For a few years now, I’ve approached most game releases in a state of cautious optimism, hoping that the game delivers a fine experience, but trying to keep expectations neutral. Ever since I realized, much to my chagrin, that Twilight Princess, the “official sequel” to Ocarina of Time, was lifeless and boring, and the cartoony “The Wind Waker” was the more delightful game, I’ve been wary to show any kind of franchise loyalty. It’s put me in an odd position as a game player: I’ve become contemptuous of nostalgia. I turn up a nose at games like Smash Bros Brawl and Soul Calibur, sickened by the way those franchises hide behind classic gaming memories and childhood rather than actually innovating and changing their gameplay. I worry that the fanatical franchise loyalty is going to hold the industry back, cashing in on wistful players who remember that everything in the world was a whole lot nicer when there’s a SNES in front of the TV.
But, as much as I’d like to hold on to my stoic reproach of franchise allegiance, I realize that I‘m a big hypocrite. I know it because, over the past 6 months, I had been unable to play MGS4. And it was KILLING me.
I love Metal Gear Solid, but my love for the series is bizarre, almost fragmentary. I have no particular love for the stealth action gameplay, especially from the PS2 games, which put too much control emphasis on the Dual Shock’s bizarre sensitivity settings for effective stealth and combat. I enjoyed the game’s ludicrous cut scenes, but I could stand from a distance and acknowledge that the series wasn’t well written, driving the same points into the heads of the player over and over again, at times overpowering the gameplay.
No, my love of the MGS franchise stems from the moments when, out of nowhere, Hideo Kojima takes the plot and characters he’s spent 20+ hours developing in cinematic, and uses them to make an actual point about the nature of game design. While so many games were focused on entertainment, MGS had moments that were entirely self-reflective, not in terms of character development, but on the nature of the relationship between player and designer.
People love to talk about Bioshock’s sublime “twist”, but fewer people will tell you that Metal Gear Solid 2 had the EXACT same revelation six years earlier. One could easily make the argument that the “twist” is better executed in Bioshock (it’s less long winded, more elegant) but Metal Gear Solid 2’s version of the “twist” was more insane, more shocking, and, as a young gamer, more frightening. Watching those last 4 hours of cutscenes and codec exposition in MGS2 rank among my most exciting and horrifying moments in video games; to realize that one has absolutely zero impact on the progression of a game, and that one can be so easily manipulated by(to use the word from the game) “context”…..it literally changed every expectation I had of the game medium.
So…..yeah. I really like Metal Gear Solid, because I’m happy to put up with the bullshit in order to try and find what Hideo Kojima is going to say. The convoluted back story of the games was neat, but it was the way Hideo Kojima would lead the player by the nose that has always interested me the most. No other game designer is as willing to give their fanbase a middle finger and make the game THEY want to make.
As you can imagine, I was STOKED to get my hands on a PS3 just a few weeks ago. I couldn’t wait to see what Kojima had in store. I managed to stay “relatively” spoiler free over those arduous 6 months, so I was ready to leave my principles by the wayside and embrace my ridiculous love for the series.
It’s been about 2 weeks since I actually completed Metal Gear Solid 4, and when I say completed, I mean all the way completed: I collected almost all of the games secret items, purchased all the Drebin guns, seen the game’s wackier gags…..I’ve done just about everything (except play the game through Big Boss hard. Hard games are Hard!).
I’ve beaten the game. I’ve seen everything.
And I feel conflicted. I’m more confused than I’ve ever been after completing an MGS game.
It’s not a kind of logistical confusion. I certainly understand what’s going on(as most people should. I understood most of what was going on while Kojima still insisted on hammering the major plot points and information into my mind….that dude needs an editor). I wasn’t confused by the usual assortment of wacky cut scenes, enemies and bosses. And(note: this is the part where you can be SURE that I’m a straight out lunatic) I know that I like the game. I like the game! I like playing the game. I like the (admittedly less than stellar but still great) boss fights. I like the cutscenes. I like those individual moments where gameplay and cinematic merge together. I like all that! I would recommend the game to other people. More so than the past MGS games, MGS4 has the fewest barriers to entry for normal players to enjoy the game, and that is absolutely to be commended.
