Retrogamer: On the Streets… of Rage

“This city was once a happy peaceful place,” the opening text scrawl tells us.

“Until one day a powerful secret criminal organization took over. This vicious syndicate soon had control of the government, and even the police force. The city has become a center of violence and crime where no one is safe. Amid this turmoil, a group of determined young police officers has sworn to clean up the city. Among them are Adam Hunter, Axel Stone, and Blaze Fielding. They are willing to risk anything—even their lives—on the streets of rage.”

I love that opening. No further context is needed, no additional story required, which is good cause there isn’t any. Just simply stated. “There are killer bad guys out there. Go beat ’em up in name of law and order or whatever.”

It took me a long time to appreciate games with fuller, more complex premises. Eventually I got into RPGs and the wealth of storytelling found in them, but it was a slow process. To me, there was just too much going on—I wanted something simple that didn’t require but so much thinking on my end. I just wanted to play a cool-looking hero who felt powerful against the bad guys. I didn’t need to know who the bad guys were—outside of what they looked like—and I didn’t need or want to know their motivations and circumstances, or anything outside their badness. Largely, it was fulfilling the fantasy of getting to be the hero.

I think most everyone respects the hero image. A hero who’s battle-hardened and standing just as determined at the end as they were at the beginning. A hero who’s fought their way through the night’s trials to finally arrive at a point where all that stands between them and their goal is a door.Behind that door, final showdown. Most everything action oriented thrives on that imagery.

Heroes simplify life, they tell us that no matter what it always comes down to the hero and their nemesis, and no matter how complex the issue—street crime, terrorism, human trafficking—in the end it always turns out there’s one person behind it all. And one person opposing it. That’s comforting, I think, because it makes us believe these ills—be they drugs, crime, or in the case of Streets of Rage, really big guys with boomerangs—can all be cleaned up. Order can be restored, and all it takes is one good person. That’s uniquely American mythology as I’ve experienced. We like thinking there’s a “good cop” who can save us from the “bad guys.”

I used to think that way, but my world is more complex now. I look at things through a more dissecting lens. I’ll put it like this: I love the movie Demolition Man because the convention is cool—the hero and nemesis are sent through time together to do battle in a distant and strange future. As kid that was about all I focused on, that and the action and the one scene with a naked woman. But now, I see a story about how police brutality saves a future of wimpy virgin intellectuals from a karate ultra thug.

In what I’ve come to think of as an aging conservative’s snarky vision of a dystopian future, people in the year 2024 are no longer used to conflict. Everyone speaks in needlessly “wordy” language and people are fined for using profanity. No one is used to physical contact, anything considered “bad for you” is illegal, and everyone dresses in a phoney style appropriated from Asian fashion. Oh yeah—no one kisses or fucks anymore either, because that’s gross and diseased—instead they put on VR helmets and spit a lot of techno-babble.

The police in this world are gentle voiced babysitters whose major duties are enforcing curfews and arresting people who curse too much. So, when an old world convict who’s too violent and dangerous for them escapes, “an old fashioned cop” has to be defrosted to deal with him.

And what’s immediately apparent there is the ultimate contempt for the law. In the movie, Stallone’s character is clearly meant to represent the “right way” of doing things, and he’s a hard-cussing, hard-fighting cop who routinely engages in practices well beyond excessive force. He shoots first and asks questions never and that’s okay because he’s the good guy, protecting the rest of society from the scum.

He’s first introduced during the LA riots—a time of such total lawlessness and mass gangs of conscienceless criminals that on-sight executions and mass destruction of property is deemed totally acceptable and warranted and lauded. This is classic “good guy cop” hero imagery. When he breaks the law, it’s because the law is outmoded, corrupt and intractable, and basically just in the fucking way of what he really needs to do. And we cheer for this, all of us. We root for the cop to stack the body count up and teach those punks a lesson. In the movies and on TV and in our video games, everyone likes “Excessive Force Cop.”

The villain, Snipes, by contrast, is described as “a criminal the likes of which you’ve never seen.” His blatant sadism is remarked upon often. They literally highlight on the screen that he is a rapist. He’s a “superpredator,” to quote Hillary Clinton.

He’s a classic trope too, the bad guy. I mean the really bad guy. No conscience, no remorse, completely irredeemable, guilty of every horrible crime we can think of. Of course he just happens to be black, and, broadly speaking, he’s completely deserving of death. There’s literally no other way to stop him. He’s aided by a mass of similarly evil henchmen, none of whom are important but all of whom also need to die.

Minus the conventions, this is every police action flick. Hero cop versus villain and his gang of criminals.

Those criminals become a group that we deem inhuman and deserving of humiliation, torture, and death. We apply a simplistic black-and-white morality where there’s only two sides and one choice of where to stand. “Draw a line in the sand” cowboy thinking.

That kind of simplification doesn’t describe the real world. In the real world each one of those criminals is a person. Each of those criminals has a life with its own rich cast of characters. Each of those criminals is an individual, not a nameless and insignificant part of a horde of interchangeable faces and clothing—which is how they’re treated in Demolition Man and other movies. Which is how they’re treated in Streets of Rage.

I understand character sprites and budgets and timelines and how games work. I also understand that society isn’t a vacuum and media both influences and is influenced by culture. Media both reflects and distorts the reflection of everything society believes. Sometimes that distortion shows the likable shit—superhero movies showcasing the selflessness, tenacity, and unimaginable potential in every person. Sometimes what’s staring back is the ugly.

In Streets of Rage, the entire point is to wade through endless hordes of street punks, all of whom look exactly the same except for sometimes having different colored hair or clothes. The justification for beating them all to death with bare hands, pipes, baseball bats, knives, broken bottles, or even a bazooka is that they’re on the street and attacking the player. But that’s okay, because the characters are fighting back in self-defense and they’re cops.

