Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Metal Gear Solid: A Retrospective, Part One

Parts two and three are now up!
 Spoilers Abound

I’m very forgiving of the Metal Gear Solid series, more so than any other narrative property I can think of. I’m able to put up with monumental loads of cheese from this compendium of four main games with various spin-offs. There are reasons for that, of course, not the least being its moments of awesome are so awesome they easily negate its moments of profound stupidity. But I think one of the biggest, most primal reasons can be traced back to the ancient year of 2002, when little Mr. e went over to a friend’s house, and there first was exposed to gaming through the lens of a small indie title called Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

There are three kinds of life-changing events in my experience. The first are traumatic events. I doubt I need to go into detail about what this encompasses. The second are relational events: marriage, the birth of a child, your parents and siblings, meeting your best friends, etc. But the third kind of event, less overwhelming, perhaps, but in the rearview important in their own right, are ones of exposure. And these kinds of events include such seemingly minor things as entertainment. I think you would not have to look too hard to find, for instance, a person who was profoundly affected by Star Wars, the writer of this retrospective included; and the great thing about these sorts of life-changing events is that there can be so many of them. Little things, innocuous at first glance that, while they may not decide the course of your life like traumatic or relational events might, do hold some influence over you, and can bend the path of your existence in profound ways.

Bear in mind that I had never owned a game console before save for a Game Boy Color, which I had precisely three games for. No, this moment, at a friend’s house, seeing Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, when Solid Snake jumps off the side of the George Washington Bridge and onto the moving tanker—this was a seminal moment in my emotional development. It introduced me to what gaming truly was. It was this game alone that made me want a Playstation 2, and kept me begging my parents for one for next Christmas. 

I think nostalgia has a place in our criticism of games, as long as there is self-awareness behind it. And my feelings for the series as a whole can, in some part, be chalked down to this. It is for this reason, among others, that I am willing to put up with so much crap from MGS and sequels. And it is with this reason in mind that I state: Metal Gear Solid is my absolute favorite game. It’s easily the game I have beaten most often. It is the only game that I can think of that I’ve defeated on all difficulties multiple times. It’s the game I turn to when I’m down. It’s the game I think of when I hear the words “great game.” It’s the game I’m willing to write extremely long blog posts about knowing full well it’s going to be read by one person in Wyoming somewhere.

My first experience with Metal Gear Solid was, funnily, not on the Playstation or Playstation 2 at all, but on the port made for the PC.

PICTURED: 'Twas in this exact box.
And I want to say—I’m not sure about this, but I want to say—that I actually had played and beaten Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty before I had ever played its predecessor. But Metal Gear Solid holds up better in my estimation than its sequel, for reasons we are soon to discuss. 

So this retrospective is going to be a bit of it all: part rumination, part walkthrough, part MST3K style finger-pointing, part political commentary, part art criticism. But most of all, I want it to be a way to really hammer down what makes a game, even with flaws, great; how video games can do things distinct from films while retaining their best attributes, and, as is always paramount on this blog, how to build a story with any medium. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, ladies and gentlemen and guy in Wyoming. We’re taking a trip to Alaska in the middle of winter, and it could get chilly.

Into the Frying Pan
Snake takes an elevator ride – Armory woes
Chat with a weapons mogul – A mysterious death –
Snake meets a redhead – Target practice

The graphics for this game are well and truly outdated. That’s pretty much as obvious a statement as you can make, but it bears repeating here for stating right off the bat that in the grand scheme of things that ancillary considerations—and yes, graphics is indeed an ancillary consideration—are not as important as other aspects of an experience, and this is especially true of games, where today’s revolutionary technological innovation is tomorrow’s hopelessly obsolete museum artifact.

PICTURED: Note the photo-realistic way the tank treads meld with the chassis.

Metal Gear Solid’s graphics are absolutely terrible by today’s standards. Faces are eyeless black soul-sucking blocks, constantly twitching as characters talk; detailed textures look like a screensaver on Windows 98; pixels flash about constantly and the graphics for explosions can, today, be inserted into your average PowerPoint presentation. Graphics, in the end, are a thing that will always be outpaced; this is true of many things in storytelling. In novel form, one of the biggest things that will be outpaced is language—which is why, unless you’re Shakespeare (and often even if you are) story is more important than the writing. Writing is very, very important, certainly—but the language used today will be incomprehensible tomorrow. We read The Iliad not because we use ancient Greek anymore, but because it’s a good story and the language serves that story. In film, such considerations include special effects. Again, special effects are a very important attribute—but are outpaced as soon as the film is completed. The reason Star Wars will live on is not its special effects are always going to be the best, but because of its characters and relationships and themes. And games will live on not because of graphics, but because of storytelling.

What is storytelling, though? What is it really? It seems simple at first, because storytelling is obviously, duh, telling a story.

But what is telling? How do you tell?

In the past, telling was a simple matter of speech. We sit around the campfire in the cave or on the field and relate great feats of derring-do by gods and heroes long past. Storytelling a function of two things: language (this is, writing), and sound.

But early in civilized history that paradigm change. Now we have physical representations of what used to be merely words. They play upon a stage; they speak. They move. They act. So the physical actions of people became part of storytelling. And storytelling remained at this sort of juncture for, oh, a good two thousand years.

Then one day someone got the idea that instead of having the characters on a stage say where they were at over and over again so the audience knew the setting, they could build facsimiles of places that the actors could work off of and give the audience a frame of reference. So sets were born, and visual design became a part of storytelling.

Then one day someone wondered that if we could use that new means of capturing motions, actions and sets in a dynamic capacity, to explore the intricacies of character through motion, angle, and scene. And so did cameras become a part of storytelling.

