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Retrospectives – Metal Gear Solid series part 2

posted on December 6th, 2007 by christian

Continued from part 1.

My first experience with anything related to Metal Gear was the MGS cover story in Next Generation Magazine. Like any feature on the game should have, the article mentioned that this was not a new series, but the resurrection of an old one. It even gave a brief history of the past Metal Gear games, which made me feel like hot shit in my eighth grade mind, as if I knew something the unwashed masses that would eventually buy the game never would.

Oh how wrong I was. Remember the amazing boss fight with Liquid Snake in the Hind D? Or how funny and strange it was to meet Meryl in the bathroom? How about those great fights in the elevator and the stairwell? We were all blown away by what seemed to be unique moments, but the truth is that Kojima was just refining his older vision. Metal Gear Solid was as much a project to bring Metal Gear 2 to 3d as it was its true sequel. Had we known this, or even better, had we played Metal Gear 2, would we have been nearly as impressed with MGS as we were? Considering that MGS uses the same top down perspective as Metal Gear 2, I know that today’s objective, Consumer Reports style reviewer would not see this as a bold step into 3d, but rather too little too late.

I am not trying to say that we were tricked into thinking that MGS is a better game than it is, but I do believe that our perceptions of a game are affected not just by its quality, but also by the knowledge and experience we bring to it. Is something really new, or is it merely new to us? This is the same problem many have with Final Fantasy 7, but with with less prior art to look at, we have become far less critical of MGS.

Metal Gear Solid is often considered the genesis of the modern stealth game. In this regard I must rush to its defense. MGS truly earns its title of “Tactical Espionage Action”. Most locations in the game have a Point A and Point B, and often there’s a straight path between them. Getting there without being spotted requires a plan. Espionage is a more appropriate word than stealth, as the only time the game forces stealth upon the player is when trying to collect information, AKA espionage. Every other situation lets you get into fights. You are going to get into fights, and more often than not you will find your way out, eat a ration, and move on.

Metal Gear Solid has always suggested stealth, rather than cramming it down your throat. The explanation here is simple; the modern stealth game began with Splinter Cell, and like all of its imitators, Splinter Cell went wrong by overreacting to MGS. Everyone saw a game with actual stealth, and suddenly all the run and gun, Quake fueled action we were hooked on for so many years was now base and stupid. Stealth was so much cooler and more sophisticated. So sophisticated, in fact, that any shred of action had to be removed from stealth games. A lot of people probably thought they were improving on MGS by doing this, but they were doing anything but. That means that Metal Gear Solid was a bit ahead of its time in 1998, which means that Metal Gear 2 was really ahead of its time in 1990. No matter what else I might say about Kojima, he got stealth right, and I’m glad, rather than disappointed, that he used MGS to reiterate it to an audience that had never seen it before. Shame that no one caught on quickly enough.

If there is one area where MGS can claim to be innovative, it is presentation. It is hardly the first Playstation game with liberal use of cutscenes, full voice acting or an epic story. Before MGS however, cutscenes seemed to exist simply because they could. It was a chance to show off some extra flashy visuals, so why not sprinkle them throughout a game? I can think of a few reasons why this is a bad idea. In their infancy cutscenes were a crutch. Early 3d games were limited in what they could present to the player, and so players were stuck watching rather than playing the best scenes. It rewarded a methodology of “play through this blocky 3d world and you will find some eyecandy at the end”. There were exceptions to this; the “MGS Clone” Syphon Filter was highly effective at making good 3d gunfights.

Where MGS excelled was by using cutscenes as a setup, rather than a reward. Each cutscene uses not only the camera, but the dialogue, music, and the content itself in order to establish a tone or an emotion for the current scene. This is not a case of “hey, look what I can do!” – if it were they wouldn’t have used the in-game engine. Or rather, perhaps in a way it is Kojima showing us how much he loves film, but ultimately the cutscenes are there to make us feel on edge when Snake first fights alongside Meryl, and confused and baffled by the aftermath of his fight with Ocelot. They set us up before and after the action, but when it comes time to really do something, it puts us back in the driver’s seat, hopefully with our emotions stirred. MGS cutscenes have great weight, and yet they are not the reason we come to play. Instead, they try to make the game play better, and that is far more than what most games of this era aspired to.

The importance of the presentation goes beyond just the cutscenes. In the original two Metal Gears, radio conversations were the only way to progress the story. In MGS, the Codec conversations could have easily been replaced by cutscenes. I like to believe they remain because Kojima understood that they were (and still are) a powerful vessel (vehicle?) for telling his story. Most gamers who place a premium on quality stories often put a lot of weight on character development. MGS has this in spades, which is likely the reason it is so beloved.

Most of this development is done through the Codec, which serves multiple purposes. It allows us to choose how to handle these massive chunks of story in the middle of our game. Since the Codec is merely voiceovers and text, we can sit back and listen to each conversation, or we can just listen as we do something else in the house. We can read them at our leisure, or just skip the damn things entirely. The Codec offers some choice in how we deal with the story, though it is not absolute. There are still many cutscenes that exist purely for dialogue, and the Codec is still used for actual tips and advice, so skipping them can be dangerous. MGS may offer more control than others over its story, but that doesn’t mean it wants you to gloss over it.

Finally, the most obvious effect of the presentation is how it can enhance the action itself. I am glad to know that Metal Gear 2 also has a fight up a stairwell. Something tells me that the one in MGS is a hell of a lot better thanks to its music, camera angles and animations. Like most early 3d games, Metal Gear Solid is not going to age gracefully, but it still tried to use the power of the Playstation to make those old ideas from Metal Gear 2 look, sound, and move better than they ever could have before.

Ultimately, this is how we have to view Metal Gear Solid. Not as a pioneer of 3d cinematic gaming, but as the final word on the 2d era. Its primary camera perspective alone should be proof of this. So is the plot full of macho commandos, anime inspired villains, and Cold War fueled philosophical discussions about war and politics. This is the 80’s and early 90’s in a nutshell, delivered to us sans the technical limitations of the time period. This is like a bad translation or unreleased 2d game given the attention it deserves, and the similarities to Metal Gear 2 only reinforce this. It isn’t Kojima being ahead of his time, but him waiting for technology to catch up. If it seems hokey and silly, then it is doing exactly as its ilk did, and if it piled on too much narrative, then it was merely giving us what we thought we wanted. If it at all fails in its goals, then that implies a failure on our part for not understanding that it was closing a chapter rather than opening a new one.

As for its successors, that’s where things really get tricky.

To part 3.

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