The Heavy Pour

Beat It

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #112. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Three fingers of analysis when two will do.

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The Brooklyn streets of Pixel Crow’s Beat Cop are charming and colorful. The pixelated citizens of the 69th precinct (har-har/ugh/nice) park illegally in order to run a quick errand to the drugstore then pull away from the curb just as Jack Kelly, my cop avatar, is about to write them a ticket. There are alleyways with burning trash barrels, shady dealings and people taking shortcuts to wherever they’re going. A two-bit preacher proselytizes on the neighborhood’s church steps. A day in the life of my beat cop is convincingly filled with all the small movements of a city of hustlers. It’s a shame this evocative atmosphere is pretty much where my praise for the game ends.

The gameplay is a promising mix of Diner Dash and Papers, Please with quotas for parking tickets, broken tail light citations, etc. added to Kelly’s task list every day. In the midst of checking off these tasks he might be called upon to chase down a perp here and there, question witnesses to a back-alley murder or retrieve a dozen donuts for the police chief’s agoraphobic mother, in addition to possibly aligning himself with one or the other of the local criminal enterprises. This is all straightforward enough, but I struggled quite a bit with the controls. There’s a double-click mechanic to make Kelly sprint down the street, which is often necessary as the game’s internal clock accelerates a typical workday, but I found the game only recognized my double-taps a portion of the time. At first I thought this was due to my playing on my relatively small iPhone screen, but ran into the same problem when I tried the game on my iPad. This might be an issue relegated to touch screens as opposed to a mouse, but the artificial stress it adds to an already hectic playstyle is frustrating in the exact wrong way and led to me restarting days and losing a good chunk of the progress I had made.

Now, not to bury the lede, but the game is also bewilderingly racist. This message from the developers greets players at the top of the game:

“When we were kids we spent countless hours on watching 80’s TV cop shows. We loved watching good guys kicking bad guys [sic] asses, saving beautiful women and driving muscle cars into the night. We knew they weren’t true, but we didn’t care. We had [sic] damn good time and that’s what counted. Beat Cop is not a document about New York in the 80s. It’s our tribute to all those evenings spent in front of the TV. So… relax, enjoy the game and don’t take life too seriously.”

I thought this an odd missive when I started my first playthrough but now I can’t help but wonder if this is a directive to “relax” about the various white characters incessantly calling the black ones “darkies” or referring to an Asian dry cleaner (yikes) as a “gook” (double yikes). The choice to keep the racist name-calling on the “tamer” side –no n-words are bandied about – shows that the devs knew they were playing with fire, so I’m completely flummoxed as to why they’d do it all. Is this supposed to be more authentically eighties? I guess, but it’s not like there isn’t plenty of racism to go around these days. Or is this lifted from the eighties TV shows they watched, since they specifically say the game’s not meant to be a document of the city at that time? Pixel Crow is not an American developer, so is this what they think Americans are like? Who exactly is this game for?

Between the art and the characterization – Jack Kelly is a detective demoted to beat cop due to a call gone wrong at a senator’s house, but he’s clearly a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules – the game handles its eighties pastiche so well already that this insistence on a racist veneer is baffling. The character that complains about the dry cleaner does so every single day. “That gook ruined my dry-cleaning again,” he complains on a loop, leaving me to wonder why he keeps repeatedly bringing his suits in at all. There’s no deeper commentary to the incidences of racism, leading me to believe they’re there merely for atmosphere – an inessential decision that’s completely game-ruining, and that’s before taking into account the gross sexism directed towards the precinct’s lone female officer. Listen, most of us don’t have to go back to the eighties to hear some idiot colleague talk about the sensitive head of his penis at a morning meeting, believe it or not. Did the devs somehow miss the whole #metoo movement entirely?

Worst of all, there’s no way for the player character to respond to these denigrations. As Jack Kelly, I can work with the racists or for their rivals, but both choices make me a crooked cop. I pretty much just have to sit there while my female colleague gets harassed. It’s a pity – stylistically Beat Cop is firing on all cylinders and with a few adjustments, the gameplay could be a fun little time management sim. I don’t need every game I play to be straight escapist fantasy, but I do expect them to have a point of view when including the uglier parts of the real world, or to at least give me the chance to express mine.

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Sara Clemens thinks too much about things, generally. She runs a site called Videodame and retweets stuff on Twitter @thesaraclemens.

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