Hard Project: Metal Gear Solid
It’s kind of hard to cut through the web of what’s actually going on with Hideo Kojima and Konami at this point, because it’s filled with statements, counter-statements, and at one point I think a press conference was held that turned into an unskippable 40-minute cutscene that lost narrative coherency five minutes in. It seems likely that the man himself is no longer with the company, but maybe he is, but maybe he isn’t; who knows, and does it matter?
The answer to that one is both yes and not really at the same time, because we can be sure that new Metal Gear games will still be coming out and we can be sure that they will be a mixed bag at best. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, that was always going to be the case. Making a new game in that franchise is a hard project for a variety of reasons, and it’s only going to get harder.
The times have not been kind
Metal Gear arguably invented the stealth genre by itself in response to the limitations of its native platform. Metal Gear Solid updated the formula of the classic game and made it relevant for a new generation of gaming. That was then, and now we’re here, with Metal Gear Solid IV remembered chiefly as an argument against including cutscenes in video games ever (despite the fact that it was hardly their fault) and Metal Gear Rising standing as some kind of ridiculous bookend, with its anti-stealth gameplay and, well, this video.
Incidentally, I’m of the mind that “nanomachines, son” is probably the best answer to a rhetorical question ever. I will be using it for the rest of this article at least.
Like many games that were a big success, Metal Gear Solid wound up spawning plenty of imitators. Stealth games are totally a thing now, and there are a lot of games that do what Metal Gear has tried to do, only better. The fact of the matter is that there’s a fair bit more joy to be milked out of an installment of the Arkham games with their stealthy gameplay than a good chunk of Metal Gear Solid IV, and I think Mark of the Ninja handles the very idea of creeping undetected and eliminating your enemies in darkness far better. That’s not even counting games like Gunpoint, which are technically stealth games by some metrics and yet also totally aren’t focused around stealth.
Rather than evolving, every new installment of the franchise has focused on the same mechanical widgets. In fact, it’s doubled down, replacing the stealth of the first two games with a much more ambiguous and chancy system that still takes place in the same sort of corridors and tunnels as the original. Which runs into two major issues, starting with the fact that the game is forever at odds with its theme.
The Truffaut problem
Hideo Kojima does not like war. This is not an indefensible or stunning as positions go; war is kind of terrible. And every single game in this franchise is trying to tell you how bad war is by showing you a whole bunch of cool military hardware and showing the supremely awesome main characters get involved in awesome fights and take down walking tanks and so forth.
Francois Truffaut said that you cannot make an anti-war movie, that by the act of showing war you are necessarily glorifying it. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, the Metal Gear games, for all their attempts to show the horrors of war, frequently fall into melodrama and unintentional farce. That’s when they aren’t telling stories that are only related to warfare in the most peripheral sense, when you consider that the main lot of the series involves cloned supersoldiers fighting nuclear tanks.
What does that have to do with war? Nanomachines, son. More on that in a minute.
These games want to be anti-war and anti-killing screeds, but they’re games in which killing your enemies is vastly easier to do, and you’re given an entire armory with which to do it. While the game tries to tell you that the best thing to do is never kill an enemy and never be detected, it’s the hardest way to get through the game, making it less a choice and more a mark of distinction if you can accomplish it. And that’s if you even want to accomplish it. Being able to use the many methods available to you to take out your enemies is part of the fun, and it seems wrong to say that you can have these toys but you aren’t allowed to use them if you really get the point of the game.
Density, direction, and duration
Metal Gear Solid, for its time, was actually a very interesting look at war and what you were doing in a video game. Killing enemies was the only way to take them out; you had to choose between killing and leaving them alive, yes, but the game gave you no choice with the bosses, and it was quite clear that you should feel bad about that fact. It make a point that the people you killed were, well, people. Every choice to take a life was regrettable.
More than that, it was a small, tense, personal story. And it was pretty decidedly ruined when a sequel hook got stuck on the end, inflating the series to escalating stories of super soldiers, walking tanks, revolutionaries, and other bizarre narrative contrivances that neither start nor stop with nanomachines. What was once a quick in-universe explanation for mechanical necessity has become a major plot point in and of itself, everyone has some personal agenda or another…
It’s become silly. And worse even than that, it’s unapproachable unless you play through the series, start to finish, and read supplemental material on the games that you can’t really play on modern consoles. It’s that worst possible use of continuity, acting as a lockout to anyone not intimately familiar with the series from start to present, because it is very possible at any given moment that the game will reference something from a title years earlier as a vital plot point.
You get the sense that this has long been a series that Kojima doesn’t want to do, but one he has to keep doing because it’s a big deal and a big moneymaker. And as each new installment comes out, it gets just a little bit sillier, it gets a little bit less relevant, and it’s harder to make the next one feel like a return to form. What can be done about a hard project that just keeps getting harder?