[14 August 2008]
SPOILER WARNING: This review contains lots of important plot details. You’ve been warned.
I fretted a great deal in the months leading up to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4. Hideo Kojima is one of our greatest modern artists, and almost seven years on, Sons of Liberty remains the very best game I’ve ever experienced. Early in the evolution of most forms of creative expression, the cultural gatekeepers band together to stare down the pretender and ask, “and what exactly are you doing here?” Why do we play games at all? Why do games matter? Sons of Liberty was devastatingly to the point, yet nevertheless neatly presented and arranged, as it laid down why video games are a vital aspect of our lives. It was a godsend, and for years there was simply nothing to compare with it; only in recent years have titles like Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Galaxy, Xenosaga 3, Twilight Princess, and (if what I hear is true) Bioshock begun to level the playing field a little bit.
If you can more or less appreciate this, then you should probably also be able to recognize the ways in which Snake Eater was both a crushing disappointment and a masterpiece in its own right. With its go-nowhere plot, near total lack of character development, unnecessarily clunky and cluttered interface, and surprising dearth of abstract ideas, the game had virtually none of the strengths that one would look for in a Hideo Kojima product. However, Snake Eater offered something that was arguably much more important. Up through Metal Gear Solid and even, to a lesser extent, Sons of Liberty, the game space was still being designed as a two-dimensional square; this is why the original Metal Gear Solid, in particular, is beginning to date so badly. Freed from the distractions of plot and characters, Hideo was instead able to devote all his energies into designing the game’s landscape. The highlight of Snake Eater, the battle with sniper The End, was memorable chiefly because it was the perfect tutorial in teaching gamers how to read, analyze, and exploit variegated game terrain.
I bring all this up because, looking beyond individual games, Hideo’s career has revolved around the diptych, in which he follows up a new idea with a “partner game” that heightens and expands the original idea—Metal Gear followed by Metal Gear 2, Snatcher then Policenauts, Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty...and now Snake Eater/Guns of the Patriots. For the longest time, I was approaching Metal Gear Solid 4 as the culmination of a long series (and more specifically, Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, which I “prefer”), but this was crippling, rather than enhancing, my ability to appreciate the new game’s merits. So first thing: I don’t believe I can emphasize enough that this new game is designed to be the conclusion-and-companion-piece to Snake Eater only, and it’s quite possible—just like ten years ago, when many criticized Metal Gear Solid for shamelessly copying every major set-piece from Metal Gear 2 simply to convert them to “pseudo 3-d”—that a good working knowledge of the older games in the franchise may end up backfiring on you here.
(On the other hand, although it may go without saying, you must not go anywhere near this game until you’ve played Snake Eater through to completion, preferably more than once.)
With all the dull setup behind us, Guns of the Patriots still takes a good spell to get started (about an act-and-a-half for me personally), so I’d like to start with the very first thing you see when the game turns on: Snake, smoking a cigarette, while the…game installs. It seems to me that most filmmakers in the modern movie culture seem to have lost the very delicate understanding of how the smallest alteration in lighting a face or moving a camera affects the way we experience what we see; so this image, the most exquisitely lit face imaginable, leapt off the screen and held me spellbound for eight Solid minutes. The key light striking Snake from a little behind-and-to-the-left gives his lined face a very sharp definition; the lingering cigarette smoke enhances the photographic texture of the scene; the camera occasionally tilting down to follow Snake’s hand as he taps out the ash provides a distinct physical sense of place that focusing exclusively on his head would not. During the stretch when I hadn’t yet “gotten into” the game, I constantly returned to this image with the thought that any game containing such a shot is a game that will eventually deliver something special. Perhaps you may be able to do the same.
Since from here on we have to turn our attention to the story, this means unavoidable spoilers abound. Our job is made more difficult by the fact that Hideo still seems to be feeling some of the fallout from Sons of Liberty, and is therefore reluctant to be so explicitly abstract again. This, I think, leads to a confusion between the “story presentation”—what we are nominally told is happening—and the “actual story”, which is humming along merrily in the background details. Separating these two will be complicated, if it’s even possible.
Let me paint an image in your mind to make this easier. I envision Snake Eater in my mind as one long, straight line; ninety percent of the time you enter the area through the “south” (that is, the side of the television closest to you) and proceed “north”, literally deeper and deeper into the world “inside” the television every time you advance. For example, did anyone catch this: Escaping into a sewer on the north side of Groznyj Grad, you dash north through the tunnel and leap out into a river, which you follow north behind a waterfall, and continue north through an underground passage, from which you emerge…on the “south” side of Groznyj Grad. At the end of the long road lies a dead body, a meadow of white blossoms, and a graveyard.
