After finishing Metal Gear Solid 2 for the umpteenth time, I had a sudden realization -- as much as I loved Hideo Kojima, I had never completed a single game he'd worked on that did not have the words "gear," "solid," or "metal" in the title. It was, I thought, high time to remedy that.
I'd been aware of Snatcher for some time, but not owning a Sega CD nor being of an inclination to NOT emulate it, my knowledge of this cyberpunk detective story did not extend beyond "Blade Runner by way of Kojima." I know it's something of a cult classic around these parts, but I did not know why. Thusly, I set out to play a game that might well combine one of my favorite films of all time with one of my favorite game designers.
And I stopped playing after about three hours, because I hated it.
Yet, I also love it. Moreso than any other game I've played, Snatcher is a bundle of beautiful and idiotic contradictions -- a flawed gem that frustrates at nearly every turn, but still has so much more to offer than fifty percent of the "better" games released today. Though I stopped playing the game halfway through its first act, I was not done with Snatcher. Armed with a wonderfully detailed Let's Play sent to me by Grievetrain, I found myself hopelessly addicted to seeing more of a game whose mechanics I did not actually enjoy.
Join me after the jump as I try to explain why it is so absolutely necessary that everyone try this game, despite (or because of?) the fact that it's damn near unplayable to contemporary audiences.
Snatcher may well have one of the worst interfaces I've ever seen. Your interaction with the world basically comes down to selecting choices from a text-based action tree in different locales, and very occasionally using inventory items on people. I'd hesitate to call Snatcher an adventure game, because that would imply the game runs primarily on puzzles and critical thinking when most of the time, it really just requires the player to examine every single item in every single location until the plot progresses itself.
This wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing in and of itself, were it not for the fact that the two actions which accomplish this -- "LOOK" and "INVESTIGATE" -- are implemented in frequently confusing and illogical ways. In order to examine something, you have to INVESTIGATE it, but if you want to actually take it and use it, you have to LOOK at it -- but only if you've already investigated it. Certain actions and dialogue don't become available unless you look and investigate everything in juuuust the right order, sometimes even more than once. This is how you progress through roughly 90% of the game (the other 10% consists of not-that-great shooting sequences), and as someone picking up the game in 2009, it damn near drove me mad after a few hours.
But, somehow, I still liked the game. Literally every single thing I was asked to do made no sense and pissed me off, but for a little while, I still enjoyed the act of doing those things. This was a confusing emotion -- I did not know whether I wanted to delete the not-ROM off my hard drive forever, or hunker down, grab a walkthrough, and LOOK and INVESTIGATE my way through the rest of the game. This conflict, I think, is due almost solely to the game's unpretentious, borderline-wacky tone.
Snatcher rips from other sources frequently and shamelessly. The plot, technology, and protagonist design are directly ripped off from Blade Runner, your companion is a miniaturized Metal Gear, and the evil robots which inhabit its world are literally just walking Terminator endoskeletons (who can, for some reason, shoot lasers from their mouths). Whenever possible, it acknowledges the player's existence and has a great deal of fun breaking the fourth wall. It claims to be a serious sci-fi thriller while simultaneously allowing the player to lecherously and hilariously hit on every single female character he meets with all the charm of a professional date rapist. It wants to be everything, and it is. It is exactly as insane, fun, and contradictory as one would expect a Hideo Kojima game to be.
Rather than putting myself through the pain of actually having to play the game to get to this good stuff, I instead used the above-linked Let's Play article. I learned a lot about the game (to the point where, if someone asked me if I'd "played" Snatcher, I'd probably say yes), and maybe a little about games in general.
You always have all the gameplay freedom in the world, except when you don't, which is all the time
I'm not sure if Snatcher is an argument for or against the idea that games are inherently incapable of telling decent linear stories. On the one hand, the player has no real agency outside of checking anything and everything in front of them until a new part of the story turns up, which is boring and probably as uninteractive a structure a game can follow while still being considered an actual game.
On the other hand, Snatcher would make an absolutely abysmal film. So much of the joy I derived from Snatcher came from exploring the the game world -- typing random names into the police database, calling sex lines, and exploring optional areas -- that to translate Snatcher into a noninteractive medium would be an utter waste of time. While the things I really enjoyed were unrelated to the narrative, I wouldn't have done those things without the story tying the entire experience together. Without Gillian's amnesia, would I have tried typing his name into the police database, subsequently finding an optional-but-cool bit of foreshadowing about his identity? Without needing to find a person in Alton Plaza, would I have ever found the number to a phone sex line, leading to an awkwardly funny conversation between a horny Gillian and a condescending operator?
Snatcher is one of those games where I was constantly and pleasantly surprised by the little touches the designers added whenever possible in order to make the game world feel more fleshed-out and interesting. Almost all of my favorite moments from the Let's Play involve the player doing something only partially related to the main plot, like confronting Gillian's ex-wife about infidelity, or trying to buy...
Neo Kobe Pizza
While hanging out in one of the more lively areas of Neo Kobe (basically a mix between the San Francisco as depicted in Blade Runner and New York as depicted in the mind of a Japanese person who has never been to New York), Gillian stumbles across someone selling "Neo Kobe Pizza."
As far as I can tell, the dish is was originally Akashiyaki (octopus dumplings dipped in fish sauce) in the Japanese version of Snatcher, but was presumably changed into Neo Kobe Pizza to appease western audiences. The idea of Neo Kobe Pizza is as simple as it is insane: take a slice of pizza, submerge it in a soup of your choice, and wait for it to float back up. Eat with chopsticks.
