To: Blake Foley
From: Sean Gandert
Subject: RE: I’m Pretty Sure the Surgeon General Wouldn’t Approve
I’m going to agree with you that 1998 was one of the greatest year for game release, though in hindsight it’s not a as huge of a surprise, nor was it that 2007 proved to be a huge leap. The fact of the matter is that while games are just as valid a medium for ideas and feelings and whatever the hell else we want to include in them as well as sheer unadulterated play, one thing that separates them from other forms is how big a role technology plays in their creation. Which isn’t to say CGI doesn’t change movies, or modern pigments don’t change painting, just that video games take that link to the utmost extreme. The fact is, most new games of any generation of technology largely suck. The exceptions, often coming from Nintendo (Super Mario 64 is just absurd for a first 3-d platformer no matter how you look at it), do little to hide the fact that early 8-bit titles tend to be unplayable and original Playstation and Saturn and Nintendo 64 offerings are much the same. Even the most beloved games, Mario Kart 64 for instance, are glaucoma-inducing messes by today’s standards. The few titles that aren’t are the weird outliers.
By 1998, game designers had gone past the point of selling games just because they’re in three dimensions (*cough* Final Fantasy VII), and were used to the basics of three-dimensional cameras, though mastery of them would take another decade. Technology sells, and the Metal Gear series has never been a slouch when it comes to that side of games, but here it’s always been in service of something. In 1998, it seems like there was a generation of games that understood that fact. Having realistic shadows is cool, but having realistic shadows that can alert enemies to your presence is game design, world design, story design. It is a decision that matters for more than sheer aesthetics, and it takes the mastery of technology to understand that it can be more than just pretty wrapping paper. A handful of very good designers, Kojima amongst them, seemed to understand this relationship innately, and 1998 was the year where they’d had enough time to finish working on their ambitious games.
Like all of my friends, I was a Nintendo 64 gamer. Choosing between systems wasn’t even a question, because the images I’d seen in Nintendo Power of Mario 64 and what would one day become Ocarina of Time were enough to know that was what I wanted. The lack of many releases wasn’t a huge problem, either, because by that time I was in middle school and had homework and bass practice to attend to, and soon afterwards a PC with a functional internet connection which would lead me down a deep, dark hole of Starcraft addiction. No one else I knew purchased a Playstation, either, we just kept playing Goldeneye and eventually bought a Gamecube, which would have an even smaller library of games we were interested in but did have another Zelda title or two and our next big multiplayer game, Smash Bros. Melee, and thus was still the natural evolution of things. And sure, my Playstation 2 had backwards compatibility, but at that time in my life it was mostly just a cheap DVD player.
All of which is to say is that while you made the leap mid-generation, I missed the Playstation generation entirely. The weird thing about it is that there are only two companies whose games from that era I have any interest in actually going back to, and only one of which actually has any interest in video games today: Square and Konami. The companies’ approaches to their past couldn’t be more different, with Square strip-mining its back catalogue in the hope of finding a few more cents between its couch cushions with iOS ports that both look and play like the cash grabs they are, while Konami forswore games entirely in favor of gambling and… just gambling, I guess? In any case, from Silent Hill to Symphony of the Night to Metal Gear Solid, Konami was making the ambitious games that I retrospectively wished I could’ve played at the time they were released.
You asked about the most Metal Gear moment of the entire game, and I think I want to hold off on that question, partially because it’s surprisingly difficult to answer. What’s impressive, though, is that MGS has such a strong identity before it even starts; there are MGS moments before you even play the game. There’s the weird cutscene with the credits and cigarettes that are… somewhere. But even more than that, though, there’s the backstory in weird menu files that are unclear and completely optional, though pretty vital for actually making sense of several puzzles. Aside from the odd sense of humor, what speaks strongly about the game’s identity to me is the way it immediately meshes an intense realism with cartoonishness. We get DARPA, but we also get the ridiculously named Liquid Snake as our new big baddie. Nuclear weapons, but also gene therapy supersoldiers. The deadpan seriousness of utterly stupid material is what gives the game its identity before you even start playing. I couldn’t help but be stunned by both the increased cinematic scope of MGS, and the unwillingness of it to allow me to play casually.
To play Metal Gear Solid is to obsess over it. The story details, even the weird ones, matter, and the levels are short and at times inconsequential or repetitive. But the world never lets up, and the obsessiveness that drove the game’s creators can be felt before you’re even given control of Snake. We’ve played a lot of The Division lately, and the best thing that can be done with that story is to skip through things whenever possible and laugh through the execrable material that isn’t. In Metal Gear Solid, skipping things would make the game borderline impossible to beat.
The original Metal Gear was a war game that became increasingly weird as things went on, but Metal Gear Solid is sui generis. I would argue that it isn’t even interested in the player having fun, which is part of why its artistic ambition is immediately evident. Before the first elevator, I died half a dozen times. A normal reaction to this sort of failure in a game is to quit, to return the rental. But then, if the game isn’t interested in fun, what is it interested in? I have a suspicion that it’s this aspect of things that really began setting the series apart at this point. Metal Gear Solid is still part of the Metal Gear series, but it’s not quite like what came before it, and I think the reasoning behind naming everything from this point on with that additional “Solid” is more than just the marketing department.
I want to leave you with the question of what is it that both links the game to its past, and sets it apart from the originals as well as pretty much everything else out there. There are those special Metal Gear Solid moments, dozens of them, but are they quite the same as, say, Metal Gear moments? I want to push us towards talking about time and change, two of the biggest themes of the game, even as we start moving inside Shadow Moses.