Ashly & Anthony Burch (you know, from HAWP and Borderlands) have just written a book. It's all about Metal Gear Solid. What follows is an excerpt.
Before they co-created the hit web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?, Ashly and Anthony Burch were just a brother and sister who shared a weird obsession with Solid Snake and his 3D debut, Metal Gear Solid. And why wouldn't they? Hideo Kojima's 1998 game featured groundbreaking stealth mechanics, a gruff and hunky leading man, a brilliantly claustrophobic setting, tons of cinematic cutscenes, shocking fourth wall breaks, and terrifying bosses.
The only problem: The Burches grew up but their all-time favourite video game didn't. After nearly two decades, Metal Gear Solid's once-innovative stealth mechanics seem outdated, the cutscenes have lost some of their action movie punch, and the game's treatment of women is often out of touch. Witness a celebration/takedown of this landmark game with the combination of insight and hilarity that Ashly and Anthony have made their careers on.
I remember the first time Anthony and I saw the elevator scene in MGS1. We were sitting at the edge of my bed, enthralled. I was exhausted from anxiety and a constant string of high-octane battles, and was looking forward to a bit of a respite before plunging into another firefight. To which Metal Gear Solid said: Fuck you Ashly Burch get spooked.
And spooked is exactly what I got.
The infamous elevator is located in a generic building on the base that sits narratively between the Hind D fight and the second Sniper Wolf boss battle. Initially, when the player tries to use the lift, it won't budge, and Snake has to ask Otacon to get it moving again. After a quick pop outside to get some fresh air and commit some close-but-no-cigar fratricide against Liquid Snake, the leader of the terrorist group and your main antagonist, the elevator is magically functional. Otacon admits that he doesn't know why it's working.
As a kid, I assumed that the inoperable elevator was just an indication that there was another plot beat we had to complete before we could use the lift. Games, particularly games in the 90s, before "open world" became the gold standard, would often lock off certain parts of a level or a map until you finished the current task. There was usually a narrative justification for it -- you need a key to unlock this door, you need a specific power to open this gate, etc. As a wee-Ashly, I thought this was just a particularly inelegant implementation of the same idea. The elevator is broken → I must need to do something else → oh, a helicopter fight → explode helicopter → cool, elevator is working. Bingo bango, no big deal.
I was a sitting duck.
When you enter the elevator, a loud buzzing sound goes off. Snake is confused by it, but Snake is confused by everything, so Anthony and I just disregarded it.
Then, Otacon calls you on the codec. He tells you that there were five stealth suit prototypes -- full-body outfits that make the wearer invisible -- in his lab. He took one much earlier in the game to wear around the facility, leaving four unclaimed suits. He explains that he went back to the lab to grab one of the prototypes for Snake, only to find that all four of them were missing. Not invisible -- missing.
The elevator's whirring fades as the elevator comes to a halt. Everything is silent, save for Otacon's voice. He says that there is something strange about the elevator as well, like someone is "intentionally holding it."
Snake catches on. His voice has a distinct ripple of urgency as he asks if the weight limit warning went off when Otacon was riding the elevator. Shit! That was the buzzing noise we heard? Oh god oh god oh god. Otacon confirms that the weight limit is off, but that Snake's measly 140 lbs is well under the 650-lb limit for the elevator.
The angry furrow in Snake's brow deepens and the gravel in his voice sharpens as he growls, "It would take at least five people to go over that limit."
Suddenly, Otacon's face fills the codec screen as he shouts, "The guys who stole my stealth prototypes are in there with you!"
I can't understate just how surprising this moment is. Presumably to save animation budget, most of the codec portraits almost never moved in any significant way. Apart from the constant mouth flaps and the odd chuckle, the characters are basically static. Until this moment, that is, when the codec camera is suddenly inches from Otacon's panic-stricken face.
What follows is a pretty straightforward fight that doesn't much deviate from any of the gameplay previously established in the game. But Anthony and I were terrified. The sound design, as well as the simple choice to have Otacon's face engulf the codec screen, was so effectively frightening that the tension and stakes of the fight were immediately heightened. For all intents and purposes, the elevator is just a small setpiece for an action beat leading into yet another action beat. But even though the action is mechanically identical to all the other gunfights in the game, the simple, brief genre swap from action to horror made an otherwise mundane fight instantly engaging and terrifying.
