Metal Gear Solid (1998)

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Before we discuss Metal Gear Solid, we have to talk about why Showgirls is actually a good movie.

When most people watch films, they are not first and foremost watching for technical craftsmanship. This is not meant as a slight, because it’d be a pretty bonkers world if they did, one that would completely undermine film’s century-long history as a populist medium. So, I think it’s safe to say — with no snideness intended — that most people watch films for stories, for relatable characters, for themes they can extrapolate onto their own lives for their own benefit and self-fulfillment. These are the elements we as human beings have deemed the very basics of “good” art and storytelling, the simplest building blocks that explain why applying our empathy to something abstract and stripped-down like the plot of a film is a vital and life-affirming experience. These are also the elements which Showgirls fails to communicate, and why most people reject it upon first encounter. Showgirls is a movie about shallow, stupid people doing shallow, stupid things, and unlike something like Seinfeld — where the characters’ awfulness is always winking at you, and the winking and relatability are the whole point — director Paul Verhoeven has all the sympathy for his creations as the blinding sun harassing hungover strip club denizens at dawn.

Showgirls is largely mocked for its inhumanity, but its dirty little secret is how it portrays that inhumanity, if one can look beyond its ridiculous rags-to-kinda-riches plot. As he does in his more palatable genre exercises like Robocop and Total Recall, Verhoeven employs detailed mise-en-scene and long-takes to expose the absurd insularity of the world he’s creating. The blood, sweat, and tears Showgirls‘ characters exert to create their barely stimulating garbage is the joke on which its bleak satire rests, and Verhoeven’s meticulousness as a director illustrates that divide between effort and result more than anything in the script. Here’s an artistically masterful director making a trashy movie about trashy people mistaking themselves for artists. On paper — which is the level on which most people interpreted the film — it’s a cynical mess, a blend of irony and fully-embraced melodrama that simply has to be a joke. But the critical reappraisal of the film (partially spearheaded by Playing the Canon fave Jacques Rivette!) concludes that, yes, it’s all those things and more, but Verhoeven’s ability with the form and technical expertise render it an intentional artistic statement. A cold, unpleasant one, perhaps, but one in which everything is done with purpose.

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Although less intentionally, Metal Gear Solid is as humanly bankrupt as Showgirls. Hearing Solid and Liquid Snake engage in the vaguest philosophical debate about genetic destiny ever written by a human hand is about as alien and emotionally baffling as Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan spasmodically fucking in a neon swimming pool.  I won’t deny that Hideo Kojima’s interest in the nuclear paranoia that haunts his country is sincere, but his engagement with the subject matter is — to put it nicely — at such an emotional and intellectual arms-length that on a pure plot level, Metal Gear Solid is as much about nuclear war as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is about the horrors of genetic engineering. But Metal Gear Solid is an undoubted masterpiece of the form, as thoughtful and inventive in its use of the medium’s assets as any game I can call to mind. Unlike Showgirls, people instantly look past the schlockiness of Metal Gear Solid‘s script and recognize the brilliance of its mechanics. Although Solid is more explicitly meta than Showgirls ever gets, the works are merely three years apart in age, so the difference in perception can’t be written off to some larger shift in media consumption; it’s much more likely the difference of mediums. Could the triumph of Kojima’s long-form experiment actually spotlight one of those mythic instances where games trump other narrative mediums? Could the inherent engagement of interactivity force a usually passive audience to recognize the form and mechanics of a work?

If Verhoeven uses his toolbox to explore the edge of taste, Kojima uses his to explore the edge of reason. Kojima approaches video games like a Native American approaches a buffalo: every part is used, nothing is wasted. Every element of Metal Gear Solid‘s design is intentional and meant to subtly reroute how the player considers video game logic. No items get tossed after a single scenario, including the jewel case the game comes in, which contains an important code used early in the game. This meta fuck-with-ery could be a glib, wonky exercise in cleverness in another medium, but in the realm of play, it feels vital. Video games are more rulesets than stories, and one could argue that the most satisfying, challenging conflict in a game comes not from any gruff, mecha-equipped final boss, but from the player pressing up against the designer’s rules. Metal Gear Solid rewards engagement and attention; an explosive that hampers machinery doesn’t stop working just to make boss battles against robots and cyborgs more difficult, but applauds the player for putting two and two together. These early, simple alternate solutions start raising questions: What can I poke and prod at in this universe? What are the limits of my agency here? Soon, even the long-winded codec conversations adapt to the playfulness: How many times can I call these polite, mantra-spewing ciphers before they tell me to fuck off? Kojima wants to engage the player in a dialogue about the lines between reality and artifice, so he invites the player to try to one-up him at his own game. But the willingness to experiment goes both ways; Kojima allows me to mask my scent in wolf piss instead of engage in animal cruelty (long story), so I feel less foolish holding my controller to my arm for a rumble-pack massage or switching controller ports to confuse a psychic adversary. Metal Gear Solid‘s wackadoo meta-ness isn’t Kojima wanking off to his own brilliance. It’s Kojima trying every trick he can dream up to further envelop the player in his pulp diorama.

