In mid-2002, when the video game Narc was only six months into development, the most startling element in it may have been a barrel-throwing sumo wrestler. Or it may have been the inclusion of a villainous flamenco dancer named El Toro.
When the game is released for PlayStation 2 and the Xbox next week, however, the most arresting aspect will most likely be that players of Narc will -- as part of the gameplay -- be able to take drugs.
In an industry known for depicting violence, Narc's foray into substance abuse is a venture into a largely untracked frontier.
"This is something that nobody else has tackled," said Steve Allison, 37, chief of marketing for Narc's publisher, Midway.
In Narc, which is rated appropriate for ages 17 and older in the US, players control one of two narcotics officers, partners who separate after one becomes addicted to drugs.
The gameplay primarily involves arresting dealers, whose drugs can be confiscated and used.
A digital puff of marijuana, for example, temporarily slows the action of the game like a sports replay. Taking an Ecstasy tablet creates a mellow atmosphere that can pacify aggressive foes. The use of crack momentarily makes the player a marksman: a "crack" shot.
But using each drug also leads to addiction, which can lead to blackouts that cost the player inventory and to demotions or even expulsion from the police force, which halts progress in the game. In measured doses, the substances can make a tough challenge easier, but the makers of the game say it is possible to play without using the drugs at all.
"Should you be able to use them?" the game's producer, Wayne Cline, 31, said. "We decided, yeah, if they're part of the life of a cop. Just like in the movie Narc and the movie Training Day, sometimes they use."
More drug-related games are coming. Take Two Interactive, the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series, recently announced a title to be released this year called Snow. According to a company news release, the game "will challenge players to oversee every aspect of the drug trade."
Vivendi Universal is planning to release a game based on the film Scarface, which featured extensive cocaine use. The company has also announced Bulletproof, a game starring the likeness of 50 Cent, the rapper and acknowledged former crack dealer, in an adventure set upon "a bloody path through New York's drug underworld."
Representatives from Take Two and Vivendi declined to comment for this article. But game publishers increasingly seek to appeal to older players with provocative content. More than half of the regular players of home consoles like the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox are adults, according to the Electronics Software Association, a trade group. But while nearly 3,000 games have been cited for violence since 1994 by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the independent organization that rates games, only 40 have been tagged for drug references or for the use of drugs. Most refer to drugs only peripherally.
Patricia Vance, president of the rating board, said the trend was not so much about drugs as it was a move toward greater realism. Games increasingly include more character development and deeper stories, she said, which lead to a broader range of topics.
But for some, Narc's inclusion of drug use is a reality they feel is unwise for games to reflect. "Narc was a bad idea," said Michael Pachter, an analyst who follows Midway for Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Violence is embraced in our culture, which is why you see violence in video games. I don't believe society believes drugs are an appropriate thing. I think that alienates consumers."