The Story of the Forgotten Story
It all started in 1998, back when times were great. Clinton was having fun, and so were gamers around the world; because 1998 was the best year for gaming ever. In a single year, we were given Half-Life, Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, StarCraft, and Metal Gear Solid. If you were a gamer, you were happy.
These games remain legendary to this day, but in this environment Metal Gear Solid managed to stand out from its godlike competition by creating a sense that it was more than just a game. The artwork, the soundtrack, the cutscenes and voice-acting – everything about it sucked us into its world like an interactive movie. It was the sense of immersion that made the experience cooler than anything.
However, there was an unintentional side-effect.
Unlike the other smash-hits of the time, Metal Gear Solid was surprisingly short in terms of actual gameplay, and didn’t mind interrupting it with (relatively) unexciting conversations. It was almost as if, rather than using the cinematics as a method of immersing us into awesome gameplay, the cinematics itself were the core of the game and the gameplay was told to wait its turn. Not everyone liked that. Worse, the game spanned two disks, giving the impression that it would be a long and satisfying in the vein of Final Fantasy 7 or Resident Evil 2. Instead, it felt like we barely get our feet wet before the fun is over, leaving us wanting much, much more.
Still, it got universal praise for its accomplishments. The world was hooked. People loved how Snake was a hard-boiled anti-hero; a perfect icon for the ‘90s anti-establishment, grunge mentality, with enough brains and heart to avoid becoming cliché. I think it was the same reason Wolverine became the most popular character in Marvel comics. Gruff, antisocial loners who smoke, fight, and defy the authorities… It’s the definition of badass.
As for that overwhelming demand, Kojima was kind enough to give people what they wanted. Here you can see one of the bonus features, where players get to control Cyborg Ninja, giving the fanboys a raging Solid Snake in their pants.
VR Missions was released a year after MGS1, with over 300 bite-sized missions designed to push every weapon, item and concept to its limit. The game was addictive, highly rewarding, and although not as widely known as the main game, a satisfying addition. The inclusion of Cyborg Ninja was no small selling point, since Gray Fox ended up rivaling Snake as the fan favourite — this, in a time before ninjas and cyborgs and everything else became a played-out cliché in American culture.
As mentioned before, the curious reward for completing these missions was a photo-shoot mode in which the player is allowed to approach the center of a holographic platform proportionate to how much progress they’ve made. In the center, a detailed model of either Naomi Hunter or Mei Ling poses adorably. A time limit keeps the time shared together short, but the player is free to snap and save as many photos as they like until the countdown is done. It was as zany, fun, and substantial as people had hoped for.
But the criticism of Metal Gear Solid, no matter how small, had a deep impact on Kojima.
I can’t prove it, so feel free to disregard it, but I think this is how Kojima felt about the response. We know by now that he’s extremely sensitive to criticism, so it makes sense for him to feel like the “cool stuff” in the game–which got the most attention by far–ended up stealing the spotlight from all of his deeper meaning. (As evidence of his sensitivity, look at his keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference in 2009, where he “jokes” about how long his cutscenes are, as if to echo the complaints he’s heard for years; then, when people don’t laugh, he goes as far as to tell the audience to laugh at the joke. He doesn’t let go of criticism easily.) But back in 1998, nobody really knew what Kojima was like, so all we knew was that we wanted more gameplay, and that VR Missions met the demand. Maybe Kojima was learning from his mistakes…
Knowing how sensitive he is, I imagine the worst part must have been the spiteful attitude of the unintelligent fans. We know that people–especially young people spending their limited money–tend to think in binary terms, either liking or disliking something strongly, without subtly weighing the pros and cons. Buying a two-disk game and finding out that it’s mostly talking, when it seemed to promise so much innovative action, sucks. That’s why, consciously or subconsciously, many players actually resented the story and refused to pay attention to it out of protest. Skipping cutscenes, zooming past Codec conversations, and ultimately demanding change from poor, fragile Kojima. He wanted to inspire a discussion, but the only discussion he got was about the awesome Cyborg Ninja character, the badass Solid Snake, and all the other “cool stuff” which excluded his real “memes”.