Collateral Loss

Crime and consequence in The Commission: OC

GAME: The Commission: OC
PRODUCER: 302 Interactive

When I was very young — and appropriately foolish — I entertained at length fantasies of becoming a career criminal. I had watched one too many heist films (ironically pilfered from the local library, since my parents wouldn’t let me view them) and had convinced myself that my penchant for cunning deception and sudden, extraordinary violence would surely lead to a healthy and successful life as the next great master criminal extraordinaire, a supervillain worthy of going toe to toe with James Bond himself.

(Un)fortunately, as luck would have it, that dream never really materialised into anything.

In 2008, when I was eleven years old, Bernie Madoff was arrested for having committed the greatest financial crime in American history: nearly $65 billion over the course of decades, pumping through a massive system built solely to funnel the flow of profits, the biggest Ponzi scheme the world had ever seen. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what any of it actually meant — the moods and fluctuations of finance seeming utterly alien to me at the time (a feeling which admittedly has persisted to this day) — but nevertheless I still saw in the disgust in people’s voices, the anger which seemed to cloud the news reports and dominate the headlines, the enormity of the situation. I wouldn’t realise it until many years later, but now that I think about it, I believe that was the first moment in my life where I was able to truly, consciously appreciate the sheer gravity of one person’s power, and the catastrophic consequences of their schemes.

The Commission: OC, by Orlando-based studio 302 Interactive, seems on the surface to be a pretty straightforward mafia strategy game. Set during Prohibition in a fictional American city rather strikingly named New Shore, the player, as Don, is tasked with overseeing the operations of one of five major mafia families, each with their own histories within the city. There are the Bogianas, for example — the landed gentry of New Shore’s criminal families — whose ties to the city’s politicians extend back generations, possibly even to the city’s very founding, and who “specialize in high-end rackets in wealthy neighbourhoods”. On the other end, there are the Junios, a “boisterous” family of immigrants from the “old country”, who deal in “low-end rackets that don’t take much time or investment”. Each family has their own set of specialties, their own way of dealing with things and making things happen. The Commission’s central action revolves around how the player, acting as regent of their respective family, chooses to negotiate relationships and power plays within the shifting political landscape of New Shore.

The Commission describes itself as a grand strategy game — a genre that includes among its ranks titles such as Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings and Risk — which immediately draws some interesting connotations, especially in the context it chooses to situate itself. The genre, defined by its focus on large-scale military movements and resource mobilisation (as opposed to more granular battlefield tactics of real-time strategy games, or the less military-oriented imperialism of the 4X genre), is uniquely abstracted in a way that makes the action often feel almost inhuman, despite the veneer of somewhat-familiar names. Each of these games begins with a premise in which all participating nations have mobilised their entire means of industrial production and labour towards a state of war, oftentimes without any kind of further explication or exposition. War, it seems, is not something that arises out of some kind of human conflict, or even something that exists to be won (or for the unlucky, lost). It exists because it must exist; it exists because it is only thing that exists.

But where is the war in The Commission? “Begin your path of supremacy,” the game’s press release reads — and it’s worth noting here that unlike many other narratives, which would aspire for their characters to undertake a path to supremacy, the player, as Don of the family, is already far past this dramatic arc. In this regards, the game proposes a fairly unique take on the traditional rags-to-riches (and then often back down to rags, or more often a burial suit) sensationalism of mafia stories, which largely speak to dreams of ambition and unlimited power. There’s no such struggle for succession or ascension here, no such coming-of-age arc; you are already on the path of supremacy, the game suggests, and now you must take responsibility for it. The war is here, it always has been here, and it will always be here.

As Don, the player navigates the city of New Shore via a highly-abstracted municipal map highlighting the various boroughs and their constituent neighbourhoods — each region a contested theatre of gangland violence, wrestled between the five families, and the police — and is supplemented by a tabbed interface that tracks the various political affiliations and loyalties of figures within those territories. I noticed after about an hour that the entire interface of the game is actually visible within the main menu: a sparsely furnished wooden table with a map, a telephone and some address books. A handgun and a box of cigars offer some decorative texture, but really, the core of the action revolves around observing one’s territories on the map, and then ordering hits and calling in favours via the phone. It’s a deceptively simple yet powerful set of visuals that succeed at driving home an alternate and unique take on the mafia genre that eschews the high-rolling melodrama in favour of a more deliberate, and probably more realistic approach to the depiction of crime. The goal of the game, the press site curiously insists, “is not meant to sensationalize the crime of this era” — “but rather [to] call attention to this important time in U.S. history and simulate what it felt like to live as a Don of a mafia family.” In that regards, 302 Interactive has perhaps succeeded more than anyone else attempting to tackle the genre so far.

