One More Episode: A Second Look at ‘The Detail’

Despite its seeming interest in them, the social realities presented at the conclusion of each episode of The Detail aren't integrated into the game's narrative and aren't a part of the game's world.

Last week on the Moving Pixels podcast, I said that I would check out the second episode of The Detail. While I wasn’t wild about the first episode, the game had peaked enough of my interest to warrant peeking in a second time to see whether or not it sorted itself out in the second episode. It was trying to hold itself up to a rather high standard, even if it didn’t seem like it quite had the chops behind it to reach that standard. Still, I would love to see The Detail even make some small strides towards that lofty goal.

Well, since recording the podcast, I have given the second episode, “From the Ashes”, its due. In its wake, I find myself feeling much the same as I did at the end of the first episode. I’m not wild about it, but I am willing to give it one more episode to see if it manages to become something better than it presently is and something closer to what it actually wants to be.

What it seems to want to be is The Wire. Of course, it almost seems like any high minded cop drama in the media tries to compare itself to or inevitably gets compared to The Wire. It’s almost a cliché to do so in and of itself. So, let that be added on top of the mountain of other clichés that The Detail engages in. A few years ago, I made a specific comparison between The Wire and the video game Fate of the World, regarding how that game handles systematic processes by making them into challenges and roadblocks for the player. I felt safe in that comparison because the narrative premise of each was distant from one another, but the comparison was specific. I feel much less comfortable doing the same thing with another piece of cop media.

The Wire was a highly complex, highly intricate, highly layered work that revealed truths about the problematic condition of urban America and our failure to address much of that condition. The nuance that The Wire brought to issues like race, crime, drugs, education, political weakness, crumbling institutions, an unstable economy, lack of public oversight, and more is the problem with comparing The Detail to it.

The Detail does want to be seen as something like The Wire. It does not want to be directly compared to it, but it is trying to emulate it in some ways and at least tries to make itself a part of the same conversation begun by many of the best shows of the recent “television renaissance.” For instance, there is a small joke in the first episode that occurs when one of the game’s main characters, Joe, gets home late. His wife is watching television, and the show that she is watching is entitled Breaking Bread. One of the images that flashes across the screen is of a man wearing Heisenberg’s hat. It’s a small thing, but then after playing the second episode, I read the character bio sheets, and one of the new characters has watching The Wire listed as one of his hobbies. This is how the developers see their game or want their game to be seen, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Not to get bogged down in an issue that I am ill equipped and ill suited to make a statement about, but at least half of the cast of The Wire was black. They were drug dealers, junkies, and side kicks, but also power brokers, day workers, bumbling high stationed buffoons, good cops, poor cops, lawyers, and teachers. More than merely representing their positions, these characters got to experience redemptive arcs, Lear-like betrayals, Machiavellian villainy going unchecked, and all the other variations and stations that fiction offers its characters. The Detail has some black characters, and their portrayal is better than in most games. However, that’s damning it with faint praise. Hispanic characters are more prevalent, but my feelings about their portrayal is much the same. Again, not to get bogged down in the issue, but this is just a single area of many in which The Detail fails in a comparison to The Wire. The gangs in The Detail feel paint-by-numbers. They are who they are because that’s who gangs are in police fiction.

It’s all too pulpy. I don’t like disparaging pulp. Some of the best works in modern literature and cinema have come out of that conveyor belt tradition of storytelling. Yet, there are limits to that tradition when it adheres so closely to its tenets and tropes, instead of using it as a basis for its own approach to fiction and breaking forth into new territories. The Wire is a cops and robbers show. That’s how it was first billed. Most anything unique about it in the television landscape at the time of its airing was due not to an adherence to the tropes of the police procedural, but to an understanding of the genre and then taking the road less traveled by or (in some cases) never traveled by. It elevated its material by making distinct and unique choices. I don’t get that from The Detail. It’s a collection of tropes in a well loved genre by people who do love the genre and want to do right by it. They want to create something by recombining material into their own effort. The pieces are there for it to be something great in the vein of The Wire, and certainly the developers seem to have the ambition and desire to create something like it. Again, I feel uncomfortable in saying that they haven’t the finesse or ability to reach that goal, but the end result is lacking in comparison.

The Wire highlighted, step-by-step, over five seasons, the problems that inhibit the fundamental fixing of our institutional decay. There were bad people, but those people were all people that were living in “the system”. The worst were those that saw the problems with that system and not only took advantage of them, but reveled in them. They were bad people, but they weren’t “the bad guys”. The problem was the system, which required something more than “winning” to fix it. The Detail, on the other hand, wants to have bad guys. Mikhail, the Byronic psychopath who seems to be pulling the strings of the Ukrainian gang is a bad guy. The second episode hints at larger things going on, suggesting even more yet-to-be-revealed bad guys.

The connection that the drama on display has to the larger social fabric feels perfunctory at best. It is relegated to a few notes ending each episode that concern the realities of drug running, forced prostitution, and marriage fidelity, which are based on choices that you made during the game. This information feels even more tacked on in the second episode in which it seems the developers couldn’t think up five distinct choices made in the game that might be important enough to compare to real world statistics, since two of the more important choices in the game ended up as two instances of the same choice. These social realities aren’t integrated into the narrative and aren’t a part of the world.

It’s good that The Detail looks like a comic book because that’s what it feels like when I’m playing. It isn’t reality. It’s an abstraction filtered through other media.

Yet, I can’t leave it there because it’s not as simple as that straightforward declaration makes it out to be. There’s a point in the second episode, while playing as the aforementioned confidential informant Joe, that you’re pulled over for a broken taillight by a cop. You’re escorting a woman to a drug deal and have a man tied up in the trunk. The cop sees the woman that you’re escorting and mistakes you for a pimp. He demands his cut. He’s a crooked cop. It’s the type of thing that I’ve seen in Batman, The Usual Suspects, and plenty of other places, but at the same time the event is not part of a larger conspiracy or representative of an institutional directive as it is in those other works. Here it’s just a cop acting out the corrupt cop archetype only because the circumstances presented themselves and he decided to take advantage of them. This feels more real than the pulp world of those other works, but it is still devoted to their unreal sensibilities due to its other potentially more outlandish elements (a man tied up in the trunk). The Detail plants itself on that line, and when it moves forward, it wavers from one side to the other at uneven intervals. Sometimes this creates new space for it to be its own thing. Other times it feels like the game doesn’t know which way it ultimately wants to go.

Yet, I’m willing to give it one more episode to see how it goes. Or at this point, how it continues. That is the inherent power of mystery. Not necessarily a good mystery, but of any mystery. Asking a question and withholding any answer is a quick way of creating drama and generating interest in what is about to happen. We are a curious species. We want to know things. I can’t count the number of books, movies, or television shows that I really shouldn’t have given the time of day to, but that I spent time with simply because I wanted to know the answer to their mysteries. It’s almost as if that desire is independent of any desire to be excited, enlightened, or enthralled.

I read somewhere that mystery is the single biggest genre in book publishing. The sales of mysteries dwarf all the others. The infographic that I saw about these book sales made it look as if all the other genres combined wouldn’t equal the sales of that one genre. I don’t know how correct that infographic was. It feels true, though. Ask a question, and we’ll want an answer. What is going on in The Detail? Who is behind the gangs? What conspiracy, if any, is going on? If I had my guess, I’d say it goes right to the top.

I don’t know what I think about The Detail, but I still want to know what happens. I guess I’m just a curious guy.

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