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Great Games – Metal Gear Solid

Thom Moyles's picture

The original Metal Gear Solid is one of the most important and most distinctive titles in video game history. Like its sequel, Metal Gear Solid created a considerable uproar when screenshots and movies were first leaked to the public. When it was released in 1998, it quickly became one of the most popular games ever, causing a heated debate over the merits of the game. The biggest complaint was that the creator of the game, Hideo Kojima, had piled on too much story and not enough gameplay. Over time, the public opinion of the game

Metal Gear Solid
grew, as people recognized the game’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. Looking at this title now, 4 years after it was first released, it is still one of the most polished games ever produced and a game that challenges the status quo in terms of how people experience video games.

Since Metal Gear Solid is a famous game that has been out for a considerable length of time, this article will focus less on its gameplay, and more on the methodology of how the game is presented to the player. Additionally, references will be made in the course of the article to aspects of the game that could be viewed as spoilers for those who have not played the game, so be warned.

There are three elements that one could use to describe the basic attributes of a game. The element that gamers are most familiar with is the genre of the gameplay—like the "platformer" and the "sim". "Action/Espionage" is probably the correct category for Metal Gear Solid here. Another element is the genre of the story. In the case of Metal Gear Solid, the story is fairly standard action/espionage fare, such as one might find in a book or film of the genre, complete with the usual dance of betrayals and mistaken identities. The third, and for the purposes of this review, the most important element is the presentation of the narrative, that is, how the game shows the story to the player.

The truly revolutionary content of Metal Gear Solid comes from its use of cutscenes, which form the basis for the presentation of the narrative. More specifically, the cutscenes used in the game indicate a conscious attempt on the part of Kojima to borrow

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
numerous methods of presenting the narrative from the world of film in order to create a more involving story for the game. Although Kojima succeeded in centering the game on a remarkably complex story, by using techniques cribbed from film he presented his narrative in a way that was not integrated with the gameplay.

From the opening sequence, it is clear that Kojima has been influenced by the world of film, and by Hollywood action movies in particular. Metal Gear Solid is introduced as "A Hideo Kojima Game" and a place stamp appears soon afterwards, setting the scene in the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska. The place stamp that follows is a common trope used in film to give the audience a sense of where the action is taking place—Hitchcock, for example, used this device to great effect in his films. This ties directly into helping the audience suspend their disbelief. By placing the action in a real-world location, Kojima is making a gesture towards convincing the audience of the realism of the game, something not traditionally attempted in video games. However, the fact that we are informed of Kojima’s artistic ownership of Metal Gear Solid is a bit more significant.

By overtly displaying his name in the beginning of the game, Kojima is making another reference to film and perhaps just other areas of art. Non-commercial art is generally associated with the name of a creator or visionary. Directors of films, regardless of how many other people worked on the picture, are credited with having primary ownership of the picture. Writers of a book might have their name attached to a film regardless of their eventual involvement. Although gamers who have become interested in the workings of the industry might be able to rattle off names of famous game designers, the vast majority of people aware of the existence of video games would have trouble naming a single game designer, let alone associating designers with particular games. By blatantly connecting his name to Metal Gear Solid, Kojima is not only engaging in self-promotion, he is attempting to put video games on the same level of other areas of art, where a single person can claim to have imprinted his vision on what is essentially an ensemble production. In doing so, Kojima adds to the possibilities of a cult of personality in video games, an industry that has been dominated by the abstract entities of companies and developer teams.

But Kojima’s real usage of film techniques is most glaringly obvious in the sequences following the place stamp. One of the techniques is the use of an embedded narrative—as we

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
hear the words of the introductory dialogue spoken, it becomes clear that the story is being told by somebody who is taking part in it. There is also dislocation of time in the narration, as, logically, the narration must be taking place before the visuals—it is unlikely that the Colonel would tell Snake that he would be using a mini-submarine fired from a torpedo tube if Snake were already in said sub. The visuals themselves are riddled with film techniques. During the conversation between the Colonel and Snake, the point of view engages in crosscutting—switching from location to location, visually leading the player through Snake’s initial infiltration of the base. Once inside, there is the animated equivalent of a crane shot, moving across the dock to create a sense of the space in which Snake will be operating.

If the technical cues weren’t enough, Kojima reveals his sources by peppering the game with references to popular films. The opening shot of the nuclear submarine could have been taken directly from Hunt For Red October, and the references to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Escape From L.A. are almost too many to list; they include the name of the main character, as well as the plot of infiltrating an island with the intent of rescuing hostages.

Kojima borrows techniques from the world of film because he’s interested in telling a story. Film, and the techniques that it uses, can be used to cause viewers to become invested in the story that’s being presented to them. The sense of space created by camera techniques used in film can really help the player understand the layout of the levels he is traversing, and create a better sense of the game taking place in a world of greater scope than the player experiences. One aspect of this used by Kojima is the presentation of events that could not be seen by Snake given his current position in the game—conversations or events taking place elsewhere in the

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
compound. The cutscenes and codec conversations also manage to present to the viewer the concept that there are parts of the narrative that are being intentionally held both from Snake and from the player. This is essential to the nature of the story in Metal Gear Solid, as it helps the player empathize with Snake’s frustration with being kept in the dark.