I like MGS4. I like it quite a lot.
I don’t love it.
And I’ve spent days trying to find out why I don’t love it.
I feel like I should. I feel like I should be singing the game’s praises from the mountain tops. I want to feel like I should stop people in the street and say, “Sir/Madam, I don’t know if you heard, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is out, and playing it could be the most important thing you do this week”. Certainly the sentiment from many people, including the editors on this site.
But, I don’t love it. I really like it.
And I think that the reason I don’t love it…..is my own damn fault.
Note how, over the course of this ridiculous blog entry, I’ve made frequent mention of Hideo Kojima, and past Metal Gear Solid games. I have made NO mention of Solid Snake. No mention of Ocelot or Liquid or Otacon or Raiden or any of the numerous wacky characters that appear in the Metal Gear Solid Series. Ultimately( and this is where I start making enemies) I don’t really CARE about any of the characters.
Sure, I like Snake, as a protagonist. I like the bizarre bosses that have defined the franchise….but I don’t love them. I don’t froth at the prospect of a Psycho Mantis cameo, and my heart doesn’t jump when Big Boss decides to join the list of characters who are tied down neither by death no plot. The character I really like from MGS…..is Hideo Kojima.
I’ve always viewed the franchise as a means for Kojima to use the current game in the franchise to say something totally bewildering about the game in question and video games as a medium. I’ve always told myself that Kojima is the driving force behind the game’s lunacy, the real puppet master( a visual image that actually manifests in Metal Gear Solid 4). More so than just about any other game maker(and perhaps more so than any single Western Designer) Hideo Kojima is the real star of his game. He’s the medium’s version of Hitchcock, leaving his personal stamp and ideas over every frame of the product.
Yes, I admired Kojima more than any other “character” in the franchise. I wanted to see Kojima flex his usual creative muscle. And he certainly does over the course of the game. It’s just that….this time, his particular story isn’t as well served by the man’s powerful presence.
Metal Gear Solid 4 SHOULD be all about Solid Snake. More so than any other game he’s worked on, Metal Gear Solid 4 DEMANDS that Kojima should take a step back, allow Snake to exist, for once, not as an avatar of the player, nor as a message about games and the state of game design, but as a man.
Kojima doesn’t allow Snake to become transcendent. Instead, Kojima takes what could have been the single greatest, most important martyrdom in the history of video games…..and ruins it.
Here’s the bottom line, ladies and gents: Solid Snake should have died.
At the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, Solid Snake should have died.
After a goddamn LIFETIME of suffering, a whole game filled with physical and mental torment, Snake should have been allowed to do the one thing that game players have prevented him doing for ten years: To die, and stay dead.
If Snake had died inside the server room, this blog wouldn’t exist.
If Snake simply laid down after his climatic fight with Liquid, and closed his eyes, I would not be here, at 1500 words, trying to explain what I find so damn frustrating about the game.
Snake could have become transcendent. His bitter life could have been summed up by the most noble sacrifice in all of gaming.
But he didn’t.
Rather, he wasn’t allowed to.
Because, as we’ve discussed, Metal Gear Solid 4 is NOT Snake’s game. It’s Kojima’s game.
It never was Snake’s story. It has never been Snake’s story.
For the first time in the history of this series, the presence of Hideo Kojima has weakened the game’s emotional resonance.
And, really, I should have realized it sooner. Every step of this convoluted path, Hideo Kojima has kept Snake from ever becoming a “character” in the series. Snake almost never says how he feels, nor does he ever have a moment of genuine self reflection. There are flashes of it, moments that seem like they could evolve into genuine moments of self reflection. But Snake is never given that chance. He has, always, had two major oppositions to ever becoming a real person.
