"The release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001 was gaming's equivalent of the premiere of a huge Hollywood blockbuster. .... Just as with many Hollywood blockbusters, now that the excitement over the game's release has dissipated, it's become fashionable to speak ill of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. .... Social commentaries aside, it's perfectly understandable that the game's heavy-handed, convoluted, and arguably sloppy story has been the object of much criticism now that it's had a while to sink in. Also, most all Metal Gear Solid 2 players like to point out that they just hate Raiden."
- Gamespot review of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance,
March 5, 2003
If you didn't know much about the series, you couldn't be blamed for assuming that Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance was a kind of director's cut version of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty; and that Sons of Liberty itself was an sincere attempt to make the most enjoyable sequel possible to its beloved predecessor. If series creator Hideo Kojima were like most producers and directors, this would be a no-brainer. But if this is what you think, you are greatly mistaken. Let's look at where this came from.
When Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998 it received massive praise and publicity, even in the face of insanely strong competition. Before its release very few would have recognized the name in North America, which quickly become its biggest territory; but it was soon clear that it would take its place among the unforgettable video games, and become embedded in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of devoted fans, opening a door to a very bright future. Matched against masterpieces like Resident Evil 2 (1998) and Final Fantasy VII (1997) for the title of "Best Playstation Game", it came seemingly out of nowhere to grab the spotlight.
Looking back at what such competition offered, however, it only makes sense that it was criticized for its short gameplay and long cutscenes, despite being a 2 disc game. VR Missions, released the following year, was a natural response, then. Giving people more action and less talk, the game featured 300 virtual reality missions and a healthy sampling of strange extras. I'm not sure what Kojima has all said about the release of Metal Gear Solid: Integral, or the VR Missions standalone, but it seems that it was a direct response to the demand for more gameplay. To this day the original MGS gets complaints about its brevity, so it makes sense that Kojima and company felt pressure to give people what they wanted. Notice the chance to finally play as Cyborg Ninja, who would outshine the game's deeper themes while trying to embody them, and thus become a recurring paradox of the series.
With this in mind, a mere two years later Metal Gear Solid 2 would be released.
MEET THE VR ROOKIE
In the Metal Gear Saga documentary (see from 0:58 - 1:12), Kojima admits that he wanted to work on a different game, but that he "couldn't escape" his "fate". What resulted was the game we know and love, featuring a very unusual main character who is — convieniently — obsessed with mastering VR Missions and pretending to be Solid Snake!
I've analyzed the genius of Raiden several times before, but it bears repeating here. For as much as we may hate Raiden's inexperienced, ignorant, and shallow personality, I believe these qualities were intentionally designed to reflect a very specific demographic of Metal Gear fan: those who also clamoured for "VR Missions" after the original Metal Gear Solid and took such pride in beating all of the challenges. Raiden brags to Solid Snake about his digital accomplishments, listing off some of the exact mission numbers from VR Missions while images of the game play in the background, clearly winking at players who may share his attitude. Later Raiden brags about his VR skills again:
Snake: You're going to have to cover Emma until she crosses to Strut E. I'll get there and provide some support of my own.
Snake: Think you can handle it?
Raiden: Yeah. I know the drill. I've faced a similar situation in Advanced Mode Level 4 VR training with the PSG1.
Doesn't it make sense that after seeing the demand more VR missions and gameplay following MGS1's success, and after being compelled to work on the game's sequel despite wanting to do something else, Kojima decided to include a VR-obsessed rookie as a passive-aggressive commentary about the problem with gun-crazy gamers? A tongue-in-cheek jab at all the whiny fanboys who missed the point of the anti-war story and just wanted more shooting? One can argue that Kojima's themes are contradictory and not truly "anti-war" because he tends to portray violence in such a stylized and appealing way, but this doesn't mean Kojima didn't resent the misinterpretation of his beloved creation. If he was frustrated by his cinematic masterpiece being criticised for having too much story and not enough action, which we can assume he was, and if he was further frustrated by the popularity of simple-minded VR missions with no story or themes whatsoever, then the inclusion of an annoying protagonist like Raiden suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Irony, however, was far from finished with Kojima. History was about to repeat itself in a big way.
WHERE'S THE SUBSTANCE?
Here's a list of the features found on the back of Substance's packaging:
I remember the backlash over MGS2 quite well. Probably the most common complaint next to the introduction of a new protagonist was that the gameplay-to-cutscene ratio was so lopsided. Even angry players loved the new gameplay mechanics, such as the ability to shoot in First Person view and pop out from behind cover, so it's only natural that they would request more of that and less of the "convoluted" story. Compared to the first MGS it had a lot of gameplay, but it also had a lot more cinematics. The ratio wasn't much different. So it's not a big surprise when it received similar complaints.
In interviews at the time, the reaction couldn't have been more uniform: we love the graphics and the gameplay, but why so much talking? We love the shooting, but why did you include a lame character like Raiden instead of an obvious hero like Solid Snake? It could hardly have been more insulting to Kojima's intelligence, causing him to say in one interview (which has escaped me) that it's his series, and he can ruin it if he wants to. Once again, the game was considered to be "insubstantial", filling up the player's time with boring dialogue about digital ages and shadow governments, instead of giving us the action we crave!
What follows is Substance, an ironically-named edition of Metal Gear Solid 2 which features tons of utterly pointless challenges and gameplay diversions aimed specifically at discontent fans who — once again — wanted more action. Is this really the "substance" of the Metal Gear series? MGS2 was all about thinking critically and not simply completing the mission like a tool of the government; the main character was a stupid VR rookie who bragged about beating the VR training as if it was a real accomplishment; eventually, the whole mission is revealed to be a giant computer simulation itself, cobbled together from his imagination and expectations! How poetic, then, when it too failed to pass on its message, it's meme, of valuing ideas more than simulated war.
Perhaps a sign of things to come, Substance is the first Metal Gear game to feature a major pointless cross-promotion, with the inclusion of a terrible skateboarding mode. Check out the comments for a prime example of mindless fanboyism. Evolution Skateboarding received bad reviews and was most well known for this "collaboration", which leads me to wonder whether Kojima knew this when he included it. I can hardly believe that he thought it was cool, or was a good match for the series.
Then again, considering how much people seemed to enjoy the VR missions of Substance, along with its crude skateboarding and even its atrociously lazy "Snake Tales" (the fulfillment of so many requests to allow us to play as Snake in the Plant Chapter, yet not quite!) it goes to show that Kojima knew how to give fanservice with a twist.
The dichotomy between Kojima and his signature series began early indeed.