Part I (MGS2: A Complete Breakdown)


Why was Metal Gear Solid 2 so controversial?  In part one, we study the bizarre design choices which generated so much hatred, by comparing them to its beloved predecessor.

Controversial sequels are nothing new, and the root of their controversy is always buried in assumptions about what the title in question “should” be.  In this case, the precedent was set by the original Metal Gear Solid (1998).  Sequels are expected to do more of what people liked less of what they hated, and by that standard MGS2 could be called both a success and a disaster at the same time.  It greatly improved some of fan’s favourite aspects, such as the graphics and presentation, but it also multiplied some things people disliked, such as the ratio of watching cutscenes to kicking ass.  Who would have guessed that all talk and no play makes Jack a dull protagonist?

Kidding aside, it seems that some truly cruel design choices were made by Kojima, creating a profound sense of disconnect between the two games; there’s little in common between the much-praised “gritty” vibe of the original, and the clinical, almost surreal atmosphere of the second.  The game seemed to deliberately sabotage expectations by parodying what people loved and, unfortunately, also had the nerve to add a layer of tongue-in-cheek commentary to make it more obvious: the main character is a “videogame player” who’s undergone a simulation of the events of MGS1 and became a big fan of Solid Snake.  He often feels frustrated that his own mission isn’t as cool, much like the actual player.  It’s strange and clever, but why not cut out the self-deprecation and just make the game cool instead?

The first MGS offered players an almost trademark experience in coolness, which easily led to its massive success; it’s been ranked the #1 greatest game of all time by at least one major publication.  Understanding this trademark experience (or rather, its appeal) is vital to understanding the source of the controversy, and raises the question of how its sequel could feel confident defying it.


Design Choice #1: Setting the Stage

{NOTE: Clips are best watched in Full Screen mode.}

I don’t want to make this too dry, but we need to begin by comparing both games’ introductory sections:  the “Briefing” section of Metal Gear Solid, and the “Tanker Chapter” of Metal Gear Solid 2.  After this we’ll get to some more juicy design choices.

The Briefing section of Metal Gear Solid originally thrilled players with its superb voice acting and compelling writing, taking advantage of the CD format of the PlayStation.  The amazing artwork of Yoji Shinkawa accompanies the audio, creating a dark and intriguing scene.  Separate from the main game, the Briefing establishes the plot through conversations between the main character, Solid Snake, and his commanding officer, Colonel Campbell.  It instantly sets the tone by being gritty and complex.  You don’t have to know anything about the Japanese-only, 16-bit era Metal Gear games to know what the tone of this series is about.

Snake is a mercenary who used to work for the government, trusts no one, and has made more than one round trip to hell, so-to-speak.  He’s just trying to live in peace, but the world is in danger and it’s up to him to save it once again.  Unlike some generic “All American Hero”, Snake is rebellious and cool.  The fact that the Colonel, who is obviously in the position of power from the looks of it, ends up pleading with him and kissing his ass, (“Only you can get us out of it”, “You’re the only one who can stand against him,” etc.) says it all.  The Colonel pitches the game’s concepts to us through his talk with Snake.

This should be obvious, but it needs to be emphasized that because games put us in control of the main character, it’s wise to portray him or her as somebody we want to control.  Also obvious is the fact that, because the game requires us as players to overcome challenges, we get a sense of pride from the success of our hero.  But this also means we don’t want to be stuck playing as a loser or deal with unappealing mission objectives, because despite good gameplay or presentation, our fantasy would be ruined.  Basically, the more ego-stroking Snake gets, the more we want to play as him, which his why the Briefing is important in establishing Snake as more than just another one-dimensional videogame cartoon.

The Briefing also immerses the player by showing that Snake had a normal life outside of being a government hound.  But he hasn’t softened too much, because his attitude tells us that he’s always in control, no matter how crazy things get.  Pretty soon he’s just sitting there smoking as he listens to the ultimate doomsday scenario.  He remains calm, with a nonchalant air of, “I’ll think about it”.

