For your enjoyment, this article has been updated on April 4, 2011
The year was 1998.
While President Bill Clinton was busy dealing with the Lewinsky scandal, the videogame industry was releasing some of the greatest games ever made. It could very well be single greatest year for videogames, before or after. Games such as:
Resident Evil 2
Final Fantasy Tactics
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
StarCraft: Brood War
Thief: The Dark Project
Oh, and a little thing called Metal Gear Solid.
That’s what I call a good year.
Because I Got High
Some call it the greatest PlayStation game of all time, while others go as far as to call it the greatest game of all time, period. At a time when its rivals were the immortal likes of StarCraft, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Half Life, it would be easy to get lost in the mix, but it didn’t. It shone, and carved out a place for itself in videogame history. There are certainly good reasons for such high praise. The most obvious and common compliments of the game include its immersive cinematic experience, gripping atmosphere / graphics, complex storyline, crazy and unforgettable boss fights, memorable moments of oddity and hilarity, and tense, unique stealth gameplay. Whether or not it truly deserves to be called superior to the other greatest hits is a subjective matter, influenced by its less popular sequels and the failure to manage its brand name with the same poise as most Nintendo classics. But for those who played in 1998…
…it was a hell of a drug.
More than any other game for consoles, Metal Gear Solid had a vision for what a game could be. It’s ambition could be seen in the gorgeous artwork by the unmistakable Yoji Shinkawa; they were painted with an uncommon sense of humanity and weight and didn’t feel like “game characters”. Epic music punctuated the action and drove home cutscenes like never before. Thoughtful, thematic writing raised questions about everything from love and war to one’s genetic destiny. What other game even attempted to go this far? To create a such a stark, engaging sense of grounding? Other games had tried to be visceral and scary, but none of them tried to be as “deep”. Metal Gear Solid didn’t just challenge the gamer’s skill and dexterity, but his intelligence, beliefs and even his motives.
The old adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island may have come close in its storytelling ambition, but they lacked the cinematic edge of real-time 3D which so effectively pulls the player into the “moment”. Resident Evil offered a provocative cocktail of presentation and audio, letting us hear every boot step and shell casing, but lacked the intuitive controls and constant storytelling that made Metal Gear Solid feel so coherent. Final Fantasy VII may have surpassed it in sheer content, but the clunky old interface and sappy storylines felt like a too much like a callback to the previous generation to match the hard-hitting sense of immediacy that Snake’s covert espionage provided.
In the end, Metal Gear Solid simply pulled us into a world we didn’t want to leave.
It was like James Bond on crack cocaine, spinning a dark tale of a lone man against a giant nuclear robot piloted by his evil twin brother. The tale of a man who snaps necks in the winter cold and peers creepily at sexy prisoner girls from the air ducts (if you shared my enthusiasm at least). The tale of a man who punches cyborg ninjas in the face, only to get pissed on by a wolf while hiding in a cardboard box. A man who gets tortured by a perverted cowboy, and has his mind read by social-commentary spouting, bondage-gear wearing psychic misanthrope. A man who learns that our government had been lying to him all along, as he did their dirty work for them once again. We talked about the meaning of life with a hopeless nerd, and then shot his love interest point-blank in the head. The list could go on and on. All of this packed into a few hours, with one memorable sequence after another, from beginning to end.
Who wouldn’t fall in love with this madness?
For those who picked it up with an open mind and few expectations, this bizarre drug could easily become an addiction that just wouldn’t quit. All of the cool Easter Eggs and special features that were packed in the 2 CDs, plus the eventual disc of VR missions, was enough to make players dig deeper than they usually might, playing again and again. It made such an impression that to this day fans love to swap stories about the first time they had that Metal Gear Solid experience, sharing with each other just how hard they were trippin’ by the time the credits rolled—and especially after the credits rolled! Even if most of them don’t bother to actually pop in the disc and play it anymore, they love to see it parodied and referenced in conversations, forum topics, YouTube videos, and anywhere else, because something magical happens when they relive those moments. Staring at Meryl’s ass as she runs to the elevator, or heating up the PAL key with steam valves in the blast furnace; it’s a game full of oddities and memories that are worth remembering.
