I’m finally getting around to playing the Policenauts translation.
I’ll probably end up writing a Battle Klaxon about it, but for now I need to have a moment talking about how it opens. Because, holy smokes! This is the stuff. If you’re wondering where the stuff is, well, let me tell you! It’s right here.
An opening cutscene gives you the outline. It’s the future! Humanity is taking its first, halting steps into space colonisation. Your character, Jonathon Ingram, was chosen to join four other model policemen to make up the first space-policemen, or police astronauts, or police… nauts! But there was an accident and Jonathon was sent careening into space, the cold sleep module on his suit kicking in. 30 years later his suit is recovered, and Ingram starts life anew as a private eye in an old, rotting, unfamiliar Los Angeles.
This introductory cutscene ends with an ice-cool shot of the Mel Gibson-channelling Ingram, sitting alone in his dusty office. This is where you’re presented with the above screen and gain control. A neon light outside your window keeps blinking on and off, turning the room from blue to electric green, then back to blue.
Like Snatcher, Policenauts is a sort of point-and-click schlock novella seen from the character’s point of view. At the start of the game Ingram’s waiting for a client to show, so as a player you have nothing to do but click around the office, causing Ingram to reminisce on each object in turn.
He’ll chatter about why he smokes his anachronistic brand of cigarettes, or the history he has with his gun. He’ll tell you that the scrunched-up ball of paper is the notes of some case or other, then complain that his desk is a mess and that he’s been trying to hire an assistant but no-one wants to work for him. Click on the picture of Ingram and his ex-wife and you get a blown up version, allowing you to click on her face, her dress or your rental tux, Ingram remembering something inconsequential each time. You can even click on each individual newspaper cutting on the back wall there, again getting blown up versions that let you read headlines, look at pictures or skim articles. Everything in the room can be clicked on, right down to the venetian blinds which Ingram bought in an antique store.
This is beautiful game design. By letting you know what every single item in the room means to Ingram, he springs to life. And because these associations paint such a sad, coherent picture (of a man stuck in the past in more ways than one) you’re immediately attached to this character, not to mention the empathy that developers because the two of you are simply killing time, waiting for something. And because you’re attached to the protagonist, you’re attached to the story, you’re attached to the game. You’ve gone from finishing the first cutscene to being emotionally invested in this thing in under 60 seconds.
When, as the genre demands, that sad dame eventually does walk in with that sad, sad case, Policenauts also earns mad brownie points from me for letting you turn her down. Ingram provides a voice-acted and perfectly reasonable reason why, and she leaves.
Yeesh, this game. I’m gonna go play some more.