The War Epilogue is a series focussing on the Metal Gear Solid Series, from 1, through to 4, in release date order. I’ll analyze where the series used to be, all the way up to where it went, and the themes that lay behind the games. Metal Gear Solid, much like it’s creator, is a larger than life series with layers of complexities that flood the veins of gaming culture, even to this day. With the controversial final entry The Phantom Pain firmly lodged in my mind, I will journal my experiences with these groundbreaking, genre-defining titles having never played a single one. I’ve just finished with Metal Gear Solid, here are my final thoughts.
Boss design is easy to get wrong. It can either be a statistical challenge that requires the player to “top trumps” their way through by having more stats and health points than the boss or it can be a true battle of wits, as it is in Metal Gear Solid.
Great boss design is the ace in Kojima’s hand all throughout MGS. The game almost comes off looking like one long Boss Rush because there are whole sections of the game with nothing but back-to-back storytelling and boss encounters. However, this isn’t a problem because these fights aren’t just disappointingly ‘tough’ enemy encounters with a bigger health pool or higher stats. They’re real, humanised people here. Yes, they’re camp. Camp enough to be considered cartoon characters but they often subvert these larger than life characteristics. Not only does each boss have its own unique design, history and emotional motivation in the story but the fights themselves apply unique restrictions on Snake and require a healthy dose of trial, error and experimentation to beat. Boss fights in MGS are graceful, tough, unique and add meaning to Snake’s journey of betrayal and redemption. Not to mention there’s a topless fist fight atop a burning robot, which is incredible because it goes from being horribly cheesy to doing a round-the-world journey to ‘cliché’ before going back round the world again to being…good. Trust Kojima to pull that off.
The now infamous fight with Psycho Mantis for example is synonymous with the series itself. In fact I had already heard about the fight from shared gaming lore alone. I knew that swapping controller ports meant Mantis couldn’t ‘read’ your inputs. I was aware that he attempts to read your memory card as if to simulate reading your mind, to tell you the games you’ve been playing. What I didn’t expect was the incredible monologue he delivers to Snake with his final breath, revealing his motives and history to Snake in a way that had my jaw on the floor. What’s this? An enemy being humanised? Isn’t this supposed to be war? Where’s all the bloodlust and victory earned in blood? Death isn’t supposed to be this…sad?
What’s shocking still is Snake’s determination to allow his enemies to speak before they die. It lends a huge amount of emotional depth to these scenes and the game becomes much more than set pieces from this point on as Kojima underlines that, yeah, sure, these guys are cartoony villains. And, they have stupid names like Raven and Sniper Wolf…but here they are, dying as they would in a real war, with all their regrets, hopes, dreams all dashed upon the floor, as Snake watches them fall. His enemies are more than just bit players in a grand stage. They make up a sizeable chunk of emotional depth in moments full of real pathos. Sniper Wolf’s death is also just as memorable. Snake it turns out, respects his enemies. Even as he fights them, he sees them as equal compatriots on different sides of a war, which is a theme that is revisited constantly in the series – the idea of a constant cycle of death. A self-perpetuating circuit of killing and of war.
Unconventional? Sure it is. This is all part of the Kojima package, of course, Metal Gear Solid isn’t afraid of occasionally straying off the beaten genre path and it doesn’t just start and stop with the boss design. There are several fourth wall breaks to look out for and they occur more frequently as you play the game until they are impossible to avoid. The icing on the cake is that these breaks are seamlessly weaved into the story with such nonchalance that the game is able to comfortably balance being a conventional, schlocky genre goof at the same time that it nods and winks to the clever players. It’s really clever stuff. Snake will remark on the musical score suddenly cutting out during a cut scenes, acknowledging the contrivance of a soundtrack existing at all while still ‘living’ inside the game. Then, he carries on as though it never happened, almost accepting its existence, and then bemoaning its sudden loss just like we, the audience do. Blink, and you’ll miss it, but its genius. It’s a really cleverly subversive way of throwing the player a knowing glance without ever breaking the flow of action on-screen.
These moments only become more frequent later on as even Snake’s desire to kill becomes constantly questioned and second-guessed by other characters in the story, reflecting that he is controlled to kill by an invisible force, a sly nod to the player controlling Snake during his murderous exploits. Of course there’s the famous examples of the code to Meryl’s Codec being on the back of the physical CD case the game is sold in, to which the game makes reference to. This famously stumped players in ’98 when they expected the code to be on a CD item that exists in the game. All these post-modern elements are stitched into the fabric of average playtime in a way that I found truly ground breaking, even today.
There are plenty of other details about MGS that still seem incredibly fresh. The codec conversations for example provide excellent context to the plot, with many optional conversations taking place between the sweeping dramatic tendrils of the story. This adds real depth to what would otherwise be a wooden supporting cast. It’s also a cleverly disguised help menu, slowly prodding the players in the right direction during the course of play in the form of advice and words of encouragement. The genius of hiding a help menu within a literal narrative device works on two levels. On one hand you get extra leaks of plot info with each call and on the other, it ensures the player’s intelligence isn’t insulted. Hiding the help like this serves to respect its players by subtly drip feeding these hints between conversation pieces to the point where you don’t feel bad ‘asking’ for help later on when the codec has been well established as a direct line of communication. Instinctively calling Otacon later when trapped in a locked room filling up with gas felt like a desperate lifeline, a stab in the dark as opposed to a hideous cop out or a cheat.
There are other aspects too that I like. Little details like being ordered to place the controller on your arm to simulate a medicine injection, help elevate a simple “gamey” conceit like force feedback on your controller to something that connects you and the game together. When Mantis promises he can move your controller across the floor without touching it, then rattles the controller, of course it does actually move. A trick, yes, but how devious it is of Kojima to pull such a genius prank? It made me realise how hideously pointless rumbling controllers are and how taken for granted they’ve become. I mean, when was the last time you truly thought about force feedback?
I’ve finished with Metal Gear Solid now, and while I found my time with it eye-opening, I had this sense that because I didn’t get to experience the game at the time, it won’t have this special place in my heart, despite seeing how timeless it is. I nonetheless loved the story and really thought very highly of all the characters and soap opera twists and turns.
Next time I hope to get stuck into Sons of Liberty, a game which was a proverbial middle finger to gaming expectations and shovelled the post-modernism on in droves. I can’t wait to play it.