Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Metal Gear Solid: A Retrospective, Part 3

Miss anything? Part one here, part two here.

A Name from Long Ago
Temperature Tango – Suspicion and Deceit –
FoxDie revealed – Snake gets tricked –
Fox intervenes – Sacrifice – Snake destroys Rex

It’s an inevitable fact that upon beating a game a dozen or so times, some sections of it are going to get…well, boring. Mostly, these are informational bits—I mean, who watches a tutorial for a game that you’ve already beaten and understand the mechanics of? Nobody, that’s who. It’s not necessary, right? You know all the information already, what’s the point in going over it again and wasting your time?

It was this completely logical thinking that led me to wasting a whole lot of my time.

Last time we checked in, I had just blown a ravenous varmint into kibbles and retrieved the PAL key. The key is actually three keys, responding to different temperatures levels. So when the key is hot, a terminal accepts it, and when it’s cold, and when it’s room temperature. Pointless? Yes. Nonsensical in the long run? Yes. A contrivance to create backtracking to pad out the game? Yes, yes, and yes. But we’re stuck with the hand we’re dealt, and my hand is a particularly bad one, because I skip the cutscene where Otacon explains how the key works. It’s all exposition, after all, and I’ve beaten this game so many times, why should I listen to information I know like the back of my hand? Turns out I know the back of my hand less thoroughly than I thought. 

What happens is I run up and turn the key “hot” first. Makes sense: this whole section is tedious and the “hot” bast furnace is by far the farthest away; I want to get it over with. 

Right away I suspected something was wrong, because the Codec conversation I’d anticipated didn’t take place. Maybe I was misremembering, I thought. I spend twenty minutes making my way up to the blast furnace, and another five waiting for the key to get hot, then I rush all the way back to the command office and try and insert the key. No dice. I’m flabbergasted. I try again. Rejection. What’s going on? Is the game broken?

Then it hits me, like a snake sinking its fangs into my leg, with all the pain and nausea that comes with it: you have to put the keys in order: room temp, then cold, then hot. Which Otacon explained to me in the cut scene that I so dismissively eschewed watching.

Yeah, had to leave the game a little while. Not to mention waiting another fifteen minutes for the key to get back to room temperature so that I could do the cursed contrivance correctly. But I’m not bitter or anything.

This whole PAL key fiasco is just busywork at its most inglorious anyway. It’s by far the most banal, irksome portion of the game, and as I mentioned before, it doesn’t make sense logically: I mean, what if a situation went critical and Metal Gear Rex had to be activated, immediately? What, are you going to spend fifteen minutes getting the key alternately hot and cold? And with what? Are you going to send it by courier to the inexplicable freezer and then to the furnace? Are you going to have a little hair dryer in the command room? We'd all be dead by then. Safeguards are one thing, but then there’s making something so safe you cripple its very function.

It’s the same with the Codec. Throughout this interlude, Master’s been calling Campbell and Snake with his suspicion that Naomi’s a spy with some other hidden nefarious purpose. Then Campbell finds Naomi sending encrypted messages from the sub, corroborating Master’s claims. Naomi gets locked up, and then secretly calls me. This is probably the most important call in the game: it’s where we learn about who Naomi is: how Frank Jaeger/Gray Fox/Cyborg Ninja rescued her when she was a child, raised her, and how crushed and bitter she feels toward Snake for killing him in Zanzibar. She also describes the FoxDie virus: what it is, how it works, and that she has, in fact, infected Snake—although her feelings toward him have now become somewhat more complicated. As usual, all this takes place on a black screen with green cutouts of the characters faces, lessening the emotional impact.

But let me posit that there are perhaps some limitations to the medium video games that are absolutely unavoidable? Gameplay is interactive storytelling, but there are only a couple of kinds of interacting you can do: for character driven games, as an example, you can have the player character be in first person, or you can have the player character be in more omniscient third person. But paradigms are inevitably going to sacrifice something towards the overall mission of player interactivity, even if it’s as paltry as dynamism; by that I mean you can’t have a frantic, highly edited action sequence at a juncture of player interactivity, because it removes the player from the equation. Confuses and disorients them. This, therefore, is a sacrifice on the altar of interactivity.

Meaning that if you’re going to make a third person tactical espionage video game, with a one-man infiltrator sneaking upon a highly guarded nuclear warhead storage facility/WMD research center, you are going to have to separate the emotional core from the player itself, because there’s nothing, emotionally, for the character to “interact” with. Snake finds Otacon, for example, because he needs him—but the two had no prior relationship before the game, and while their friendship is the founding arc of the game, the emotional center—that is, the characters that Snake has a relationship with—at the start of the game are, by necessity, a hundred miles away in a submarine. It’s completely logical: one man infiltrator is going to have a support team off site somewhere. But what it sacrifices is that same emotional core. It’s easy to have a game with a one man infiltration story: I mean, there’s barely any interactivity considerations you have to go in with. The one man is the player, and therefore anything the story requires will have to be done by the one man, and therefore the player. But the game wants more than that: it wants interactivity and a deep, thoughtful, emotional story. The only way it can figure to do this is to have these emotional moments on a black screen with green cutouts; the incongruity of the two, therefore, is a sacrifice on the altar of interactivity. When gaming truly solves the dissension between its emotion and its practicality is when I think the form will truly have “arrived” as a medium of narrative art. It’s come close, but it’s not quite there yet. Maybe it never can be—I mean, just like a film can’t fluidly give you the inner workings of a character’s mind the way a novel can. But here’s hoping.

The PAL thing takes, literally, an hour—okay, maybe only if you make the atrocious mistake I made—but even if you didn’t, it takes a few minutes for the key to “change over,” meaning, first timers, that you’re literally going to be standing in the freezer/blast furnace, doing nothing, for an indeterminate amount of time. So, you know, unload the dishwasher, make a sandwich, finish that research paper. Me? I got through a good amount of The Brothers Karamazov (Note: It was okay. –E). 

Of course the tedium does serve one critical function: it lulls you into a false sense of security, so that when you insert that last key and the computer cheerfully announces that you have, in fact, activated Metal Gear Rex, you jump out of your seat in shock and alarm.

A lot of people apparently figured out Master Miller was Liquid long before the reveal, but I remember it legitimately shocking me the first time I played this, way back on the little Windows PC. And all I can say is: you better have gotten that gas mask.

In one swift stroke, and one of Kojima’s better writing moments, all the hints and threads from the game come to an astonishingly succinct and effective conclusion. Liquid tells you about the real DARPA Chief—the body that was thrown in with you in the cell—and how Ocelot accidentally killed him before being about to torture the code out of him. How Decoy Octopus then disguised himself in a ruse to get the code out of you. And, finally, how they planned to “let” you through the base, thinking you were advancing, but in reality only getting closer to activating Rex for them. It’s a wonderful turn, not only for the storytelling, but for the game logic as a whole, completely dissuading any doubt about even someone as legendary of Solid Snake making it as far into the complex as he has—“Huh?” says Liquid. “You didn’t think you made it this far by yourself?”

That brings up the question of whether the FoxHound minions were holding back and letting Snake kill them, but honestly? It’s plausible. If Sniper Wolf was anything to go by, the whole group were looking for a way off this mortal plain anyway. The only ones without some kind of death wish were Liquid and Ocelot, and lo and behold, who’s left standing at the end.

Liquid informs me helpfully that I’ve served my purpose and that I may die now. The doors lock and the place fills with gas. Like I said: gas mask. Never would have thought it would come in handy this late in the game, did you? Item scouring, people.

 In a nice fit of logic, calling Otacon gets me out of the room lickety-split—it’s a simple matter of him overriding the program keeping the door shut, and then I run outside for the final confrontation with Liquid and his two hundred ton nuclear tank.