Guns of the Patriots begins with the same image; in fact, they are actually compressed into one physical location, one of the key ideas of the game. Snake has “inexplicably” become old and frayed, and is the victim of constant seizures; these are accompanied by an appropriately debilitating-sounding-effect. Periodically throughout the game, images, dialogue, and locations will seem to have been inserted from a previous game in the series, and with a press of the button, an oddly viral and destabilizing graphic overlay makes the older and newer games one; the same noise that heralds Snake’s collapsing appears here too.
By linking Snake and the game itself in such a way, we can begin to see the problem. This time, rather than a single straight line, I like to think of a circular centripetal force. The system has revolved one too many times; constantly we return to the same ideas, the same basic setup, only to add more weight and unnecessary filler that cannot be sustained, and so now the game itself, and Snake himself, is beginning to break down. So literally speaking, although the initial question would seem to be why Solid Snake would be attending The Boss’s grave, the point is that boundaries and distinctions between Snake and his father—the various situations, storylines, and circumstances of the series—are all dissolving and becoming indistinguishable. In fact, at times this extends outside Metal Gear Solid itself to include all of Hideo’s work.
This would explain why Snake is accompanied on his journey by Metal Gear Mark II, the navigator from Snatcher, but let’s not stop there. To put it crudely, Snatcher was a journey of self-discovery; it played extensively on the movie Blade Runner, blending sci-fi and noir, the side effect of which was to put in the player’s mind the idea that the main character was another Replicant/Snatcher, but the end of his journey reveals that he was actually once a builder of Snatchers—an active agent and not a passive cog. To put it a little crudely again, and risk destabilizing this writing, noir in storytelling generally means that the act of looking at someone or something traps them, and is the reason why there is a story to tell in the first place; as the gun launderer Drebin repeats every time he sees Snake, “Eye have you.”
When Guns of the Patriots opens, Snake is a prisoner already. According to the game, all of the information amassed by the “Societal Sanity” experiment has been used to create a global society founded on perpetual combat, oddly and eerily reminiscent of the Metal Gear Online program introduced in Snake Eater. Snake, both trapped in and excluded from the system, is doomed to wander battlefields contested by two different teams, until he is informed that his “body” (so to speak) is breaking down and will eventually destroy the entire world.
This is where the noir element really comes into play. Utilizing special camouflage that transforms him into the spitting image of the protagonist from Snatcher, Snake travels into an eastern European location straight out of The Third Man. Ostensibly looking for his father’s body, he’s actually questing for self-discovery by finding the one person who can explain his past. To find her, he must carefully observe and tail an anarchist up and down the city to her hideout. This set-piece—cleverly called “The Third Sun” (for the circumstances, the illumination, and the plot twist)—is the riposte to Snake Eater‘s confrontation with The End and is the crown jewel of Guns of the Patriots. Its brilliance in conception and design can be summed up in one simple observation—you may never turn around to see, and you may not see anyway if you do…but someone is following you.
The key image associated with the game (which for some reason did not make it onto the box cover) is that of Snake dissolving into the familiar white flower petals and pieces of computer code. Here is the game’s core overriding principle, that only when Snake ultimately returns to the programming source can everything be saved. Armed with his new self-awareness, Snake arrives at an epiphany that takes him back to his “beginning” in the derelict remains of Shadow Moses, and from there to the GW super-computer. This time around Snake makes it all the way to the core (a process of running through many doors), which is revealed to be…the same graveyard from Snake Eater, only the grave markers are PlayStation 3s. Snake returns to zeros and ones and the system is destroyed. In the conclusion, Snake, abandoned and alone in the graveyard, is surprised by Big Boss, who has apparently been trapped there ever since Snake Eater‘s conclusion. As Big Boss proceeds to finally die (it’s suggested) in Snake’s place, he informs Snake that only the destruction of the System could “unlock the pathway to him”, and that Snake has been purified of the malignant code; in an odd parallelism, Snake saves himself at the same time he destroys himself. I personally feel some of this post-game conclusion is a bit awkward, since Hideo finds himself unable to be completely explicit about what transpired; however, it is worth observing how the other characters speak of Snake as if he had been erased from existence.
