This article contains heavy SPOILERS for Policenauts. Read at your own peril!
BBC’s Sherlock (2010) is a lesson in how to do justice to a modern day adaptation. It takes the essence of the characters of Sherlock and Watson, and transports them to modern day London, with all the implications of a modern setting. The technology of the present is infused into the series, with an opening scene demonstrating the ubiquity of texting. Even more impressively, the social context of the series rings true; terrorism, information manipulation, hacking and modern millitary experiments are all seamlessly integrated into the world of Sherlock. While the series still feels like the Sherlock Holmes of old, the creators understood that the adaptation required radical changes to the social strata for it to make sense today.
But not all adaptations are created equal. Hideo Kojima’s Policenauts might have been a fun Lethal Weapon-esque jaunt if not for one critical factor - being set in space.
Policenauts wears its inspirations in bright neon colours on both sleeves. The meat of the storyline is about a couple of cops trying to deal with a new super drug. The protagonists - Jonathon Ingram and Ed Brown - look exactly like Riggs and Murtagh, right down to the ridiculous 80’s haircuts. The bad guys are the usual suspects of buddy-cop films - the sleazy executive, the corrupt police chief - and the story even ends with a single bullet fired from a revolver.
Policenauts takes this paradigm and transplants it into a futuristic, science fiction setting - an orbital space colony settlement. And while it does a good job of updating the technology of the past, it fails miserably when it comes to the societal changes of the future. We get a tremendous amount of detail about the advances in biomedicine and artificial food growth, but not on how the government is structured or changes in moral values. And nothing is more emblematic of that issue than Tokugawa Industry’s plans to distribute Narc to the population.
Narc is a ‘semi-synthetic narcotic made from black poppy opium, combining the addictiveness of morphine with the hallucinogenic properties of LSD. It is an illegal drug, but Tokugawa comes up with a cunning plan to sell it to the population. They come up with a seemingly new drug called K-9, and what makes it special is that it comes in two parts. Each half of the drug resembles a perfectly normal legal drug, but take them together and BOOM - you’ve got yourself a Narc filled cocktail. Naturally, each half of the drug has an identifier, and the company produced CD explains the science behind it. Its viewed as a way for Tokugawa to secretly and legally dispense Narc to the population.
The obvious problem is that the ‘secrecy’ involved with having a drug in two parts instead of one is going to last about 30 minutes at best. The people who are taking the drug, which is a huge swathe of the population, will need to be told how to take the drug. So everyone is going to be in on the secret immediately, and suddenly it's not remotely secret at all. Then the next day, the police are going to have thousands of illegal Narc pills with Tokugawa’s stamp on them, and the place is going to get raided and shut down.
Selling an illegal drug is not a good plan when it's so easy to trace the origin of production - and in this case, stamping each half with your company’s logo removes much of the need for detective work.. So why doesn’t Tokugawa try to legalise Narc? We’re repeatedly told how powerful the corporation is - they run all major institutions on Beyond and they’ve won the sole contract to upgrade the station. We see the head of the company associating with powerful political and criminal figures and the police refuse to conduct an official investigation on them - they’re too big to go after. If Tokugawa has these kinds of connections and immunity, Why don’t they leverage some of their ridiculous power to just legalise the drug?
This is where a gaping hole starts to emerge in the sci-fi world of Policenauts. We know nothing about the political structure of Beyond. We don’t know if they’re a separate sovereign entity, what guarantees that sovereignty, whether Beyond has to pay taxes to Earth, or whether corporations are bound by Earth laws or if there’s some other kind of legal structure. Unlike The Expanse or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which have politics central to conflict, we instead have nothing at all.
It's not like this would have been impossible to write. A rival political/corporate faction could be blocking the law to legalise Narc in whatever resembles their governmental system. But there’s nothing there. If Tokugawa really wants to get Narc out to as many people as possible, legalising its use on Beyond is a plan that makes actual sense. Their secret drug thing doesn’t just reek of incompetence, its flat out nonsensical. You can’t just ignore political structures when tackling a subject as intrinsically political as drug use, and Policenaut’s failure to engage with this makes this central plot point come undone.
Narc is viewed as a serious problem in the world of Policenauts, with the Beyond Police Force forming a special task force purely to deal with the propagation of Narc. We’re told that a full third of all people involved in space development take Narc, with that number expected to rise. And when you uncover the binary drug dispensary system, everyone gets worried - the implication is that anyone who wants Narc will be able to get it.
Except...maybe that's not actually a problem. We’re told that ‘space attacks the mind...we have no [legal] visible way of solving the mental aspect’. The rate of mental illness on Beyond is several times higher than in other isolated places like Antarctica. It's clear that living in space has taken a real mental toll on a lot of people, and nothing is apparently being done to address those mental health concerns. Why wouldn’t they turn to a drug to help them deal with the harshness of their existence? We don’t ever meet a single Narc user to empathise with their situation either - we get one crackhead shooting his wife and himself (oh, and attempting to kill his son) and that's it.