Liquid jumps into the cockpit after a quick conversation about FoxDie, Les Enfants Terribles (the science project attempting to make clones of Big Boss that created Snake and Liquid), and Liquid’s misunderstanding of how genetics work—recessive genes do not work that way. Although, in all honesty, it probably works. It doesn’t really matter that recessive genes don’t make you “genetic garbage” or anything (as proven that it’s actually Snake that has the recessive genes, spoiler alert), but when you’re erstwhile father tells you they do, at some point you’re going to start to believe it.

Liquid activates Metal Gear Rex in what is still one of the most awesome preludes to a boss fight ever: 

I mean, you can just feel the power, and the majesty, and the terror that this machine would strike into the hearts of foes. Honestly, we can’t pass by this point without mentioning just how well designed Rex is; its form has become almost a staple of the video game culture. It’s a perfect synthesis of form and practicality. It doesn’t have the flash and verve of, say, the Transformers or Gundams, but it doesn’t need to. In a world that places an emphasis on “realism,” no matter how stretched, praise must be given to the designers for the fact that Metal Gear Rex actually looks plausible, like something that maybe, possibly, could in some universe be constructed one day. I mean, it never will, and it is probably im-possible—but it doesn’t look like it is, and that’s what matters. Like I said, a harmony of awesome and logic. 

Oh my God, what did…did it just shriek?

Kojima…I just…I can’t...

Snake: How do I stop it?


(Chaff grenades miracles: 5)

Yes indeed, my friends: our ever-faithful explosive radar-masking device comes through one more time in the clutch, providing the sure fire way to win the first round of this fight against the walking behemoth. Chaff grenades completely bamboozle Rex’s raydome, the device that provides feedback for its virtual interface. Hock a chaff, move out of Rex’s line of fire, shove a Stinger missile right up its power couplings. The idea is to take down the raydome, thereby forcing Liquid to open the cockpit and attack you using mere eyesight alone, allowing you to place a well-aimed Stinger right between his eyes.

You finish this first half of the battle, but it appears to be all in vain, and our hero is doomed to have his guts smeared across the hangar floor courtesy of one giant metal boot, when suddenly out of nowhere, Gray Fox descends to save him.

There are cases when suspension of disbelief can be stretched to places that it otherwise would not be able to go. It’s a hard task to accomplish, and it ultimately hinges on how effective the aggregate parts of the story in the moment are.

In this case, Fox has all but destroyed the raydome, confusing Liquid for the moment. He’s firing blindly and desperately, and this gives Snake and Fox the chance to talk behind a convenient bit of cover. Now there are a couple of things you have to accept with this scene:

  1. Snake and Fox are perfectly okay standing there having a long conversation while a two hundred ton nuclear-equipped walking battle tank is firing at and around them.
  2. Liquid will be blind until the exact moment that Snake and Fox finish their conversation.
It strains logic at the basest level. The scene construction, however, is so good, so heartfelt and well-played, that the contrivance is easily forgiven. This little scene from when Fox saves you to his ultimate death is simply perfect in every emotional way, and to do that it had to sacrifice story logic; in this case, it’s okay, because the tone and set up called for it.

Gray Fox: Hurry! Get away!
Snake: Gray Fox!!
Gray Fox: A name from long ago. It sounds better than Deepthroat.
Snake: So it is you...
Gray Fox: You look terrible, Snake. You haven't aged well.

It’s the dialogue that really carries the day here. Unlike the Wolf scene, the impact is not supported by the scenery—I mean, it’s two guys talking behind a metal crate, in a metal hangar, with a metal robot firing at them. But the voice acting, and narrative flow, is so superb that it makes up for the lack of aestheticism. Fox explains to Snake about why he came back, and in a heart wrenching moment, about Naomi’s past:

Snake:         Fox, why? What do you want from me?
Gray Fox:   I'm a prisoner of Death. Only you can free me...
Snake:          Fox, stay out of this. What about Naomi? She's hell bent on taking revenge for you.
Gray Fox:   Naomi...
Snake:          You're the only one who can stop her.
Gray Fox:    No...I can't.
Snake:          Why?
Gray Fox:    Because I'm the one who killed her parents. I was young then and
                    couldn't bring myself to kill her too. I felt so bad that I decided
                    to take her with me. I raised her like she was my own blood to
                    soothe my guilty conscience. Even now she thinks of me as her
Snake:          Fox...
Gray Fox:    From the outside, we might have seemed like a happy brother and
                    sister. But every time I looked at her, I saw her parents' eyes
                     staring back at me... tell her for me. Tell her that I was the one
                     who did it.

It really hits you right in your gut, and highlights once more why I like Greg Paulsen’s voice for this character so much. The gravel gives every word such weight and pathos; you feel his regret and anguish for what he did to Naomi, and how her eyes remind him so much of the parents he killed.

Fox then sacrifices himself, basically, to destroy the raydome once and for all, in one of the best one-liners ever conceived by any creative work, ever:

Gray Fox: A cornered fox is more dangerous than a jackal!

In the end, Fox gets what he wanted all along: death. Oh, God, this death scene is just so tough, especially given the fact that, despite how gruesome is, it’s the only the Fox truly wanted: to be free from the hollow shell his life had become. It’s a sobering moment, and it tears you apart in so many ways: you feel bad for Fox, terrible for Snake, anger at Liquid. It gets you amped up for the final confrontation. By the end of this scene, you are very much ready to kick Liquid back to whatever hell he came from.

And you do. It’s tougher, because since Fox has destroyed the raydome, Liquid has opened the cockpit, meaning for once, our chaff grenades fail us. But really, it’s about timing the attacks and moving when you have to. Oh, and when he shoots the homing missile things, run towards Metal Gear Rex, not away or side to side. Towards. Yeah, it makes more sense when you play, just trust me on this one.

Finally, finally I get one good shot off and Rex collapses, and blows to shred with the best explosive effects 1998 could muster. Really though—it’s a pretty tremendous amount of booms going on here; kind of makes me question the plausibility of Rex functioning in any capacity in Guns of the Patriots—but that whole fight was awesome, so I’ll ignore it. 

With that, Snake gets hurled against the side of the hangar, and all fades to blackness.

Explanations – A Final Battle – Jeep chases –
FoxDie, redux – A Purpose to Live –
Snake rides into the sunrise – A last twist

You know, I never quite caught on to the fourth-wall breaking Kojima got up to in the fire-shrouded conversation between Liquid and Snake. I mean, in the immediate moments afterwards, you’re watching Liquid through Snake’s POV, meaning for all intents and purposes Liquid is looking at me, the player, as he rebukes me for enjoying the killing and destruction:

Liquid: Ha! You lie! So why are you here then? Why do you continue to
           follow your orders while your superiors betray you? Why did you
           come here? Well... I'll tell you then. You enjoy all the killing, that's why.
Snake: What!
Liquid: Are you denying it? Haven't you already killed most of my comrades?
Snake: That was...
Liquid: I watched your face when you did it. It was filled with the joy of battle.
Snake: You're wrong!
Liquid: There's a killer inside you... You don't have to deny it. We were created to be that way.

I’d never really noticed that before this play through, but after Spec Ops: The Line I’ve become far more attuned at looking out for such affectations. It’s just funny to see a game from fourteen years ago saying, however bluntly, the same things about video game players that Spec Ops did in 2012. Timing is everything in art, remember, and Metal Gear Solid came out in a time before the ultra-modern, ultra-realistic, graphically superior military shooter, and so its prescient message probably slipped by most people.

I have decided that a great drinking game can be made of this series as a whole. We’ll call it the “KID,” or the Kojima Info Dump. Take a shot whenever Kojima spends fifteen minutes going on long bouts of exposition to tie up all the loose ends he didn’t telegraph very well throughout the rest of the game. I mean, seriously, I think it happens in every single game in the series, with Guns of the Patriots being by far the most notorious.

