A discussion about how video games compare with books and film
Without realising it, I spent April in a "cop" bubble. The gateway drug for me was The Black Echo, part of the well-known Harry Bosch series written by Michael Connelly; and whilst I am not a fan of criminal mystery books, I loved the TV show and just had to try reading it. The characters and “politics" got me hooked, more so than the crime aspect. Shortly after finishing the first book, I started reading The Black Ice whilst rewatching season two of Bosch (Amazon Prime) in anticipation of the third. By chance, This is the Police is discounted at around the same time, a game that has been sitting on my wish list for a while. So I am involved in three different stories across three different formats, all about American police drama.
Realising I was engulfed by police entertainment, I started to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each medium. What does each medium do best? Are there any constraints that limit the story? What unique opportunities are available to games that allow it to stand out?
Text is, and has always been, an effective medium for storytelling — after all, text has been around for centuries. Our understanding of good writing has been fine-tuned to the point where literature has become an art that is rewarded with Nobel prizes. Is text hindered by the fact that it does not utilise our senses to observe the medium? Well, books rely on descriptions; they require you to project an image in your mind. How that image looks is entirely dependent on your imagination and your life experiences.
Personally, I have little imagination to the point where it is impossible for me to imagine the face of the person sitting in front of me. Is my experience hindered by the medium's limitation? Yes, whilst I enjoy reading non-fiction, I struggle with many novels and my brain turns off at important descriptive sections. Those who have vivid imagination, however, relish books. It is an opportunity for them to imagine a world through their own lens, allowing for true immersion. Whilst video games give you the ability to observe the world the way you want to, they are still designed by a single person and, therefore, limited to their interpretation.
Books and film are art forms which have had time to settle into our culture. They are widely accepted culturally and studied in schools and universities. Furthermore, there is a larger pool of books to use to reflect upon when creating new ones, meaning that it is easier to create a good book than a video game. The Harry Bosch books are interesting, it explores a unique character in a real-life Los Angeles setting.
So what story does This is the Police tell?
You are a police chief who is forced to retire in six months and, for personal reasons, have to save $500,000 within that timeframe. Each "level" is a day which starts with you see the top newspaper headlines informing you of events, some of which are impacted by you. You go to the office to start the working day, which primarily is assessing incoming reports of crime and sending police units accordingly to the location; you have to judge how many officers are needed and whether SWAT involvement is required.
You have a limited number of officers at your disposal and the core mechanic is balancing the number of units you send, to ensure that there are enough officers available in case of other reports. Some reports are false so sending your units will still consume time but are unavailable for other events until they return to the station, so it's important to read every incoming report. If you cannot manage the police department well, you are punished by the mayor with budget cuts, forcing you to dismiss police officers. Another tool in your arsenal are detectives, who find evidence for you to solve crimes, which are represented as puzzles. You also have to manage hiring of officers and detectives, maintaining discipline, and some training. Unlike the books and the TV shows, you don’t have the ability to follow the life of a detective or police chief, after all, it is the gamification that allows you to follow the day-to-day life without getting bored.
The routine is mixed up with events, such as the mayor asking you for personal favours, which vary wildly from providing additional protection to his allies or suppressing protests, gaining you respect, which in turn puts you in a position where you can request an increase in the police budget. Favours are also asked by other parties, such as the mafia or wealthy citizens in exchange for money, or simply keeping them alive. The random events can catch you off-guard and at times, and can be quite entertaining and challenging. The game is able to convey some sense of urgency even with a very predictable structure.
The books and shows can tell stories, This is the Police allows you to be the story. Your choices have an impact throughout the game. In fact, I had to replay a month due to my bad management causing me to have a tiny budget. I was not even able to respond to more than two calls at once, which had the effect of harming my relationship with the mafia and the mayor; meaning my budget kept getting cut and I was not able to help with any favours, as I was stuck in the cycle of losing more and more money.
I really enjoyed the Bosch TV series and the two books I have read so far, but at no point did I feel as invested in either medium as I was in This is the Police. What it offered me was an intriguing story, told similarly to the first two Max Payne games, with its comic style. With that came fantastic music, you can use your salary to buy vinyls with classical or jazz music, making the atmosphere perfect, whilst at the same time you are given a choice, adding to the sense of control which you have.
Neither the book nor the TV show can offer you the actual power of a police chief. How could they? This makes video games special. But what also sets the game apart is the ability to choose how you approach certain events. You see Harry Bosch ally with certain characters, but you are not able to tell him whether or not to not do that. Whereas in This is the Police, there are multiple points at which you make fundamental decisions that have a profound impact on the story, and ultimately the ending. There are multiple endings, which depend on how much money you make (how many cases you solve, how many bribes you take etc) and who you ally with. The game technically ends if you wind up the mafia and they, well, will take you on a holiday to Belize…
It is only a matter of time until video games receive the same level of cultural acceptance as books and film.any compare the rising acceptance of games to comic books over the last hundred years, which were argued to be “bad” just like video games have been. But as more and more people who grew up with video games get older, and more and more mothers play Candy Crush on their smartphones, the medium will receive more acceptance. There have already been some “blockbuster” video games that made waves to the point where video games affect the film industry. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’s famous plane scene was inspired by Uncharted 3, District 9 drew inspiration from Halo, and there are many more examples of scenes or entire movie plots inspired in part or fully by video games.
Video games are much more powerful as a medium. They allow for freedom in the game, player agency, and they can utilise tools like text, images, or cutscenes. In the Witcher 3, you will find books in your journey, and you will read some of them, which you cannot do in films, it would be nonsensical for a director to put up full pages of a book on film. In video games you can because you are a character in the world, and you are able to read at your own pace. Many great games use text heavily: the new Shawdowrun series and Sunless Sea are both fully text-based, and they are fantastic games. A contrast to that are games like Killzone 3, which uses over 90 minutes of cutscenes in the 6-7 hour game. All three games are fantastic experiences, and their decision to shape the game with different tools shows just how versatile the medium can be.
Now, This is the Police is a great game, but there is one overlying problem with video games: they are also infinitely more difficult to craft. For a game to be good, every element has to work together. The biggest weakness of This is the Police is the mechanics. They are, for the most part, two-dimensional. The lack of depth does make the game tedious and repetitive at times, sometimes having large gaps of time between major plot points. I stayed with the game for twenty-eight hours for the story and the world. But if I had little time, I would have given up before the halfway point. Had this been a book, I would have given up long ago. The story is the only relevant element of a book; whilst the game’s mechanics were weak, they were able to keep me going because of the other attributes which kept me more invested in the story.
The ability to pick and choose elements from other media and insert them into a game makes video games so much more powerful than books and TV. We have yet to reach the peak of creativity.
The future is bright for the young medium, especially with the advent of, both, Virtual and Augmented Reality, artists are still learning how to take a step even further in how one can be immersed and involved with a story. New ways of storytelling will be explored. New, unthinkable worlds will be experienced, and at a much more intimate level.
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