Since the release date was announced for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain(I love this title, by the way.), I’ve been diving back into the series in earnest. Like, I’m being ridiculous. I’m playing the games, watching people play the games, watching other people talk about the games, reading dissertations on the thematic subtext of the games, and, last but not least, checking out analysis and theories about what has come and what is yet to come. I’m deep diving, folks, and I have no plans to come up for air anytime soon.
Let me back up a bit. You know, that whole context thing. It’s important to me; I’m about to get real subjective, and I want your objectivity about my subjectivity to come from a fair place, I guess. I mean, yeah, I know that eventually your objectivity about my subjectivity will take a natural turn into subjectivity about my subjectivity, but at least give objectivity a shot. Or not? Am I rambling yet? Why am I typing this?
The original Metal Gear Solid, for the PS1, is a pretty seminal game for me. It was the first time, in my opinion, that the bridge between cinema style narrative and game narrative really came together. It became the benchmark in a lot of ways, and, even today, games still struggle to successfully find the right balance. Hell, even games in the MGS series struggle to do it as well(I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I still love you, though!). It has everything that I love about not only games, but narrative as well. With it’s interesting cast of characters, an onion like mystery with pitch perfect pacing and cinematic presentation that was just as good, if not better, than a lot of media that was being created at the time; Supported by an amazing cast of voice actors – many who have become the biggest names in the industry – and a story that felt bigger and deeper than the confines of the disc. It felt profound, and maybe even a little bit important, as it dealt with themes of nuclear proliferation, the military industrial complex, genetic meddling, family, sacrifice, meta-commentary about games and player agency… I could keep going, but I think you get the point. It deals with a lot of “very serious, grown up business,” but that’s not to say it doesn’t have time for a few poop jokes, and some
awesome awkward male posturing, because there’s always time to hit on the ladies! Well… Maybe the tone is a little all over the place… Pssshhh! Tone!
Nowadays, there is no shortage of op-ed articles that take the series to task for it’s tonal shifts and regressive sexual politics, and, you know what, I tend to agree with a lot of them. Sure I didn’t really pay much attention to that stuff when I was eleven, but as an adult whose, you know, grown up and other such dark business, it does stick out like a sore thumb. From the way Snake talks to female characters, to the way those female characters are designed, to the way that those female characters are sometimes used for pervy easter eggs. So, I understand and appreciate the arguments, but I think most of the things that I’ve read are a little bit reductive. In my opinion, the game(s) are a lot more self aware than some folks give them credit for. They deal in genre tropes and are, from a narrative stand point, basically an amalgamation of decades worth of action/sci-fi movies. Take the main character, Snake, for instance. He’s basically a mash-up of Snake Plisken, Rambo, and James Bond all put into one machismo spilling duderino(Christ, this machismo has gotten all over the floor. We’re gonna need a mop… Probably some de-greaser to boot. Uhhh. This is gross.) Once those things come more clearly into focus, the way Snake acts becomes a little more understandable. Yeah, not an excuse, but at least it gives it a little context.
Remember all those “very serious, grown-up business” themes I mentioned before(I’m going to assume that you thought to yourself “Yes. Yes I do remember.”)? Well, it’s one thing to have those themes in a story, it’s another thing entirely to do them well, and, in my opinion, the game(s) does a really great job of exploring these notions by seamlessly blending theme and character. Yes, they are all genre archetypes to one degree or another, but they are also representations of different aspects of war culture. The grizzled veteran; The “green” newcomer; The sadist; The scorned, and the victims… I could go on and on, but the important thing to take away is the fact that even though it all seems pretty bat shit insane, it’s all actually pretty layered, thoughtful and nuanced. It’s why I’ve been able to come back to this series again and again over the years; The older I get, the more clear an understanding I have.
