The Benevolent Specter of Vintage Games — SWAT 4 in 2021

The first mission in SWAT 4 seemed open and shut. A suspect by the name of Lawrence Fairfax has taken Melinda Kline captive, and the tension is high enough for the team to get called in.

The layout of the house is complex. There is a front door entrance directly onto an open staircase, which can be a kill funnel for anyone who posts up on the living room. The garage entrance nearby is much safer for an initial entrance, but the secondary door is a long hallway that is too dangerous for both fireteams to sit in. An approach I eventually go for is a simultaneous entry through the backdoor and the front door, with a slight pause for the back door fireteam to acquire any suspects or civilians in the living room before the front door team enters to provide overwatch to the staircase. I’m providing extra fire support with the backdoor team, ordering respirators on for everybody as we go tear gas first and short, flashbangs long immediately after, as there is too much ground to cover for it all. As we enter, we peel left to find a perp with a pistol, but not Lawrence. We don’t know who he is or where he came from, but there is no time to debate the matter. We order him to the ground, and I have pepper spray in case he does not comply. With the flashbang, luckily well-placed in the living room, he immediately dropped his gun out of shock. Thanks to the tear gas, he was covering his eyes and on the ground. I cuff him and we continue on in the mission.

It is a great lesson for the first mission of this video game, made in 2005 by Irrational Games for the PC. We were not told about this perpetrator, and when I had a chance to get a glimpse at his face (pixelated and dated as it was for the time period) I could see that he was younger, much younger than Lawrence Fairfax. Maybe he was a relative at the wrong place and time. Maybe Fairfax put him up to it. As we descended into the basement of the house, the horror show that awaited us attempted to harken back to Silence of the Lambs (1991). The long and the short of that mission warns you that despite the wealth of information presented to the team before entry, no amount of information is perfect. Strangely, that scenario was not covered in the tutorial, so I’m of the opinion that the developers want you to be surprised on the spot, in order to push you into rash decision making. At the end of the mission, a player is awarded a score. In SWAT 4, players earn a better score for taking suspects alive.

That might be a difficult pill to swallow in 2021. According to a Vox article from 2015 on no-knock raids, some 20,000 are done on average each year in the United States, and 80% of them are simply search warrants, rather than a crisis situation. Since the 1970s and 1980s, when a crackdown on drug use escalated a militarized and brash police force, it became easier to accomplish no-knock raids out of an excuse that drug users were dangerous, or that evidence could be flushed or destroyed before law enforcement arrived. Never mind the question, I suppose, of why such lethal force is necessary if the evidence can be removed that quickly…

The trajectory of this no-knock raid system came to a head with Breonna Taylor, a 26 year old woman who died defending her home, unaware of the actions taken against her. The targets of the operation were Jamarcus Glover and Adrian Walker who were believed to be sellers of drugs and narcotics.

In SWAT 4, not a single case has involved the kind that are the 80% of dealings with executing a search warrants. This is one of the ways in which the game swerves the system towards the ideal of what Special Weapons and Tactics are used for in the first place. Early missions include a hostage situation at a restaurant, a hostage situation in a convenience store, and a gang war with shooting in progress at an urban arcade. In each of these scenarios, it is already the case that negotiations have ceased, and you’ve been briefed. You get to be the tactical hero.

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” as the saying goes.

In each of the missions, what awaits you is something I miss from older video games, which is a huge amount of background information to help embellish the scenario. The farther back you go in games development, the more text you see alongside it, as the fidelity of the experience was not immersive enough on its own terms like it (supposedly) is today. So with each mission you get a map, often hand-drawn, you get a multi-paragraph briefing, you get a timeline of events, you get bios of known suspects and civilians, and you get a loadout page to pick your weapons and equipment. A side effect of this compensation in the mid-2000s is that each scenario feels paradoxically more grounded than the video games of today. In Modern Warfare (2019), all you get before “Operation Clean House” is a time (0100) and a place (Camden, UK). “Targets are inside” goes the cutscene, and then it’s boots on the ground. Then it’s rip and tear. Granted, the context between law enforcement and a militarized “SAS Anti-terror Wing” is slightly different, but the goals are the same: wouldn’t you want to take prisoners alive?

