For the third time, legendary agent Solid Snake destroyed the walking tank Metal Gear deep behind enemy lines and saved the world from Armageddon, this time from his old unit FOX-HOUND led by his newly-revealed twin brother Liquid Snake. Until then, Metal Gear Solid had been an action-packed bonanza told through expertly produced cinematics that rivaled Hollywood blockbusters. And then the story pivoted at its climax. What had been a politically charged narrative about terrorism and the threat of nuclear war changed into an examination on genetics, using the very technology and rendering techniques that brought the game to life to reinforce its deep and complex themes. With MGS, Hideo Kojima merged his narrative and gameplay abilities into a deep metaphor about biology, technology, and destiny.
Atoms are the building blocks of reality, sorted and organized by a complex physics system of weights, densities, and attractions. Those atoms bond with others to create molecules, with carbon building organic material and combining in larger and larger scales until they construct entire organisms. But they are all built to a particular, logical design. Your body is the physical representation of the information stored in each of your cells, a body the on-going process of evolution has edited and adjusted to have features that improve its chances of surviving its environment.
In genetics, genotype and phenotype are two sides of the same conceptual coin, one informational and one material. In simple terms, a genotype is the information contained in a cell that instructs an organism to build in a specific way, while the end result, the physical part that manifests, is the phenotype. The genotype for black hair tints the melanin to color the physical hair itself, or its phenotype. This concept has similar parallels in many other areas- in architecture a set of blueprints is a building’s genotype; in baking, a recipe is a cake’s. Games work in a similar way, but their natures mean that the physical hardware has to produce its own digital building blocks.
Every videogame is a virtual machine that simulates its own contained reality and responds to player input. Comprised of if/then statements that do everything from load a map if you leave another, perform selected actions, and trigger events, a game’s programming code is the genotype and the product it displays on screen is the phenotype. The system’s hardware takes flat, two-dimensional information and produces an internal world. What the machine is capable of depends on the parts it’s built from including the strength of its processor, available memory, media format, and how well they all cooperate in tandem.
For his Directorial debut, Kojima created Metal Gear around hide-and-seek to accommodate for the MSX2’s technical limitations that could only display a few enemies on screen at once. Designed around self-contained maps of patrolling guards, the game’s overhead perspective provided the player with a comprehensive view of the land so they could puzzle out the best path to the next area. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake solidified the concept a few years later, adding more advanced moves such as crawling to the player’s repertoire, which allowed more complex environments. Almost a decade after the first Metal Gear came out, so did a new console with enough memory to multiply its number of simultaneous operations, CD storage that could hold larger maps and high quality audio and video, and a processor capable of rendering 3D polygonal models. With the arrival of Sony’s PlayStation in 1995, Kojima returned to breathe new life into his stealth series, armed with new tools.
As genes build a three dimensional structure, polygons render shapes with height, weight, and depth, and can be sculpted into different shapes. Where sprite-based games use a sequence of individual pictures to show motion, polygonal models can be posed or moved on command. To make Snake a believable veteran agent, special attention was paid to all his actions right down to a proper firearm stance, a benefit of military adviser Motosado Mori’s consultation. Snake stands tall, he stays calm, he moves with purpose. You can see his personality in his actions. This adds so much.
The benefits of the polygonal world manifests only a few seconds after taking control of Snake. Press up to move and within a few steps you will run directly into a large tower and discover Metal Gear Solid’s primary new gameplay mechanic- the camera perspective changes when you press against vertical geometry, letting him peek out from cover. Over Snake’s left shoulder we see a white uniformed soldier, looking towards us, weapon in hand. This angle provides a new view without sacrificing Snake’s visibility. By the time we realize the soldier can’t see us behind the tower and isn’t going to attack, he turns and walks off. The corner view is functional gameplay presented cinematically, framed by a smart and reactive camera system. The angles became information-gathering mechanisms, providing the player with situational awareness while keeping Snake safely concealed in the shadows.
With the PlayStation’s advanced power, the nuclear disposal site Shadow Moses is rendered with as much character as the stealth agent sneaking through it. At a surface level, MGS is a more complex version of Pac-Man, complete with board and enemies, but it’s the fleshing out of dozens of details that brings the setting to life. Existing on a three-dimensional grid with height, width, and depth, the maps could have verticality to increase the real estate with which to place points of interest, with natural features like footprint-revealing snow and scurrying rats adding to its depth. At the same time, the patrolling enemies are given more personality thanks to the steamy puffs of breath and lines of recorded dialogue- add those to the already robust list of simple behaviors, and the enemies start to feel like actual people occupying an actual place. MGS simulates a logical world with consistent rules and observable behaviors, both important to the player’s success.
Since the camera becomes its own entity in a polygonal world, it can do more than be placed, it can be moved, be directed, all in real-time. Though it defaults to an objective angle in the ceiling, MGS can reposition to more subjective views around Snake. Shadow Moses’ industrial design also perfectly complements the camera mechanic. The right angles create corridors for Snake to peer while being consistent with the controller’s directional pad, which makes clinging to walls feel natural. And just as importantly, that camera gives the gameplay a uniquely stylish flair, bridging the divide between game and movie by meeting in the middle, and finally solidifying Kojima’s work into the interactive film experience that he had long pursued.