In this case, the info dump is one long bout of exposition regarding Les Enfants Terrible, FoxDie, the Pentagon, nuclear weapons, and genetic testing. It goes on for far too long and is far too…shall we say lackadaisical? To be a twist. It means little to the audience because there’s not a singular point to focus on. We already knew Liquid was Snake’s brother, and that just left the details to explain why. But details are hard to make into a good twist because a twist, simply by implication, is a quick moment where an unexpected turn is taken, the exact opposite of a twenty minutes speech by a video game antagonist. I mean, Liquid starts talking about asymmetry in nature, for crying out loud. Is this really the time, at the climax of your story?

Mercifully, mercifully, it finally ends, and the game ramps back up as Snake contacts the Colonel. Liquid’s heard about a bombing run authorized by the Pentagon, and Snake wants some answers. Campbell confirms that a bombing run has been ordered on the island, but that, even though he’s a figurehead, he’s still in operational control of the mission, that him countermanding the order will delay that bombing and buy Snake sometime. But just as he’s doing this, Campbell is suddenly interrupted!

There’s something cold and clinical about this twist. Jim Houseman, defense secretary oozes with the smug superiority of the righteous bureaucrat, so enchanted with his rectitude that he cannot see any other viewpoint:

Houseman: I see. Oh well that's okay... You two are an embarrassment from the 1970's. Our country's dirty little secret. You can't be allowed to live. Well, the bombs will be dropping soon, and you two have a lot of catching up to do. Farewell.

Not to mention his voice actor is just sublime.  Unctuous, disaffected, dismissive. He’s going to bury Shadow Moses, and he simply does. Not. Care.
With time against us Liquid plays out the final stage in his revenge fantasy. He’s got Meryl tied up off to the side on top of Metal Gear with a bomb next to her—wait, how in God’s name did he—you know what, never mind, fight scene coming up.

Can I make it plain to all you guys how tough this fight is without embarrassing myself? It’s one of those battles where the rust becomes apparent when you step into it. If you haven’t beaten the game in a while, odds are decent that on any higher level, you’re going to die at least once; not to mention you can’t “take your time” because of the handy-dandy bomb Liquid’s activated.

            DEATH #5
As expected, I fall to him once. It’s not really the controls as much as the pattern of Liquid’s behavior. All you do is run around and hammer the O key, except you can’t, because if you hammer the O button and you miss your punch, you’re going to catch a roundhouse kick to the gut.
Then his tactics switch. At first he just stands there and lets you wail on him; then he begins shucking and diving, so you have to adjust your game plan. The worst however, is when you get him down to about half health. He starts charging you with this rodeo-like shoulder tackle and it hurts. You get smacked with this thing and half your life bar is just gone. Bam. If you hear him grunt  run as fast as you can in a diagonal direction and do not let him hit you. This was the big mistake I make in the primary confrontation. After I do, I resolve to get back in the swing of the fight and use the lessons I remember about combatting Liquid to defeated him on my second go.


There’s nothing to really say about each of them either. It was just an AI from 1998 outwitting me. I mean…seriously. I’m not misleading you people, I have beaten this game a dozen times. This is not my first rodeo. So how in the armpit of Godzilla did I manage to die against Liquid five times in a row?

Thinking on it rationally, and being removed from the play through for a good length of time, it was the charge that got me. Yeah, the exact same charge I warned you to watch out for. I just kept running right into it. Or underestimating just how slow Snake is at getting out of the way. Then I started to get frustrated, and if there’s one thing you must never, ever do in a Metal Gear Solid game, it’s get frustrated. When I finally chilled out and was more patient was when I knocked his blonde butt over the side of Rex’s dead hulk. So Liquid dies. Again.

Now at this point the narrative splits depending on what you decided to do during the torture sequence. If you were a complete tool and submitted because it was too hard or you wanted to get the Stealth or some such, you discover that Meryl is dead, and Snake laments that everything he becomes close to dies. If you have a shred of human decency and fight through the torture, then Snake runs over to Meryl and discovers she’s alive, and they share a badly placed and pixelated bit of romance. While the storage facility is set to blow. Whatever.

It’s here that we see the scene I mentioned way back in Part One, where Otacon volunteers to sacrifice himself so that Meryl and Snake will have a clear shot out the door, and that Rex and all its specs will die with him. It’s a tender moment between the two, a culmination of their new friendship and a narrative conclusion to Otacon’s arc, and I really do prefer it to the ending where Meryl dies and Otacon’s the one to drive you out of the storage facility. 

Not to mention that Meryl’s rather large role in Metal Gear Solid 4 legitimizes the “Meryl survives” ending as canon. So there.

Meryl leads you to the jeeps you’re going to use to escape, and inadvertently runs right in sight of a surveillance camera (a surveillance camera!?). The last action bit begins. I mount the gun in the back of the jeep that actually starts and blast through the checkpoints and waves of genome soldiers, who for some reason after the death of their leader and upon the inevitably of their imminent doom are not fleeing for their lives. Or at least letting me go. That’s some heavy-duty training regimen those guys must have gone though.
I make it past the checkpoints and appear to be home free when suddenly—behind me—gasp! Liquid! In a jeep! With a machine gun! “Not yet, Snake. It’s not over yet!”

Actually, Liquid, it is. I’ve killed you at least three times now. At this point, it’s just obnoxious.

            DEATH #10
So you have to blast away at liquid in his jeep, and as throughout the game he’s very adept at taking multiple hits from a fifty caliber machine gun to his chest. Be reminding that at this point I have precisely two rations and that’s all. Liquid gets some shots off, lowers my health, depletes my rations, and then the perspective turns so that Liquid’s now pulled up alongside me and I have to fire at him sideways.

This little bit is tough, not because of the game challenge, but because the firing here is buggy as all get out. You will swear that you are shooting right into Liquid’s head, and nothing  happens. Then he’ll hit you, knock your sights off, and you’ll have to readjust just in time for him to hit you again. It’s annoying and badly coded—or maybe I’m just incompetent, who knows—and I die.

Unlike our bout of fisticuffs, thankfully, on the next go round I’m able to kept a steady stream of high intensity metal hurling at him, and as the light appears at the end of the tunnel, both our jeeps lose control. When the smoke clears, Meryl and Snake are trapped under the jeep; Liquid comes from around the jeep. I just love Snake’s line here:


I’m not sure if this is a bad line reading from David Hayter or what. Here I am having fought and failed to kill this guy for half a game, and in the worst position imaginable, all Snake says is a rather languid “Uh-oh.” The reading works, actually, because it gives Snake this sort of debonair aura, but it’s still funny. 

Or maybe Snake was just at ease because he read ahead in the script: Liquid, beaten and battered, draws his sights upon you, point blank range. “Snaaake,” he growls. “Snaaaake.” An odd churning sound fills the score. The camera flashes to Snake, to Liquid, zooms in. The colors mute. Liquid spasms in agony.

Liquid: “FOX?!”
Snake: “Die.”
Me: Squeeee!

PICTURED: "The Liquid" new dance craze? Must remember to investigate further.

Now there’s a cool moment. And thank the Lord, because my word the ending is so saccharine it’ll give you diabetes. Campbell contacts me and tells me that he’s okay, and that the President has put the Secretary of Defense under arrest. “Early retirement.” Snake asks Campbell to retrieve Otacon, and Campbell says there’s a snowmobile under the cliff in a cave for us. This is all okay. Campbell puts Naomi on. Naomi talks about FoxDie, and Snake lies to her, and tells her Frank told her to move one with her life and forget about him. It’s touching and understated and a very complex decision. Then comes the sugar. All five hundred gallons of it.

Okay, it’s not so bad. Basically Naomi voices over and tells Snake that his genes don’t define him and that he should live his life as best he can, while he and Meryl climb down to where the snowmobile is located. Meryl and Snake talk about living, and Meryl finds a bandana, which Snake says to keep as a reminder—of what, Snake? The terrorist attack that almost got both of you killed? (Note: Wait a minute—how is Meryl walking? Didn’t she just get both knees blown out not five hours ago? –E) And why is this random bandana that you randomly found on this random snowmobile? Wouldn’t a more effective memento, if you’re going to have one, be something that you carried with you through the whole ordeal? Your cardboard boxes, perhaps? Oh, wait, this thing will give me infinite ammo on my next playthrough. Carry on.

