To really appreciate the work of renowned video game designer Hideo Kojima, it is sometimes best to take the spotlight off his widely acclaimed magnum opus Metal Gear and look at some of his other releases. In the first part of my In Search of Truth series, I did a feature on P.T., not so much to praise Kojima but simply to draw attention to one aspect of the game that I found to be better evidence of his storytelling abilities than the Metal Gear series. But, in the same vein as that piece, I want to look at another game of his, this time in full, to appreciate his work writing and designing a standalone video game, one of Kojima’s greatest: Snatcher.
What is Snatcher and why have I never heard of it?
Snatcher is a cyberpunk graphic adventure game, written by Hideo Kojima and produced by Konami. It’s still quite popular to this day, but many gamers haven’t heard of it because it was originally released for the PC-8801 and MSX2 computer platforms in Japan back in 1988. You may have seen references to it in Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4 (Snake’s disguise) and the ‘Jamias Vu’ mission in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (featuring Snatchers as enemies). While its narrative genre was a unique product of Kojima’s love for Sci-Fi films, its gameplay genre of adventure game/visual novel is still popular to this day, and our modern releases in those genres will help us later with understanding the game and how it works.
The story follows Gillian Seed, an amnesiac working for an anti-Snatcher investigation task force called JUNKER, in 2042 (2047 in Western releases). As much as that is an adequate one-sentence summary of the game, there’s a lot to unpack there, so we need to take a step back. In 1991 (1996 in Western releases), scientists in Chernoton, Russia, were developing a biological weapon called Lucifer-Alpha when it was suddenly released into the atmosphere, killing 80% of Eurasia’s population and ultimately resulting in the death of half the world’s population. A large amount of land in the surrounding area was made uninhabitable for a full decade. The event would later be known as “the Catastrophe”. The game takes place 51 years later when artificial life forms, bioroids known as Snatchers, begin appearing in Neo Kobe City. They kill people, take their bodies and replace them in society, hence their names. Gillian begins the game talking to his wife Jamie Seed about their amnesia and his intention to work as a Runner at JUNKER.
I hope that much is clear to you because now we need to dig into the main plot of the game. I won’t be able to cover every plot point in detail, so I urge you to check the game out after reading this article. After the surprisingly cinematic opening cutscene, Gillian finds himself at JUNKER HQ and meets the receptionist Mika Slayton, the engineer Harry Benson and the big boss Benson Cunningham. Most importantly, you meet your new partner who fulfills Kojima’s love of the ‘buddy cop’ drama. Metal Gear Mk. II. That’s right, the little assistant from Metal Gear Solid 4 first appeared in 1988 in Snatcher, and Harry even mentions how he based it off the original model from the 1987 release Metal Gear, the first game in the saga. Gillian is informed that Jean Jack Gibson (likely named after Mel Gibson, one of the lead actors in one of Kojima’s favorite films, Lethal Weapon (1987)), the other Runner for the agency, has tracked down two Snatchers in an abandoned factory. Gillian investigates, only to find Gibson’s decapitated body.
The story goes on to grow ever more complicated, but I would rather not spoil it. Instead, I urge you to check it out, even if you only watch a retrospective on YouTube. The plot develops into a story that, while unnecessarily wordy at times, is quite intriguing and equally similar to the 1982 film Blade Runner. While the game does pay homage to the film, it is also unique and creatively interprets some of the ideas in the film. Not only that, it differs greatly from the film in its distinctly Kojima-esque tone and overly-complex plot twists.
The importance of recognizing a game like Snatcher
It is abundantly clear from his later releases that Kojima has a love for cinema. It is even clear in how films influenced his work. However, Metal Gear, as much as it allowed him to revolutionize the industry by popularising the stealth genre, did not show off Kojima’s strong ambition and passion at the time to be a filmmaker. Snatcher, although only being a 2D adventure game using basic animations and pixel sprites, better shows off this quality within him and should be a case study for any visionary game designer, even in the modern age. Thirty years on, Snatcher’s mechanics do not generally hold up for anyone other than those who enjoy the slow burn on strange controls of old adventure games and seem a more primitive version of Ace Attorney’s investigation style of navigating text and menus to examine the environment. Furthermore, its visual style may also seem dated, but the technical limitations of the time didn’t seem to stop Kojima.
In Case You Missed It: Games Out This Week: April 16-22
Despite the game’s design, Kojima does a masterful job of making the game look and feel very cinematic outside of the static, visual novel-like moments. Kojima doesn’t just use and manipulate the 2D sprites and animations, he frames the characters and environments in extremely cinematic ways. For example, the opening scene plays with character relationships through the visual language of film in a way unlike most other games at the time.
Even the shots that aren’t quite like this have a distinctly fluid feel to them, and Kojima ensures that every image propels the plot forward in a way in which the player could picture the full action of the scene in their mind. A perfect example of a moment that can easily be envisioned as a scene in a film is the moment when Gillian is interrogating Ivan Rodriguez.
Ultimately, however, we have entered an age where video games are becoming more and more cinematic each year. As early as the 2000s, developers began incorporating motion capture into their games to create cutscenes played out by real actors with more realistic movements than a programmed model. In 2011, Rockstar’s LA Noire revolutionized the use of facial capture to complement voice performance. When Naughty Dog was doing PR for Uncharted 4, I was enchanted by their use of cutscenes rendered in real-time with the in-game character models. It allowed them to create a seamless transition between gameplay (often made more cinematic by grand environments and ambitious set pieces) and cutscenes. This lets the game’s cinematic qualities to bleed effortlessly throughout the whole experience and improve immersion. Now, with the impending release of Detroit: Become Human, games are beginning to not only feel more and more cinematic but look more and more like films. So what could a modern developer have to gain from Kojima’s early work?
The key is in the effectiveness of how Kojima uses every frame. How he prepares each shot and what he wants to convey is conveyed with the same meticulous care of a cinematographer. Unfortunately, such importance is often overlooked by modern developers who wish to create fast-paced and engaging cutscenes that keep the player highly interested and entertained, not just intrigued or attentive, and transition the player from one location or state to another. Kojima’s framing is more diligent than that, perhaps because of the limitations he had and perhaps because he didn’t need to create big action set pieces. Even in an age where the most popular games are the loud and proud or colorful and wonderful ones that keep the pace up, I still found myself absolutely captivated by Snatcher and able to engage with the story through Kojima’s use of visual storytelling more than I had in any other game. In some ways, the beauty was in what was not shown, how Kojima guided the player’s mind but could not show every action, so it was left up to one’s imagination to truly interpret how the scene plays out, and that doesn’t stand up much in today’s industry. However, the principle is no different. Modern game developers can learn a valuable lesson from Snatcher about the philosophies of storytelling and the ways plot can keep an audience engaged.