The Man Behind the Curtain
When Hideo Kojima is asked about his influences, he usually lists movie directors alongside video game designers. This comes as no surprise to those who’ve played his Metal Gear Solid series, which have paved the way for an entire generation of video games with aspirations to the cachet that blockbuster movies possess. The games’ achievements leave little room for debate: the stealth-action style of gameplay is expertly designed and presented, and meshes well with the complex stories that the games purport to tell. As the various incarnations of Snake slowly make their way through enemy territory, Kojima’s stories progress with equal deliberation, unfurling to reveal plot twists and hidden agendas at every turn. The series’ reputation as the gold standard of the most recent cinematic turn in video games is almost certainly well-deserved—which is why I’m always a little ashamed to admit that I really don’t enjoy playing them.
My struggles with Metal Gear Solid always boil down to a question of patience: do you have the patience to wait for that guard to turn the other way so that you can sneak by him, or does your trigger finger itch uncontrollably, heedless of the alarms that will sound if you simply jump out of hiding, guns a-blazing? Do you have the patience to sit through cutscene after cutscene, waiting for the game to deliver its narrative payload, or do you groan every time Snake takes a call from his handlers, dreading those long, rambling interruptions of the game’s flow? It’s possible that my attention span was terminally shortened by too many childhood sessions of Kaboom!, but it always seemed to me that Metal Gear Solid‘s bulky plots and red-light-green-light pace amounted to little more than a big game of “hurry up and wait.”
Waiting is, of course, an especially irritating thing to make the player of a portable game do, and so in making a spinoff of Metal Gear Solid for the PSP—inexplicably titled Metal Gear Acid—the developers chose to branch out of the stealth-action formula and into collectible card-based strategy. The result is a game that plays completely differently than the Solid titles, but is still unmistakably a Metal Gear game.
The pacing problems in the Metal Gear Solid games are ameliorated in Metal Gear Acid by the fact that its action is turn-based rather than continuous. Acid is still all about sneaking and taking out guards one at a time (if at all), but in this game your options are determined by a deck of cards. At any given time, the actions you can perform—movement, attack, defense—are limited to those represented by the cards in your hand. In addition, each card has a “cost” associated with it; playing cards builds up your cost, which is paid in time spent waiting while the computer-controlled guards take their turns. Success in the game depends on both preparation (assembling a useful deck from the pool of available cards) and execution (managing your hand as you move through the game, holding on to important cards until the time is right).
The turning of cards to determine a player’s actions has become a popular mechanic in both board and video games in recent times, affording the player more decision-making opportunities than a simple roll of the dice would, but still retaining the near-mystical sense of giving yourself up to fate. As you play through Acid, the drawing of cards from your deck takes on the feeling of a Tarot reading, each new card opening and closing paths, some offering a shortcut to success, others dooming you to failure. When a flock of guards swoops down on you while you flip through your deck, vainly hoping to draw a card that will allow you to make a getaway, you begin to wonder if the PSP is messing with you, a digital trickster withholding the one thing that could help you survive. When faced with bad luck, we always wonder if there isn’t someone we can blame, someone pulling the strings behind the curtain.
If the gameplay inspires some slight meditation on fate and manipulation, the story is obsessed with it. It wouldn’t be a proper tale of espionage if anyone were what they seemed, but Acid, in true Metal Gear fashion, takes things to extremes. From the opening scene—the meeting of a shadowy, Trilateral Commission-like cabal—the characters in the game are pushed and pulled by forces they can neither see nor understand. Through the course of the game, enemies become friends and friends become enemies, seemingly at random: terrorists lashing out at America’s manipulation of “puppet regimes” in the third world are tricked into working for even sketchier organizations; an airplane with a presidential candidate on board is hijacked by a pair of murderous dancing dolls; even Snake himself is under suspicion of being a bad guy, unable to tell if he’s repressed his own memories or is having a schizophrenic episode. The unreliability of the player-character within the narrative goes far beyond the clichéd amnesiac protagonist (a common and lazy device used in games to turn the main character into a conveniently blank slate) and contributes to the sense you have of not being in control and of being at the mercy of Snake’s mental breakdown, of mad scientist Flemming’s deceptions, of the luck of the draw.
Unfortunately, while the plot is compelling (albeit a bit overstuffed), the dialogue is not up to the task of giving it the weight it needs to really affect the player. Deprived of the full resources of a game console and unable to provide any full-motion cutscenes or video, Metal Gear Acid is forced to convey its entire story through static images and snippets of text, delivered between (and sometimes during) missions by iconic portraits of the characters. While it’s not impossible to deliver a compelling story in this format, Acid is not done any favors by its stiff, mechanical script. It’s hard to say whether the game is a victim of bad writing or bad translation, but either way, the dialogue is barely able to deliver the instructions required to play the game; asking it to help the player untangle the many plot threads the game weaves together, or to have any emotional affect—that’s just too much to hope for, it seems.
At least Metal Gear Acid has its gameplay to fall back on. The large number of available cards allows you to build decks that reflect different approaches to the game: depending on the cards you prefer, Snake and company can sneak through levels, avoiding guards and cameras all along the way; they can act as assassins, wiping out the enemy before they know what hit them; or they can storm a room, dishing out damage and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. The number of options the game offers isn’t just a source of fun, it’s a source of hope: even with poor dialogue and bad luck working against you, you might yet be able to gain some measure of control over your fate.