I want Beat Cop to work. I’ve trusted 11-bit studios since they released This War of Mine, a game that puts players in control of people trying to scavenge and survive in a city torn apart by war. In the wake of discussions about police brutality, racism, and social justice in in the United States, a game putting players in charge of a neighborhood beat cop could be really poignant. It could also be really tragic if they don’t make some course corrections, and I’m not sure which Beat Cop will end up based on the preview build I’ve played.
No media exists in a vacuum. Reception and effects change based on the people who consume it the product. Personally, as a black man living in the United States, a game about being a white cop in an inner-city neighborhood in New York City gets extra scrutiny. Beat Cop is marketed as a riff on ‘80s-era cop dramas: as Officer Jack Kelly, you try to track down whose framed you for a crime in a world where corruption abounds: local gangs, the Mafia, and the NYPD itself all have secrets to hide.
Unfortunately, in a real world post-Eric Garner, the black man (alongside so many other black men and women who’ve come into the spotlight in the wake of police violence), it’s hard for me to particularly care about Jack or his mystery-laden storyline: my focus is on Beat Cop’s New York City, the interactions the game provides between Kelly and his neighborhood, and what (if anything) the game as a whole gives us a chance to reflect on. In the game’s current state, I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Functionally, Beat Cop is the police officer’s version of the border-checkpoint simulator Papers, Please: each day the Sergeant issues you a ticket quota, and you patrol the streets looking for worn-out tires, illegal parking, and busted car lights. Issuing tickets increases your stature back at the department, but sometimes results in confrontations with citizens on the street. Citizens beg, plead, and even offer bribes to avoid fines: accept their pleas and your standing with the people rises, while issuing the ticket brings you down in their eyes. The Mafia and local gang also have their own opinion meters, and doing favors for them may open doors towards learning more about who framed Kelly.
With the game still in pre-alpha, the long-term consequences of any particular decision feel a bit nebulous, but they certainly show up in the short-run. The more I stuck to my quotas, the more the citizens were unwilling to give me information or help me in a pinch. This makes sense as I recall the time I was ticketed in reality for rolling a stop sign near the end of the month and the discontent I felt towards that officer at the time. Still, drawing up memories of old tickets isn’t quite enough to make a game enticing.
Papers, Please currently outdoes Beat Cop by establishing emotional connection. Every border crossing represents dollars you put towards feeding your family, and keeping the lights and heat on in your run-down house. Family members get sick and die when you don’t make money, but letting the wrong people past the checkpoint could cost you money and your job. Beat Cop tries to apply the same family-related pressure by forcing Jack to make alimony payments; his boss threatens him if he fails to make the payments on time. If it turns out these threats have real consequences, I’m not sure what they are: Jack’s resulting phone conversations haven’t been translated out of the game’s native Polish, so I’m not sure if I’d feel more attached to the story if I knew that Jack’s wife were sick, or that his boss has a soft spot for divorcees. Either way, the translation from Polish to English makes for a fitting metaphor for my biggest concern after playing Beat Cop: the potential for context and nuance to be “lost in translation” between languages and cultures.
I don’t know much about racial politics in Poland, but I know my way around them here in the US. Certain parts of the game make me wonder if Pixel Crow and 11-bit trying to set up for a larger commentary, or if there’s just tone deafness. Though people of multiple races walk the streets, and both white and black people committed parking violations and attempted bribery, the only people who ever committed crimes that required handcuffing and arrest were black. Though many different races of people walk the streets in Beat Cop, the only perpetrators I ever had to put in handcuffs were black. The cops shooting the breeze in the precinct before each mission tell a bunch of off-color jokes that do less to make me think about old TV shows and more to make me wonder how the captain could allow that kind of nonsense to take place right in front of him.
Maybe I’m asking less about whether the game is an accurate portrayal of the ‘80s and more about what its point is, regardless of its callbacks. When Kelly’s captain forces him to escort a Russian police officer around for the day, the Russian speaks in broken sentences, wanders his way to the liquor store first thing in the morning, and makes his way to the donut shop and a porn shop before day’s end. When he then asks Kelly if it’s true that the police in America beat up black people, I’m truly not sure how to feel about the exchange.
Beat Cop is set for release in a few months, which means Pixel Crow have time to work out a number of the issues before final release. They’ve developed a great framework to put players in shoes of someone with a rather thankless job, creating potential for interesting storytelling and experimentation. But without greater variety in citizens’ dialog, a real grounding in Jack Kelly and his story, and some seriously close attention to the dynamics of racial discourse in the US, Beat Cop could be due for some early retirement.