What makes SWAT 4 unbelievably fun to play has little to do with rip and tear, but more a behind-the-scenes decision system by the player of what exactly needs to be ripped, and what needs to be torn. The player has more tools for non-lethal engagement, and again, players are rewarded for taking people alive. If you are shooting your weapon, that can be construed as a failure. There are cases of course where shooting seems impossible. In the arcade gang war, for example, we were briefed that this is a bad part of town, which means that viewpoints on law enforcement were generally low. Tensions were high, and shots had already been fired, which meant it seemed easy to shoot more. In this briefing, I could tell the developers were telling me one of two things: either it was time to rip and tear, or they were encouraging me to break my code. The arcade has one of the most complex layouts seen yet, with an open second story overlooking the machines down below, which means a longer range for the perpetrator. And that means, with a challenge to close distance, that it further encourages a shootout. Luckily a careful observation of the second floor shows multiple entrances, with a covered staircase that left the suspect bewildered at the double entry. He gave up quickly. Were it not for one particular scenario where my team and I botched a room clearing (I forgot about the connecting room, and that door was already open), then the entire arcade would have been handled without firing my weapon. Each location has multiple set-pieces, and these set-pieces have multiple strategies, and the brilliance of the game comes from when a player has cornered himself into having to make later decisions based on bungled earlier ones. There is a 180 degree range of options at the start of the location, but the more the player delves in, that cone begins to narrow, sometimes in small ways, other times drastically, and it all happens in real time. Handcuffs, pepper spray, door wedges, tear gas, flashbangs, stun guns, breaching shotguns, sniper support, vests and armor. Each piece of equipment, rather than be a lateral movement in ripping and tearing, opens up a whole new avenue for completing the mission. And with four difficulty levels, the player is going to need them. With the advent of the now almost necessary Elite Force mod, the game is widened even more so, with modernizing the game to higher resolutions, better AI, and even some back end work with permadeath (you die, your campaign ends), and hardcore modes (if you fail a mission, your campaign ends).

Thanks to a coronavirus pandemic, the situation with video games is bleak. One would have thought that it would have been a great opportunity for socially distant game playing and development, but it turned out that much of game development requires central networks, organic collaboration, and next-generation consoles to be manufactured. All of these have faced hurdles, and although some games have managed to come out at the tail end of their development, echoes will soon arrive in which barely anything comes out. Hell, it’s happening right now. In playing older games like SWAT 4, the sad truth about this moment is that modern video games were not doing so well before the pandemic. Rather than focus on widening feature sets, developers focused on open world games in which the same action could be repeated, albeit in different contexts. We chose GPU instead of CPU. In SWAT 4, different contexts means different actions, and that is a small but hugely important difference. And while the game community waits for indie developers to change the landscape in tactical shooting with titles like Insurgency: Sandstorm, Ground Branch, and Ready or Not, I do not have high hopes. Each game is mired in unforeseen conflicts, likely due to the lower skill level of their engineers, combined with how much effort it takes artists to produce the graphical fidelity we see today. Not only that, but in a video game environment where AI programming has dropped out of vogue for years in favor of player-versus-player engagements, it is likely difficult for anyone to have skills in that department that allows for these games to flourish. As a result of all this, SWAT 4 embarrasses later tactical shooting games for providing distinctive gameplay a decade and a half ago that is more complex, and more punishing, than video games today.

And while I have no qualms about violence in video games, I do think there is a case to be made for simulations that encourage a multi-tiered approach to conflict resolution. In most shooting games today, it is not the violence I am concerned with, more that violence seems to be the only answer. In Doom, I get it. Hell is a terrible place, and they all need to die…again. But for many of the real world scenarios, games stand to gain in the variety achieved from multiple resolutions.

We can choose as consumers to be enmeshed in these beautiful museum pieces, these shooters that have the thumbnails on the back-of-their-product-box that fool us into buying. Or we can start asking for games that take a step back from pushing the bar on graphics, and instead allow us to ask deep questions about why we’re shooting in the first place.

Originally published at on March 17, 2021.

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.

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