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“I aim to make you see.” – D.W. Griffith

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I never owned a Sega CD, though I’ve come to regret that just a little from occasionally catching glimpses of some of the “forgotten classics” exclusive to that system; the friends of mine who did own this add-on tended to restrict themselves to third-rate fighting and sports titles.  But!  I did catch a lucky break one night at a friend’s all-nighter birthday party after everyone had grown tired of hours of Mortal Kombat and Super Bomberman and wandered off; not interested in watching Above the Rim, I saw my chance to try games I’d never own and took it…and thank God the game system was on the floor, or I would probably have missed the cracked game case sticking out from under the bed (it had been kicked there, if you’re interested) – Snatcher: an intriguingly futuristic-looking Miami Vice-alike (well, you know).  The box’s rear ambiguously made it sound like “a shooting-type Doom-ish game”, “a role-playing epic”, and an “early-90s point-and-click adventure”.  I had to try it.  Oh no, my friend assured me before he left: that one, at first, “looked cool”, but really, in point-of-fact, “sucked big time”.  Well…just in case I didn’t like it, I set nearby an equally-intriguing copy of Marky Mark: Make My Video!


But all thoughts of the mystical Funky Bunch disappeared as Snatcher’s opening cinematic kicked in.  I suppose it’s a pretty quaint little opening nowadays, though it remains among the greatest openings I’ve ever seen; at the time, it exploded off the screen so forcefully I woke up in the next room.  Fortunately I regained consciousness rapidly and – by the time I was investigating a decapitated corpse in an ominous, abandoned factory – I was lucid enough to perform some mental math: two-hundred-ish dollars for a Genesis, another three hundred for its insipid add-on, then however much more for just this one game?  No way.  But I also knew CD-ROM titles were notorious for being “skimpy” on content, and quite short…so there was nothing else for it; I was just going to have to finish it that night.


So just what is this game?  Snatcher has arguably a fascinating “life-story” for a videogame, in that it had so many inspirations that it can be difficult to track them…but I suppose it’s best to start with the oldest – and our knowledge that designer Hideo Kojima was obsessed with films long before he got sidetracked into becoming a game designer.  More than anything else, Snatcher, aesthetically, represents a convergence between two films: the 1982 Blade Runner – in which a detective (a “runner”) is employed to seek out and terminate Replicants (an android who cannot be easily distinguished from a human) – and the 1962 La Jette (The Pier) – in which, in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, a man travels forward and backward through time in an effort to recapture-and-relive an elusive memory he once shared with a mysterious woman.  Ironically, Snatcher’s plot ultimately boils down to these other two combined, but Kojima takes the concept a little further (Fun fact: Barely half an hour long, La Jetee could not have been released in theaters by itself in 1962, so it played in conjunction with a feature-length film: Jean-luc Godard’s Alphaville.  Before Snatcher’s city was renamed Neo Kobe City, it was simply known as…Alphaville.)




Remember the opening image of Blade Runner: the pyramid surrounded by flaming smokestacks, inter-cut with the eye of a Replicant?  In the film, it was the eye that ultimately allowed you to identify who was an “artificial human” and who wasn’t – and the pyramid was a “shared vision”, one of a handful, that seemed to be a common image or memory among all the Replicants; Snatcher begins with the same


image.  It’s also important to know that La Jetee was not a moving film, but rather a series of still photographs narrated via voiceover (not unlike the motionless “still frames” of Snatcher); the main character of La Jetee and the viewer work together as a team to create a “remembered space” with the photographs.


Snatcher, beginning with the exact same image as Blade Runner, constructs the player as the “intrusive artificial life form”, the Snatcher, described in the game’s narration.  Since most of the still images in the game are “first-person” perspective, the relationship between yourself and Gillian Seed is transformed into a war: Gillian is on the case mainly because he hopes something he sees will spark his lost memory and help him remember his former life; we, on the other hand, having no interest in his past life, and solely want to “solve the case”.  Since we treat everything we see as a “crime scene”, we become the Junker and Gillian becomes a weird, disembodied presence who just seems to be “going along with us” to no purpose other than to provide commentary – an “artificial life form” intruding on us.


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Later on, a character “joins forces” with Gillian, in such a way that the two seem to merge; now two disembodied voices are providing idle chatter…and whose perspective is it?  Are all three of us now sharing the same eyes?  (And this doesn’t take into account the little robotic assistant who follows Gillian everywhere.  He’s very short, but sometimes, when the perspective is really close to the ground – mightn’t that make four of us?)  And your new companion joins you just as you discover a secret room of the Snatchers – a carbon copy of the one you just left down to the last detail: “Like a parallel universe!” your new friend exclaims.  Why do these people-replicas feel the need to exactly duplicate their space too…and why does this strange paradox occur just as we’re joined by someone else to look at it?  I think this material is fascinating, so you’ll have to forgive my enthusiasm…!