At the heart of The Commission’s perpetual war is money. Everything — every action, every relationship, ever conflict — is situated solely upon money. Unlike other games in the genre of grand strategy such as Risk or Total War, which are predicated upon some kind of military violence, the greatest violence in The Commission is not actually physical, but financial. The game appears at surface level to be very much concerned with politics, and relationships — one of the game’s most interesting features is a loyalty system for one’s lieutenants, which dictates their behaviour and allegiances under pressure — but upon deeper inspection, even these relationships are built fundamentally around the flow and exchange of money.

The player’s success comes down entirely to their ability to leverage their own wealth against that of everybody else — the other crime families, the politicians, and eventually, the staggering monolith of the police itself — in an endless power drive towards accumulating more wealth. In order to generate profit, the player can launch a series of operations — “Rackets”, as the game calls them — which include everything on the proverbial shitlist of sin from running various dens of iniquity (gentleman’s clubs, speakeasies, gambling halls), to loan sharking, to money laundering, to narcotics trafficking; and even some more hands-on activities such as kidnapping, mugging and armed robbery.

An extensive glossary offers the players a comprehensive rundown of the hierarchical operations and vocabulary of the mafia, fleshing out in a bit of detail what exactly is happening on the street level when any one of these operations is executed (leaving just enough room for the imagination, stirred by countless mafioso crime dramas, to exercise some creative sadism). However, for all the imagined brutality and sordidness of these affairs, ultimately, none of that is relevant, or even visible to the player. Once these operations are set in motion, the player simply waits for them to complete. The details of what transpires during these events are irrelevant: the only thing that matters is whether they succeed, or fail. Profit, or loss.

Everything in The Commission can be bought, and in turn, everything comes at a cost. Laws exist only for those who can’t afford to flaunt them; buildings and homes exist only as liquid assets. The prime currency for the people of New Shore lies in real estate: each location purchased returns on investment, but also must be protected from rival interests taking control. Your lieutenants, who will be assigned to rackets and seized locations, must be continuously paid off with their share of the profit in order to remain loyal to you, and their demands too will change over time. Money, that prime engine of all human desire, serves as the undercurrent of all interactions in New Shore; and in the process, it also objectivises everyone and everything in an agent of profit. Although places carry familiar-sounding names — Theater District, Regal Heights, Industrial Basin, Energy Park — their actual contents or even outputs are utterly irrelevant until they’ve been converted into a neat sum, which is returned as Investments, and Profits. Individual soldados and their caporegimes — your foot-soldiers and their leaders, who will be on the ground maintaining control over the locations you take over — may have names, and even faces; but without any kind of personal history, the only parts of them that end up mattering are their loyalty, and their cut of the pay, which are inextricably and linearly linked.

And what is the end to all of this? In the old mafia films, even any regular crime drama, the climaxes are indelibly, inseparably tied to personal motivations and ambitions: the fancy suits, the fancy cars, the fancy wine, the fancy women. The mansion on the hill, the garage full of luxury vehicles, the yacht, hell, the mountains of cocaine and the diamond-studded platinum automatic shotguns. And yet, The Commission, devoid of any central character, let alone a central story, harbours no such petty desires. Its ambitions are far more abstract, more inhuman. Untethered from ego and greed, lust and other human weaknesses, the Dons of the titular and spectrally cryptic Commission seem to exist solely for one thing alone: endless profit. “See how you stack up against enemy Dons with the Commission’s rankings,” the game’s description tells us. “Earn the favor of Dons from across the country, and determine the unspoken rules of organized crime.” But what exactly are these “unspoken rules”?

