Some experiences never leave us. I still have many fond memories from childhood of playing with my RoboCop and ED-209 action figures. Like many of my peers, I saw RoboCop far too early, and had my share of nightmares watching Peter Weller’s body (double) getting pulpified like so much fruit in a blender. We were definitely too young for it, but at the same time, we grew up in its enormous shadow, its branding, and its merchandise. We were marked forever by the film, and in innumerable ways.
Even though RoboCop itself wasn’t for children, the toys certainly were. No one seemed to question why violent adult movies could produce a line of action figures meant to reenact that violence, just in abstracted and analogized ways. No one could stop us from being swayed by the toy commercials we caught in between Saturday morning episodes of Gargoyles and Tailspin. These commercials sold us on the figures, with features like realistic body damage, interchangeable torsos made to reflect the ways RoboCop’s armor would become warped and pockmarked by gunfire over the course of the film. The toys also came with explosive strips you could feed into a slot in their back. Flicking their arms like a hammer would strike the paper internally and cause a small incendiary pop, meant to mimic the firing of a gun, and our small bedroom would soon fill up with the acrid smell of smoke.
My brother and I loved playing with these figurines, even if we always ran out of explosive strips after a few days and had to beg our parents to order more. Our miniature skirmishes were endless fun, seeing if RoboCop would triumph once again over the evil ED-209, or if the jumbo bipedal baddie might finally turn the tables and crush the metallic do-gooder under its heavy treads.
We didn’t think much about the narrative or politics of the film back then; it wasn’t a natural possibility, considering how young we were. Our focus was on the figures we held in our hands, the petty dramas we could enact between them, not to mention the quippy catch phrases I could spout off as my doll kicked my brother’s off the table top, sending it skittering across the bedroom floor, with him, cursing, chasing after it.
Playing RoboCop: Rogue City thirty years on, I’m brought back to these early experiences. The game triggers less my nostalgia for the films themselves than the toys the films were responsible for. Rogue City is, itself, much like a toy, a replica model, which perfectly captures every relevant detail, every texture and feature of RoboCop’s blue-gray armor, down to the last rivet.
And when you’re in the thick of an in-game firefight, stomping through '80s office buildings and graffiti-choked streets and alleyways, watching bullets bounce off your armor, seeing crust punks liquify as you bear down on them with your iconic sidearm, it certainly feels as if you’re playing as RoboCop. Less personifying him than holding his action figure aloft as you regurgitate his famous lines, stiffly march and turn and aim and shoot. It feels just like I’m back in my old room, alongside my brother, holding plastic and rubber, thinking of it as shining metal and chrome.
Playing with toys can be an inward-facing, self-contained experience. They exist within worlds built purely of imagination, in the interest of blind escapism. This type of play allows us to block out everything else, hyperfocusing on image, aesthetic, sound, and feel.
It feels good to play as RoboCop in Rogue City, to play with this particular toy. Weller’s delivery retains its perfect, mechanical baritone; his jawline is as sharply well-defined; his lips are maybe even more rounded and plump and well-moisturized than memory serves. His animation, his nutcracker soldier stomp continues to click forward in perfect lockstep.
What doesn’t feel as good is anything else in the game. Its world is so clearly a simulacrum of the film and its specific, narrow image of '80s Detroit, stretched into a bizarre and cartoonish flatness. Rogue City’s cardboard figurines can't possibly convey the same sentiments that the film carried: '80s paranoia of gang violence, of corporate malfeasance. The backdrop to the original film’s release was, after all, the infamous Savings and Loan crisis which saw Wall Street (not for the last time) churn through middle class retirement accounts with gleeful avarice.
Rogue City can certainly ape the language of the films and its setting, but it speaks without understanding, utters the words without really meaning them. Not unlike a ten year old kid yelling “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
Perhaps this says something about games as a whole, at least games that try to do the same kind of thing Rogue City does: perfect the aesthetic, master the simulation, parrot the genius and imagination of better stories. They’re closer to toys than to anything else, digital action figures with million dollar budgets that excel mainly at taking us back to the feelings we were forced to relinquish as we left childhood and entered adulthood.
Playing games like Rogue City means smashing action figures against each other, means reliving those lost years of innocent, heedless play. We want to believe, of course, that we’re doing something entirely different; more grown-up, more mature. That’s why Rogue City goes to such lengths to wrap itself in the mantle of gravitas, by paying lip service to social concerns through anemic cutscenes and occasional UI pop-ups that remind you that “Your actions will have political impact.”
But the game’s world feels hollow, its politics without any real meaning. It’s a world that begins and ends at RoboCop’s wide-treaded feet, everything serving the purpose of proving you’re doing something more nuanced than blasting your way through mazes, that you’re a grownup, even if you’re not exactly acting like one.
My childhood was marked by RoboCop, my adulthood invariably influenced by it. From an early age, my memories include flashes of steel and chrome and acid-drenched henchmen. Those flashes are joined by other images from my childhood: cops standing over the bloodied and bruised body of Rodney King, the splintered wooden plunger cops used to rape Abner Louima. We grow in shapes formed not only by the news we hear, the rules set down by our parents, their hopes and fears (that I not end up another victim of an errant cop’s violent outburst) but also the games we play; the toys we construct our imaginations around.
I grew up learning to fear police, but I also grew up loving a movie that in many ways valorizes them, depicting them as beaten down, underfunded protectors, doing the thankless work of protecting a doomed city. In the world outside, I knew never to ask a cop for anything. But every day in my bedroom I’d take my little supercop out of his box and pretend to be him.
Games, like toys, seem harmless. But they can still shape you, still carry messages in their aesthetics which inform how you see the world. In Rogue City, the cops are once again our heroes, perhaps even more plainly so than in the film. These toy cops don’t bear much resemblance to the cops out in reality. They’re just xeroxes of the distant memory of a story that’s decades out of date.
What good are they, then?
With Rogue City, we got to play with the toy, live in our memory, disconnected from anything real. But maybe it’s better, at times, to put the toys away. To see what exists beyond our nostalgia, beyond playing at cops, knocking plastic together, in our little bedrooms, blind to the world.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.