The Mysterious Mystery of Metal Gear Solid

My first encounter with the Metal Gear series was in about 2005 or so, when I played a pirated copy of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance on my Xbox. I’d heard great things about the Metal Gear Solid series, so I was looking forward to this. The plodding, overwrought introductory cinematic bored me, even more once it launched into a codec call. Once I eventually got to play, lacking any real context or instruction, even a manual (by 2005 I was well used to in-game tutorials that made them unnecessary for play), I blundered around the tanker and was quickly discovered and killed by guards. I repeated this a couple of times before giving up and pretty much abandoning the game forever.

This is a lie.

My first encounter with the Metal Gear series actually came at about 10 years old, when, at a school book fair, I picked up the Worlds of Power novelisation of Metal Gear.

The copy I read looked like this.

The copy I read looked like this.

I barely remember anything about it now, except that it seemed mostly focused on an elaborate hierarchy of keycards that Snake had to sneak around and obtain. I was really taken with this concept, and actually made up a game that I played with my brother, based on hiding a number of cardboard keycards I constructed around the house, which he then had to find without me spotting him. This is seems a reasonable dismantling of the book, though I haven’t checked with the copy of the book I recently bought online.

In the years after I briefly tried to play MGS2, I only really encountered the series in effusive praise from its fans, who bafflingly seemed to consider it the best video game series ever produced, and in an endless stream of parodies and lampooning of the series. My knowledge of the Metal Gear series was all about crab battles and nanomachines?! and genome soldiers?! and people hiding under cardboard boxes, but also about THE BEST GAMES EVER. It didn’t make sense. What I could gather of the MGS games seemed as incoherent and nonsensical as that summary of the Worlds of Power novel I linked to above.

“…the “Snake Men?” Really?  You can’t call the group the Snake Men if you call their youngest hotshot Solid Snake.  None of the other Snake Men have snake-related code names.  Though, I guess there’s a similar issue in the game with Gray Fox being a member of FOXHOUND, but that’s not quite as blatant.  In the book, none of this shit makes any sense.  Not to mention how fucking awful the “Snake Men” is as a name for a top-secret paramilitary unit.  Actually, I’ll mention it.  That shit is terrible.”

FOXHOUND and Shadow Moses and Revolver Ocelot all sounded just as laughable to me. To a large extent, I wrote a lot of that off as localisation issues, or as the product of a Japanese creation team that didn’t quite grasp the way all of this sounded to Western ears. Which, to be fair, is actually a pretty common explanation of a lot of what we see in Japanese games that make it to the West. But that’s a whole other post.

Nanomachines. Nanomachines? Nanomachines. Nanomachines! Nanomachines, nanomachines. Nanomachines?! Nanomachines.

Then there was the stuff I heard about the games’ political philosophy, the web of bizarre and ridiculous conspiracies the whole series seemed to be based on. It all sounded like the kind of thing commonly dreamt up by  teenage boys and young men with just enough knowledge of the world to not take everything in it at face value, but a vast and cavernous absence of any insight or comprehension about what might lie beneath, that they feel the need to invent all sorts of conspiracy theories that they can assure their friends of, and nod very seriously about. They know the score. They know what’s really going on. It’s all there if you just know what to look for. In short, what I could pick up of the underlying politics of the Metal Gear Solid series seemed pathetically amateurish and sophomoric, and exactly the kind of thing that appeals to those sorts of young men.

But here’s the thing: again and again, smart people I knew praised the series, despite all this absurdity. Why? What was I missing? What explained this seeming contradiction?

So I tried again and again to get into the MGS series. I tried to play MGS 1 when I got a PS2, even buying a PS1 memory card to save my game, but I still couldn’t get into it. I tried to play MGS3 with an emulator, which at least let me use my preferred 360 controller, but I found the gameplay impenetrable, and the cinematics impossibly long-winded and ridiculous. How could any English speaker possibly take the name “Naked Snake” seriously? Finally, when the MGS HD collection was announced, I knew I had to get through the whole series.

Earlier this year, I started playing Metal Gear Solid on a PS1 emulator on my aging (now deceased) 2006 MacBook, using a PS3 controller connected via Bluetooth. This was it. I’d already ordered the HD collection for the 360, so I absolutely had to play the first game before it arrived. Over two days and nights, with the assistance of multiple walkthroughs, and a whole lot of bitching and moaning on Twitter, I made it through Metal Gear Solid.

Honestly, not too much of the game has stuck with me. I know I came to respect it as a worthy foe, a challenge I finally overcame. I remember endless preaching about nuclear disarmament that must have seemed tremendously relevant in the late 90s. I remember a lot of rambling, nonsensical political philosophy and conspiracy theories about world government, that are so obviously a product of those pre-9/11, post-Cold War, Fuukuyama’s End of History days, but seem absurdly naive and irrelevant today. I remember terrible controls. I remember some incredibly dubious appropriation of Native American culture in relation to Raven, and some of Snake’s philosophising. I remember the Psycho Mantis fight I’d heard so much about coming off as just kind of a lame gimmick. I remember the incredibly tedious back-tracking with temperature-sensitive keycards, an element that seems to exist purely and solely to pad out the length of the game. I remember so much of the gameplay being so utterly unintuitive I couldn’t comprehend how anyone had ever finished the game without the walkthroughs I had. I remember the intensely detail-focused but frequently laughably inaccurate  fetishisation of weapons and other technology of warfare (in precisely that teenage boy, “katanas can cut through a tank”, way).

