Policenauts was the perfect game to introduce the world to Hideo Kojima’s visual style and keen eye for editing a trailer. Unlike other games at the time, every screenshot from the 1994 ‘Interactive Movie’ could have been ripped from an anime, this one the tale of a man lost in space for the first twenty five years of humanity’s move into off-world colonies. It’s Lethal Weapon in the Gundam timeline with an Aliens setup, starring a blue-haired Mel Gibson. The trailer claims Policenauts is ‘The Next Generation of Snatcher’.
Any attempt to analyze Policenauts would be incomplete without looking at the game that preceded it. In many, many ways, Jonathan Ingram’s adventure is similar to Gillian Seed’s- Lethal Weapon’s Riggs to Blade Runner’s Deckard- both pulling their own Rip Van Winkle act, both the lecherous stars of their own buddy flicks. But where Seed woke up an amnesiac in a seemingly unfamiliar world, Ingram is simply a man out of his time, fully aware of the world and friends that have changed without his presence. The change in technology between the MSX and PC-9801 evolved the same core gameplay into a more elegant design to better move like a film. Policenauts is Lethal Weapons snatched.
With the change in technology and presentation came the ability investigate more granular information. Searching a newspaper could single out the headline, the content of the article or included photographs, selecting the individual elements a simple means to accomplish the same job ‘INVESTIGATE’ did in Snatcher where Gillian had to notice something before you could get information on it. The immersive interface smoothes out the experience and makes it seem more 1:1 as something that progresses with time. The buddy-cop dynamic that Policenauts and Snatcher (and Phoenix Wright) features was a practical mechanism implemented to relay and editorialize information to the player. Ed fulfills the same role Metal Gear did for Gillian.
Like Snatcher, Policenauts’ gameplay really consists of two modes overlaid on the same point and click framework. Because of the design, these games easily transition between standard adventure scenes and action shootouts. But instead of a menu-based grid, Policenauts has a gun reticle to replace the arrow that maintains the movement speed and adds a bullet and health bar to the UI. With the modes across the same core basis, the game is able to seamlessly transition between them, with an animation of Ingram cocking his pistol a clever way to cleanly communicate the change.
It’s difficult to know if Kojima learned his strong visual framing as a result of his work on these two games or if he was drawn to the genre because he already possessed it, but his later titles have shown it to be one of his strongest talents. The shots are interesting to look at and only sometimes obscure details vital to your progression. The frames have depth, and with the addition of looping colored lighting, slight animations and ambient sounds, the otherwise static locations are given a sense of place and time. Long time MGS designer Yoji Shinkawa’s animations are solid and fit the anime feel but lack the high-concept flair that so perfectly captures that series stealth gameplay and espionage motif. Regardless, Kojima’s production is gorgeous.
The power of Policenauts utilization of the visual novel attributes is how its POV maintains visual consistency with cinematics. Because the player’s avatar is literally a cursor, the disconnect between player and character is slighter than it is when you alternate between on-screen model and scripted cinematics. A very strong foundation was laid to make this game like a movie. Since Kojima has put so much effort into making his game simulate the flow of a movie, let’s show him respect by judging it on those standards.
Policenauts’ opening chase sets a high bar for the rest of story. A fight with your ex-wife’s assassin, the perp ducks behind obstacles littered around the frame as you trace him with your gun. To throw you off, a street sweeper drives across screen and you need to analyze the shot and discover what’s changed. These action scenes are tense and dynamic as the battle changes location and shows that the firefights are capable of a move-investigate-act-move rhythm. The interspersed cutscenes portray a real knack for highlighting action by stripping it down to its most dynamic movements. They’re well directed and flow from one to the next. The great music heightens drama and the occasional riffing guitar really captures the spirit of Richard Donner’s classic.
But despite the efforts to make the gameplay as real-time as possible, the pacing often feels unnatural. This is especially true with interrogations where you’re given way too many discussion points to comb through at any one time and little direction as to what information to circle back around to. It’s not uncommon to be stuck in a dialogue tree- or fondling the screen desperately with the cursor- because you can’t figure out which of the many options you need to select. A scripted exchange would have been preferable to the awkward shadow of gameplay we’re presented with. At least Policenauts has some wherewithal to contain itself so you don’t wander too far from somewhere important.
Hideo Kojima’s problems as a filmmaker are tied to his scripting. Too often, he packs his scenes with extremely detailed information that feels forced to the point where seemingly every random character is an expert in some highly technical scientific field. It slows the game to a crawl and interrupts the cinematic feel. Consider what should be a simple dinner scene. Just as in the original Lethal Weapon, this scene is used to further form the bonds of these partners by bringing the loner Jonathan into Ed’s family. But with a dozen items in the frame to investigate, the scene drags as a 16 year old girl, who apparently has a PhD in molecular biology and gastronomy, meticulously describes everything on the table in the most sanitized way imaginable. This isn’t some Codec conversation you can opt out of, you have to sit through it.
