Spoiler Alert: The ending of the video game is detailed in the last paragraph in this article.
I remember being a bit confused the first time I saw Die Hard as a kid. I didn’t understand why John McClane had endangered his own life during his first encounter with one of the criminals who had taken over Nakatomi Plaza. The bad man and his friends had taken hostages, and I’d watched enough stories on the evening news to know that taking hostages was something terrorists did, and that terrorists were just about as bad as bad guys get.
I’d also played enough video games and seen enough movies to know that if you’re one of the good guys, it’s okay to kill the bad guys. And this particular bad guy had already tried to kill McClane with his machine gun. When McClane stops the criminal and tells him to drop his gun, the criminal says, “You won’t hurt me. Because you’re a policeman. There are rules for policemen.”
I asked my mom why McClane had to do this, and she patiently explained to me that police officers couldn’t just go around shooting people, even if those people were “bad guys,” because if they did, they’d be no better than the bad guys.
Now, the latest game in the long-running Battlefield series, Battlefield Hardline, transfers the franchise’s combat from military scenarios to conflicts between cops and criminals on American streets. Even before the tragedies of Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice -- black male lives lost to unchecked police force -- and the civil unrest that followed in the wake of these events, there was something deeply uncomfortable about the way Hardline’s early marketing material fetishized the militarization of police equipment as a way of appealing to the game’s would-be players. Note the slow-motion shot of the molotov hitting the riot shield in this early teaser trailer for the game, the way the music kicks in, as if to say that as long as you’re the one with the power to withstand it and put it down, civil unrest is fun because it gives you a reason to employ and enjoy that power.
Hardline’s single-player storyline has nothing to do with riots or civil unrest, but it is all about the enjoyment of unchecked police power. You play as Nick Mendoza, a Miami cop. And here, there are no “rules for policemen.” Handcuffed by the first-person shooter genre in which it exists and the expectations of players familiar with the genre and the Battlefield franchise, Hardline must let you simply gun down enemies. This isn’t wartime and you’re not a soldier, but nonetheless, there are no consequences whatsoever for opening fire on criminals, for shooting first and asking questions never.
In fact, the game’s mechanics encourage this approach by making the option to arrest criminals an exercise in tedium. In order to arrest criminals, you must sneak up on them, then flash your badge to freeze them in place, then click a button to handcuff them, an action which bizarrely also serves to render them unconscious (complete with little Z’s floating out of their heads), preventing them from calling out and revealing your presence to other criminals. Even if you submit to the tedium and try to progress through as much of the game as possible using this non-lethal approach, there are situations in which criminals are aware of your presence and gunning for you, and your only option is to slaughter them.
Hardline’s narrative is explicitly structured as a ten-episode cop drama, complete with Netflix-style countdowns when one episode ends and the next is about to begin. But its TV show aspirations only undermine the game; the gameplay suffers because of its need to function as a cop drama, and the cop drama suffers because of its need to function as a video game. Investigative police work is reduced to the most rudimentary of processes: a CSI-style scanner vibrates whenever you are near evidence, and analyzing the evidence is done by holding a button. Technology does it all; the only thing you have to worry about is dealing with the bad guys.
Meanwhile, the story succeeds at its low aim of mimicking the tone of a slick but goofy Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS crime show. Hardline’s world is populated with wisecracking supporting characters and sinister villains who live in lavish L.A. mansions and appear on huge TV screens to spout monologues at you. This I can accept, if I must. But even the most ludicrous crime drama doesn’t involve cops opening fire on groups of criminals and leaving them all dead. Yet here, you can gun down a bunch of criminals, then watch a scene in which your character is presented as the reasonable, level-headed one in a department populated with hotheads and corrupt cops. It actively works to present your character, and by extension your actions, as normal, under the circumstances.
Hardline’s story doesn’t ignore the fact that you may have qualms about your actions as an officer of the law in modern-day Miami. Instead, it tries to dismiss them. After one bloodbath at a location called the Elmore Hotel, your captain says, "There's going to be some complaints about the Elmore. Excessive force, etc. etc. Don't worry about it."
There you go. The game has acknowledged, addressed, and dismissed any concerns you might have had about the fact that you just gunned down a dozen or more people. This is how so many video game narratives are designed to work, justifying the use of violence as your primary or sole means of interacting with other characters and answering questions before they’re even asked: Of course I had to slaughter all those people. They would have slaughtered me otherwise. How convenient. Applying this mindset to war is one thing. Applying it to law enforcement is something entirely different. There’s no divorcing a game that lets you play as a cop who can get away with murder, no matter how much it’s dressed up as a fantasy, from the political fabric of contemporary America.
But hey, don’t worry; if your conscience still nags at you about using your position as a police officer to commit murder, well, in the end it turns out that the man who was ordering you to do these things was corrupt himself. Both you the player and your character Mendoza were but bumbling pawns in his schemes, and in the end, you get to take your sweet revenge.
“You’re just like me, more criminal than cop,” the villain says.
“You know what, you’re right,” Mendoza replies -- before killing him in cold blood, the 50th or 100th or 250th person whose blood is on Mendoza’s hands.
You’re rewarded with unfathomable wealth and power, the keys to the dead man’s empire. This, the game says, is victory. Power corrupts, but as long as you’re the one with the power, that is awesome.