a review of Metal Gear Solid 4 Guns Of The Patriots Tactical Espionage Action
a videogame developed by the solely responsible hideo kojima
and published by konami
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Metal Gear Solid 4 is your birthday; on this most special birthday, your grandmother is miraculously still alive — and she remembers that you used to own a closet full of Pound Puppies.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is Kingdom Hearts minus the Disney and the Final Fantasy. It is an archaeological effort to unearth and lie face-up in the sun every ridiculous, ancient, and embarrassing truth regarding We the People Who Really Like Videogames.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is delicious, edible slander.
Life, and everything in it — The World — The Videogame Industry — is a battlefield. One day, sitting on a porch somewhere in Alabama, Metal Gear Solid 4 might have been our cousin; today, it is our enemy.
Remember when you were five years old, and you told your mother that you were never going to smoke a cigarette, and she blew smoke in your face and called you a “Stupid kid”, and, with that next puff of nicotine in her lungs, muttered “who does he think he is, a psychic?” She was trying to say that you can’t predict the future; maybe, long ago, she’d made the same promise to her mother, and look where it got her. Well, twenty-four years have passed and you’ve never touched a cigarette, possibly because your mother’s pathos, on that day, left a lasting impression. You might have started to think that you are and always will be invincible to the ebb and flow of taste: one opinion you held as a preschooler holds up even today; nothing will ever change, and regardless of whether or not you are, in fact, also stupid, you will die happy. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots Tactical Espionage Action shows up ten years after you played Metal Gear Solid Tactical Espionage Action and knew with your entire body that it was great and amazing, amazing and great; by the end of its doily-fluffing twenty hours of cut scenes incomprehensible to non-kleptomaniacs, it has cast burning, ultraviolet light on its own history, and asked you “How Do You Like Me Now?” no less than a hundred and eight times. At one specific point very late in the game, director Hideo Kojima offers the player a sparkling opportunity to flip the screen a middle finger and declare “Fuck You, Solid Snake!” We here at Action Button Dot Net, deeply absorbed into the moment, playing this game with Sony-brand Dolby 7.1 headphones on a 40-inch Bravia in the cockpit of an abandoned fighter jet, seized this opportunity with great vigor. We went on to complete the game; three seconds after we were certain the credits had actually stopped rolling, we disembarked the jet, walked into the hangar, and checked the internet, where it became frightfully apparent that no one who gets paid to review videogames has anything resembling actual taste.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is Hideo Kojima’s “Springtime for Hitler”.
The previous sentence presumes Actual Intelligence exists inside Hideo Kojima’s brain. This is not meant as an insult. We’re certain the man is, at least, not mentally retarded. We’ve read interviews for years now in which he complains that Metal Gear Solid is a ball and chain. He wants to be free. He wants to make something else. We can’t blame him; no one wants to do the same thing forever. Scientists have proven it. Our girlfriends never believe us when we try to explain this, so of course the average videogamer isn’t going to explain it. The PR maelstrom surrounding Metal Gear Solid 4 devoted two years and literally thousands of human-hours of work into drilling holes in the craniums of every MGS-lover: 4 will be the end; 4 will tie up everything; 4 will be Kojima’s opus.
If it’s a fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 sucks on purpose, we can hardly blame Kojima for that, either. Given his previously well-documented disinterest in the series, its having been promoted as his “opus” must have turned his stomach. It’s clear that Kojima’s priority was the game’s plot, and making sure it “satisfied” fans: like the world’s fattest kid circa 1989 winning a Toys R Us shopping spree, Kojima struts zombie-like into the warehouse of his past work and proceeds to remove absolutely everything from the shelf, dropping one item at a time into his bottomless shopping cart. He eventually gets up to the cash register, leaves the cart unattended, pulls his smokes out of his jacket, and steps outside.
Tycho at Penny Arcade said that Metal Gear Solid 4 is better if you skip the cut-scenes. We’re pretty sure he’d played less than half of the game before writing that. We don’t blame him, nor do we hate him, for saying this. The truth is, if you’re playing Metal Gear Solid 4 as a game, the beginning is pretty compelling if you play it context-free. You’re an intruder on a battlefield being currently raped and pillaged by two opposing forces. One of the overarching themes of the story being “war is kinda not nice”, it’s actually somewhat accidentally poignant to experience the high-definition terrors of war from the perspective of an outsider just trying to get from point A to point B. It reminds us of our great idea to make a game where you play as a three-year-old boy in a Middle-Eastern warzone, too weak to pick up a gun, hiding and fleeing in terror from legions of unsympathetic troops. Of course, in Metal Gear Solid 4, you can shoot and kill dudes, so you can’t exactly play it as a statement. As a core mechanic and overarching theme, the “mind your own business here in the warzone” angle works. One of the two armies is grayly defined as the lesser of two kinda-not-nicenesses, so if you cap one of the other motherfuckers while the slightly sympathetic dudes are watching, they might start to not immediately hate you. Its vaguely compelling, in an obsessive-compulsive way (which must be a real treat for MGS series fans), that in order to do something to prove you’re on these guys’ side, they have to see you doing it, though if they see you doing something that’s in the least bit suspicious, they will not hesitate to kill you. This turns the act of batlefield-navigation into a sort of seamless blend of Pac-Man and any given Japanese role-playing game of the 1990s: narrow roads cut city blocks into a rough labyrinth, though there’s really only ever one path you can possibly take, and it’s always obviously right there in front of you.