Some people might find in The Commission’s utter lack of any kind of narrative an example of failed writing, or insufficient narrative design. However, I personally believe that, intentional or not, it represents one of the more honest and interesting approaches to the question of playing, or experiencing vicariously through play the role of the criminal. Many works, but particularly games, that attempt to tell compelling stories about modern criminals tend to inevitably fall victim to the necessity for drama in order to establish a connection between the audience, and the otherwise unsympathetic characters. Even games that attempt to offer a critical or even negative appraisal of criminal activities — take, for example, the never-ending and untiring waves of police (and sometimes military) response in Grand Theft Auto games, which embody the series’ gleeful nihilism and acceptance of the overwhelming power of the establishment — fall victim to their own mechanics, which turn otherwise egregious criminal activities such as casual murder and mutilation into impromptu horde modes and shooting galleries.

This is not to say, however, that The Commission’s mechanics are not fun (in fact, quite the opposite; after just a short period of initial playtesting, I found myself quickly losing track of the time as I attempted to expand into yet another neighbourhood while juggling several unruly lieutenants). Rather, the game offers a different kind of fun, one that works cleverly to obfuscate the immorality of the player’s actions, without creating a sense of dissonance between the satisfaction of mastery over mechanics, and the implied narrative motivations and constraints of the game and its characters. The joys of taking over New Shore stem not from any particular combination of well-timed button presses or impressive mechanical flourishes; but from that inherent sense of satisfaction we all feel when we watch the balance in our bank accounts multiply, that natural anxiety and tension we experience when we pull a lever and watch the slots slowly spin into alignment. True to its genre, The Commission is a game not so much about displays of force or tactical genius, but about numbers and spreadsheets, patience and a certain penchant for flaunting statistical improbability.

In this way, it is a unique and compelling story about crime of a different breed: not the stuff of TV shows and true crime dramas, that takes place in basements and dark alleys, on street corners or in dim warehouses; but the kind that really changes the world, that happens behind the desks of unassuming, unremarkable figures, who without firing a single bullet or even lifting a finger can buy out lives and bury family fortunes and plunge entire cities into irreparable economic ruin. The most dangerous villains, as I would eventually find out, were not the charming, larger-than-life geniuses of British spy thrillers; but instead, ruthless pencil-pushers and exacting number-crunchers, whose strengths far lay less in military cunning and nuclear weaponry than in legal loopholes, shell companies and the importance of a rock-steady budget.

Living up to its promises, The Commission offers then a compelling simulation of what I imagine it feels like to commit crime on a grand level: the crimes of the bureaucrats and the accountants, the executives and the fraudsters, whose deeds may be invisible, but whose consequences are felt far and wide. It’s a startling experience about just how easy it is to, when confronted with a dollar sign and an ever-multiplying string of zeros, make a series of decisions that will irreparably change and even destroy somebody else’s life, the consequences of which you will likely never even be aware, let alone witness. Accidental or not, its vision of Prohibition-era America is shot through with an undeniably modern sensibility, imbued with that special strain of nihilism and sensitivity to precarity endemic to the post-recession, post-crisis age. The Dons of the Commission, nameless and faceless and unrelenting in their pursuit of numerical supremacy, are far closer to the Bernie Madoffs of the world than the Al Capones.

The Commission, through its mechanics, seems to imply a starkly effective message about the consequences of the pursuit of excess wealth. This argument is made even stronger through its evocations — deliberate or not — of modern attitudes of hypercapitalism: the aggressive accumulation and optimisation, the single-minded and slavish dedication towards ensuring a positive ROI at the deliberate expense of actual human interests and goals. Once you become trapped in this cycle, as every single citizen of New Shore inevitably has from the very start, there is no escape: you can keep on trying to get to the top up until the very moment you can’t. And even when you’re gone, the Commission lives on. The Prohibition will end, but the Commission will continue into the war industry, the automobile manufacturers, the homeowners’ associations, the loan agencies: ever expanding, ever growing, an infinite and insatiable force. This is what the world demands of you: keep on going, up until you can’t. The moment one falls, another will take its place. This is the cycle of money: the beginning, and end, of all things. And yet, for all its mechanical consistency, The Commission does seem to offer one final choice not explicitly present, but always available at any given moment, the only action totally free of cost: walk away.