“Don’t you know what the police are for, Stevie? They are there so that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have.” (Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent)
This is the Police is a game of frustration. Playing it isn’t frustrating; the rules are actually pretty straightforward and only slightly grow over the course of the 15-ish hours it takes to complete the game. What I mean by a game of frustration is that the characters, the plot, the shifting goalposts the player must aim for, and most of all the game’s ending orbit a main theme of things not working the way they are supposed to.
This is the Police is a thickly noire inspired strategy game with several long stretches of dialogue and internal narration over still comic panels. Really, This is the Police feels more like a visual novel than some of the similar late-90s police strategy games like Gangsters Organized Crime or the Police Quest: SWAT series. This is the Police adopts superficial mechanical parallels to the strategic administration of those games and the noire asthetics of kitschy early-80s cop dramas to lead the player’s expectations along a certain logical trajectory.
I say the game adopts a noire aesthetic more than fitting within it because there is an important distinction I want to make between style and substance here. In noire, the private detective (or detective figure) exists outside an established authority. Maybe they’re a former police officer or an investigative journalist, maybe even a contract investigator tied to a private firm, but the private eye is not secure inside an organization, certainly not one with any real power and so the private eye is always floating outside of the establishment looking in. Yet it’s their outsider status that allows them to untangle the secrets of the various figures around them. There is a tension the private eye has to reconcile between the powerlessness of not belonging anywhere and the power of knowing and changing things from an outside perspective.
I want to call attention to this because the detective novel is deeply enmeshed in cityscapes and urban mobility. The detective is not backed by an institution but they have access to the entire social strata. They don’t belong to a single class but they’re granted temporary access to any class in the strata. The private eye is not often very physically imposing and even if they can shoot a gun or throw a punch they’re up against a mob, a municipality, a church, an entertainment firm, a union, or some other publicly recognized institution that dwarfs them. But the detective has power over a person’s secrets, their power is in penetrating individual interiors and revealing forbidden information that not even the state can access. This power only exists in the city, where class lines are spatially compressed to streets, railways and neighbourhoods, not farmlands, rivers, bogs or wide landscapes associated with different forms of labour. The noire protagonist doesn’t belong anywhere, yet can get temporary access to a gangster’s hideout as easily as a mogul’s vacation home.
This is the Police adopts the style of noire—jazz, incandescent haze puncturing a stormy skyline, grizzled cynics with filthy mouths, perverted old men, eloquent mobsters with slasher film night lives—but the player’s Jack Boyd is most certainly not an outsider. Boyd is the chief of police, he’s the one calling the shots and even clearly more powerful or dangerous organizations must respect his influence and negotiate to secure his loyalty. To clarify, none of this is a criticism of the game, but I think Boyd’s insider-status is a key in separating him from a typical noire protagonist and is at the root of a lot of what This is the Police is. In the game’s fictional Freeburg, Boyd participates in the balancing act with a legacy mob running most of the underworld, a church fronting a drug circuit, racist citizen groups, a grotesquely corrupt mayor, and other genre tropes. The player’s loyalty will teeter back and forth between these figures but the point is that they’re a part of it.
Most of the game’s plot is narrated directly through moody speeches that clue the player into exactly how the game’s systems of play limit what they can do. The systems work in a sort of negative way; that is, rather than expanding what possible new ways the player can levy their influence, really all the player and Boyd are doing is keeping the status quo in place. See, Boyd is not a good man. There are reasons to sympathize with him—he often indirectly asks for the player’s sympathy, not unlike the noire detective in film who beats down everybody around him to make himself seem more heroic. He’s a rounded character, relatable even if he is unforgivable. When he monologues to the player he focalizes his own pain. He’s struggling with divorce (even though his wife has plenty of reason to have left him), his most trusted subordinate has brought a corruption investigation upon the police force (but Boyd knew about this corruption for years), thugs threaten his safety and fold him into a gang war (one that he involves his own officers in).
Boyd is short-tempered, self-involved, he’s a heavy nicotine, alcohol, and opiate user with no desire to get better, he intimidates people to get what he wants (like his immigrant doctor who supplies him with false prescriptions), he cuts deals with mobsters, murderers, crooked corporations and fraudsters. He longs for intimacy with people around him, his voice is heavy with exhaustion from distrusting the people around him, he believes in justice and that Freeburg’s people can be doing more to achieve it, he thinks he can help the city survive its hard times and reach become the place he envisions it could be. He’s wrong, but the public adores him, and every other powerful figure in Freeburg defers to his reputation, so if nothing else, it’s understandable how he can imagine himself as the good guy. Really his whole character study is a fluctuating challenge issued to his imagination.