Soon enough, the falcon loses sight of the falconer, things fall apart, the story introduces a guy whose dominant character trait is acute diarrhea, et cetera. The game exploits the virtue of its own Fun Factor well into its second act, where the context rudely enters the equation and refuses to leave. We are no longer merely engaged in thrilling little meta-skirmishes where we must pick an alliance (help one side, kill both sides, help neither side, hurt neither side, little of column A little of column B et cetera): we are standing on top of a speeding Armored Patrol Carrier being piloted by Dennis Rodman and his soda-drinking pet monkey, being screamed at to shoot down oncoming enemy troops. The APC turns a corner and the screen goes black. “NOW LOADING”. Isn’t this supposed to be the Toughest Games Machine On Earth?
By act three, the game has abandoned its neat little idea in favor of a far neater one: we are now following a guy through a European city. Snake is wearing a trenchcoat, looking like Gillian Seed from Snatcher (the fans swoon), and it’s quaintly foggy. Ironically, this proved to be our Absolute Favorite Part of the Game. Since age nine, we have wanted to wander a European metropolis after curfew, letting a shady man obliviously lead us to his shady headquarters. This is the reason we studied Russian and Chinese in elementary school while everyone else was busy pretending they knew something about sex. We carried this dream in the palm of our hand until college, when it dawned upon us that we could Actually Die from doing Stuff Like This, so we started writing about videogames in the first-person plural instead. Metal Gear Solid 4 manages to get the mood and the pace of Euro-man-stalking just right. Our target is “Side A”, and the enemy troops enforcing the curfew are “Side B”. We are “Side C”. The level design in this part of the game is ferociously cute: both we and Side A are in violation of Side B’s rules; while avoiding Side A’s detection, we have to ensure that Side A avoids Side C’s detection. This ends up pretty fascinating, whether you have watched the opening cut scene or not. Eventually, you get to the goal, and suddenly you’re riding shotgun on a motorcycle in yet another ropey on-rails shooting sequence. It’s like waking up from a dream about the Bahamas to find out you’re actually in Bermuda. Instead of intimately sharing military secrets with a woman you picked up at a poker table, you’ve got your mother asking you to shoot a helicopter down.
Then there’s a boss sequence. It’s the second boss sequence of the game, actually. Like the one before it, it thrusts a character of considerable personality (compared to the typical drone, at least) into your face and asks you to kill them. You oblige, and then the boss reveals that it had, in fact, been a beautiful woman all along. Now the beautiful woman walks toward you, attempting to drain all of your life force with her mysteriously psychic embrace. There’s an in-game explanation for why her embrace can kill you, though as we’re ignoring the story for the time being, we’ll pretend to be confused. Let’s put this one on the table, then: the girls are all very hot. Why are they so hot? Huge amounts of money were likely spent making these boss-character-girls hot as fresh-baked lava rocks. Director Hideo Kojima (DHK) says that one of the “themes” of Metal Gear Solid 4 is “beauty and the beast”, though what does that mean, really? The bosses are “beasts” before their nasty mechanical suits are stripped from them; then they’re just helpless “beauties”. We could go on to suppose that Snake, a wrinkled old man with a Charles Bronson mustache, is the gray area between “beauty” and “beast”, though if we started saying things like that, Kojima would win, so nuh-uh.
The point is that, for a split-second at least, the game makes you care about the boss characters. If you’d been trying to ignore the story, you’ll be out of luck for that split-second. A split-second is all it takes for you to care about Metal Gear Solid 4 on a level that is not immediately superficial.
Then act four comes; the garbageman rings your doorbell and says that from this day forth, you don’t need to take the garbage out — he’s going to personally come into your home and do it for you. One dead-silent moment hours later, it becomes apparent that the garbageman was lying, and he just wanted to take a shit in your bathtub.
That is to say, it becomes presently obvious that you cannot ignore the story of Metal Gear Solid 4. The game absolutely, positively will not permit any ignorance re: its plot. It speaks, oddly politely, that if you’re not paying attention, you’re not doing it right.
We will disclaim, right here, that we have, for the past decade of jacked-into-the-netness, chuckled and rolled our eyes whenever anyone complained about the length of the cut-scenes in a Metal Gear Solid game. Some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “gameplay” (like that’s a real word); some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “atmosphere”. It puzzled us, to the point of rubbing our bellies in amusement, that someone would dare to want to play Metal Gear Solid with absolutely no invested interest in the characters. It’s not that the story and the characters are necessarily great literature so much as they’re insperable from the game’s progression and atmosphere. If you only like the game mechanics, you’d be better off playing Pac-Man — it’s basically the same thing. Conversely, if you only like the story, you’d be better off reading a book. (Crucial: notice how we recommended Pac-Man for players who only like Metal Gear Solid as a game, whereas we recommended any book in existence for those who enjoy it as a story.) If nothing else, the original Metal Gear Solid had a dignified flow to it: the characters were all rough sketches, all vaguely likable. Conceptual Bullshit was kept to a minimum, and by minimum, we mean “Maximum, in Hindsight”. There was a fucking “boss” who you didn’t fight, who you instead met and talked to, and he died six hours before you even knew he was a boss. The game shows you this level of virtuosity for a while without once flexing its muscles in the mirror; at a certain point, it starts delivering soliloquies about love blooming on the battlefield; by this time, we are so into it that we can’t give up now. The game has worked its spell on us.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was a joke. We knew it was a joke; that’s why we wrote an article about how it was literature; that everyone thought that article was serious and in turn started to seriously assess Metal Gear Solid 2 as literature speaks volumes about how good a joke Metal Gear Solid 2 was. It’s rumored that Hideo Kojima had wanted to call Metal Gear Solid “Metal Gear 3″, though was advised not to, because “times had changed” and “the average gamer” would feel “dumb” jumping in on part three of a series. Maybe this was a good idea, maybe not. Either way, he wanted to call Metal Gear Solid 2 something else — maybe, just, replace the word “Solid” with another adjective, maybe “Moist”. The pseudo-hypocritical marketing department allegedly told him that he can’t change the name of the series now that it’s been established and made a big splash: they needed a numeral to ensure more sales. So Metal Gear Solid 2 was a massive joke, with the main character’s “death” partway through and the introduction of a man-pansy hero; it was Kojima ejecting bile for “the fans” of Solid Snake, by imprisoning them in the body of a character who could only ever see Solid Snake from a distance. The game was massively (mis)interepreted on various internet forums as some kind of artistic statement, something rich and deep in “literary themes” the likes of which can only be executed in games, where the player controls a character. Looking at it again, this far removed, we find it kind of precious: the player wanted to pretend to be this one guy, and then they end up having to pretend to be some other guy, and only watch the guy they wanted to pretend to be. If we were to write this out in mathematical symbols, insinuating that it didn’t even matter if guy A (the one we wanted to pretend to be) had been less manly or videogame-character-like than guy B (the guy we ended up having to pretend to be), some Wall-Street man’s monocle would pop out and he would tell us something about a “jolly good show”. The hypothesis would be that “fans will be fans”, and the conclusion would be a resounding “yes”.
