Another early Hideo Kojima game. Originally released in ’88, there were references to it in Metal Gear 2 (and Ground Zeroes, for that matter), so I figured I wouldn’t half-ass this whim of mine by leaving Snatcher out of my retrospective review series. Again, there are a thousand slightly different versions, but my choice was made easier this time by the fact that most of them were only in Japanese. The one I played was a 1994 Sega CD remake, obviously emulated. Who knows what a Sega CD even is?
In brief, the game is about robotic skeletal-looking creatures of unknown origin, “Snatchers”, who kill people and then transplant artificial skin and hair in order to take their place in society. The player is a “Junker”, a member of a kind of investigative police force devoted to killing them. It’s all very Blade Runner. It was ambitious for its time, I suspect especially so for its earlier PC-8801/MSX2 incarnations, which weren’t voiced and had to make do with very simple color palettes. The version known to English speakers came after many of the classic LucasArts games, but is more of an Ace Attorney-styled graphic adventure, using cinematic illustrations instead of moving character sprites. It almost definitely inspired 2064: Read Only Memories and countless other games.
Also, Kojima seems to have gone overboard, planning a six-act story that was ultimately chopped to three, with the third act rushed. Sounds familiar.
Much of the praise Snatcher got, and continues to get, seems foolish to me in 2018. The voice acting isn’t bad, but the performances are somewhat stilted. The story has some Cold War political exposition, and it creatively imagines the technology and culture of the mid-21st century, but it’s also cliched. I don’t really mind that Gillian is an amnesiac protagonist, and the big twist of his background isn’t predictable (thankfully, he’s not a Snatcher), but the coming of some kind of bombshell from his past is too obvious — especially after searching for Gillian’s name on the police computer — and it doesn’t really exceed the imagination nor land any emotional punches when it finally comes. Villains, on more than one occasion, explain their master plans to Gillian before he can spring free of their traps, seeming more like they’re from Saturday morning cartoons than anything that needed to be memorialized for decades as a landmark in the history of interactive storytelling.
As with Kojima’s later title Policenauts, which I was much more impressed with, there are some needless shooting gallery segments to keep the player awake at times. In this one, you don’t need to reload your gun, and there’s just a grid of 3×3 spaces on screen to aim at, so it’s much easier. Sometimes an innocent person gets in the way, but shooting them will just force a Game Over, as far as I’m aware. In terms of reactivity, I think it’s at an acceptable level for the genre: it doesn’t diverge, but there’s occasionally a line of dialogue about how Gillian pestered some of the game’s women too much, or about how he exceeded expectations in the target-practice room.
There are a few fun secrets, like phone numbers you can dial (I may have missed some of them), and the precinct computer, where you can type almost any character’s name to get background information on them. The entries update when characters die, too, which is some very appreciable attention to detail.
Navigating and solving mysteries is kind of a mess. There are typically two menus, “Look” and “Investigate”, occasionally with other extra options available. One would think this is straightforward enough: “Look” would give a basic description, while “Investigate” would take action: to pick up an object or turn it over or open it, or to search someone’s pockets. But every object is listed in both menus, even if it’s there’s nothing to be done with it, as with a street sign or a store window. More often than not, “Investigate” just provides a different description. What’s worse, the game occasionally expects you to use the same option 3 or 4 times, for no reason but to be obtuse and difficult. You may have to Investigate once and then Look three more times. The only thing keeping players from getting stuck forever is that they’re locked in these rooms until they meet the requirements. I would have preferred a pixel hunt.
When the game does expect you to do more than tap through all the options, it quickly becomes frustrating in a different way. In one instance, you have to build a composite witness sketch by selecting facial elements through a multiple choice interface. How, exactly, is this face more “bony” than that one? How are these not “thin lips”? I also got stuck trying to identify the name of a hospital by typing it — the jerk whose mystery I was trying to solve couldn’t have written “Queens” instead of writing “Search the house” and putting a chess queen in his pocket? It’s often contrived like that. What makes it worse is how much it beats you over the head with relatively easy answers when the characters are reaching solutions without player intervention, like when they really spell out the similarities between the maps of Neo Kobe and Moscow.
The structure sometimes gets in the way of the player solving immediately obvious things, like my guess that moving a vase would activate a secret mechanism, or that Katrina would go to Gillian’s apartment after fleeing another scene (they make you check for her everywhere else first, and trying to go to the apartment sooner provokes a response in the vein of “This is no time to rest!”).
The plot can be flat-out baffling, as when Mika — an adult coworker — gets captured after unlocking the sealed, secured room she was hiding in, which she says she did because she was scared and didn’t know what to do. (At that point I said, “Okay, she’s either a Snatcher carrying out some very convoluted ploy, or she has the worst survival instincts of anyone on the planet,” but I guess it was the latter.) There was also a part where I was investigating a scene to find Snatchers, and it was assumed that they had long since cleared out of there, but then a Snatcher throws a fucking dog through the window, and Gillian doesn’t even try to go out into the backyard to hunt them down, instead basically saying “Well, I guess that’s that,” and driving back to the precinct. Huh?
The game is otherwise quite funny at times, and very ’80s. There are still phone sex hotlines in this universe, for example — the operators tend to get philosophical or break the fourth wall — and multiple characters say things like, “A 5-inch floppy disk? I haven’t seen one of these in years!” which was either a subtle gag, or Kojima dramatically underestimating the rate of technological obsolescence, given that these characters’ grandparents probably never saw a 5-inch floppy disk.
One last thing that bugs me: the element that most drew me into the story was my curiosity about the Snatchers — wondering what they actually thought and felt, and whether they tried to justify their killings at all, given that their AI(?) was apparently sophisticated enough to flawlessly blend in with humans. But the answer only comes in the rushed third-act exposition, and seems kind of underwhelming and unsatisfactory. The mastermind isn’t even a Snatcher himself, so he doesn’t really help there. Probably the most insight you get into their minds is by talking to Lisa, and it isn’t a whole lot.
Snatcher is a decent game, but only that. It’s been claimed at various times that adventure or story-driven games are dead, but I don’t think Snatcher quite holds up to the ones we have today. I appreciate it a little in the context of its contemporary scene, doubly so if the older PC-8801/MSX2 version shared any of its cinematic ambition, but I think if Snatcher were released to a wider audience today, the result would be disillusionment more than anything else.