With that, Meryl and Snake—who has revealed his name as David—as in David Hayter, and no, that was not intentional—ride off into the Alaskan dawn, and thus ends one of the greatest videogames ever made.

Or does it?

The after credits stinger is one of the best, most shocking moments in my gaming life. It is simply sublime, because you have completely forgotten about Ocelot. Like, that he even existed. You hear his voice start up with a telephonic, almost eerie echo over the background of METAL GEAR SOLID in white on black, and it hits you—in your very soul. You have forgotten about Ocelot. And now you’re curious—nervous, even. You know something is going down. Something big:

"Yes, sir. The entire unit was wiped out. Those two are still alive...

The vector? Yes, sir: FoxDie should become activated soon, right on schedule...Yes, sir, I      collected       all of Rex's dummy warhead data...No, sir, my cover is intact. Nobody knows who I really am...Yes, the DARPA chief knew my identity, but he's been disposed of.

Yes, the inferior one was the winner after all. That's right: until the very end, Liquid thought he was the inferior one. Yes, sir, I agree completely. It takes a well-balanced individual such as yourself to rule the world. No, sir, no one knows you were the third one, Solidus. What should I do about the woman? Yes, sir. I'll keep her under surveillance. 

Yes, thank you, goodbye.

Mr. President... "

It’s chilling in the best possible way, and is, really, the best possible way to end this game, about war and death and life. Not with an unabashedly happy ending, but with a caution: there is satisfaction now, but with humanity, always, always, the battle rages on.

In Summation

Metal Gear Solid is today heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, and one of the most landmark. It more or less established stealth gameplay as a viable genre, and its ruminations and themes, even its ham-fisted monologues, introduced players to a depth of emotion and implication that was rarely seen in games before. Partly, of course, it was due to the setting. The PSX era was the first where games could have something even approaching the verisimilitude of real life, with aesthetics and fully voiced characters and scripts and narrative commitment, and Metal Gear Solid took full advantage of all the tools available at the time. It even invented some. Never before had such a cinematic flair been melded with gameplay so well, and while this technique has come under its own criticism in recent years, you cannot deny that it opened up whole new realms with how to portray video game narrative. It didn’t have to be static, and it didn’t have to be uncreative. You could, in fact, create your own narrative techniques for games to push a story forward.

Players were swept away by this story and its characters. We fell in love with Shadow Moses Island. With Campbell, Naomi, and Mei Ling. We adored the host of villains, so creative and fleshed out. We reveled in the story, the twists and turns. We felt for the honorable shaman, and the traumatized Wolf. We rooted for the timid but steel-hearted scientist, the green (and verbose) but brave warrior. And we cheered, most of all, for the weary, broken, and lost soldier, who with our help found his soul again. 

Metal Gear Solid is a seminal moment in my personal history, just as much as its sequel, and is living proof that man will forgive flaws as long as an emotional connection is forged between the characters and audience. I care about Solid Snake, and I care about his universe, and thus I can put up with the maudlin and the unsubtle, and the incomprehensible and the lame. And the best part is? It’s not even close to over yet.

Until next time,

Mr. E

Monday, January 14, 2013

Metal Gear Solid: A Retrospective, Part 2

Part One can be read here, and part three, here!
I Can’t Read You
Snake finds Meryl – Conversations in soldierdom –
An infamous encounter—Wolf dogs—
Exercises in message—Backtracking and forward shooting—

Has no one ever noticed how clinically insane Kojima is? Here’s a video game about the costs of war, the high prices that soldiers pay, and the difficulty of separating yourself from the spiral of violence, and at the moment I’m trying to find an ally by looking at the backsides of all the guards and seeing which one “swings” the most. 

This is how you find Meryl. Solemnity juxtaposed to farce in a way that would shock Joss Whedon. I say solemn, because as I exit the door into the first floor basement of the storage building, this strange, ethereal and haunting melody plays over the game. What could it be?

It’s Psycho Mantis of course, but I love the way Kojima uses the infamous boss’s theme. You hear it just barely on the edge of perception when contacting Meryl while still with Otacon—Otacon even mentions that he thinks he heard music—and then when you step onto the first floor basement it takes over the whole soundtrack. It’s a nice way of setting the mood and making the player uneasy, because let’s face it, Psycho Mantis’s theme is nerve-wracking:

And lo and behold, even though I warned myself not to write notes while the game was active because it had bitten me before, I’m writing the note about Mantis’s theme and, guess what, I get bitten again. Do not mess with the ability of Metal Gear Solid to jack your world up, people. Just don’t.
I escape that little faux pas and hook up with Meryl, exploiting the little Easter Egg where if you follow her in the bathroom quickly enough, the cutscene begins with her sin pantalones. Which I remember thinking quite naughty back in the days before omnipresent pornography and graphics that didn’t make a person’s backside resemble Jenga blocks.

PICTURED: I sometimes long for the days when this was risque.
 This cut scene also includes the next entry in Meryl’s pernicious monologuing effort, demonstrating once again Kojima’s lack of subtlety with these issues. Even the voice actors seem to be rushing through their lines here, which I’m sure is something to do with the Japanese-English translation, but still rather humorous when you imagine Debi Mae West speaking as fast as she can to get through the humiliating schmaltz.
I leave the restroom, resupply, and we head down to the Commander’s office (which is in a basement for some reason—it probably makes more sense than it seems), on our way to the underground passage to Metal Gear. When suddenly Meryl stars acting all…strange…

What do I say about this boss that hasn’t been said before? The infamous fourth-wall breaking, the insane difficulty, switching the controller ports, the HIDEO screen? As much as Kojima struggles with subtlety, he is an absolute master of post-modernism, effortlessly freaking the player out with well placed, interesting, and unexpected fourth-wall shattering. Probably just as famous, if not more so, than the Psycho Mantis incident is the fake “game over” FISSION MAILED screen in Metal Gear Solid 2, which has become so iconic that most games attempting something similar are inevitably compared to it—Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Scarecrow section being the latest. 

In all of his games Kojima’s shown a profound awareness of his audience. It might explain his penchant for long-winded speeches bemoaning this or that: he understands there’s someone else on the receiving end. While that sounds obvious, it’s not necessarily easy to demonstrate effectively. If you’re engaged in the narrative and really into what a character is doing, saying, or how the plot is going to progress, like the player himself, it’s easy to get lost in the fictional world you’ve created. But from Policenaut posters in the Computer lab to a boss reading the games on your memory card, Kojima is very much in tune with the nature of games and how the active participation of the player can be toyed with. 

On that note, has anyone noticed a dearth of boss fights like this in other games outside this series? In most games, even golden age ones, boss fights are simply “tougher enemies,” meant to test your physical/button-mashing mettle before you can move on to the next level. Let’s bring up Batman: Arkham Asylum again. Great game, great combat, graphics, voice acting, and a whole cavalcade of colorful character to construct interesting and challenging boss fights around. And what do we get? For the most part, a slightly hyped up version of the (admittedly fun) beat ‘em ups that we do the rest of the game. This isn’t necessarily bad, but when you hear the word “boss” it implies something, I think, other than what Arkham Asylum provides.
Or, for another example, take Mass Effect, where the average boss is just a normal NPC with a layer of armor and shielding over top. Not exactly a brain twister. It makes the boss fights in Kojima’s works, and specifically the Metal Gear Solid series, all the more impressive. Boss fights in Metal Gear Solid require strategy, different methods of thinking, creative problem solving. A veritable Rubik’s cube of player vs. game. And the variety, too: one second you’re playing tag with a Russian cowboy, the next second your dodging .50 cal bullets from a Hind, and the next your weaving through a labyrinth of freezer boxes, trying to arrest the movement of a 300 pound shaman bent on your annihilation.       

