All across the city, there’s crimes, fires, injuries and cats stuck on trees. Can you save the day as an dispatcher in 911 Operator? Here’s what we think.

Video games have the capacity to put us in challenging roles: roles that make us empathise with real-world situations that would otherwise be painted in broad strokes, or even sidelined entirely. It wasn’t until 2013’s Papers, Please that I saw this promise fulfilled. 911 Operator is a similar game that puts you in a job that entails considerable responsibility and decision-making ability. The decisions you make can have life-or-death consequences for people. Does it matter? Not particularly, no.

In 911 Operator, you play as an emergency dispatcher (who is decidedly male). Your job is to take emergency calls and respond to them by directing three emergency kinds of emergency services: the police, medics, and the fire department.

911 Operator

Perhaps the car should be left where it is. Knowing Mumbai, someone will salvage it for parts by the day’s end.

Despite the American theme, the game allows you to play in virtually any city or town worldwide. This is achieved by the game innovatively converting OpenStreetMap data into a game board, complete with street names and locations of hospitals, police stations and fire stations. It’s a smart way to seamlessly add nearly infinite levels and a bit of flavour to the game.

Moment-to-moment gameplay in 911 Operator is smooth. A little coloured icon pops up on the city map, and you direct the appropriate emergency service(s) to the site of the incident. The game covers a variety of incidents, from traffic violations to kidnappings to large fires and even terrorist threats. The challenge, then, is how you can use your stretched resources to solve as many problems as possible.

San Francisco looks pleasant from here… before half of it is on fire, that is.

Managing your units in 911 Operator feels effortless. Directing services is as simple as clicking on a unit and right-clicking on the site of the incident. The service then hustles to reach the location and resolve the situation, which can take some time depending on the crew, the equipment they have and the nature of the incident.

Of course, the key activity implied in the game’s title is picking up 911 calls. These calls happen quite frequently, and involve a range of situations. This range is ultimately limited, which means you will likely exhaust the standard call variety in a few shifts. Every ‘type’ of call can vary in the details of the situation, however. A car accident, for example, can result in injuries (or not), and may result in damaged cars obstructing the traffic (or not). This variation ensures that you pay attention to each call and deduce what kind of emergency service you need to dispatch.

911 Operator

Playing on a map of London brought back memories of Scotland Yard. If only this were that exciting.

The game follows a strict scoring system, called ‘reputation’. Resolving situations will earn you a little bit of reputation, but ignore a valid call or fail to resolve a situation in time, and your reputation will take a severe hit.

A scoring system for a game like this seems like an inevitability: you do need some way of knowing how you’re doing. Nevertheless, it feels odd to think that someone is watching you so closely as to meticulously grade your performance. Furthermore, it takes away the burden of responsibility that was ostensibly placed on you as a 911 operator. If the only thing that matters is your reputation score, then your job becomes an impersonal test sheet.

911 Operator

Come on, would you really go and break up a perfectly good street fight?

One minor annoyance that cropped up when it came to the reputation system is that it was never made clear why points are deducted when they are. The game has a set idea of whether a situation should be resolved or ignored, and if you make the wrong decision, you are penalised. Yet the game never tells you why it was wrong of you to send the police to a call, or why ignoring what seemed to be a spurious call was a bad idea.

The game features a campaign that tours you through several major American cities (and a city called Kapolei in Hawaii). There is no story, but certain cities do feature unique incidents. I don’t want to spoil any, because in a game like this, a bit of unexpected excitement goes a long way. These unique incidents did catch me off-guard and significantly upped the stakes, but for the most part, you will be doing the same old, same old.

911 Operator

Small cities have big problems too. This here is Kapolei, Hawaii.

That same old is 911 Operator’s biggest weakness: there simply isn’t very much to do, and it also lacks a narrative stake. There is the occasional moment where something shines through. A man is struggling to break into a woman’s house, and the instructions you give her over the phone will affect what happens. I handled the situation poorly and heard some chilling screams from the other end, but once the call cut off, I felt distanced from the consequences of my choices. I just dispatched the police—and an ambulance—and watched the info summary as the man was arrested.

While the game features crew micromanagement, I never really found myself growing attached to, or even recognising any of the men and women I dispatched. That disconnect from human life was prevalent across the game, as I found I really couldn’t care less about the victims, the suspects, the officers, medics or firefighters. They were ultimately just tokens on a game board.

911 Operator

All my funds go into upgrading and replenishing my squads. Sadly, you can’t use it to order any pizza on the job instead.

The game’s content gets used up fairly quickly, leading to the same calls repeating over and over again. Play the game for extended sessions, and you’re likely to see everything the game has to offer over a weekend. Perhaps the best way to go about it is to play one ‘duty’ every night. With how calm and simple the gameplay is, it certainly does well as a game of relaxation.

Is that really what an emergency dispatcher’s life is like? I don’t know—but 911 Operator has painted that image in my mind now, for better or for worse.

911 Operator

I like to imagine everyone is actually using a TRON light cycle, it’s more fun that way.

911 Operator is an original concept, and it’s core gameplay hook of matching colours and watching vehicles trace blue lines across a city map makes for calming, even meditative play. You’d think that a game about being an emergency dispatcher might be stressful, but if the game taught me anything, it’s that the job is mostly easy-going boredom.

It’s a game that suffers from having not much of anything: not much challenge, not much content, and not much to say.

911 Operator is available now for PC, Mac and Linux. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher, PlayWay. The game was played on a PC. It’s available for $14.99 or £10.99. I’d wait for a sale.

911 Operator – Review
An original game with toothless execution that is salvageable as a relaxation aid.
What's Good
  • Relaxing gameplay
  • Option to turn any city into a level
  • Occasionally interesting situations
What's Not
  • Not much of a challenge
  • Repeated content
62%Overall Score
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