However, film is first and foremost a passive experience. The viewer is effectively removed from the rest of the audience through darkness and socially enforced silence. Unlike a play, there can be no interaction between the actors and the audience, and the movie will continue on regardless of the actions of the viewer, short of destruction of the projection equipment. Even presented in the form of a home viewing, the film experience is that of the viewer passively observing. And most importantly, viewers have no control over the presentation or outcome of the story.

 

 

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot

 

By overtly displaying his name in the beginning of the game, Kojima is making another reference to film and perhaps just other areas of art. Non-commercial art is generally associated with the name of a creator or visionary. Directors of films, regardless of how many other people worked on the picture, are credited with having primary ownership of the picture. Writers of a book might have their name attached to a film regardless of their eventual involvement. Although gamers who have become interested in the workings of the industry might be able to rattle off names of famous game designers, the vast majority of people aware of the existence of video games would have trouble naming a single game designer, let alone associating designers with particular games. By blatantly connecting his name to Metal Gear Solid, Kojima is not only engaging in self-promotion, he is attempting to put video games on the same level of other areas of art, where a single person can claim to have imprinted his vision on what is essentially an ensemble production. In doing so, Kojima adds to the possibilities of a cult of personality in video games, an industry that has been dominated by the abstract entities of companies and developer teams.

But Kojima’s real usage of film techniques is most glaringly obvious in the sequences following the place stamp. One of the techniques is the use of an embedded narrative—as we

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
hear the words of the introductory dialogue spoken, it becomes clear that the story is being told by somebody who is taking part in it. There is also dislocation of time in the narration, as, logically, the narration must be taking place before the visuals—it is unlikely that the Colonel would tell Snake that he would be using a mini-submarine fired from a torpedo tube if Snake were already in said sub. The visuals themselves are riddled with film techniques. During the conversation between the Colonel and Snake, the point of view engages in crosscutting—switching from location to location, visually leading the player through Snake’s initial infiltration of the base. Once inside, there is the animated equivalent of a crane shot, moving across the dock to create a sense of the space in which Snake will be operating.

If the technical cues weren’t enough, Kojima reveals his sources by peppering the game with references to popular films. The opening shot of the nuclear submarine could have been taken directly from Hunt For Red October, and the references to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Escape From L.A. are almost too many to list; they include the name of the main character, as well as the plot of infiltrating an island with the intent of rescuing hostages.

Kojima borrows techniques from the world of film because he’s interested in telling a story. Film, and the techniques that it uses, can be used to cause viewers to become invested in the story that’s being presented to them. The sense of space created by camera techniques used in film can really help the player understand the layout of the levels he is traversing, and create a better sense of the game taking place in a world of greater scope than the player experiences. One aspect of this used by Kojima is the presentation of events that could not be seen by Snake given his current position in the game—conversations or events taking place elsewhere in the

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
compound. The cutscenes and codec conversations also manage to present to the viewer the concept that there are parts of the narrative that are being intentionally held both from Snake and from the player. This is essential to the nature of the story in Metal Gear Solid, as it helps the player empathize with Snake’s frustration with being kept in the dark.

However, film is first and foremost a passive experience. The viewer is effectively removed from the rest of the audience through darkness and socially enforced silence. Unlike a play, there can be no interaction between the actors and the audience, and the movie will continue on regardless of the actions of the viewer, short of destruction of the projection equipment. Even presented in the form of a home viewing, the film experience is that of the viewer passively observing. And most importantly, viewers have no control over the presentation or outcome of the story.

 

In direct contrast to films, video games are inherently an active experience. Unlike film, a player is invested in a video game because of the interaction between the medium and the player. In games like Metal Gear Solid, with only one playable character, the player becomes invested in the actions and survival of the character. When someone is playing video games and the game character dies, and the player is asked what happened, they reply "I died", not "Snake/Q*Bert/the Ikari Warrior died". The act of pressing buttons on the game controller and having the character onscreen engage in actions is the act that involves the player with the game. This is why poorly implemented controls are incredibly

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
frustrating. If the player is to become involved with the fate of the character though control of the character, it is imperative that the game be responsive and predictable to the player; otherwise the illusion of control, and the attachment to the character, is shattered.

What one finds in Metal Gear Solid is a gaming experience that switches between an entirely active experience and an entirely passive experience. The result is an unsettling mixture of quick and precise actions performed by the player, followed by long periods of inactivity while the game advances the plot. This experience has been decried as being boring and essentially unsatisfying. This is because there is a certain expectation attached to the experience offered by video games. As fellow critic Brad Gallaway noted on the Gamecritics message board:

"To only tell a narrative is pointless, but if you can tell it while keeping the player involved, engaged and entertained.. then that's worth it."