Psycho Mantis tops all of these merely for the, at this point, unheard-of conceit of having you switch the controller ports, thereby making millions of gamer’s heads exploded in the ecstasy of awesome. That one moment was all it took. Once you do figure out that you need to switch the ports (and if you contact Campbell enough times in a panic, he’ll verbatim just tell you to so), Mantis is actually quite easy, a simple matter of memorizing his attack patterns and using the first person view to “see” where he’s going to appear next. But that first little bit of trying to figure out how he could read, from what it looked like, every single thing you were trying to do…(and yes, I know it’s possible to beat Psycho Mantis without abusing the controller ports, but I feel sorry for the poor souls that did so).

Mantis, upon his death, guides you along the way to Metal Gear, and you take off into the most annoying section in the game.

Meryl makes fun of Snake for being supposedly good with dogs when all the wolves in this section apparently hate him, but it can’t be stated enough: Snake is supposed to be a dog musher. And I know wolves and dogs are not the same thing but come on! Can’t he do some whispering something or other? Maybe throw them a bone? Anything to keep them from knocking me down and chewing on my carcass!?

PICTURED: Toughest enemy in game.
Words cannot convey how much I hate these damn things; and if you didn’t manage to get the Night Vision Goggles or Thermal goggles and it’s your first playthrough, Athame be with thee, because these wolf-dogs will make mincemeat of you.
You actually have several options against the hounds of hell. You can shoot them until they die—be forewarned that they take more damage than your average genome soldier, and if you can’t see because you eschewed item searched and don’t have any vision-enhancing hardware—well, you’re going to waste a lot of bullets. 

Second option is to run madly from the little bastards, who will spot you—but if you know where you’re going, this isn’t an issue. Sorry first timers. Also, running madly impacts your ability to get the much-needed diazepam from this section without serious risk to your health. You have to crawl under this little pathway to get to the cavern where the diazepam and PSG1 bullets lay—all quite necessary, mind you—and if the wolves have spotted you—and they have—they will patiently wait outside with their psychotic growls and will not leave, forcing you to crawl back out while they chew on your tender neck. 

Basically you’re going to sacrifice either bullets or health here, in some way, at some point, especially if playing through the first time. And yes, I know there are means of getting around the wolf attacks. The depraved method is killing every adult wolf, then equipping a cardboard box to have the baby wolf cub pee on you, and this makes the wolves leave you alone (seriously Kojima?). This is a frustrating twenty minutes of your life, but it does pay off since Snake’s going to traipse back through this cave two more times before he receives Sniper Wolf’s handkerchief, which is the other means of making these furry buggers leave you alone. See Wolf has this…I don’t know, pseudo-psychic connection with wolves, them being her namesake and all, and can generally walk among and feed them with indemnity. So when Otacon visits you in the torture chamber, you get her handkerchief, which Wolf inexplicably gave him, and this makes the wolves all lovey-dovey. 

I know that was a large amount of paragraphs to spend on this inconsequential portion of the game, but I can’t make you understand just how much I hate these stupid dogs with their stupid glowy eyes and their stupid heart-pounding snarls. 

Anyway, I progress through the cave and finally make it to Meryl; we head through the cargo door to a dramatic introduction of the communication tower and our path to Metal Gear.

Okay, so this part’s always been funny to me: the setup is that the initial area past the door is mined, so Meryl tells you to follow her lead. She then proceeds on this circuitous path about this comparatively small rectangular section, leaving footsteps in her wake, and then tells you to follow them, the idea being that when Mantis dove into her mind to take control of her during his boss fight, it let her see where the mines were placed. I guess the idea is to have Snake carefully follow the pathway that Meryl left behind, but oh no! Her footsteps are disappearing! Oh the drama! We have to hurry and be careful at the same time, how is this possible?

 Now there is one big problem with this—I hate to even call it a “mini-game,” and that is by this point you have about three different ways to diffuse mines and thereby making this section entirely pointless filler:
  1. You can use thermal goggles to see where the mines are, negating the need for Meryl’s precognition.
  2. You can just crawl to Meryl and disarm the mines just like every other mine in the game.
  3. But my favorite thing to do is just running straight across. Because part of Meryl’s path takes her vertically in front of where you being the section, meaning that from where you start when you have control of Snake again, about two thirds of the path straight in front of you has Meryl’s footsteps and is therefore, “safe.” You can crawl if you want, but I like to run straight across just to stick it to Meryl for failing to realize realize there weren’t any mines in the shortest distance between us and our destination.
I’ve already touched upon this in part one: Wolf draws down Meryl’s body with a laser sight, and caps both her knees in showers of blood. This few seconds is well executed and dramatic, and I really like the subtle insinuation of Wolf’s strategy: she beads directly on Meryl’s heart at first, a kill shot, but slowly brings the tracer down to the knees, handicapping her in a non-lethal way. Since what Wolf is going here would go over many gamers’ heads apparently, Campbell basically tells you outright in the subsequent Codec conversation.

PICTURED: How are you talking!?
My problem with this scene is what happens next, a tide of heavy-handed exposition by Meryl on war being ugly and her delusions that she belong in such a world. This would be sappy even in the most appropriate of circumstances, but lest we forget both her kneecaps have been shredded by the impact of a Sniper’s bullet not ten seconds before, and there’s a very large pool of blood gathering beneath her. Meryl should either be shivering in shock or screaming in agony—she should be doing basically anything except speaking, but Kojima can’t go one instance without banging us over the head with ideas that should be made obvious through aesthetics and story. 
Then again—I don’t know. I go back and forth about this issue. It’s really great, as a douchebag English major, to exam and work and be able to go “Ah-ha! Kojima thinks war is ugly and brutal!” But the average gamer, heck the average human, has a tendency to be…a bit less discerning. This is not to say “stupid.” It’s more to say that the average moviegoer, the average gamer, the average reader, is approaching art forms on a discardable basis, for the most part. Entertainment, escapism, emotional satisfaction, and not necessarily to ponder deep philosophical conundrums. A work of art can have beautiful imagery, theme and design that very much says it’s anti-war, or that war is brutal, or what have you, but when disseminated among the populace approaching the work with a different mindset than what the creator had in mind, do those messages get across? If you truly want to make an anti-war game that resonates with as many people as possible, is it beyond the realm of possibility that the only way to truly get the point across to the masses is in the most blatant and unaffected way as possible? 

Communities at large sometimes tend to lose sight of how “niche” they are, especially with the ubiquity of the internet. When you have million member communities that can comment on the thematic implications of a game, you can forget that even though said community is one million strong, it’s barely a drop in the bucket compared to the world at large, which is probably not going to have come to the same daring conclusions that you have. And this is where, I think, the idea of the “mainstream” audience being idiots finds its genesis. We see so many people that have the same interests and agenda as we do that we think everyone has the same interests and agenda we do, and therefore people who “don’t get it” are simply stupid, when in fact they’re just approaching film or what have in a less academic manner, because they care more about, I don’t know, stock racing or market economics than they do about the sound editing in Tree of Life.

So if you’re Hideo Kojima, and you know you want to make an anti-war, war is hell game, and you know you’re faced with this kind of audience (Note: and he certainly seems to have thought so, explaining the relative short length of the game as a way for the 20th century busybody to be able to fit in in their schedule –E)  then how do you get your message across to a group of people who will look at your designs and dialogue and battles and say they’re “cool” and “awesome” without any introspection whatsoever. Does it not, in fact, make it more prudent to hammer home your ideas in even illogical places if it imparts even the slightest spark to an inattentive audience?

In any case, Meryl’s talking after getting her knees destroyed and losing 90% of her blood is pretty ridiculous, necessity of including the scene notwithstanding.

To save Meryl, I have to get a sniper rifle, which Otacon helpfully informs me is all the way back in the armory. Snake echoes what every player in the world thought at this moment:

“You mean I have to go all the way back there?”

