos now."
It's a question worthy of debate today, the answer to which can't be found in a decade-old video game. But as an entertainment experience that's oddly evocative of contemporary reality, Urban Chaos is worthy of a look, be that again or anew. You might not learn a lot, but you'll definitely come away with your curiosity as to the power wielded by law enforcement substantially piqued.