The thing that frustrates me the most about discussing this series with people is that a lot, and I mean a lot of people have a completely superficial reading of the series. They focus entirely on some of the goofier trappings. I mean, yeah, I get it. There are plenty of them to focus on, but the series is doing what good genre sci-fi does: Wrapping prescient and important issues in an entertaining package. It gives viewers the necessary distance to digest serious topics. Although, the emerging culture seems to want things spelled out as clearly as possible, which is just… Uhhh… But I digress. I digress, I digress, I digress… I like my sub-text subtle, I guess is what I’m saying. There is nothing I can’t stand more than being openly preached to. Okay, the series does preach, a great deal, honestly, but in those instances the proselytizing isn’t about things that one would consider to be all that controversial. Like, for instance: War is bad, and as a global society we all suffer. I know, crazy stuff. The more interesting stuff, the real meat of the sub-text is never real clearly spelled out for you. The way it discusses the politics of war, and the self serving nature of war, is all left in between the lines. The messages of the series is told through character history and disposition. Like I said before, they all represent different ideologies, concepts, and states of being; Usually in context to war. It’s the best. My opinion. It’s okay. Probably your opinion.
Whoa, all that and I haven’t even talked about how the game plays! It’s fine. Even at the time, it was fine. The controls were a little clunky, and it would lead to a lot of unintentional deaths due to getting stuck on a wall, or the aiming not being very precise. You got used to it, and in the ensuing years I’ve pretty much mastered them. Even on the hardest difficulty, I can go back to the original MGS for a nice jaunt down memory lane without too much difficulty. Over the years I’ve come to really enjoy the game-play, it requires patience and that was in short supply when I was a kid, but I’d being lying if I said that when I was younger it wasn’t my least favorite part. It wasn’t until later on in the series that the games became “fun” in a more traditional sense, but even then I guess that “fair” would be the more appropriate term.
The thing I realized upon my recent re-play of MGS, was how much a gauntlet of boss fights it is. For some reason, when I was a kid I that never really registered; Probably due to how much dicking around I would do in-between, I guess. It was the days before I had free flowing access to the old interweb, and I would spend hours going over every nook and pixel looking for secrets and ways to exploit the game. Also, I didn’t have as much of a disposable income to buy whatever game I wanted, so, when I bought a game I rung every penny worth of content out of it. Coming back to it now in my late 20’s is interesting. The fights aren’t necessarily hard, in all honesty. The challenge comes from figuring them out, as they are essentially puzzles. What steps do I have to take the compromise the enemy and. then attack them. The game has a pretty neat “tip system” built into an already existing system in the game. The Codec System, to be precise. It’s kind of a cool feature, and, back in the day, something I would forget about during the sweaty hands inducing boss fights(Seriously, I don’t know how many times sweaty palms have caused me to die in this game, and many others, for that matter.). It’s easy to forget that, whatever situation you’re in, you can usually bring up the codec and get somebody on the brain horn. It’s a good idea, because they’ll dole out hints as to what to do with whatever fight you’re in. Also, sometimes they just straight up tell you how to beat the boss. It’s sweet. You should try it sometime.
Now that I have the wisdom of an older person, I’ve really come to appreciate the boss gauntlet styling’s of MGS. They’re all unique, and require you to have some sort of situational awareness, in regards to your surroundings, and the weapons you have at your disposal at certain points of the game. Some of them even straight up and break the fourth wall; The Psycho Mantis battle comes to mind. While not entirely necessary, you have the option to remove your wired controller(Remember those? How quaint!) from port one to port two. The logic behind this is that he can read your mind, because you’re using the left side of your brain(Obviously. Duh!), and game logic dictates that you should switch controller ports! That’s the answer! I honestly have no idea how I figured this out when I was a kid, but, man, at the time I was totally on the same wave length as Hideo Kojima, or something. It just made sense. I probably used the codec, honestly. Anyways, this is just one example of the clever, dare I say “gusto” filled, approach that Kojima had when approaching this games creation.
As the series continues on, the games become incredibly reflexive. The start of the series, like I said before, is a pastiche, or homage, to films that treaded in similar genre territory, but by the time you get towards the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty you start the realize that all those genre tropes that the first game was riffing on have become, for better or worse, foundational pillars for something new entirely. The series becomes increasingly meta, and asks players to take responsibility for things that happen in a linear narrative. Which is weird, but not entirely unfair.