Metal Gear Solid 3 was the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” of the Metal Gear Solid series — stepping aside, showing us something different, indicating that the mythology surrounding its characters and plot
1. Was immortal, timeless, infinite, untellable in full no matter how many angles the storyteller showed us
2. Didn’t matter that much, in the grand scheme of everything
It was a videogame masterpiece. It was a sharp little spike-like game; its “big concepts” showed up like blood-stained stones on the side of the road. When, at the end, the main character pointed a gun at someone’s head and the camera panned out, it took us maybe thirty seconds to realize that we were supposed to press the “fire” button to pull the trigger. Our momentary ignorance — our failure to acknowledge that we were still in control was at once a statement on the subject of entertainment media, a statement on the subject of videogames, a commentary regarding criticism of the works of Hideo Kojima (“too many cut-scenes”, the people say), and an absolutely not-arrogant, in-character pseudo-inadvertent representation of the hesitation the main character feels at that very point in time. It was perfect. It was amazing. The full brunt of Hideo Kojima’s potential for future interactive entertainment masterpieces came within view. Kojima had said that Metal Gear Solid 3 was to be his last, and following its noble climax, we didn’t scorn him for wanting to move on to other things.
Of course, fans will be fans, and videogame companies will be deathly afraid of new things.
With Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima came sprinting back. We can say with confidence that this move was perhaps conscientious. He might (or might not) have said in an interview that he came back to direct this game because “the fans wanted it”. “The fans wanted Kojima to direct” is industry-speak for “the fans didn’t want Kojima to not direct”. The reason for this is straightforward: the people associate the name “Hideo Kojima” with Metal Gear Solid. To have one without the other is to defy their blind love. It’d be like asking them to eat a cake that isn’t chocolate, or a chocolate that isn’t cake.
The truth is, we were younger when Metal Gear Solid first hit the scene. We were ten years younger. Though we were old enough to be proud of having kept our promise to our mothers re: never smoking a cigarette, we were perhaps not old enough to know exactly what art — or love — is. Hindsight will tell us that, in concept and execution and everything in between, Metal Gear Solid is better than Metal Gear Solid 4, though this hardly matters. What matters is that we have grown up, and Metal Gear Solid has grown down. Hands firmly planted on hips, we rotate slowly, low groan echoing from our throats, and survey the internet: everywhere, everywhere, we see that people still have not opened their eyes and ears to true love. They still are utterly up to the tops of their eyeballs in blind devotion to Metal Gear Solid. One key, stunning example of this blindness comes from people’s love of David Hayter, the voice of Solid Snake, whose idea of an “old” voice is to imagine he’s gargling asphalt. He sounds fucking ridiculous. Kotaku had a story about David Hayter once, and the comments section erupted into people badmouthing the Japanese Solid Snake, Akio Otsuka, because #1 he’s Japanese, and Snake is American and #2 he doesn’t even sound old. If you people had ever gone outside, you’d realize that old people only “sound old” in fucking cartoons. Akio Otsuka is an exceptionally talented dramatist (did you know he does the voices of Solid Snake, Liquid Snake, and Solidus?); David Hayter is just a name in the credits of something people know they like. Metal Gear Solid 4, in execution, in pathology, is more of a David Hayter than an Akio Otsuka.
We played Metal Gear Solid 4 from start to finish, watching all of the cut scenes, and then played it again, skipping all the cut-scenes, though remembering what happened in them whenever one scene cut sharply from one thing to something else. Then we “played” the game a third time, by watching a friend play, watching some cut-scenes and skipping others. This latter method proved the most ridiculous. Our friend had carved a direct path to the end of the game in less than three hours; he let each segment of the 90-minute ending play for around five minutes before skipping to the next one. While he was doing this, we flipped through a copy of Anna Karenina and read the sentence in the center of random even-numbered pages: Anna Karenina was winning.
