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.