Version tested: PlayStation 3
I once asked Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase why so many of his games revolve around adolescents. Surely, for those gamers in their late twenties and thirties who have grown up with the series, an older protagonist would have more resonance than Square-Enix's typical angsty teenage hero? Moreover, aren't stories that revolve around young people just a bit limited and tiresome for middle-aged game makers?
Not so, Kitase countered. The adolescent is the perfect game hero. The journey that a player undertakes in learning and mastering a game's systems, advancing from novice to proficiency, exactly mirrors the transition from childhood to adulthood. What better candidate could there possibly be for the lead role in any videogame?
It's a point of view that Policenauts, with a cast almost entirely over the age of 45, contests. But then, designer and producer Hideo Kojima has never been afraid to use maturity as a lens through which younger players can experience his games. Kojima's most recent creation, Metal Gear Solid 4, starred a man in his forties with a premature-ageing disease that made appear like a man in his seventies.
Policenauts might be, first and foremost a thriller, a detective story - with all of the Miss Marple-style trappings you'd expect. But beneath the surface it's a game about middle age. It features characters who have played most of the cards life has dealt them, who have been through a career and a marriage or two, and who, in most cases, have reconciled themselves to maturity's colder bedfellow: cynicism. In filtering our view through this world-weary perspective, Kojima taps a stream of human experience largely untouched by the gaming medium. The result is mesmerising.
It starts with a girl, of course. Jonathan Ingram, a member of the L.A.P.D., married Lorraine, a student from UCLA, on 24th August, 2009 according to the date stamp on the framed Polaroid on his desk (the same day, it should be noted, as the release of the English fan-translation patch that has, 15 years on, facilitated this belated review). Their marriage was hot and happy until Ingram's stationing on Beyond Coast, Earth's first residential space colony, caused them to drift apart, figuratively and literally.
Ingram was a Policenaut, the name given to Beyond's inaugural police force, consisting of the star players pooled from the NYPD, the LAPD, Scotland Yard, and the Tokyo Metropolitan police service. An accident on the space station saw Ingram disappear into space, cryogenically frozen by his protective suit, till his body was recovered and revived 25 years later.
In those intervening years the world moved on; Lorraine re-married and bore a daughter. Ingram returned to America, eking out a living as a private detective, taking on ad hoc jobs trailing adulterers, convicting petty fraudsters, whatever work he could take. Another three years pass, and then the game starts.
You learn all of this background information via the memorabilia that clutters Ingram's desk in the opening stage of the game. This office, with its newspaper clippings, filing cabinets and cigarette stubs, houses his memories. Through it you acclimatise to the world and learn the game's interface.
A sort of proto-point and click adventure, everything on Policenauts' screen can be mined for information with a click of the cursor. Almost all of the game's dialogue is voiced, so the level of detail built into the world is astonishing. Click on an object and Ingram will wax lyrical on its meaning and context. Click on it again and, rather than parroting the information again, he'll elaborate, warming to his subject like an observant author. Kojima's obsessive-compulsive attention to detail is writ large in these descriptions, which expand like ripples from an inquisitive stone dropped into water.
Lorraine, her beauty still clear behind the wrinkles, arrives at Ingram's office, tired and lost. Her second husband, a brilliant pharmaceutical engineer on Beyond, has gone missing. She needs help finding him and Ingram's her best hope. Within five minutes Policenauts has established one of the most interesting premises in game history, a dilemma of the heart in whether to aid the lover who abandoned your character so many years ago or to kick her out and return, unmoved, to a life of mediocrity.
In the point and click style that goes on to define the rest of the game you pick conversation options from a drop down menu, filling in details as you grasp around for the branch on the dialogue tree that will shunt the drama forward. After finally agreeing to take on the job you take Lorraine's arm and step out of your office, into the set of Blade Runner.
Kojima's Hollywood fetishism is more rampant in Policenauts than any other title in his oeuvre. The science fiction setting allows him to cherry pick the best Eastern and Western cinematic influences (and indeed, in creating the copious anime cutscenes, many of his heroes contributed to the game's creation in more direct ways).
When Ingram finally joins up with his old Policenauts partner back on Beyond, Ed Brown, the pair's resemblance to Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon is overt. From this point the game settles into a familiar buddy movie rhythm.
The filmic quality of the story is mirrored by the game's mechanics. As with spiritual predecessor Snatcher, this is at heart an interactive novel. The puzzles, such as they are, generally involve finding the right character to reveal the right piece of information required to move the plot along. The occasional frenetic light-gun style shootouts (which, on every system other than Sega' Saturn must be played with a pad and cursor) jar with the game's cerebral focus, albeit offering some kinetic thrill to break up the long dialogue trail.
Nevertheless, for many gamers, the prospect of such light interactive engagement will be alarming. What use is an interactive film where your hands aren't even free to pick at the popcorn? But approach the experience for what it is - a gently interactive science fiction novella that's peculiarly of its time and origin - and you'll discover one of gaming's esoteric gems.
The science fiction, in particular, is some of the medium's strongest. Kojima's obsession with the science of what it is to live in space, the illnesses we might develop if we lived with weightlessness and then how those scientific prophecies might impact on a human level is totally engaging.
The story's vision of the future is creative yet also sober and believable, its innovations evolutions of current world systems and products rather than fabrications. Each and every piece of technology is so thoroughly justified in the descriptions that the world takes on a weighty sense of verisimilitude.
As the game's been translated by fans and not a sensitive publisher, the original grit of the sweary Japanese dialogue and darker scene-setting incidentals has survived localisation. For example, the shop across the street from Ingram's office sells VR kiddy porn, illustrating the inevitable darker capacity of all technological progress.
But despite the game's stabs at maturity it's also beset by characteristic Japanese sexism, which sits at odds with the game's more serious themes (which include a portrait of a family living with a severely autistic child). The option to joggle the breasts of many female characters during conversations may be little more than some lighthearted salaryman misogyny (and, as some of the girls recoil in horror, there is at least some payback to your lecherous pride); it sullies the game nonetheless.
However, Policenauts still emerges as a triumph of gentle interactive storytelling - a product so polished and rounded it's no surprise Kojima left so much promotion for the game in his subsequent title, Metal Gear Solid. Its Miami Vice-style soundtrack couples elegantly with the late-20th Century anime styling to produce a game that's not only distinct from but, in many cases, more than the sum of its influences.
It's also a style of game we'll perhaps never see again, its form and function too outdated to warrant much attention today. But in simplicity of function lies longevity. While Kojima's more ambitious recent games will age inexorably, the sharp anime lines and raw accessibility of Policenauts have a timeless edge, something shared by its older, more rounded cast. It's not for everyone, but in the dark sky of thrillers, point and click adventures, science fiction homage and Japanese esoterica, Policenauts is a bright, shining star.
8 / 10
NOTE: Playing Policenauts in English will require a legitimate copy of the game, the fan patch and either an emulator or PlayStation hardware equipped to play copied discs. The original language version of Policenauts is available on the Japanese PlayStation Store for PS3 owners.