Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese franchise spanning multiple volumes of manga, anime adaptations, movies and more. At first glance you might think of it as just another sci-fi fantasy anime - it does, after all, feature a buxom lead female with purple hair fighting crime in a thong. But what makes Ghost in the Shell so good across its multiple iterations and incarnations is how it slowly peels back the sterotypical machismo-laden action to reveal itself as something far more thoughtful and personal.
That is not what I saw today in a trailer for Ghost in the Shell: First Assault, an online, team-based shooter that could perhaps be best summarized as "Call of Deus Ex." Take a look:
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying First Assault is bad. In fact, I dare say it looks like it could be fun. I dig the smooth, anime-inspired visuals and cyber-augmented soldiers fragging one another in fast, fluid succession. But scenes like that so rarely happen in Ghost in the Shell that it feels akin to making a Dragonball Z racing game based on that one (admittedly fantastic and hilarious) episode where Goku and Piccolo go driving. It's fun, but that's not the heart of this franchise.
When I watch Ghost in the Shell, I see a team of complex individuals who work together, complementing each other's skills and flaws, to solve crimes. The fact that almost all of them have robot parts and work for the fictional equivalent of the CIA is secondary - it's the people that matter. I often describe GitS as "Law & Order, in the future, with cyborgs" when I suggest it to people, because I want them to understand that it's the mystery and drama that should entice them, not the shootouts.
Take the Laughing Man, for example. As a primary antagonist of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, he taunts our heroes by way of hacking into not just security cameras, but cybernetics as well. Even when witnesses see him in person, Laughing Man hacks into people's memories to superimpose his logo over his face and thus conceal his identity.
It is only through a long period of careful investigation (which, being a cyberpunk mystery, naturally includes morally-bankrupt megacorporations, government conspiracies and the like) that his identity is revealed. And when the truth comes to light, there's no grand battle of running and gunning. It's a quiet moment that the characters take to reflect on what brought them to this point.
In another episode, a mostly-unaugmented character dismisses AI-controlled tanks as mere things, to which the tanks respond angrily, with one going so far as to label him a "bigot." It sounds silly, but in a world where you can be a human sentience living in a completely inorganic prosthesis (a "ghost in the shell" if you will), it helps to see how blurred the line between man and machine has become. You ponder what it means to be a person.
That's the Ghost in the Shell game I want. I want stealth, sabotage, mystery and intrigue. I want to hack into people's minds to steal, impose or re-arrange information, memories and senses like they were lines of code. I want the government to be corrupt and oppressive, but abstract and impossible to defeat. I want to think and circumvent the system. And in more quiet moments, I want to question what it means to be human in this world.
I get it. Shooters sell, online team games are a hot ticket right now, and giving your game brand recognition with one of the most influential and popular animes of the past decade helps it stand apart. I have no doubt that First Assault will find an audience. But the combination of these particular elements feels wrong.
Games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt show that a developer can stay true to the spirit of a franchise, avoid relying on popular trends to sell their product, and still make an impact and financial success. Games like BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line show that you can even make the game in question a shooter but not abandon the spirit of the source material.
Ghost in the Shell teaches that there are some problems you can't just shoot away. It's a lesson I'd love to see reflected in a game bearing its name.