As I continue with Long September, my novel, and continue to await word from my employment of whether the fiscal cliff we have found ourselves plunging over will mean I won’t be paid until we un-plunge ourselves, I blow off steam by playing old video games and listening to the Wu Tang Clan. Last night’s success was the defeat of a truly ancient foe of mine: Metal Gear Solid. As in 1, as in ©1998 by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan for the PlayStation. Yes, I am OG (original genome).
Whenever I boot up a truly old game, something of the original experience is lost, and I don’t just mean because I’m playing it on a backwards-compatible PlayStation 2 hooked up to a high-def television that doesn’t give any fucks about its aspect ratio and anti-aliasing. This time, what was lost was any sense of awe I had about the story. Come with me on this sad journey as I talk about how a tale that once held me enraptured has become something I mash the “X” button to skip.
If you haven’t played any of the Metal Gear games, you mostly just need to know that in them, you assume the role of a military operative named Solid Snake who usually needs to accomplish a mission to save the world, usually by beating the shit out of a giant robot named Metal Gear. Other games in the series offer twists on that central premise, but it remains the same. Snake good, Metal Gear bad, and the only way to set things aright is by sneaking past an army of gun-toting assholes who will kill you on sight so that you can eventually stand toe-to-toe with the giant robot.
At right about 1:45 in the above video, you’ll see Liquid Snake, the chief antagonist of Metal Gear Solid, spout the line that I use as the title of this piece. Liquid is, you guessed it, Solid Snake’s cloned twin brother. You see two things right away, just from that short snippet of the video and the previous sentence:
- This game is fucking bananas.
- This game is so unironically and genuinely dedicated to how fucking bananas it is that it’s actually kind of charming, like a street preacher you pass each and every day on the way to work who gets to know you.
The short version of Liquid’s goals as the bad guy are simply that he wants to screw the world up and give alpha predators like himself and Solid Snake the run of the place, as opposed to “liars and hypocrites” who now run the world. While there are all sorts of reasons this is wrongheaded and nihilistic, you can at least accept Liquid’s premise: Less suing people, more punching people. But this is only revealed at the end of the game, after countless twists and turns, including, in no particular order:
- Liquid’s lieutenant, who is a Russian who dresses like a 19th Century Wild West dandy and wields an antique Colt, is actually a double agent.
- A digitally programmed virus singles out individual people for assassination. Snake is the carrier, and his handlers have lied to him.
- Not one, but two members of Snake’s team are traitors.
- In direct contradiction to the first two “Metal Gear” games (before they added the “Solid” part of the title), Snake mentions that the main bad guy of those games, his commanding officer Big Boss, was in actuality his own father. This was never mentioned anywhere in the originals, but nobody in North America cares, because those games still haven’t seen a true wide release here.
- Separately, it is revealed Snake and Liquid are clones of Big Boss. Their genetic code is identical, despite Liquid having different hair and a radically different voice than Snake.
- Oh wait, Liquid “got all of the recessive genes” and Snake got “all of the dominant genes.” Sure.
- One of the bosses, Decoy Octopus, dies without you ever fighting him.
- Every detail about the death and resurrection of Snake’s friend and rival Gray Fox (who now stalks him as a reanimated corpse fitted with a cybernetic ninja exoskeleton) is separately revealed to be some degree of a lie or half-truth over the course of the game.
There is so much going on in this game that explaining it to any sane person is an exercise in futility. When I first picked it up in 2000 or 2001, it was already a runaway hit and one of the top reasons to own a PlayStation. The voice acting was flawless and emotional. The graphics, while muddy compared to the Nintendo 64 (my personal jam), had an undeniable character to them. Shadow Moses Island, the setting of the game, was stark and foreboding. The hallways cast off lonely echoes, the wailing vocals of the music gave the player a haunted, tense feeling. The game featured a great deal of backtracking. Right up until the end it is within the player’s power to go anywhere he’s already been to pick up a hidden special item or try to scrounge up health and ammunition, and this gave the game a holistic feeling. You really felt as if this hostile territory was a place you were getting to know, and that it was adapting itself to try to purge you from it as a body’s T-cells try to kick out an infection.
All of these things came together to make it an unforgettable experience in game play, and the story, such as it is, was part of that. Each new character was fully voiced and had deeper motivations and secrets. Each plot point landed with the strength of a gut punch: That female soldier is really the Colonel’s niece! The DARPA Chief was an impostor! Metal Gear fires a new stealth nuclear warhead!