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And make no mistake: Shadow Moses Island is a diorama. Kojima places every chair, crate, and steaming pipe with surgical precision; an open world this is not. But expansiveness isn’t everything, and I’d much rather push up against the seams of a small, meticulous world than trudge endlessly through a large one. Confined spaces are all but necessary for a stealth game, as limited hiding spaces and fixed cameras are ten times more suspenseful than simply running away from a foe. I haven’t played the later, more expansive titles in the series so I can’t be sure, but I feel like much of Metal Gear Solid‘s personality depends on this closed, borderline claustrophobic world. With so little actual ground covered through the game, the player focuses on the minutiae, the eccentric bits that rise above the nonsense narrative. Details, from the famous exclamation-point noise when an enemy spots Snake to the smoke from a freshly lit cigarette catching an infrared light, are why Metal Gear Solid feels aesthetically coherent and surprisingly playable  today, when most of its contemporaries now play like some kind of exercise in Kafkaesque futility. It’s one of the few games that uses every color in its carefully selected palette, and for that reason alone, I’m curious to see where its sequels go. What can a series do when every moment of the first entry feels like an inversion of the last?

Technical triumphs can be great art in and of themselves. What makes Metal Gear Solid a game worthy of whatever cultural pedestal we’ll have for these things fifty years from now is that it begs the player to examine his own relationship with the game, and how far he’s willing to go to maintain that engagement. Unlike film, literature, or most other artistic mediums, casual fans play Metal Gear Solid and understand its technical mastery; that alone is noteworthy to me, and fairly unheard of in the reaction to other mainstream media. (Gravity might come the closest of any film in recent memory, but its effect on the audience is more slack-jawed, visceral amazement than making them engage with the filmmaking at hand. Which is still cool, Gravity is really good!) But the game is still largely a human failure, and unlike Showgirls, that failure is not part of a larger commentary or artistic vision. Metal Gear Solid‘s story is garbage (and as such, will not be dissected in any great detail here), and even the people who dig its ridiculousness largely understand that. I’m glad people can overlook its gaping failures in plot and logic to dig into the technical feast at the game’s heart, but what if Hideo Kojima took a stance on something other than “war is bad,” or adapted a tone other than melodramatic otaku insanity? What if the story had some bite, some mode other than operatic sincerity or lost-in-translation anti-humor? If this was Paul Verhoeven’s Metal Gear Solid — a little more satire, a few less boilerplate action tropes — would people have seen its technical excellence, or would they have been scared off by the dark heart powering the whole thing?

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Games will probably always attract a more mechanically minded crowd than other mediums; their ties to breakthrough tech and computer culture almost ensure it. Through that lens, Metal Gear Solid is a full-throttle techno-wizard masterpiece, perhaps the gamiest game ever constructed. It’s part computer chess, part Pac-Man, and part playing James Bond in the backyard with your eight year-old self, all wrapped up in a story only comprehensible to people with no earthly idea how stories work. One of the latest trends in gaming is the rise (rebirth, maybe, depending on how you view the old adventure games) of the interactive story game. Titles like Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, and Gone Home recently earned critical praise for telling emotionally engaging stories, but scorn from pockets of the gamer community for their lack of interactivity and deep rulesets. I’m as grateful for these more deeply human titles as I am for the brain-bending playground of Metal Gear Solid, but will a game come along that can engage me both as person and player? The film critic in me can watch Showgirls and nod my head at Verhoeven’s assured hand and aesthetic thoughtfulness, but both the human and critic in me are invested in films like Sansho the Bailiff and Grand Illusion. While I wouldn’t say games never strike that balance, the ones that push to the edges of technical accomplishment often lack the basic tenets of storytelling, or even a real human perspective. Even if the titular mecha is defeated in Metal Gear Solid, even if Meryl lives and the game ends happily, there’s no doubt that the humans lose in Kojima’s tightly constructed world. Perhaps one day I’ll be moved to tears by an inventive use of a rocket launcher. But until then, as long as I get to keep playing in puzzle boxes as ingenious as Metal Gear Solid‘s, long live the machines, I say, in just this one case.

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2 thoughts on “Metal Gear Solid (1998)

  1. freecritique says:

    A very interesting article. This is still one of my favourite games to this day, and I relate to your remark that “I’d much rather push up against the seams of a small, meticulous world than trudge endlessly through a large one”. The attention to detail and the way in which certain game mechanics (like the Codec) were used was simply ahead of its time upon release. Metal Gear Solid’s sequels were good, but none managed to match the brilliance of the first game.

  2. Aaron says:

    I should comment more on this blog sometimes. I’ve been meaning to do so.

    Couple points:

    - I noticed no mention of the MSX Metal Gear titles. A lot of the design choices in Metal Gear Solid trace back to them, especially 2. In fact the overtly retro feel of Solid is as much Kojima working around his well admitted limitations in working in 3D and instead building upon the first two Metal Gears’ as it is a deliberate effort to make the game more suspenseful. After all you don’t see the games designed around a proper 3D camera until MGS4, and the MGS3 remake is very broken when they give you a camera that let’s you. uh, see things.

    That is a weakness is the series I think by the way, although with MGS it is so similar to a top down arcade title that in many ways it’s only incidentally 3D and is a little more forgivable.

    - Kind of related but the game is so similar to MG2 that your comparison would work better if you were talking about some hypothetical “Showgirls: the HD remake”. I’m only kind of exaggerating. The politics, your moves, how the Codec is used, the Die Hard meets Escape From New York premise. Hell even a lot of the basic characters and tasks you need to complete are the same. It’s curious how much less remembered MG2 is considering that…

    - One big observation, you never mentioned the controls. They’re kind of weird aren’t they? Yet by making the controls more specific to the series, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing just some other action or stealth game I think. Its universe is very unique, right down to how you play. More importantly, newcomers to the series have an easier time adapting to MGS than other similar titles, a point I remember Matt Weise (a game reviewer that was influential in an era where IGN was otherwise the best you had) commenting on in his blog almost 10 years ago, and a point worth thinking about considering MGS is something of a gateway title. I’ll link it below:

    http://game-eaters.blogspot.com/2005/04/metal-gear-vs-splinter-cell.html

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