He’s given plenty of reasons to feel intimidated.  The enemy is a black-ops unit he used to belong to, now turned rogue, and they want to launch a nuke.  His evil twin brother, who we didn’t even know existed, is the leader of the whole thing.  The Colonel’s niece is also being held hostage, along with the Chief of DARPA and the President of Armstech, a massive arms manufacturer.  Despite all the scare factors, however, it’s easy to get the sense that Snake’s biggest motivation is a sense of warrior’s pride.  Snake’s like an old pro wrestler who tried to retire, but now he’s just slicing up salami down at the deli and thinking about the glory days.

Sort of like Solid Snake in the days preceding Shadow Moses

He misses the action, and this is his chance to reclaim his title.  Can he walk away from a mission this awesome and still call himself “The man who can make the impossible, possible”?  Although it may be simple by today’s standards, all of this was innovative in 1998, and combined to help players “accept the mission”.  This is why many fans were sad to learn that the sequel didn’t have a Briefing.

Next, let’s look at the design choice of MGS2’s introductory “chapter”:

Since there’s no Briefing for Metal Gear Solid 2, we walk into the experience blindly, with only a bare minimum monologue by our hero, the badass we’ve come to admire from the previous game.  He describes his mission with only three sentences: “The Hudson River, two years ago.  We had classified intelligence that a new type of Metal Gear was scheduled for transport.  The whole thing stank, but our noses have been out in the cold too long.”  Pay attention to these words and you’ll find them quite ominous.

Despite the relatively underwhelming mission (essentially taking some photos for Otacon’s MySpace page,) players fell in love with the Tanker mission.  How could they not?  Most knew it wouldn’t take up the majority of the game, so they felt free to savour the dark and rainy atmosphere, gorgeous graphics, and improved gameplay.  They got sidetracked by the ability to shoot individual wine bottles, target specific body parts of enemies, and stuff like tarps blowing in the wind.  In fact, the experience was so enjoyable that it turned people’s brains off a little bit.  Things like the “death” of Snake, or even our dead twin brother’s implausible cameo from beyond the grave were presented with such cinematic force that only critical fans of the first game felt how insane and, in truth, disappointing it really was.

Snake admits he knew it was a trap before the game even starts, but says he was bored enough to go do it anyway: this theme will appear later, and it has hidden meaning.  (Actually, boredom was part of Snake’s motivation in MGS1 as well, but the stakes were higher and the mission was cooler, so it wasn’t obvious.)  Snake ends up “dying” because of this desperation for action, leaving players confused and concerned — and probably a little excited — so that the end of the first chapter concludes with a question mark.

The second chapter begins on a question mark as well, adding more confusion.  Watching Snake supposedly die in front of our eyes makes it clear that we were supposed to feel a little uncomfortable, but here, when fans of the series are at the edge of their seats, a critical opportunity to set the stage is neglected completely.  Of course, the sheer anticipation of fans was enough to override any niggling doubts at this point, but the opening of the second chapter would eventually become infamous.  It was shocking and irritating to see that Raiden, not Snake, would be our protagonist.  The Briefing helped us to warm up to Solid Snake in the previous game, but here no attempt is made to hype up our new mission.  It was a strange design choice.

Maybe — maybe — if we were given the impression that we were trading Snake for somebody better, we wouldn’t mind.  But we aren’t given that impression.  For those who assumed they would be playing as Solid Snake the whole time (everybody) it set the stage for huge disappointment.  Without exaggeration, it is probably the most devastating “twist” to ever happen to the videogame world, and the total lack of preparation was a key factor.  It ensured that any skepticism would get very serious, very fast.  Call it trolling, bait-and-switch, or just cruel misleading bullshit, but it was definitely controversial!

As for the main mission itself, we have no idea what to expect… but in some ways it might feel familiar.  Our character swims to the offshore facility in a scuba suit with Colonel Campbell talking in his ear, just as Snake did in Shadow Moses; when he gets there, he also has to hide from enemies while waiting for an elevator to the surface.  Reoccurring plot points (and even lines copied directly from the original) bring back fond memories, although these memories ironically remind us of how different the experience is this time around.  It’s almost as if Kojima wanted to recreate and undermine the classic “trademark experience” at the same time, by throwing in these homages.  Why?  We’ll figure that out later.  For now, let’s keep looking at the design choices of the two games.

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