Guns of the Patriots’s most important accomplishment (plot-wise, at any rate) is the precise manner in which it reframes and clarifies Snake Eater’s story. The strand that binds the two games in this particular diptych is the fact that, in each, the “real sequence of events” is something that transpires in the background, never once referred to in the game’s forward progression. In Snake Eater we see the foundation of a secret organization, motivated by the desecration of a hero’s body, then in Guns of the Patriots, its dissolution, also due to the outrage over a dead warrior’s body being defiled. I wonder, though, how greatly the inability of the player to be a “mover and shaker” in the plot contributes to the games’ odd sense of inertia which settles in occasionally.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is built on solid theoretical ground, which is good, because the story’s presentation itself is more than a little unsatisfying. My initial reaction to Snake Eater was that although it may have been overly familiar, predictable, and barren, it was still clean, coherent, and compellingly presented, and these can be important virtues in their own right. Guns of the Patriots is often sloppy and muddled, rambling, obfuscatory, unnecessary, and riddled with plot holes. Oddly enough, despite what others may say, this is the first time I think that’s ever been true about a game written/directed by Hideo Kojima, his work having always struck me as being noticeably efficient and tightly constructed. I’m reserving my grousing on various plot points for the final paragraph, but for now it should be pointed out that the game is prone to the great evil of gigantism, both in its spectacle (when Liquid is taken on the Volta River, count the number of shots of soldiers massing, circling, aiming, etc.) and verbosity (the final “conversation” in the game has so many pointlessly portentous remarks that it seems like there should be a whole new game to evenly space them out). Two of the most interesting characters of all, Raiden and Ocelot, are brusquely shunted to the side for the duration—the former used as an easy out whenever it seems the narrative is dead-ending, the latter apparently “assimilated” and destroyed. Other characters seem to appear just for the sake of a roll-call.
The story contains a “cute kid”, a “sassy animal familiar” who likes sodas and smokes, and two of the most bizarrely inappropriate romances I’ve ever seen, in any story-telling medium, period. The number rises to three if you’d care to include Raiden (sporting high heels and long, painted fingernails on his robotic exoskeleton!) orgasmically spurting white blood while brawling with Vamp’s hairy physique and phallically-mounted knife, though my objection here is that the homoeroticism has nothing to do with anything else in the game; the action choreography—here and elsewhere—is tremendously exciting. This raises another interesting point, namely that as Hideo’s acumen at visual storytelling increases, his success with written material seems to decline.
And oh yes…the “bosses.” Hideo Kojima and legions of fans will tell me that “everything needs to support the thesis”, and on that note, they’re quite right. Character designer Yoji Shinkawa did not, as such, “create” boss characters for this game from the ground up. Instead, each one represents the union of an emotion (from Snake Eater), a Fox-Hound animal (from Metal Gear Solid), and a boss-weapon/fighting-style (from Sons of Liberty), and most chillingly, they have no “faces” at all (although the people “inside” these characters are, in fact, nothing but their faces). When everything is collapsing together, this is what you are left with. Okay, but I don’t care, for you see…these characters’ screeching, wailing, moaning, and other assorted histrionics is excruciating—without a doubt the single worst idea Hideo Kojima has ever had. In Snake Eater I was disappointed with the fact that the bosses, at first glance, seem to suggest a sort of Beckett-like journey through the soldier’s state of mind (pain, fear, sorrow, fury…) only to have this go nowhere (why is he “afraid” here, now?)—but the Cobra unit is so far beyond the Beast corps here that…well, simply put, I honestly cannot remember a time I loathed characters (and having to deal with them) as much as I loath these guys.
The biggest problem of all regarding the game’s story presentation revolves around the Codec system. After complaints from Sons of Liberty that the radio was taking up too much space in the story, it was rarely used in Snake Eater to advance the narrative. But it was still there, with actually even more conversations than the previous game. So much information was imparted about the 1960s political and cultural landscape, geography of the Russian landscape, not to mention its flora and fauna, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the support team, that it transformed Snake Eater into arguably the most vividly realized video-game landscape of all time. Guns of the Patriots, on the other hand, virtually annihilates the radio—and with it the meaningful, necessary backdrop—entirely, when there is so much about this brave new world that needs to be said. This may sound pedantic, but it’s actually important, for when you consider what Snake Eater was actually “about”—Naked Snake bonding with his team over the radio—you realize what this new game has really lost.
The five Kojima games ranging from (interestingly enough) Metal Gear 2 to Metal Gear Solid 2 burst with vitality and invention, and rank among the most necessary gaming experiences ever created; they cannot be missed under any circumstances. Speaking for myself, although I began each of them with some disinterest, I was always caught by a hook early on and compelled to finish the title inside of 24 hours. Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots are certainly masterpieces as well, yet markedly different, in that it seems like only when interest in the games’ forward momentum disappears completely does the game really come into its own. If this marks a change in Hideo’s attitude towards life and games in general, or simply ennui towards the franchise, I really don’t know.
