The Silver Case is labyrinthine, confusing and often contradictory. It’s barely interactive, controls uncomfortably, and its miniscule number of puzzles are an afterthought.
Most of all, The Silver Case is one of my favorite games of 2016.
The passion project of Goichi “Suda51” Suda, The Silver Case served as the debut game of his company, Grasshopper Manufacture, back in 1999. Kicking off the loose Kill the Past trilogy (The Silver Case, Flower Sun & Rain, and Killer7) while also serving as a spiritual sequel to Suda’s 1997 horror game Moonlight Syndrome, this obscure adventure is available in English for the first time ever courtesy of the folks at Active Gaming Media. The Silver Case is a smoldering, yet unconventional neo-noir set during an alternative 1999, in which Tokyo has been split into 24 self-governed wards. A spate of violent homicides have been sweeping Japan’s capital, all with the MO of notorious serial killer Kamui Uehara. A special police detail, the Heinous Crimes Unit, is assembled in the 24th Ward to put a stop to this new rash of murders.
The player takes control of the enigmatic Akira, a former member (and lone survivor) of anti-Kamui task force Republic, who were wiped out pursuing the killer. Being the sole survivor of first-hand contact with Kamui, Akira finds himself transferred over to the Heinous Crimes Unit, where he’s promptly given the nickname “Chinchilla Big Dick” (“Big Dick,” for short) by bristly veteran detective Tetsugorō Kusabi. Yes, this is a Suda51 game through and through.
The Silver Case is divided into several chapters, each of which serve as a sort of “Case of the Week:” A bizarre and violent incident occurs somewhere in the city, and the HC Unit respond to investigate. It sounds like a pretty typical adventure game framework, however there’s a distinctly avant-garde and subversive flair to how each case plays out. One chapter sees your partner abandon you at a crime scene while he takes off in pursuit of romance; another has you scouring a showroom of fallout shelters, within which a group of small children are “waiting for mommy to come back.” In one memorable sequence, you’re pulled into the boss’ office for a non sequitur quiz; some questions pertain to the investigation at hand, while several others are pop culture trivia. At the end, you’re told you’ve passed and that nobody was keeping score. Welcome to The Silver Case: a Firesign Theatre of Cruelty, unafraid to laugh at itself while remaining unapologetically disturbing.
All of the action plays out courtesy of the game’s trademark Film Window System. This is a Jean Luc Godard-inspired interface of information overload, where locations, character portraits and dialogue run together in separate windows, set against a disorienting backdrop of rapid text (in both English and Japanese), mysterious numbers and shape-shifting bars of color all competing for your attention. Each chapter boasts its own color palette and unique visual style, and the Film Window System is content to mix and match still illustrations, 2D animation, 3D renders and FMV as it pleases to create a dizzying whirlpool of voyeuristic video art. Playing The Silver Case feels like sifting through the unconscious mind of a person who binged on a serial cop drama for 24 straight hours before bed; the hallmarks of the genre recontextualized and regurgitated through the processes of REM sleep.
Adding to the game’s sense of voyeurism is the fact that Akira is a silent protagonist, in a literal sense. It’s speculated that contact with Kamui traumatized him to muteness, which makes his viewpoint feel closer to that of a fly on the wall rather than a character in the world. Conversations happen around you rather than to you. Your colleagues mostly just talk to each other, and address you as if you’re a trusty pet: simple orders, rhetorical statements and projections of their feelings, knowing full well you won’t reply. The events of the game unfold similarly; it always seems as if something horrible is about to happen, but you’re late to the party, lazily drifting over recent atrocities. Ironically (and perhaps tellingly), the role of “Big Dick” is largely impotent.
As stated previously, The Silver Case is barely interactive. Much of the game is spent reading dialogue and watching the mystifying visuals, while every so often you’re tasked with traversing and investigating an area. Seen from the first person, the arrow keys or mouse are used to move along set points to reach a hotspot to interact with. Very rarely, the game will throw a puzzle at you, usually concerned with decoding a password. They’re not very difficult, but some can be just obtuse enough to be frustrating. Fortunately, they’re also completely optional—each puzzle comes with an “auto solve” button if you can’t be bothered. Although maybe a little on the nose, it’s definitely a kindness, and with the exception of an achievement for a single isolated puzzle, nothing is lost from using it. Even rarer than the puzzles is the need for the game’s inventory system: Over the course of The Silver Case’s 20 hours, I can think of maybe two or three occasions in which I was given an item to use, and only one of those occasions felt necessary. It’s a baffling design choice, but perhaps it’s just an extension of the game’s irreverent and dreamlike nature.
A secondary set of chapters, dubbed Placebo, unlock when each chapter of the main game is completed. These chapters, written by frequent Suda collaborators Masahi Ooka and Sako Kato, shift the viewpoint over to Tokio Morishima, a crime journalist covering the Kamui cases who, in true noir fashion, quickly finds himself in over his head. These chapters are even less interactive than those of the main story, and mostly see you peering over Tokio’s shoulder as he reads and writes e-mails. Unlike Akira, Tokio is a very talkative protagonist, albeit a very solitary one. Most of the time he serves as a narrator, monologuing to himself or his pet turtle, Red. Though it is optional, Placebo is essential to understanding the breadth of the game’s events, so it’s recommended to check back in with Tokio each time a case is wrapped up to see his perspective. As a bonus, Placebo also features some of the best writing in the game.
No matter which chapter you play, the game’s proceedings are wonderfully scored by Masafumi Takada, of DanganRonpa fame. Takada brings his inimitable biting style to create a soundtrack based around a central leitmotif that manages to be upbeat, jazzy, sorrowful and harrowing, sometimes all at once. The HD remake compliments his soundtrack with a few remixes by Kohei & His Computer Band, as well as some new arrangements from veteran game musician Akira Yamaoka. The Silver Case’s music is, in a word, awesome.
The Silver Case is very much a product of its time. When a violent cult pops up, comprised of intelligent young adults who see Kamui as a Christlike figure, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo, the terrorist actions of whom were likely still fresh in the minds of the Japanese public in 1999. That said, the anxieties presented are still pertinent, and a certain chapter about the destruction of a pop idol by the nihilistic deep web feels more relevant today than ever before. What doesn’t hold up so well is the game’s overt sexism. Misogynistic slurs are thrown around by almost every character, and when Hachisuka, the HC Unit’s sole woman detective, calls out the department’s institutional sexism, her complaints are written off as PMS. It’s gross, and hampered my enjoyment of the game whenever it occurred.
I can’t give The Silver Case a pass on its mean-spirited gender ideas, but the rest of the narrative is pretty outstanding. It never gives you all the answers, and really makes you work hard to make sense of things. It’s also important to note that The Silver Case really is just a story; its inhibitive level of interactivity feels more like window dressing than an attempt to create a fun or satisfying playable experience. This almost seems thematically appropriate, as if the mechanics, combined with Akira’s passivity, function as a statement on the meaninglessness of player agency within this narrative.
The Silver Case definitely won’t appeal to everyone. Less an adventure game than a narrative-based work of multimedia art, the long-awaited, low-key and sedate remaster of Grasshopper’s inaugural release will likely shatter the expectations of those who equate the name Suda51 with gory, high-octane character action. The Silver Case instead shows us a side of Goichi Suda that Western audiences are largely unfamiliar with: one of restraint and fearlessness towards experimentation, before his reputation preceded him. Despite being nearly two decades old, The Silver Case feels like Grasshopper’s freshest work to date.