And, finally, someone realized that you could combine all these other elements of story with an added element of audience interactivity. And so, in the end, gameplay became a part of storytelling.

So for a game we have, in order to merely tell a story, several considerations: writing. Actions. Sound. Visual design. Camera movement. And gameplay. All these disparate parts having to come together and form one whole, a synthesis that to this day has not quite been perfected.

Meaning when you have an element like, say, graphics and gameplay, which will easily and quickly become outdated, storytelling has to rely upon functions that are a bit more unchanging. Functions that have staying power. Functions such as writing, action, sound.

If Metal Gear Solid lives on, it will be on the basis of these intractable concepts, intrinsic since the dawn of human storytelling. And happy to say, all three of them are as great as ever before.

The minute you decide what level you’re playing on—and for this play through, I decided on Normal, because I wanted to breeze through the game and study it more as an art object…more on the “breezing” part in a moment—a beautiful rendition of the famous MGS theme “The Best is Yet to Come” plays over Solid Snake swimming up to the loading elevator entrance to the Shadow Moses Nuclear Warhead Storage Facility. This is followed by the introduction of three of our protagonists: the legendary Solid Snake, his CO, Colonel Roy Campbell, and Naomi Hunter, chief medical officer of Special Forces group Foxhound. We speak to them in a processor-saving and distance-indicating means: the Codec, a word that has become shorthand for “worst aspect of series” to many fans come Metal Gear Solid 2. But the Codec here basically serves the same purpose as it did in Metal Gear I and II: a means of getting information and story across between characters separated by a vast distance, and showing off the truly impressive cast assembled to voice these people.

The voice acting is resoundingly excellent, still some of the best you could ask for even fifteen years later, and a good use of one of those functions we talked about: sound. It’s easy to make fun of how the character graphics look in Metal Gear Solid on their own, what with their blocky, pixelated frames and their pasted on clothes and their motionless torsos. But the voice acting is so superb, so well-inflected, so heartfelt and sincere, that you have to constantly remind yourself how terrible the graphics are. Otherwise, you get lost in the characters. And remember: this was in 1998, when voice acting for games was a very new thing.
David Hayter’s the most prominent member of this little corps, by the benefit of featuring heavily in all four MGS games, but I’ve always loved the world-weariness and emotion that Paul Eiding puts into Colonel Campbell. 

You really grasp the relationship between Snake and Campbell through Eiding’s voice acting. You sense the underlying fear and the steely resolve that lurks beneath. Recall, as well, that Campbell is never seen in person in the game, but only as a green-hued head on a black screen—meaning we’re depending almost entirely on Eiding to convince us of the depth of this character, and Eiding knocks it out of the park.

Now here’s another aspect of gaming that becomes obsolete almost as soon as it’s put to market: AI. In 1998 the AI might have been something, but in the days when enemy AI are built with logarithms that make it seems they actually are coordinating that flanking maneuver and  conducting tactical reconsiderations, the pre-programmed pathways of the genome soldiers are almost laughably easy to predict. Which makes it all the more funny when I get my first Alert on this laughably easy section of the game, simply waiting for the freight elevator.

If there’s one thing you cannot do with Metal Gear Solid, it’s think you have it figured out. Cause it’ll chew you up if you do.
So in a game I’ve beaten at least ten times I sit in the corner behind the forklift waiting for the elevator to descend, and writing a note about how Kojima has a military advisor on the game, and how neat that was: Kojima really wanted to get the hardware and tactics of the game down, and it shows. From basic weapons knowledge to use of real military acronyms and short-hand (SOP, HEAT-rounds), to the specs on such things as warheads and military simulations, the research put into this game was intense and ultimately added to the verisimilitude.
That was when the genome soldier walked a little farther than I expected him to and spotted me.
An alert! In the first five minutes of the game! On Normal! In a game I’ve defeated literally a dozen times! On all difficulties! Sure it’s easy to hide from the suckers, but in no way did that negate the shame I felt. I immediately decide to not take notes unless the game is paused again.

I escape my first alert and make my way onto the loading elevator; right away we’re introduced to one of the most (in?)famous aspects of this game and perhaps this series as a whole: long, cinematic cutscenes interspersed, sometimes obnoxiously, throughout gameplay. Nowadays, and especially with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the series’ habit for long cutscenes has become a poster-child for snarky comments and mimetic mutations. But here, at this moment, in 1998, it was wondrous. It’s the perfect synthesis between film and gameplay! Right?

We’d better go ahead and discuss this since half the game is cutscenes and cutscenes are such an integral part to the Metal Gear Solid mythos. Cutscenes are neither good nor bad; they can be effective and ineffective. They have their upsides and their downfalls. The biggest downfall, obviously, is yanking the player completely out of gameplay and forcing them to watch a video, usually of stuff the player would wish he or she could be doing instead. The biggest upside is in scope, with the camera able to move in service of mood and narrative. Remember those storytelling devices mentioned earlier?

The first intra-game cutscene—that is, one that takes place after the player has already assumed control of the player, but is not the ending cinematic—is one of the better ones. It takes us through some steps that we really wouldn’t care if we played or not. Who wants to have control of the player while waiting on an elevator? As anyone who has played Mass Effect will tell you: no one. 

This allows Kojima to show off the cinematic nature of the game in a way that doesn’t intrude on the gameplay, leading up to a simply fantastic title sequence with Snake’s reveal and the logo for the game super-imposed overtop.

