Metal Gear Solid: Euthanasia by stealth

[Reposted | Originally published June 2008]

Metal Gear Solid will, if nothing else, go down in history as gaming’s most noble mercy-killing. Its victim — or beneficiary, if you prefer — was the last feeble remnant of that misbegotten spawn of the CD-ROM age, the Siliwood genre.

The advent of the CD era of gaming brought gamers many years of heartache with little real benefit. Cheap media meant fat profits for publishers, but the savings weren’t reflected in the cost of games… and the systems that were capable of running CDs were many times more expensive than cart-based consoles. (Well, those cart-based consoles not manufactured by SNK, anyway.) For their expensive investments, consumers were given a picture-window view of utter creative bankruptcy.

The simple fact is that the 16-bit games that ruled when CD-ROMs made their debut were built of bitmap sprites and, in a few very rare cases, a tiny number of flat-shaded polygons. They didn’tneed CD-ROMs to store their game data. Sure, the availability of more space meant less concern about cramming text data in there, and it meant slightly more elaborate backgrounds. But the difference between Nintendo’s basic first-gen 16-bit game, Super Mario World, and its impressively detailed and sophisticated 16-bit swansong, Yoshi’s Island, was all of 1500KB. Even with its vivid hand-drawn graphics, the latter title fit into a space a mere 2MB in size… and the same was true for just about every other 16-bit game, too.

And so a CD-ROM title’s extra 638MB of storage space was usually given over to terrible voice acting and offensively lousy full-motion video. We should have seen it coming with Dragon’s Lair: Most developers had no idea what to do with all that storage space and thus squandered their freedom by indulging their deep-seated longing to direct in Hollywood. Gameplay atrophied away to nearly nothing in many cases. It was a terrible time to like games. Because that’s what gamers wanted, after all: Games. But instead they were given the terrible spectacle of frustrated Hollywood wannabes directing Z-grade nobodies, badly, through poorly-written blue screen sequences. Oh, and sometimes they were allowed to press a button or something. This convergence of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Siliwood, was touted as the future of gaming in some circles, which left many gamers wondering if they wanted to bother sticking around to see the medium’s future come to its grim fruition.

By 1998, fortunately, Siliwood was on the outs. For one, Resident Evil had demonstrated that you could put an actual game around all that awful public access-quality full-motion video and guy-off-the-street voice acting and come up with something far more entertaining than occasionally being prompted for directional inputs when the video paused. And the jump to 3D meant suddenly games demanded a whole lot more storage space for actual data than they did when everything was built of tiny low-resolution bitmaps — those extra 638MB finally had a real purpose. Plus, the media drives on PlayStation and Saturn were speedy enough that you could actually do something with CDs besides stream crappy videos.

Still, it wasn’t until Metal Gear Solid that a stake was driven firmly and finally through Siliwood’s shuddering chest until its withered limbs at last stopped flailing. Funny thing, too, because its creator — one Hideo Kojima — wasn’t that far removed from the Siliwood aspirants whose careers he buried. He, too, longed for nothing more than to direct movies. Still does, actually! He is a man with a story to tell, a story that basically amounts to a turgid Tom Clancy potboiler with some loopy fantasy elements tossed in to make sure it isn’t too believable. And to tell that story, he frequently and unapologetically wrests control of the experience away from the gamer to ensure his on-screen avatars can properly tell their tale and preach Kojima’s bully sermons. And thus was born the Metal Gear formula.

But even then, one thing set Kojima apart from his Siliwood peers: He got his start as a game designer, and no matter how hard he tried to be a movie maker he couldn’t shake his sense of duty to interactivity, or deny his heritage of quality gameplay.

