The next post will involve comics. But for now: more Metal Gear.

January 3, 2009 at 5:47 am (Video Games)

So I’ve Finished Metal Gear Solid 4 getting the Big Boss Medal (which involves beating the game under a set time limit without kills/deaths/alerts/healing items) and most of the game’s faults, its long and overconvoluted, overclimactic story fades away without the cut scenes. Instead of a climactic fifth act with a couple battles in between pockets full of plot, the fourth act acts as the most dramatic moment of the story, with three boss battles culminating in a giant mecha battle between an old, obsolete box of bolts and a fresh, new giant robot (!). It refers to a much faster paced plot than the one that actually exists, but this might not be a bad thing for the game’s thematic thrust.

Speaking of that final fight between mechas in particular, it really is the climax of the story’s central conflict. One cannot find a better encapsulation of strategy conflicting with and besting raw power than an old boss battle Snake has already had to destroy fighting a newer, more improved version, and if the game is to continue, then surely the technical prowess of the gamer has defeated the artificial, but mighty Metal Gear Ray.

The entire game can be seen as a progression up until that point, where the gamer starts out taking care of plenty of enemies with no trouble, the number of them much more daunting than facing one in single combat. Soon, the game progresses as the enemy must expend more valuable resources than cookie cutter soldiers at Snake, seen from the kinda sorta boss battle from act one, an invasion of more elite soldiers of which there is a limited number.

The game’s enemies have more to throw at Snake than better and better platoons, however, and the game’s final three moments are much more direct confrontations that deny Snake the ability to sneak. On Outer Haven, a batch of enemies constantly dropping from the ceiling must be dispatched, requiring speed much more than stealth. Then Screaming Mantis demands tactical knowledge to defeat the boss (if you don’t figure out to use a couple items or shoot the correct object, defeating the boss is impossible). As soon as the method of beating her becomes apparent, the battle has all but ended, and we move from an almost abstract moment where technique must win the day to the final battle with Liquid, a combat game requiring excellent reaction times and execution much more than tactical knowledge. Button mashing will result in a quick game over.

I must say this game does not seem nearly as profound an examination of these abilities when not played on the highest difficulties. The final battle with Liquid, for instance, does not require planning and good reaction times. It only demands perseverance, as do the rest of the game’s levels.

Some reviews I’ve read have lampooned the game for its terribly easy difficulty. What they neglect to mention is that playing the game on its highest difficulty increases its difficulty exponentially. While it’s true that in order to get to the final cut scene, any amount of deaths on both the enemy’s and player’s side can occur, a hallmark of good game design proffers multiple games to the enterprising player. You can run through Donkey Kong Country 2 in fast-paced platforming or collect every DK and Kremlin coin in meticulous adventure. Both the premiere and plebian games exist: Metal Gear Solid 4 accounts for both the quick beat ‘em up and the laborious stealth title with many hues in between. Not forcing the player to choose either path does not make the game flaccid and indecisive, but multi-layered and demanding of multiple playthroughs.

*wooh*… *wipes sweat from forehead*

I am done destroying a very real straw man that seeks to not enjoy a game that I enjoy (the straw man is a component of many mainstream video game reviews whose usage I’m finding quite cathartic. Faults are addressed as the personal player’s problem instead of a game’s objective problems.). It’s time to discuss the game’s construction of the soldier’s psyche and how this once again reflects the game’s meditation on obsolescence and newness, experience and ability, and to discuss the game’s story as given to us through cut scene instead of implied through combat.I’m going to switch purpose completely, and leave the game as a skill tester and approach it as a series of events to experience instead of a series of situations to resolve. As the series references the entire past before it, it reinforces with even greater focus (though not necessarily clarity) its past themes, and I just can’t talk enough about this labyrthine spy thriller too convoluted for its own good. Regardless: onto synopsis.