Boyd knows the mayor is a criminal and his subordinates work with the mafia. But, as he explains, he has a rule of “8 out of 10”. For every 8 times he cracks the whip, two times he looks the other way. As he explains to the player, this gives him a good public face and a reliable stable of partners when the law gets in his way. He excuses his own corruption because, well, at least he’s not as bad as the other important figures in the city.
Naturally, that’s bullshit. The bullshittery of Boyd’s vision of police work bleeds into the strategy segments of This is the Police. The player needs to send officers to answer calls across the city, ranging in severity from petty theft to bombing threats with lots of false alarms in between. Meanwhile, the player must meet enough of city hall’s demands to maintain funding and allow the mob enough breathing room to avoid getting shot to death. The dilemma is, again, of Boyd’s own creation for not upholding the law and protecting the public in the first place, but Boyd doesn’t resign, the player enacts a full year of his corruption. The player only gets a threadbare assessment of each situation: crimes are called in with a snippet of context, officers make their way to the crime scene and occasionally report for advice on how to approach the situation but ultimately Boyd only cares about whether the suspect was apprehended, whether his officers are alive and whether civilians were harmed. Any personal context is deliberately excluded.
The mayor’s assignments are almost always either a PR stunt or a union/protest bust but we never learn about what the public’s interest in the matter is, we just know how many officers we need to send and whether or not we have permission to use force. The mob delivers an envelop of cash so that we may ignore an extortion job but we never learn the victim’s name or what they did to deserve the beating. If an officer dies on duty Boyd can withhold reporting it to snag the last pay check of the fallen officer’s life but we don’t ever learn about who the officer leaves behind or what ripples will come of their death.
Play is based on clicking resources to where they’re needed and keeping the bottom line black. People—officers, victims, criminals, bystanders, officials—turn into numbers with faces on them. The obvious irony is that This is the Police is an obsessively personal story about Jack Boyd, a man who doesn’t give a shit about all the people around him.
The administrative mechanics dehumanize Boyd’s job and even though he has insider information about everybody else’s corruption, there isn’t anything he can say to convince us he’s any different from every other criminal running the town. I don’t know how much of this is intentional, there are a lot of moments in the game that seem to deviate from making any kind of point. There are some out-of-place attempts at humour, some really over-the-top and unsettling portrayals of crime, racism and sexism that feed into certain popular myths about mental health, violent crime and sexual assault. I grant that the game wants to take an unflinching look at structural violence and crime but there are a number of events that feel more motivated to shock than to interrogate.
Then again, that might itself be the point: that the mundane violence that structure daily life at the root of outrageous shows of violence are easily glossed over by those in power. We forgive our systems of corruption so long as they address the extreme flashes of aggression. We accept the suffering of disenfranchised and second-class citizens as long as we have a normalcy to valorize. We accept the sickness if the symptoms clear up quickly enough. I feel like I’m giving This is the Police credit it might not deserve, but it is an interesting tension to explore given the tools it leaves the player with.
Jack imagines himself the outside investigator who alone undermines the system in spite of his personal anxieties: but he leads the police force! He’s so inside the system that he’s at the heart of the administrative indifference to his staff and citizenry that the player participates in. Everybody likes him only because they aren’t aware of the crime he allows and benefits from two out of every ten times. When the game’s ludonarrative reframes Boyd’s angst as solipsism it demonstrates the inhumanity of law enforcement as a system. We are compelled to identify with the humanity of those burdened with power even when doing so erases the humanity of everyone that power touches.
This is the Police is at its strongest when it is most contradictory. The solution to Freeburg’s crime problem is fairly obvious: kick out everyone in city hall and vet a new staff. But the only people with the authority and resources to do that are the people who are already there, and so long as each of them sees the others as a bigger problem, then the structure of power remains in tact and all the people crushed as the blocks shift around are just numerical collateral.
Like noire fiction, This is the Police investigates the mobility of power and powerful figures but its particular inflection flips the style on its head. Boyd is not a private eye figure drifting in and out of a city’s different streams of influence, he’s one of the big fish directing the current. But the way that he envisions himself and narrates himself to the player, his influence gets lost and as he demands forgiveness for his mistakes, sympathy for his pain, laughter for his jokes, admiration for his strength, he collapses the whole human experience of the people around him into assets of his personality and station. The tension between them keeps Freeburg and its messed up politics in place.
I won’t say that This is the Police is elegant: I won’t even say that the contradiction between its anti-hero and his position feel intentional. However it does offer an—albeit hamhanded—opportunity to tease how the expectations for empathy play in positions of authority.
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Further reading: Weeks, Sophie. “This is the Police: Violent Cops in Video Games.” Remeshed. September 21 2016.
Ables, Brent. “This Is The Police won’t accept blame.” Kill Screen. August 28 2016.
Line Hollis. “Line on Sierra: Police Quest.” Line Hollis. February 8 2014.