The “problem” with Metal Gear Solid 4 is hardly the self-importance, or the stupidity of its narrative — it’s how damnedly “well” the narrative and the game are married. You just can’t have one without the other, try as you might. Many critics groaned at the length of the cut-scenes without addressing the simple fact that the cut-scenes are retarded. For the past few years, some critics have exhausted their lungs moaning about Quick Time Events (Action Button Events, they’re called in Japan): those little interjections where a button icon appears front and center on the screen, and you have to mash it quickly in order to make your character do something that no amount of regular controller input could produce under any other circumstances. Metal Gear Solid 4‘s most regularly occurring Quick Timer Events happen to involve pressing a button during a long, talky cut-scene in order to produce a momentary flash of a screen image or piece of concept art from another game in the series. Other critics have plunged stakes into the heart of the cut-scene itself, suggesting that games should tell stories in other ways — perhaps, as Gears of War or Half-Life 2 do, in three-second bursts while the game is actually happening. Few have squinted hard enough and complained about the moments where, as in Metal Gear Solid 4, cut-scenes become Quick Time Events where you’re not required to press buttons: the (seemingly) hour-long sequence in which Ninja Raiden Riverdance-Duels a gay vampire in order to buy Snake, Otacon, and their pet robot enough time to escape from the hell of South America via helicopter is a chief offender: look at those moves! The moment we, as a “player”, behold a scene in a “videogame” and think “Man, someone should make a videogame out of that”, the ghost is essentially given up.
Eventually, Metal Gear Solid 4, in all its attention to detail, all its wide-armed to-the-club welcoming, begins to frighten us. We remember that time we were walking back to our car with a girl, in university, and the Vietnam veteran in our advanced Chinese class — he’d waited literally twenty-some insane years before cashing in on the US government’s offer of a free education — drove up in his Pontiac, said hello, and began to tell us a story about his “bastard ex-wife”, which ended with him explaining how, if someone were to hold their right hand out all the way to one side, and you were to shoot the tip of their index finger with an M-60 from two hundred yards away, it’d not just blow the finger off — it’d tear their arm out of the socket. The blood would spurt so fast out of the severed arm socket that the victim would be unconscious before they hit the ground, and dead before they could get back up. Bizarre as this was, and freaked-out as the girl was, it’d perhaps facilitate our getting laid later, and it was kind of cool to hear someone who’d actually shot someone before talk about guns. At the end of the day, though, once you’ve killed one person, it goes from being “something you’ve never done” to being “something you do”, and once you’ve killed more than three people, it kind of becomes something you do “all the time”. Hearing a genuine Vietnam vet talk about shooting peoples’ arms off is really about as exciting as listening to your mom explain her meatloaf recipe over the phone to your aunt. When Kojima steps back into his fancy shoes and begins to work the orchestra of Metal Gear Solid 4 into a crescendo, we witness an amazing mix of the schlock-handed and the masterful. On the one hand, there’s a beautiful (“beautiful” is Japanese for “hilarious”) story reveal wherein Meryl finds herself engaged; on the other hand, if you haven’t purchased every game in the series and their accompanying glossy art books, you’re hardly going to give a shit. The entire final mission feels like a meatloaf recipe: when you kill the last Girlboss — the Girlboss who had, in fact, been psychically controlling all of the other Girlbosses, and it’s revealed that this Girlboss was in fact only being mind-controlled by Psycho Mantis, a boss you killed in Metal Gear Solid, you may be tempted, as we were, to get on the internet and look at pornography instead. This scene is followed by abovementioned Meryl-gets-engaged cut-scene, and then by a virtuoso sequence in which the screen splits, the top half showing all the characters from the game living out what will be Their Final Moments If Snake Doesn’t Succeed, and the bottom half showing Snake as he worm-crawls through a microwave tunnel while the player slams the triangle button ferociously. On the one hand, this may be brilliant; on the other hand, it might be an accident. If it’s brilliant, it’s only brilliant because it’s a direct commentary on the nature of cut-scenes, player control, and the much-maligned Quick-Timer Events plaguing action game design today. On the one hand, if it’s a commentary on Quick-Timer Events and/or the Wiimote-masturbating nature of modern “cinematic” action games, effective as it may be, we’d probably rather have games that bother to have a story make that story comment on real issues (Shout out to Infinity Ward: Hello, Infinity Ward!), not videogame design. On the other one hand, it’s kind of an interesting cinematic presentation: the player literally gets tired of hammering that triangle button before the grueling sequence is over. However, on the other other hand, if the player had been skipping all of the cut-scenes up to this point, he’s just going to look at the top of the screen and wonder who the hell all of these people are. The pooch is essentially screwed at this point: you’re damned if you did, and damned if you didn’t: far worse than being merely damned no matter what you do, you are already damned by something you already did.