I still remember the blood-soaked hallway.
After getting past a hallway of poison gas and electrified floors, Snake is suddenly confronted with a scene of unprecedented carnage. Corpses line the path leading to Otacon's office. Impact patterns dot the walls. Blood stains the corridor and pools on the ground. Even before Snake turns the corner and sees an unfortunate genome soldier getting impaled by an invisible ninja, the hallway o' blood has set a tone. It puts the player on edge and clearly foreshadows something new, scary, and brutal. Unlike many modern games, Kojima wisely chose to save any explicit depictions of ultraviolence until they would be most useful. Because the player hasn't seen this much blood throughout the rest of the game combined, the hallway does its job.
Today, it's easy to take blood-soaked hallways for granted. The player turns a corner, sees a bunch of corpses, and the music gets all scary -- we've done it a thousand times in a thousand different first-person shooters. After BioShock, dozens of game devs realised the power of environmental narrative, and since 99% of video games are about killing and being killed by things, "environmental narrative" now translates to into: "It appears a large number of men died in this particular area, making sure to fall in highly dramatic poses while splashing their blood onto the walls in visually arresting patterns. Also somebody probably wrote, 'They're going to kill us' on the wall with their own blood."
Metal Gear Solid, on the other hand, understood restraint.
Kojima and his team managed to make a truly scary game without resorting to jump scares or ludicrous amounts of violence.
A lot of the scares come from the fact that Snake is, by nature, a disempowered character. Since MGS1 is a stealth game rather than a balls-out action brawler, threats against Snake's life have more meaning. The elevator scene was and remains legitimately terrifying because Snake is vulnerable. In the levels leading up to this big moment, Snake has fled from dozens of baddies or mown about twenty down with Meryl at his side, but he's never been trapped alone in a small and inescapable space. The threat of having to fight four invisible dudes in an enclosed area actually holds weight because close quarters combat (at least, before Snake becomes a hand-to-hand master in later Metal Gear Solid games) is not Snake's strong suit.
Contrast this with something like Monolith's FEAR, where your character can jump-kick marines in the face while firing pistols from each hand. You're so friggin' powerful that the game's constant attempts at scares and spookery ring hollow. Why should I be scared of a little girl when I have a slow-motion ability? FEAR's many jump scares and sophisticated lighting tricks are not.
Of all the locales in the Metal Gear Solid games, Shadow Moses is still one of the series's greatest. It's no coincidence that the penultimate act of Metal Gear Solid 4 sees Snake return to the fateful nuclear disposal facility where the story began, and that the subsequent level is chock-full of downright ludicrous fanservice.
The game can be uptempo and fun when it wants to be but most every level sees you confronted with subtle, unnerving background music. The first level of the game, the loading dock, surprises the player with its music choice. The player presses the Start button to begin the game, hears a gunshot, and then watches the first cut scene fade in only to hear… a haunting, Gaelic opera song. Rather than a rip-roaring, adrenaline-pumping adventure score, the first sound the player hears is sad, almost funereal chanting. Once the player gains control, the ambient score consists of a quiet, ghostlike thrum occasionally punctuated by percussive stabs. It's a spy game scored with haunting opera. It's a military action game that takes place in a haunted house.
And Shadow Moses is the only setting in the franchise that is so deliberately scary. The rest of the games in the series are interested in projecting realism and brutality -- visceral, physical settings that give the sequels a grittier feel. But Shadow Moses is almost surreal in its spookiness. When you step into the ruins of Shadow Moses in MGS4, it's like revisiting a dream -- or, more accurately, a nightmare. Part of that is achieved by the game's colour scheme. The walls and floors are almost exclusively blue and grey. No distinct colours or contrasts stick out, save for the lava area at the end of the game. When I think of the settings in MGS2, my memories are a lot more. colourful. Suddenly, the world -- the cargo areas, the suspension bridges, the comm towers -- had browns, whites, reds, and greens in it -- who knew? This realistic colour palette made it much easier to think of the settings in 2, 3 and 4 as spaces that actually existed. Shadow Moses, on the other hand, with its almost monochromatic design, felt like it was constructed to be foreign and scary and cold and dangerous -- a hermetically sealed spooky capsule. This could have been an economical choice on the part of the developers, but given the tonal trajectory of the series, the colour palette and haunting design makes sense.
