Adding police to a series about large-scale warfare can create some... odd scenes. At the E3 demo for EA's mega-budget cops and robbers game Battlefield Hardline, we saw action more commonly relegated to a warzone. Countless explosions and military-grade weaponry in the streets to stop a... truck robbery.
Buildings crumbling. Havoc. No civilians. No one other than the people shooting each other. Guns and very expensive vehicles.
Crime scenes are rarely warzones, and an intersection of the two in Battlefield Hardline raises some questions about law enforcement, responsible policing, and militarization. Developer Visceral considered tackling those topics but decided to "just avoid it." Be less The Wire and more Justified. Is that a bad thing, though?
I asked creative director Ian Milham about all of this—about whether he and his team were aware of the somewhat worrisome undertones their game kind of intrinsically creates. "Of course," he replied, fast as a whip. Hardline, though, isn't a game about the real world. Rather, it's a game that uses the real world as a backdrop, pulling locations and situations from reality, but stories from TV and movies.
"I think some people do some math there that we're not really intending to do," Milham explained. "We didn't say, 'We're gonna take cops and make them like soldiers.' But if we wanted to do soldiers, we would've just done it. So it's not about making a soldier game in different clothes. Specifically we're trying to make a TV cop drama more than we are a realistic simulation."
"I would say [our story] is more like the show Justified, something like that. Purely fictional and character based."
The first big reveal, showing off a map set very close to the Los Angeles Convention Center where E3 was held, was intended to express this—that the real world is a backdrop, but the game isn't rooted or indebted to reality. "We thought it would be cool, since E3 is here, to do a map of where we are," explained Milham. "Literally my view out of my hotel this week is where the drop-off point [for the robbers] is for our map. We created it in painstaking detail."
"And it fits with the vibe and location we want to do. We want to show real world locations. That's the strength of this, to be like, 'Oh crap! That's really downtown LA.'"
LA, though, is a city that hasn't exactly been crime-free over the years, especially where gangs are concerned. The LAPD's website calls LA the "gang capital of the nation," and there are a lot of complex issues—including race and hate crimes—tied up in that. It's a topic of discomfort for some, reflection for others. At least, for those who know about it. Gangs, however, don't factor in Hardline's depiction of police work.
That said, Milham told me Visceral is basing some of Hardline's scenarios—both single-player and multiplayer—on real crimes that actually happened. Just not the ones that might make people uncomfortable. It's an instance of fiction skirting extra close to reality, but straying away from reality's sharper edges.
"We've got different things planned there," Milham said. "Some of them are based on real crimes." However, he then clarified: "We're not interested in anything too dark in the criminal story. I think we want something that has a more clever tone to it, so we're making up our own crimes—the kind you would want to do. Like you could have a disconnect between the player and the player character if the mission is something the player wouldn't want to do. It's easier to get someone on board with robbing a bank than it is maybe taking hostages or something like that."
He added that the story will explore a "gray area" between cops and criminals, seeing as people will be able to play as both. It will just be a very fictional gray area using locations with real (but also different) gray areas as a backdrop.
But why not just go all-in and tackle the real thing? Why do a tightrope act when the sidewalk, taped off for a crime scene and chalked up though it might be, is right there? The short version: he doesn't feel like he can do it justice right now.
"We thought a lot about this kind of stuff when making the game," he confessed. "What you don't want to do is either give no or kind of muddy context to issues of real weight or moralism about stuff. So to tell the truth we just kind of avoid it."
"There were points in development where people were like, 'What if you had to choose between doing this and doing that and there were moral consequences to each choice?' And I kinda thought, 'Eh, this game is a clumsy medium to really give those questions the attention they deserve. So let's not do it that way.'"
Which is a perfectly valid way of looking at things. If you're gonna do something, especially something of serious weight, do it well. The question that arises from that stance, though, has multiple parts: 1) By replicating real world locations in extreme detail and playing with very relevant subject matters (even if only in a light way), are you really avoiding those issues, or just hand-picking the ones you want and ignoring the rest—painting an inaccurate picture? 2) Games so rarely tackle this stuff that one could easily come to believe that they're just not capable of it. That they can be light entertainment and little else.
Milham clarified his view on the latter point, noting that he thinks a game could absolutely do these issues justice. It's just not Battlefield Hardline. He compared his game's story to the TV show Justified, noting that someone else could make The Wire of games, maybe an indie developer.
That puts games in a rough spot, though, because we so rarely get that sort of content. Our baseline is much lower for stories that push real world boundaries, even in subject matters that games draw on all the time, like war and crime. It just doesn't happen. Papers, Please explored the notion of a fictional police state, but big budget games, especially, stay far, far away from the here and now. And if everyone keeps treating it as taboo—too much of a risk—then it might be a long time before that kind of thing does happen.
Milham acknowledged that as an entirely valid and useful concern, but he also brought up a very good point: people can make what they want. The medium of games is no sole developer's responsibility.
"Our goal with this game is to make something that's entertaining right off the bat and accessible, but also has a whole lot of hidden depth. Our goal with this, though, is not to make a significant comment. We could with a different one in the future. That would be cool. But that'd be for a different portion of the audience."
And he's totally correct. It's just a shame that there are so few games trying to really engage these issues where cops/crime is concerned. It makes things inherently skewed, which at best gives us less variety in the games we play and at worst colors people's opinion of these issues (if only ever so slightly) in a way that's not quite accurate. If nothing else, though, Milham and co are doing their best to make their game while keeping these things in mind.
"I mean, you have to think about how these things affect people," he concluded. "I've got kids, I'm part of a whole media landscape. I think the key idea as a responsible content creator is, you can have characters in your game express thoughts that aren't yours or aren't the company's, but you want to give appropriate context and tone to the topics you discuss."
Good intentions. Here's hoping for good results too.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.