meditations on metal gear solid

over the past few days I completed a full playthrough of metal gear solid 1 for the psone. this game is 20 damn years old. and in 1998, I fell for it completely

I mean that both in the “fall in love” and in the “fell for the trap” sense. mgs is an earnest, goofy, clunky, artful mess of a game, but in my memory it was essentially perfect, full of thought-provoking philosophy and science, fourth-wall-breaking mind-blowing shit, and cool-ass action movie moments

(aside #1: I remember people complaining about how much the gamecube remake twin snakes amped up the matrix-y action scenes, but it’s pretty clear watching the original cutscenes that if kojima et al could have pulled off those sequences on PSX hardware, they totally would have. people jump to dodge bullets and do flips off very tall things basically constantly)

it certainly has those things but it’s also, like I said, extremely goofy. the voice acting is incredible for a ’98 Japanese import, but the script translation suffers occasionally from the standards of that time; characters have weird responses to each other and repeat things a lot. the music is still tremendous, but the cinematic cutscenes feel a little chintzy these days

(aside #2: man the PSX’s fixed-point math has aged so terribly. a game like final fantasy 7 has held up a little better because almost every sweeping camera movement in it was captured via pre-recorded FMV; here with every camera movement your eye just gets trapped looking for every surface that’s jittering or warping around like a coked-up squirrel)

it honestly reminds me of the original godzilla movie — gojira, the 1954 Japanese original. in graduate school I wrote a paper about that movie, how despite its low-grade effects and silly plot logistics, it’s fundamentally a very sad and complicated movie about Japan’s post-war dissociative identity. the monster is the nuclear future and also Japan’s warlike past; the movie’s ultimate hero is similarly both scientist and war hero, ushering in a catastrophic age and tied up inexorably with the horrors of war; hero and monster are reflections of each other, identical but opposite, and (spoiler for a 1954 movie) they’re both killed in a single action of recognition by the hero that the past must die to avert a horrible future

the first metal gear solid, a game that isn’t yet having to deal with the crazy silly storyline baggage of future games, is too all about legacy and war. all the characters are obsessed with vengeance and genetic fate; they’re all complicit in atrocities that have happened or that might happen, and they’re all struggling to find noble purpose in lives bent to the whims of the war machine. liquid’s all messed up; he wants to continue his father’s legacy but also hates his father and sees himself as an inferior double; the future he’s seeking is just the perpetuation of the war state he knows.

the game’s ultimately about how the past is a trap and an anchor, full of horror and trauma, and that the only way to live is to live beyond it, to accept that though there may be some fate written into our genes, we can’t know it, and letting it go is the only way to live for other humans instead of being obsessed with one’s own purpose and failings.

it’s a very Japanese game in this way, despite being so influenced by the long history of Western action movies. most killing is optional; the killing that isn’t (the bosses mostly) tends to come with long, tragic post-scripts emphasizing how the people you’ve killed, like you, are trapped in a cycle of bloodshed that can only end in death. (twin snakes added a tranq and the ability to not kill the bosses, right? I never played that game to be clear, but think this is not a good addition; the deaths of the FOX-HOUND members are important to the game’s emphasis on war as a cycle from which death is the only escape)

post-war Japan was literally blinded to its own recent past. during the USA occupation, Japanese newspapers were barred from running photographs or stories about the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. the country was basically in one night transformed from an imperial state to a pacifist Western ally, with no reckoning about the clash between those identities. gojira is wrestling with this really actively as a movie made in the early 50s, and at the end no one is happy, no one is cheering victory over the monster, everyone is simply brought low by the horror of widescale death and the inevitability of its recurrence

mgs ends more positive but is similarly a movie about how killing is awful and does awful things to those who kill. which is not a new angle for video games, not even really in 1998, but the resonance is so much more powerful here when things like nuclear deterrence and PTSD are so heavily frontloaded. it’s also not really that action-heavy a game, so the bursts of violence are more impactful and can be used to say more interesting things. other people have said more intelligent things about that aspect of the series but it’s definitely striking, even today, how ambivalent and ugly the game’s presentation of violence really is.

honestly it’s crazy this game was so successful in the USA in 1998. this is a game that is deeply bitter about the effects of the war economy on individuals, and it’s incredibly anti-authoritarian, especially and specifically as regards the American government. to wit, this frankly shocking passage at the game’s end:

Campbell: Washington isn’t stupid enough to use nukes to cover up a few secrets.

Snake: I wonder about that.

Colonel Campbell lies to Snake constantly but is just a pawn in the same game, and the chessplayer is always a higher authority, always mysterious but malevolent. do your job if it’ll save lives, but trust no one, especially not the people who claim to be your boss’s boss, especially not when those people control the weapons. that’s a crazy, wondrously progressive thought to have so well infiltrated a children’s video game in the Bill Clinton era.

assorted other thoughts:

  • perhaps accentuating the impact of violence is how holy-shit awful the combat controls are in this game. I died a bunch fighting Metal Gear Rex not really because I didn’t know what to do but because trying to perform the right sequence of events (throw chaff grenade, run, switch to stinger, aim, fire, switch away, throw chaff grenade, etc) was so frustrating to do with Snake’s tank-like movement and the fidgetiness of the menus. the game also throws a bunch of outright unfair or stupid scenarios at you; it’s kind of shocking how fondly the game’s remembered given how bad the really game-y bits are.
  • the sneaking aspects, meanwhile, are more mechanically stolid than I remembered (the cones of sight for the guards are ridiculously short and their movement patterns are incredibly basic) but still feel good, especially early on when your health bar is so low that avoiding detection is vital. the game also luxuriates in a few long silences which add to the sensation that you’re quietly working your way through this enemy base
  • character dynamics feel underbaked across the board, but the game sells them still on the strength of the voice acting and the simple clarity of the scenario, i.e. it’s a war zone so emotions are heightened. I never really buy the love story with Meryl, but that’s OK. the love/affection stories that work best imply that a lot of the affection was built off screen, e.g. Otacon and Sniper Wolf or Naomi and Frank.
  • snake is a dummy, but this is obviously on purpose; he’s basically a direct precursor to the guy you’re playing as in bioshock. but he’s also a lot funnier and more flirtacious than I remembered; his backstory and existence are pretty much top-to-bottom tragic horror, but his actual personality remains more John McClane than Man With No Name
  • many of the game’s jokes land awkwardly now but are played so straight that they’re kind of funny anyway. see anything regarding Meryl’s butt, Otacon’s use of the phrase “Japanese animes”, the adventures of Stomach-Problems Johnny, and so on

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