Despite Metal Gear Solid 4‘s not being a “great game”, it ends in the tradition of great games: by forcing the player to play something else. As Halo ends by turning into a Driving Game and Sin and Punishment ends by turning into Missile Command, as the kids in the movie “The Wizard” had to compete in the then-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3 in order to prove who was better at Tetris, Metal Gear Solid 4 turns into a somewhat shockingly brilliant fighting game at the end. For a moment, right there, the exhausted and cautiously optimistic player might say that this is the perfect end to the entire franchise, not to mention this meandering, idiotic story: the hero and his opponent are both old men, older even than Danny Glover when he told Mel Gibson he was “too old for this shit”. Perhaps the whole mumbo-jumboful story up to this point, with its self-defeating conclusion, had been for the purpose of establishing the out-of-placeness of these two old men, for the purpose of presenting the the mountain-size of the Can’t-Give-a-Fuckness. They brawl, fists blazing, refreshingly, deliciously, at a high speed. It doesn’t matter who wins. At this point in the game, our first time through, the area beneath our lungs began to vibrate with actual anticipation: might this be the Metal Gear Solid 3 “execution” moment, brought around into perfect form? Might it be so that if we lose right here, if Snake loses to Ocelot, that’s the end of the game? We got a game over; we got a second chance. We deflated a bit. We won, anticipating that maybe Kojima was going to kill off Snake in a different way: maybe Snake would just sit down, victorious, and die nonchalantly. That didn’t happen, either. Eventually, the snake starts to eat its own tail, and ninety minutes later, we have a look on our face like an ostrich with a dry lump of cotton candy kacked halfway down its ridiculously long throat (protip: birds don’t salivate). We’ve said before that, once you learn scales and all the barre chord shapes, learning to play the guitar is like a high-rise office building with a light switch in each room and a broken elevator: take the stairs up, open a door, enter the room, turn on the lights, exit the room, close the door, go to the next door, repeat until you feel safe becoming famous. Light switches in an office building is a compelling concept if you’re a man, and alone, with a thousand and one nights to spare before the showdown; watching someone else turn on the light switches for more than five minutes is terrifying. Have you ever had a neighbor with a seven-year-old just starting out on the violin? It’s like that. Metal Gear Solid 4, in its overwrought conclusion, stumbles, drunken, from room to room, flicking some light switches ruthlessly, and blinking others on and off for ten minutes before flipping off the ceiling and slamming the door.
Eventually, the game turned us off to the concept of entertainment in general. Eventually, the game makes us start drinking.
Upon completing Metal Gear Solid 4, we put a DVD of “The Graduate” in our PlayStation 3 and watched it, upscaled.
Yeah. That’s a pretty good movie.
Controversy erupted, on the internets, when someone close to a working copy of the retail version of Metal Gear Solid 4 let loose the claim that some of the cut-scenes approached ninety minutes in length. The ensuing groans could have sucked the air out of a baseball stadium. One prevailing sentiment among Metal Gear Solid 4 pledged pre-fans was that they would be worried about ninety-minute cut-scenes in any other game, though since it was Hideo Kojima, they wouldn’t mind. Konami’s cartilage-headed PR was quick to counter: the cut-scenes are so not ninety minutes long, and you can skip them, if you want. There we have it: a chill silence soaks the internet from head to toes. The makers of the games industry’s flagship champion for cut-scenes as a valid form of storytelling have just told us that the story segments are skippable. Also, saying that no cut-scenes approach ninety minutes in length is kind of a cop-out, because there are segments where one ten-minute cut-scene leads to three minutes of playing, then ten more minutes of cut-scene, then five minutes of play, repeat. This feels worse than a ninety-minute cut-scene. The term “blue-balling” is appropriate (make your own sentence here if you want).
No website or magazine seems to address this point, perhaps because they’d feel mean: the cut-scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 are bad. They are bad because they are not good. The mission briefing sequences prior to each of the game’s major segments tend to be more than 40 minutes long. Some critics might have said “That’s about as long as an episode of a TV show!” That would be correct. Some apologists might have said “That’s only about as long as an episode of a TV show!” That would be correct, as well. However, the fact of the matter is that these mission briefing segments are not as entertaining as an episode of a TV show. They have no flow, no “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. Watch any awful filler episode of “Lost” and you’ll see that there, at least, the writers understand how to structure a story. Here we could inject some meta-argument about how if you invented a remote-control that, when pointed at someone’s head, could make them forget The Holy Bible existed, and then you used said device on a Giant Publishing Company’s Elite Reader shortly before handing him a manuscript of the Bible, he’d frown and say the whole thing was too chaotic and not at all what the market was looking for. This argument would go on to go nowhere. Chances are — so say the bureaucrats in the “Industry” — if a person is playing a game, they don’t want literature. This, more often than not, gets misinterpreted as “games don’t want a coherent story, or even a well-told one”. Nonetheless, we can’t presume the average games industry executive to have any knowledge of narrative structure: the majority of them got their start managing Pizza Huts (Nintendo’s Reggie), not reading manuscripts. Not that reading a manuscript ever gets a man anything aside from the right to read better manuscripts. What we’re saying, right here, is that there existed a shimmering chance for Metal Gear Solid 4‘s story to be an excellent tale excellently told: we have played enough Metal Gear Solid 3 to know that Kojima has the tools, and the dedication. His men had the money, they had the technology, they had the willpower, they had a devoted development of Kojima-lovers working round the clock for several years to bring this mimeograph of an “artistic vision” to life.
We played Metal Gear Solid 4 expecting no more and no less than an answer to the question “Is Hideo Kojima actually a genius?” We got an answer, though we would have preferred the answer be a clear “Yes” or “No”. Instead, we got a “Maybe not”. We’re not ignoring the possibility that Kojima was trying to shoot his series in the head, because it’s obvious that he was — we’re just not going to rely on that as an explanation. What we’re saying is, he could have shot his series in the head so much more elegantly. As is, the pacing of this tale blesses the player of an ethereal understanding of why Kojima never actually got a novel published before he entered the games industry. As mentioned in the above paragraph, there’s a chance for art even (especially!) in the most meandering narrative. We’d go so far as to say that the world needs more stories told in the “Rio Bravo” tradition — you know, “hangout movie” style, where the characters kind of sit around talking about stuff until and even after Something Starts Happening. Metal Gear Solid 4‘s “Snake and The Gang In a Big Airplane” scenes possess wonderful potential — they are fiercely skippable, absolutely unnecessary, television-program-length episodes that allow us the opportunity to get to know our videogame characters better. The only reason we’d skip them is if we just wanted to play the game; if we’re not skipping them, we must want to get to know the characters better. It all makes so much sense. Unfortunately, Kojima betrays this wonderful opportunity by making his characters robotic drones instead of realistic people. On the one hand, we have big robots and Riverdancing ninjas; on the only other hand, it’s talking heads and sitting bodies.