Well at least Kojima acknowledges this absurd bit of backtracking. Unfortunately, it’s also completely logical within the framework of the story. What was going to happen? Was Snake going to just “discover” a sniper rife in the wolf cave? Or the Commander’s office? No: there were specific places where armaments were stored, and thus Snake has to go back there to get one. It saves us from a terrible deus ex machina, although it does leave us with the question on how Snake supposes he’s going to get a sniper rifle from the entire opposite side of the base, come back and defeat Sniper Wolf before Meryl bleeds out? I know the guy is superhuman, I’m just saying that it’s a good thing Liquid and company decides to take her prisoner instead of putting a bullet in her skull.

A lot of memes have been created about Snake’s fetish with cardboard boxes, and Kojima seems to be on the up and up with what a ridiculous gameplay conceit it is as well, giving Snake some almost, er, sensual dialogue about them in Sons of Liberty and taking it completely over the top in Guns of the Patriots by equipping Snake with a freaking oil drum.

It’s stupidly glorious in a way that only Kojima can do, and they vastly alleviate the frustration involved with moseying back through the entire facility to get the PSG1. You pop in the truck, it rumbles off, you’re at the heliport, vent, elevator, done. No Snowfield, mines, alert lasers, or cameras. 

I retrieve the PSG1 from the most headbangingly arranged set of laser motion detectors ever conceived by man, hop back on my handy-dandy truck, and return to the communication towers to combat Sniper Wolf.

PICTURED: Yeah, this is going to go well.
 The fight is straightforward. Wolf’s on the second level and aiming down at you, and you track her movements and fire when she pops out, using diazepam to steady your hand. It would be a simple task except for the 1998 controller interface being a pain in the neck. In an age where the reticule of a weapon’s sight can be adjusted precisely 1.26 millimeters with no effort, the back-and-forth control of the PSG1’s sight is clunky. This alone might lose you the fight—if you go over too far, and hastily try to pull the reticule back, odds are you’re going to overshoot the other direction, which lets Wolf get a bead on you, and on harder difficulties you might as well say goodbye to half your health. Her shots also have the tendency to knock your sights completely off, meaning you have to readjust and  find her again, and on the harder difficulties she has, by this point, gotten another bead on you and thus you're dead. 
Now I bet this next part really got a bunch of first time players back in 1998, Kojima you bastard. I even fell for it when I had finished the game before. I walk forward after the battle down the long hall towards the communication tower when Mei Ling mysteriously calls me and tells me that she has a bad feeling and am I sure that I don’t want to save at this point? The poor fool that doesn’t want to waste the time saving is possibly in for a rude wake up call.

Torture? This is an Interrogation
Strapped to a torture bed – Submission or defiance –
 Ketchup con – Adventures in drunken rappelling –
Snake downs a Hind.

It bothers me a little how lamely Snake gets captured. He’s taken down entire fortresses before; he destroyed an M1 Abrams tank not three hours ago! What can these two doofuses holding you at gunpoint do? Sure, you’re cornered, but they’re just two mooks!

Whatever. I get conked on the head real good and wake up on…a…dentist’s table!?

PICTURED: Oh, God, please, anything but oral surgery!
No, no, you’re just on a torture rack, thank goodness, and Liquid et. al are talking amongst themselves about plans and setbacks. It’s a really good scene punctuated by sharp dialogue, realistic turns of conversation, and an expert building of mystery. See, the characters Snake’s facing down at the moment—that is Ocelot, Liquid, and Wolf, already know everything they’re talking about, so there’s no need to explain it to each other. Meaning there’s no need to explain it to us, the player. Kojima does a masterful job here of imparting information that sounds like something the villains would actually say to one another, while still retaining mystery about plot revelations ahead. Liquid mentions a couple of times that the FoxDie virus (which we don’t know about yet) has already killed Octopus, and that Ocelot has screwed up with “the Chief.” These are obvious hints to the twists in the story, but they’re so well worked that they slip right by you, for the most part. Did for me, anyways. 

Actually the use of foreshadowing is excellent throughout the entire game. People underestimate just how important it is. We say the word, we know what it means and looks like, and so we dismiss it. But foreshadowing forms the backbone of a story. It holds up the narrative as much as anything else, because it gives it structure and unity. Foreshadowing, in many cases, is the natural extension of the ubiquitous “Chekov’s gun” trope, except enforced in reverse. We cannot buy things that just come out of nowhere, not in this stage in human storytelling, and in reality, not for the last, oh, three thousand years.

It makes sense when you think about it. Humans have always loved an emotional payoff, and you can’t have the payoff without buildup. So Oedipus, classic Greek tragedian that he is, is told of his ghastly fate at the beginning of his story; then we see how he comes to fulfill it, and in turn, how he realizes that he’s become the very thing he’s desperately tried to avoid: “I am that man.” Can you imagine, then, if Oedipus wasn’t told the prophecy until near the end of the play, in some terrible twist, when everything’s almost been resolved? It would have felt cheap and unearned, and even ancient Greek audiences would have revolted (I would like to think so, anyway).

I don’t need to go to dead cultures to find an example of this. How about the (original) Mass Effect 3 ending? Would the Catalyst and the Citadel and the ultimate fate of the Reapers been better accept had such concepts as the history and the Leviathan’s had been included or hinted at in the beginning of the game? Or even better, at the beginning of the series? Wouldn’t have fixed all the problems with the original endings, but it would have lessened the hatred for the Catalyst considerably, because humans are much more accepting of even God-like deus ex machina figures as long as they are set up or foreshadowed at some point earlier in the narrative. 

From the beginning of the game important bits are casually mentioned in such a way that it flies right by the player. At the loading elevator in the very beginning of the game Snake witnesses a blond haired man proclaiming that “He’ll be through here, I know it.” A bit later, we see a Hind D Russian gunship that will come back to play a major role later on. A scene cuts in after the DARPA Chief’s (ostensible) death showing the mysterious blond-haired man rebuking Ocelot about killing some nebulous person strapped to a torture bed. Low and behold, here in the cell Snake’s stuffed in after Ocelot’s initial torture session, we find the DARPA Chief, and a lot of hullabaloo is made about how his blood’s been drained and he’s already decomposing even though he supposedly died just a few hours before. I mean, sure, it would have made more sense for Foxhound to have just thrown the Chief into the freezing arctic waters, I guess, but come on, it’s a cool moment!

            DEATH #2

Once again, me and the underestimation. I’m like the yappy little dog, right, that no matter how many times it gets bonked on the nose it still insists on trying to bite your ankles. I keep trying to bite MGS’s ankles, and I pay for it, this time the crime is thinking I could button mash through the torture sequence on normal difficulty no problem. Yeah…spoons, people. Spoons are your best friend.

And while we’re on that, doesn’t it suck how you get the better achievement item if you let Meryl die? I mean, it makes perfect sense since Otacon’s the person who has the stealth camo that you get the stealth camo if you let Meryl die and Otacon accompanies you on the final escape, but still, it always rankled me. I didn’t want to let Meryl die. Damn you, Kojima!

Fortunately I took my own advice and saved the game at Mei Ling’s prodding, meaning I was able to restart at the communication tower instead of, IDK, wherever you saved last. I can just imagine the rage in 1998. Imagine that you’re a skilled gamer playing a marathon session of Metal Gear Solid, and you’re talented enough to make it through, I don’t know, since after you beat Psycho Mantis without saving, and you ignore Mei Ling because, come on, who wants to listen to her anyway. And then you don’t realize how difficult the torture session is, or you’re tired or your finger slips off the circle button and suddenly there’s no reload option! You have to quit the game and start from your last save. After the Psycho Mantis fight. And then you have to do all of that over again. There’s not a doubt in my mind that this happened to some poor sod. It’s a level of mercilessness that games today can’t measure up to, and when they do, a lá Dark Souls, it’s so rare it makes news. But in 1998 there was still an arcade mindset, life systems, and general restrictions on hardware. Reloads would be from waaaay back near the beginning of the level because there wasn’t sufficient space on the disk or cartridge to create multiple checkpoints. In the era of auto-saving, what Metal Gear Solid pulls here is almost trolling. 

