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One Hell of a Drug

This is Snake
Video Clip: Infiltration

Metal Gear Solid.
The legend. The big one. The daddy of Metal Gear games*, and, to me, the definitive Metal Gear experience to this day. Much could be said about Kojima's first 3D stealth game, and certainly, much has already. Some call it the greatest PS1 game of all time, while others go as far as to call it the greatest game of all time, period. There are certainly reasons for such high praise. The most obvious, common compliments of the game include:

  • Immersive cinematic experience
  • Gripping atmosphere / graphics
  • Complex, deep storyline (for a videogame)
  • Crazy, unforgettable boss fights
  • Memorable moments of oddity and hilarity
  • Tense, unique stealth gameplay

Summed up, I think it's fair to say that the main appeal of the original Metal Gear Solid was its pure ambition; its singular vision of what a videogame could be. Gorgeous artwork by the unmistakable Yoji Shinkawa painted the characters with an uncommon sense of humanity and weight; epic music punctuated the action and drove home cutscenes like never before; thoughtful, thematic writing raised questions about everything from love and war, to one's genetic destiny. What other game even attempted to go this far? To create a such a stark, engaging world? To challenge not only the gamer's skill and dexterity, but his mind and motives?

Old adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island may have come close, but they lacked the cinematic edge of real-time 3D, which so effectively pulls the player into the moment. Resident Evil offered a provocative cocktail of presentation and audio, but lacked the intuitive controls and constant storytelling that made Metal Gear feel so coherent. Final Fantasy VII may have surpassed it in its ambition, but the clunky old interface and sappy storylines felt like a too much like a callback to the previous generation to overcome the hard-hitting immediacy that Snake's covert espionage provided.

All good, but not as much

In the end, Metal Gear simply pulled us into a world we never wanted to leave. It was like James Bond on crack cocaine, spinning a dark tale of a man against a giant nuclear robot, piloted by his evil twin brother; the tale of a man who snaps necks in the winter cold and peers creepily at sexy prisoner girls from the air ducts, just to get by. We punched cyborg ninjas in the face, and got pissed on by a wolf. We got tortured by a perverted cowboy, and hid inside of a carboard box to stay alive. We had our minds blown by a psychic wearing bondage gear, and learned that our government had been lying to us all along. We talked about the meaning of life with a hopeless nerd, and then shot the love of his life at point blank range. The list could go on.

To those who got high on this bizarre drug, it was an addiction that just wouldn't quit. To this day, people like to swap stories about the first time they had the Metal Gear Solid experience, sharing with each other just how hard they were tripping by the time the credits rolled. Even if they don't bother to play it anymore, they love to see it parodied and referenced, because something magical happens when they relive those moments. It elevates us to a state of euphoria, and elevates the game along with us.

This is all well known. Read some typical reviews for the game and you'll find countless accounts of what made it so special. You'll also find an incredible lack of critical thinking, whether in favor or against. "You can hide in a box!" and "It's basically one big movie!" are found at every turn, along with completely contradictory accounts of whether the game was too easy, too hard, or worthy of its reputation. What you probably won't find is any attention given to the underlying design choices, or their impact on the game.



The Fog of War, The Mists of Time

What happens, then, is the formation of a romanticized version of the experience, reinforced by those who share our enthusiasm and memories. Together, we try to define what made the game great, and, naturally, what we would like to see in the future; not according to critical analysis, but sloppy fanboy gushing. Whatever sticks out in our mind becomes the focus of the discussion, while core aspects of the gameplay are neglected; or worse yet, acknowledged as being somehow arbitrary or unimportant.

It's easy for a popular product to become so entrenched in this cycle of simplification and glorification that, in the end, all we seem to think about it is that it was the best thing ever, and we don't really know why. This is what I call being obscured by the clouds. We elevate something so highly that we make it inaccessible and unquestionable—which is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to do an article about the game. The danger with simplifying, of course, is that we get a warped sense of what's really important, and later become puzzled as to why its sequels don't share the same essence. We want more... but more of what?

It's like inhaling narcotics.

Kojima was fully aware of this problem when he created Metal Gear Solid 2, I'm sure. The whole "Solid Snake Simulation" and re-creation of Shadow Moses theme was a direct reference to the unyielding demand for more, more, more. Raiden actually represents the Metal Gear fanboy, blindly craving stealth action without stopping to think crticially. No doubt, then, Kojima felt that Metal Gear Solid had been obscured by the clouds as well. Sons of Liberty would force players to think critically by outright tricking them, only to delve deeper into the intentions of Shadow Moses' memes.

It's truly rare for a creator to respond to his fans with such masterful manipulation, but Kojima cared too much about his series and its "SENSE" to let it fall prey to the stupidity of the masses.

Yet the themes and morals of Metal Gear Solid are not the only victims of obscurity. There are a few important aspects of the game's design itself that need further attention, and have been underestimated for far too long...


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* Preceeded of course by the great grand daddy and grand daddy, who were both very important, but much less cool


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