The Metal Gear Diaries #2: Your Game Is (Not) Saved

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 surpise 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 made it to Hal “Otaku “Otacon” Convention” Emmerich, and we’re pushing onwards to meet up with Meryl and make our way… to Metal Gear…

Saved Games, Part One

I’d heard about Psycho Mantis, obviously. I knew about the saved games, I knew about the controller port trick, he’s the go to example of Kojima’s propensity for breaking the fourth wall in these games. Living in a world where it’s become just part of Kojima’s aesthetic is a shame, because whilst it’s great on one level that we just accept toying with the fourth wall as a legitimate creative choice that doesn’t undermine a sense of in-universe consistency, I’d love to be the kid in 1999 who didn’t see it coming. A “Would You Kindly” with a sense of humour about itself, and lacking all the portent that the twist in Bioshock brings with it.

Not to prattle on about Bioshock, because now that I’ve reached the fight, I think the meta-elements are the least interesting part of Psycho Mantis’ role in the game. They’re an interesting way of representing his psychic powers, that’s for sure, but they’re a tool, part distraction and part hook, in order to get you invested into the real purpose of his character.

Which is an incredibly sad purpose indeed. I ended the last entry talking about what seemed like the beginning of The Twin Snakes’ interrogation of The Soldier as a construct, and the treatment of Psycho Mantis brings those themes to the foreground, then shines on them the brightest light. He’s unequivocally a monster, a do-er of atrocities, a character who’s sole motivation is to kill as many people as possible. Yet, Metal Gear Solid (and Snake himself) approaches Psycho Mantis with a shocking amount of empathy, allowing him to give a full monologue about his motivations and backstory. When Meryl tries to end it, Snake stops her: “Let him talk, he doesn’t have much time left,” and honours Mantis’ final request.

I don’t exactly know what Mantis means yet when he says that in comparison to Snake, he’s a saint, but I assume it’s to do with his nature as a clone of Big Boss. Mantis’ monologue talks about DNA a lot, which I know is a ridiculous thing that Metal Gear is oft mocked for, but really it’s just a way of linking the idea of war to basic mortal terror. Probably to highlight the role of Snake in this story, as someone who’s sole existence is to be a soldier and nothing else.

But we shall see! I think I’m about half-way through at this stage, it feels like I’m getting a concrete grasp on what Metal Gear is and what it’s saying, but it’s also a series known for the sharpest left turns so, who can say. Onwards.

Saved Games, Part Two

First things first, I hate those damn dogs. There’s nothing I can do about them! They bite at my heels, consistently respawning, kicking me out of animations and chipping away at my health. They are the Ghost Fish of the Metal Gear world and I’m glad I am rid of them, now.

That said – I’ve made it to Disc Two! Hooray! Disc One ends at a strange place, with an extended torture setpiece that is defined more than anything else by waiting. Snake is tied to a chair for an entire ten minute cutscene, whilst other characters pretty much tell you how the game is going to end, but in a super obtuse way. It’s strange how little I’m interested in the particulars – the situation with the card key, the nuclear deal with Metal Gear, the negotiations with the White House. At this point, there are so many mysteries that I’ve become mostly numb to them, and perk up at signs of thematic resonance rather than reveals of plot.

What I like about the setpiece, however, is that sense of waiting. You’re locked in a cell with the decomposed dead body of the DARPA chief (which makes zero sense, but I’m used to that by now), and after the first round of torture, there’s nothing to do but walk around the cell until Ocelot goes again. When Otacon does come, Hugh Granting his way through the base in a stealth suit, the solution you have to employ to escape – pretending the ketchup is blood and lying in it – is more charming than anything else.

It put me off at first, but I’ve come to really appreciate the way the game is designed for one specific thing – sneaking through puzzle rooms – but depending on the needs of story and character it will throw that out the window and try to do literally anything else within its gameplay framework. It reminds me of Yakuza 3, which ever since I played it for the podcast, has become my go to in games of this type. These moments have this ambition that is aiming outside of what the game can achieve, and yet at the same time is extremely aware of the games limits. They allow these moments to play out awkwardly within systems designed for other purposes, and honestly accept that dissonance as par for the course, rather than trying to address it.

Also – I hadn’t saved my game since before the Psycho Mantis fight. It had been kind with its checkpoints, and in the moments where I had saved directly after acquiring difficult items, it hadn’t retained progress on such a granular level. So, unlike that Psycho Mantis fight, I was totally caught unaware for the meta-elements within the torture sequence, the removal of continues. It felt like a betrayal of my trust as a player at first, but the design of the torture is far more forgiving, taking the mean edge off of the rug pulling moment. Plus, the game allows you to surrender to the torture if you need – to fight it is to risk losing your save game to save Meryl.

Which would be a really powerful moment if I, you know, liked Meryl and Snake together at all. (sadtrombone.mp3)

This Tower Is Hard To Climb

I find the design of the base interesting. The keycards, the moments of backtracking, the frozen door that requires C4 from one specific side, these all hint towards a metroidvania approach to world progression. And whilst there are these specific moments, it’s clear the game isn’t that, it’s far smaller and more linear than its design signifiers would have you believe.

The game is ultimately concerned with bringing you from story beat to story beat, but includes these elements as a fantastically executed illusion of making the base seem bigger than it is.

Not to say the base is small, far from it, but that it’s very clear by now that the design is such that it makes you feel like a super-spy, without requiring you to do much, well, super-spying. I can’t remember the last time that I’ve actually made my way through a room of a few guards in order to get to the next checkpoint, it must have been before Psycho Mantis at least. The game’s arc is not one of picking a standard mode of gameplay and evolving that in complexity, it seemingly moves from what it initially presents as its default mode into a string of set pieces and boss fights.

I think this structural decision is as much of a clear cinematic influence as any of the cutscenes. James Bond doesn’t sneak into the base over and over in varying degrees of complexity, every encounter is differentiated in setup enough to justify its inclusion as an action scene. And despite the massive increase in ground to cover that MGS has, it has an incredibly similar approach to encounter setup. Each encounter justifies itself through variation and narrative importance, meaning that what MGS doesn’t have in that metroidvania style of world and play gradually increasing in complexity, it has a spot on sense of pacing.

I talked a bit in the last post about how the game was smaller than I expected it to be, and I wondered if that had to do with the pacing differences that come with the abundance of cutscenes and dialogue, so I feel fairly vindicated now. Oh, and I just blew up a helicopter and that was pretty cool, I’ve got no idea what’s going on.

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And that’s going to bring a close to this chapter of The Metal Gear Diaries! I find it weird how disconnected I am from the major mysteries of the game, it’s not like I don’t care about the answers, it’s more that I know they’re going to be there and I’m ready for them when they happen. But will the reveals have the impact that they should when I’m not waiting on baited breath for the results?

Who knows. All I know is that I’m enjoying the game a heck of a lot at the moment, and I’m ready to move into the final act.

Next: the end of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.