I finally caught up to Payday: The Heist the other day and, short story long, before actually going hands-on with it, I described it to several people as "Kane and Lynch, minus the boring parts." Well, no…it's got the boring parts. Different kind of boring, but yeah, still boring.
I guess that Halloween store was all out of former-president masks.
Mark it down as gaming's latest attempt to re-create the heart-punching intensity of Michael Mann's cops vs. robbers opus, Heat. Specifically, that film's daytime downtown gunfight, where ruthless criminals with assault weapons pull a heist and shoot through an army of cops to escape with the loot. That's basically the gist of all six Payday scenarios.
And that's where things get a little weird. See, minus a bunch of backtracking and annoyingly arbitrary mid-heist fetch quests, you spend almost the entire game gunning down police officers. Forget any hope at a sugar-coat. You're a cop killer, period. Is that OK?
Hey, my soul's not clean. I've aced my share of virtual law enforcement in games like Grand Theft Auto and the aforementioned Kane and Lynch. You'll even find a short moment in Battlefield 3 where you're obliged to perforate a few of Paris' finest for the greater good. But let's back up a second…in all those games, you spend as much — and generally more — time shooting your fellow criminals than law-abiding citizens. Maybe that doesn't exactly balance out the karmic scales, but at least you don't play favorites.
Payday does. And as a four-player co-op game, you're encouraged to work together to make sure no good guys survive while your handler shouts over the radio how awesome you are.
But here's the really interesting bit: While in many cases, specific objectives task you with murdering every cop that spawns in a 5-10 minute period, Payday actually docks you cash for wasting any civilians. Talk about mixed signals. Are you supposed to be some kind of stone killer in a clown mask with a heart of gold? Sure, you can take them hostage, but show any bystander the same courtesy anybody with a badge gets, and you're out $10,000, minimum.
Virtual cops don't get very good training.
Presumably, this gets developer Overkill Software off the hook for the whole "shooting unarmed people in the back" thing, though you have to wonder why they bothered. A lot of gamers figure it's all just pixels anyway, so who cares? I don't subscribe to that rather lazy thinking — would you apply it to an interactive rape scene? — but I do always make a very clear distinction between real-world morality and virtual morality. Those are two very different things.
It's okay to sympathize with the devil in literature, film, and television (see Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver, The Sopranos, Dexter, and Breaking Bad for details). Why not games? The same escapist thrill we get from watching people break society's rules translates rather nicely to a game that lets us break those rules ourselves…all from the safe distance a fiction affords us. Hell, that's a big part of the appeal. Such entertainment remains as wildly popular today as when Shakespeare let Richard II chew up scenery (and most of his relatives) back in the 16th century.
In Payday's case, we're definitely not talking Shakespeare. Only the genuinely disturbed or chronically stupid will regard something so uninspired as a blueprint for real-world mayhem. I can absolutely label Payday as harmless, but here's the other bias I'm working from: I've got a brother-in-law who's a cop. I don't like the idea of shooting him.
Hey, it's perfectly fine to do things in a game that you'd never do in real life, but it's also easy to single out what truly feels wrong about Payday's approach: the total lack of consequences.
No, Mr. Chuckles! Nooooooooo!
In this day and age, it just feels a bit off when a complete bastard lives happily ever after, particularly one who routinely leaves a pile of dead uniforms on a choke-point stairwell. Kane, Lynch, and Grand Theft Auto 4's Niko Bellic all pay heavy personal tolls for their chosen lifestyles. Richard II doesn't rule for very long, and those criminals from Heat all end up dead or alone. Hell, GTA made consequences into a core gameplay mechanic. You'll find exceptions, but narrative tradition demands that there are no clean getaways.
Payday doesn't get that. Someone's in your way, so it's only right and natural to blast 'em like you would any zombie, alien, terrorist, or Nazi. Except, of course, this time they're police officers who show up to stop you from hurting any innocents.
Like it or not, there's a big difference. At least, there should be.