I’m a police chief with only four months left until my forced retirement. I’m burnt out, I’ve got no life savings, I’m addicted to uppers, the Mayor hates me, I hate the Mayor, and my deputy fled the city under pressure from a corruption scandal, leaving me to take his place as a mole for the mafia.
It’s a recipe for tragedy. This Is the Police is a neo-noir resource management sim, a bizarre coupling for sure, but also a surprisingly effective one. The premise sounds like a typical “good cop gone bad” scenario, especially once you — Jack Boyd — decide on a retirement plan: Earn $500k before your days are up, by any means necessary. However, while Jack might be a good cop, he’s not a particularly good man. This isn’t the story of Jack’s moral downfall as he is already close to the bottom of that metaphorical well when the game begins. This is the story of his attempted come back. The power structure in the city of Freeburg is designed to keep men like him under the boot, so when he realizes his days are numbered he rebels against that system. Not out of moral outrage, but self-preservation. This is the Police tells the story of his failure, and why it was always inevitable.
The Mayor of Freeburg, Stewart Rogers, is corrupt as all hell, and that corruption trickles down throughout the rest of the government. Mayor Rogers acts like a petulant child, making impossible demands and then getting angry when you don’t follow through. The white supremacists make a lot of noise one week, so he tells you to fire all your black officers. The next week it is feminists protesting in front of City Hall, so he demands you make half the police force women. These demands are illegal. To fulfill them you have to fire officers, but the game doesn’t allow you to fire anyone you want. You need to reason to fire them, or they can come back with a formal legal complaint that costs you, personally, money and resources. City Hall demands you break the law based on the fickle whims of the Mayor, setting you up for punishment if you’re caught, while they avoid any culpability.
Jack no longer wants to work within this system. The lack of support from Mayor Rogers drives you into the arms of a wealthy benefactor who pays to increase your roster of officers when City Hall refuses, just so long as you give his son a job and never, ever fire him; trading nepotistic corruption for financial support. Or: It drives you into the arms of the mafia, who can protect you from punishment by intimidating prosecutors and killing witnesses, while also acting as a fence for stolen evidence; trading financial corruption for employment protection. Then, to keep my officers quiet about all this illegal activity (they’re the ones sent to help out the mafia when a call comes in, so they know what’s going on) I share the illegal profits with them.
Everyone here is corrupt, but the corruption is forced upon us at each level as a means of survival. City Hall forces me to make deals with the mafia, and I then force my officers to help with those deals. We’ve all got dirt on each other, which equals out to a system of checks and balances; a kind of blackmail barter system. All the corruption trickles down from City Hall, but City Hall is not a part of that balanced system.
City Hall is not like the other factions in the game. The balance of power is off kilter in this relationship, and more than that, it often seems like Mayor Rogers is happy to cut off his nose to spite his face.
During a normal day, you’ll watch 911 calls come in over a map of the city, and you’ll allocate officers to each call. They drive out, deal with the issue, and then come back. Each call has a timer associated with it, so we don’t actually have to respond to it right away; we can wait until the literal last second. Not so with City Hall. Mayor Rogers will make personal requests of you, and these pop up like a software warning, pausing the game. You deal with it right away, or not at all. Rogers is nothing if not impatient, and because of that impatience I often have to refuse his demand because my officers are busy on other assignments.
This angers Mayor Rogers, leading him to open an investigation into the efficiency of your department. The chosen investigators come imbued with the power of City Hall, and forcibly remove multiple officers for multiple days for questioning. Thus, the investigation into your efficiency makes you less efficient. It would be hypocritical if it weren’t such an obvious sham. The investigation is really just a power play, a way for Rogers to remind you that he can break your department.
And then I’ve already mentioned how the Mayor tries to influence your hiring and firing practices.
These kinds of punishments are unique from City Hall. There are several other factions in the game—the mafia, the church, a corporation—but if you anger them, they don’t make the game harder to play. Your relationship will suffer, sure, but only City Hall punishes you through the game mechanics. Removing on-duty officers makes it harder to respond to 911 calls, and the hiring/firing demands force you to risk your personal bank.
In contrast, the mafia seems downright accommodating. Mafia calls appear on the map with a time limit, making them seem more like requests and less like demands. Other times, they’ll tell me to ignore any 911 call coming from a certain location at a certain time, which frees me to send officers elsewhere. These requests don’t interfere with the game, they don’t force me into conflict with the mechanics, they work with the mechanics or allow me to ignore the mechanics altogether.
The message is clear: The mafia wants to help you, because helping you helps themselves; City Hall wants to hurt you, because hurting you doesn’t hurt themselves. The mafia may threaten your life, but City Hall has all the power.
City Hall will always be your central enemy, even if you start as friends. Just in case you manage to get on Mayor Rogers’ good side, the endgame is designed to break that relationship. Around day 90 the 911 calls start becoming more severe: Fewer small crimes like fraud, break-ins, and suspicious activity, and more disasters like shootings, mass fights, bomb threats, and terrorist attacks. The volume of calls also increases, and each of these calls requires more officers on scene. Eventually you’ll realize you can’t answer them all.
This endgame is a grind. Not because the game gets boring or repetitive, but because it forces you to experience failure. Earlier, you could keep the city safe. Now, you have to let killers escape to stop a bomb, or let a bomb go off to stop a terrorist, or let a terrorist escape because all your men are elsewhere. The sense of grind is born out of our constant failure.
City Hall notices this. With more civilians dying, Rogers launches more investigations, which hobble you further. The game stretches itself out here because it wants to make sure we experience this downward spiral. It wants to make sure it destroys our relationship with City Hall. It wants to be sure we see the Mayor as an antagonist. It wants us to recognize ourselves as a small department made smaller at his request.
This all feels purposeful. It’s expressive game design, using gameplay conflict to represent narrative conflict, which both reinforce the underlying thematic conflict.
There’s a system of checks and balances in Freeburg, but City Hall is not a part of it. The Mayor’s Office is cut off from the (legal and illegal) checks and balances that rule the rest of us. He’s the king of Freeburg, and the rest of us are left to fight amongst ourselves for the table scraps. The fact that we’ve created a system to distribute those table scraps is a testament to the human desire for order: Corruption and blackmail providing stability to a broken system.
This Is the Police is about a corrupt government, but it’s not about how government is corrupt. It wants us to understand the source of that corruption. It’s the people within the government you should distrust, not the institution itself. When bad people are in charge, terrible things trickle down from there. In a world of hitmen, snitches, mobsters, murderers, terrorists, rapists, rioters, bombers, thieves, and serial killers, your greatest enemy is your boss.