Snake is, and has always been, an old fashioned fighter compared to his enemies. In Metal Gear Solid he emerged from retirement ready to replay a game of the past, the original Metal Gear for the NES. The objective remained the same: infiltrate a base of terrorists and destroy their technological threat, in both cases a Metal Gear capable of nuclear destruction. He came to Shadow Moses to find that many things have changed since the original game (for one, a friendly operative is now a morally ambiguous cyborg ninja: and so time changes its many victims). The game’s impression of time passing has mostly been one of compromise, where a player on the good side becomes romantically attracted to an enemy (Otacon and Sniper Wolf), the villains employ psychological terror as well as physical; the main enemy was the protagonist’s twin brother. The game could not get more gray and hazy in what makes a certain side right or wrong, besides the fact that the video game player does as he’s told in the game, and it continues from battle to battle without a glaring introspective hitch.

The entire series up to its current iteration has been examining what exactly constitutes the correct, moral action. MGS2 showed that even those giving the orders do not have the public’s best interests in mind. The patriots secretly control society; the system produced Raiden to fight its battles, and the suppression of the terrorists was merely a power struggle between the Patriots and Solidus. He dutifully carries out his mission to kill the terrorist leader, and although the game’s cryptic plot tried its darnedest to confuse the issue by making the enemy artificial and systemic instead of a single, detestable character, the final battle with Solidus is meant to be a philanthropic misunderstanding between Raiden and the freedom fighter. The player does as their told, defeating the terrorist who had the audacity to see the holes in the world conspiracy and wish to destroy it.

Snake Eater expanded this conflict exponentially by thrusting an even more obvious compromise onto the game player: he must kill his mentor, Boss, in the interest of protecting the world from nuclear destruction. Also, not insignificantly, it introduced non-combat related elements into the story, forcing a player to find nutrition, subtly implying the passage of time in a game moving remarkably slowly regardless.

However the internal conflicts of these games, whether or not the main player does the right action, has not been easily communicable: the game is interactive in how much of the cut scenes one watches as well as how one proceeds through a level. If the talk of Sniper Wolf’s attraction bores the player (after all, it occurs in a static radio conversation), they don’t have to watch it. And suddenly, they are in battle and know what to do: defeat the enemy. It does not surprise that its cut scenes are largely ineffective; the game has the most slippery audience: those who enjoy playing a difficult game but don’t mind the action interrupted by lengthy cut scenes.

That it fails when firing on all of Kojima’s thematic synapses comes from its filmic faults, yes, but also the inherent emotion a player feels when they don’t have to do anything with a controller: relief. Honestly, I always feel relieved or bored when I’m walking In Metal Gear Solid 2 and the game does all the fighting for me, and neither of these actions are how I would feel if a movie had the same elements. There is little drama or tension in these scenes because Raiden or Snake will obviously emerge unscathed for me to play more of the game with, but there is definite tension when I’m combating a platoon of soldiers who will kill me if I make bad choices.

Regardless, the game still leaps forward in how video games can tell a story, and for its innovations should be appreciated. Kojima’s aims for a very specific moment in his games: tragic pathos. Maybe the main character of each is the tragic hero responsible for the downfall around him, instead of the savior of the community as Mario Kart’s well-attended trophy parties at the end of each grand prix would have its audience believe. Instead of congratulations and bronze greeting the player at the end of their hard work, however, Kojima gives us introspection and ambiguity. The first game ends with either Otacon or Meryl being saved (even worse, the game has you choose if you’re more than a little aware of its plot) along with the knowledge that Snake has accidentally killed someone’s brother (Naomi’s Frank Jaeger/the cyborg ninja) and his friend’s love interest (Otacon’s Sniper Wolf). It’s very rare for a video game to not have a happy ending. Why spend all of this time and energy to arrive at a completely tragic, depressing end? The answer is one Kojima and very few other game developers have been earnestly trying to answer.

Besides the convolutedly ambiguous (as opposed to clearly ambiguous) final boss battle of Metal Gear Solid 2 which I’ve already discussed, the final moment of Snake Eater adds even more pathos and introspection to the game player’s world. The final boss battle (indeed, the Boss herself) was a double agent spying on the Russians for the Americans, and Snake as the game player must be the one to press circle, to end her life in a field of white flowers. After the shot rings, the field turns red. Snake hurries away to avoid the self-destruction of the base, and the player wonders if they had any other choice besides pulling the trigger at the end. Even worse, the end of the game reveals her patriotism and loyalty in her defection from the United States to the Soviet Union. There are almost no moments in other video games anywhere near this complex, where duty conflicts with personal love and the tragic choice to murder a heroine remains the correct one. The game even drops its HUD in the final moment*.

