A word of warning: While I've tried to steer clear of plot-related spoilers, we're talking about a game that's nearly ten years old. FYI, the Titanic sinks at the end.
One of the main criticisms of Metal Gear Solid and the franchise as a whole is that the use of cutscenes and dialogue sequences can be self-indulgent, if not downright excessive. When delivered by the acerbic wit of the internet, this complaint often manifests itself as, "I want to play a game, not watch a movie." My counter to that is, uh... Hmm. I guess don't have one. It's completely true. And while you do need a measure of patience in order to navigate all the chatty characters, surprise soliloquies and carefully choreographed action scenes, I don't believe any of it makes Metal Gear Solid any less of a game. Heck, the first ones to point this out are the characters themselves.
At the outset of Metal Gear Solid, you're tasked with infiltrating a nuclear weapons disposal facility (OR IS IT?) gripped by a frigid climate and a band of outlandish super villains. It's a one-man sneaking mission, and the "one man" is Snake, a soldier skilled at snapping unsuspecting necks and grinding mountains to dust with his vocal chords. Aiding him via radio transmission is a team of helpful specialists and a retired colonel who's really quite poor at filling you in on all the operational details.
Hey, I'd be hiding too if I didn't have A FACE.
Being the start of the game, however, he will dispense some helpful advice, such as which button to press in order to crawl. While plenty of games will bend over backwards to remove tutorial information from the context of the game's world, Metal Gear Solid's characters have no difficulty broaching the traditionally taboo topic of "buttons." Need to save your game? Call up Mei-Ling, a charming "data analyst" who saves your progress and dispenses a surprisingly relevant Chinese proverb at the same time. "Don't go chasing after too many items, Snake!" She may as well be talking directly to you.
The game's band of bizarre baddies -- "cartoon characters" by Snake's own admission -- also revel in reducing the fourth wall to a mound of shattered, two-way glass. Revolver Ocelot, named so for his Wild West flair and mastery of the firearm, wags his finger, warning you not to cheat. Don't even think about using auto-fire on your controller, because he'll know. More famous, perhaps, is the battle against Psycho Mantis, a telepathic creep who enjoys telling you what's on your mind, or rather, your memory card. He also commands you to put down your controller, only to move it across the floor with the power of his mind. You don't get that in movies or books!
With these sly nods to the player, Metal Gear Solid embraces its existence as a game, more so than many other titles. If the game itself can admit as much, then you shouldn't have trouble doing the same. True, it's not fully interactive all the time, but the game's slavish devotion to its characters and labyrinthine story only serves to make the gameplay more meaningful and memorable. Removed from the game's campy context (and make no mistake, there's a resounding failure of seriousness in MGS), you're just piloting a blob of polygons through a large box, with nary a care as to who dies and who gets betrayed. Similarly, taking control during crucial events -- sticking your hand through the fourth wall and meddling in another world , as it were -- makes every last plot twist that much more engaging.
Throughout the game, series mastermind Hideo Kojima gets away with a lot of narrative stunts, which simply wouldn't be accepted in most other mediums. A boss will suddenly burst into an expository flashback and explain his role in the game, or Snake will get roped into an earnest codec conversation at the least opportune of times (don't worry, the world stands still while he's yammering.) And let's not forget those moments when the game pulls out its anti-nuke message and beats you to a nodding pulp with it. It's a cheesy, unorthodox and downright odd way of delivering a narrative, but it works ... for the most part.
Even when it doesn't, I applaud the game for its stubborn refusal to shut up. It might not be representative of the medium in its purest form and you might not like having control wrestled away from you, but it's rare to find a game with such a strong voice. Ten years later, I still find that most other titles are a little too shy for my liking. Speak up, fellas!
Next week: I'll talk about the franchise's (GASP!) gameplay, with reference to Metal Gear Solid's craziest entry, Sons of Liberty. Be sure to check out GameTrailers' excellent Metal Gear retrospective in the meantime.
The B[ack]log chronicles Ludwig Kietzmann's fight against that seemingly insurmountable and entirely self-inflicted obstacle, the ever-sprawling backlog of games that are either unfinished, unplayed or unloved. Every week, Ludwig hopes to subtract at least one and ramble on about it for a few paragraphs ... if you don't mind.
If you do, let him know: