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Codec Logs: Entering the Cardboard Box

Codec Logs is a retrospective Metal Gear letter series by Blake Foley and Sean Gandert. An index of the letters can be found here.

From: Sean Gandert
To: Blake Foley
Subject: Entering the Cardboard Box

Dear Blake,

Metal-Gear_MSX_1987_Box-ArtThis is going to put me in a tiny minority of players, but before we began this project Metal Gear was the most recent entry of the series that I’d played. After I graduated from college in 2008, I moved into the attic of my friends’ house in Stamford, Connecticut while I was commuting to New York for work as a journalist. The job market was terrible, and freelancing wasn’t enough to pay for both rent and food, so I found myself restocking shelves at a Blockbuster within walking distance of where I lived. It paid minimum wage, but there were a couple of perks for working there. One was free movie rentals, another was swiping candy and popcorn whenever the assistant managers were in charge rather than the store manager (who ironically spent most of his free time telling me about how many Wii games he’d pirated). However, even though the store rented video games, those rentals weren’t free to employees.

There was one exception, but it was unintentional. The store’s copy of Metal Gear Solid 3 was the Subsistence version, which had an extra disc containing for the first time ever in America the original MSX2 versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. Blockbuster didn’t rent that disc out, and seemingly didn’t know what to do with it, so the copy remained in its box up until I decided to, uhh, liberate it and take it home with me. The next year, when I was back in Albuquerque, I decided to give it a try and see how it played.

I didn’t have high expectations. Even though I began playing video games on an old Atari system and cut my teeth on an NES, very few games from the 8-bit era hold up well for me. Most 8-bit games are overly difficult and reward the type of level memorization that I haven’t had time for since I was a kid. While I still have decent platforming reflexes, 8-bit era games generally eschew level designs you can beat your first time through… or even your tenth. Back in the 1980s that was fine because their audience was used to going through the same motions again and again until they’d memorized the placement of every enemy. However, as an adult I find games that require this sort of rote replaying to be hellaciously unfair and anti-fun, and I would simply rather do something else—like wash the dishes or bang my head against the wall. Ok let’s be honest, I’d just boot up Hearthstone.

eb.net_mg1_transceiver-gas-roomMetal Gear isn’t like that. In contrast with almost everything else from that era, it’s a slow and deliberate game. Luck and reflexes barely play a part in it outside of a few boss battles, and its unfair portions are deliberately and intentionally unfair (gas room, I’m looking in your direction). Unlike you, I’m not good at stealth games; when we played some co-op Splinter Cell a few years ago my main “strategy”—if you want to call it that, which really you shouldn’t—involved an awful lot of kicking down doors. But Metal Gear is the type of game that does a great job of teaching you how to play. It begins with easy challenges, slipping by guards who can only see directly in front of them and gathering up simple items. Not only that, but while the game warns you to play stealthily, its enemies do forgivingly little damage when they do spot you and most of the time all it takes to evade them is moving a couple squares to the right. You’ll still probably die a few times during the course of a playthrough, but surviving through the end of a level is hardly what this game is about.

In many ways Metal Gear is very similar to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda from just a couple of years earlier. In both games you have a slightly angled top-down perspective and need to maneuver through a series of one-screen rooms using various equipment items you find within the game (the weaponless beginning seems in particular like a tribute to Zelda—how else to explain the strangeness of infiltrating an entire base without so much as a gun?). Each room is a sort of challenge in and of itself, and you’re simply trying to figure out how to go about defeating these challenges. You have a health meter, but replenishing it isn’t terribly difficult. The main difference between the two is one of power. None of the enemies in Zelda are tough to defeat, whereas every enemy soldier in Metal Gear moves faster than you can and shoot at angles. But replace these super-speed soldiers with octoroks and the game changes genres entirely and becomes a pretty decent Zelda clone.

eb.net_mg1_flame-bossI think we both know the whole story of why Hideo Kojima made the game stealth-based, which is that the MSX2 simply couldn’t deal with having more than a couple of sprites on the screen at a time, but that doesn’t in any way lessen the accomplishment of essentially designing your own genre. Like with the difference between survival horror and shooters, the difference between stealth and action-adventure is that in an average fight you’re at a disadvantage. In most games there’s a power fantasy where if you face off against an enemy you will win almost immediately. In stealth or survival horror, you might be able to defeat one enemy, but even two becomes an immediate challenge, and more than that often means instant death. Metal Gear is a Zelda clone where the octoroks carry both literal and figurative guns.

Anyhow, I wanted to write about Metal Gear‘s gameplay in this first letter partially because it’s an essential part of the series, but largely to get it out of the way. From what you’ve told me, the series’ gameplay won’t undergo any radical changes for quite a while, and although it’s an inescapable part of Metal Gear‘s DNA, it’s also one of the less interesting parts of the series. Stealth mechanics aren’t terribly complex (though they’re quite easy to do badly), and if Metal Gear were just about stealth then it wouldn’t have such a passionate install base. If anything, the gameplay in the series can sometimes feel like a trojan horse that’s used to insert the increasingly strange story.

eb.net_mg1_dianeBut maybe I’m jumping a head a little bit and into the series’ future. I’m  not going to let you have all the fun of writing about the more interesting aspects of this first game, though, so I thought I’d bring up the first thing that separates Metal Gear from pretty much everything out there: the codecs (though they’re not called that here). While it’s possible to play the game while completely ignoring them, following through with these communiques leads to a strange story with surprisingly memorable characters. But what I find most immediately odd about the codecs is how optional they are, not just in terms of skipping through dialogue without reading them but in terms of how easy it is to not realize that half of the game’s dialogue even exists. In a handful of rooms you’ll be contacted by people through a sort of phone chime, but most of code transmissions require you to access them yourself. You have to decide that in this room it would be a good idea to contact Big Boss or Schneider, and if you do so you’ll get a message. Frequently this is just a dismissive statement from Big Boss telling you that you should already know how to use whatever piece of equipment you just found, but not always, and even these snippets show off Big Boss, Schneider, Jennifer, and Diane as more developed than the usual video game ciphers. I’m not going to pretend they’re deep, but they’re certainly not rote.

Another thing that I should note, and maybe you can expand upon, is that characters will refer to buttons. They won’t say to shoot a gun, they will tell you to press square to use a gun. It’s a small distinction, but one with big repercussions, even this early on. By the end of this game this plays into the first of the series’ many big twists.

So already we have strange characters, fourth wall breaking, and story and gameplay becoming intermixed. In this first game, the transceiver really is the story, and that story is… well, not terribly strange, but certainly bold for an 8-bit title, in fact the boldest that I can think of. Blake, what do you think about the story, this Big Boss fellow who keeps talking to you, as well as the other characters who pipe in on the transceiver from time to time? Also: we can probably start counting the total number of women in the series pretty easily, so let’s start here with Jennifer and Diane, who we’re introduced to by learning that she’s “probably out shopping.” And what’s going on with Bloody Brad, exactly—does he fit in with the rest of the game’s world at this poit, or is he a sign of things to come?

Oh, and what does it say about Kojima that he thinks that all it takes to become a master of stealth is a cardboard box? Is it possible my cats have been Metal Gear cosplaying every time we receive a package in the mail?