And that is awesome. I can say, with some confidence, that Neo Kobe Pizza is the greatest thing to come out of halfhearted English localization since "I feel asleep." There's something so indescribably weird-yet-cool about this merging of Eastern and Western cuisines in the goofiest and least subtle way possible. On the one hand, the entire idea of Neo Kobe Pizza sounds like something a bored six year old would come up with given infinite time and resources...yet on the other hand, it actually sounds kind of good. What's more, it fits perfectly into the weird, self-aware, quasi-cyberpunk world of Snatcher.
The most perverted protagonist in videogame history...once you get control of him
Speaking of weirdness, consider the massive personality shift protagonist Gillian Seed goes through in the first twenty minutes of the game. When we first meet him talking to his sort-of-ex-wife Jamie, he seems a relatively typical noir cop: emotionally detached, but more or less even tempered.
When we head to the Junker Headquarters and meet Mika the receptionist, however, Gillian shows his true colors. His true, slimy, stalker-y colors. Despite technically still being married and having to deal with the crushing emotional baggage that comes with amnesia, Gillian has absolutely no problem hitting on Mika within three seconds of meeting her with zingers like "I'm honored to have the chance to work with someone as beautiful as you."
Everytime Gillian so much as looks at a member of the opposite sex he starts tripping over himself, making double-entendres that even a twelve-year-old would find obvious, all while trying and failing to screw everything that moves. While having a conversation with his sort-of-ex-wife while she's in bed, Gillian goes to great pains to pretend that there is a cockroach crawling under her sheets so that she'll get scared and whip the covers off, revealing her naked body.
He seriously pulls this shit with every single woman you meet in the game. The guy even gets a terrifyingly awkward shower scene with the eighteen-year-old daughter (who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, only fourteen in the original Japanese version) of a guy who gets decapitated in the first half-hour of the game.
I'm not really sure what to say about these scenes, because they're alternately hilarious and creepy as balls -- perhaps they were put in the game as an extension of the fourth wall breakage, included under the assumption that players would really, really want to bone every character in the game with a pulse and a vagina.
Knocking the fourth wall down with a wrecking ball, grinding the pieces of the fourth wall down to a fine powder, then snorting it
When I ask Earthbound fans why they like the game so much, they generally try to convey that the game is some sort of indescribable postmodern thing which is both knowingly ironic and deadly serious when it wants to be. Never having finished Earthbound, I never really understood this sentiment...until I played Snatcher.
There's something refreshing in how unpretentiously self-aware a game like Snatcher is. Ostensibly, the game follows the story of a bounty hunter named Gillian Seed who is out to exterminate a few rogue robots as well as regain his memory. In reality, the game takes a great deal of pleasure from acknowledging the fact that it is not only a videogame, but a rather silly one at that.
At one point, Gillian briefly mocks the ludicrousness of the amnesia plot before apologizing with, "...just trying to make things a little more fun for the folks playing the game..." Later on, the player is asked to listen for the location of a very quiet beeping noise by physically turning up the volume on his TV. After finding the origin of the beeping to be a bomb, Gillian and his robot pal run out of the building, dodging a GODDAMN DEAFENING EXPLOSION by a few seconds. "My ears are really ringing," Gillian laments. "That's because you left the volume up," his robot cheerfully responds.
Also, the robot is named Metal Gear, and it looks exactly like the titular robot from the first Solid Snake game.
One might initially think to consider such a character a "reference" or an "allusion," but that somehow feels insufficient. The reference is so obvious, and the character so integral to the plot, that it goes beyond simple meta-fiction. When Gillian is first introduced to his tiny, weaponless robot friend, the Metal Gear theme plays for a few moments until it is explained by Harry the engineer that he took the robot's "basic design and his name from the Metal Gear menace of the late 20th century. But, uh, quite unlike that Metal Gear, this one was designed for peaceful purposes."
So, evidently, the Metal Gear games are canon in the universe of Snatcher, somehow. Does that not blow your frigging mind?
It is so ridiculous, obvious, and joyful a reference that it becomes instantly reasonable, and sets up the world of Snatcher as an unabashedly silly one whenever it wishes to be. This is why its otherwise serious and idiotic plot actually sort of works: when the player runs into obvious plot twists and stupidly monologuing villains, it is forgivable because the game has never tried to pretend that it is anything other than a silly ride. We laugh at Gears of War 2 when we aren't meant to, and we feel slightly awkward; when laugh at Snatcher, even at the assumedly serious parts, it feels perfectly natural because the game has leveled with the player in a way most modern titles do not.
Snatcher isn't about the story, because Blade Runner already did a better job of telling it. Snatcher is about taking that story and putting it in a world that is alternately quirky and ultraviolent, where weirdness is so constant that it becomes the norm.
So, yes. Snatcher simultaneously attempts so many weird and interesting things (the vast majority of which I haven't even touched on in this article) that I would unquestionably consider it a "must play," but it's so goddamn frustrating on a purely mechanical level that I'm tempted to instead consider it a "must research" game.
I enjoyed reading Slowbeef's Let's Play Snatcher article just as much as I enjoyed playing the first few hours of the game on my own; I'd highly recommend doing exactly that.
Konami released an MSX2 spinoff called SD Snatcher which tells basically the same story in an RPG format, except all the characters look like Muppet Babies versions of themselves.
This is fucking adorable.