The Metal Gear Diaries #12: Relative Times

The setup for these posts is simple: I've never played a Metal Gear Solid game before, and I want to change that. I'm going to be writing my on-going reactions to the games as I go, and sharing them with the world. The Metal Gear Diaries are somewhere between a full critical essay and twitter gut responses, and will form an honest document of my shock, frustration and surprise at the events of, say it with me now, "Metal Gear?!" They will be packed with spoilers for all Metal Gear games!

Last time, we watched the opening cutscene of Snake Eater, because these games are getting denser and denser. Today, it’s time to pick up the controller and play the game…

Oh, For The Love Of…

Snake immediately takes his Raiden mask off and gets the Naked Snake codename.

Well done, Kojima. You got me. Happy?

(I bet he is)

Where To Look?

The strangest thing about Snake Eater is the camera. Both The Twin Snakes and Sons of Liberty looked fantastic due to their control of the camera, placing it in high angles and allowing you to see the layout of the room ahead of you. It worked because of the environment, which was boxy and cramped, corridors and crates – Snake Eater is not that.

It has the traditional camera angle as an option, the standard video game third person angle was added in Subsistence, an updated version released a year after the original game. The traditional Metal Gear angle makes the game look better, with the behind the back analogue camera feeling a little like someone modded in a camera angle into a Metal Gear game. In general, I’m a big advocate for pre-rendered backgrounds and deliberately positioned cameras, because it gives a control over visual composition that video games don’t often value.

For now, I’m going to stick with the 3rd person camera. I want to get used to it, and I know by the time Guns of the Patriots rolls around there is no more option to play traditional Metal Gear. Hell, The Phantom Pain is a capital O Open World Game, which definitely worries me a little (it isn’t out at time of writing, we’ll see). All popular AAA franchise have been, on some level, a victim of evolution from a very specific thing to just another videogame (Batman says hello), and my big wish is that in the journey through these articles, I won’t find that happening to Metal Gear.

You stay you, Metal Gear. Be great.

Survival Of The Fittest

The first thing I did in Snake Eater was eat a Snake. David Hayter went “Tastyyyyyyy” and I earned a trophy for my troubles. Well done to each and every person involved in this decision.

Snake Eater’s survival and camouflage systems seem immediately overwhelming but incredibly cool. Twin Snakes and Sons of Liberty were games of acquisition of power. You start each mission in a very precarious place, and through the gaining of more effective weapons and keycards, gain a greater command over the space around you. Once you acquired power, you did not lose it, there was no emphasis on the maintaining of power or your own survival beyond “don’t get shot.”

This system has wildly different philosophies. You must acquire power at a rate greater than your natural loss of power, no longer is the game’s progression purely a fantastical act of gaining strength, but a more desperate one of survival. I wonder how adding this extra vulnerability will change the ways I play – no longer can I just wait for the guard to get into the right position, the clock is always ticking and my stamina always depleting. No longer can I shoot my tranquiliser gun as much as I want to, for soon it will wear down and everyone will be able to hear my shots.

I was curious as to how setting Metal Gear in the past would manifest, and these systems are exactly what I was expecting, so I’m fairly chuffed right about now. Losing the fantastical technology and putting the onus of survival onto the player fits right into Metal Gear’s technological themes, its continued insistence on making the player question the value and the role of technology, and never take it for granted.

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

The Boss is the one non-Snake character I knew about from Snake Eater. I know she shows up somehow in the finale of Guns of the Patriots, so I know she’s important to the story, but how or why, I couldn’t tell you. Her introduction positions her as Big Boss’ mentor, she fills the role he will go on to for Solid Snake.

What stuck out to me about this introduction, is how Naked Snake (I’ll call him that from now on, Metal Gear names are incredibly confusing) comes across as an inexperienced and naieve soldier. All that I know about Big Boss at this point is that he’s the greatest soldier there ever was, hence his selection for Les Enfants Terribles. But Naked Snake isn’t that yet, and whether he reaches that point by the end of the game, we shall have to see.

His first conversation with The Boss centres MGS on the role of The Soldier once more, after Sons of Liberty widened the series’ thematic scope as far as it could go. She points out to Naked Snake how his assumption that the mission is right and his lack of self awareness about who he is as a soldier is going to be his undoing – which it may well prove to be.

Naked Snake doesn’t want to give up his compassion, he doesn’t want to give up his empathy, he doesn’t want to suppress his humanity in order to become a perfect soldier. We, the audience, know where that path leads, and it leads to Solid Snake. A man who can do nothing but fight, a perfect soldier but the least human.

Up until now, the story of Big Boss has only been important as motivation for the actions of other characters, but now we’re stepping into his head and get to watch his tragic downfall for ourselves. In Metal Gear Solid, the game spent so much of its empathy and humanisation on the villains, portraying them not as inherent monsters, but as victims of the horrors of war. And now, we get to see that journey for ourselves, or at least the start of it. Whilst it seems initially like a strange shift in tone and theme for the series, which had been expanding second to second, taking a moment to step inside the head of a future villain, and see how they’re really not that different to the character we’ve come to call a hero is fundamental to Metal Gear’s identity as a work.

Over And Out

Wow, Snake Eater is a far more difficult game than Sons of Liberty. It’s very clear from the design of the first encounter – which comes a good hour after I’ve been sitting down at this television – that engagement is not a good idea. I died four times, and immediately quit the game.

Metal Gear’s stealth was defined in many ways by its mazes, a game you played on the minimap more than you played with the world in front of you. It was angular world, full of corners and boxes, places to duck and hide, a binary world in which seen and unseen were clear states with separate definitions.

Snake Eater changes the rules entirely, the above all else importance of Line of Sight completely thrown out the window. Now you hide in plain sight, your visibility determined as much by your choice of camouflage as it is by your positioning. You don’t navigate a maze, you test the boundaries of a system, pushing yourself closer and closer to the edge, figuring out the limits of possibility without being seen.

It involves a bunch of trial and error and incredibly patient play, turning Metal Gear into this more abstracted but more intense stealth simulation than it had ever been before, and it’s no surprised that so many people latched onto this system and love its design. I do too!

But I did just turn the game off and start over on Very Easy. Sorry game, but I can’t be engaging with a system this complicated while I’m itching for the next cutscene. I don’t have the time or energy, unfortunately, I’m just not fourteen anymore. And whilst I miss playing that way, my switch to playing most games on Easy has been a net gain for my stress and the amount of games I get through.

Maybe one day, when the story is completed and behind us, we’ll take a journey through Snake Eater’s stealth simulation, but it is alas not this day.

(this day we fight)

*

We’re two posts into this game and we still haven’t hit the title card. Is there just not going to be a title card? Don’t do me like this, Kojima. Don’t you dare do me like this. What more do you want from meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

Next: we push further into the jungle, find Sokolov, and probably, eventually, say “Metal Gear?!”