If you started playing Metal Gear Solid at age eight or ten like we did, and ended with MGS4 at ages eighteen and twenty, then the franchise covered a pretty hefty chunk of your own maturation. As a result, MGS4 tackled some heftier subject matters while still being mostly inane and working in a lot of diarrhoea jokes. Like, a lot of them.
The realistic world of Metal Gear Solid 4 -- which takes place, in part, in the Middle East where actual wars are being fought -- made sense for that game. It felt like an older, wisened extension of the first game, and matched the growth that Anthony and I had gone through since MGS1. MGS1 came out when we wanted to be much more capable and mentally developed than we actually were, and the haunted mansion aesthetic fit perfectly. Realism was important only to a point -- the most essential task for MGS1's environment was to immerse, to mystify, and to scare. The series -- and the two young Burches playing it -- had yet to grow up. MGS1 fed our imaginations and attempts at maturity with popcorn politics (the PRESIDENT is involved with a terrorist group that's run by a CLONE and has a PSYCHIC? Politics is CRAZY!) and a scary, unpredictable landscape.
Here's the thing. All that haunted house shit? That's not really the tone of Metal Gear Solid. It's, at best, half the tone. While 50% of the game might be about scary rooms and demonic boss fights and creeping horror, the other fifty per cent is about switching controller ports and checking the back of your physical CD case and hearing Colonel Campbell teach a hardened mercenary how to climb a ladder.
More than any other game franchise (with the possible exception of Suda 51's No More Heroes series), Metal Gear Solid is tonally defined by its willingness to embrace the fact that, yes, it is just a video game, and you are just a person thwapping buttons on a hunk of plastic.
Case in point: the encounter with Psycho Mantis that we discussed earlier. Before you meet him, all of the game's ambient score cuts out (accompanied, of course, by Snake asking, "What happened to the music?"). Your footsteps echo across the marble floor on the way to his room. Meryl's voice grows harsh and alien, like she's speaking through a gas mask. Pressing triangle -- normally the first-person view button -- makes you look through Meryl's eyes rather than your own. Then, she suffers a migraine and starts trying to seduce you.
Something is clearly not right.
Things get even weirder when Mantis finally turns off his optic camouflage and confronts you directly. He says he can read your mind and influence physical reality with telekinesis. He then reads your memory card and comments on what you've played (but only if you've played a Konami game recently), moves your controller by making it rumble, then psychoanalyzes you because you haven't saved enough or were too careful around traps.
Individually, these little goofs aren't all that interesting. Even as a kid, I started laughing the moment Mantis said he was about to demonstrate his telekinesis -- he was clearly about to move my controller with the rumble feature, because what the hell other options did he have? Sure, our heads exploded when we had to physically disconnect the controller from the first port and plug it into the second -- but we don't love MGS1's fourth wall breaks because they're individually spectacular. We love them because they're a part of the game's basic DNA, an intrinsic part of the logic that keeps the world spinning. When the player needs to know how to perform an action, Colonel Campbell tells Snake the button Snake needs to use.
"Press the action button to drop down."
"Snake, if you want to go up or down a ladder, just press the Action Button by the ladder. Approach the ladder and press the Action Button to climb it."
"Snake, you're under attack from off screen."
Most games make a clear distinction between story dialogue and tutorial dialogue. Story dialogue is supported with voice acting from the main characters. Tutorials sit in a separate room where the characters either don't speak directly to the mechanics, or do so in a weird and indirect way in an attempt to maintain immersion. (In The Matrix: Path of Neo, for instance, the designers called the player's special ability "focus" so Trinity and Morpheus can yell, "Neo, just FOCUS," and still technically be giving gameplay advice without breaking the fourth wall.) The player is presented with separate Narrative Stuff and Tutorial Stuff, which they can cleanly and quickly push to different parts of their brain. Oh, the lead actor is talking -- this must be Narrative Stuff, so I should be ready to have an emotional reaction. Ah, a text box has popped up on the screen with a big picture of the B button -- this is Tutorial Stuff and I need to switch to the part of my brain that focuses solely on figuring out which buttons do what.
Metal Gear Solid does not do this.
