I should confess right away: I’m very fond of the original Metal Gear Solid.
Solid Snake sits alongside Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker as one of the defining pop cultural icons of my childhood. This motley crew of soldier, wizard and jedi once set the standard by which I judged all other games, books and movies. Metal Gear Solid, the game that introduced my generation to the first of this trio, is about to celebrate its 15th birthday in Europe, an anniversary that prompted my first play-through in almost a decade.
I mention my fondness for the game simply because I am not immune to the effects of nostalgia; it’s easy to be forgiving of flaws when looking back on the pop cultural experiences of our formative years. Hopefully, I’ll strike the right balance between sentimental rumination and critical review.
So, grab your sneaking suit, suspend your disbelief, and let’s enjoy some tactical espionage action.
As Snake arrives at Shadow Moses via submarine for the start of his adventure, one of the most striking qualities of the game becomes apparent: the music. The game’s sweeping score was composed and recorded by Konami in-house, and the fact that it remains so instantly recognisable – even by gamers less than familiar with the franchise – is testament to its quality.
The grand orchestral arrangement that has become famous was not recorded until 2001, when Harry Gregson-Williams’ was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for the sequel. The hardware constraints of 1998 naturally take their toll on this version, but the score’s haunting melodies and striking motifs remain highly listenable even today. The highlight is perhaps the opening song: Rika Muranaka’s The Best Is Yet To Come.
"Be careful Snake. The Genome soldiers have highly developed senses of hearing and vision due to their gene therapy. Make sure you don't let them see you."
After slipping past a couple of guards and making your way to the surface of the base, the real fun begins. In replaying these first few levels – which were distributed via a free demo disc that introduced much of the Western audience to the franchise, myself included – one can see why the game is regarded as a pioneer of the stealth genre. The genome soldiers follow your footprints in the snow, sentries can be distracted with a tap on a nearby wall, and infrared laser beams can be spotted using cigarette smoke.
These strategies range from somewhat plausible to completely ludicrous. Most famously, Snake can hide (and walk around) in a small cardboard box, and later in the game fakes his own death using a bottle of ketchup in order to escape a prison cell. But it’s clever mechanisms and imaginative moments like these that make the game such a joy to play.
The surprising level of immersion and atmosphere is complemented by the game’s unique narrative. A sinuous tale of terrorist plots, genetic experiments, secret organisations and nuclear peril, the game’s story is as complex as it is far-fetched. The tale, thrilling as it may be, is not worth singling out for praise, however. It is the manner in which certain parts of it are told that stands out as pioneering.
A couple of hours into the game, and the story is well underway: Snake has made contact with Colonel Campbell’s niece Meryl, rescued everyone’s favourite nuclear scientist Hal Emmerich (“Otacon”), uncovered a plot involving a bipedal nuclear tank, and fought a mysterious cyborg ninja. (Perhaps far-fetched is an understatement). It is as Meryl and Snake are making their way to the hidden underground passageway that the most memorable of Metal Gear Solid’s fourth-wall-shattering moments occurs.
Psycho Mantis is undoubtedly the game’s most memorable opponent. He goes everywhere in a gasmask, has a vaguely insectoid appearance, sports bizarre barcode tattoos, and uses levitation as his preferred means of transportation. Needless to say, he was always going to be an unsettling character, but it is not his appearance that makes him so frighteningly memorable.
"You still don't believe me? I will show you my psychokinetic power. Put your controller on the floor."
Upon meeting the protagonist face-to-face, Mantis addresses not Snake, but the player. You are instructed to place the controller on the floor for a display of Mantis’ telekinetic powers (the best use of force-feedback to this day); your use of the Save Game feature is commented upon, and observations made on your recklessness (or lack thereof); not even your choice of other PlayStation games escapes Mantis’s notice, as the psychic peruses your memory card.
Even today, many boss battles are a simple matter of a tougher opponent. Mash the buttons with sufficient frenzy, and your enemy dies. To defeat Psycho Mantis – a smart and eerily self-aware adversary – the player must employ a similarly smart strategy. Colonel Campbell informs you that Mantis is “reading your controller’s moves”; the solution, logically enough, is therefore to plug your controller into Port 2 on the PlayStation. The sheer audacity of this sequence makes it one of the most memorable boss battles in the history of the genre.