Perhaps the staying power of the game had to do with being in an era just before the Internet became a giant hive-mind for processing trends like so many raw materials, but, like the other amazing gameplay experiences of 1998, it knew how to elevate us to a state of euphoria—and we in turn elevated the game.
And this is all well known. Just look at some typical reviews for the game and you’ll find people ranting and raving about these same stuff; as well as the other obvious aspects which cause it to stand out from the rest. These reviews are representative of all the oversimplified arguments that happen whenever picking a handful of outrageous, funny, or memorable moments and allowing it to represent the whole thing, whether for or against. Professional reviews are often worse yet. Too many times a professional review come off as the author trying to give proof that he did indeed play the product, and noticed the same things as everybody else: “Yes, I also felt like that cutscene was a little too long,” or “I was also confused about what to do at this part”. This, instead of offering a new thought or challenging the knee-jerk responses of the masses with some actual insight and analysis. Even when they love the game, they don’t bother to figure out where the magic is really happening: “It has diarrhea jokes and digital cleavage? That must be why I love it so much!”
In the end, Metal Gear Solid is given a reputation that is both lofty and poorly understood. It gets raised up so high in our eyes that it becomes impossible to pick apart and study; and we get so high from playing it that we walk away from it in a stupor, inarticulate but well pleased. We’re not soberly judging it, but just trying to spark the nostalgia again.
The Fog of War, The Mists of Time
What happens, then, is the creation of a romanticized version of the experience, reinforced by people who share our nostalgia and memories. Together, we try to define what made the game great, and, naturally, what we would like to see in the future; not according to critical analysis, but sloppy “fanboy” gushing. Whatever sticks out in our mind becomes the focus of the discussion, while core aspects of the gameplay are neglected; or worse yet, acknowledged as being somehow arbitrary or unimportant. Fan forums are a great place to witness such stupidity. The way they make it sound, you could make the game an FPS and lose nothing.
It’s easy for a popular product to become so entrenched in this cycle of simplification and glorification that, in the end, all we seem to think about it is that it was the best thing ever, and we don’t really know why. This is what I call being obscured by the clouds. We elevate something so highly that we make it inaccessible and unquestionable—which is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to do an article about this game in the first place. The danger of simplifying, of course, is that there’s a warped sense of what’s really important. Later we’re puzzled as to why its sequels don’t lack that essence; that je ne sais quoi, to borrow the French term. We want more… but more of what?
The further away a memory gets, the more distorted and reshaped it becomes. Childhood memories are notoriously exaggerated, since we tend to omit details that don’t align with our overall impression. We simplify it down to the . The same thing happens with any experience, including videogames.
Kojima was aware of this tendency when he created Metal Gear Solid 2, I’m sure. The whole “Solid Snake Simulation” and re-creation of Shadow Moses theme was a direct reference to the unyielding demand for more, more, more. Raiden actually represents the Metal Gear fanboy, blindly craving stealth action without stopping to think critically. He basically took our dreams, remixed them with terrible characters (my apologies to the fatso on roller blades, no hard feelings!) and satirized them. No doubt, then, Kojima felt that Metal Gear Solid had been “obscured by the clouds” as well. Sons of Liberty would force players to think critically by outright tricking them, only to delve deeper into the intentions of Shadow Moses’ memes while in the process.
It’s truly rare for a creator to respond to his fans with such masterful manipulation, but Kojima cared too much about his series and its “SENSE” to let it fall prey to the stupidity of the masses. Yet the themes and morals of Metal Gear Solid are not the only victims of obscurity; there are a few important aspects of the game’s design itself that need further attention, and have been underestimated for far too long.