Always recycle... TO THE EXTREME!

Always recycle... TO THE EXTREME!

So, now, I’ve finally started playing the MGS HD collection. The first copy I ordered turned out to be an NTSC copy that was unplayable on my PAL 360, an example of the arbitrary and absurd region-coding that remains in a few cases as a remnant of technical constraints lost to history now. The PAL version was released several months later, and by the time it was, I put off ordering it to play the Mass Effect games, since Mass Effect 3 was coming out. My copy finally arrived two weeks ago, and I started up Metal Gear Solid 3 just the other night. All the presentation elements, the cinematics, the dialogue, the names, the storytelling, the plot, all seem just as nonsensical and incoherent as ever. Para-Medic’s comments about “movies you can control” existing one day seem arch, overly pretentious and groan-worthy, in that “I see what you did there” kind of way. The gameplay seems just as unintuitive and ridiculous: I made it through the first several sections just by sprinting through, making the repetition of the “sneaking mission” dialogue laughable.

With all this description of the history of my relationship with the Metal Gear Solid series, I hope I’ve made two things clear:

Firstly, that I am utterly, irreconcilably disconnected from the original context in which these games were produced and consumed. I, and presumably anyone coming into the series for the first time, have absolutely no access to any of that original context. We can’t go back to 1998, nor can we go back to being impressionable young people (though obviously some of us may still be). So many MGS fans seem to have stories of coming to the series at formative times in their lives. We also have limited to zero access to the original hardware on which these games were played. Pre-HD console games look really terrible on HDTVs, worse than they did on standard definition sets. This is a huge part of what’s driven the current wave of HD re-releases. Previous generations of console hardware and software, and the standard definition CRTs to play them on, are only going to get less and less available as time goes on. Similarly, my only access to the cultural and historical context in which these games were originally produced and played is through memories and historical sources. All of which will only diminish with time. People not very much younger than me have no real memory of the Cold War. Young people coming of age today have little to no memory of the pre-9/11 world. The original context of the Metal Gear Solid games is essentially gone forever. The best you can do is try to understand what that lost historical context was, but that tells you more about the historical context itself than it does about how to make meaning from the Metal Gear Solid games in a contemporary context.

Kind of nonsensical on a modern HDTV

Kind of nonsensical on a modern HDTV

Secondly, that the legacy of the Metal Gear Solid games makes it utterly impossible for me or anyone else to enter into them without pre-conception, pre-existing expectations. This includes both the immense body of critical praise for them, and the equally (if not moreso) immense body of surrounding material that highlights the absurdities of the series. One of the things I’m told is that Kojima and the MGS series delight in confounding player expectations, but the expectations of players, like me, coming to the series today are quite different. I expect an incoherent mess of absurdities and non-idiomatic questioning interjections by David Hayter. I expect the controller-swapping of the Psycho Mantis fight, that Raven’s shadow in MGS2 is just that of a toy, and ridiculous plot twists about nanomachines and possessed arms. When I play MGS3, I expect crab battles and naked snakes. But I also expect fascinating political philosophising in this series, which makes the incoherent and outdated rambling, and the preachiness about nuclear disarmament something of a disappointment. Not to mention the expectations about gameplay and presentation shaped by over a decade of other video games. At best, I can try to moderate my pre-conceptions and expectations, but dispensing with them entirely is impossible.

So, I have an inaccessible original context, and inescapable pre-conceptions and expectations. In the face of this, it seems incredibly unlikely, if not impossible, that I could come to understand why smart people I know like the Metal Gear Solid series entirely on my own, just by playing the games. Obviously I have to play them, but that’s never going to be enough.

How, then, can I understand what it is people see in these games?

How can I parse things like the straight-faced but ridiculous gun-twirling introduction of Semi-Automatic Ocelot in MGS3? What is the way that I can look at that and see something other than either an over-wrought, absurdly self-serious bit of amatuerish presentation, or an attempt to be hilariously, self-awarely over-the-top that falls flat because I can’t tell if it’s actually self-aware or not? How do I make some other meaning of it than that? This isn’t a rhetorical question, and I’m not being snarky about it. I am genuinely, legitimately interested in how to make sense of these games, and the critical praise for them.

The people who like the Metal Gear Solid games are obviously not idiots, easily impressed by superficial and juvenile philosophising. Nor are they duped fanboy sheeple, too blinded by adoration for Kojima The Auteur to point out that he has no clothes. There do actually seem to be odd pockets of both these kinds among fans of the MGS series, but the vast majority seem to be neither. A lot of people who I genuinely respect like these games. Why? How? That’s what remains, to me, the fundamental mystery of Metal Gear Solid.