PICTURED: Maximum awesome.
I reach the top of the elevator in front of the disposal facility (Excellent, Snake! Age hasn’t slowed you down one bit.) leading to a few lectures on Hinds, sneaking suits, and Soliton radars, available in the Very Easy, Easy, and Normal difficulty levels. With the radar the game’s challenge decreases exponentially, but there’s still enough variation through the AI and the necessary memorization of the paths of the Genome soldiers to make anything but slow going absolute suicide.

The first section of the main game outside the disposal facility is rather famous for a non-boss fight, non-story-essential moment of player interaction. But taking a closer look we can see why the image is such a lasting one, and how it can be an example for all artists in visual mediums about how to impart the stakes of their setting to the audience.

 In this one location we’re fed information that informs both the thematic and functioning purposes of the design. On an aesthetic level, the color schemes and builds of the graphics are dirty, metallic, uncomfortable, lining up with the game’s theme of war as a cold, detached, and ultimately ugly thing. This section also introduces us to the game mechanics: not just the field cones of the genome soldiers, but the varied ways you can be tracked in this game, landmark in 1998. A genome soldier can spot your footprints, or you can step unwittingly in a spotlight’s glare, or the sweeping eye of a surveillance camera (A surveillance camera?!). Likewise, we see the genome soldiers’ mechanics at work: their predestined paths as well as their idiosyncrasies; falling asleep, for instance. Finally, the location lets the player grasp the dangers and necessities of weapons, ammunition, and rations. All three of these things are available, but all three take effort to retrieve. The Chaff grenades are in the middle of a landing platform between two constantly wavering spotlights, the stun grenades are right beneath a surveillance camera (A surveillance camera?!), necessitating the use of one of the chaff grenades. Rations are in easy-to-spot but easy-to-track locations: one hides in plain sight behind a crate, but the snow it lays on creates footprints a genome soldier can track.

The most useful item here is the SOCOM pistol located in the back of the truck. How anyone was able to find this item on first play through in 1998 is beyond me—you basically have to know that it’s there in order to get it; getting it on first play through, however, informs the player that it will do them well to think outside the box and check nooks and crannies that they would otherwise ignore.

The Heliport is a two-minute lecture on organically building a game’s foundation. The cutscenes introduce the personalities of the characters—including your save Guru Mei Ling—as well as explaining the radar system and the weapons of the genome soldiers, and foreshadowing the Hind and Liquid Snake. The gameplay itself demonstrates the imperative of maintaining stealth, the difficulty of maintaining stealth, the necessity to be constantly vigilant of your surroundings, the scarcity of ammunition, and the need to explore places you might otherwise pass by. Finally, the design gives the audience the foundation of understanding how and why this game looks the way it does, and serves to put them in a frame of mind for the themes of the game to hit home. The game gets all of this out of the way in this one minute section, and that allows it to focus on the elements and the story.

There are two different vents you can choose to enter the facility, and for a long time I thought that the one on the first floor was the best option, even though doing it required knocking out a guard, which rarely went as planned, which usually led to an alert. It was only after a while that I realized the reason why that guard was standing in front of the vent was the game designers subtly urging you to use the one on the second floor.

It is best to go through the upper level vent, simply because you get a scene foreshadowing the arrival of the Cyborg Ninja. The designers deserve credit for allowing both outcomes, however. The relationship between players and designers has never quite been harmonious. Absolute freedom for the player usually comes at the sacrifice of story for a game, while absolute control by designer usually results in boring, sterile nonsense where control is wrested away from the player. I’ve always appreciated games that give the player options even if it isn’t necessarily what the designers wanted, and I never realized just how Metal Gear Solid gives you, the player, more choice than it appears.

Entering the Tank Armory of course begins the Warhead Storage theme, which is one of my favorite pieces of music in any video game ever, period. I’m not sure why, but I think its cold, driving rhythm just fits what’s presented on screen. It’s entirely logical, yet filled with an odd, almost cybernetic emotionality with the entrance of the moaning chorus. There’s something both synthetic and organic about it, a seamless merging of technology and life that mixes with the game perfectly.

Really the entire soundtrack is nonpareil. I’m actually listening to it typing out this retrospective. For a system that didn’t have a huge amount of range as far as scoring was concerned—even the most fantastic melodies are basically loops—there’s a wide variety of tones and styles. Fast-paced, almost panicked beats for moments of stress—alerts, for instance—haunting melodies for moments of sinister undercurrent—Psycho Mantis’ theme—baseline, driving scores that form the audience’s mindset—Warhead Storage again—and of course my favorite one:

Which I’m honestly disappointed is nowhere to be seen in Metal Gear Solid 4.

I didn’t realize how much choral work was actually in the soundtrack until I listened to it multiple times. It provides a very ominous effect, both humanizing and portentous. When you hear the chorus, something major is going down.

And this aspect is very important, because sound is, once again, one of the most ancient aspects of storytelling, and a good soundtrack can set the mood of a scene better than almost anything else, including acting and direction. Metal Gear Solid’s excellent score is not only deservedly lauded but a crash-course in ushering the story along and keeping the player in the desired mindset. The sound quality itself can sound a little cold and repetitive—there’s almost a metallic edge to it, due to limitations on PS1 hardware—but, oddly, that only helps the score, reinforcing just what kind of place and just what kind of story this is. One of emotionless, destructive combat.

Sneaking past the guards and entering the elevator, I descend to the first floor where I’m helpfully informed by Mei Ling and the Colonel that the weird green dot that’s appeared on my radar is the DARPA Chief, Donald Anderson. I forget, do these conversations happen on levels that you don’t have access to the radar? It’s been a while since I’ve played Hard or Very Hard, because if they do that would just be funny.

I climb up the vent and peer down at the DARPA Chief, leading to (it seems like I’m saying this a lot) one of my favorite cutscenes in the game.