There is an important implication here, and that implication is that narrative is insufficient to carry a video game on its own, and that the gameplay must be at least competent in order for the player to be involved. In Metal Gear Solid, large sections of the game are devoted completely to narrative. Because of the expectations players have of video games, the lack of gameplay, defined by interaction with, and control over the game, disengages the player from the character. The investment in the story that Kojima is working towards is sabotaged by his own narrative device. We can observe this problem in the shots where Kojima

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
presents material which could not be seen or known by the character. Although this helps create motivations and thus greater complexity for characters other than Snake, it can only help reinforce the detatchment of the player from Snake himself.

The problem with Metal Gear Solid is a problem of presentation and expectations. By attempting to revolutionize the presentation of the narrative in video games by using film techniques, Kojima breaks up the expected ‘flow’ of gameplay, causing dissatisfaction in the player. It is not that the cutscenes are not well-realized or well-conceived; it is that the perception of the nature of video games does not allow for extended and frequent passive experiences. The question then becomes: is it inherent in video games that the player can become invested in the game only through actively doing? Or is it rather our expectations of video games that preclude our becoming invested through non-active experiences? Unfortunately, answering these questions is beyond the scope of this article.

Metal Gear Solid

However, one can start on this debate by comparing Metal Gear Solid with an earlier game of Kojima’s, and another game that appears in a Great Game article here on Gamecritics.com, Snatcher. Snatcher succeeds in being a narrative-driven game because the game is designed as a vehicle for the narrative. That is, the gameplay itself is designed around advancing the plot through in-game actions, meaning that you do not get the interruption of narrative flow that takes place in Metal Gear Solid.

Even though the use of cutscenes affects the overall experience of Metal Gear Solid as an action game, it does allow for something not generally seen in video games, which is conveying a message. Although gamers may have regarded the anti-nuclear message as heavy-handed, it is remarkable that a game was made with not only a coherent message, but a message grounded in our own reality. In embedding a relevant message in a video game, Kojima proves that it is possible to use video games as vehicles for expressing an artistic vision. That so few games do so is an absolute crime and an insult to the intelligence of the gaming public.

In the end, it is a pity that the dualist nature of the game winds up damaging the action-oriented experience of Metal Gear Solid, considering that the game is also full of gameplay innovations. Aside from the development of the espionage-style genre, Metal Gear Solid displays an impressive level of causality—it still relies on a "key-fetching" style of advancement at times,

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
but the "keys" are just as often actions taken by the character, and the game presents the puzzles in a logical manner, which is a welcome change from the simplistic and nonsensical puzzles usually seen in video games.

But perhaps the more revolutionary aspect of the gameplay is the self-knowing nature of the interaction between the player and the game. That is, the game at times will display the recognition of itself as a game in its presentation. It can be as simple as the codec conversations referencing how the controller is used, or the characters within the game interacting directly and implicitly with the hardware. For example, the equation of psychic powers and the nature of time with the hardware of the console itself in the battle with Psycho Mantis.

Referencing the controls of the game within the game itself is not an unusual occurrence, but the way that Kojima does so is unique. The information does not appear in an obviously out-of-game context, a la the talking question blocks in Super Mario World. Rather, the information is presented to you alongside plot development in your conversations with other characters. Along with the moments when characters reference and control the hardware of the console from within the game, Kojima has included scenarios where characters within the game interact directly with the hardware. Usually, the technique of making the characters self-aware is regarded as an attempt to push back at or define the medium while sabotaging the omniscient narrator, but this view is not applicable to the video game world. The absence of the narrator and the lack of tradition in the video game universe means that such efforts do not come across as they would in literature or film. Rather, they are used as methods to greater involve the player with the game, even though they remind the player that it is a game, these methods are less obtuse than the usual in-game instructions, and the novelty of these interactions excites and involves the player.

Another aspect of this revolutionary design is the use of the codec conversations as a hint system. At any time in the game, if the player feels stuck, they can call various characters on their codec system. In almost every situation, one of the characters will be able to provide you with information that will help the player get through a situation

Metal Gear Solid Screenshot
that they might find difficult. This is another great example of how Kojima has managed to take an out-of-game function and imbed it in the gameplay in such a way that the player is not alienated from the story.

Although Metal Gear Solid is a conceptually flawed effort, it represents an attempted revolution in the medium of video games. Obviously Kojima has proven that he can make a game that challenges expectations, and is not afraid of making design decisions that most development teams would find too ambitious. In the case of Metal Gear Solid, Kojima might be too ambitious for his own good with the use of frequent cutscenes, but the rest of the game is filled with innovative design choices. It is a pity that these innovations have not spread to other, more recent titles, especially considering the acclaim that Metal Gear Solid deservedly received. The video game industry is one that is especially devoid of people and companies willing to take chances. When a game is made that revolutionizes and challenges concepts of video games, it deserves special recognition. Even if Metal Gear Solid has aspects that make it less of a complete masterpiece, it contains more than enough revolutionary elements to make it a Great Game.

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Category Tags
Platform(s): PlayStation  
Developer(s): Konami  
Key Creator(s): Hideo Kojima  
Publisher: Konami  
Series: Metal Gear  
Genre(s): Stealth  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Columns   Best Work  

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