For your enjoyment, this article was updated as of May 1, 2011
The Puzzle Element
Taking Metal Gear Solid off of its grand pedestal and playing it from an analytical, critical point of view again, we can see past the coolness of the experience and see the real nuts and bolts: the design.
To me, the puzzle element is easily the most underestimated part of the old Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation. It’s something that has been lost over the course of the series thanks to the rabid, pigeonholed nature of the conversation surrounding it. And what I mean by “puzzle element” is the way that you had to think in order to complete an area of the game smoothly. Remember the first level of the VR training? This is the most simple, pure representation of what Metal Gear gameplay is all about. A single guard patrols back and forth with precise timing, and the goal is just on the other side. If he sees you, it’s Game Over; if you reach the goal, you win.
Already, the puzzle is underway.
You, as Solid Snake, must find a way to reach the goal without being seen, despite the fact that the guard seems to be directly in your way. The puzzle works because the guard is predictable, which allows the you to “figure out” the puzzle beforehand. The top-down camera is there to provide a clear view of everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t).
Now, whether you decide to carefully hide in the alcoves and slip by as the guard walks past you, or whether you just run behind him and flip him on his back, or shadow his movements and quickly hug the wall while he turns, the satisfaction of successfully planning your course of action meets the thrill of executing it, and that is what Metal Gear gameplay is all about.
Of course, as the player learns to solve these training puzzles with confidence, they become more complex and layered, until finally climaxing with a seemingly impossible area filled with spotlights, cameras, and patrolling guards. Using only his wits and whatever tricks he’s figured out, the player has to reach the goal unseen.
For as obvious as this puzzle element becomes when analyzed, it has become something of an afterthought to both the fans and Kojima. The Shadow Moses mission itself contains all the same puzzle elements, steadily adding more layers as it progresses. The shipping dock introduces water puddles, which make noise when you run through them, while the heliport introduces footprints in the snow, which can cause guards to follow your trail. The game is so immersive and gripping that we don’t think about it, but the puzzle element is really what makes the gameplay fun — not the action.
The binoculars and cigarettes, which are available at the beginning, are designed to help the player gather information and—eventually—detect infrared beams, or steady your nerves. As the puzzle elements become more numerous and tricky, items are introduced to compliment them, such as the thermal goggles, cardboard box, et cetera. Weapons are necessary for boss fights of course, but otherwise the guns serve mostly as a last defense once stealth has failed. This could be said of later games, but none of its sequels are designed with as much “puzzle” as MGS1.
By the end of the game it may seem that the game is more oriented towards boss fights and action, but even these usually have puzzle elements within them, forcing the player to “figure out” the enemy, rather than mindlessly firing away and obeying shooter instincts. Revolver Ocelot challenges Snake’s hiding ability by ricocheting bullets against walls and turning the middle of the arena into an explosive death trap; the tank battle requires strategic placement of land mines and timely tossing of grenades; the Psycho Mantis fight compels the player to think really outside the box and switching controllers. Your victory will not depend on your reflexes and aim alone, but on your ability to analyze the situation and find the weaknesses. Adding more guns doesn’t create any new strategic value, if they have the same basic function. Even if Kojima wanted more guns, I’m grateful that things were boiled down to the basic types.
These boss fights not only test the player’s raw skills by forcing him to react quickly, correctly and consistently, but they also add twists to established “rules” of gameplay. It’s the marriage between quick thinking and careful planning that makes Metal Gear Solid so much more than either a puzzle or an action game. When we finally beat them and resume control, we feel like the world is a little bit more dynamic than we assumed, which is appropriate, since the story also advances a little bit deeper every time. It’s this sense of possibility and careful thinking that makes it so engaging.
Perfect Crime vs. War Simulation
What is the core fantasy Metal Gear gameplay? This is something Kojima and company should ask themselves every time they read a review, listen to fan questions, and plan a new installment in the series. Kojima is open about calling his first Metal Gear “a hide-and-seek game,” saying that he “would create tension by adding a story to go with it.”
“It ended up being more like a puzzle action game,” he says regarding the old MSX title. Frankly, it was a ingenious idea, even if it was a byproduct of the system’s limitations. Taking advantage of the simple videogame platform to create an interesting, intense puzzle game where the player wanted to avoid combat, combined with the story, gave a sense of weight thanks to the player’s decisions. Most puzzle games deliberately have no context, but Metal Gear wanted to give it a sense of purpose and reason. ‘Figure out this puzzle or the world will face a nuclear threat.’
Opinions differ of course, but I believe the core fantasy is to basically pull off the “perfect crime”. Watching, planning and executing a flawless break in, dodging detection from every angle with the highest possible stakes: it means the end of your life, as well as the end of the world. Some of us work better under pressure, you see.
Hug the wall here, knock on it here, then run around this way while he goes that way; crawl under the table, slip out from under it while the camera is facing the other way, and make a run for that hiding spot. Breathe. Pop on the cardboard box, run to those crates while the guard is yawning, and wait for him to turn around. Grab him by the neck as soon as he yawns again, pull him into the hiding spot, and snap his neck before his friend shows up. This little stretch of hallway has now become mine. This is the perfect crime mentality.
I think you’ll agree that it’s quite a bit better than: Aim at the guy’s head before he sees me, shoot; aim at the next guy’s head before he sees me, shoot; run over there and shoot the camera from a distance. Shoot everyone and then run around willy nilly because nobody has the vision or range that I do!
The sense of accomplishment when orchestrating a perfect crime is so much greater than simply popping headshots with a tranquilizer gun or strafing around with your gun pointed from First Person View, ready to blast anyone who sees you. This isn’t a war simulation, or at least it shouldn’t be.
There’s a reason why the camera is top-down by default in MGS1. It’s the same reason why you have a Soliton Radar, which shows you exactly where enemies are and which way they’re facing: it’s so that you can keep your mind focused on positioning and strategy, rather than your aim and your ammo. It’s also the reason why you only have one pistol, one machine gun, and one of everything else! Those who say that Metal Gear Solid would have been better if it had more weapons are wrong. The game was designed to place more emphasis on planning and sneaking than reacting and shooting, and more advanced combat would only have shifted that balance away from what really made the game fun.
Unfortunately in the mists of time, up on its pedestal, these things become obscured. People don’t think about the design aspects, they think about cool “moments” and mindlessly follow along with trends such as first person shooting and gun worship. Kojima, ever sensitive to the wishes of his fans, gives in to popular demand with Snake Eater, and includes a fetishist-level of weaponry and combat. The era of puzzles and thinking is over, and the true strengths of the old PSX game are all but forgotten. Metal Gear becomes a war simulation with a sneaking theme, rather than a puzzle game with an action theme.
You could argue that the “evolution” of the gameplay (ie. copying trends) has brought Metal Gear success, but I believe it simply took the games in a different direction, and a worse one at that. Look at it now. A smart person who picks up MGS4 but is unfamiliar with the series, for example, is being sent mixed messages constantly, because while the game is supposedly about stealth action, the combat is pervasive, easy and constantly rewarded. Does that become a problem? Maybe not, since the game is so generous. But where is that old tension? The satisfaction of “figuring out” an area the best way? When you can easily resort to violence to solve all of your problems… well, as the saying goes, to a person with a hammer every problem looks like a nail.
Metal Gear Solid proved that a puzzle-action game was an amazing combination, and while this has been overlooked by the fans of the series, I will never forget it.
[Source “Hide-and-seek” and “puzzle action game” article.]