While other studios craft games about fighting robot dinosaurs or piloting spaceships, a small group in Poland is making one about being a police officer in 1980s New York City.
It’s called Beat Cop, and it has you pointing and clicking to make a cop patrol a few blocks of Manhattan. He walks past liquor stores, a pizzeria, a peep show and a litter-filled alley on his daily rounds. You’re playing as a cop, and you’ve got the daily policing duties of walking a beat.
You have to write tickets, chase down robbers, respond to emergencies and keep the peace each day before the sun sets, even as you talk to locals and explore an unfolding crime story.
Veteran developer Maciej Miąsik, who is leading creation of the game at the tiny Warsaw-based indie studio Pixel Crow, describes Beat Cop is a combination of a time management game and an adventure game. In comparison to classic adventure games where you can move at your own pace, time keeps flowing in Beat Cop. That means, he says, “some elements of the plot will disappear if you don’t take care of them. Just like in the real life, the game won’t wait endlessly for you to make up your mind. Not making a decision is a decision after all”.
If that at all sounds heady, especially for a game that has a bloody donut in its logo, it’s because Miąsik doesn’t see Beat Cop simply as a cop game. He acknowledges that the game has humour. It’s a comedy, at times. But there’s more. “It’s a game about people,” he said to me recently over e-mail, “their lives, the choices they make and the daily struggles they have to face”.
Beat Cop caught my eye in late April, when the developers posted a 77-second trailer that suggested the game would look a bit like a classic Sierra Police Quest game but feel more like a riff on '80s cop shows like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice:
Then I played a demo of the game that the developers debuted at the PAX East show in Boston a couple of months ago. I found something more complex.
Beat Cop may have some humour and some cop show clichés. It’s got a gruff sergeant, brash store owners, crime-filled back alleys and chalk outlines. But it also has the mundanely difficult decisions that inform the kind of policing we get in our towns and cities. At one point, for example, I had a quota of tickets to write before the sun goes down. I walked my cop down the sidewalk during one of the game’s simulated days, mindful that I’d only issued four parking tickets so far. The sun was setting, and my shift was nearly done. I noticed I could issue tickets even for cars that were parked perfectly and started weighing the consequence of writing a bogus ticket to speed things along. I was less focused on any other crime happening in the neighbourhood, too, because I wanted to hit my quota.
The game has other compelling cop complications. During the brief demo, someone offered me a bribe to get out of a ticket. I responded to reports of a dead body in an alley and discerned that one of the possible witnesses clearly hated the police. I had the opportunity to threaten them. Maybe that would produce helpful information. Maybe it wouldn’t.
Those quandaries are the types of things Miąsik was getting at when he said the game involves decision making. Take the quota stuff, for example. Stat-driven policing is a problem in many communities. “When quotas are more important than actual work, that’s where the pathology starts,” he said, “because officers are not focusing on the real duty but numbers. That’s reflected in our game as well”. In the game, players can write bad tickets, but they might get caught. The system isn’t rigid, because Miąsik didn’t want people to game it. “What’s really important here is that we don’t want to make this a mechanic, where, for example, writing four bad tickets is ok but five will always get you punished”. Taking bribes will work the same way. You might get caught. You might not. “It’s not hard-coded, so you never know if you’ll get away with it, or [if] maybe you are already in trouble. Again, just like in a real life, sometimes you can take bribes for years and no one notices that, and sometimes you are caught after first time.”
Beat Cop has many lighter moments. It’s not nearly as dark as This War of Mine, the civilian wartime survival game from 11Bit, the company helping produce Beat Cop. The discomfort it sometimes presents is nevertheless alluring and clearly not accidental. Miąsik said the concept came from his development partner, lead artist Adam Kozlowski. Kozlowski was inspired by Papers, Please, the tense game about the difficult decisions made while working at a European border crossing. The idea was to do something like that but with a character who “can actually leave his post and explore the area, which gives many new possibilities in terms of storytelling, yet is still happening in limited surrounding,” Miąsik said. “He drew a picture, with a cop standing on the pavement and life happening around him. After seeing it, I immediately got an idea for the game and that’s how Beat Cop was born.”
What I played of Beat Cop’s demo was just the tiniest bit of a PC game still deep in development. I was only able to write some types of tickets. I was only able to just begin investigating the local criminal element. There was an arrest system that I wasn’t able to do much with. There were also intriguing hints of race and class dynamics. At one point a few white characters outside a church reported a car stolen and could only muster up the description that thief was black. That’s all they knew. There were plenty of black people in the game’s simulated New York. I wondered if it would let me question them. I wondered how far it would let me explore.
What to do in these situations? What kind of police would I be? Beat Cop is still early in development but I’m already intrigued.