Coherence has never been Suda51’s strength, but then coherence is never the point. To play his games, or at least to play the games Goichi Suda made before his nickname became a meaningless brand aesthetic, the videogame equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino Presents, is to enveloped in their strange worlds, their surreal journeys. I can’t tell you much about what Killer7, his greatest work, actually means, but I can tell you everything about the way it feels to stand in the middle of its weirdo narrative and its sparse, apocalyptic dreamscapes. This release of The Silver Case remasters one of his earliest games, the debut title for studio Grasshopper Manufacture. The best thing about it is that you can see where Suda’s going. He’ll get there eventually. He’s just not even close to being there yet.
Though The Silver Case is technically an adventure game because you wander environments that sporadically feature puzzles to solve, it presents itself as more of a mixed-media collage. There are the puzzles and the gridded 3-D spaces in which they reside, but also there’s the text that spills from character portraits with the volume and frequency of a visual novel. Everything plays out in windows of varying size surrounded by symbols and strings of words that flash in and out of the negative space. Sometimes the windows show the occasional anime interlude or a bit of FMV or (most often) an illustration, but never choices. My interaction with the game often borders on nonexistent outside the button I press to advance the text. The effect is both distinct and distancing – I don’t occupy The Silver Case’s world so much as see it through those windows, view it from behind the glass. I wander its fussy grids one square at a time, searching for the floating sun-burst symbols that mark either an interactive object or another person; in this game, one’s as good as the other.
That is to say, The Silver Case isn’t much of a visual showpiece for Suda. Beyond the illustrations and one chapter entirely in black and white, the character art scarcely changes; no single emotion escapes from the boxed-in neutral faces. Instead, I’m left to focus on the writing alone as delivered by the angry clacking of letters filling out a text box, the sound of a thundering typewriter that supplements Suda’s harsh, jagged dialogue. But what might have otherwise highlighted a strength of character/clarity of vision/etc. only demonstrates how difficult it is to subsist on his dialogue alone. The game’s cast is large and indistinct, composed mainly of the uniformly hard-boiled detectives in the Heinous Crimes Unit. Only two leave an impression: Kusabi, the hardest-boiled of them all whose open disdain manifests in absurd nicknames for the player like “chinchilla” and “Big Dick”, and Chizuru, who is a woman and therefore receives the bulk of the game’s sexism with lines promising the player a date as a reward or apologizing for her anger with “I was on my period.”
A side narrative, “Placebo” to the main storyline called “Transmitter”, is more successful at building character with its extended portrait of a downbeat journalist (incidentally, it’s written by Masahi Ooka and Sako Kato and not Suda at all). In addition to telling its own parallel story, Placebo serves as a kind of explainer to the more obtuse Transmitter, an interconnected series of cases concerning (sometimes loosely) the escaped serial killer Kamui Uehara. The Silver Case is a procedural of sorts, not quite in the sputtering adequacy of the CBS tradition but closer than you might expect. I’ve said little of the narrative up to this point, partially because the different stories in each case are tough to condense into one singular thread outside the Kamui connection. The other reason is that it’s all pretty much bonkers. Even in the true depths of its incoherence, however, I only occasionally glimpse Suda’s odd brand of inspiration, with a guy who predicts the future through the pain in his wisdom teeth or Kamui’s murder weapon, a “customized harpoon gun” (there is no elaboration and it actually makes less sense in context), or one deaf character’s preposterous, convoluted, and successful scheme to fake perfectly functional hearing. Mostly, Suda plays it straight. Many of the cases unfold conventionally, and the ones that don’t still feel conventional when their gestures toward the futuristic or the unorthodox disappear into the void left by the absence of a strong visual component or writing that evokes any sense of place.
I see occasional brilliance in The Silver Case. It’s in a tense chase through the woods in the black of night, where allies disappear into the darkness as their radar blips go dead. It’s in the sudden, unsettling appearance of a human shadow on the tile floor that compels you to look up, a creepy moment that only works half as well as it does because of the game world’s otherwise ruinous scarcity, because this is the first time you’ll ever see a human represented in the 3-D space. It’s in the way it de-personalizes the player, incorporating your avatar’s videogame-y silence by writing you as an emotionally traumatized creep, by referring to you more often by Kusabi’s nicknames than whatever character name you chose before the game reveals itself to be about identity all along. It questions how we perceive information, how it travels and affects our view of people and cities and countries, how it’s gathered by the journalist character in Placebo.
What The Silver Case doesn’t do is find something cohesive in its mess, a larger point behind the dull puzzles that otherwise bury its inspiration. You lumber from one square to the next with a tedium that’s sometimes so blatant it can’t be anything but intentional, yet this kind of joke at the player’s expense speaks to nothing in particular – as a commentary on the unexciting routine of police work, it’s lost on a crime unit too thinly-sketched to sustain any scrutiny or satire. The game’s endless text fleshes out neither its world nor its characters before spiraling into nonsense; it’s the first time Suda’s incoherence just reads like amateurism or incompetence. It would be easy, maybe, to say that The Silver Case exposes the lie of Suda51, that Goichi Suda is nothing when stripped of the artifice. Mostly, though, it plays to his later career like a shaky student film or one of those awkward TV pilots where the characters act strangely and some of them are played by different actors and no one has quite figured the plot out yet. There are fragments here, and in that regard The Silver Case can be instructive because you can imagine how they’ll later come together into something that makes sense, relatively speaking. But if I was the TV network, I’d have passed.