To be blunt: our ability to enjoy (or at least not be repulsed by) Metal Gear Solid 4‘s characters is shot in the head due to how fucking easy we find it to fry a fucking egg in the real world.
One of the characters — Sunny, a little girl who dresses inexplicably in Harajuku fashion, in what might be a conscientious shout-out to the closeted pedophiles lurking in the Japanese shadows (conscientious because if these people had to go twenty hours without seeing a simulated little girl, they’d have to rape a real one) — tries her best to cook eggs for Snake and Otacon. She asks Snake, “Would you like some eggs?” And he says “Uhhh . . . no thanks”. She makes him eggs anyway. She brings the eggs downstairs and sets them in front of Snake. She takes a cigarette from his fingers just before he can put it in his lips. “No smoking in the plane!” she says. She goes back up into the kitchen. Snake looks at the eggs. “Otacon, can’t you teach her how to fry an egg?” Otacon shrugs. “Do I look like someone who knows how to fry an egg?”
Are you fucking serious? Neither Snake nor Otacon nor this little girl knows how to fry an egg? The only person who does know how to fry eggs is the genome-expert science-genius female? You’d think that the one person who would not know how to fry an egg would be the determined, professional, full-grown woman. Otacon is a lonely bachelor, and Snake — for fuck’s sake — is a trained US Ranger, the most elite force in the goddamned world, called “Snake Eaters” because they’re capable of eating raw snakes if they have to. You figure, if Snake couldn’t make eggs for himself, he’d at least be able to stomach disgusting ones. More than this, what’s so disgusting about the eggs? Are they too runny? Are they burnt? Rocky, in the movie “Rocky”, drinks raw eggs for breakfast, so Snake should be able to handle runny eggs. And burnt ones? See the “Snake Eater” comment. Do they need salt? We realize that Sunny is a girl with a troubled past, a dead mother, and many rape innuendos, though how painful would it be, really, to explain to this girl — a computer genius, by the way — that some people like their eggs cooked differently than other people, that there exist a myriad of possible ways to cook eggs? The girl can likely multiply seventeen-digit numbers in her head with a snap of her fingers — she’d probably be open to the permutations of egg-cookery.
It’s apparent, here, that Hideo Kojima can cook eggs by himself. He’s probably been able to prepare eggs delicious enough for his own standards for several decades. He’s probably never given any thought to whether or not he ever found egg-cooking to be difficult. Chances are, he arrived at the blank pages preemptively marked “Mission Briefing Script” in need of a metaphor, and just plucked one out of thin air: “Lots of people probably find it hard to fry eggs!” It almost looks, at a point, like the egg metaphor had been constructed out of a hare-brained assumption that Kojima himself was a genius for being able to fry eggs so well without instruction. It’s conceivable, in the shadow of the moment, that Kojima saw himself as stepping down from a pedestal, getting real with his audience, and sympathizing with their inability to cook eggs. This is evidence that the fuel for Kojima’s fiction may not actually come from Experience in the Real World. Like, say you’re in line at the grocery store and you add up the total price of all your purchases while the old woman in front of you is fumbling with her checkbook, and you make sure to have the precise amount of post-tax cash ready: do you assume that this is something only you can do, simply because you’ve never seen someone else do it? Do you go ahead and make it the defining character trait of a character in a piece of fiction? For serious, one thing we’re taken to screaming at Videogame Industry Professionals, these days, when they say things like “being able to buy ammunition from the menu must be a good idea, because Metal Gear Solid 4 did it” is that they should probably quit their jobs making videogames and work in a fucking convenient store for a couple of years. You know, to study the looks on actual human faces when they buy beer, or potato chips, or Marlboros.
It’s also obvious that Kojima doesn’t smoke. If Kojima smoked, there’s no way Snake would let that little girl snatch his cigarette. He’d be all like, fuck you, if I want to smoke, I’m going to smoke. The man has the energy to traipse through jungles and tundras with a machine gun; he’s Meters From Death. He has a right to not give a fuck.
Much of Metal Gear Solid 4‘s surgically irremovable tumor of a plot indulges in fierce second-guessing of the player’s expectations and an even fiercer insecurity complex, where you feel the writer falter, assuming he’s not being clever enough. These complexes make for terrible fiction; we’ve already established that no high-ranking officials in the videogame industry are competent judges of narrative, so there you have it. Little, vaguely embarrassing moments pop up that make us consider the phrase “Kojima Done Right” — like when Drebin, our weapons specialist, radioes us after each boss fight to explain the gruesome past of that boss character, and why she ended up turned into such a monster. By the end of the game, we will realize that each girl’s story is essentially the same. In addition to making us recall Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion that an artist only ever tells the same story over and over again, it also seems perfectly in line with the conceptual core of videogames: we might as well make a series called In Which One Guy Shoots A Bunch Of Other Guys.
