"You're Pretty Good" - Watching the Legend Come to Life
What makes Kojima's masterpiece so damn good?
As evidenced in our inaugural podcast (check it out if you haven’t yet!) the Metal Gear Solid series has been a staple in my gaming experience since I was a child. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is featured as the PS Plus free game of the month, giving us the perfect opportunity to dive into the series which has provided me and so many others with countless hours of enjoyment.
Hideo Kojima has undeniably mastered the art of the stealth game genre. From the beginning with Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, the player is always encouraged to sneak around rather than take the enemy head-on, with the only time you’re forced into a fight being the boss battles. As the series has evolved over the years, culminating with the aforementioned The Phantom Pain, the player has gained more and more freedom to shape the game to his or her style. What started out as a 2D franchise has evolved into a completely open world experience that allows you to tackle missions in a variety of ways and The Phantom Pain is a shining example of this: you can go through entire missions without firing a bullet, or roll in guns blazing, calling in airstrikes and throwing grenades. The evolution of the series has coincided with the changing tastes of the gamers who get lost in Kojima’s world, and it empowers them to build their own unique experiences. Every installment added new features and never became stagnant, which made it obvious throughout that Kojima could never be fully satisfied with the finished product. After he saw what Grand Theft Auto 5 was able to do with their open world, he was genuinely disappointed that The Phantom Pain didn’t live up to that standard. Kojima’s persistence to improve upon every installment has led to a deep sense of loyalty among the gamers who have devoted their time to his creations - myself included. Other than Kojima’s consistent improvement efforts, what is it about these games that draws so many in?
Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation was my first experience with the series, and it had such a profound impact on my life as a gamer. Kojima brought his stealth series to the 3D landscape for the first time on September 3, 1998, when I was eight years old. When I first picked up the controller and took on the role of protagonist Solid Snake, the graphics were some of the best I had ever seen. Granted the faces had no true definition but for games in 1998, it was groundbreaking. For those who aren’t familiar - you play as Solid Snake and your mission is to infiltrate Shadow Moses Island to stop the terrorist organization FOXHOUND, led by your evil twin brother Liquid Snake, from launching a nuclear warhead. While on the surface, the plot is basic, the story is a never-ending web of lies that keeps unfolding as you play on - It’s part of the charm. More impressive than the graphics and story were the little quirks to gameplay that Kojima would throw at you throughout. Everyone who has played the series can tell you how frustrating it was during their first attempt at fighting Psycho Mantis (terrorist organization FOXHOUND’s resident psychic), where Kojima required you to switch your controller over to the second port in order to prevent Mantis from reading Solid Snake’s mind. Little quirks like these always kept the player on their toes and forced them to think about gameplay in ways they never have before. It wasn’t just a game, it was a genuine holistic experience.
As early as this 1998 installment, Kojima gave players meaningful choices to make, which made his games all the more impactful. In Metal Gear Solid you are able to experience two separate endings, depending on whether or not you submit to Revolver Ocelot’s (possibly the actual protagonist of the whole series? More on that later..) torture. If you survive the multiple rounds of torture, Meryl (Colonel Roy Campbell’s niece and overall badass) gets to live, but if you submit to it, she dies. This alone gave massive replay value to the game, which was still somewhat rare in 1998. Simple concepts like this were a major reason why this game stood out so much to me. Kojima tried new things while using basic action genre tropes with his own unique and developed cast of characters. The manual (’memba game manuals’?) that accompanied the game provided contextual background on every single character you encounter, as well as information on all weapons and items you recover. Before I even put in the game I had a real understanding of the story and was already completely invested. Kojima’s demographic definitely skews teenage/adult male, but it was exactly the type of game I had been waiting for. Because of the in depth manual and the pregame briefing videos, I wanted to be the grizzled secret agent being forced out of retirement before I even hit “New Game.” The attention to detail in a story, which has often bordered on absurd at worst and confusing at best, kept me coming back for more with every new game.
Possibly Kojima’s favorite running game element is the shocking twist towards the end - in every game there’s an instance where you can almost see Kojima winking at you saying “gotcha!” For example, in the original Metal Gear, Big Boss appears to be Solid Snake’s commander but is really the enemy. At the end of Metal Gear Solid you find out one of your contacts, Master Miller, was really Liquid Snake in disguise all along! Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty throws two twists at you: the first is during the second half (and majority) of the game you play as new character Raiden. The second is that the main villain was an unexpected third Big Boss clone! His name, of course, is Solidus Snake. Losing the ability to play as Solid Snake for most of the game was poorly received by many. Solid Snake’s first trip to 3D, voiced by the talented David Hayter, turned him into an instant classic character - so it’s no surprise there would be some backlash when players are deprived the opportunity to play as their hero in his Playstation 2 debut. Despite this, Kojima makes it nearly impossible for you not to root for Raiden by the end of the game. Over the course of your experience with Raiden you learn the true darkness of his life, making him one of the more sympathetic characters in recent memory. The twists and turns don’t stop there. No, no, no...In your first experience playing as Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater you learn that you are betrayed by your mentor and idol, The Boss (more super creative names, right?), who has stabbed you in the back to apparently help the Russians make moves in the Cold War. But not so fast! The Boss was really just working super undercover to make it seem like she was with the Russians… but she really wasn’t… but they needed her to be killed by Big Boss to make Russia believe it so the war could end. See what I mean - web of lies!
I mentioned earlier you can make a case that Revolver Ocelot is truly the protagonist of this series. In his appearances in MGS 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots he works to assist Big Boss in his endeavors in the former and is using Solid Snake as a pawn to stop the use of the AI weapons system that has taken over militaries in the latter. It’s amazing how a side character not only has so much depth but can even be in the discussion of protagonist. Ocelot’s deception wasn’t so much devious as it was genuinely interesting. It made me want to know why this character acted the way he did. Every scene he was in made me stop and turn up the volume. He is one of the two key elements in the series’ biggest twist which comes at the end of The Phantom Pain. I won’t spoil that for anyone as it truly is an amazing piece of storytelling. Ocelot’s role increases with each installment and The Phantom Pain gives you a real look inside of his relationship with Big Boss providing so much more insight to his actions in the previous games. As absurd as the story can get, Kojima did a fantastic job bringing things full circle with the fourth and fifth installments, using Ocelot as the glue that held the majority of it together. Massively impressive work for a background character.
Every second of the previous games has led to the free PS4 game this month, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. In one of Kojima’s more shocking twists the cut scenes are shorter and less frequent. He has given you the ability to create your own moments which in turn stand out as the true memories. I’ll never forget the emotional epilogue of MGS 4 or the beautiful tribute Big Boss pays to the mentor he was forced to kill in MGS 3. What I’ll remember from The Phantom Pain is the time I took to plan my approach, and the true sense of accomplishment I felt when my plan went perfectly - leading to the much desired “S” rank (the highest rank for completing missions). Equally, I’ll remember every time my plan completely went to hell, leading to frantic enemy firefights and close calls with mission failure. Without spoiling the true ending (there is a hidden mission you have to trigger to get the true ending…classic Kojima), all these player created moments reinforce Metal Gear’s ongoing theme of the player, not any one character, being the true protagonist. Being given a sense of total empowerment while also experiencing an in depth linear story is what keeps me and so many others loyal to the series. As we sit in wonder of what will happen now that Kojima and Konami are posting passive aggressive away messages (#RipAIM) about each other, let’s all take some time to reflect on how truly amazing the series has been. For all you PS4 players, download The Phantom Pain and enjoy every minute of it. For any non-PS4 players it’s worth every penny. At the end of the day, I can only nod to Hideo Kojima and say “You’re pretty good.”