So Snake has conversations with Campbell and Otacon—interesting stuff about Naomi’s history—survives another session with Ocelot depending on how you’re playing, then escapes—again, if you play correctly, with a little bit of ketchup and some fisticuffs. Or if you didn’t “get it,” then you survive yet another torture session at which point the Cyborg Ninja just unlocks the door for you and you get to finish the rest of the game with an inexplicable bottle of Ketchup in your pocket. 

I make my way back to the Nuclear Warhead Storage Building and down through the wolf cave—much simpler thanks to Sniper Wolf’s handkerchief, and approach the spot where Meryl got sho—what the heck is this? Did we just flashback an entire scene that occurred not two hours ago gameplay time? I mean I’d get if Snake saw some snippets of blood burst and screaming, but we see basically the entire soggy monologue! We know this already, we just saw it Kojima!

I make my way through the previously inaccessible door next to the communications tower (where I got captured) and run in full steam ahe—oh, a surveillance camera (a surveillance camera!?).

For the love of God, first time players, grab the rope in this room. You are in for quite an annoying little bit of backtracking if you forget. Oh, and those stun grenades are probably a good idea too.

Yeah, stun grenades are your best defense here, which is about the only time those words can be said in the entire series. Just keep chucking them while running up the stairs of the communication tower, but by no means actively engage the genome soldiers in the area. You’ll waste all your infinitely more useful ammo.
I reach the top of the communication tower, but Liquid blows out the bridge before I’m able to cross to the other tower. You think the wolf cave is bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet. 

I mean, having to follow Meryl’s footsteps when there were fifty different and better ways I could cross a small swath of concrete was dumb. But this rappelling minigame is simply abysmal. Weird, awkward controls constantly wanting you to die as you try to avoid steam vents and .50 caliber bullets. Not to mention if you didn’t grab that rope at the bottom of the tower, guess what you get to go back and get? You can’t use rations up here either. Oh, no. If anything was more reminiscent of the most ruthless arcade games, this is it. It even has an arcade like set up! It’s almost a war-themed version of Donkey Kong, complete with barrels steam vents!

I have no doubt that if I trawled YouTube there would be some fifty thousand people who got through this abomination in five seconds without losing a nanometer of life. Except for the aid of pure luck, don’t count me among them. Most of the time I end up hammering O, screaming in frustration, and dying at least once.

I manage to avoid dying this run through, but it was close. I mean 1/8 of my health bar left close. I always manage to get suck on the end where it appears Snake is at the end of the rope but he Just. Won’t. Drop. Down. Then a .50 cal bullet rips my head off and I have to start all over again. That almost happens here, but for once the game decides to take mercy on me and I hit the deck, needing two rations to heal myself up before Nikita-ing the guards down the pathway. Kojima, nicely enough, sets a ration right next to you on the platfrom. Yes, I take this as evidence that the rappelling section is meant to troll the player.

I manage to get into the adjacent tower. The elevator is malfunctioning, so I have to descend the stairs manually, where I find them broken off a neck-snapping five foot drop above the bottom floor…wait, what? Yeah, PS1 limitations are funny sometimes. Greatest soldier of the twentieth century and he’s foiled by a five to ten foot drop. Oh well—I hear they fix this little problem in The Twin Snakes. This forces me to climb back up, where I run into Otacon.

I hate to keep harping on this, but once again Kojima grinds story logic to a torturous halt to throw in emotionally over-saccharine discussions about warfare and displacement. I don’t have any tears left to shed…I mean, come on. You’re telling me that on a sprained ankle Otacon hobbles all the way from wherever he was to the second communication tower just to ask me some stupid question: “Snake, there's something I've really got to ask you. It's why I followed you up this far...  Have you ever ...loved someone?”

I might even buy that he would do so if the intel was important. But for this? I mean…I’m kind of busy, dude. You’re making me wax eloquent in a space inadequate for such an emotionally wrought conversation... I mean a service elevator and steel staircase don’t exactly bespeak a visual design rife for introspection and emo grittiness. I don’t have any tears left to shed…sweet lord.

I manage to survive the cutscene without going into insulin shock and make my way up the stairs while Otacon works on the elevator, using chaff grenades to avoid the incrementally increasing amount of gun cameras every third or so flight of stairs, thereby saving me a lot of rations. Although this isn’t enough to warrant, sadly, a chaff grenade miracle. I climb up the rest of the stairs to face down this terror of the skies, Liquid’s Hind. Which you defeat by cramming Stinger missiles up its underbelly and hiding behind a large substation or something when fired upon. Surely you didn’t go up on the platform, silly goose. That’s a good way to get hurt. No, just stay between the door and the substation…thing…and you’ll be golden.

Finishing the fight allows Snake the opportunity to spout one of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard:

Snake: That takes care of the cremation.

Oh yeah, motha-trucka. How can you not love this gruff bastard?

Soldier Without a Cause
Sniper Wolf II – Mercy Given - Into the fire
Raven - Nuclear Revelations - Snake loses a key

Good God almighty Otacon, get out of the camera you’re flipping me out!

Fighting these mooks with stealth camo is difficult. You’re in such a confined space, and they obviously have more health than regular genome soldiers, and it’s tough to run and gun at the same time—I mean, holding X and square simultaneously? There have been better design schemes. And uh, Snake, by the way, it might be a good idea to grab one of these guys’ stealth camouflage packs before oh, there they go, disappearing into the ether. Would have made the rest of the game a lot easier, is all I’m saying.

I make it to the bottom of the communication tower and out the door where I’m met by Sniper Wolf again. 

I’m going to admit something rather embarrassing here. I don’t want to be judge, condemned, or laughed at by the three people reading this in Norway, okay? But I never thought of using Nikita missiles against Wolf until the playthrough for this retrospective. I probably wouldn’t have thought of them on this playthrough either, had I not been discussing the game with a friend of mine, and how I always hid behind the tree and used the PSG1 to fight her, at which point he all but laughed me out of my own house. You don’t like to be reminded that you have a one track mind, but there it is. Never even crossed my mind to use Nikitas. It’s a sniper battle, I thought. You have to use Sniper rifles, right?

In any case, we finally, finally get to the one moment of earned emotional sentimentality as this point in the game. It’s not the last one, but to my mind it’s the first one executed with any kind of earned weight. Right after a firefight, with a dark, somber mood—there’s an implied element of coldness to the proceedings, snow falling and the dirty white backdrop of the field. As well, the vision of the camera is severely limited. It just seems surrounded by this hulking black backdrop, pressing in, focusing us on the interactions between the characters, but also infusing the scene with an almost malevolent undercurrent. The music falls to an elegiac tremble.

Wolf talks about her life. Her past, how she was discovered by Big Boss, how she became what she was. Metal Gear Solid, throughout the series, is famous for giving back stories to its boss characters, and Sniper Wolf’s is, in my opinion, by far the best executed. No prolonged Codec conversation, just a very natural expression of a character who knows her time is up. There’s an almost religious symbolism here, with Snake playing the part of the priest and Wolf expelling all her sins upon him. Snake himself shows little emotion—and if that doesn’t sound incredible, recall this is the same person who just mutilated his love interest’s knees a few hours before. Instead, the fight done, Snake sees what Wolf is: a soldier like him, broken and weary.

Otacon, the outsider here, is not so comprehending. He loved Wolf, whether from Stockholm Syndrome or not, and is not an inveterate warrior like Snake. He doesn’t see the point of it, of any of it. “What am I fighting for?” he asks. “What was she fighting for?”

The absolutely heart-wrenching moment is when Snake ends Wolf’s pain by shooting her and I honestly, honestly wish that the camera hadn’t made such a dynamic movement at that moment. It ironically takes some of the drama away, making what amounts to a detached act of mercy by Snake into something it’s not. Kojima perfected this kind of moment by Snake Eater, where the death of the Boss is not only unextraordinary, but committed by the player himself. 