I’m a sucker for good dialogue, and this scene with the DARPA Chief is simply sublime on that account. Its biggest achievement is somehow making the reveal of the existence of Metal Gear a surprise, even though that’s the name of the freaking game. You can chalk it up entirely to good editing and good dialogue. The talk between the two of them is very involved and almost jargonish, but it never loses the player. It toes the line and perfectly, leaving the player with a substantial mystery as to what’s really going on but feeding them enough line to keep them invested.

I also love the mumbo-jumbo science fiction in this bit. Gameplay and story segregation has been another conundrum that’s haunted gaming since it became advanced enough to actually contain narrative. Questions such as, why can Dante do all these insane moves in cutscenes that I’m unable to perform in the actual flow of the game? Or how exactly am I carrying a machine gun, a sniper rifle, five rations, a camera, three cardboard boxes, Night Vision Goggles, Thermal Goggles, ten claymores, a SOCOM, a FAMAS machine gun, twenty-seven chaff grenades, twenty normal grenades, a Nikita missile launcher, and a Stinger missile launcher all on my person in a somewhat “realistic” game?

PICTURED: It's all in his pocket.
The best thing to do as a designer is simply ignore these contradictions; usually if you do this a player will ignore them too, and accept them as a part of the gameplay and a function of their willing suspension of disbelief; this is why I just find it funny that the DARPA Chief spends a bunch of time explaining the keycards and how they worked. Something about—the card memorizing the salts in your bio-electric field and creating, uh, a signal? And this causes the door to open?

I know they were trying to explain why when you have the keycard equipped the doors automatically open without you “scanning” it or some similar action. But that just raises more questions—like, okay, you’re trying to find a mumbo-jumbo excuse as to why the doors automatically open when I have the keycard equipped, but the fact I’m carrying what would measure out to be several tons of armament on my person is just going to slip by? All right then, I guess?

It’s not important, just something that makes me laugh.

So the DARPA Chief dies and you’re introduced to the waxing philosopher Meryl Silverburgh, who is the Colonel’s niece—ostensibly. Snake completely owns here in an awesome bit of dialogue:

Meryl: Don't move!  So you killed the Chief.  You bastard! Liquid!?  No... you're not. Don't move!

Snake: Is this the first time you've ever pointed a gun at a person?  Your
           hands are shaking. Can you shoot me, rookie?

Meryl: Careful, I'm no rookie!

Snake: Liar.  That nervous glance... that scared look in your eyes. They're
           rookie's eyes if I ever saw them.  You've never shot a person, am I

Meryl: You talk too much.

Snake: You haven't even taken the safety off, rookie.

Meryl: I told you I'm no rookie!

Snake: You're not one of them are you?

Meryl: Open that door!  You've got a card don't you!?

Snake: Why?

Meryl: So we can get the hell out of here!

This is, unfortunately, the last bit of awesome dialogue we will witness between these two characters. More on that later. Following this is the first…we’ll call it “boss fight” of the game, where wave after wave of mooks charge pell-mell through a narrow door and get their heads subsequently blown off. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the military terror of the 21st century.

 Meryl races off with a rather eye-opening view of her jiggling butt—well, jiggling for 1998 graphics anyway—as she runs in an elevator and starts blasting you with an apparently bottomless clip. I’ve always wondered why you get the bandana if you save her. Maybe she had it the whole time and only “pretended” to find it on the snowmobile?

Now I might need some help from my two readers in Puerto Rico here—is the idea that Psycho Mantis is controlling Meryl at this moment, and that’s why Meryl starts blasting her rifle at the guy who basically just saved her life? Or is Meryl just unsure of whom Snake is and is trying to get away from him? I’ve never been entirely sure.

Games of War
Snake finds the ArmsTech President – A new enemy revealed
Ocelot loses a hand – Baker expostulates and dies –
Snake contacts Meryl

In an effort to avoid detection, I inadvertently get stuck in a loop from one of the genome soldiers in a corner of the armory under a vent; this means, in order to get to my destination in the second floor basement an avoid detection, I have to climb up through the vent, out to the front of the building, and then back in through the vent on the lower side of the storage facility. After I waste five minutes of my life doing this, I give myself the Master of Games award. Of course my embarrassment at this turn of events pales in comparison to what was coming next:

Freaking. Trap. Doors.
How in the heck does this always happen? In a game I’ve beaten a dozen times? I’m thinking it’s that initial ker-clunk that gets you; you know, a split second before you’re dropped down into the pit, there’s that sound of something opening. So what do you do? Instinctively, you stop, right? And that’s when you fall down the bottomless pit. Why are there bottomless pits in a nuclear warhead storage facility, even if it’s just a front for Metal Gear development? And why aren’t the genome soldier’s falling into nothingness when they step on the trapdoors? Am I denser than they are, like a black hole or something? I don’t know, maybe I’m just trying to get over the fact that I fell through a trap door in a game I have literally replayed to the point of memorization.
I recover from this and head down the route to the ArmsTech President and fight the Russian with an American accent who has some incomprehensible fetish for cowboy paraphernalia. He ricochets bullets off walls and makes some rather sexual remarks regarded sliding well-greased bullets into chambers? And I defeat him as I’ve always done by knocking out half his health with C4 and then chasing him in the most boring game of tag ever while he reloads his ridiculously antiquated firearm. 

Winning this fight leads to the cutscene where Ocelot gets his hand sliced off by the Cyborg Ninja, and woo-boy does this event come back to play a major part in the series later. In fact you could honestly state that here Cyborg Ninja contributes majorly to the arc of the entire Metal Gear Solid mythos. Without this act of brutality Guns of the Patriots would make even less sense than it already does.

One of the biggest criticisms I have of Kojima is his total lack of subtlety. He leans very heavily on huge buckets of exposition and information dumps near the end of games to build character and resolve story, and you see the first tinges of this in the conversation with ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker, where blatant anti-nuclear propaganda suddenly starts spouting off literally out of nowhere. There’s talk of nuclear waste dumping and military black budgets and all this unsavory stuff, set up by the single dumbest thing Solid Snake ever says:

Snake: I understand, but... why Metal Gear?  The Nuclear Age ended with the turn of the millennium.

I could understand some insular schlub thinking the end of the Cold War and the start of the 21st was the end of nuclear proliferation, but this is a legendary soldier, veteran of multiple conflicts. You would think he’d at least understand the current affairs of the world—or rather, would understand that as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world there’s going to be the fact of nuclear proliferation. And yes, I understand that in the game world the narrative takes place in the “future” of 2005. But still, the game was made in 1998, meaning the turn of the millennium was a mere two years later. The idea that, with the pronounced emphasis on nuclear weapons that the superpowers and rogue states and military dictatorships of the world have had since, oh, sometime around 1945, that such a paradigm would disappear in a mere two years, or even seven, is laughable. The whole reason Snake says this ignorant line is just a lead in so Kojima can wax eloquent on the first of many anti-nuclear lectures.

Obviously some anvils need to be dropped. You won’t find me saying that a diatribe of expository dialogue about the horrors of nuclear weaponry and illicit military industrial spending is a bad thing; and you especially especially won’t hear me say that a Japanese man going on a diatribe about the horrors of nuclear weaponry is a bad thing. My point is merely one of structure and narrative; Kojima’s always—at least in these games—had an inability to show any amount of subtlety or undertone. His hatred of nuclear weapons isn’t felt in these games, it’s told to us. I don’t even know if this is a bad thing really: the downfall to subtlety is the fact that the very people you want the subtlety to appeal to are probably the same ones who aren’t going to understand it and thus need to be beaten over the head with the idea. But this isn’t just in regard to Kojima’s stance nuclear weapons, but his stance on warriors, war, fighting, and even the outcome of the narrative. He relies on these huge gouts of information to make things make sense instead of insisting on an organic flow that maybe wouldn’t require fifty years of cutscenes to explain—this gets especially obnoxious in Guns of the Patriots when they’re trying to tie up the myriad loose ends of the series.

So for Kojima to get his point across—or to make his narrative make sense—he has to sacrifice character and logic. Here we see legendary soldier Solid Snake ask a question that any idiot that watches the news once a week wouldn’t need to ask, flying in the face of his established character. Later we see Meryl bleeding out onto the floor of the communications tower; whereas anyone in that situation would be, at the most, screaming in agony, Kojima decides it’s perfectly logical for Meryl to wax eloquent on war and soldiers and fighting, sacrificing story logic so he can jam a point where it doesn’t fit organically.

You see what I mean when I say that I put up with a lot from this series, don’t you? And this is in the game that perpetrates these offenses the least! Probably because the PS1 didn’t have the processing power for Kojima to do everything he wanted. As The Twin Snakes demonstrated, this turned out to be a boon for the game. The limits of hardware and special effects have created some of the greatest art in history. Star Wars, Jaws…even something like The Thing, despite the relative primitive nature of their special effects, because the directors of these movies had to come up with creative ways to get what they wanted across without the audience seeing the gaps in the effects; it required skill, technical mastery. Today you can vomit anything up on a computer screen and as a result directors and filmmakers of visual media lose all sense of limitation or atmosphere.

Kojima’s the poster-boy for this in gaming. Sure, the PS1’s processing power required looped sound scores and character models that resembled stacked cereal boxes, but for the most part the pacing was sharp, the editing clean, the dialogue snappy, and the game moved along at a brisk, satisfying pace; as early as Metal Gear Solid 2 we suddenly had entirely unnecessary long holds on people entering doorways, or little scenes of people walking for no reason, or long, extraneous pauses between dialogue, or self-indulgent direction. 
And then The Twin Snakes turned Metal Gear Solid into a bullet-motion kung fu movie.

In effect Kojima’s worst instincts were reined in by the limits of the PS1; we see hints of it here and there—Baker’s obviously set-up speech about nuclear storage and black budgets, Meryl’s monologuing while on death’s door—but for the most part Kojima avoids most of it simply because he had to; we see in The Twin Snakes what  would have happened if he had no such considerations.

And since we’re speaking of aspects that Kojima seemingly has an inability to limit himself on, let’s get this out of the way right now:

The Codec is one of the more infamous aspects of the Metal Gear Solid series. But how did it become that way? The turn against this otherwise innocuous device can be traced back entirely to Sons of Liberty, where vast swathes of the game and the story were told by Codec even when they had no reason to be.

At least Metal Gear Solid has the excuse that Snake is separated from the people he’s conversing with for most of the game. Metal Gear Solid 2 has instances where two characters are sitting right next to each other and still switch to Codec for…some reason. The Cyborg Ninja look-alike makes some dismissive remark about it being “safer.” I’m calling foul. The real reason, and this is the only thing I can think of that possibly explains what Kojima’s penchant for the device in Sons of Liberty was that he had stretched the game to the limits of even the Playstation 2’s computing power, and therefore couldn’t render these long conversations by conventional means, shoving them in the Codec instead. There are problems with this theory, but this is a retrospective of Metal Gear Solid, so we’ll deal with its sequel later.

I bring this up because the use of the Codec in Metal Gear Solid is far and away the best in all four of the games (and yes, I’m counting the radio in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), but even so it has its weaknesses, and in one short conversation we can see both sides of the Codec coin.

The ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker dies by something that looks like a heart attack, so I head back up to the first floor of the Armory (by the way, I’ve always liked the little subconscious nod here; at first there are two tanks in the armory, now there is only one. Where’d the other one go, I wonder…) where there’s no interference and call Meryl by Codec. I don’t have Meryl’s number, but Kojima pulls one of his excellent fourth-wall breaking bits by having Meryl’s Codec actually be a screenshot on the game case. 

Meryl answers and what follows is both the best and worst kind of Codec conversation. It starts all business—the characters are flirting with an almost perfunctory coolness, they go onto how Shadow Moses is just a front for Metal Gear development, etcetera. Then comes Meryl’s monologue, something she demonstrates a maddening tendency for. Her first one involves an examination of her past and how she shouldn’t have frozen her first time killing someone. The music goes all soft and mournful and all the snappy dialogue is discarded in favor of maudlin sentimentality.

Now I have nothing against maudlin sentimentality, but the fact is that this sort of conversation does not work on a Codec screen.

The Codec screen in Metal Gear Solid is, in my opinion, the best one; I really do like the green tinted character designs and the stark black outline. It’s static, distant, and feeds into the separation Snake has not only from the people he relies on but from the rest of the world. The look of the Codec aligns with the themes of efficient, industrial killing that the game is all about. The design is stark, simple, and in that way, almost brutal; which make it entirely unequipped for emotional moments. The force of Meryl’s words loses a lot of its impact because the design of the Codec screen cannot get the force of emotion across to the audience—not in a tangible way, in any case. Reader, players, viewers have to be put in a specific frame of mind, and often there’s a simple way to do this for whatever medium that you’re working in. A vivid poetic description can put a reader in a mood of wistful melancholy; a lingering shot on an actor's devastated expression can gut a viewer, a conversation in, say, a snowfield upon the death of a vanquished enemy can make the player really think about what he’s doing and why he’s there…but it requires more effort, a different type of use of the functions of storytelling, none of which are available on a black Codec screen with green-tinted characters.

And this is where I think most of the criticism of the device comes from, and it reaches its absolute nadir in the second game. After that I think Kojima got the point and backed off from it to the level that the Codec hardly features in Guns of the Patriots…and by hardly, I mean compared to Metal Gear Solid . But these first two games demonstrate why such a change was necessary, and one more than the other.

I, Cyborg
Snake fights a tank– Snake enters the storage
building – An old grudge reborn –
A new hero enters the fray

Solid, Liberty, and Patriots all introduce an element early on that all but breaks the need for tactical stealth. In Patriots, it’s the moment you’re equipped with the tranquilizer gun, in Liberty, it’s the fact that you’re initially equipped with a tranquilizer in the Tanker section and find a SOCOM suppressor without much difficulty in the Big Shell section. These weapons, completely silent and, with headshots, instantly effective, could have—and in Liberty, do have—the ability to break the game; like, seriously, is it still “Tactical Espionage Action” when the only “tactic” necessary is to aim a laser sighted tranquilizer gun at someone’s head?

The Metal Gear Solid version of this is the SOCOM suppressor, achieved with just a Level 2 card in the first main section of the game. It’s in the far corner of the armory next to the big honking door you exit out of and, when equipped, removes just about all need for strategy and, you know, stealth, except in some very specific sections. The suppressor makes the SOCOM, bar none, the best weapon in the game. Well, except for chaff grenades, but those are a whole other segment. Bullets are completely silent, allowing you to mop up entire roomfuls of enemies with complete indemnity. Kojima, understanding this, wisely put in sections where you can’t use weapons; the nuclear warhead storage building, for instance. And it’s necessary too; otherwise all challenge would have seeped from the game entirely. Playing MGS without the SOCOM suppressor is an entirely different experience—i.e., a much more difficult one.

And thus am I punished for having these thoughts about the ease of the game with the SOCOM suppressor. I swear to heaven MGS knows when you aren’t taking it seriously. This time the game doesn’t even play around, it literally catches me in a coding pattern and uses the opportunity to give me a heart attack.
See, to contact Meryl and to have a safe place to hide I duck inside the aforementioned storage room where the SOCOM suppressor is. I retrieve the suppressor, attach it, contact Meryl, wait, and then Meryl contacts me to tell me she is opening the cargo door. Cut to scene of door opening.
Then cut back to gameplay where out of nowhere a genome soldier appears literally half a foot from me. Alert bells rings, I jump out of my seat and scream like a little girl and barely make it out of there and have to use an at-this-point precious ration to get myself back up to speed.
Literally nothing but a coding glitch. Or as I like to call it, Metal Gear Solid’s way of keeping me honest. From now on I must be much more guarded with my criticisms.

I exit the cargo door and enter the snow-blanket area between the two sections of the facility, when I get a call from a mysterious person called Deepthroat but who is obviously the DARPA chief. I knew he wasn’t dead!

Wait, you’re saying it’s not the DARPA Chief? Could have fooled me, being as they have the exact same voice actor. I’m guessing this was a money saving move: you hardly want to bring a guy in for one quarter of a day to do the dialogue for a character onscreen literally five minutes.

I actually like the voice Greg Paulsen gives to Deepthroat/The Cyborg Ninja/Frank Jaeger. He has this sort of weary gravel to his inflection; it makes Frank seem like a sad, desperate wreck of a human being. Which he is. It’s why the voice they give him in The Twin Snakes really bothers me. Sure it makes more sense, I guess, but the timbre’s all wrong. Give me gravelly and tortured any day.

