By Leah McDonald / June 28th, 2021
There’s not much to say about SNATCHER that hasn’t all ready been said, but I’m gonna give it a go, because after years of being told it’s a game I need to play, I finally sat myself down and played it, and it’s fucking great and I want to wax poetic about it.
I did not grow up on cyberpunk. I remember watching AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell when they’d air during the Sci-Fi channel’s Saturday morning anime movie block, but I didn’t see Bladerunner until I was an adult, and I never actually finished reading its source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I did really love watching Lain, but that wasn’t until I was in high school. I’d heard about properties like Shadowrun but only played some of the SNES game last year, read part of one book, and never played its tabletop origins. But I know the trappings of cyberpunk, and I am a fan of its aesthetics and moral quandaries. Technological dystopias; the boundaries of human and machine; the origin of souls; cyber surveillance and a world that is constantly connected; where the border between the self and the collective lie; the complex interactions of governments and peoples on a world stage — all of this fascinates me. And, as it just so happens, all of it is in SNATCHER, some more than others, and not always told eloquently, but it is definitely present and it feels like the breeding ground for many of Hideo Kojima’s later works.
SNATCHER has a simple premise that belies the more complex questions it asks of the player. You play as Gillian Seed, an amnesiac who was found with his wife in the Siberian wasteland 50 years after a deadly virus — Lucifer-Alpha — wiped out half the world’s population. In an effort to remember his past, Gillian joins JUNKER, a quasi-militaristic arm of the Neo Kobe Police Department tasked with killing SNATCHERS, bio-engineered robots that kill humans and take their place as almost perfect facsimiles. Where did they come from? What do they want? Are they connected to Lucifer-Alpha, since they appeared shortly after the viral outbreak? No one knows, but they’re all Gillian has to connect him to his lost past.
Gameplay is simple and straightforward, though it suffers from some design philosophies of the time. As Gillian, you’ll explore a wide array of locations, from JUNKER headquarters to a colleague’s mansion home to Neo Kobe’s seedy black market district, and more. At each location you can interact through looking, investigating, talking, and a handful of other story-dependent actions. The game is, at its heart, a detective thriller, and the gameplay reinforces this, but there is an abundance of times where what you need to do is shrouded by opaque design choices. For instance, if you don’t look at something first, investigating it will yield no results. But investigating often opens new looking options, so you have to constantly revisit both options in order to move the story forward. Talking and asking work in a similar fashion where each choice feeds into the other. It’s tedious and pace-breaking for a game that otherwise moves along at a relatively quick clip. Much like graphic adventures that came before it, sometimes the only way forward is to just exhaust every option, no matter how outlandish it might seem.
There are also a handful of shooting sequences (it’s a detective game, of course there are). I played the Sega CD version of SNATCHER using an 8bitdo controller, and the directional buttons + A button combination were sufficient, if clunky, to get through these parts — no Justifier required, though that would have been a neat feature back in the day. I wish I would have had the chance to use a light gun, if only for the immersiveness of needing to fight for my life in sudden battles, much like Gillian does. These sequences are a nice switch up from the visual novel formula, shifting the game into an arcade-style shooting gallery for a burst of action. They’re fun, even if they aren’t nearly as engaging as the plot.
Speaking of the plot, it is definitely SNATCHER’s bread and butter. Who doesn’t find the idea of a killer robot infestation fascinating? Who wouldn’t want to explore a bustling futuristic melting pot of a city? But it’s the way the game interweaves this story into its themes of found family, scientific progress, humanism, and global politics that really shine. SNATCHER’s world building absolutely thrives here, and most of it isn’t immediately relevant to the story. Kojima crafted a believable, nuanced alternate history of the world that teems with political intrigue and scientific advancements that intersect with the daily struggles of class, race, and human connection. Neo Kobe, itself, is a mishmash of nationalities, races and ethnicity splintered along a North/South class divide, with the poorest living in squalid conditions in the South of the city, eking out a meager existence while the well-to-do thrive in the North. The well-off are also the most surveilled, however, living directly inside Government-controlled sectors where everything is controlled by a central computer system. They are also the ones targeted by SNATCHERS, who ignore the poor. Not that this stopped the rich from massacring poor citizens in the early days of the SNATCHER menace in what the game calls the Witch Hunts, only quietly ending the slaughter when it was discovered the well-to-do and powerful were the actual targets for death and replacement.
I spent at least two hours reading through the history files on JORDAN, the JUNKER computer system with details on all of SNATCHER’s world building. Typing in almost any name in the game will yield a quick bio of the subject, often with relevant information to Gillian’s main quest. How tall is Jean Jack Gibson? You can find it on JORDAN. What birth mark does Gibson’s daughter have? That’s required knowledge. Need the password to talk with informant Napoleon? Better look him up and remember key phrases from his bio, because there are no multi-choice menus when it comes to answering these questions. The game’s interface requires you to type out every answer, with a bit of wiggle room. But more than people, JORDAN is also a treasure trove for information on the world itself. What lead to World War III? How was Neo Kobe founded? What political factions exist within the city? How did the world powers react to both Lucifer-Alpha and the SNATCHERS? If you want any of these answers, they’re in JORDAN, and it’s such a brilliant way to introduce the backbone of this world without wasting the player’s time with lengthy exposition dumps. Gillian’s story plays out just the same with or without this knowledge, but knowing it, helps flesh out the world in which he lives and is a really great reward for those willing to seek it out.