MGS featured more than an hour and a half of cutscenes and compulsory spoken dialogue, putting it right on par with the average Siliwood boondoggle. But FMV was nowhere to be found outside of a few spliced-in bits of stock footage used to depict some of the plot’s real-world historical backstory. Instead, gamers were treated to action that played out in the game’s 3D engine using the same models and environments that they played with, and through. No prerendered nonsense, no fakery, just a smooth transition from action to narrative and back again. Players would lead the hero, Solid Snake, to set locations; the game would go on auto as the camera angles changed to reveal a piece of story; then players would be given control again in the exact same spot where Snake had stood at the cutscene’s end. Characters were introduced via subtitles, along with their voice actors — an unprecedented tip of the hat to talent previously ignored in games. (Outside of significant luminaries named Dana, of course, such as Dana Plato and Dana Gould.) The holy grail of “interactive movie” that developers had been seeking since before Prince of Persia was very nearly realized here. Sure, the “interaction” and the “movie” elements were still oil and water, separated out, but they enjoyed a visual consistency never before seen in a game.

And despite the lack of live footage, MGS‘s cinema sequences were considerably more immersive than anything Siliwood had ever crapped out. Correction: because of the lack of live footage. All those FMV games had marked gaming’s first exploratory steps into the Uncanny Valley, that awkward divide between reality and almost-real-but-not-quite simulation. In FMV trash like Rebel Strike, players saw real actors on screen, but then those actors would freeze, waiting mechanically for player input, hunching and mugging for the camera like deranged Igors with an insatiable hunger for scenery. Meanwhile, in modern games (like, say, the fourth chapter of Metal Gear Solid), we see very nearly life-like computer-rendered models behaving in ways that seem very nearly realistic, and they’re all the less convincing for coming so close to reality.

MGS suffered no such flaw; its characters were blocky and abstract, lacking facial features. They were hand-animated rather than motion-captured, lacking the smooth and slightly unnerving “man in a theme park suit” look of contemporary mo-capped games. The screen resolution was low, the polygons shaky, the textures jumpy. It was a far enough away from real life not to be distracting; yet it was exquisitely, internally consistent. Ultimately, the net effect was an experience that played out like a detailed, 3D cartoon.

MGS was more than just a cartoon, though — it was a video game first and foremost. The 90 minutes of talky bits were, at most, one-sixth of a player’s first run through the game. The other seven or eight hours were culled directly from Kojima’s last Metal Gear release, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, fleshed out into Lego-based 3D and packed with intense setpieces and unnecessary (but fun) details.

The gameplay was never compromised for effect. Kojima eschewed the dynamic camera angles of something like Resident Evil or Final Fantasy VII in favor of a fixed overhead perspective. This point of view was borne of necessity rather than laziness; the PlayStation would have been incapable of rendering 3D environments from a modern over-the-shoulder perspective while maintaining the visual quality and consistency the MGS team sought. Thus the best way to ensure a minimally-frustrating experience was to retain the overhead perspective of previous Metal Gear titles. It worked with polygons just as well as with sprites; and while it wasn’t perfect, but it was an acceptable compromise — a compromise that ensured the game was playable first, cinematic second.

For Metal Gear veterans, playing MGS was like putting on a well-worn shoe that had happily emerged from the forgotten depths of disused closet. Most gamers hadn’t touched or thought about the series in nearly a decade — the gap between MG2 and MGS was eight years, and even longer for American gamers who never been allowed to experience the sequel. But there was Snake, slipping around guards in a tank hangar, avoiding conflict and maintaining cover as he ducked toward the elevator. There was a tank battle. There was a minefield. There was a boss battle that required effective use of a guided missile. And all seen from a comfortable, familiar perspective.

Equally familiar was the Codec, Snake’s two-way radio transceiver. In terms of gameplay, it served as a sort of halfway compromise between plain text and cinematic cutscene, a means by which dense portions of information could be relayed without the need to animate character models and find interesting camera angles. In terms of series continuity, though, it served as another familiar touchstone; in the older games, Snake’s transceiver had provided the bulk of narrative in the form of radio messages. MGS‘s served more as a source of background detail, a talking story Bible of sorts, as well as the medium for a flurry of late-game plot twists involving Snake’s remote mission support team that simply couldn’t have played out in cutscenes (since everyone involved was 100 miles away).