But go back to that video up there and skip ahead to about 11:45. Yes, the real bad guy was the freaking Secretary of Defense the entire time, mwahahahaha!
Now seriously. Who the fuck is the Secretary of Defense? This is the only time in the entire game you see him. Ever. His betrayal holds precisely zero dramatic weight, especially after we’ve systematically been shown that almost everybody on Snake’s team is some degree of a traitor.
Back in the Clinton years, this was a pretty good sell. Now, a lifetime later, as my hair becomes streaked through with signs of FoxDie, I found myself sighing and shaking my head during most of it. The characters in Metal Gear Solid are well-drawn, but they’re also nuts. Snake, a hardened professional killer and avowed patricide, falls in love with a girl who I think might be 18 years old after he’s hung out with her for maybe an hour. Otacon, the long-time punching bag of the series, has a breakdown over the death of a woman who conquered his base, imprisoned him, and treated him like garbage from the brief interaction we see between them.
Creating a one-huge-level-that-is-the-entire-game situation simply doesn’t mesh with soap opera-type personal revelations. MGS can be beaten in one brisk sitting, if you’re a vet who skips the cutscenes. Love can probably bloom on a battlefield, but it needs a little more time. More interestingly, a sprawling game like Metal Gear Solid 4 is much more suited to some characters having more development, since it takes place in five or six different areas, with indeterminate periods of time between them. Yeah, that period of time might be 36 hours, but we don’t know or care. Those blanks in between the game’s acts actually serve a narrative purpose: Letting us accept that time has passed and things we haven’t seen have happened.
I was inspired to write truly awful stuff as a teen, and I really think it comes back to games like MGS and of course, Final Fantasy VII, which suffers from some of the same structural problems. Video games grew out of a spirit of anything goes. Mario, the undisputed champion of all video game mascots, makes no fucking sense. I certainly don’t want to see any more efforts to turn him serious, thank you. The problem is not that game stories like Metal Gear’s are ridiculous, but that they’re the best the medium has.
To bring it back around to a game everybody has repeatedly marked as among the very best in terms of story, let’s point to another game I recently replayed, Bioshock Infinite. There’s quantum entanglement, alternate realities, time travel, complicated political philosophy, and depictions of racism so accurately rooted in the game’s time period that they induce cringes. As with MGS, Infinite features unimpeachable voice casting and unique art direction.
It also struggles to make sense. You get the impression that entire gameplay concepts were cut out so the thing could ship on time. Much of the background story is told through scattered audio diaries that make no sense in the context of the game, and the central mechanic of blasting people with magic (“vigors,” if you must) is never explained satisfactorily. I actually noticed that I’m missing something like 30 audio diaries. Thirty?! Where the fucking shit is that game hiding 30 more of the damn things? I know Columbia better than I know my own hometown at this point.
The sad truth remains that a game with a “good” story, even nearly 20 years after Metal Gear Solid, often just means a game with “any” story at all. Just because a machine is large and complex doesn’t mean it’s any more effective. My friends and I constantly belted out the most ludicrous lines from Metal Gear Solid because they are fucking epic and fucking fun to say, and that’s why the game still holds a special place in my heart, even after all these years and the countless ergonomic advances that have made it so outdated.
But another favorite mainstay of our quoting was Altered Beast, a game featuring literally one sentence of backstory after you boot it up. Games can be more than “RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE!” but damn, can you deny how effective that was?
So what would you have done then?
Okay, fair question. I think the main deficiency about Metal Gear Solid is that it focuses so damn much on Snake and the other bit players he encounters and not nearly enough on Liquid. Liquid is awesome. He is ready to spout bombastic dialogue, perfectly willing to throw aside huge vehicles and engage you in a shirtless fistfight if it means he can have his revenge. We get a few choice scenes with him, but we’re never truly made to understand how he became the way he did and what he truly wants. The motivations behind his uprising are always vague.
Instead of yammering for twelve hours about nuclear proliferation and Gulf War conspiracy theories, maybe Metal Gear Solid could’ve more closely examined why Liquid Snake is ready to send the world over the brink and into a nuclear age where mass destruction comes with zero consequences. We could hear it from more soldiers as we spy on them, or perhaps have Liquid taunting Snake over the PA whenever he defeats another boss or achieves another milestone. Maybe Otacon and the Colonel discover more stuff about him and relay the info to Snake at times when it would give the plot a shot in the arm.
I know it would rob us of more Meryl, but…