There are moments of self reflection throughout Metal Gear, but, it seems, all of those moments seem to come from other characters TELLING Snake how they feel. Snake is kept from those moments of genuine reflection, while Kojima’s doppelgangers circle that aged serpent, telling him the proper emotions. Snake, for all of his wonderful facial expressions(god, MGS 4 must have the best character models in all of gaming) spends most of his time expressing information everyone(player included) already knows, and repeating other character’s lines as questions. Snake has always done this, and it’s easy to just say that the repetition is just one of the series “little quirks”. In actuality, these constant questions (A surveillance camera? SOP? The Patriots?) are in the script simply to inform the player of important information. The dialog is done to inform the player, rather than….well, allowing Snake to speak.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is a debate between the player and the designer. There is no avenue to allow the series main character to actually develop. Yes, our protagonist is a victim of physical violence, but we almost never have any sense of what Snake is thinking…because Snake isn’t allowed to think without the player.
Snake, as a result, never felt to me like a real character. For all of his physical sacrifice, and for all of the player’s connection to his moments of unspeakable pain, we have no insight into the man that IS Solid Snake. In Kojima’s effort to keep Snake solely the method by which the player interacts with the game, I didn’t have any special connection to Snake or his efforts.
Clearly, I’m not only insane, but a moron to boot. I’ve disparaged the game for giving me an avenue to participate in the game’s events, and would rather spend more time hearing Snake TALK then actually play the game. Maybe I should have my game license revoked.
After playing Grand Theft Auto IV earlier this year, I found that I was MORE connected to Niko Bellic and his compatriots because they felt like actual people, betraying their psychological scarring even in normal conversation. Niko’s personal strife affected me because I WANTED him to escape his cycle of violence. Solid Snake is deliberately kept aloof from the player, perhaps to keep the player convinced that they ARE Solid Snake. All that distance did for me was…well, keep me distant from the man whose life was evaporating in front of my eyes.
In fact, I finished MGS4 not in tears but in anger, as Kojima quickly stole what could have been a sublime moment in gaming, and replaced with a happy ending so awkward and false that I can’t even refer to it as Deux Ex Machina. Perhaps Deux Ex Metal Gear is more appropriate for an ending that says “Hey, everything is gonna be alright. The world is a better place! Rosemary wasn’t REALLY married to the Colonel, and Raiden got his arms back. And even Snake is going to be okay! He’s going to live his life!”
The Metal Gear Solid series has been, ever since the first game, a meditation on one question; How does one control? Is Power the means by which the world obeys? Is Information the key to controlling the masses? Does History determine the chain of events that will lead humanity to the brink? Is it Will, even just the Will of one person, that can mold the earth? With each game, Kojima has looked at those forms of control, and has, throughout, tried to determine how the player can be molded and cajoled. Metal Gear Solid 2 perhaps laid out this idea better than any other game in the series, revealing to the player how they had played through the events of the original MGS all over again, and how “context” allowed the designer to mold the player into the engine necessary to complete the game. That’s the principal relationship in the franchise: Player and Designer. Hideo Kojima and you.
But, from the first shot of Old Snake in that E3 trailer so long ago, the entire arc of the final MGS seemed to position itself around Snake himself. His rapid deterioration, the latent Foxdie virus that made Snake a walking weapon; all of these elements throughout the story seemed poised to end Snake’s life in a profoundly sad way. It would the final sacrifice of the man who had been controlled and manipulated all his life. But Kojima needs Snake alive. He needs the player’s avatar to remain, if only to get one last, preposterous monologue from the most ridiculous cameo in the game. The player needs to witness Kojima’s last words, his own final meditation on the video game medium.
Kojima takes Snake’s final moment for himself.
It was a disgusting moment, giving Snake his “happy ending” in a way so false and so out of nowhere that it robbed his sacrifices of all significance.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is….I wish that MGS4 had more Snake and less Kojima. And I wish the game had met my original expectations for the product.
Clearly, I’m a tremendous liar, a hypocrite, and an overly wordy writer, as it took me 2500 words to say what I could sum up in 3 sentences.
So, I bet Kojima knows exactly where I'm coming from.