Except they’re fucking not, and that’s the fucking point—the character bios clearly state at the beginning that all three characters are ex-cops. Which makes them vigilantes and completely outside the law—criminals themselves. But that’s still okay, because in Streets of Rage, and in real life, cops and cop-wannabes are given passes to break the law. They get that pass because people are scared, because people want them to break the law. Because we believe there are “bad guys” out there, “really bad hombres,” as the President-elect put it. And someone’s gotta go get them, take them out, make them pay. Bad guys and everyone like them deserve to die, and it honestly really doesn’t much matter how, is how the thinking goes.

We Americans believe that because in part of simplistic morality and worldviews that often lack context and perspective. But also, we believe in the whole good guy/bad guy nonsense because people can’t separate fiction from reality. People believe what they see on TV and in the movies and in their video games to be real. Anyone whose parents watch Law & Order or Criminal Minds or any other crime drama knows the tropes: “They’re tracking people’s cell phones to find and murder them,” or, “They put the drugs in sugar packets to trick you and get you hooked.”  

People, lots of them, believe crime is a monolithic entity. People believe fights look and happen the way they do on TV or in video games. Hell, people believe that sex looks like what they see in porn. People believe in heroes and villains and good versus bad, and in the American zeitgeist, good versus bad often looks like cop versus criminal. People think that’s how the world works. They either forget or don’t understand that media is a distorted reflection, and that the extent of distortion can look like a funhouse mirror.

This isn’t some rant against “sheeple” or any such bullshit; the fact that people largely can’t separate fact from fantasy isn’t a matter of anyone being at fault. To large degree, it’s a product of  being born into circumstances that don’t allow for anything different. Tens of millions of Americans go their entire lives without witnessing or living through anything violent–without ever getting into a fight. By definition they have no experience with the reality. They can only understand it through what’s presented to them and what’s presented to them most are the images in popular media. It’s not a matter of fault. That doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for those images, though, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s nothing to fear.

Because the simplistic belief in bad guys as “bosses” creates a horrifying collective ability to casually hand-wave away a person’s life.

Once we’ve labeled someone, or an entire type of someone’s, “bad guys,” they lose all humanity. In Streets of Rage it looks like being one of the multitudes of faceless NPCs that get killed. In our national dialogue, it sounds like, “Drug dealers are trash, sex workers are disposable.” It sounds like, “The cities are full of crime and gangs and superpredators.”

I’ve had to deal with the repercussions of that image in our society since I was a kid. Just for looking similar to a “bad guy,” I’ve had the cops called on me, I’ve been arrested in abusive ways, and I’ve had cops pull their guns on me.

I know, intimately, what it’s like to be seen as criminal. Because I am one. I drink and smoke weed in public. I trespass, and tag, and draw, and paint murals on walls without anyone’s permission. I’ve been broke, so broke that my option was “do whatever it takes,” and I have. I’ve gotten in fights and I’ve resisted arrest and I’ve helped raise my best friend’s daughter after he was murdered. I’ve done whatever it took to build a college fund for her, even when I was broke and unemployed. I’ve gotten my masters degree and I’ve written book and I spend my days teaching at the university I attended.

I’m not bragging here. I’m posing a question: I’m a criminal—do I deserve to be beat to death or executed on sight?

I talk about this often with my students, the difference between looking at a thing and really seeing it.

Say there’s a farmer in a rural area of another country. This farmer sells his daughter to a brothel. Just looking at that situation, the immediate response is to condemn that farmer, think him an evil awful man, a man some would say is deserving of death. But pull back the lens and see that farmer has five kids. They all help with farm work but he’s too poor to feed them. That farmer’s choice is to sell one of his children and use the money to feed the others, or watch them all starve. His actions aren’t excused, but the picture is far less simplistic. And that understanding needs to be applied to all crime.

Even gangs—which tend to hold a special spot in the public conscience as embodying the worst of the worst about crime—exist the same way.

I live in the city described in the opening text of Streets of Rage, a city that is notoriously violent and deadly. I live in a city where corruption has taken over the police department. I live in a city where most anyone will be quick to tell you that it ain’t a fuckin game out here in these streets. Our nickname is Bodymore, Murderland, and when tourists visit someone inevitably asks if living here is “really like The Wire.” We’re famous for the images of rioting, looting criminals. In my city, the Crips and Bloods feed the homeless. In my city, the three largest gangs unite to push community-building programs and take nonviolent stands against police brutality.

What I’m saying is, and it’s odd that I have to point this out: gang members are people too. Even the scary ones. And there are no masses of interchangeable thugs. And there are no bad guys, and there are no good guys—there’s only people. All of them complicated, all of them meaningful.

And while I think it’s easy to dismiss pleas for humanity as “soft-heartedness,” at some point we all have to reckon with the arbitrary nature of these distinctions; who’s good and who’s bad and who gets a pass for what crimes. Because the truth is we’re all criminals.

We all break the law. We speed, we jaywalk, we spit on sidewalks. We download movies and music without paying anything for them. We smoke pot, sneak alcohol into places, lie on our taxes, and piss outside.

We’re all criminals, and people are loathe to admit that because they know how we treat criminals. I understand what it’s like to be looked at as the bad guy all the time. I think most people blindly believe that they’ll never experience being a criminal. Everyone thinks they won’t get caught.  The truth is, it’s in the state’s best interest not to give you a second chance because you are profitable. Private prisons need bodies in the cells to make money and any body will do. If the day comes where it’s your body, you’ll understand what it’s like to be the bad guy too.