Snatcher and Influences
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Snatcher (Konami, 1988), the groundbreaking cyberpunk adventure game created by Hideo Kojima. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed Snatcher may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Although game designer Hideo Kojima is best known for the Metal Gear series (Konami, 1987), his other projects from his earliest days at Konami are similarly well-regarded by fans. One of those projects, the 1988 adventure game Snatcher, set a standard for narrative design in games with its mature themes and cinematic structure. In Snatcher, players control Gillian Seed as he hunts down the titular Snatchers: robots who have infiltrated humanity using synthetic skin. It’s a familiar conceit to anyone familiar with twentieth-century science fiction, a fact that Kojima twists to his advantage. Drawing inspiration from Hollywood, Kojima gives his game a cinematic flair by poaching concepts from science fiction films.
By borrowing from movies like Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kojima and his team created something he once referred to as “…a giant homage by a bunch of science-fiction geeks.”1 Snatcher is more than the sum of its parts, however; it’s a mix of Hollywood inspiration and original ideas, each combined in different levels to shape the plot, characters, setting, and theme. The result is a wholly original experience, one that could have only come from the mind of Hideo Kojima.
Mixing Influences and Original Ideas
At its most basic level, Snatcher’s plot is an amalgam of the plots from Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In Snatcher, the metropolis of Neo Kobe is under siege by Snatchers, a cabal of robots who can blend in seamlessly with human beings to infiltrate society. It’s a concept shared by Blade Runner’s Replicants, The Terminator’s T-800s (known colloquially as Terminators), and the unnamed pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, along with countless other enemies from twentieth-century science fiction. As in Blade Runner, those who oppose the Snatcher infiltration have created a task force to identify and hunt down Snatchers. The protagonist Gillian Seed is one such man, and his quest to stop the Snatcher invasion mirrors that of Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard at the start. Once Snatcher gets moving, however, its plot takes some unique turns.
In stories where an enemy can disguise themself as an ally, the enemy’s disguise often has a weakness that the allies can exploit. In Blade Runner, scientists can subject Replicants to a battery of questions and monitor their reactions to determine their humanity, while in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the protagonists can tell the pod people apart by their lack of human emotions. Following this tradition, Snatcher gives its infiltrators a weakness of their own: an imperfect synthetic skin, one prone to developing cancer with even the slightest exposure to sunlight. To compensate for this weakness, Snatchers limit their activities to the evening whenever possible and slather on sunscreen when they’re forced to face the light. These weaknesses directly affect the trajectory of the plot, as they dictate where the Snatchers congregate (night clubs and cancer clinics), what the Snatchers buy (masks and sunscreen), and how they travel the city (underground transportation). As a result, Gillian Seed spends a fair amount of time investigating clubs, hospitals, and tunnels—and he also gets a great nose for the smell of sunscreen. While these details might not look like much individually, they combine to push Snatcher’s story in its own direction, giving Kojima the room he needs to add his personal flair.
Those who know the Metal Gear series are undoubtedly familiar with some of Kojima’s favorite story concepts, including government conspiracies, arms races, and nature versus nurture. These concepts all show up in Snatcher, along with plenty of other Kojima-standbys that surface in his other works. The government conspiracy and arms race angles form the backbone of the Snatcher’s origin story: they were the products of Soviet scientists, some of whom were secretly reporting to the CIA. This overt connection to the Cold War (which was still going on at the time of Snatcher’s development) stands in direct contrast to the films referenced, which referenced East-West tensions in more subtle ways (see Themes below). Kojima’s curiosity about humanity’s emotional growth also shows up in his examinations of Snatchers modeled after living humans. For example, a Snatcher created to emulate the designer’s son ends up rebelling against the man who served as his blueprint, as he developed a different sense of morality than his predecessor. This concept set the stage for Metal Gear Solid, in which Solid Snake shares a similar relationship with Big Boss. This is just one of the many ideas that Kojima would test out in Snatcher, resulting in a plot that goes its own way while paying homage to its influences.
Like the plot of Snatcher, Snatcher‘s characters share surface elements from the films that inspired Kojima, but Kojima’s influence helps them stand on their own as unique creations. Gillian Seed, protagonist and Snatcher-hunter, wears a memorable overcoat like the one worn by Rick Deckard in Blade Runner; one of the Snatchers, the man who kills Gillian’s predecessor, shares a face and hairstyle with Blade Runner replicant Roy Batty. The design references extended beyond Blade Runner, as well. Mysterious bounty Random Hajile also bears more than a passing resemblance to Sting’s Feyd-Rautha in the 1984 version of Dune. Meanwhile, Gillian Seed’s robotic partner Metal Gear Mk. II is a direct reference to Kojima’s own work, so much so that Gillian’s Gear is apparently modeled after similar Metal Gears to the ones shared with the eponymous series. While these and other surface elements reinforce Snatcher’s connection to its influences, they aren’t enough to define the characters on their own. That comes through in their personalities and decisions, which Kojima makes his own.
As the protagonist, Gillian Seed is the character players learn the most about, and what they learn sets him apart from Blade Runner‘s morose Rick Deckard very quickly. Unlike Deckard, Gillian is upbeat and personable, and he’s not afraid to let his emotions show. He cares deeply about the people he works with, and his desire to protect them often leads him to act impulsively. On the lighter side, he loves food and women, and he’ll stop in the middle of a mission to make time for both of them. He’s also an amnesiac with no memory of his early life, which adds a degree of uncertainty to his actions. His wife, Jamie Seed, suffers from a similar condition, which influences her strained relationship with Gillian. Together, these characteristics come together to make a protagonist who has little resemblance to Deckard, even though they have the same taste in clothes.