Time and time again, he’s proven that his complex, jargon-filled dialogue and long-wind conversations can’t be supported by his scripting, and that’s when he’s firmly in control of the action. When you put control of the flow of a story in the player’s hands, you need to be extra vigilant about how it all connects back to itself to maintain the tone your scene is supposed to evoke. The scene in the broadcast trailer, where you’re searching for a suspect across monitor feeds, was interesting in theory and lacking in execution as you randomly click buttons to switch between camera’s trying to find them. It’s one thing if you have a chunky scene and quite another if you have a chunky sequence of scenes. Policenauts has a sequence that so thoroughly hurts the pacing and characterizations that its worthy of an entire section of this essay dedicated to it rather than invest in a punching bag, a coke problem, and therapy.
This is the saga of Anna’s purse. The game introduces the brown Elles bag at the beginning of part two by doggedly refusing to move the plot forward until you’ve clicked on it. Later, you’ve been chasing an assassin across town for what feels like way too long when he grabs a hostage, shoots a colleague and flees into an Elles store. Inside you find a woman who takes her sweet ass time telling you that the man took her purse, planted a bomb inside and hid it among the others.
But not only did the woman not see where he stashed it, it’s brand new so she won’t be able to recognize it. As luck would have it, this shop sells crap knockoffs and the woman’s was the genuine article. If only you had something to compare the rest to! Quick, get Anna’s bag! Oh no, Ed bought that bag here at this fake bag store, what’ll we do?! Thank Christ that the officer that had literally died the moment before you stepped through the front doors had given his partner a real Elles bag to increase her femininity and that she was so moved by the gesture that she kept it in her police cruiser.
Kojima then rewards sitting through all that awesome ‘awesome’ storytelling by making you photo hunt the crap out of the store until you’ve removed every single purse in sight- each requiring at least three button presses and all ending with a comment from Jonathan- until you’ve whittled it down to the one with the bomb even if you happened to accidentally find the perfect match on your very first try (like I did!) because it’s sitting so plainly in the foreground.
So now it’s just You, Ed and The Bomb. Luckily for you, Ed’s a former member of the bomb squad and he happened to bring every piece of equipment you need to defuse this situation, including a red light. Holy crap is this thing complicated. Thank God your prime suspect up until this point also LITERALLY TOLD YOU HOW TO DEACTIVATE PART OF THIS EXACT BOMB THREE HOURS EARLIER FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN BECAUSE HE’S AN ARROGANT PRICK.
That’s an insane amount of arbitrary story manipulation to justify events that are tedious to observe and a gameplay scenario that isn’t fun to play, to close a sequence that is only slightly better constructed. It’s a terrible sequence.
*End of intermission.
It was a mistake to make the games prologue chapter so good. The rest of the game can’t compare to the promise it makes. It’s one thing to stumble through a story with inspired characters, but none of them are compelling despite painful pasts they’re desperate to get off their chest. Ed Brown’s trauma over killing a junky and orphaning his son and deciding never to point his gun at another person is a serendipitous justification for him never lifting a finger in the many shootouts you’re engaged in despite almost always being with you. Just as ridiculous is the labyrinth of small ties connecting the characters to each other. There’s a late game reveal that a character so minor you don’t bat an eye that they don’t show his face is actually the twin of one major to the story, even though his own mother is apparently completely unaware of his existence when she goes to criminal lengths to help his younger (yep, younger) brother. The fact that Meryl Silverburgh is here and in MGS will forever be strange (though the fact Ed is renamed Peter Stillman as MGS2’s Bomb Defusal Expert is up there (and lets disregard that MGS4 has two characters named Jonathan and Ed who just so happen to be in Meryl’s squad (fucking Kojima))).
Despite the fact that it takes place on mankind’s first space colony and stars a detective dislocated from time, those are only elements that the story has, not what it’s about. The setting is merely a way of isolating the events to a confined place and the premise is only to justify the character and player learning details they would already have. The story is really about corruption in the police and pharmaceutical industries. This was the first of a string of Kojima games that would play switcheroo with his subject matter; neither Metal Gear Solid nor MGS2 are really about terrorists and walking nuclear tanks, they just use those as plot elements to talk about biological determinism and social engineering. Look, I get it. Physiological maladies will be a very practical problem of migrating to space. But I can’t help but be majorly disappointed by organ harvesting as a driving force for the story.
Policenauts represents a very important point in Kojima’s career. Snatcher let him put together a narrative-forward game largely unburdened by mechanics and space; Policenauts gave him the room to flex his abilities as a story-teller. But his abilities couldn’t sustain his ambitions and this game crumbled under the weight. Policenauts is mediocre, that’s where its similarities to Snatcher end.
DEVELOPER: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
PLATFORMS: PC-9801, Saturn, Playstation, 3DO
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.