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Codec was a means for Kojima to break the fourth wall and provide information for the player. It was one of those “don’t think too hard about it” type of game elements, from the ground up. Supposedly, the Codec was implanted in Snake’s skull to directly stimulate the bones of his ear, but for some reason its interface showed portraits of Snake and whomever he was talking to. Activating the Codec caused time to freeze, even in the midst of a boss battle, so that Snake’s support team could tell him to use the “action button” or offer similarly improbable advice.

Which isn’t to say the Codec was the only place where game turned its back on suspension of disbelief. Kojima clearly took as much pleasure in blurring the boundary between game and gamer as he did in melding gameplay and narrative. Toward the middle of the game, Snake (and the player) were thrust into a torture sequence where survival involved sheer button-mashing. Not only did one of Snake’s radio advisors recommend he save the game beforehand, the torturer went on to warn Snake (but really the player) that there were no continues at this point, and that using cheat devices would have unfortunate consequences. (Later, Naomi Hunter would give the player, via Snake, a wrist massage via force feedback to soothe their button-mashed-out thumbs.) And then, of course, there was the famous Psycho Mantis encounter, in which the camera switched to a first-person perspective and the villain gazed directly at the gamer via Snake’s point-of-view to play various “psychic” tricks with memory cards, controller ports and the system’s newfangled (at the time) rumble technology.

Gimmicky? As all hell. But memorable.

Besides, for every cheesy gimmick MGS employed, it did something genuinely innovative. No one really had any idea what to do with force feedback in 1998 besides make your controller shake when you exploded, but MGS used it to heighten dramatic tension. Early in the game, Snake witnessed the man he had come to rescue die of a heart attack, and the pulse of the Dual Shock controller built in time with the throbbing heartbeat sound effects and the shuddering visuals on the television — a sort of immersion never before witnessed in a video game.

Likewise, while the PlayStation wasn’t up to rendering the game’s large, detailed environments from a Snake’s-eye view all the time, the developers did more with the 3D nature of the game than simply make fancy movie sequences. Players could shift freely between the set top-down perspective and a lower in media res viewpoint at will for tactical purposes. Snake became all but immobile when the camera angle dropped, but the 3D viewpoint had its benefits. A pair of binoculars allowed zooming across great distances; sniper rifles and rocket launchers offered very precise targeting at the expense of evasion; sneaking into tight areas such as ducts and narrow gaps beneath tanks allowed players to track nearby dangers from Snake’s perspective rather than via radar.

Strangely enough, though, arguably the most innovative thing MGS did was not get carried away with gameplay innovation. At its heart, it played an awful lot like an eight-year-old game, lifting not only its controls from Metal Gear 2 but quite a few of its setpieces and environments as well. Nearly four years after the PlayStation’s Japanese debut, it’s safe to assume that Kojima and crew had watched quite a few major franchises leap feet-first into the 3D era and stumble painfully, often fatally. So they took a more measured approach, converting gameplay they knew would work into polygons and limiting the player’s need to wrestle with an extra dimension of space. Later chapters of the series would slowly unlock that third axis, but MGS offered gameplay whose main benefit was that it worked.

The fact that it not only worked but blended seamlessly with the narrative portions of the game was the real revelation, of course. For all that people complain about how the Metal Gear Solid games are just too damn chatty, it’s worth considering the grim and terrible world into which KCET birthed this PlayStation classic. MGS could have been so much worse — but it wasn’t, and it marked the end of gaming’s darkest hour as developers saw its seamless design and realized the real magic was within them all along, not in that crummy FMV stuff.

So yeah, Kojima, you want to lecture us about how terrible nukes are? Go right ahead, man. You’ve earned it.

One thought on “Metal Gear Solid: Euthanasia by stealth

  1. Never got around to playing it (or any of the series) but I’ve certainly seen the fruits of its legacy.

    I like the occasional game-messes-with-the-interface stuff. The bit in Arkham Asylum where you get dosed with Scarecrow gas and then get a fake Game Over screen advising you to use the middle stick is delightful.

Comments are closed.