Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
New England Gamer
June 2012

Still Solid

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 nothing better.

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


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