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The stray dogs of The Silver Case

Hard-boiled Wonderland.

"This is the beginning of the game... You police guys stop me if you can... I desperately want to see people die, it is a thrill for me to commit murder. A bloody judgment is needed for my years of great bitterness."

There are few people who were in Japan in 1997 who don't remember the Kobe child murders. It wasn't just the age of the victims, the 10 year old Ayaka Yamashita and the 11 year old Jun Hase, or the relative youth of their killer, the 14-year-old known only by his pseudonym Seito Sakakibara, but his ornate practices and strange notes: the quote above was found, carefully written in red pen on a piece of paper, in the mouth of Hase's decapitated head, left outside the gates of his school.

For Goichi Suda, those murders would begin a fascination with grotesque crimes that would reappear throughout his career. He was still at developer Human Entertainment at the time, but only a year later, Suda, eager to pursue new ideas, set up his own studio: Grasshopper Manufacture. With the Kobe murders still fresh in his mind, Suda set out to create a game that would allow him to dig deeply into ideas of crime and punishment in Japanese society. The Silver Case would be that game, a visual novel augmented with a slew of different visual styles, from anime sequences to film and FMV.

The game's “Film Window” concept, apparently inspired by new-wave film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, remains an innovative form of presentation even today.

Released in 1999 on the PlayStation, just as the coming millennium inspired a newfound fear of technology and the future, it marked a founding part of Grasshopper Manufacture's legacy, and a signature piece for a director who would come to be known for his idiosyncratic style, dark imagination and contemporary awareness. And yet, for the past 18 years The Silver Case has remained a complete unknown in the West. Released in English for the first time last year on PC, it is only now arriving onto its spiritual home, the PlayStation, albeit three generations later. This makes it the last of the four Grasshopper games that Suda 51, as he came to be known, directed (including the rare DS port of Flower Sun Rain, his masterpiece Killer 7 as well as pulp hit, and Suda's last game as director, No More Heroes) to make it to the West.

For that reason The Silver Case feels like a time capsule. It's not just that it allows fans of Suda's work to pick back through this origin story, to find the patterns that would go on to define his work. It's that The Silver Case, even in its translated form, is such a distinct product of its time. Take first the Kobe murders: a curiosity with the remorseless, jumbled notes of the teenage killer Sakakibara seems to run through the lines of the game's naïve serial killer Kamui Uehara (who is 16 at the time of his first murders), while the wandering discussions of detectives Tetsugoro Kusabi and Sumio Kodai about the nature of crime and the criminal mind itself play out like the public debates held in Japanese news and media throughout 1997. Child murders and severed heads with objects in their mouths would appear as explicit references to the Kobe murders years later in Killer 7, but here we can see a portrait of a society still dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic, perception-shifting event.

Though the writing, and translation, can often be uneven, its literary ambition cannot be overlooked.

Yet it is not just the wide view of Japan at the turn of the millennium that The Silver Case contains, but also a deeply personal discussion of what it meant to be a young man, finding your place in the world. It is the game's companion story, following a reporter who is tasked with investigating the Uehara's murders by a shady client, which points most directly to the concerns of the game's makers at the turn of the millennium. This second story, unlocked piece by piece as an accompaniment to the shifting, unpredictable main plot, is an altogether more intimate work. Named "Placebo", it consists mostly of the diary entries and the musings of investigator and journalist Tokio Morishima.

Unlike the main story, "Transmitter", Morishima's story was not written by Suda. Instead it was the work of Masashi Ooka, a writer whose retelling of Suda's last game at Human Entertainment, Moonlight Syndrome, from the perspective of a journalist in the game's strategy guide caught the young director's eye. He commissioned Ooka to do the same for The Silver Case, but as a second branch to the story. The result is an understated, introverted, though occasionally immature investigation to counterpoint Suda's often extravagantly weird work. Ooka, who rarely worked on games, brings a literary quality to this side of the narrative, as Morishima's journal entries battle with a lonely, isolated life and a distinct sense of purposelessness.

The influence of the two Murakamis, the darkly playful Ryu and the profoundly human Haruki, hang heavily over "Placebo". Shades of their novels, like Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and In the Miso Soup, are everywhere you look. Ooka, like these Japanese influences, also seems to be riffing off Raymond Chandler's iconic hard-boiled style, injecting Morishima with the chain-smoking, no-nonsense attitude of the classic hard-nosed investigator. Yet the success of Ooka's work on Placebo is that we get to see behind this façade, to a young man lost in a rapidly changing world, his investigation ultimately consuming his life.

The game feels positioned at that potent meeting point of Western and Eastern influences shared by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Haruki Murakami.

This is where The Silver Case goes from being a speculative, surreal murder-mystery to something much more real. Speaking in the brilliant Art of Grasshopper Manufacture book released in 2015, Suda talks about the struggle of making such an ambitious game with a small team, and in an unreceptive context. He describes it as "a time when many people felt 'Video games are just for kids after all.' Actually people made fun of the game" he adds, "I had to struggle to turn everyone to my side, both internally and externally." In the book, Suda describes his team as "stray dogs" multiple times, a phrase that in Japan has some cultural resonance. We might think of Akira Kurosawa's classic 1949 hard-boiled noir Stray Dog, a work as influenced by Western detective fiction as The Silver Case, or even photographer Daido Moriyama's iconic 1971 photograph Stray Dog, an image of a sun-blasted mongrel which became both his calling card and a kind of self-portrait.

In Japan the idea of a stray dog is inseparably linked with that of an outsider, but in these works the stray is an outsider to be identified with. In Kurosawa's film, the protagonist argues for mercy for one such stray dog, a fleeing criminal, realising that, had the tables been turned, he too might have become such a criminal in the pressure cooker of post-war Japan. Moriyama's image of a stray dog, meanwhile, asks us to hold its piercing gaze, to see it as the victim, the outcast it is. A stray dog is also the ideal way to describe Ooka's protagonist, the journalist Tokio Morishima. He is the product of a time, of an ornately structured society that he struggles to fit into. And in its unsettling, surreal conclusion, The Silver Case suggests the killer Uhera might be a stray dog too, a wild and uncontrollable product of a broken system.

From the vantage point of today it's hard to see Suda and his team as "stray dogs." Grasshopper has an international reputation, and Suda a following of ardent fans. Perhaps that's one of the things that makes the translation and re-release of The Silver Case feel so important. Kept from English speakers from almost two decades, it arrives to us like a time-capsule, and allows us an almost unprecedented look at both the wider concerns and the personal lives of a small set of people in a previous decade. It allows us to recognise these stray dogs for what they were: outsiders, artists and deeply thoughtful game-makers.

Takashi Miyamoto's illustrations are the treasure of the remaster, bringing a studied humanity to the high-tech aesthetic.

In its transition to today The Silver Case has not aged well: it is clunky, slow, prone to the obfuscation of simple systems. And yet as a cultural moment, and a piece of personal expression, it feels all the more potent for the years that have passed since its original release. It seems to contain fragments of the lives of its makers: The obsessions of Goichi Suda, the delicate illustrations of Takashi Miyamoto, the unsettling electronica of Masafumi Takata and the introversion of Masahi Ooka. And in this it also serves as a reminder of how games, just like any medium, might carry, absorb and reflect both their makers and their time, providing not windows of escape into other worlds, but windows into our own world, but seen in other times, through the lenses of other minds.

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