New England Gamer
This week will mark the fourth time I've bought Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3. It's something I can't
help feeling a bit guilty about. I have several dozen games in my library at this point that I have
yet to finish; many that I haven't even touched. Why I would invest money and, even more
valuable, time into buying and replaying these games is beyond even me.
I suppose the short answer is because I love these games. Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of those
landmark games for me, one of the ones that irrevocably redefined the way I look at the medium.
It wasn't just that it was excellent (which it was). It was that it was different. There was an
ambition to it that I'd never really experienced before in an action game. It took itself seriously
and had an actual message. Where many video games are content to just pile on the hardcore
violence and top it with a few scoops of quirk (the Metal Gears games aren't lacking for those
either), Metal Gear Solid and its sequels attempted to tell a story steeped in messages about
nuclear proliferation, the costs of war and the growing reality of its role as an economic force, in
addition to a political one.
They weren't always successful.
Perhaps part of the reason I feel the urge to revisit these games (aside from them being newly
released on the PlayStation Vita) is the fact that I'm currently taking baby steps toward making
games of my own and, as much as I adore this franchise, the series is one of the greatest
examples of the "dos" and "don'ts" of storytelling in video games.
A brief example: one of the medium's biggest trends this generation has been a shift away from
cut scenes. Developers have done everything possible to make things as interactive as possible.
The standard sentiment amongst most gamers and game critics is that taking control away from
the player is one of the worst sins a game can commit. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this
is partly a direct response to the Metal Gear Solid games.
Metal Gear Solid as a franchise is notorious for long and frequent cutscenes. It's no exaggeration
to say that in a fifteen hour game you might only be playing for half of it. You could sit through
half an hour of thick dialogue and play, maybe, five minutes of actual gameplay before another
long, often redundant, cutscene would begin. One early segment in Metal Gear Solid 4 for
instance, explains the nature of the Private Military Companies that serve as the player's primary
opponents. It's the sort of information that required perhaps a moment of exposition, but it goes
on for minutes, explaining every detail of their training and the political ramifications of their
current proliferation. The games do a lot of telling instead of showing.
And, on occasion, they're straight up poorly written. Hideo Kojima, the franchise's creator and
the general auteur of all things Metal Gear is a man who has put out some brilliant work, but
he's also a man in severe need of an editor. One wouldn't need to work too hard to come up with
a long list of awkward and ill-conceived moments from the Metal Gear games. Metal Gear Solid
2 was especially bad for this and was, at moments, so absurdly convoluted that it would take
another game entirely to make sense of all the bonkers stuff that went down over the course of
the game. The fact that they were able to make sense of one of the villains being possessed by
the disembodied arm of another antagonist still amazes me.
These major "don'ts" aside, the games still managed to get a lot right. For one, it was a series
that was very much devoted to progression. If you look at many of the newer franchises that
have cropped up since the beginning of the current generation, the changes between games were
small at best. Uncharted, Gears of War, Call of Duty (don't get me started on Call of Duty); the
biggest difference between the games in each series has largely been in their stories.
Mechanically, each entry is almost identical to the last.
Each new Metal Gear game did something new. The original Metal Gear introduced stealth
gameplay and every game after it introduced and revamped the genre in new and interesting
ways. Granted, some of this was due to the eras they were being made in. When Metal Gear
Solid returned the franchise to popularity, games were going through a distinct period of growth
and change. 3D graphics were still young and developers were working hard to cope with the
particular challenges that arose with the change from two to three dimensions. Part of the
innovation that marked the series return in 1998 came from the fact that all games were changing
and innovating at the time. This last decade of games has been more static because franchises
like Metal Gear Solid already hammered the kinks out for them.
Innovation aside though, the real success of Metal Gear Solid and a big part of why it has
resonated with so many people, in spite of its frequent absurdity, has been its creator's success at
creating a strong emotional core grounded in the game's protagonists. While you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who liked Raiden, the main hero of Metal Gear Solid 2, Solid Snake and
Big Boss are some of the best protagonists you'll find in video games.
Solid Snake, in the original Metal Gear games (released in 1987 and 1990), was little more than
a generic avatar. When the series re-launched with Metal Gear Solid in 1998, he was only
slightly better. He was, for lack of a better word, a bad ass; the kind of guy who could walk into
any situation, outmanned and outgunned, and walk out victorious. As the series progressed,
however, he began to decline. At the start of Metal Gear Solid 4 he's an old man, trying to hold
his failing body together long enough to complete one final, desperate mission. The weight of the
world is on his shoulders as it has been before, but he's not the man he once was. The player is
forced to participate as he struggles to stay standing and, in some sections, help him crawl when
he can't stand anymore.
It was a risk. Video games, to a degree, are empowerment fantasies. They thrive on putting the
player in control of capable, powerful characters. To not just put them in the shoes of someone
vulnerable, but to take one of the most capable characters in gaming and reduce him to the state
of a fragile old man? It was dramatic and despite the various narrative issues that plagued Metal
Gear Solid 4, the game was gripping. It had flaws, but when it was on the mark there was
It's those risks and the fantastic moments that from them that keep me coming back to the series.
And it's far from the only moment like that in the series. Metal Gear Solid 2 boasted one of the
most memorable twist endings in gaming. Metal Gear Solid 3 ends in a way that's,
simultaneously, the most depressing and most moving thing I've ever played in a video game.
Throughout the entire game you play thinking your mentor and matriarch figure has betrayed
you. The game's climax forces you to confront and kill her in a sequence that, on its own, is very
emotional. The true genius, however, comes when it's revealed that wasn't a traitor at all. She
was working as a double agent all along and allowed herself to be killed to help your
government save face. As another character says in monologue."The taint of disgrace will follow
her to her grave. Future generations will revile her: In America, as a despicable traitor with no
sense of honor; and in Russia, as a monster who unleashed a nuclear catastrophe. She will go
down in official history as a war criminal, and no one will ever understand her . . . that was her
final mission. And like a true soldier, she saw it through to the end."
More than anything else in the franchise, this turnaround carried extreme weight, both for the
shocking nature of the revelation and the message that accompanied it. Solid Snake's aging in
Metal Gear Solid 4 was tragic to watch, but the message of Metal Gear Solid 3 was even more
poignant. It didn't matter that you were young, skilled and in your prime. For all your strength
you were still just a pawn being control by men who viewed the world as a game board. That a
video game could be so humbling, speaks to the strength of the franchise, no matter its flaws.
And it is this strength that keeps me coming back. Because no matter the flaws the games might
contain, their very existence is an offshoot of the fact that they tried to be more than just video
games. The level to which to they succeeded is debatable, but at the end of the day it's hard to
criticize someone for striking gold when they were aiming for platinum. At the end of the day,
they've still found gold.
Read more by Stewart Shearer