I’m playing Metal Gear Solid V recently, thanks to a friend who told me I should look past the nonsense to see a really interesting, really compelling stealth game. She wasn’t wrong, it’s one of the most interesting stealth games I’ve seen in a while and takes a very different approach than other games I’ve played. More on that another time, though, I want to ride around on the elephant in the room for a while.
Holy wow is Metal Gear Solid a weird game. It’s worth noting that the last one I played was Metal Gear Solid 2, in 2001, when I was young enough to take the series 100% seriously. I’d played the ‘original’ MGS when it came out as well, and fully believed that it was a completely serious game meant to be played entirely straight. It meant that when MGS2 got really weird and kind of wacky, and started playing jokes that felt like they were mocking me for taking the game seriously (retrospect protip: they were), I bounced off of the game series, hard, and never returned to it.
I should break at this point to comment that, as a game designer, I don’t see anything terribly compelling or ‘genius’ about proving that you’re cleverer than your players. I tend to think games that rely on that sort of gimmick are kind of hacky, because you can literally create reality from nothing and twist it however you want. Doing something disruptive and unexpected and then subtly mocking your players for not being prepared for it is a kind of smug high-school-D&D DM-style behavior that I don’t think has a place in a mature industry. It’s like killing a player entirely at random and then saying “HAHA U DIED”. Crafting experiences that are predictable and internally consistent is the hard part of game design; your players are not your adversaries, and treating them as such is bad design. This is, notably, what separates Dark Souls from your high school DM, and why one of them is brilliant and the other you stopped playing games with fifteen years ago.
Anyway. Metal Gear Solid. What playing it now, fifteen years later lets me see is that the series is basically incredibly deadpan parody. It’s so deadpan that it walks the line between serious and silly on a regular basis, and makes both bizarre jokes and surprisingly heavy commentary, often within moments of each other. In the first ten minutes of the game, I’m treated to a first-person perspective on battlefield trauma followed by an incredibly odd character creation bait-and-switch that appears to be an incredibly elaborate joke played for no reason. The game has you create your character and then does precisely nothing with it. You look like Snake. You were always going to look like Snake. You spent however long in character creation for… versimilitude? A story point? A joke at your expense?
I don’t ascribe to the fannish theory that this sort of thing is a “genius” move by the series creators. It’s honestly kind of a cheap joke created at great expense, and one thing I will say about MGS is that it’s very careful about breaking the fourth wall– it’s how it maintains its veneer of being an entirely serious game, while no one is uncertain that, say, Saint’s Row is a parody. The couple of times MGS 1 and 2 broke the fourth wall were honestly pretty clever (hello, Psycho Mantis, one of the most creative bosses of my childhood). The character creation bit in MGSV mostly seems like a transition trick that came about late in development, after the multiplayer (and, I assume, its character creation system) was already up and running. You’ve got the character creation system already for multiplayer, and you need a good place to hide some loading from the camera, and hey, wouldn’t it be funny if… and there you go. Not genius, just expediency. Another trick to game design is looking like you meant it the whole time. Even better if people actually believe you.
The abject silliness ramps up, though, in a scene where you sneak out of a hospital with the help of a guy wearing nothing but a hospital gown. You get a lot of painstakingly deliberate shots of the guy’s bare butt as he sneaks around ahead of you, up to and including a moment where you lose him in a crowd and look around for him, staring at the bottoms of everyone you see, complete with zoom in and dramatic music as you try to recognize your comrade. There’s a lot of this kind of thing; I’ve been waiting for Snake and Ocelot to kiss for hours now, given that every single shot involving the two of them is ripped straight from a romance drama, and in one of the first levels you have a pseudo-touching reunion as you rescue a comrade that quickly becomes a one-sided patter suggestive of old lovers. Seriously, you have a scene where the guy you’re rescuing purrs out weird little “c’mon, say it for me, I’ve been waiting to hear you say it for nine years” comments while your character says literally nothing.
You may have noticed I’m using a lot of cinematography terms (shot, scene) rather than game design terms (encounter, level). It’s because MGSV is pretty heavy on the cutscenes, and they’re constructed (to their credit) with a lot of cinematographic know-how and skill. They draw from a huge variety of sources and execute them nearly perfectly, and it’s only if you know what’s being referenced that the use of whatever technique or style becomes jarring. I’ve watched a scene that, sans dialogue, would look exactly like a dramatic romance telenovela, except it was a couple of guys talking about a superhuman pyromaniac. It’s bizarre but compelling.
On the other hand, it’s not without its flaws. Pacing, for one, is atrocious. Scenes drag on and on for virtually no reason, and you have to jump through a lot of repetitious hoops. Leaving your base requires you to call a helicopter to pick you up, which takes a good thirty seconds or so EVERY TIME, and you still have to walk over to the landing pad and hop into the helicopter. This kind of thing makes sense out in the field, as a way to make extractions more interesting, but having to do it to start the next mission basically every time is inexcusable, especially because I then have to sit through another thirty seconds or so of the same “look out the window as the helicopter takes off” scene every single time, then the same “look out the window as the helicopter comes in to drop you off” as I head into the mission drop point. You do this a LOT.
I also find it annoying that literally every speaking character that’s lived more than a couple of minutes is a gruff male voice. A gruff male voice very similar to the last gruff male voice, complete with not-so-subtle hero-worship-slash-homoerotic-yearning overtones. I long for a female character of almost any kind (I’m aware that I’m going to be heavily disappointed/offended here), just for any vocal distinction at all. I’ve had entire conversations play out over radio where I have no idea who’s speaking, if it’s even Snake speaking, or what. I’ve started playing with subtitles on in the hopes that I’ll get some kind of indication of the speaker just so I can keep the dialogue straight (tip: doesn’t help).
The deadpan line between completely serious and abjectly silly is something that I’m afraid is going to sabotage the game later. Thus far it’s ridden a line really close to some very sensitive subjects (and I’m given to believe that it crosses that line later on), and the permeating silliness means that I don’t think the game will be able to treat those subjects with the gravity they deserve. There’s a difference between pushing the line and being disrespectful, and I don’t know how a game that turns everything into a bizarre sort of joke manages to be serious about subjects that deserve seriousness. I suspect it doesn’t, and I don’t think that’s to its credit.
That all having been said, the craftsmanship is excellent and I’ve had a dramatic escape from paramilitary squads at a hospital ultimately segue into a whale on fire eating a helicopter out of the sky before being rescued by my gay Russian cowboy lover straight into an 80’s training montage without any of that feeling out of place. Credit where it’s due, I don’t think many people could pull that off.
Also, I’m playing this entire game as a woman. FemSnake. It’s just… a hidden easter egg that I seem to have stumbled upon. Who knew?