The Metal Gear Diaries #17: Still on a Beam

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, because of how Metal Gear is paced, we made our way through at least the third of the game in one article. Today, we’re going to presumably do the same! These games are dense at each end and lighter in the middle – though getting denser with each entry.

Not Sokolov

Metal…

[camera zooms in]

GEAR??!?!?!?!?!

Well, it happened, and it happened in all the ways I least expected: out of nowhere, we meet the original concept designer of the first Metal Gear – Shagohog isn’t a predecessor to Metal Gear, it’s revealed to be a competitor. And the personal rivalry that comes from the warring arms developers causes Granin to leak his Metal Gear designs to Otacon’s dad! Ahhhh! I’m assuming slightly, but the picture on the wall made it fairly obvious, I think. If I’m wrong though, I’ll hold my hands up.

Granin comes across as incredibly similar to Naked Snake at this point in time, someone who loves his country and remains loyal to it, but whose loyalty leads him down paths that aren’t exactly wise. His love of Russia is why he can’t abide the path that it’s going down at the moment, and his only recourse is to send his Metal Gear design away, and level the playing field. Plus, he introduces the final “Big P” of the series: The Philosophers.

I don’t know who they are yet or what they’re role is, the game only offers a frustratingly vague description at this stage, but there are three P factions I had heard of before starting this: Philosophers, Patriots and Philanthropy. They’re similar words! As someone with no experience with the lore until now I got them confused all the time, it’s nice that the game breaks out their introduction. Though seriously, Metal Gear’s naming conventions are the most confusing on the planet. The lore gets real deep real fast and its presentation doesn’t do it any favours in terms of helping me remember it.

He also explains to us our endgame, which should come as no surprise: there’s a secret base! Go attack that, blow up the robot, fist fight your close relation to death.

So let’s go do that! Let’s make our way back to the warehouse and fight through the mountains. I can smell the ending from here…

Fear Is The Snake Killer

Apparently Snake Eater isn’t going to give its bosses any real individual characters beyond their core emotion? And it’s not going to even explain that? A shame, but understandable, there is so much more going on than there was in Twin Snakes. Considering Guns of the Patriots’ boss choice is “like before, but sexy,” it’s clear that MGS has now moved away from being a Boss focused narrative.

The Fear’s boss fight is intense, with the main challenging being keeping up with your healing resources. His arrows will fuck you up something fierce, so staying on top of his damage dealing is key to winning. The fight had a fantastic light-bulb moment, too, when I turned on my Thermal Imaging and could see him through his stealth suit (I thought this game took place in the 60s! Pah!).

Once I’d done that, the fight became a walk in the park, which is a sign of good boss design. The Pain required you to repeat a simple pattern over and over again, even after you’d figured out the trick, whereas The Fear’s design gave a more simple puzzle/solution setup, which all of Metal Gear’s most successful bosses have been. The interesting part of any fight is working out the how, the execution/war of attrition element is almost always a drag. Don’t talk to me about the 25 Ray Parade at the end of Sons of Liberty, holy shit.

I think we have three (human) Bosses left now! Three down, three to go, which means we must be close to the end, at least in terms of gameplay. But Snake Eater’s storytelling is probably about to explode any time now.

And I am ready for it.

The End’s End

The End is the boss fight that people talk about, when they talk about Snake Eater. And it’s obvious why: it is the perfect encapsulation of everything that the game is about. It’s a battle of patience, one in which the player’s will to not just throw their controller across the room to break the tension is far more important than any amount of technique. Through the fight, you come to intimately understand the environment that you’ve been placed in, and it is only through learning the space and keeping a lid on the tension that you are able to walk away from the fight.

Thematically, for the player, it expresses through silence all the things that Naked Snake needs to do to become the greatest soldier, it takes them (me) and him to the point where they’re ready to confront The Boss. Distractions will be the death of you in this fight, in order to find The End, you need to focus only on the mission, just like The Boss told us when we began the game.

It’s a stunning work of game design, and remarkable due to the sheer amount of restraint. There’s no objective other than “locate The End, kill The End,” and aside from that you’re walking around three similar environments over and over again. All it really is, is a way of framing the core interactions of the game, a single dial of tension being raised higher and higher, imperceptibly, as you sneak through beautiful woodland areas in silence.

And when the final shot rings out, the release of tension is palpable. I needed to turn the game off and sit down for a while, not because the game was overwhelming, but simply because the catharsis of the victory meant it felt right to step away.

The End’s death scene was sufficiently melancholy, too, the first real great post-boss scene of Snake Eater, which has been lacking in that area. It wasn’t the death of an enemy, it was the final moments of a worthy opponent, a fellow soldier deserving of as much respect as Snake. It didn’t have any of the rounding out of character or motivations that prior games stuffed into these moments, but it did effectively humanise The End in a manner that underscored both the ugliness and the beauty of the combat the player just participated in. Which is what Metal Gear is best a

Also, someone’s gotta explain why every Cobra Squad member is exploding upon their defeat, please. Help me out, here.

The Ladder

Is the ladder the secret best moment in the game? Honestly, I think that it might be. What a ridiculous moment of sheer earnestness, the terrific view of a chasm below you, as you climb a seemingly endless ladder, the game’s theme playing while you rise, reaching its crescendo as you reach the top.

