I am pretty much the biggest Metal Gear Solid fan there is, and I really, really hope that Metal Gear Solid 5 doesn't happen.
Kotaku recently published Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima's comments to Official PlayStation Magazine regarding a potential Metal Gear Solid 5–there'd "probably" be one "at some point," the famed director said, as he minimized his involvement with a palpable weariness. "Maybe I can just do one stage," he said in a fashion that seemed hopeful.
Of course, this is Kojima's shtick. Every time there's a Metal Gear Solid, he says he won't do another Metal Gear Solid, and then of course there is one. The controversial oddball is often accused of resenting the very medium in which he works — why else develop video games, experiences that thrive on interactivity, and then plump them full of long cut scenes that owe their heritage more to film tropes than to gaming? Why does he divorce himself from the franchise he birthed, only to end up retreading it in a fashion more grand than the last?
It's almost like the soldier who's called up to the battlefield again and again, amid questions of why and what for. No, it is exactly like that. The character of Snake is the voice of the auteur himself.
I hope a Metal Gear Solid 5 won't happen the same way players of MGS4 hoped Solid Snake could rest in the end. I think there's nothing more Kojima — or Snake — can do. The climate that drives MGS is irrevocably changed; the series is a voice speaking out from a place in time, and that time has passed.
MGS is my favourite franchise, and it's because of this: To me, video games are at their finest as an act of personal expression on the part of the creator; I love most the games that feel like they were born from a vision, from a desire to say something. There are a lot of well-made games. There aren't nearly as many games that are expressions, intended or otherwise, from the person who conceived them.
On one hand, I've always resented the tendency to correlate or to compare games and film. They're completely different media, and with that in mind I can empathise with people who cringe at Kojima's almost pigheaded adherence to ideas that seem to fly in the face of everything that's been proven "correct" about the art of game design.
Yet when movie buffs talk about the evolution of the form, about their standout films, inevitably it's the directors they discuss. When you're talking about movies you can talk about an individual director's oeuvre as having established certain conventions, or as adherent to particular themes is part of what makes it sophisticated, artful, worth talking about. It's not the most "successful" films-–the ones that appeal to the widest audiences, that earn the most money-–that are the most relevant to the craft.
I actually never intended to be a game journalist. All my life I was a theatre actress, with hardly a day in my life that I wasn't performing in some play or another. For better or for worse I didn't go to journalism school or even to proper college-–I went to acting conservatory. What I learned there is that the performances that captivate us are the ones that happen when an actor gives themselves over to the fiction moment. In acting school you're told your body is your "instrument", a malleable conduit between your audience and the story in the script. The story passes through you and is imbued with life by your own emotionality, your own experience.
The best actors are the ones relaxed and unselfconscious enough to let that communication happen (draw your own conclusions about why I ended up writing!). Their very human nature will colour their performance in ways that are subconscious and unintended. The worst actors are the ones that have simply learned to imitate behaviour, who care so much about how the audience will receive them that they are parrots of reaction and interaction, their natural emotionality lost in some over-intellectualization.
In the original Metal Gear Solid, Kojima had a vision for a certain kind of game. His enthusiasm for the action films of the late 1980s was obvious, and it was clear he wanted to create something with more nuance, more story, more emotionality, than other games about soldiers. His enormous ambition for departing from norms is what made that game so great — yet just like a weak actor, he has always been intellectual to his detriment.
The intellectual quality of Kojima's Metal Gears has resulted in flashes of brilliance — philosophies on the subjective morality of war, cleverly-plotted battles that turn boss fights into character studies, and gameplay that gently guides the player to consider direct confrontation as a fraught proposition. Nonetheless, it also means MGS is overwrought, over-thought.
And that overly-lacy intellectualism multiplies in MGS2, which is famously polarising for its convoluted nature. It's a funny thing that happens when a performer feels self-conscious; they are less relaxed, they think harder, they are less capable of honesty. Yet the wonderful thing about the MGS games is that even despite all of this, Kojima's vision is so strong that his character, his personality gets into everything. The homages to film trivia, the bizarre humour, the way the gameplay itself often seems to lead the player to one perspective on war or global relations and industry, then another, like someone is thinking out loud and wants you to come along.