Hideo Kojima’s career until now had alternated between two completely different types of games: the action game and visual novel. While Metal Gear wasn’t the most action-heavy game, it had significantly more gameplay than the cinematically-rich sci-fi drama Snatcher; despite improving the narrative techniques in Metal Gear 2 it was the gameplay that developed new complexity, similar to the jump Policenauts made to become interactive cinema with its anime cutscenes and voice acted dialogue. All were packed with pop culture references and increasingly exhibited the creator’s willingness to push the boundaries of both videogames and movies. With the third Metal Gear game poised to finally apply the different skills he had been honing into a single work, Kojima remade the structural blueprint of the previous entry to create cinematic moments unseen in the medium before.
As polygonal models can be given animations for choreographed scenes, they become actors on a digital stage. It may seem like an obvious choice to render the cinematics in engine, after all, games had long used simply-shot scenes and pantomimed acting to push their stories, but its effects are still profound, and come alive with the right support. Where other cinematic games like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy 7 had inserted static Full Motion Video clips into their polygonal games, breaking their immersive cohesion, Metal Gear uses its camera system to tell a story by filming the characters inside the very diorama the player has been exploring. With full control of his narrative, Kojima’s shots move fluidly and cut dramatically, its characters emote with personality and interact believably. It’s an expertly crafted experience.
Though it’s taken many forms throughout the ages, the idea of the Game Master has existed for as long as games have. In its simplest shape is the referee, someone who enforces the game’s rules, but it has also evolved into the classic table top RPG concept of the dungeon master. The all-powerful DM establishes the setting, defines and enforces its rules, and creates whatever story they can imagine, leading the player past a series of challenges and enemies and responding to their actions. A videogame’s internal machine fills the same role, but invisibly guides the player by controlling the elements around them. In terms of MGS’s gameplay, the maps clockwork enemies, usable weapons and items, and events are all directed by the game’s programming. The game’s cinematics work in the same way, with the on-screen models moving based on their individual choreography, the camera panning and cutting dramatically on cue.
The attention to detail MGS gives to each of its separate parts comes together beautifully in the aggregate. It’s not that its setting is fit with steaming pipes and grungy walls, or that gunfire gets a punchy timbre and muzzle flare- it’s that all these can be produced at the same time. Look no further than the brawl against the Cyborg Ninja to see how the effects can layer on top of each other: fighting in the cramped office kicks up papers and wrecks desks, it breaks glass and tramples the shards underfoot, while the sound of gunfire and katana slashes split the air. It’s a thrilling fight.
This same creativity is exhibited throughout the narrative to keep its pace pumping. Though Metal Gear Solid is packed with interesting boss battles, from the bullet-bouncing duel against Revolver Ocelot to the tense showdowns at the end of Sniper Wolf’s scope, equal attention was paid to the many action set pieces, each as varied as they are harrowing. This is no more true than in the post-torture sequence, where Snake has successfully escaped imprisonment thanks to the clever application of a ketchup bottle – after tripping a security camera, Snake must fight his way to the satellite dish at the top of a tower, chucking stun grenades some ten flights up, only to repel down the side as he evades a barrage of bullets from a strafing Hind-D helicopter before finally taking it down with heat seeking Stinger missiles. These scenes are as stylish and well produced as any of the game’s cutscenes, just controlled by the player. All challenges portray Snake, and the real human holding the controller he’s tethered to, as a true hero that let’s nothing stand in their way.
For all his cinematic ambitions, Kojima always finds ways to extend his story’s themes outside his work, breaking the fourth wall between the game and player with precision and glee. Then he created Psycho Mantis. As the world’s most powerful psychic, Mantis’s telekinesis turns Snake’s young companion Meryl into his puppet, his mental strings moving the gun in her hand to her temple. In Metal Gear Solid’s structural metaphor, Psycho Mantis represents a brain, issuing orders to every Genome Soldier as if a part of a larger body. But when he moves the player’s controller with his mind and discovers they like Castlevania by reading their memory card, he isn’t so much trying to gloat to Snake as he is trying to make a connection to you- from one puppeteer to another.
Every third person game accepts this puppeteer claim by default, the controller connecting player to character, but Psycho Mantis hitches a ride up the string and interacts with you directly. Since Mantis can read Snake’s movements, his dodges tied to the player’s attack buttons, you must find a way to cut the thread linking mind to body by changing the controller from the first to the second port on the front of the console.
This is the game’s brain linking with yours. With this one character, Kojima is extrapolating the metaphor of the genes’ control over the body to a metatextual layer: if the genes dictate the physiological construction of all parts of the body, including the brain and how it functions, how much freedom do you have?
Snake, Mantis, Raven, Octopus- FOXHOUND’s naming convention has been integrated directly into the game’s subtext, representing a large swath of different forms an organism can take. But these are all types of living organisms that still exist, a contrast to Metal Gear Rex, named after one long wiped off the face of the Earth. Inspired by Japan’s big monster Kaiju films, Rex is every bit the nuclear war metaphor that Godzilla is, a rocket-launching dinosaur resurrected by Man. This is a battle between two machines, one organic and one artificial; Solid Snake fights an extinction level threat that could engulf all life.
But Rex was the product of human minds, a creation designed to claim power. Biology and technology are the two most powerful creative forces in the world, with organic beings creating new tools to overcome their physical limitations and reshape the world around them. And with the hardware that videogames operate on, creators are able to render new realities based on their imaginations, to let information become physical. They allow any experience to be simulated and any subject explored. By harnessing the power of videogames, Metal Gear Solid told a brilliant and action-packed story about life, technology, and the parts that build them.
DEVELOPER: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.