You're a Loose Cannon: The Challenge of Making a Good Police Game

Why developers have struggled to make police games that go beyond the cops and criminals fantasy of Battlefield Hardline and company.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

"It's a normal day in LA, and then all the sudden... all hell breaks loose! Alarms are going off! An armored truck has been taken out! SWAT Teams are swarming the scene!"

With what EA hoped was a rousing introduction out of the way, E3 2014 attendees were treated to a Battlefield Hardline demo straight out of an 8-year-old boy's cops vs. robbers fantasy. Rockets hit police cars, criminals dashed through the streets, and helicopters fell out of the sky. Michael Bay couldn't have scripted it any better.

Battlefield Hardline's vision of what it is to be a cop sits at one end of the spectrum of police depictions in games from over the years. At the other end is the likes of Sierra's Police Quest series, which remains the gold standard for realistic police procedurals. Somewhere in the middle is L.A. Noire, True Crime, and even Policenauts, all of which feature varying portrayals of police life. It's easy to make fun of Battlefield Hardline's bombastic view of police action, but stop to think about it for a moment, and it becomes apparent that it's really hard to make a well-balanced police video game. Much harder, perhaps, than it is to draft even a critcally acclaimed police drama like The Shield or The Wire.

Over the years, many developers have wrestled with how best to feature police officers in video games. Some have defaulted to straight noire, while others have thrown realism to the wind and just let players go in guns blazing. In many ways, developers still haven't found a happy medium for portraying police work in a video game. But that hasn't stopped a few from trying even now.

Gathering Clues

Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel is generally acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of a true police procedural. Developed by retired police officer Jim Walls, it depicts the life of Sonny Bonds as he investigates DUIs, hangs out with other off-duty police officers, and eventually goes undercover to bust the eponymous "Death Angel."

Though adventure game aficianados rightly point out that there that Police Quest has little in the way of puzzles—most situations can be resolved by hewing to procedure as detailed in the game's manual—it was still a natural fit for Sierra's style of adventure game. Years later, Walls reflected that Police Quest did an "adequate" job of depicting the experience of a police officer.

"We always wanted to put more into the games and I was never fully satisfied with the driving interfaces," Walls said in an email conversation. "However, the payoff came with the fan mail. When the letters came in, with some of the kids saying they wanted to grow up to be cops, we knew we were on the right track."

Few developers would follow in Walls' footsteps, however. When developers opted to cast the player as a member of law enforcement, it was usually as a more glamourous detective or private investigator rather than a cop on the street. A case in point is Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii's The Portopia Serial Murder Case, which was originally released for the PC-6001 in June 1983—four years before Walls' Police Quest. Portopia Serial Murder Case's plot is more or less like an episode of CSI, or if you prefer, a classic Sherlock Holmes novel. It's a classic locked room mystery: A bank president is discovered in a locked room having apparently stabbed himself. But of course, not all is as it seems.

Portopial Serial Murder Case did much to define the visual novel genre, and since then many developers on both sides of the Pacific (and the Atlantic, for that matter) have created detective stories of their own. Some, like Jack Orlando: A Cinematic Adventure, have opted to riff on the golden era of private detective films. Others, like Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon and Hideo Kojima's Policenauts, have a more fantastic bent. All of them are either adventure games or visual novels, and play on the excitement of being an investigator on the trail of a crime.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of police work is pretty boring by video game standards. The majority of police officers never so much as draw their weapons in the line of duty. The lack of drama is an issue faced by all media, not just games. For as successful as The Wire was in depicting real police work, politics, and the failure of the drug war, the majority of police dramas on TV still default to shootouts and hostage situations, because that's what gets the audience's blood pumping.

Even Walls, ever the evangelist for the medium, is realistic about the difficulty of making a good police procedural: "Ninety percent of police work is routine, mundane, and boring at times. It’s the other 10 percent, the unknown, the white knuckle incidents that keep officers chomping at the bit to begin a new shift. With that in mind, I think part of reason why you don’t see more police procedurals is because of the difficult and delicate balancing act required. Unlike a movie that takes the fan through numerous emotional ups and downs, there is no player interaction, so the movie gets its desired results. With a police procedural there is interaction, which makes the gameplay balance more complex and difficult to get the same results. On the other hand, maybe the developers just think there isn’t enough fan base to support such games. As for myself, I think the time is ripe."