It's interesting that the MGS games so often deal with questions about national allegiances. Characters change sides at astounding rates. No one's actual allegiance is certain, and in every game, the protagonist Snake has a revelation that he is a conduit for someone else's message, someone else's goals. His superiors that direct him in the field, his allies, are never who he thinks they are. He is used.
It's interesting to place those shifting allegiances and Snake's plights in the context of the fact that Sony has often relied on Kojima's MGS as a pillar of the PlayStation brand. During a time when exclusives were certain to competitive advantage on the console battlefield, MGS was right up there with Final Fantasy as a lynchpin in Japan's war for industry dominance against the West and the rising Xbox brand (Metal Gear Rising, announced first for theXbox 360. Hmm!)
To play his games, though, you might get the idea that Kojima found his responsibility as a gaming platform standard-bearer a complex proposition. Following the explosive success of the first two MGS games, the third instalment returned to Snake's origin story. MGS3 is my favourite video game, a heartbreaking story of a man who would become a villain as the forces for which he fought let him down again and again, in which he lost his mentors and realised that every "war hero" is a pawn for some greater national interest.
Never was that pressure greater than at the launch of MGS4, which was all but declared to be the game that must "save the PlayStation." You get the sense that Kojima loves challenges; his games are clearly made with the air of someone who wants to surpass limitations, to be agile and clever amid the constraints of technology. In 2009, he spoke at the Game Developers Conference about the ways he used the hardware environment to his advantage during each instalment of MGS — as if he himself were a character on one of his own battlefields.
But the thing I remember most about that talk is how — once he yet again said he felt he didn't want to make any more MGS games — he was tempted back into the fray again by the promise of a "monster machine" that could finally allow him to perfect his ultimate vision for the series. "So the mission was, use the rumoured 'amazing power' of the monster gaming platform to create the ultimate stealth game. I thought this will be my final mission," he said at the time. He was facetious, and I thought he seemed a little rueful.
MGS4 may not be the best video game ever made in accordance with the "rules" of game design and interactive entertainment. But as an authorial statement, it has no equal. If we understand that, consciously or otherwise, Kojima is representing himself through the character of this super-soldier called up to wartime again and again, look at the circumstances of 4: In a world where all combat activities are controlled by machines that remove the chances of error — a world free of creative risks, if you will — the authentic soldier Solid Snake has aged rapidly. His spine cracks as he traverses a desert military zone that looks much more like earlier Call of Duty games than the lush complexes of earlier MGS.
In MGS, Snake's love interest Meryl was something of an adoring idealist. But when he reunites with her in MGS4, they cannot reconnect; her hesitant attempts turn to a painful derision. She sees him as a relic — "I'm done playing little love games," she tells him. "I just wanted you to see who I was," she says ruefully, in a way that makes the pure visionary's intention of MGS1 seem naïve, dated.
Instead, Meryl marries Johnny Sasaki, a blond, Western-looking character who in every previous instalment of the series has just been a joke, no threat. His nickname is "Akiba", in mockery of Japan's Akihabara, the seat of the gaming nerd. Meanwhile the MGS4's "No Place To Hide" tagline was punned in trailers as "No Place For Hideo," and if there isn't a clearer expression of his own resentment and sense of irrelevance-–besides the fact that he stuffed the game with more of his trademark much-maligned long cutscenes than ever-–I don't know what is.
It's miraculous that in, the face of what feels to me like a lot of sadness and anger, Kojima managed to tie up nearly every single one of the convoluted and multifarious loose ends in his decades-long Metal Gear plot in a series of breathtaking, memorable setpieces throughout MGS4. The game manages to be simultaneously a statement to its detractors and the game industry's changing nature as it is a love letter to its most loyal fans. I believe there are few achievements in gaming as significant as that.
I can't say for sure that he meant to do it, but somewhere along the line, since the crafting of MGS1, Kojima became an honest performer. Like any artist, his feelings seem to come through whether or not he planned them. That's why MGS5 feels like something he'll "probably have to" do, in his words, despite his fervent wish that he can keep his involvement minimal.
"For MGS1 I made the maps myself, laid out the enemy routes myself, did everything hands on," he reflects. "That level I can't do again."
As a fan I could no more imagine him doing it than I can imagine damaged, exhausted Snake as he was at the end of MGS4 having another go at the battlefield. Maybe they'll have to make MGS5 for business reasons, but I hope they let Snake-–and Kojima-–rest.