It’s ultimately painful, however, that every character has to have a “purpose”. Drebin, bringer of the post-boss monologues, can’t, in good conscience, be just the guy who gives us the post-boss monologues (the way every Dragon Quest town has the guy who exists just to tell you the name of the town). He has to have some other “purpose” in the story to explain his existence in the first place. Metal Gear Solid 4, being already a game that exists to tie up all loose ends left behind by its heritage, cannot, pathologically, introduce a character like Drebin without giving him a “purpose” (weapons guy), a secondary purpose (deliverer of post-boss monologues), and a place in the grand scheme of things (complete with spotlight time during the monster of an ending).
Do not confuse this sentence for a compliment: there has never been and there will never again be a game quite like Metal Gear Solid 4. During the mission briefing scenes, the screen cuts up into segments, including a window in which characters talk, a C-SPAN-like news ticker reporting your play statistics, and a mini-window in which a little girl toils in a kitchen. You might never realize that you can use one of the analog sticks to pilot a little camera-armed robot around, butting in and out of the main cut scene window. The game proper is studded with enough eerie little touches to choke a Kingdom Hearts fangirl: take, for instance, the part when the game ritualistically revists Shadow Moses Island, the setting of the first game, and you can just barely see power-ups spinning helplessly on the landings of the now-inaccesible communications tower in the distance. This brings back stinging memories of Metal Gear Solid 2‘s Big Shell, where you could see Shell B on the map, yet would never be able to go there. Quite frankly, it should fiercely creep out any fan to remember things like that in the context of things like this. Entire segments of the game’s story offer the player two sources for possible entertainment: the geopoliticalish conversation of an old soldier and his weapons supplier, or the antics of a soda-drinking monkey wearing boy’s briefs. That sentence makes it sound hilarious, and sure, it is. Though when you get right down to it, when you’re watching a monkey drinking soda and belching as two characters talk about weapons and war and death and the Purpose of the Mission, you start to want to quit your job and join a nudist colony. Think of the hundreds of human-hours of brain-numbing work that went into rendering that monkey and those underpants, into animating that pornographic soda-drinking. These people — these MGS-devotees, these nearsighted Kojima fans bluntly stepping up to the plate to bunt in the name of a career — could have spent that time in the Amazon, searching for the beetle whose blood is the cure for cancer. Or at least they could have stayed at home, with their families. How heavy is the conscience of the man who tells his grandson, on his deathbed, that, as the world turned, he spent six hundred hours of 2007 lovingly animating an underpants-wearing monkey drinking a can of Hebrew Coca-Cola for a videogame cut-scene that was, quite frankly, skippable anyway.
You will have to forgive us, for a moment, for knowing something about Japan: in Japanese, there exists a single umbrella-word for things like lovingly, fetishistically animated Hebrew-Coca-Cola-drinking underpants-wearing monkeys, for careful deluges of unforeseen details: that word is “kodawari“. The perfect “40″ review of Metal Gear Solid 4 in Weekly Famitsu did not fail to mention this word three times. As far as Japan’s loose concept of a “critic” of “media” is concerned, the very existence of any kodawari at all should be taken as a sign that the creator of said kodawari would be deeply and irreparably offended if you were to insinuate that they were not a genius. It’s likely that Famitsu‘s reviewers only played ten minutes into Metal Gear Solid 4, witnessed the bravado of the cut-scenes, the movie-like camerawork, and the painstakingly pitch-perfect sound design before throwing their hands up in the air and deciding unanimously that they could not dare to not call this work perfect. Nearly every other critic in the world went on to praise this orchestral fatuosity on the virtue of its being a Metal Gear game, and having some kind of confidence in its style. We are not so easily impressed; in order to illustrate its shortcomings perfectly, we’d like to draw a parallel between Metal Gear Solid 4‘s plot and a certain classic Hollywood film, though we believe the film is very great, and we wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. (*Subtlety note: this is us insinuating that if you consider Metal Gear Solid 4 great entertainment, you probably haven’t ever seen any good films.)
What we end up with, in Metal Gear Solid 4, is a game that, when viewed from the perspective of other clusterfucks, is a masterpiece for countless horrifying reasons. The stone-cold fear and coddling of fans is so rich and absolute that, in some alternate universe, it is no doubt the highest form of human expression. However, right here, on earth, on this Macbook Pro, in this fighter-jet cockpit, Metal Gear Solid 4 is and always will be dreck.
It is no longer 1998. It is 2008. It is the future, and we are awake.
Director Hideo Kojima has recently expressed pangs of regret for having told the story entirely in cut-scenes, and he has invoked the dangerous name of Bioshock when asked to elaborate on a better way to tell a story. We are scared halfway out of our minds when he talks about his “future involvement” with the Metal Gear Solid series, likening himself to Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, who often comes out of retirement to direct one more (increasingly insane) film. It’s a scary remark for Kojima to make, and it’s an even scarier remark for people to shrug off, because Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are not always about the same exact character. Kojima speaks of wanting to be “free” of Metal Gear Solid, and we suspect that forming “Kojima Productions” and putting their logo front and center has been, from the start, a meta-clever attempt to synchronize public opinion of Metal Gear and of Kojima. We can’t say for sure whether or not it’s working; videogames are a young and weird medium, so when Kotaku reported that Kojima had literally gone on the record as saying he would like to do “something completely different and new” after Metal Gear Solid 4, the first hundred or so comments indicated that the average human-being-who-cares-enough-to-speak let these words fly in one ear and then promptly transform into “Zone of the Enders and Snatcher sequels confirmed”. People are scary; far scarier than people are Hideo Kojima fans. Kojima himself is scared of them. If Metal Gear Solid 4 was in fact intended as his “Springtime For Hitler” (and maybe it wasn’t, given its doily-fluffing mealy-mouthed cop-out asshole of an ending), then Kojima likely forgot to realize that, even in the realms of a satire author’s imagination, “Springtime For Hitler” doesn’t work: if nothing else, it is true that people love dreck even more than they love art. That’s why the world isn’t perfect. Fucking duh, people. Well, for what it’s worth, Kojima, here’s a negative review. Do with it what you will (lol).