Two themes I constantly consider in SNATCHER are “alienation” and “connections.” Throughout the game you’re constantly encountering characters facing this sense of otherness – with themselves, with each other, with society as a whole, even with faith. How does not knowing about your past cause you to draw away from everyone around you? How does the loss of one’s parents lead to crippling isolation? How does seeing the worst in humanity alienate you from emotional connectedness? How does a desire to meet a creator you’ve never known lead to genocide? Gillian is alienated from not only himself, but his wife and society as a whole. His driving force throughout the game is understanding how SNATCHERS relate to his past so that he can rebuild the life he lost. Throughout the game you constantly build these connections between Gillian and those around him, with each interaction pulling him closer to others, and others to him, as well. Jamie is standoffish and aloof, but you can call her and talk with her pretty much whenever you want. She thinks her actions are in Gillian’s best interest, but in the end realizes she’s wrong. Mika spends the majority of the game inside an impenetrable bubble, but she’s just as distant in her conversations early on, too, scarred by her time psychoanalyzing serial killers. It’s only after knowing Gillian that she’s willing to feel an emotional connection again. Harry is a closed-off drunkard with no connection to his past outside a picture, but building rapport with him helps both him, and Gillian, learn the truth about their pasts. Everyone is alienated from everyone else early on, despite their shared interest in the SNATCHERS, and through Gillian they all come to be more than the sum of their parts.
Beyond Gillian, the world of SNATCHER itself also follows this “alienation” and “connection” theme. The SNATCHERS themselves are an alienating presence, forcing humans to distrust and suspect one another, while they simultaneously seek a connection with a creator they’ve never known. Neo Kobe is alienated from the rest of the world because of the SNATCHERS, and its populace alienated from itself by sectors, surveillance, economic conditions, and technology. That doesn’t stop the people of the city from finding connections to each other, either through the Black Market or unlicensed taxis that exist outside the surveillance state. Even in the worst of the slums, the people there find community with each other. JORDAN is a neat encapsulation of all of this, a computer program with no humanity but given a human-sounding name, connected to literally everything within Neo Kobe. Metal Gear Mk. II fits this mold as well, a robotic companion for Gillian with an artificial personality with which both Gillian, and the player, build a real connection – Gillian narratively, and the player mechanically.
I really like Metal Gear. It’s sassy, quick-witted, and a constant companion from the moment Harry gives it to you. Kojima has always liked to play with the ways in which players interact with the stories he tells. Metal Gear feels like an early prototype for what comes later in Metal Gear Solid, merging in-game resources with player input. It is narratively Gillian’s companion, relaying information back to JUNKER HQ, providing data analysis and communications support. As the player, we also use Metal Gear to interact with the world of SNATCHER, as it’s through it that almost all player inputs are registered. We call Jamie through Metal Gear’s phone, we save using Metal Gear’s memory chip, we see using Metal Gear’s light. When Gillian asks Metal Gear to analyze a substance, the player learns the results in real time along with him, helping fit us into Gillian’s shoes so we can work out the mysteries surrounding the SNATCHER menace at the same time. It’s a clever, but simple, marriage of narrative and mechanics that is woefully underutilized in the majority of games, and it really helps SNATCHER feel different from other visual novels and graphic adventures.
That’s not to say some of Kojima’s less-than-stellar marks don’t exist here, as well. Gillian’s constant hitting on every woman in the game grew stale, and his interest in Gibson’s daughter Katrina is questionable at best. The English version aged her up to 18, but she’s 14 in the Japanese and Gillian hits on her all the same in both. Personal taste obviously matters a lot here, but I felt it made Gillian a lot less likable and a lot more annoying than he needed to be. Even with JORDAN, most of the cast aren’t as fleshed out as I wish they were, especially Harry. I also found a major plot point at the end of the game eye-roll worthy for how it used a character, but it’s a massive spoiler and also pretty your-mileage-may-vary.
Speaking of YMMV, Kojima wearing his influences on his sleeve may or may not be a negative in the eyes of some players. For me they were an obvious plus, but he isn’t exactly subtle. The game is, for all intents and purposes, a Blade Runner rip-off, with a hefty dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Terminator thrown in for good measure. Neo Kobe feels like an analogue for Neo-Tokyo from AKIRA, written only a few years prior. And the game is contemporaneous with several other Japanese cyberpunk properties, including Ghost in the Shell, which also explore the concepts of transhumanism, technological advancement, and the surveillance state. The Cold War also plays an unmistakable role in the game’s world building, but so does Japan’s isolationist policies. The combination ends up creating a really compelling world that offers a lot of questions about the human condition.
SNATCHER is one of those games that I think everyone needs to play. As one of Kojima’s earlier works, you can see a lot of the potential he realizes in later games but in a more focused, grounded story. It explores familiar themes of alienation and connectedness that come up often in his portfolio, and interweaves numerous works of fiction as well as contemporary real world politics into a title that questions the human condition. It’s also a great use of video game systems helping immerse the player in the story, marrying in-game actions and player input in a more meaningful way than simple button prompts. It’s a great game that’s aged surprisingly well, despite some of my gripes with its tedium, and having played it, I appreciate Kojima’s later works all that much more.
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