Metal Gear: love it or hate it, the game is one of videogamedom’s most iconic franchises. Maybe it’s too cinematic, maybe it’s too preachy, but give it credit for trying at least. Even if you never want to sneak around in the shaddows chocking out gentically engineered super soldiers, or watch mercenaries wax philosophical about the meaning of life and fate vs. destiny, at least give the series credit for trying. It’s trying to be something different.
The New York Times had an artlicle last Sunday about the debates over Metal Gear’s hidden meanings. Kotaku writer Stephen was interviewed for the article, and was then so interested in the game he wrote a follow up email to the NYT writer discussing Metal Gear Solid’s 4 unique venture into game tragedy. I think serious games broke from the triumphant hero paradigm a long time ago (Septemer 12 or Hush for example) but it’s interesting to see a mainstream game attempt it.
Like Kotaku’s very own Leigh Alexander, I was interviewed by the New York Times for the paper’s weekend story about Metal Gear Solid 4. But, perhaps unlike Leigh, I wasn’t confident I gave the reporter a solid interview.
So, shortly after hanging up the phone, I sent him a follow-up. There was one MGS4 idea that we hadn’t discussed that I thought was deserving of an NYT spotlight: How sad the game is. And how rare it is that we get a chance to play a sad game.
In my letter, I wrote:
MGS4 is the rare effort of video game blues and tragedy. Gamers are used to being asked to save the day and be the hero. Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it’s the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy.
I’ve printed my full e-mail below. No spoilers beyond what was in the game’s trailers.
Anyone else want more video game tragedies? (cue mention of Conker’s Bad Fur Day)
One other thing that we should have talked about: the novelty of a video game tragedy.
The video game medium has largely been one of triumphal fiction. One could argue that that’s because of the nature of games. Designers need to keep their players entertained, which, in character-driven games as far back as Pac-Man, involves giving the player obstacles and enemies to overcome. And many modern video games keep the player engaged by rewarding the player with an expanding arsenal of abilities. Get this far in a game or conquer this challenge in a game and your character will now be able to jump further or replace her pistol with a shotgun or finally be able to swing not just a sword but now a sword engulfed in magic flame. Players are compelled, so often, by a sense of progress. And that’s why, I think, so many games’ stories are necessarily ones of triumph, of Horatio Alger status climbing or Joseph Campbell heroic feat.
So it was a bit strange when the first major MGS4 trailer premiered a few years ago and culminated with Old Snake finding a quiet spot of the battlefield away from the gunfire an placing the barrel of a pistol in his mouth. That’s what feels so unusual about MGS4 even compared to the other MGS games. This is a sad story, one that feels destined to end in defeat. Snake is aging and dying. He’s literally become toxic to the people around him. And his back hurts. (Which you’ll see him clutch in pain if you let him crouch too long). MGS4 is the rare effort of video game blues and tragedy. Gamers are used to being asked to save the day and be the hero. Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it’s the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy. That’s what feels novel. And, like I said, it’s still a challenge to parse the value of novelty from any sense of how the work will hold up in the long term.
Hope that helps!