Back to Main
Back to Classic Site

Back to Metal Gear Solid

Bringing it Back to Earth

Taking Metal Gear Solid off of its grand pedestal and playing it from a crticial point of view once again, I can manage to see past the "coolness" of the "experience" and see the real nuts and bolts; the design.

The Puzzle Element

To me, the puzzle element is easily the most underestimated part of Metal Gear Solid, and something that has been lost over the course of the series thanks to the rabid, pigeonholed nature of the conversation surrounding it.

What I mean by "puzzle element" is the way that you had to think in order to complete an area of the game smoothly. Remember the first level of the VR training? This is the most simple, pure representation of what Metal Gear gameplay is all about. A single guard patrols back and forth with precise timing, with the goal just beyond him. If he sees you, it's Game Over; if you reach the goal, you win.

Already, the puzzle is underway.

You, as Solid Snake, must find a way to reach the goal without being seen, despite the fact that the guard seems to be directly in your way. The predictability of the guard allows the you to "figure out" the puzzle beforehand, while the top-down camera provides a clear view of everything you need to know (and nothing you don't).

Whether you decide to carefully hide in the alcoves and slip by as the guard walks past you, whether you just run up behind him and flip him on his back, or follow behind him and hug the wall while he turns, the satisfaction of successfully planning your course of action meets the thrill of executing it, and that is what Metal Gear gameplay is all about.

Of course, as the player learns to solve these training puzzles with confidence, they become more complex and layered, until finally climaxing with a seemingly impossible area filled with spotlights, cameras, and patrolling guards. Using only his wits and whatever tricks he's figured out, the player has to reach the goal unseen.

For as obvious as this puzzle element becomes when analyzed, it has become something of an afterthought to both the fans and Kojima. The Shadow Moses mission itself contains all the same puzzle elements, steadily adding more layers as it progresses. The shipping dock introduces water puddles, which make noise when you run through them, while the heliport introduces footprints in the snow, which can cause guards to follow your trail. The game is so immersive and gripping that we don't think about it, but the puzzle element is really what makes the gameplay fun — not the action.

The binoculars and cigarettes, which are available at the beginning, are designed to help the player gather information and—eventually—detect infrared beams, or steady your nerves. As the puzzle elements become more numerous and tricky, items are introduced to compliment them, such as the thermal goggles, cardboard box, et cetera. Weapons are necessary for boss fights, but in general they serve mostly as a last defense, once stealth has failed.

By the end of the game it may seem that the game is more oriented towards boss fights and action, but even these usually have puzzle elements within them, forcing the player to "figure out" the enemy, rather than mindlessly firing away and obeying shooter instincts. Revolver Ocelot challenges Snake's hiding ability by ricocheting bullets against walls and turning the middle of the arena into an explosive death trap; the tank battle requires strategic placement of land mines and timely tossing of grenades; the Psycho Mantis fight compels the player to think really outside the box and switching controllers.

These boss fights not only test the player's raw skills by forcing him to react quickly, correctly and consistently, but they also add twists to established "rules" of gameplay. It's the marriage between quick thinking and careful planning that makes Metal Gear Solid so much more than either a puzzle or an action game. When we finally beat them and resume control, we feel like the world is a little bit more dynamic than we assumed, which is appopriate, since the story also advances a little bit deeper every time.


Perfect Crime vs. War Simulation

What is the core fantasy Metal Gear gameplay? This is something Kojima and co. must ask themselves every time they read a review, listen to fan questions, and plan a new installment in the series. Kojima is open about calling his first Metal Gear "a hide-and-seek game," saying that he "would create tension by adding a story to go with it."

"It ended up being more like a puzzle action game," he says regarding the old MSX title. Frankly, it was a ingenius idea, even if it was a byproduct of the system's limitations. Taking advantage of the simple videogame platform to create an interesting, intense puzzle game where the player wanted to avoid combat, and the events felt a sense of weight thanks to the story. Most puzzle games deliberately have no context, but Metal Gear wanted to give it a sense of purpose and reason.

Opinions differ of course, but I believe the core fantasy is to basically pull off the "perfect crime". Watching, planning and executing a flawless break in, dodging detection from every angle with the highest possible stakes: the end of your life, and the end of the world. Some of us work better under pressure.

"Hug the wall here, knock on it here, then run around this way while he goes that way; crawl under the table, slip out from under it while the camera is facing the other way, and make a run for that hiding spot." Breathe. "Pop on the cardboard box, run to those crates while the guard is yawning, and wait for him to turn around. Grab him by the neck as soon as he yawns again, pull him into the hiding spot, and snap his neck before his friend shows up." This little stretch of hallway has now become mine.

That's quite a bit better than: "Aim at the guy's head before he sees me, shoot; aim at the next guy's head before he sees me, shoot; run over there and shoot the camera from a distance. Shoot everyone and then run around willy nilly because nobody has the vision or range that I do."

The sense of accomplishment when orchestrating a perfect crime is so much greater than simply popping headshots with a tranquilizer gun or strafing around with your gun pointed from First Person View, ready to blast anyone who sees you. This isn't a war simulation.

There's a reason why the camera is top-down by default. It's the same reason why you have a Soliton Radar, which shows you exactly where enemies are and which way they're facing: it's so that you can keep your mind focussed on positioning and strategy, rather than your aim and your ammo. It's also the reason why you only have one pistol, one machine gun, and one of everything else! Those who say that Metal Gear Solid would have been better if it had more weapons are wrong. The game was designed to place more emphasis on planning and sneaking than reacting and shooting, and more advanced combat would only have shifted that balance away from what really made the game fun.

But in the mists of time, up on its pedestal, these things become obscured. Kojima, ever sensitive to the wishes of his fans, gives in to popular demand with Snake Eater, and includes a fetishist-level of weaponry and combat. The era of puzzles and thinking is over, and the true strengths of the old PSX game are all but forgotten. Metal Gear becomes a war simulation with a sneaking theme, rather than a puzzle game with an action theme.

Still, I can't help but wonder what it would be like if Kojima, and the fans, took the series back to its great old roots.


Back to Metal Gear Solid
Back to Reports



(source) "Hide-and-seek" and "puzzle action game" article

All original content © Terry Wolfe, 2008 - Present. Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid and all related logos, characters, artwork, etc. © KONAMI CORPORATION
This is a fansite, and nothing on this site is intended for sale or profit.