Every franchise needs to try new things in order to stay fresh and avoid the feeling of stagnation, but what in particular drove the design of Metal Gear Solid 4? What kind of path has the series followed until now, and how has it affected Kojima's relationship with the series?
Welcome to the Jungle
When trying to reach the magical place called "success", there's always an easy road and a hard road. The easy path is the familiar one, well worn and proven to be lucrative; the path less trodden, meanwhile, is dangerous and risky, with no clear direction or formula to follow. It can be like cutting a path through dense jungle, requiring determination, a strong sense of direction, and some courage. There are obstacles, confusions, and nagging doubts at every turn, but if you can make it... well, then you've got it made! It's an investment of time, energy, money and reputation, and its true for everything from movies to vaccuum cleaners. It was true for the Metal Gear back in 1987, and the path of the series has been an interesting one ever since.
Without pretending to know the nuances of the first Metal Gear game's development for the MSX2, I'm sure that there were pressing questions about whether a (relatively) dialogue-heavy "stealth" game could work at all. But it paid off, and he found success. This brought expectations—or at least opportunity—to make sequels, which hopefully would bring even greater success in turn. This phenomenon would be repeated with the sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, leading up to the highly-anticipation Metal Gear Solid for the PSX.
With Metal Gear Solid, Kojima finally had the chance to use cinematic storytelling, real voice actors, and a host of other tricks to immerse the player in the intense world of science-fiction espionage. The game's massive success once again proved that Kojima was a visionary, and suddenly his name became synonymous with top-tier game design worldwide. He had found the kind of success that few ever do, and now the path before him was clear and easy, paved with easy money and simple expectations; a proverbial yellow brick road. But would Kojima take this 'yellow brick road'?
The Yellow Brick Road, Shunned
As I've discussed in The Legacy of Metal Gear Solid 2 and The VR Theory, Kojima took advantage of MGS1's popularity in order to fulfill his greater storytelling ambitions, rather than simply cashing in. People wanted another Shadow Moses mission, with major plot twists and crazy badguys... so what did Kojima give them? The Solid Snake Simulation, the Raiden twist, and characters like Fatman. Kojima refused to settle for the easy path, and in fact decided to parody popular expectations in order to demonstrate that he was aware of them! He wanted to challenge his fans intellectually, so he used the game's huge momentum to smash their simplistic hopes against the wall, all in the hopes of forcing them to think outside the box.
Predictably, most fans hated this experiment. The took refuge in the game's improved gameplay and graphics, ignoring the brilliant narrative in favour of — wait for it — running and shooting! The game game received huge criticism for its "convoluted" storyline, with the highest praise boiling down to acknowledging its postmodern weirdness. Either way, most of his investment into the game's bizarre design went unappreciated, and fans were left begging for what they felt they could rely on: guns and shooting. "Except next time, could you make it cooler, like you did with Metal Gear Solid 1, please?"
This was what Kojima feared. Sons of Liberty tested the players to see if his fans were, like Raiden, stupid and unfit to decide things for themselves. Because of the unflattering result, this is where the path to higher success began to grow darker for Kojima.
Back to the Jungle
With his reputation in question and a burden of satisfying his stupid fanbase, Kojima set to work making Metal Gear Solid 3. He gave in to demand, sacrificed his rebellious side, and decided to prove what he could do when he wanted to make a sexy game again.
It seems to me that every effort was made to ramp up the "cool factor" of MGS3, as if to counter the notion that he simply failed at making Sons of Liberty the way people wanted. He wanted people to think, "Why didn't he do this before?" The legendary Big Boss replaced the whiny rookie Raiden; lush jungle replaced the sterile offshore cleaning facitlity; fighting a giant Russian who shoots lightning bolts out of his fingers replaced running around naked in the cold while being told to turn off the game. It was everything we wanted and more, and it was long overdue.
But Kojima was doing more than taking the easy road. While obviously continuing to hone his directorial techniques and other skills, he was once again testing to see whether his suspicions were true about the true appeal of the series. He dumbed-down the narrative, took away the backstory of the bosses altogether, and made it as simple as MGS1. The focus now was on the guns, combat and gameplay. For a series that was supposedly based on stealth, the game practically had a gun fetish. Would players eat it up and ask for more, or would they long for the postmodern psychology of MGS2? It didn't take long for reviews to confirm his fears once again.
And so the path grew darker. The newly-improved combat systems fuelled the demand for an online mode, where players could mindlessly kill each other forever, without even the framework of an important mission! This contradiction of the series' morality could only have added to Kojima's troubled relationship with his series and fanbase.
The question of what effects this ever-darkening path has had on Kojima and—consequently—Metal Gear Solid 4, I leave for future articles. For now, I will say that I respect the man's ability to keep the series as strong as it is, and innovate even while trapped in a corner. For better or worse, Kojima took the hard path towards greater success, and balanced a lot of weight on his shoulders. It could certainly have been worse.
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