*Not counting the red herring ending of Snake Eater, where you have to choose which Revolver to shoot Ocelot with. It’s an even better moment of developer presenting an interactive movie to the player, and a moment where there is genuine tension in an otherwise cinematic moment. Snake Eater is the best representation of Kojima’s tendency to interactive cinema, and it doesn’t feel overbloated or inconsequential, even if it ironically is in hindsight, the first time you have to choose which revolver to shoot Ocelot with is a great moment.

I’ve heard that GTA IV puts the decision into its player’s hand to kill people or not, and while some may view this as an ultimate expression of a theme, it still isn’t much better than Chrono Trigger’s multiple final endings, and that is a game about the ultimate finality of fate in spite of altering past decisions instead of because of them. The player is rewarded only with cut scenes, as I’ve read from one of Dick Hyacinth’s posts on the subject (he does his homework well), and to people more attuned to how a different gun affects gameplay instead of a different person affects cut scenes. Honestly, which sounds like the game with bigger changes in store? It fails at its ultimate goal, at makings its player make their decision.

As a series of games, Metal Gear Solid has never been about freedom of choice in his video games, but the finality of actions. I’d argue that the game is much more literate, novelist, whatever association one wants to make, it is fatalist in ways that most games are not, as much as about the consequences of actions as the joy of actually performing them virtually.

The new game is no exception; it is an excess. The bullets that one buys when recharging in the middle of battle come from a weapons dealer selling arms to anyone that’ll buy them. Your currency in the game comes from incapacitating enemies and taking their weapons, and just by interacting in the game, one propagates the system. I really wish this had long term consequences down the road, where his continued weapons would make a new enemy at the end for each person killed, or if the consequences of propagating an economy based on war arose in variable gameplay elements. It can’t help but seem a failure when all it does is remind the player how they should feel bad about what they’re doing while giving no chance at redemption, or at least purgatory.

If the game fails because it has no consequences from basing itself on the war economy, it succeeds in representing the other consequences of war. Other people have already mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Snake has a psyche and stress meter in the game, and by being engaged in the sun or generally more unfavorable conditions, his aim starts to worsen, he starts to move around with shaky joints. Snake’s emotions are a slave to the player’s actions. On the flip side, after the hundredth bullet fired or some large amount of combat, Snake experiences a combat high where his psyche doesn’t matter, he takes less damage.

Naturally, even here Kojima weaves another conflict between the old and new, experienced and technologically aided, here. All the enemies in the game have emotions controlled by nanomachines and don’t experience the lows that Snake does during the game. Their emotions and abilities are not slaves to their actions, but their personalities shift to better accommodate their situation. Instead of experiencing a combat high because they are involved in war, they are involved in war because they can be given a combat high. As such, Snake’s enemies are many, but a predictable multitude.

One of my favorite moments contrasting the difference (besides all the stealth parts of the game that just naturally favor and reinforce human adaptability over stodgy AI) is when the nanomachines go haywire into combat high mode for the enemy soldiers. They literally rise as zombies to attack Snake, and require a gratuitous amount of bullets to take down. Without intelligence they stumble around as zombies, with horrific might but pathetic speed. Their regularly fantastic AI falls by the wayside as they lurch forward at a moving car, forgetting all their tactics to demolish Snake.

Snake fights his enemies at a conceptual level instead of merely physical. He operates based on human intelligence (in this case, the player’s) instead of community, and here Kojima writes the constriction of artificial intelligence into the code of the game through design and concept as well as its filmic aspects. The palyer literally must come to understand a pattern and exploit its weak points when playing the game, even taking into consideration the psychological aspects of exploiting the pattern too quickly or in too much sun.

Just another facet of the game one reaches when enjoying it at an incredibly interpretative level, the extreme exegesis mode! (not necessarily better, because I haven’t come close to describing the visceral thrill of its battles and how these make the gamer even more complicit in its tragic compromise, but still, I didn’t post the best run-through on the Big Boss medal run, either).

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