Police (Noir) Nauts

Author’s Note: Guess who didn’t actually play Policenauts? This guy. Guess who doesn’t care? Also this guy. Rudie did play it, but he told me to write this up based on our conversation about it.

Hideo Kojima’s main understanding of human beings comes through watching movies about them (and not interacting with them). Even in the neverending marketing build up to the release of Death Stranding, with as much as he has been palling around with Reedus, Mads, and the Bros, he still seems like he mostly understands these actual humans through their existence in movies and TV shows. It’s a pretty authentically 21st century version of socialization, constructing identities less based on the actual human and more based on their images projected on the cultural screen.

Back in episode 57, Rudie and I talked about how “film noir” largely doesn’t exist beyond a certain set of lazy tropes, “a smoking detective and the dame walks into his office” any more, but that hasn’t always been true (and even isn’t trure for some people, even if the general cultural consensus has left it there). When film noir was much more on the cultural screen, the genre meant a lot more, including:

  • A private detective with a past (often as a cop) getting pulled into a mystery that starts out small but spirals into a lot more. That detective starts out at an almost complete removal from the mystery, but gets dragged into it over the course of solving it. This is what the aforementioned “dame” usually served to do, but eventually all anyone remembered was that she was there.
  • Los Angeles. Almost always Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. This ties into LA history a lot, which is this really a history of out of control capitalism and ridiculous corruption, tied often to how literally how people survive (Chinatown is notable in this in that it made the whole noir mystery literally tied to the water rights to LA, which is a pretty big issue for a city built in a place where there isn’t really a lot of water).
  • Multiple rival factions competing to solve the mystery/get the prize/whatever, that often lash out against the detective. Usually there’s some scene where they kidnap him, torture him, etc.
  • Ridiculously seedy underbelly of secret groups doing totally not ethical shit.

Of course, this got quickly reduced to a detective sitting in a office when the beautiful dame walks in and blah blah blah. And these things became subsumed into the general lexicon, and the cliche idea of film noir becomes more prominent than the actual noir, which was often meant to be more about the helplessness of an individual in a giant machine, which the cliche is very much not about.

Even if you have the very basic understanding of noir outlined above (as compared to the cliche), you can just see all the ways it gets expanded outward. For example, despite how widely it is now viewed as a zany comedy, The Big Lebowski is largely a long riff on this set of tropes, only instead of a hard-boiled detective, you get a 70s-era LA stoner up against a weirdo land developer (a stock noir type) and the nihilists. There’s even a damsel in distress (Bunny Lebowski) but she also doesn’t realize it. It’s really a funny riff, but yeah, it gets missed because it doesn’t scream about what it is.

A lot of David Lynch’s work is riffs on noir, but instead of going for comedy, Lynch expands into “what if the giant machine isn’t capitalist hell as much as a weird chaotic universe beyond what we can understand”. Sometimes he sets his work in LA (Mulholland Drive, for example), but even Twin Peaks expands on the idea, by just changing LA into Twin Peaks, a small town run by various large coroporations (logging and the hotel/tourism) with the secret societies starting out as sex clubs but ending up with the Lodges. In this world, Dale Cooper is almost a parody of the noir detective, one who doesn’t care about hard evidence in favor of spontaneous conclusions and chance. And one can note the nature of the woman who brought him into the whole case, the departed Laura Palmer.

In Policenauts, it almost seems like Kojima (and his team) “gets” noir beyond the cliche, if only accidentally. Remember, Kojima’s worldview is based on movies, so he might not even know he is making a noir. But he’s also really not expanding it much beyond what already took place in Blade Runner. Sure, it’s the future, and there is some future stuff like POLICE IN SPACE, but the game is still a grizzled detective sitting in his office when the dame walks in. Sure, he’s grizzled because he was in cryogenic stasis for a couple decades, but that doesn’t really seem too different in the end. It’s not so much a riff on noir, as just noir.

In talking with Rudie as he works his way through Policenauts, this is a problem of the game as a whole: it doesn’t really have its own identity aside from the movies and tropes it makes you think of. Hey, it’s Blade Runner. Now it’s Lethal Weapon. Kojima isn’t really synthesizing much new here. At this point (yes even by the mid 90s when this game was made) the best way to use noir is toying with its limitations instead of just imitating them, so maybe it’s OK not to play Policenauts.

Hinge Problems Score: Nine outta Ten.

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