If anyone asks me why I love MGS, I’m going to point to that moment. Not the ending of 2, not the boss fight I just did, but going up a ladder for over a minute as a fake bond theme plays.

Applause to all.

Eva’s Scars

I’m disappointed at the use of EVA’s character in this game. She’s a fascinating character, with so much potential behind her, as a codebreaker who defected and is now, essentially, defecting again. And they’ve probed into that in specific moments, allowing EVA to share her backstory with Snake via codec, but her primary role has so far been just “love interest,” and not even an interesting one. She exists not as a character, but as a reflection to bounce Snake’s character off of.

And I get it, the central relationship of the game is that of Snake and The Boss, so obviously EVA and Snake’s relationship would merely be a method of examining the other more closely. The questions EVA asks are all to do with The Boss; Snake is a detached character, who doesn’t let himself care about other people lest it impact the mission, but there’s nobody he cares about more than The Boss. Who was she to him, EVA wonders, was she his mentor, his mother figure, or his lover? Snake dodges the question, and seriously seems to imply that the answer is all three, which… uhhhhhhhhhh (c’mon, we’ve made it this far without anything as strange as the E.E. incident, let’s not be breaking the streak).

I’m meant to be rooting for them to get together, both because EVA is a hot girl throwing herself at the player non-stop, but also because she represents Snake’s ability to love someone other than The Boss. Snake can’t concentrate on EVA’s making out with him, because he’s too wrapped up in his head, too wrapped up in the mission, too wrapped up in The Boss. I like this element of it, because it underscores just how well the game is building to this final confrontation, but man oh man, if only EVA was a more developed character herself.

It’s revving up for a great James Bond ending, though, with the base ahead of us and EVA planning for her and Snake’s ridiculous escape. When viewed through the lens of “they are just making a bond movie,” EVA’s character makes a whole lot more sense, but taking direct and uncritical inspiration from gross source material doesn’t excuse the problems within your own work, so, there you go.

Cold War

Granin’s death scene is somewhat uncomfortable for me to watch. Metal Gear has had torture before, but Volgin’s brand of sadism, and the glee with which the game takes in showing you just how fucked up these fucked up things are, makes me uncomfortable. And yes, I know, there’s a lot more where that came from in future games, so I know what I’m in for. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Volgin and Ocelot’s discussion is fascinating with the knowledge of what Ocelot becomes in the future of this story, which is to say a lying liar who plays all sides. Yet right now, he can’t abide Volgin’s iron fist of control, he cares about loyalty to his countrymen, and without it he can’t see what they’re even fighting for at all. On the other hand, Volgin speaks like Ocelot does in Sons of Liberty; this is not just a war of weapons, this is equally a war of ideas, and it is fought with information. Information – and the fear of information being shared with people working together against his cause – is a constant thorn in Volgin’s side.

Snake Eater hasn’t revisited that idea much, it was the central theme of Sons of Liberty and I was beginning to suspect specific to that game, but I’m glad that it’s now a core thematic tenant of the series, rearing its head in various ways throughout the scenes.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Legacy

The Boss’ horse returns! A fan favourite character who everyone surely loves. Of course they do, because it’s a freaking horse! Everybody loves horses.

This is the second time that the game has hinted at The Philosopher’s Legacy, and I need, I need need need to know what it is. It has to have something to do with the Patriots, there have been enough winking references to them that I’m convinced the game is going to end with Naked Snake confronting the realities of their existence (but given the password, Major Zero is also in on The Patriots at this point, so who knows how high it goes!).

And right then, as I’m contemplating what The Philosopher’s Legacy might actually be, the game makes it explicit that EVA is Tanya, Sokolov’s wife that Volgin tortures on the regular, and I feel like an idiot for not putting that together sooner. For one thing, they look the damn same, but then I wouldn’t put it past Metal Gear to just have near identical design of women’s faces [insert Frozen joke here].

I hope it makes EVA more interesting! But on some level this reveal feels like “oh my god, the sexual and forward woman is the same woman as the demure reserved woman!” which feels incredibly lazy and trite. I mean, it introduces interesting possibilities, and now there’s ways to read EVA’s role as a comment on performative femininity, and the ways that men assume they know women and slide them into boxes based on how open they are with their sexuality. Nobody (except Ocelot) suspects Tanya might be the spy, because she behaves exactly the way the patriarchy says she is meant to behave, and so Volgin sees her as helpless. He doesn’t suspect for a minute that she might have thoughts and feelings of her own, let alone working against him.

Such a reading is definitely there, and I don’t want to play it down, but on the other hand her character has been presented so consistently as an object for the player’s affection that I don’t know if this counts as an interesting and aware twist on those ideas. Metal Gear has had, shall we say, a fraught relationship with women, and I’m not inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And then, we end this scene on a beautiful shot of Snake on the cliff’s edge, standing over Groznyj Grad, ready to infiltrate. It feels like a statement of intent, a clear sign to let you know that hey: the endgame is beginning now, be ready.

*

Ready I am.

Next: we’re heading into Groznyj Grad, and we’re going to destroy the final weapon… Shagahod. And probably kill our mum too, but w/e.