And yet for something so heavily rooted in “film”, I’m absolutely certain that we would never have seen Snatcher in North America if it wasn’t for the success of a “book”.  Yeah, you know…that Myst thing.  Its phenomenal success inspired publishers looking for more “cutting edge” point-and-click slideshow titles -- and here one was.  Years later, it makes even less sense: Myst was pure coffee-table immersion; you just sit back, bask in the images, and transcend this plane of existence (if you’re into that kind of thing).  I can’t really imagine anyone…having quite the same experience with Snatcher – a better experience, maybe, but not a similar one.


Snatcher’s “immersion” is fundamentally different.  Set aside a few hours to browse through the Jordan computer system; I mean it.  The futuristic details are exhaustive: descriptions of the rearranged caste system, advances in technology, new professions: their effect on society and their perception by same, lists of modern cuisine – particular to region (pizza soup!), “cultural diversions” (Andrew Lloyd Webber is popular in 2047…), and a history of Earth’s colonization of Mars…successful and abortive attempts both.  And the best part is?  You’re not going to Mars, won’t be eating at any fancy restaurant, aren’t going to take in a show (shame they couldn’t incorporate this last into the investigation…), and certainly won’t have time to wile away at Neo Kobe’s Coney Island equivalent.  It’s all perfectly extraneous local color.  Take some time to call a phone-sex hotline (I’m not kidding) or even your wife; she may have nothing interesting to say (ahem – pertinent, I should say) but you can do it.  A homeless old man is starving in the streets; why don’t you call his relatives?  …Were you expecting to be rewarded for that?  Content yourself with the warm feelings attendant to being a good-deed-doer.


The Metal Gears demonstrated how adept Hideo was at creating outlandish, conceptually distinctive characters…so those familiar only with that series will find something surprising here.  In direct contrast, Snatcher creates visually bland, “average” individuals – who, despite a significant lack of personality and character development, manage to be surprisingly affecting and memorable.  My favorite was the job-hopping master of disguise, Napoleon – which surprises me especially, given that he’s quite the little caricature (if Kojima wanted to make a statement about relations between China and Japan, this was less than clear).  The two characters who ultimately meant the least to me were “The Chief”, Benson Cunningham, and the bounty hunter Random “Sting” Hajile – but with that in mind, consider how they develop over the course of the investigation.


As you might have guessed, I think Snatcher is one of the great masterpieces, something everyone out there needs to experience for themselves, not only earning comparison to the classics Blade Runner and La Jetee, but on a few modest levels, surpassing them.  So it pains me to see how poorly this game has aged over the years.  The interface is not the problem, although it contributes to it; specifically, it’s never entirely clear what triggers events in Snatcher to progress, so you’re forced to “examine” an object four or five times, or ask the same questions of a suspect repeatedly (even though nothing new is “seen” or said by the characters), before you’re spontaneously allowed to move on.  And that’s connected to a more serious problem: namely that the investigation is so rigid and deterministic that you’re usually pulled along “exactly so” – for example, investigating a lead you know to be false before the game “allows” you to pursue the correct line of inquiry.  The shooting gallery sequences always felt like awkward insertions and seem even more so today (you have to keep the younglings interested…).  Much of what Hideo Kojima experimented with here he then went on to explore in much greater detail in the Metal Gear Solids, so Snatcher may (sadly, though wrongly) seem more like a “trial run” for his later work than a worthwhile title of its own.  Most cripplingly, Snatcher was released in America at the tail end of 1994 – simultaneously with the masterpiece Under a Killing Moon, another “sci-fi detective” piece…but its fully immersive 360-degree total control of the character’s perspective revolutionized game space and instantly relegated Snatcher to the level of “historical curiosity” (…and 12 years later, with the possible exception of some delightful B-acting, Moon has hardly aged at all), damn them – but then praise them…!


Interestingly enough: Blade Runner did extremely poorly on its initial release, attracting serious interest about ten years later when the film was re-edited into a Director’s Cut, and La Jetee was also a “forgotten” film until it was remade (poorly, in my opinion) as Twelve Monkeys.  Fittingly, Snatcher, was also a flop when it first came out, its popularity at a peak only now in the wake of the Metal Gear Solid series…accompanied by considerable talk of it being remade.  I constantly hear how Hideo is going to redo Snatcher for the Wii system – and for once, given the nature of the Wii controller, I hope these rumors are true.  I think it would be a wonderful cosmic joke if the game that originally helped change the way we see in video games, fifteen years later, also redefined the more tactile way we experience video games.  Then on top of that, imagine being able to plumb all the vast yet unexplored cultural reserves here.


My younger self must have been finishing Snatcher right about now.  I hadn’t realized it was over since the mesmerizing conclusion was so long…it couldn’t possibly have been the finale.  Surely at any moment I was going to have to draw that infernal Blaster again.  But instead the credits rolled, I shook my head as I turned to look out the window, and the sunrise – cresting the rooftops across the street at that instant – nailed me right between the eyes.  It’s lame, but it’s true.  (And for those of you paying attention…Snatcher’s final image, as with La Jetee, was an open airstrip.  The guy knew what he was doing.)


Given his last film, I wonder if Wong Kar-wai is a fan of Snatcher.  Maybe not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.


Brendan Lynch

February 3, 2007

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