This isn’t the only occasion on which the fourth wall is broken; just an hour into the game, Snake is handed a disk containing ‘all the data pertaining to the Metal Gear exercise’, on the back of which is scrawled Meryl’s codec number. With no way to ‘look’ at an inventory item, the solution is to look at the back of the game’s plastic jewel case. Yet more surreal is the propensity of the game’s characters to refer explicitly to the ‘X button’ and ‘Select button’, most notably during the infamous torture test sequence. It’s endearingly quirky, but strangely immersive at the same time.
Despite moments of brilliance like these, the narrative does have its shortcomings, and these have become significantly more pronounced with age. Most the sins I’m about to mention are committed far more gratuitously in the game’s sequels (and, in the case of Sons of Liberty, with an almost gleeful enthusiasm), but they still warrant mention in any consideration of the game as it sits amongst its contemporaries.
Long stretches of Metal Gear Solid’s story are told using the codec system. This makes sense from a plot-standpoint: Snake is infiltrating the enemy base alone and is thus separated from his comrades by hundreds of miles, making reliance on radio communication perfectly reasonable. However, from a gameplay standpoint this effectively results in much of the story being told in the form of a text adventure. With no interactivity and no visual cues other than barely-animated green headshots, the often-lengthy codec sequences can dramatically lessen the emotional impact of key moments in the story.
"Following orders blindly with no questions asked? You've lost your warrior's pride and become nothing more than a pawn, Snake!"
The codec is a story-telling crutch, and can hardly be said to have pushed the gaming medium to new frontiers. Indeed, it seems especially curious that Metal Gear Solid’s story receives such glowing praise when one considers the ways in which its contemporaries were pushing the boundaries.
Half-Life – Valve Software’s first game, released mere months after Konami’s title – famously eschews textual sequences and cut-scenes altogether. Instead, the game experiments with narrative techniques unique to the medium, its story advancing in real-time and without once breaking away from the first person perspective.
Even limiting our purview to the stealth genre, 1998 offers examples of arguably greater storytelling prowess. In Thief: The Dark Project, the game’s rich mythology unfolds with remarkable grace: the player must read fragments of dropped parchment, spy on enemies, and eavesdrop on conversations. Throughout the game, developer Looking Glass shows a perfect understanding of the show-don’t-tell principle of subtle storytelling.
Subtlety is not one of Metal Gear Solid’s strong points. The game relies heavily on great tides of exposition to advance the story, and its characters routinely deliver long, self-indulgent monologues. Snake’s brother and archrival Liquid is particularly guilty in this regard, being responsible for a number of the game’s long, pseudoscientific lectures on genetics.
Yet more grating is the manner in which the usually snappy dialogue is at times exchanged for mawkish sentimentality. Shortly after the aforementioned Psycho Mantis scene, Sniper Wolf shoots Meryl in an attempt to lure Snake out into the open. Despite her life-threatening wound, Meryl delivers a sappy monologue about the ugliness of war and her delusions of being a solider. It’s frankly ludicrous given the circumstances, and a perfect example of the game’s heavy-handed storytelling.
The game’s anti-nuclear agenda – whilst admirable – is similarly forced down players’ throats. Characters unleash diatribes on the evils of nuclear weapons at every opportune moment (and indeed at several inopportune ones). Upon being rescued by Snake from Revolver Ocelot, ArmsTech President Baker delivers the first of many such rants. The whole episode is set-up with a painfully transparent line from Snake, whose ignorant comment on the end of the nuclear age exists only as an excuse for Baker to wax lyrical on nuclear proliferation.
"They call mercenaries like us "Dogs of War". It's true, we're all for sale at some price or another."
An obvious defence against these charges is the game’s characterization. When compared to Metal Gear Solid’s wonderfully rendered characters, the occasional stilted line or maudlin moment are but minor imperfections. The game’s characterisation rarely falls short of brilliant, and the regular awards bestowed upon Snake, Otacon and Colonel Campbell by the gaming press are easily justified. The voice acting, too, is peerless, and the care and attention that went into its recording was unheard of in 1998.
The game’s representation of women is considerably better than some of today’s games, and many of its contemporaries. Sniper Wolf, Meryl and Naomi all show strength and cunning, yet their individual nuances and flaws set them apart from the tokenistic archetype of the ‘strong female character’. These are individuals whose secrets and ulterior motives drive the plot forward.
