What I Played In 2015: Metal Gear Solid 5
I am a lapsed member of the Church of Kojima. Its bizarre and complex orthodoxy had unfortunately passed me by. Not since the shining beacon of PS2 shown true in my bedroom, gilded nobly in the robes of Snake Eater have I engaged in HIS text.
Lo! The master arrives in the banished lands of snakes and Steam to bestow upon us his final gift. To us who toil with mouse and keyboard, with PC and Linux. From consoles on high, a sorrowful hand reaches out with a strained message, a parting message. Himself cast down by his handlers and patrons, a martyr of his own design. And upon his arrival, thy holy trumpets sound on the mountain of Gaben. Our faces and hands are as glass upon his gift’s radiance, and the online servers are stable. Glory be to the Hideo, The Boss and Snake, Amen.
And the story still sucks, just like it always has.
Metal Gear Solid 5 coming to PC left me with little excuse not to play it. I hadn’t played an MGS game in years, and this was my final chance to play a new one (at least one directed by Kojima). I watched a let’s play of the gratuitous fan service mess that was Metal Gear Solid 4, and that was my last engagement with the series. I was never going to buy a console for just this franchise, especially not one priced at $600.
I would like to talk about the story and over-arching narrative of MGS. There are many more interesting and important things about the game, but this is what came to my mind first.
To be transparent, I have a long history and a very forgiving soft-spot for theMetal Gear lore. In my youth, I often thought that confusing or convoluted storytelling was a sign of good storytelling. The less I understood about the plot, they better it must be. This is one reason why I thought Attack of the Clones was good for about 2 years.
“Obviously”, I thought, “Hideo Kojima must be so smart and keen that I simply can’t understand his stories. I’m just not smart enough.”
But age has worn away at that notion. I’m not a master story-teller or a graduate of Literature, but I’ve seen enough unnecessary bullshit to know when bullshit is unnecessary. I’ve partaken in enough cruft-heavy narratives to know when the writer is masturbating on the page. The MGS narrative is full of bullshit and masturbation. It’s got a mile thick layer of cruft. It sucks.
But that isn’t to say it’s without charm. And charm goes a long, long way in my book.
The way I look at the MGS narrative and its characters now that I’m an adult are as such: It’s as if a very intelligent and rich 16 year old is playing with toys he’s had for 25 years (pardon the time-paradox).
Kojima is a very smart man. He’s a guy that gets very interested in very specific topics and can’t help himself but tell you every excruciating detail about the topic he’s interested in. Hearing one of his stories is like being trapped in a butterfly collector’s house for 60 hours while he regales you with his unending amounts of entomological knowledge. But instead of just explaining what each butterfly is, he has elaborate backstories for each bug. Those stories intersect and weave among all the butterflies over the course of decades, all with intricate and absurd motives. Yet he’s telling these ridiculous stories very charmingly, with overt pop-culture references and tongue-in-cheek humor.
By the time you get released from his house, your mind is trying to unloop the complex knot of butterfly allegiances, hard science, personal motives, murder, betrayal and love of these bugs. And even if you can’t really understand the inner workings of this etymological tale, you were charmed nonetheless.
Let me put it plainly. Kojima sucks at writing a basic narrative, but has so many unique interests, and injects his games with so much obscure pop-culture that you can’t look away if you tried. I hesitate to say that he’s similar to Quentin Tarantino, because I think Tarantino is a better writer, but the obsessive detail and appropriation of obscure cultural obsessions is present in both these guys. And the charm that they both exude goes a long way in excusing sloppy writing.
Luckily, MGS5 puts narrative at a very low level of importance. Whether this was a studio mandated change, or a goal of Kojima Productions from the start, it was a smart one. This time it’s all about gameplay.
While I do have a soft spot for the charm of the MGS games’ story, I have always enjoyed the gameplay equally, if not more. I always felt that the tight and responsive stealth gameplay was a better showcase for the series’ penchant for quirkiness. I feel that having guards getting distracted by pinups of girls on the box your hiding in, or having the smoke from your cigarette reveal laser trip-wires, or having to perform stealth while naked provided a more relatable place to show off the weird tendencies of MGS.
The classic phrase “show, don’t tell” comes to mind. When doing something quirky or weird works as a logical solution to a gameplay scenario, the strangeness inherent to your actions becomes more palatable. If you tackle a gameplay situation using the tools available to you and the game rewards you for doing so, the strange universe the game inhabits becomes more reasonable. In this respect, Metal Gear Solid 5 is a masterclass in responsive and rewarding gameplay.
Out of the three AAA open world games I played in 2015, two of them delivered groundbreaking achievements in the genre. Witcher 3 did it with narrative, and Metal Gear Solid 5 does it with gameplay. I have never played an open world game that so completely nails the fun of doing physical actions. I’m talking about the simple things that make up the larger gameplay loop. Sneaking, crawling, and observing landscapes and people from a distance or up close, choking people out, hopping on a horse, or a car, or a building. This core playability is crucial to the games success as a stealth game.
The mechanics and physicality of the world around you also play into this success. At no point while playing MGS5 did I feel like I was hamstrung by unnecessary game-logic. After scouting-out a location or group of enemies, I was left to my equipment and wits to solve the problem. And any given combinations of those are a plausible and rewarded solution. If I could think up a way to get the job done, it most likely would work in the game. Whether it be guns-blazing, absolute stealth, or any permutation in-between, the game says “yes” and lets you proceed. This creates some of the best improvised gameplay I have ever witnessed. When your initial plan fails, and you have to think on the fly, you end up using odd tactics and gear to get through the mission. And the game never slaps your hand for trying something strange. The game also gives you an asinine amount of tools and toys to complete your missions, furthering the possibilities of your creativity through its gameplay.
This open ended gameplay feeds back into the main gameplay-loop. Find personnel and resources, build your base, and make yourself better. Simply by playing the game, you are making more options to play with. It achieves the rare ouroboros of gameplay loops: making you want to play the game, so that you can play more of the game.
There is also the real life drama surrounding this game that makes it interesting. Konami has made some very interesting and divisive choices this year. They are shutting down all AAA game development. They fired (or laid off) Kojima and his whole studio after the game was done. They have been incredibly closed and guarded regarding these changes, and have not had the best public face about it. In fact they make themselves look like dicks more often than not.
First, they went about scrubbing Kojima’s name from all of his productions. This is odd seeing as Kojima likes to adorn his works with his title (John Carpenter style). Then they responded to pictures of Kojima Productions’ closing party by saying that they were just going on “an extended vacation”. Then they barred Kojima from attending the Game Awards, in which Metal Gear Solid 5 won best action game. This was all amidst the cancellation the the Kojima and Guillermo del Toro entry into the Silent Hill franchise, and rumors from previous employees that Konami was run with an iron fist, and that they weren’t too kind to their workers.
I think the story behind what happened at Konami, and why they made this radical change, will be far more interesting than the games they produced. I really hope someone gets that scoop in the near future.
But regardless of what becomes of Konami and their storied franchises, we are left with Metal Gear Solid 5 as perhaps their last foray into the AAA space. And it’s the last official Metal Gear game made by it’s creator. Metal Gear has had an over 20 year run, and I’ve been a part of it for about 15. Although I was lapsed, I’m glad I came back for the last high-note. It might not have been the note that most people wanted it to end on, but it was a note so high it can’t be unheard.