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Wot I Think: 911 Operator

Police, ambulance or fire services?

A few days before Christmas, I was involved in a car accident. No-one was seriously hurt, but I spent 90 minutes stood alone on a central reservation, shaking from both cold and shock, watching car after car after car nearly collide with my own wrecked and dangerously stranded vehicle, waiting for police who never came. I called twice. Both times I was told they'd be right there. They did not show (FYI roadside recovery did eventually, an hour after their ETA). I was as furious as I was terrified.

15 minutes with 911 Operator [official site] was all it took to entirely sympathise with why they didn't send a car out.

The rule here is "if nobody's dying, there's no hurry". Squad cars, ambulances and fire engines - the holy rescue trinity in this emergency services strategy game - are forever at a premium. Dispatch one to help resolve a situation that is, at the time of a call, bloodless and there's every chance you'll find you can't send anyone to help an even more serious situation. Or it's simply that all your cars are on other, non-lethal calls, so whichever unforunate just dialled up simply has to wait.

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Maybe all the police in Dartford were in a stand-off with armed criminals when I called. Maybe there was a particularly high number of disputes about trees growing into neighbour's yards. Maybe my story just didn't meet the operators' criteria for calamity. I mean, no-one did get hurt in the end. They made their judgement calls. Perhaps they were right.

But they could have been wrong, as I have been several times in 911 Operator. I told someone who asked for a pizza to stop wasting my time, failing to twig that they were pretending to the other, violent person in the room with them that this was the purpose of their call. They ended up in hospital. The next day, I was slightly more inquisitive about but ultimately again dismissive of a woman's complaint about how loud her neighbour's TV was, and only later did I find out it was because the man had died in his own living room.

Judgement calls. 911 Operator is all about judgement calls. It's a quiet revelation about scenarios I imagine most of us have suspected but never fully thought about. The other revelation is that initial panic and guilt about these kinds of situations soon gives way to cold utilitarianism. My thoughts shifted away from "I have to help this person" or "what if there's more to this than meets the eye?" and into "well, nothing is obviously wrong, so I just can't justify the units," and increasingly I felt no remorse if an initially shrug-worthy situation had awful consequences.

If I'd have sent someone out there speculatively, I wouldn't have been able to stop the sexual assault on the other side of town. I wouldn't have been able to put out that fire in a parking garage.

911 Operator succeeds more as thought experiment about this constant dilemma for emergency service workers than it does a game. As a game, it's the same looped five minute experience, with varying degrees of pressure to it. You sit in front of a map of the city you're playing in, choosing which emergencies to assign which vehicles to, interspersed with phone calls in which you need to elicit appropriate information - severity, location, possible escalations, if it's a total idiot - in order to make your judgement call.

Some situations require multiple vehicles, some situations escalate even after you've arrived - your police need backup because someone starts shooting, or someone's injured because you couldn't get to them in less than a heartbeat - and some situations have to be abandoned because something more terrible has occurred elsewhere.

Mostly, though, you're just right-clicking to send a police car, ambulance or fire engine to a point on the map, and hoping nothing else goes wrong while you wait for them to get there. It's compelling in small doses, but only a few hours in I'd taken its point to heart and struggled to see what else I might take from it. It's definitely effective at creating tension, which I admire, but that tension grows increasingly one-note.

There's a meta-game that entails efficient, well-judged decisions gradually earning enough money to purchase more and better vehicles and ancillary equipment. Perhaps there's commentary here about ruthless government/state restrictions on police budgets, but in a game context it came across like artificial gating. This'd be easy if I had a fleet of helicopters, but to get that I have to grind.

The other big selling point here is that, as well as playing in a campaign mode that darts between various US cities, you can freeplay in any city from anywhere in the world, and a fair few small towns too. Unfortunately you're stuck with US voices, equipment and terminology wherever you plump for - and indeed crimes. I can assure you that the only shootings in Pershore, Worcestershire involve poor wildfowl.

Localisation seems like the most obvious and necessary addition 911 needs to add in, if its current Steam sales hot streak lasts long enough. The other is that, though it's briefly pleasing to see the more or less recognisable monochrome outline of my home city, you can't zoom in to see street names or photographic imagery, so it might as well be anywhere.

The 'what about... [pissant small town you grew up in]' is a one-off delight that lasts only moments, but I can definitely see how this thing could evolve. That said, some of the crimes it features are horrific, and as such becoming too playful might become deeply inappropriate.

It's a couple of evening's worth of exploring a concept and buying a few upgrades for under a tenner. I don't not recommend it on that basis - the single greatest thing about PC gaming is that it's a medium which will explore every niche, and I was glad for a brief nose at this one. It is a bit crashy in its current form through, and that paired with the feeling that it needs a little more meat on its bones makes me more inclined to suggest waiting a month or two.

911 Operator is avaiable now for PC and Mac, via Steam, for £10.99/$14.99 (discounted to £8.79/$11.99 for a couple of a days at the time of writing).

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