Naomi Hunter will discuss the difference between honorable combat and cold-blooded murder with Snake, but five seconds later she'll also ask Snake to put the controller against his arm so she can activate the rumble function and make him feel good. There's no wink and a nod here, no joke to be made. It's a simple, matter-of-fact statement: Snake, I know you're in pain, so just put the controller on your bicep and it will vibrate.
You'd think that this would result in a horribly distancing, awkward experience. You'd assume that every moment of dramatic weight would be immediately undone by someone using phrases like "Action Button" or "back of your CD case" -- that they'd essentially be pulling you back into the real world and reminding you that you're playing a game.
Quite the contrary, this whole-hearted acceptance of the fourth wall's arbitrariness makes Metal Gear Solid even more immersive. These little acknowledgements of the player's experience simply create a new tone, a new reality and an engaging new set of diegetic rules. When Naomi massages Snake's arm through the DualShock controller, she's not just doing it to be funny -- she's doing it because both Snake and the player have just gotten out of a physically strenuous minigame sequence that required the player to repeatedly hammer the circle button for seconds at a time. She's narratively patching up Snake's wounds, but she's also healing the player's tired arm at the same time.
There's no dissonance here between player and avatar -- I feel what Snake feels, and the game responds to both of us. Before the game started intentionally highlighting the player's disconnect from Snake (most notably during Grey Fox's aforementioned sacrifice), I felt like Snake and I were going through the story together. My sense of immersion was never broken because the game redefined what constituted immersion in the first place.
Which sort of makes me wonder why few other games do this. I know that Metal Gear Solid created, broke and then arguably prevented anyone from replicating the mould, but our technology has changed a lot since then, and we haven't really had another game that uses, say, the Kinect or the WiiU pad, to the same effect as MGS1 does the PlayStation controller. Maybe that's just impossible at this point -- maybe only a game as batshit crazy as Metal Gear Solid could've gotten away with that level of fourth wall breaking. But that sort of feels like saying that no other film could feature a character looking directly into the camera lens after La Jetée.
A lot of Metal Gear fans refer to these sorts of moments as Easter eggs. While that classifier might be accurate for other, more self-serious games, it simply doesn't apply to Metal Gear Solid. Easter eggs exist outside the normal tone and logic of the game -- they're a special, hidden secret. When you enter the Statue of Liberty in Grand Theft Auto IV and see a massive, beating heart lashed with chains, that's an Easter egg. When you go through a secret door in Doom II and fight John Romero, that's an Easter egg. But what do you call it when a game breaks the fourth wall all the time, without bothering to hide it? Even if you skip all the cutscenes and codec conversations in the game, you still have to experience Naomi's rumble-centric medical care. You still have to watch your screen go black during the Mantis fight, with only the word "HIDEO" sitting in the corner of the screen, trying to convince you that the game has somehow fiddled with your television's input settings. These are not secret, tonally independent distractions from the main game. These are the main game.
There's also a simple novelty to Metal Gear Solid's lack of a fourth wall -- it keeps you curious. As the game mashes together horror, drama, romance, and gags about vibrating controllers, you can't help but wonder: What the fuck is going to happen next? Will someone spend twenty minutes talking about the importance of nuclear disarmament? (Yes.) Is someone then going then suggest that you pour ketchup on yourself to fool a guard into thinking you're dead? (Yes.) During a boss fight with a helicopter, will your colonel ask you to listen for the sound of its rotors if you have a stereo audio setup? If you have a mono setup, will he then shrug sheepishly and say that you can probably still beat the helicopter anyway? (Yes and yes.)
Somehow, Kojima and his team managed to turn MGS1's potpourri of styles and tones into something greater than the sum of its parts. Metal Gear Solid doesn't feel like a horror flick and a Naked Gun-esque comedy and an action movie and a stealth game. Metal Gear Solid feels like Metal Gear Solid. It has a style unto itself that I've never seen emulated. I've never even seen a game that's been compared to it. I've played dozens of games described as being "Metroid-like," or "Uncharted-esque," or "Gears of War-lite," but I've never played any game that had a tone or style that justified comparison to Metal Gear Solid.
You get a sense, for good or ill, that nobody ever told Kojima "no." That any idea, no matter how seemingly dissonant or irrelevant, was ever shot down. And though that may result in the occasional cringeworthy moment, it also gave the world a game that is as inventive as it is inscrutable.