However, in common with many other female characters in videogames, the women of Metal Gear Solid seem to suffer from a chronic wardrobe malfunction. Take Sniper Wolf: despite refreshingly good characterization for a female antagonist, she is still inexplicably scantily-clad, which serves only to reinforce the industry’s unfortunate reputation for objectifying women.
"Just what I'd expect from the legendary Solid Snake. You trying to sweep me off my feet?"
Snake’s treatment of women, particularly in the game’s early stages, can also be rather cringe-worthy: his flirts (badly) with Naomi, Natascha, and Mei-Ling in the opening cutscene, and the latter of the three still squeals about how flattering it is. A little later in the game, Snake ridicules Meryl’s attempt to disguise herself as one of the male genome soldiers. This is on account of her arse, which Snake reliably informs her is “too cute” to be a soldier’s. Soon afterwards, the player is required to spot Meryl from among other (male) soldiers by the distinctive wobble of her behind. Classy.
Some might argue this is mildly distasteful, but it’s no worse than most Hollywood action movies and a far cry from the rampant sexism that still pervades some parts of the games industry. Even so, when seen alongside the game’s admirable female characters, Snake’s behaviour is curious – one gets the impression that Konami went out of their way to characterize Snake in this fashion.
Without veering off-topic, it’s worth mentioning that the future of the series is similarly inconsistent in this regard. Whilst we were treated to fantastic female characters like Olga in Sons of Liberty and The Boss in Snake Eater, we also have Quiet to look forward to in the forthcoming The Phantom Pain. For those who missed the furore, she’s a half-naked Sniper who wouldn’t look out of place in a 1990s beat-em-up.
"Snake! What was she fighting for? What am I fighting for!? What are you fighting for!?"
So… where does all this leave us?
With its quirky story, anime sensibilities and zany gameplay, Metal Gear Solid is a game of curious contradictions. It’s a stealth game that’s massively unsubtle, in more ways than one; a stubbornly linear story with a striking level of depth; an anti-nuclear diatribe in the guise of a violent action shooter.
Playing it through today, the game feels more like a relic than a trendsetter. In the age of mobile gaming and instant gratification, Metal Gear Solid’s grandiose story and focus on intricate dialogue feels even more unconventional today than it did in 1998.
But when compared to some of the dull, inoffensive dross to which we’re treated by many of today’s major publishers, this is certainly no bad thing. Metal Gear Solid is richly, unapologetically, gloriously different. Director Hideo Kojima has been rightly described as one of the games industry’s premiere auteurs, and each of his creations bears the unmistakable hallmarks of his influence. In an interview with BAFTA, he described his creation process as one of staying true to an original vision: “when it comes to game design and story I think of both of them by myself and I do it simultaneously, in parallel.”
"Excellent, Snake. Age hasn't slowed you down one bit."
It is perhaps this level of creative control that gives the series as a whole such a unique personality. Some see it as raw sincerity, others as pretentious self-indulgence. Regardless of where one stands on this debate, such a level of idiosyncrasy in a mainstream game is surely something to be celebrated.
The game stays with you. Play it through today, and you’ll be amazed at how familiar some sequences feel. The climactic battle against Liquid and Metal Gear shows the game at its best (and, indeed, at its most far-fetched and contrived – suspend your disbelief to best enjoy these final scenes). After Snake’s failed attempt to disable the huge mech with stinger missiles, Liquid sends the beast stomping towards our hero. Just when it seems Snake will be crushed underfoot, Grey Fox descends out of nowhere to throw himself under the machine’s foot. Sparks fly from the ninja’s exoskeleton as he struggles to hold Metal Gear back, fighting with every ounce of his strength. Snake shouts out his friend’s name, to which his saviour responds: “the name from long ago – it sounds better than deepthroat.”
The game ends with the hauntingly beautiful The Best Is Yet To Come, played over images of Alaska. As far as the game’s sequels go, it’s debatable whether or not the title of this song proved predictive – it depends largely on how you feel about the post-modernist, surrealist leanings of Sons of Liberty. But that’s a discussion to have another time.
Here’s to Metal Gear Solid – it’s been 15 years, and it’s better than ever.