Thursday, January 25, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid (1998) – The Real Way To Live

A glimpse of Metal Gear Solid, released in September 1998.

Some games can only be understood within the broader context of the franchise they belong to. Load Checkpoint is a gaming retrospective column that explores the evolving sagas of some of the most beloved properties in the business, tracing their histories and the impact they have on the medium as a whole. – Justin Cummings

Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise started small, beginning with the original Metal Gear on the Japanese MSX2 computer system in 1987. An innovative title for the time, showcasing tactical military action, a unique inventory system, and rudimentary stealth mechanics, it was soon ported to Nintendo’s Famicom system and then overseas to the Nintendo Entertainment System the following year. While the NES port was crippled by poor dialogue translations and unsupervised design changes, the popularity of the brand – which introduced the world to the super-spy named Solid Snake and his nemesis, Big Boss – was clear enough to warrant a Japan-exclusive sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and would eventually lead to one of the watershed titles of the early 3D era in the late 1990s.

When development of the next Metal Gear title was shifted to Sony’s Playstation console after the collapse of the 3DO system, Kojima was undeterred, seeing it as an opportunity to use the power of this new CD-based hardware to create “the best Playstation game ever." Its guiding principles were to achieve a sense of realism and tension, and to tell a mature and thoughtful story that would surpass what most games had to offer. (This was the mid-1990s and thus the height of the “mascot era,” where cartoony character-based platformers such as Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, and Sonic the Hedgehog reigned supreme, heavy on fun but light on story.) Kojima’s narrative ambitions presented a personal challenge for him, but achieving a realistic military aesthetic meant the whole team needed to employ real-life SWAT teams and weapons experts to train them on the appearance, purpose, and proper use of military vehicles, weapons, and explosives. These efforts came together in 1998 with the release of Metal Gear Solid, which took its name from the jump from 2D to 3D.

You play as Solid Snake (David Hayter), a grizzled field operative who is sent by his commanding officer Roy Campbell (Paul Eiding) into the Shadow Moses complex in Alaska in order to rescue two government officials being held hostage by FOXHOUND, a splinter cell of Snake’s original covert ops unit. Led by Liquid (Cam Clarke), the FOXHOUND team has taken control of a weapon code-named “Metal Gear Rex” – a bipedal tank capable of launching nuclear devices from anywhere in the world. Supported by a team of specialists who offer tactical advice and moral support via his inner-ear Codec transmission, Snake must infiltrate the compound, save the hostages, and stop FOXHOUND from unleashing Metal Gear. In 2018, Metal Gear Solid is celebrating its twentieth birthday, and its age is absolutely starting to show: by today’s standards, it has clunky controls, restrictive movement, awful hit detection, rock-dumb AI behaviour, and muddy graphics. The game is designed to be challenging, but these outmoded mechanics turned out to be the biggest hurdle I had to overcome (the final boss fight in particular inspired snap-my-controller-in-half levels of frustration with its wonky implementation and merciless enemy behaviour). But to focus on these shortcomings is to ignore not only the things that the game does extremely well, but also the ways in which it was incredibly innovative and unique for its time.

Snake (David Hayter) faces down Metal Gear Rex.

As the progenitor of the 3D stealth-action genre, Metal Gear Solid established mechanics and elements of gameplay that would become accepted genre conventions in many forms of game design to follow. The game is mostly played from a top-down perspective, but when you press Snake up against a wall, he will take cover there, and the camera will swoop down to his front, allowing you to see better down corridors and creating a sense of dramatic tension. (You can also hold a button to enter a first person viewpoint, which is helpful in locating secret areas and identifying threats that you wouldn’t normally notice.) Camera systems were one of the most daunting stumbling blocks for early 3D games, as the current “3 Cs” paradigm had yet to be developed, and designers had to invent – from whole cloth – intuitive and comfortable ways to view and control your character in a 3D space. One of Metal Gear Solid’s most significant achievements is this unique camera system, which is still effective today. Since the game’s focus is on stealth infiltration, its second most notable innovation is the “Soliton” radar system, represented by a rudimentary mini-map on the top right of the screen that displays enemy locations. To avoid being detected, you must use the radar to track the “vision cones” of enemies and stay out of their lines of sight. When you’re detected, the radar becomes jammed and inaccessible until you can shake your pursuers. Despite the now-primitive AI (which makes enemies easy to fool and avoid, and sometimes exploitable with cheap tactics), this still makes for tense and tactical gameplay, often necessitating several retries of an area until you’ve got a proper plan of attack and can ghost in and out without ever being noticed.

In addition, the game is stuffed with secrets, tidbits, and small pieces of intuitive design that enhance the experience. More often that not, there are multiple solutions to any given puzzle, and the game guides you towards them in a way that makes you feel like you’re really the man on the ground, figuring it out as you go. In one section there is a secret area that’s easy to miss, containing extra healing items and ammo, and a strange medical item called Diazepam. When I opened the item menu to inspect it, the description told me that it was a muscle relaxant designed to stop involuntary spasms. Unable to determine how that would be helpful to me, I continued on my merry way, only to be confronted in the next area with the merciless FOXHOUND assassin named Sniper Wolf, who can only be defeated by finding a sniper rifle and beating her at her own game. When I went to use the rifle, the crosshair wobbled furiously as Snake’s nerves (and the frigid Alaskan temperature) got the better of him – which instantly contextualized the Diazepam, and made the fight significantly easier once I popped a couple of them. Metal Gear Solid is full of this kind of ingenious design, which not only rewards you for being smart and curious and proactive, but also goes a long way towards immersing you in the game’s story.

