The Metal Gear Solid series, an epic of almost perfect game design stretched over 4 absolutely fantastic games on 3 systems, is undoubtably (and rightly) one of the most heralded chronicles in gaming history. From graphics to sound, tactics to weapons, characters to level design and pacing – it’s unlikely that many other titles come close to demonstrating the power of the Playstation.
Each title pushed the system to its limits, promising and delivering on almost every promise. In each title, Kojima took what made the previous game difficult, and made it harder. Took what made the previous game look amazing, and smashed our expectations. From how the game played, to the journey it took you one, and all of the almost OCD type details that must have taken months to think of and perfect. It was no wonder that each title sold gangbusters and became critically acclaimed before it was even released.
But at the same time, the sheer depth of each title, and the unwavering dedication to build and complete what can only be described as a “write as you go” storyline, provided gamers with a conundrum. Where does a game stop and a movie begin?
Metal Gear Solid (1) was clear. It told the story of how one man, part of a special unit, was manipulated by the same people he had dedicated his life to, and yet put everything aside for the sake of the mission. There were love interests, plot twist after plot twist, and most importantly, an amazing balance of gameplay-to-story telling. Finishing the game was a complete experience, you felt satisfied.
The success of the original sparked what can only be described as a complete and total mess of “over telling”. That is, creating the base for such a massive, over-arching plot line that it requires almost 10-20 hours of flat based descriptions, monologues and diagrams to tell. Over the next 3 games, you were plunged deep into a smattering of various love triangles, sub-plots to sub-plots, plot twists of plot twists. In some cases, it even felt like the game had forgotten half of what it had already explained to you.
In fact, MGS 3 and 4 were basically designed to not only answer the multitude of questions and background development setup in 2, and subsequently, 1. It was like you were no longer playing a game, but basically pushing Snake from one cutscene to another, putting him in just another spot so Hideo Kojima could read you another part of his novel.
It’s ludicrous in some cases – some of these scenes take place in the middle of battles, blackops, revolutions, where, in reality, it’s likely the limestone building you are patiently waiting in while being told about “how the patriots control the battle synaptic networks of the PMC’s” would be leveled by the sheer amount of shelling and crazy machines bouncing around the place.
In fact, some parts are so indepth it’s almost irrelevant. Characters in the game explain to Snake about parts of his own history he experienced himself. Other characters will drone on about completely pointless shite while you are attempting to skulk your way past an army of snipers and minefields. While the detail is one of Kojima’s charms, it feels like after MGS1 he decided that rather then writing poignant summaries, he would just tell you absolutely everything about everything, whether it was contextually imperitive or not.
The problem with these situations is that any sort of game flow is shattered. You don’t know when an hour long cutscene will arrive, it just does. You don’t know if its important or not, because skipping one part may lose you the important information at the end. By the end of the scene you probably don’t remember the crapton of information you have been told, with the exception of where to go, who to save or who to kill.
I have a friend who has finished every single MGS title, including the addon editions, multiple times over and he still can’t explain the story to me. The issue is that when you fill the game with so MUCH information, you lose the focus you meant to create initially. It’s easy to see themes – the military-industrial complex, relationships, trust, loyalty, nuclear proliferation. But trying to tie everything together is impossible – once you think you might have it figured out, some crazy shit happens and you’re back to square one again.
Storytelling is an art. Many have said that Kojima is a genius in the way he has been able to develop such a confident, mature and intelligent overarching story for the games. I disagree. I think that Kojima had the ability to tell a story, but instead he flooded the player with everything they did, didn’t and really didn’t need to know.
It feels like the television show Lost – where that show may drag you along and tell you very little, MGS drags you along telling you not only why “Liquid Snake did what he did”, but what he had for breakfast in 1969 and what President Nixon was planning to do with nuclear weapons in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Not only that, but I won’t even begin to elaborate on how obtusely strange and erractic the series becomes by the end. A monkey addicted to caffiene, special ops elites with the runs, boss characters so completely batshit insane its unbelievable they are able to execute the overcomplicated plots Kojima sets out for them.
A good story lets the player think for themselves. You don’t need to be told everything to figure things out, and in some cases, witholding information is a very valid form of communication. Also, asking too many questions, especially unnecessary ones, or explaining entire world orders, makes you forget why you started playing in the first place. Was this part about the creation of the Metal Gear? Or was it about the Patriots? Or FoxDie? Or the PMCs? Why do I need to know this information if it does nothing but create another batch of questions?
My point is, that while the series is a marvel, I feel that I never enjoyed 2,3 or 4 like I did the original. Kojima didn’t know if he was going to get a sequel. So he ran a self-imposed tight ship, and forced himself to tell a story, a fantastic story, in the way he did. It seems that once he removed that restriction, he effectively killed what made MGS the revolutionary game it was.