This brings us back to the subject of Metal Gear Solid 4 as a game: it’s not very good. It starts with nice concepts; by act four, it’s ditched the nice concepts. By act five, it’s Rambo On A Boat. Then it slowly jerks you off for an hour and a half. The game looks like a modern videogame; it has amazing sound design. It plays like Metal Gear. Some Metal Gear fans think it’s too tight, too much like an FPS. Some FPS fans think it’s too loose, too much like Metal Gear. We say that game graphics can only approach a certain level of realism before we expect headshots to kill someone, before we cannot forgive the game designers for allowing the main character to carry literally thousands of pounds’ worth of steel weaponry as he sneaks undetected through a battlefield. Metal Gear is very much a game about the logistics; like all the greats of the Famicom era, its initial game design was fashioned as something to work within the constraints of a medium. On the MSX, Kojima couldn’t have more than one enemy moving at a time, so he made avoiding the enemy the key to getting through any given challenge. That gave the game balls. Now, in the future, we can go anywhere or do anything. Rocket launchers are cool, and so is a controllable pet robot, so there you go, you got it. It’s just that when the game intends for the player to get as involved as he’s likely to get involved in the experience on plot- and play-related levels, it’s going to always seem fundamentally Fucking Ridiculous that you can press the START button during a boss fight, access the ammunition store, and buy bullets for your empty gun. Know this: right now, today, right this minute, fledgling Japanese game designers are hip-deep in the belief that “buy ammo from the pause menu” is a “good idea” merely because it was in a Metal Gear Solid game. It’s an icky notion to consider; let it flow over you. It reminds us of that day we were confronted by a Scientologist on Hollywood Boulevard and handed a ticket to a free live hip-hop duel celebrating L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday (this actually happened).
We’d feel bad leaving this review on a scientology reference (fitting as it might actually be), so we’re going to try to discuss how to make Metal Gear Solid 4 better: don’t. Just don’t touch it. If you’re already touching it, stop touching it. Fucking touch something else, already. Kojima, your talent comes from birthing quirks, not from digging them up and molesting them after they’re dead. The most immediately compelling and interesting part of Metal Gear Solid 4 is when Snake meets Meryl’s little troop of ragtag misfit soldiers, and one of them, sleeping with a mohawk, sits up suddenly, revealing that his hair actually forms the shape of an exclamation point on the back of his head. We need you to make a whole game out of that kind of nuance, Kojima. You’ve talked recently about how much you love the old classics like Out Of This World or Septentrion; you’ve mentioned Bioshock‘s straightforward storytelling approach, you’ve appreciated Gears of War, and yet you hint at having some brilliant “new idea” for how to tell a story in a future game. We (kind of) hope his solution isn’t to just remove all game elements and make another graphical adventure. (That would be hilarious, though.)
In closing, let us praise the one certifiably great thing about Metal Gear Solid 4, and the one shining beacon that fills us with faith in Kojima’s future productions: the flow of the dialogue. It’s occasionally hilarious how well Kojima is able to write rhythmic dialogue. It clips and breezes along; the most portentous sentences become urgent poetic moments that transcend the base stupidity of the plot. Of course, you’d never know this if you played the game in English — the script appears to have been translated by the Elephant Man banging his head on a keyboard. There’s a line where Naomi says “If you want to change your fate, you’ll have to meet your destiny”. What the shit? In Japanese, she uses the same word for “fate” (unmei) twice, one instance of which being the first word of the sentence. This is to lend the sentence some kind of parallel structure. Even given the flipping idiocy of the moment, it makes for a neat little verbal-ironic turnaround: “The only way to change your fate is to go forth and meet it.” In other words, the only way Snake can possibly outlive his terrible fate (death) is by running straight at it, instead of letting it crash into him while he sits there doing nothing. This is a nice little sentence that no doubt has already inspired several dozen fanfiction-writing Japanese fourteen-year-olds. In English, it’s a dud; the translator must have majored in newspaper journalism, had a professor tell him to never use the same word — even (ESPECIALLY) “the” — twice in one sentence. However, this isn’t reporting — this isn’t regurgitation of earthquake statistics. It’s “art” (term used loosely). The moral of the story is that there’s no concept of the word “it” in Japanese, which is why so many sentences resort to (eventually poetic) repetition. We mustn’t forget this — this is perhaps one of the keys of Kojima’s artistic conscience, here, seriously (okay, not so seriously). Popping in needless synonyms is not what the games industry needs in order to gain artistic reputation — soon enough, everyone will be substituting 3s and 4s in their tax forms because they’re getting tired of writing 2s, and by then, we’re all literally and figuratively fucked, so help us Shigeru Miyamoto.
Yes, we realize that this is like a big twist ending story where instead of ____ going “____”, it’s more like “lol”. If you’d like, you can pretend that we seriously do have a #1 “best game of all-time” that we’re going to reveal. If we did have such a game, we’d probbbbbably reveal it next Wednesday. Though who knows. By then, we might not even feel like it anymore. You are invited to stay tuned, in turgid hope, anyway.