In the Sandbox

Through most of the 90s, detective games and the odd police procedural were primarily limited to the adventure game genre. A few, like Virtua Cop, ventured into the first-person lightgun genre, while others like Urban Chaos could be classified more as beat 'em ups. Police Quest and its spiritual successful Blue Force both continued well into the '90s, but the decline of the adventure genre brought with it major changes. By 1998, the series had morphed into a real-time strategy simulation that continued to hew to the franchise's focus on realism, but was based more on shootouts than investigations.

Then came Grand Theft Auto III.

Initially released in 2001, it received widespread critical acclaim and ultimately became a smash hit. Almost immediately, developers around the world set to work making their own sandbox games; and with GTA III being focused on the criminal underground, it only made sense to go the opposite direction and build a game around being a cop. Few, however, were like the adventure games of old.

Instead, True Crime and it successor were more along the lines of Bad Boys or Point Break—movies that Hot Fuzz's serious cop Nicholas Angel half-derisively, half-bemusedly refers to as "no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill rides." In True Crime: Streets of L.A., it's even possible to commit crimes, with the only consequence being the loss of "good cop points." The hero, who looks conspiciously like Keaneau Reeves circa 1999, bashes heads, shoots Chinese Mafia members, and ultimately brawls with a former KGB agent-turned-Russian mafia boss named "Rocky." Oh, and Snoop Dogg is an unlockable character.

"We always wanted to put more into the games and I was never fully satisfied with the driving interfaces. However, the payoff came with the fan mail. When the letters came in, with some of the kids saying they wanted to grow up to be cops, we knew we were on the right track." - Jim Walls

True Crime, along with 2005's NARC and eventually Sleeping Dogs, were all products of the sandbox genre's violent roots. It may seem logical to put players in the shoes of a cop for a sandbox game, but the expectation of being able to go crazy and commit random mayhem inevitably breaks the immersion of being a white hat police officer. Even L.A. Noire, which was as close to a true procedural as you will find, suffered from it. Team Bondi's solution, ultimately, was to make it virtually impossible to kill a civilian or crush into a car, making their vision of L.A. seem sterile and otherworldly to the point that Kill Screen posited that the hero Cole Phelps was in fact trapped in purgatory. It was as good a theory as any.

Sandbox games are in some ways the best example of the dark element of wish fulfillment that pervades the medium. At the end of the day, it's more fun to be a black hat than a white hat, smashing up society and breaking all the rules. Grand Theft Auto III had a story, but it became a megahit because it was fun to drive through crowds, evade the police, and launch off ramps. When GTA later became more serious-minded and tried to scale back the mayhem, more than a few fans complained bitterly or simply switched over to the rival Saints Row. It's worth noting that the most successful "police" sandbox game is Crackdown, which is really more of a superhero game than anything else.

As for whether it's possible to go against the collective id and make a proper procedural set in a sandbox world, L.A. Noire certainly has its merits. It has its own issues—an under-developed world, silly-looking tells during interrogations, a story that is quite honestly all over the map—but it also proves that an episodic series of crime investigations can make for a viable open-world game. With luck, the sequel will do more to flesh out the main character, vary up the investigations, and liven up the sandbox. Do that, and a strong open-world procedural may not be as much of a pipe dream as it seems.

Police Games Today

A little less than a year before EA took the stage to try and sell everyone on their vision of cops and robbers, Jim Walls and Sierra On-Line alum Robert Lindsley emerged to promote Walls' new Police Quest successor The Precinct. Touted for its real-time 3D environments and first-person perspective, it was to have been a five game series.

Ultimately though, Walls and Lindsley were only able to raise $85,000 against the $500,000 that they sought. The Kickstarter was eventually canceled, as was the alternative funding option that they attempted to set immediately after. After the successful funding of games like Wasteland, Precinct's failure felt like a jarring setback.

