Thought Bubble: Metal Gear Solid is a Tragic Joke

Hideo Kojima had a rather public falling out with Konami during the buildup to Metal Gear Solid V, all but ensuring that The Phantom Pain will be the final installment in the celebrated action series (or at least the last one that anyone cares about). The early reviews have been ecstatic, though many have an air of finality as writers have taken the opportunity to eulogize the beloved franchise.

That also means that The Phantom Pain is my last chance to shake my fist at the sky and tell the world that I don’t fucking get it. Metal Gear Solid remains the most bizarrely overrated game franchise in the history of the medium, and while I understand why it has fans – it does have an admirable sincerity – I just do not understand why it is so consistently held up as a paragon of good design.

Now before I start, let’s get one thing straight. This is not a review, nor is it an objective evaluation of the series. I’ve never finished an entire MGS game (unless you count Ground Zeroes), and while I’ve made several attempts, nothing has ever clicked for me. I admit that openly and with no reservations. This is a completely biased take, a subjective rant based on my own personal experiences with the game.

In other words, it’s an opinion. We’ll eventually have more coverage of The Phantom Pain from people with a greater knowledge of the franchise, and while that coverage will be no less biased, it will likely be more positive.

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Until then, I’ll be over here poking the Internet bear with a pointy object. Are we all clear on that? Good. Let’s have some fun.

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Despite that preamble, the truth is that I don’t hate Metal Gear Solid, nor do I hate Hideo Kojima. I actually have quite a bit of respect for both, for many of the same reasons that led to that preamble. People regard Metal Gear Solid with a missionary fervor. That’s an accomplishment. I love it when creators and fans are passionate about something, and while I have considerable disdain for him as a writer, Kojima deserves credit for creating something that inspires such strong positive and negative reactions. He believes in his vision, and that confidence is alluring.

The breakdown occurs when I start reading reviews that expect me to treat the game as serious drama, the ones that open with, “Top-notch cinematography and voice acting echo–and at times exceed–contemporary standards for film and TV, carrying extraordinary characters into the realm of believability.”

Sorry, but no. As non-interactive bits of cinema, the cut scenes in MGS are strictly worse than comparable scenes in movies like Apocalypse Now or TV shows like The Wire, if for no other reason than they take twice as long to say half as much. Weirdly sexist contrivances like vagina bombs are not ‘believable.’ Kojima’s writing is so blunt, so Capital-S Symbolic that it approaches self-parody, and while his takes on subjects like torture and child warfare are laudable, they have all the subtlety and nuance of a large-breasted sniper in a string bikini.

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Metal Gear Solid has always had a healthy dose of camp as filtered through the mind of a 15-year old boy that discovered global politics and masturbation in the same afternoon.

That’s why I’ve generally been under the impression that Metal Gear Solid is a joke, and that’s not intended as a criticism. Humor can be an incredibly powerful tool that reveals the deepest truths about the human condition. The fact that something is funny does not in any way mitigate its potential impact as a work of art.

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Metal Gear Solid has always seemed to operate in those terms, at least in my many conversations with fans of the franchise. They know the plot and the dialogue are ridiculous. That’s one of the reasons they love it, and hey, I totally get it. I love Resident Evil even though it sounds like it was written in crayon.

Yet while I adore glorious messes like Life is Strange and Heavy Rain, Metal Gear Solid has never clicked for me because Metal Gear Solid has always felt like it disrespects my time. I’m willing to listen to a seventh grader lecture me about pacifism, but I will wander off if he doesn’t have the decency to do it quickly. I might have given MGS3 more of a chance had the pseudo-intellectual philosophizing in the opening cut scene lasted for three minutes instead of thirty.

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If the reviews are anything to go by, MGSV may have addressed many of those issues. The cut scenes supposedly aren’t as verbose and you can listen to audio logs while engaging in other activities. Those sound like improvements. If nothing else, it’s admirable that Kojima strives to get better instead of getting complacent.

For me, however, it’s too little, too late. After eleven core Metal Gear games the plot is so convoluted and obtuse that the latest one is impenetrable to newcomers. I learn a new control scheme and mythology almost every week, but I have absolutely no interest in wading through the bullshit Kojima passes off as insightful. I’m yet to see a single line of MGS dialogue that doesn’t sound like it came from a high school creative writing class, and that was still the case as recently as Ground Zeroes.

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In a way, it’s almost tragic. Back around the time of MGSIV, I used to worry that the franchise would become a standard bearer for gaming, especially since a lot of people were eager for it to take up the mantle. Kojima was one of the industry’s biggest dreamers and his idealism felt novel, but no other series so nakedly displayed gaming’s deficiencies when measured against cinema. I’ve always believed that gaming should aspire to be more than an inferior version of an older art form.

I no longer have that concern. Hating Metal Gear Solid no longer feels necessary or even interesting, and that immediacy – that fight for gaming’s future – was the source of my vitriol. Now I just find the whole thing sort of endearing, like a parent smiling politely while someone else’s kid shows me a finger painting and boasts about getting an ‘A’ for participation. It’s not intended for me – and I certainly don’t have to think it’s good – but it makes other people are happy and is therefore a net positive in the world. Who am I to tell those people they’re wrong?

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Besides, gaming has evolved so rapidly that no game can truly be said to be prototypical. Metal Gear is just another franchise, one that now has to compete with countless other titles with clear directorial vision. In the Triple-A space games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us have addressed similar themes far more efficiently, proving that games can have cinematic heft while also embracing the interactive strengths of gaming.

That’s the tragic part. Thanks to digital distribution, HD re-releases, and collections like Rare Replay, it’s never been easier to revisit the history of the medium. Unfortunately, I don’t think history will be kind to Metal Gear Solid. The barriers that prevent new audiences from discovering the franchise are not technological, but are instead products of Kojima’s own design. The lore is so thick that it stands as an active deterrent to future generations. If you haven’t been there since the beginning, there’s no reason to waste hundreds of hours on a franchise that will seem increasingly juvenile and trite as the industry advances.

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That would be a shame, because despite my reservations, I would never dismiss Metal Gear’s legacy. The series mattered, both artistically and technologically. I prefer the stealth gameplay in Splinter Cell and the management features at Mother Base sound like the stuff that Assassin’s Creed has been doing for years, but I’ve heard that MGSV has a marvelous engine and I’m in no position to argue otherwise.

Yet somehow, MGSV already feels like a relic, a game more alienating to new players than the latest RPG from Bioware, and there’s probably a lesson to be learned there. Great art is able to reach and move a massive audience, and while Metal Gear once did that, its ability to resonate diminishes with each passing installment as it adds more and more velvet rope to the line outside the club that says, ‘Members Only.’

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In a way, it’s emblematic of the current social shift in gaming. Metal Gear Solid was uniquely representative of an era when games were sold exclusively to insiders. It’s coming to an end just as the homogenous, insular, male gamer culture is beginning to crumble. Games are expected to appeal to more diverse audiences and there’s less room for a self-perpetuating vanity project that barely makes sense on its own terms.

I won’t be sorry to see it go, but I will tip my cap and say that it was fun while it lasted. Metal Gear Solid made the games industry more entertaining, and I’ve come to appreciate the enthusiasm that its fans and its creator brought to the table. I hope everyone enjoys The Phantom Pain. After nearly thirty years, Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid deserved a better sendoff than the Old Yeller treatment it got from Konami.

 

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