Nothing supports this idea more than a confrontation in the third game of the series, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. After the first game in the series, killing enemies and bosses became optional; You could tranquilize and knock out all of them instead. The boss fight with The Sorrow in the third game has you traversing down a shallow river, chasing after the boss. While you make your way towards The Sorrow, ghosts of the soldiers and bosses that you’ve killed up to that point start to appear and attack you. If you hadn’t killed any of them, well, than it’s pretty much smooth sailing, or walking, I suppose. It’s a neat little gimmick that adds weight to your actions, and makes you think twice before putting a bullet in some NPC’s head. It’s a small thing, but at the time it was revelatory. The idea that an action game, stealth or otherwise, was actively encouraging you not to indiscriminately kill everything in sight, by actually showing some sort of consequence, was pretty novel.
So, as I’ve been making my way through the series again, what I’ve come to realize is that the concepts hold up much better than the actual mechanics, and that the narrative requires so much of your participation, in terms of really unpacking it, that it can be kind of exhausting at times. It feels kind of like some sort of work. Although, with the various HD versions a lot of the mechanical issues have been improved, that story is indecipherable to a newcomer. The only way to really have even the faintest grasp of what is going on, sub-textually or superficially, you really have to start from the beginning, and even then you’ll still find yourself on a message board or two. To me, that kind of stuff is “fun,” but I’m kind of weird. I get short bursts of OCD like behavior when consuming media. If I start listening to music from a specific band/musician, or start watching films from a particular director, I usually start obsessively consuming everything that artist has to offer for a week or two(At the very least! Much to my wife’s chagrin.). I’m one of those people that has to watch every Star Wars movie every time I just want to watch The Empire Strikes Back.
The other day, after MGS5‘s release date was announced, I hopped on to YouTube looking for some game play footage, or maybe even a trailer, or something, or whatever… And, somewhere during that information binge session, I stumbled across some really interesting video analysis of the the first few games over on Super Bunny Hop. I had actually stumbled across these videos earlier this year, but over the past few days I’ve been re-watching them. I originally found them when I had the bright idea of doing something similar myself, but after I watched them I just didn’t see the point. They are really well made, clear and concise. A really great primer if you’re getting back into the games, or if you’re just curious about what the big deal is. Even though I was already aware of most of the things in these videos, it was really nice and helpful to have them all laid out in a manner that actually makes some sense.
For those already initiated into the madness of MGS , I would recommend the channel PythonSelkanHD. Now, this is one of those crazy, frame by frame, left no stone untouched kind of analysis videos. The kind of attention to detail that people give to Stanley Kubrick movies, and the results are fairly similar. The theories range from “Oh, that makes sense,” to “Okay, you’re fucking crazy.” Although, credit where credit’s due, these games and the promotional machine surrounding these games, lends itself to this style of analysis. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love the series as much as I do. Nothing is as it seems, and it’s always building up to pulling the rug out from under you. It’s totally subjective whether you feel it earns it’s twists or not, but it works for me; Mostly, because I’m a weirdo. Take that how you will.
The series’ plotting is a lot like the way comic book narratives work. It’s basically retcon porn. With every new game that comes out you see the story, the characters, and the scenarios folding in on each other. There is no way that Kojima planned the larger plot threads from the beginning. In fact, every MGS game that comes out is supposedly the last, so, the challenge that the writer(s) constantly have to deal with is finality, especially after Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It makes sense that they’ve gone down the prequel route.
In any case, I’m really excited about The Phantom Pain, and I’m really enjoying going back and playing the series as I wait for it to come back. Impenetrable, convoluted, silly, and deep. It’s a series that has defined a lot of my tastes in not only games, but entertainment media in general. I like deep mythologies, and things that have something to say about life and everything that pertains to. It’s a monumental achievement, and really, really silly. I kind of love it.
Get got. Got get.