Tempting as it is to chalk up its failure to the lack of interest in police procedurals though, Precinct had other factors going against it. By late 2013, the tide had already turned somewhat against Kickstarter as well-funded projects were delayed or experienced unexpected financial shortfalls stemming from the expense of fulfilling pledges. With the public feeling snakebit, the selection of concept art and simple videos that comprised Precinct's pitch weren't quite enough to get the project funded.

Walls admits to being disappointed by the response: "We had enthusiastic chatter going on as well as great media coverage. I think our Kickstarter presentation was put together very well. It seemed we had everything in place to make a successful bid, but it just didn't work. I am not an expert on crowd-funding whatsoever, but I just think we failed in convincing those outside of our fanbase that Precinct was a good thing to put their money into. However, we are still excited and encouraged about Precinct and are looking forward to its success in the future."

Urban Chaos: Riot Response

He calls Precinct a "work in progress," but that "due to other pressing matters it is on hold at the moment." He hopes to find another publisher soon. Meanwhile, a request for his thoughts on Battlefield Hardline is met with what seems like a shrug: "I am not a shooter fan, however the graphics are terrific. I think we are over saturated with shooters."

For the time being though, shooters are mostly what we're going to get. Though smaller efforts such as Police Force 2 have popped up over the years, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, and Battlefield Hardline seem to be more the norm as the police steadily become more militarized and action games continue to dominate.

"Turning actual police work into a game is hard and skews towards ridiculously violent sensationalism," says Jeremy Stein, a developer who previously worked for EA but has since moved on to mobile development. "It's seemingly the same problem devs often face when making Star Trek games. They're peacekeepers with guns, but since it's easier to make gunplay fun versus diplomacy, they opt to make a shooter."

But when the conversation turns to the notion of a more realistic Police RPG, he seems a little more optimistic: "That is an encouraging aspect of games today: we're getting a little better as an industry at trying on new themes and subject matter. A police RPG feels inevitable instead of silly, the way it would have at the start of last generation."

To be honest, it's hard to say what the future holds. With the rise of indie games, the return of adventure games, and the move toward smarter content in general, it's not entirely far-fetched to believe that more realistic police games are on the way. But on the other hand, there are plenty of forces working against the creation of a good procedural, including the fact that many feel it's more exciting to be a starship captain, superhero, or a gangster than it is to be a cop on the beat.

Walls, at least, seems confident: "I firmly believe that once a police procedural is on the market, others will follow. A good police procedural would not only be entertaining, but it would provide a valuable learning experience along with a glimpse into what it’s like to be a police officer. There is a need for people to know the split second decisions officers make on a daily basis, and the consequences they face for making those decisions. There are two ways to do that. Become a cop or play a police procedural."

Time for developers to get to work.

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Comments 12

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  • Avatar for hal9k #1 hal9k 4 years ago
    Great article, Kat. It was interesting to hear Walls' thoughts. I've never played Police Quest, but those games played a big part in inspiring a good friend of mine from high school to earn a criminal justice degree and become a cop, so it's cool that they had such an impact.

    The closest things to procedurals I've played are the Phoenix Wright games. They're over the top (and I hope that never changes!), but also a great proof of concept. Also, look how well Papers, Please did with a dull-sounding procedural theme.
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  • Avatar for docexe #2 docexe 4 years ago
    I think the key in sandbox games that put you on the shoes of a cop would be to make it rewarding to “uphold the law” (so to speak) on some level. Not necessarily forbidding you from injuring civilians for example, but giving you more experience points/money/perks/better weapons/rewards/whatever for avoiding collateral damage during car chases/shootouts/etc. The issue would be to balance it right, so protecting the civilians while dealing with the criminals doesn’t become unnecessarily frustrating.