Snatcher’s secondary characters are equally distinct from their cinematic counterparts. Random Hajile shares few personality traits with his Dune doppelgänger; he’s brash, cocky, and willing to sacrifice himself for the people he cares about, while Dune‘s Feyd-Rautha is calculating and cruel. Gillian’s robotic partner (affectionally dubbed ‘Metal’) is nothing like the Metal Gears from the long-running series, either, as he’s dedicated to helping Gillian and other members of humanity. (Years later, Kojima would include Metal Gear Mk. II in Metal Gear Solid IV as Snake’s combat assistant, closing the self-referential loop.) The other secondary cast members have their own quirks and flaws, setting them apart from the archetypes that inspired them. They come together to make the world of Snatcher richer and more vibrant, transcending its Hollywood roots.
Snatcher’s setting is where the game deviates the least from its influences, a decision Kojima made when developing the game. When discussing the game in an early 1990s interview, Kojima stated: “[What] I was interested in expressing was not an original story or world. The world was simply the empty vessel for the activities and lives of the various characters that you meet, and the inexorable fate that they are dragged into unawares…“2 This emphasis on character over setting bears out in the finished product, as the setting leans heavily on Blade Runner’s cyberpunk aesthetic. Visually, everything from the sprawling design of Neo Kobe City to the interiors of its cars is taken directly from Blade Runner, and much of the world-building borrows from the film, as well. The threat of the Snatchers forces government bodies to rely on outside agencies for help, just as they do in Blade Runner, and an air of cynicism pervades the city. Where the world-building differs is in its history and the events that led to the rise of the Snatchers.
Snatcher’s story takes place in a world recovering from a global catastrophe. Fifty years before the game began, half the world’s population was killed by a biological weapon known as Lucifer-Alpha. The USSR, the epicenter of the disaster, was almost entirely wiped out, and the surrounding area was completely uninhabitable. Naturally, this put an end to the Cold War, as the Soviets could no longer fight. It took ten years for the virus to mutate into something humanity could withstand, and that interim period reshaped the world’s political balance. During this period, Neo Kobe City was built on an artificial island near Japan, attracting a diverse population. This mass immigration led to a cosmopolitan environment akin to New York City, which is how a region populated by equal amounts of Americans, Japanese, Soviets, and Snatchers came to be. While the result is ultimately very similar to Blade Runner’s Los Angeles of 2019, the events that led to its creation lend it a flavor of its own, one that connects to the story’s other elements.
The idea of an enemy hiding in plain sight was a pervasive one in the mid-twentieth century, due in no small part to the rise of communism in the east and the resulting Cold War. As United States Senator Joseph McCarthy ramped up his anti-communist in the west, arresting perceived threats to democracy within the American populace, science fiction writers grappled with the idea that the enemy could be hiding in plain sight. This period of social instability resulted in works like Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (the basis of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner), along with countless other books, films, and television shows that explored similar territory.
Almost forty years later, when the Cold War was in its death throes and Snatcher was in development, science fiction writers were still intrigued by the idea of the undercover enemy and the many themes such an enemy could allow them to explore. Blade Runner chose to explore the enemy’s humanity (in this case, the humanity of the replicants), while The Terminator drew its theme from its time travel angle, suggesting the future is what you make of it. Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes a more cynical approach (differing from its source material), saying that by the time they’ve noticed an infiltration, it’s already too late to stop it. Each of these films takes its own approach to the enemy within, and it’s those different approaches that shape the trajectory of their stories. As such, it’s only natural that Snatcher would explore a unique theme: how suspicion of outsiders destroys society from within.
Unlike the works that influenced him, Kojima references the Cold War directly in Snatcher and ties it to his theme of suspicion and mistrust. To turn the people of the world against each other, the mastermind behind the Snatcher plot, Dr. Elijah Modnar, wants to expose humanity’s weakness by praying on their fear of the unknown. “Humans are such weak creatures,” he remarks while revealing his grand plan. “No matter how much they trust one another, the tiniest speck of suspicion can destroy it all.” This belief reinforces the story’s theme, which is directly stated in the epigraph at the end: “Throughout history, suspicion has always bred conflict. The real conflict, though, relies in people’s hearts.” In other words, man’s worst enemy is himself, and he cannot survive unless he overcomes his doubts. This theme harkens back to the panic that resulted from McCarthyism, in which fear of the enemy within led Americans to doubt their friends and neighbors. When Gillian and his allies defeat Dr. Modnar, setting back the Snatcher project, they’re striking a blow against Modnar’s cynicism and the cynicism of the Cold War. For them, suspicion is something that can be overcome, and doubtful people are still people worth saving saving.
In the decades since Snatcher’s release, game developers have come to rely on Hollywood as a source of inspiration for their scripts. What made Snatcher so memorable was not just its cinematic influences, however, but the way Kojima combined those influences with his own interests to make an original creation. Writers who wish to draw upon multiple influences for their own works should consider how Kojima balanced his influences in Snatcher’s plot, characters, setting, and themes to create something that only he could have created.
Narrative Analysis: Influences & Inspirations
Artists find inspiration in other creative works, both inside and outside their medium.
Narrative Analysis: Characters
Protagonists, antagonists, and foils are just some of the roles to fill in fictional worlds.
Narrative Analysis: Themes
Tying stories to meaningful questions through repeated ideas and imagery.