I’m not sure what all this reads like, if perhaps it sounds like I have it in for Guns of the Patriots, because I don’t. I’m pretty sure it will ultimately be one of the top three games of 2008, if not the best overall. The gameplay has never been better: you can fire while moving around or while lying flat on your back; you can leap sideways through windows, or roll sideways along the ground. No game I’ve played before has ever captured the mercilessness of the elements as well as this one; although you will spend a lot of time, as in Snake Eater, lying in the grass, this time you will feel the hot sun throughout every second, so much so I found myself hyper-ventilating. The story of Guns of the Patriots is extremely worthy (though not mind-expanding), rooted in an extremely potent, well-deployed idea that marks the perfect conclusion to this story (if, indeed, it is the conclusion!). But I don’t believe any of these reasons truly mark this title as “one of the great games”.
So what then is left for Guns of the Patriots, and from where does it derive its timelessness? I gave the answer earlier on, right at the very beginning: if Snake Eater is a game of spaces, then this one is a game of faces. You can see it, all the power of the medium, in the eyes, lines, wrinkles, and stubble of Snake, Otacon, Meryl, Campbell, Ocelot, Raiden, and Naomi. For me, the gameplay becomes second-nature, and the story is already dissolving into white noise, but whenever I think back on this game, I see Meryl’s eyes taking in Snake’s face, so much more eloquent than lame “crying to the heavens” dialogue, and I am transformed. Hideo has definitely raised the bar.
A few more things I would like to bring to your attention. As I mentioned before, the early part of the game involves Snake trapped in contested battlefields, and you have to decide whether to sneak between the two sides or join in (having the choice is one of many brilliant elements of this game). You actually begin the game with an iPod, through which you can listen to songs or even podcasts. I believe Hideo designed the war zones in this game with the iPod in mind, so I strongly recommend when the fighting heats up, you plug the device in. In Hollywood movies, it is a deeply obnoxious device when the film is played in slow-motion as the orchestra swells—but this is different. Choose your own level of involvement, your own vantage point and camera angle, your own plan of attack, and whatever you find most appropriate to listen to—Hideo has truly captured the dilemma of the post-modern soldier with this device, and using it just right is a truly revelatory experience. I enjoy blasting MSX music myself, but “Calling to the Night” may be a better choice for many of you.
Early in the game you acquire a bullet-riddled metal drum that you carry about for the rest of the game. Find a waterfall, try to stand beneath it as well as you can, and get inside the drum. You can look down in first-person, and not only can you see the drum filling up with water, but also the sunlight coming through the bullet-holes playing off of its surface. It’s very beautiful.
As the final battle between the battleship and Outer Haven is about to begin, a “red-shirt” character has a scene in which he confesses he’s afraid to die. I was struck by the performer, because the physical (not vocal) actor’s performance was staggeringly bad. Check the credits for an interesting surprise.
And now here is the point I move beyond an abstract appreciation of the game to a more straightforward “story-appreciation”. Much is made in the game that neither Liquid nor Solid’s genetic code can be used as the key to unlock the System, because although they are both clones of Big Boss, they are not an exact match; for example, their DNA has been altered and tampered with to “make them age faster”. But then it’s revealed that Solidus and his biometric data were good enough to unlock the System, and despite the game’s feeble protestations that Solidus was designed to be “the perfect clone”, we know that his DNA had been altered as well, especially considering he, too, aged prematurely, so what’s going on here? What the hell is Vamp doing in this story anyway? Aside from the fact that there’s no real reason for him to be there, it was suggested in Sons of Liberty that Vamp had a vendetta against Ocelot, or “Crazy Ivan”, so why, or how, would he have ended up joining forces with him? No explanation is ever provided, and those Vamp-oriented explanations that are belched up are deeply prosaic and unimaginative; they have nanomachines for everything nowadays.
Finally, I’ve read a great deal of speculative fiction in which someone, after an organ transplant of some kind, is possessed by the limb’s original owner, so I’ve always been able to take the plot point of Ocelot being possessed in stride. The concept, however, that Ocelot was only pretending to be possessed by his arm in an attempt to fool most of the world is straight out of South Park, and I basically think this is the dumbest plot point in the series, taking the title from Otacon’s “I had an affair with my stepmother and drove my father to suicide” confessional in Sons of Liberty.
No doubt I’ve forgotten quite a few other interesting moments, but these should be enough to get us started.