See, buddy cop movies need the simplicity of drugs being bad to give righteous authority to the wisecracking cops as they crack down on crime. We ignore the plight of the individuals who feel compelled to take this drug to survive in space and focus exclusively on how evil Narc is and those who make it are even more evil, despite them providing the only lifeline that some people may have. And with the downfall of the Tokugawa Corporation at the end of the story and no mental health services to replace them, these people are probably going to end up in a far worse spot. Policenauts shows a stunning blindness to mental health in telling the story in this way.
The drug problem is only the first half of the story of Policenauts though. The Deep Throat-like informant you meet tells you that K-9 is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Tokugawa’s crimes. The second major leg of the story covers the other diabolical plan of Tokugawa - organ farming. Space doesn’t just cause damage to our mental health, it wreaks havoc on our physical bodies as well. Cosmic radiation and different levels of gravity ruin our bodies, since they never evolved to face these conditions on Earth. So Tokugawa comes up with a plan - they supply Narc to the criminal organisations on Earth, who in turn give them with a string of dead bodies that can have their organs harvested.
And credit where it's due, this plan is far more robust than the aforementioned ‘secret drug’ scheme. Body parts are both expensive and probably highly regulated, so Tokugawa Corporation may not have a clear legal way to get access to them. The organs are not stored on Beyond, but on the Moon, where gravity is more suitable and there’s a level of distance from the company itself. And it's possible that there’s a level of taboo surrounding organ trading, making it politically awkward for Tokugawa to push for it in the future.
Where it all comes undone is in linking the grand plan of Mankind conquering space to what is actually happening in the game. In Blade Runner 2049, Niander Wallace’s plan is breathtaking in its audacity. He wants humanity to ascend to the stars and thinks leveraging replicants is the way to do it. He isn’t satisfied with thousands of replicants - Wallace needs a slave labour force in the millions, and it's not possible or cost efficient to hit those numbers by just building them. So when Wallace realises the possibility of Replicants breeding, he seizes the opportunity. Wallace wants to build endless farms of replicant farms, reproducing them endlessly so that humans have an unending supply of slaves to build whatever they deem necessary. Now, that is a plan.
Gates, in his ending villainous monologue in Policenauts, states a similar goal - he views the actions of Tokugawa as essential to the future of humanity. But it's not like these organs are being distributed to those in space development - they’re being peddled off purely for profit. When Salvatore confronts you at the organ base on the moon, he talks exclusively about selling your organs off to the highest bidder.
We even get confirmation in game that these organs aren’t being made widely available to those who need them, even people in positions of great importance. Kenzo Hojo, the chief drug researcher for Tokugawa, couldn’t even get bone marrow to his daughter without stealing and selling drugs for his own personal gain. The organ farming thing ends up being just a side project to make more money - when really it should be a central tenet to take humanity's evolution to the next step.
Even more disappointing is the complete failure to expand on the Frozeners. One of the primary antagonists in the game is a ‘Frozener’ called Redwood. The Frozener’s are artificial humans, grown from the genes of astronauts with artificial blood and special lens over their eyes. But no attention is paid to these next generation, purposefully built for space humans - instead there’s a number of shootouts and a grudge born against you by Redwood that makes zero sense.
When you’re telling a story on the scale of Policenauts, you need an evil plan to match. But Gates monologue at the end rings hollow, because all the evidence points towards a simple money raising scheme.
When I started playing Policenauts, I didn’t know what to expect. My initial impressions were very positive. It looked like the game had successfully fused together elements of neo-noir and cyberpunk with a more traditional buddy cop film. I was hugely impressed by the details of the world-building - I was bombarded with information about topics like zero gravity sickness and the development of space travel. At no point does the technology feel antiquated or out of place, Kojima even seamlessly implemented wide spread cell phone usage long before they even existed.
But as the story started to expand, the world started to fall apart for me. The existence of a space station invites discussions about its social structure. If the story was far smaller in scale - if it was like Terminator 2, which is ultimately about one robot protecting a boy from another robot - then the Lethal Weapon tone would have succeeded. If it were about uncovering a small and dodgy drug dealer then it wouldn’t have had to deal with the larger picture.
When your enemy is functionally the shadow government though, you need something to fill in the blanks. And with nothing there the story just doesn’t make sense. Kojima is more than capable of writing fantastic (if confusing) social commentary - Metal Gear Solid 2 is a testament to that fact. But back in 1994, it seemed he hadn’t learned those lessons yet. If you can switch your brain off and enjoy the show, Policenauts will provide you with an entertaining tale. But try and understand how the world fits together and you’re met with the kind of silence you only hear deep in the vacuum of space.