    And well, it’s not really the same, but personally, I prefer to play the heroic path in games like Infamous, as I find more challenging the additional level of precision that the game demands in order to avoid injuring civilians and the like. It’s an additional layer of challenge that I find more satisfying than merely mowing down everything in my path. Granted, my opinion is not universal and I know there are people who find the other path more fun.
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  • Avatar for Thad #3 Thad 4 years ago
    @docexe There's also something legitimately pernicious in how TV police procedurals typically depict police work: anyone who asks for a lawyer is a smarmy roadblock at best, a villain at worst; forensic evidence is always (1) readily available and (2) inerrant; trials are always quick affairs full of surprise witnesses and new evidence. It makes for a pretty skewed portrayal of the legal system and its righteousness.
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  • Avatar for docexe #4 docexe 4 years ago
    @Thad Those are good points. I think the issue is that presenting a police procedural in fiction always comes down to solving the question “how do I engage people with something that in real life can be incredibly boring at best and incredibly frustrating if not downright infuriating at worse?”. Analyzing how other forms of media and fiction (like TV and cinema) do it, the answer is never entirely realistic or even handed, even in shows and movies that try to be as sober, grounded and serious as possible.
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  • Avatar for Thad #5 Thad 4 years ago
    @docexe Indeed. And some of the best examples are shows that deliberately subvert the tropes. The last season of The Closer was premised around a do-gooder lawyer systematically exposing all the gross violations of civil rights Brenda Lee Johnson had waged throughout the series. Dexter carried the vigilante-justice subgenre to its most extreme conclusion and depicted a "hero" who's quite obviously and unambiguously a monster.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #6 metalangel 4 years ago
    I grew up loving the Police Quest games, and greatly preferred (even at a young age) the patrol cop sequences over the detective bits. I figured detective stories were everywhere, but the real cops I saw every day weren't detectives, they were the ones helping at traffic accidents and robberies and muggings. I suppose they all have to have an exciting overall story, which Police Quest attempted but the sequels got ludicrous (PQ2 was an 80s cop show/movie throughout, with bomb defusals, terrorists and underground lairs, while PQ3 had this nonsense about crack dealers in a cult) and lo and behold... the same thing happened in LA Noire so many years later.

    The best police game you can get is... Liberty City First Response for GTA IV. You are a cop on the beat in Liberty City, and you respond to a variety of realistic calls like drunks, car accidents, stolen vehicles, muggings, injuries, and the occasional shootout. You can also cite motorists for moving violations, switch on an ALPR camera to spot people with outstanding citations or warrants, and even give parking tickets. If you have the PC version of GTA IV you have to go try it. I can't get enough of it. The mod community is huge, with hundreds of real world vehicles and uniforms to feel like a cop in your hometown.

    Edited August 2014 by metalangel
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  • Avatar for orient #7 orient 4 years ago
    Great article. I love police fiction (The Wire
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  • Avatar for EnderTZero #8 EnderTZero 4 years ago
    We've got annual releases of Train Simulator. Why not Beat Cop Simulator? Break up disturbances, make arrests (without using excessive force), deal with curveballs and unexpected dispatch calls, properly collect and log evidence, and spend an entire shift directing traffic when a stoplight goes out.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #9 metalangel 4 years ago
    @EnderTZero LCPDFR lets you do all that, though some is streamlined (frisking and searching a suspect's vehicle are optional, which is about as far as evidence goes). I've tried directing traffic in notorious AI jam spots and that is surprisingly entertaining too (direct meaning: block traffic so other traffic can move).

    Train Simulator isn't an annual release really: it's a few engine tweaks and three existing DLC routes being sold at full price, while existing owners get given the tweaks for free (woo?)
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  • Avatar for Thad #10 Thad 4 years ago
    @EnderTZero That's a good point. We've been talking about ways to make police procedurals more interesting than real police work, but they don't necessarily have to be -- mundane sim games have often been extremely successful.
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  • Avatar for lanmao #11 lanmao 3 years ago
    Policenauts is Lethal Weapon in SPACE! You really can't go wrong with that premise.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #12 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Great article, I'd never really thought about this as a genre before! On which note - have you played any of the recent Sherlock Holmes games? I've just started Crimes & Punishments, and its fairly promising so far.
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