Deepthroat tells me to watch out for Claymore mines which, thanks a bunch, especially if you didn’t item scour and don’t have the mine detector. Not that it matters anyway, because here is introduced the MGS series staple of crawling over claymores to disarm and pick them up. Don’t even ask about the logistics on that one. 

This starts the boss battle with the tank with Raven inside; the key here is to hock a chaff grenade that allows you to get inside the tank’s firing range forcing the genomes inside to open the top hatch and shoot you with the fifty caliber instead (Chaff Grenade Miracle: 1), at which point you hock an explosive grenade into the hatch, or as close as possible, until you wear down the health bar. I also like the fact that Snake apparently can survive the impact of fifty caliber bullets and getting run over by a two hundred ton steel tank.

If there’s one thing you have to learn about the Metal Gear Solid, it’s that Chaff Grenades are the single most useful item in the entire universe. They deactivate cameras. They deactivate mounted gun cameras. They cure cancer. They make a hearty meal. They blind the firing system of a M1 Abrams battle tank. They’re used by dentists for tooth aches. They paralyze a cyborg with technology beyond reckoning.  They’ll put a lustrous shine in your hair. They alleviate rheumatoid arthritis. They completely confound a nuclear equipped walking battle tank the size of the Chrysler Building. Chaff grenades are so powerful, so miraculous and incomprehensible to man, that they can even be used in the first level of the nuclear warhead storage building, a place where, it is made clear, using any other weapon from the dinkiest grenade to the most feckless pistol will cause inevitable death. Humanity must bow before the power of the chaff grenades.The chaff grenades are your masters.

I think Kojima actually realized this because Chaff is as a rare as a good-natured cat in Guns of the Patriots, so much so that a lot of walkthroughs actually make you take detours to get them because, after all, being rare doesn’t equate to being useless; and true to form, in the nostalgia section where you return to Shadow Moses, if you have enough chaff grenades you can pretty much hand-walk through the entire level and not suffer one iota of damage.

So any first time players of the Metal Gear Solid series, I hearken unto you this one piece of advice: learn to love the Chaff grenade. Learn to love it like it was your one sibling. For loving the chaff grenade is the key to salvation and enlightenment.

I continue on into the nuclear warhead storage building where again, due to a handwaving of “liquid plutonium leaks” or some such you can’t use any weapons; Chaff grenades are, again, immune from this restriction because Chaff grenades are on a higher plane of existence than you or me. 

They’re not kidding either. Firing a weapon on this floor—even getting spotted, because apparently the genome soldiers don’t care if they die horriblyequals death. Doesn’t matter if you have a gas mask, doesn’t matter if the Alert goes away, doesn’t matter if you are in the flipping elevator when you’re caught—I’m not bitter or anything—you mess up one time on this floor, and you’re dead. Kaput. Zilch. Again, it was a clever way for Kojima to lessen the impact of the gamebreaker he created by having the option to put a suppressor on your SOCOM pistol.

I sneak around to my destination on the second floor basement, having smartly stopped on the first floor basement to retrieve the NIKITA launcher because I dislike backtracking—a fact Metal Gear Solid shoves back in my face and laughs at me for later—and destroy the electric generator making the floor a deadly walkway indeed.

I collect all the items in this area and meander down the hall into one of the most famous sections of the game.

This entire primary Cyborg Ninja section from the cutscene with the declamatory thump, revealing the hallway stained with the corpses of a dozen soldiers or so, to the ending where the Ninja’s true identity is revealed, is simply perfect, showcasing some of Kojima’s best attributes (I don’t really mean to keep harping on The Twin Snakes, but the mystique of this scene is absolutely ruined in that game, removing all mystery and suspense is favor of supposedly “awesome” gore).

I think we’ve gotten so used to complete baffling insanity in this universe that we’ve forgotten just how completely, bafflingly insane the presence of the Cyborg Ninja is. I mean, really think about this for a moment: It’s a Cyborg. Ninja. A cyborg. Ninja.

Now this might not be out of place, in, say, a futuristic sci-fi setting. Like, I wouldn’t balk to see a cyborg ninja in Mass Effect. Or even an obvious fantasy/cyberpunk setting like Shinobi. But this is a game setting in the “near-future” of 2005, with all this really heavy and realistic discussion about nuclear weapons, with real weapon names and acronym usage, and an honestly plausible scenario regarding a terrorist organization and a front for the military-industrial complex. Yeah it would never happen, but the point is it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact most of the game could be classified as a gritty military procedural along the same vein as The Sum of All Fears.

Oh, and there’s also a ninja robot with a bright red exoskeleton that can turn invisible, swings a samurai sword around, and has a ray gun strapped to his arm!

See what I mean? Also, why a ninja? Why not just some cybernetic soldier person? And let’s not even get into the fact that Snake doesn’t break his hand when punching this guy’s metal exoskeleton.

This fight also has some awesome soundbites:

Who are you?
Neither enemy nor friend.

What is it, revenge?
It is nothing so trivial as revenge.

Good. Now we can fight as warriors. Hand to hand. It is the basis of all combat. Only a fool trusts his life to a weapon.

Do you remember it Snake? The feel of battle. The clashing of bone and sinew.

People, this is good stuff. Take notes. 

You can defeat the cyborg ninja simply with hand-to-hand, but odds are the first time you played the game you used chaff grenades to freeze him and blast him with a FAMAS or SOCOM, so we’re going to count that: (Chaff Grenade Miracle: 2). 

In the end though, you’re compelled to defeat the ninja with fisticuffs. It’s an interesting decision, and one with rather heavy implications regarding the thematic manifestations of the game. War is a different beast than it used to be. Even as late as World War II there was a concerted need to send thousands, if not millions of men to their deaths to break lines or hold territory—opening to Saving Private Ryan anyone?