Some say this scene descends into schmaltz, and I definitely see that, but it’s saved from that condemnation simply because the emotional tenor of the moment called for a scene such as this. The snowfield, right after a battle, with a dying foe and a new friend that had fallen in love with the person you’ve just vanquished is a much more fitting place for heavy-handed sentimentality than some random point in a tower next to an elevator, or with a character bleeding out over the concrete. It’s touching, powerful, and lets us see, truly, the tragedy of Snake. 

It took me about a dozen playthroughs to discover the little moment where you can spot Liquid’s parachute in the tree and the call from Campbell. That’s what I love about this game: like a great novel, there’s always something new to discover.

I rob the Snowfield of most of its armaments—a particularly vexing bit of item gathering, what with all the gun cameras and claymores hiding here and there. Also, there’s a level 7 door that I think was put here for obsessive compulsive people because, really, are you going to backtrack all the way to this point again once you’ve gotten the level 7 keycard? Well, okay, maybe I did one time, just to be sure. Crap item, anyway. 

I head through the door and down the stairs into the furnace. Literally.

            ALERT #4

Got cocky for the fifteenth time and misjudged a patrol route. Oh, this also leads to ALERT #5. Yeah, two alerts, same place, no waiting. Expert gamer right here, ladies and gentlemen. 

There is no OSHA compliance whatsoever in this foundry, is there? Can we talk about the platform where the bulletproof vest is found, which is surrounded on three sides by molten hot lava with no sign of a restraining bar or anything that might save your life if you inadvertently slip on a banana peel? 

I run down and into the incredibly long elevator, am ambushed by a few guys, dispatch them no problem, and end up on a—freezer level? Like what is this doing here, so close to the foundry? Is this, like, a storage area for the foodstuffs on the island? Why would it be here so close to Metal Gear REX? What did they put in this place? What did they need to keep so cold if it’s not food? It seems like it would be food because there are a lot of rations floating around, but…oh, screw it. Video game logic.

Raven jumps down from one of the crates and freezes you with the power of the raven. It sits on your shoulder and you’re just paralyzed. Good thing Raven’s an honorable guy or this fight would have been over before it began.

I love this big ugly brute. He’s truly likeable, even more so than Sniper Wolf with her wonderful death scene. How can you not fall in love with him?

Snake: “Yeah, I know it. You much be a real threat at the muk-tuk eating contest.”
 Raven (in the biggest, most bombastic voice you’ve ever heard): “Yes, you are right.”

Kojima, did you just slip a joke in this hugely dramatic moment? You devil, you. 

Oh, man, is this fight tough, especially with no radar. The freezer crates form a maze that Raven tromps about like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, equipped with the handy-dandy fifty cal from the Hind you just shot down which incurs mega-damage. You can take him out with Nikitas a lot of the time, although if you’re like me and have trouble steering them he’ll shoot them down more often than not. 

With radar this isn’t too tough a fight, I guess, but like I said, on hard and very hard—yikes. Expert strategy. Nikitas are still usable, but require much more skill. You rely more on sneaking about, placing C4 and claymores along his paths and hoping he runs into them before he spots you, which, I remind you, you won’t be able to know about until it’s too late. I died three or four times in a row on Raven when I played at the harder difficulties. 

Eventually I wear him down and Raven expostulates on my nature and how I’m basically an abomination: “You are a Snake which was not created by Nature.  You and the Boss... you are from another world... a world that I do not wish to know.” He also helpfully lets me in on the clue that the DARPA Chief I thought I knew turned out to not be the man at all, but FoxHound member Decoy Octopus, which is a very well played twist, I think: by this point I’ve forgotten the guy’s even a part of the unit, so I never wondered why I didn’t run into him. And since I didn’t wonder that, Raven’s reveal is much more spontaneous.
Leaving with Raven’s promise that he’ll be watching me as he’s devoured by ravens (seriously, Kojima) I make by way to the next room which is a dammed up sewer crossable by one bridge on whose walls reside approximately fourteen thousand gun cameras. Yes, you read right. In front, on the left, on the right, even on the wall adjacent to you. There’s a good chance you lose a large amount of health here. Fortunately we have God’s gift to mankind, Chaff grenades, to spare us that fate (Chaff grenade miracle: 3)

I entered the door through here where I am met with an awesome reveal of Metal Gear REX in totality. I just love the upwards angle the camera takes as you initially approach the beast. It really gives you a sense of just how massive this thing is, not only in physicality but in implication. This is a world-changing weapon; which is why the explanation for why it’s a world changing weapon is such a disappointment. 

See the big military revelation that Metal Gear REX heralds is the nullification of MAD—mutually assured destruction, the idea that nuclear powers don’t dare actually fire a nuclear weapon at the other because it will result in their own annihilation upon the counterattack. Now agree with this concept or not, it’s safe to say Metal Gear REX’s major technological feat would put even that consideration at rest. The new type of nuclear warhead that was being tested is a magnetically fired silent nuke. It uses REX’s rail gun to fire the warhead at the same velocity, only without any heat or ionic signature to let any radar system know something was coming. A nuclear walking battle tank that can fire a nuclear weapon from any location on the planet with complete indemnity is terrifying and compelling stuff, which is why it’s always bothered me that its “coming-to-light” is almost thrown in there upon a Codec conversation with Otacon, while Otacon’s hacking Kenneth Baker’s computer. It’s just lame, that’s all, especially with such a neat idea. I mean, you could write a whole movie now about a weapon that fires silent warheads. 

In any case, I climb up and (literally) over the top of REX to reach the command platform, where I discover Ocelot and Liquid talking over plans for world domination, including Liquid’s notion to turn Shadow Moses into the new Outer Heaven, which was Big Boss’s dream fortress from the first Metal Gear game. 

Unbeknownst to me—well, not to poor Snake, anyway—Liquid and Ocelot know I’m standing outside the whole time—including when they talk about the PAL Key, and when Ocelot informs me of its “trick”: the one key is actually all three keys needed to override the nuclear strike! Wow, what a way to…pad out the game.

Oh, here’s another way to pad out the game: create an unavoidable alert where Liquid “discovers” my presence and make me “lose” the key, thereby having to climb all the way down to the bottom of the level to get it.

Ugh. No, I can’t be that unfair. The reason I lose the key in-game is, obviously, to enable Liquid and Ocelot to disappear from the command room before I’m able to climb back up. Still frustrating though, and oh God, can this part be a nightmare: you see, you’ve basically dropped the key in some time of caustic sludge that encircles the perimeter of Metal Gear’s platform in some kind of drainage basin. So you’re forced to walk around said basin, scorching your lungs from the fumes, burning your skin off in great long sloughs, and oh yeah, losing your health, until you find the key. Oh, and a bomb.

            DEATH #3

This one’s going to require a bit of explaining. Earlier in the game, after you’ve escape from your imprisonment with the great ketchup ploy and retrieve your equipment, there’s a bomb nestled in among your items. It’s set for something like 150 seconds, and if you don’t realize it’s there, Deepthroat calls you and warns you.
Well, in this section, something similar happens. You pick up a bomb lying randomly in a stream of toxic waste. I expected to do this. What I forgot is that the time on this bomb is set for a much shorter time frame, something like 25 seconds, and for some reason, no, I don’t know why, I guess I like living on the edge, I didn’t immediately toss the thing when I picked it up. I mean, why should I? I have 150 seconds, right?


Death number three, courtesy of player stupidity. At this point it's a running theme.
Okay, so trying again I toss the bomb this time, but oh no: the worst has happened. A rat has eaten the key. Yes, a rat. God almighty, everything involved with this key makes me want to claw my eyes out. So yes, I have to chase this rat—memorize its patterns and where it’s heading to next. In the end I snipe the freaking thing with my PSG1 in a haze of glorious ratty bits. You’d think the hell this key has put you through would end there, but believe me: it doesn’t. Find out how next time, in the third and final installment of my Metal Gear Solid retrospective!

Mr. E