Playing to Lose: The Tragedy of ‘This Is the Police’

Video gamers are not accustomed to playing to lose.

This post contains major spoilers for This Is the Police.

Tragedy isn’t a genre that video games handle especially well. I’m talking about classical tragedy, a story about a protagonist that is going to lose, like Macbeth or like King Lear. You may already see where I’m going with this. Video gamers are not accustomed to playing to lose.

Winning is, generally speaking, the essential goal of games. Earn the most points, complete all of the challenges, or “beat the game”, these are all measurements of win-states. Lose-states are what the gamer intends to avoid.

With this idea in mind, it’s quite easy to see the trouble that one has in crafting a game in which the player is intended to experience loss through a protagonist fated to lose. In some sense, loss is not what we signed up for. We come to a game to conquer and to gain a sense of resolution through our virtual victories. Interestingly, this idea was put forth in nearly these same terms in a discussion thread on Steam that I recently read concerning the game This Is the Police. A player called DG Dobrov says of the game’s negative ending, in which the protagonist doesn’t get the girl, loses his wife, loses his job, and any shred of dignity that he has left:

I don’t mind [a bad ending], but this is a work of fiction… We are allowed a decent ending, are we not? To be blunt, I felt the same way about Firewatch. It was a game with great story and great character interactions just to leave you hanging at the end. You feel like you played for nothing.

Being “allowed a decent ending” for having accomplished something challenging is an expectation that the gamer has of his or her fiction. However, this is not what This Is the Police is about. Like classical tragedy, This Is the Police is about the futility of action in the face of fate.

The player takes on the role of Jack Boyd, the chief of police of a fictional American city called Freeburg. This Is the Police is a god game, in which the player, as Jack, has to manage the resources of his department, largely personnel, while looking over an overhead map of the city. The player and Jack send their officers out on calls, trying to keep them and the civilians that they serve safe, while also juggling the interests of other power players in the city, like City Hall, the Union, the Mafia, and the Church.

On the whole, the game isn’t initially that difficult. When a call comes in, you respond by assigning the appropriate personnel to take care of it. However, pretty early on the game makes it clear that Jack’s decisions concern getting the job done and little else. Ethics and politics take a back seat to making sure that your cops make it back to the station and civilians don’t get killed. This Is the Police complicates the choices that Jack makes by assigning situations with familiar values, both ethical and political, but for Jack to continue to do his job, the fact that he might be breaking up a group of violent pro-life protesters at a women’s clinic or a group of LGBT activists on the steps of city hall makes little difference. Jack can’t be a conservative or a liberal. He just needs to make sure no one gets hurt and that those who violate the law are captured (no matter what they represent) or else his funding for his officers will quickly disappear.

As such, the game offers seeming ethical dilemmas to solve, that are really not ethical dilemmas that can be solved in the game’s context. Jack’s choices at any given time are bad or bad. Back this mafioso’s play for the city or that mafioso’s play for the city. They are still both bad men and will lead Jack to make terrible sacrifices of his position and his values. The successful player of the game needs to do likewise, leaving his or her values at the door to focus on getting the job done.

The game’s final choice to support Freeburg’s corrupt sitting mayor or a sociopathic businessman is unavoidable, but you aren’t even choosing the lesser of two evils in this instance. Both men are too terrible for words, and despite their promises to Jack of a win-state (if they take power, Jack will keep his job), both men are lying. Jack, and, again, the player, will lose everything no matter which choice he makes. The game has multiple endings, but total loss is part of all of them.

In gaming, we have grown accustomed to the idea of inevitable progression, leveling up, becoming more powerful, becoming more competent, and becoming more capable of ultimately facing and completing the most challenging scenarios. This Is the Police grows grueling over time, limiting the player’s effectiveness to maintain his or her control of his people and resources, but that’s because This Is the Police is not the story of progressive experience. Instead, This Is the Police is the story of the dismantling of a man, aging and moving towards an inevitable ending.

Tragedy, as a genre, dismantles. It doesn’t tease us with the idea of inevitable victory as most modern video games do. It grimly acknowledges the inevitability of loss in endings, something that gamers are trained to pretend just isn’t possible, just isn’t allowed, in fictional worlds, even fictional worlds in which we seem to control the outcomes.