By the time Metal Gear Solid came out that methodology of war had faded into obscurity, replaced by subterfuge, paranoia, and technology. The nuclear age, the rise of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, shadow wars in South America and the far East, Patriot missiles and computer-enhanced precision firing systems…the ugliness of war changed. It became an ugliness of separation and distance instead. Of number and losses unseen save for readouts on a spreadsheet. I think this is one of the bigger things Kojima is exploring, in all four games “War as a video game,” says Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2. “What better way to create the ultimate soldier?” Kojima envisions a world where killing is no longer seen as tragic, or even fun, but completely neutral. A missile fired from the middle of the Pacific kills ten thousand people, and a suit in Washington checks a box on a form. Bureaucrats seeing losses and destruction in terms of dollars and cents. Billions spent on the latest efficient death machine, controlled by people for whom killing has become routine

It adds another layer to this battle. Frank has been taken by the same system that’s created the Shadow Moses facility and Metal Gear Rex and has been turned into a machine, all but inhuman. He seeks to find his humanity through violence, but not just any violence: personal violence. Hand to hand, the way it’s been done since the dawn of time. Frank openly mocks you for using firearms: “Snake, you can’t defeat me with a weapon like that.” He relishes the physical, human contact, something that’s been stripped from him and from war as a whole.

A lot of the fight involves this—tracking him, closing distance, getting dirty and closer. It’s unique among the game’s boss battles—save for the final fight with Liquid at the end, where the same principles are at play. Otherwise, every other boss battle is distant—at the mercy of technology. The fight with Ocelot has you unable to cross a line due to C4 triggers, and the bastard actively runs from you if you try and engage him; the first fight with Raven separates the two of you with a monolithic technological weapon of destruction, both fights with Sniper Wolf are over vast distances…the Cyborg Ninja fight is the only one in the game that has the player actively trying to move closer, and having to think of a way to engage in combat without using technology. It’s a fascinating study of both Gray Fox’s languishing human soul and the nature of the “warrior spirit”—a force that would be openly disdainful of using technology to normalize the violence of war.  

At the end of the fight it’s revealed that Cyborg Ninja is actually Frank Jaeger, Snake’s former FOXHOUND compatriot, and Kojima does a truly, truly excellent job of not only explaining who Frank Jaeger is, but why he means so much to Snake and why we should care about him as a character. Having Naomi and him be related was a very intelligent move, and it allowed both the old fans of the series to not feel cheated that their previous gaming experiences meant nothing, while allowing new fans—that is, me—to not fall victim to continuity lock-out. 

Of course the most far-reaching event attributable to the Cyborg Ninja fight is the introduction of a new character:

I’ve always loved Otacon; I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite character in the games (that would be our big gruff hero here), but I’ve always appreciate what he represents. That is, a character whose specialty, that would stereotypically lend him to weedy uselessness, becoming a hero in his own right, and doing so without sacrificing the essential matters of his character. By that I mean that Otacon’s bravery, courage under fire and his growth into a hero do not include him picking up a rifle and becoming a ‘badass.” He’s able to accomplish all these things and still retrain his specialties, his essence—his awkwardness, his computer skills, his geekery. It’s something nigh-unseen in entertainment and it makes Otacon truly compelling. For all of Kojima’s unsubtleties, his characterization of Otacon is a simply beautiful piece of narrative, going from a tremulous scientist wetting his pants at the sight of a Cyborg Ninja to a brave and battle-weary scientist who jumps in on the Big Shell and gets right into the thick of things; who’s unceasingly loyal and dependable in a pinch. Who’s always got your back.

There are a few factors that really keep drawing me back into the Metal Gear Solid series despite its obvious, sometimes huge flaws, and the friendship between Otacon and Snake is one of them. The relationship between these two characters—one your classic computer nerd, the other a battle-hardened, world weary super-soldier—is simply wonderful. It’s why the infamous “bro-shake” in Sons of Liberty both makes me roll my eyes with its narm and weep copiously with its emotion, because despite how lame it is you just feel how much these guys mean to each other. 

When they meet Snake barely has any use for the guy. His first words to his future best friend and confidant are “How long are you going to stay in there?” Remember, he’s saying this to a person that has just seen a dozen soldiers sliced open and been intimidated by an obviously brain-addled metal-suited ninja with a sword. Snake basically pumps him for information and won’t take him with him because he’d slow him down. But throughout the game both their attitudes shift. Otacon finds a reason to fight; Snake finds a person he can actually trust. They encounter some obstacles, Otacon helps Snake out of a couple of tight spots, and in the end is basically the one who tells him how to defeat Metal Gear Rex. Then depending on the ending you get Otacon is the one who accompanies Snake on the snowmobile.

I actually like the ending best where you see him the least—if you resist the torture and save Meryl, Snake and Otacon have one final conversation where Otacon says basically that he’ll help Meryl and Snake escape, that Rex was his fault and he deserves to perish along with Shadow Moses. Snake accepts this solemnly; then when the bombs don’t fall Snake entreats Campbell to retrieve Otacon. It’s a nice little moment and I love what it shows about both Snake’s and Otacon’s arc. Snake’s found a friend worth remembering and making an effort to save, Otacon’s found a reason to go on. Their arcs through both this game and the subsequent two they’re in are almost side by side. Even in narrative structure they’re inseparable. Isn’t that beautiful?

I need some tissues now.

Close on ten thousand words and we aren’t even through a third of the game yet. All right people—or person, rather…this one’s going to be a multi-parter. Tune in next time for part 2 of my Metal Gear Solid retrospective!

Mr. E

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