Fully-featured in-game cutscenes and voice acting are commonplace now, but were rare (and extremely expensive) when Metal Gear Solid was released, and Kojima took full advantage of the opportunity to set the bar as high as possible for storytelling in games. What appears on the surface to be an anime-styled spy potboiler in the vein of a traditional Tom Clancy yarn quickly and confidently transcends its genre, with commentary on love, death, legacy, philosophy, metaphysics, consciousness, and purpose. The morbid fascination with nuclear technology and the anxiety about its proliferation (especially in the shadow conflicts following the Cold War) that are typical of Japanese fiction after World War II are certainly present here, but they’re only a springboard that Kojima uses to get to the stuff he’s really interested in. Solid Snake, the calm and capable infiltrator and saboteur, is jaded by years of spycraft and war. This gives him an effortless brooding cool (helped by his penchant for cigarettes and his gravelly voice), but also lays the groundwork for Kojima’s explorations of battlefield trauma, government-sponsored atrocities, and personal responsibility and duty in the face of a morally murky conflict. Snake hides a deep well of denial and pain behind his gruff exterior, which is echoed and enhanced by his twin brother, Liquid, who is starkly vocal about his own painful reality as a genetically inferior reject. Liquid lives in the continuum of antagonists who represent dark reflections of the protagonists, challenging their preconceived notions about who they are and what their purpose is. Almost ten years before the Assassin’s Creed series would establish a fiction around the idea of genetic memory, Kojima was using the supporting character Naomi to express this existential conflict; she dedicates her life to discovering whether or not a person’s true self is determined by their DNA, and convinces Snake that his past – his bloodline, his genesis, and the legacy he represents – does not define him, and that he is free to choose his own way to live.

A typical Codec conversation.

He makes this choice at the end of the game based not on the pain of his past, but on the promise of love in his future. His love is for Meryl, the niece of his commanding officer, who is infatuated as much with the legend of Solid Snake as with the man himself. Snake doesn’t acknowledge his feelings for Meryl in return until Otacon (aka Dr. Hal Emmerich, the designer of Metal Gear, played by Christopher Randolph), haunted by his own misguided infatuation with Sniper Wolf (who is killed by the player’s hand in a late-game encounter), corners him and asks if he believes love can bloom even on a battlefield. Fondly remembered by fans as one of the cheesier lines of dialogue in the game, it nonetheless expresses one of the more emotionally resonant themes of the story, guiding Snake to the realization that closing himself off from fear and personal investment in order to be an effective spy is also crippling his ability to heal and grow (a realization James Bond seemingly wasn’t able to arrive at in a convincing way until his twenty-first film). Jetting away from Shadow Moses Island on a skidoo, Snake makes the first choice in his life that isn’t dictated by duty, but rather by a desire to be a whole and healthy person.

Despite its uplifting ending, Metal Gear Solid isn’t without its tragedy. The game’s FOXHOUND bosses, flamboyant though they are, aren’t just treated as evil archetypes. When defeated, they all offer deathbed monologues that contextualize their quirky personalities and affirm their motivations: Psycho Mantis is trapped in a cycle of violation and self-hatred born of a traumatic past (which he compares to Snake’s); Sniper Wolf is bound by a sense of patriotic duty that supersedes her own desires; Vulcan Raven is disconnected from the living world by years of shamanic hallucination. The mysterious cyborg ninja Gray Fox – revealed to be an old comrade of Snake’s, long thought dead, and one of the only people he’s comfortable calling friend – is so far removed from the person he used to be that he hunts Snake down, hoping his former friend can end his own suffering. When you fight him, he barely attacks you (though he could easily slice Snake in half in a single blow), begging you to hurt him so that he can feel something, anything, again. His death at Liquid’s hands – crushed under Metal Gear Rex’s giant mechanical foot in an attempt to help Snake defeat Liquid – is, for him, a sweet release, and it haunts Snake for the remainder of the series. All these characters, whether enemy or friend, share a desire for death that injects their outsized personalities with a dark and tragic subtext.

These heavy themes are balanced along the way with goofy humour (including frequent double entendres and sexual punnery between Snake and his support team, and a recurring joke character named Johnny Sasaki, known for his toilet troubles, who’s introduced ignominiously here). Kojima delights as much in undercutting the seriousness of his own narrative as in setting it up, achieving a balance between pathos and levity that’s rarely seen in games today. Moreover, Kojima treats his own source material with respect, faithfully continuing and expanding upon the original NES-era storyline (which barely anyone played, especially on this side of the Pacific), making Metal Gear Solid a part of a larger story that’s still accessible as a starting point for new players. Its detailed, memorable, three-dimensional characters would endure beyond its sequels into the gaming lexicon at large, inspiring countless imitations and homages. The elements that would become inevitable inclusions in future MGS titles (an example of the “it’s not Metal Gear unless it has X” attitude that drives the masturbatory nostalgia of modern gaming franchises) were all established here, making it a watershed title that influenced not only its own series but the industry as a whole. My own company’s Splinter Cell series would never have existed without MGS, after all, and replaying this title on its 20th birthday, it’s easy to understand why.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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