Monday, August 3, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Kojima, 2008)

Last year in 2008 Hideo Kojima unleashed the final iteration of the Metal Gear Solid series onto the world. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was met with both critical and commercial success, with some reviewers naming it the best videogame of all time. The editors at Gamespot awarded the game a rare perfect 10 saying "It's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing MGS4 because every part of its design seemingly fulfills its vision, without compromise. There is no halfway." This statement could not be more true. Over the course of the past year I decided to see what all the fuss was about with this game series. During that time I've written several pieces detailing my thoughts on each iteration, examining their messages, themes, and purpose. I've finally finished my goal of playing through all four games, and just like those Gamespot editors, it's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing Solid Snake's final mission.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a contradiction of sorts. At times it represents the height of what the medium has to offer. The story is larger than life, filled with grand themes and notions, bleeding edge game design, masterful production, memorable characters, and contains a sense of purpose like no other game. At the same time it is an overwrought, overblown mess, struggling to keep up with itself, and contains the most complex, complicated, most difficult to follow story in the history of videogames. There are moments where MGS4 is a colossal triumph, and moments where it reeks with overblown ambition.

I'd rather not go into the details of the story itself, as that would require it's own separate post (or several). Let's begin with the characters. In short, Kojima managed to include nearly every single character from every Metal Gear game into this game. And I mean everyone. Remember the poor soldier in the first game who was using the restroom? Yeah, he's in this game. It's like the War & Peace of videogames in terms of cast (the MGS database lists over 130 characters). But what's amazing about this is that Kojima actually manages to tie all these characters together into a (somewhat) cohesive story. The plot had been moving slowly until I reached the end of Act 3 (of five acts total) when suddenly Kojima managed to tie in the entire cast of characters, including those from the previous game which took place in the 1960s, in a move that showed just how deep his ambition was to tie all these threads together. It was like Kojima, instead of trying to corral this giant beast of a story into some pen, decided a better way to take control was to just grab the story by the balls and squeeze as hard as he could to force his will upon it.

As I said before, the game is full of contradictions. It speaks a message of peace and non-violence while simultaneously hyper-romanticizing the role of the warrior. At times the game strives to be ultra-realistic. Characters will go into painstaking detail about how a certain firearm works, or how a certain computer program functions. At other times the game gives way to guilty fantasy. This is most notable with the antagonists. The villians in the Metal Gear series have always been a bit over the top. This game is no exception. The main bosses in this game take place in the form of the Beauty and the Beast Corp., four lovely young women traumatized by war who've gone mad and are now instruments of war themselves. Each one has taken on a certain emotion, e.g. Raging Raven, Screaming Wolf. It's easy to laugh at the silliness of some of these characters. But if you look at it differently these characters are almost Jungian archetypes. Are they even meant to be real? Does Snake actually fight them, or could it be seen as Snake “fighting his demons”? There's a certain metaphoric quality to these characters. The way arch-villian Liquid Ocelot bristles with lightning, just as Volgin did in the previous game, could be seen not as an actual ability of his to wield lightning but as a metaphor for his power. It must be noted that the fantasy doesn't get in the way of the plot or is ever used as as Deus ex machinima. This quote from the Daniel Primed blog says it best: “While fantasy based elements are a rarely discussed staple of the series, these games use it only for metaphoric purposes and never to conclude storyline plot holes.” This leads me to my next point, these fantasy elements aren't really fantasy at all, but rather they should be seen as extended metaphors.

In essence that's what the whole game, the whole series even, is - metaphors embodied in characters. The whole series is just one big morality play, with each character taking on their part. This also means that nearly everything contains some sort of symbolism. Oh, is there ever so much symbolism in this game! One character could be seen as a stand-in for Christ, another the Virgin Mary (and simultaneously Mary Magdalene). A new character, Drebin, is the embodiment of the entire arms industry, even of capitalism itself, who also functions as a sort of Greek chorus/Cheshire cat, appearing to our hero in times of need to prod him along the path. There's even a bit of a Faust/Devil relationship between him and Snake. It's like an English major's dream manifested in game form.

The dichotomy of symbolism goes even farther. At times the drama is very Western (Shakespearian) at other times very Japanese. When I say Shakespearian I mean that in every sense of the word. Yes it contains those elements of great literature such as comedy, love, death, and tragedy, but it also appeals to the masses with it's occassionaly crude humor (lots of fart/poop jokes) and underdressed females. At the same time the game is very Japanese. The action sequences are straight out of a Hong Kong action flick (ok, not Japanese, but it has its roots in the martial arts). The females can occasionally act in a way Westerners might find old fashioned (like when one bride-to-be gets excited at the prospect of dutifully serving her husband). Occasionally there's that feeling that there's something you're not quite getting, like some cultural cue we're not familiar with. All together, it's this strange mix of Western drama and Japanese weirdness.

It's like the War & Peace of videogames in terms of cast.

To say the game can be melodramatic is an understatement. Since the whole game is essentially a vehicle for Kojima's message it can be nauseating at times when a character goes into an extended dialogue on the dangers of war or what have you. Like with the other games in the series, Kojima wants to make absolute certain that you get the message, so he'll have the characters speak these grand verbiose statements that go on and on and on. Kojima can be so blinded by his ambition that he doesn't know when to stop. Michael Abbott at the Brainy Gamer has an interesting piece on this aspect of Metal Gear and melodrama if you're interested in reading further.

I've spoken previously about Kojima's use of cinematic cutscenes in the series. It's an oft leveled criticism of Metal Gear that the cutscenes can be too lengthy, where it becomes less like you're playing a game and more like watching a film. This game is no exception. Before the game came out there were rumors about extraordinarily long cinematic sequences, so much that when publisher Konami let reviewers get an early version of the game for review purposes they were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement saying they wouldn't comment on the length of those cutscenes.

Oh, folks, are they ever long. Usually they run from a few minutes to 15 minutes, with a few clocking in around 45 minutes. But then Kojima really outdoes himself when after the final confrontation the game goes into an epilogue that technically qualifies as a full-length feature according to the Screen Actors Guild. All in all there are over 10 hours of cinematics.

Which brings me to the next point: Kojima needs an editor. It's not that the game or the cinematics are too long, or even the story itself. It's his obsession over the nitty gritty details of the characters' motivations. We don't need an hour long explanation of how and exactly why the villian plans on using some computer program to accomplish his evil deeds, you can just tell us "The bad guy has item X, and that gives him power, so therefore we need to stop him!". Yes, it's cliched, but it's more effective than overly long explanations that barely hold up logically and which are ultimately inconsequential. Once again, our friend at the Brainy Gamer has an excellent piece on Kojima and his over-the-top ambitions. At the same time I have to confess that I somewhat enjoy these long, drawn-out explanations as it's what gives the series some of it's charm. Yes it's tiresome, but at the same time, have you ever played another videogame, or even seen a movie, that went into such detail over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty? I'm sure you haven't. So it's at times frustrating to have to wade through all of this talk just to experience the game, but at the same time, it's all part of the adventure. It's like going to a Tarantino film, part of the thrill is just watching the characters and their discussions on Big Macs and Like a Virgin.

The game contains all the usual flair that I've discussed previously in my other analyses. Both the graphics and the score are AAA in quality. In fact, the game has arguably the best graphics and presentation out there, I am convinced that those shots of Sunny cooking eggs are real. The locales and situations Kojima puts Snake in are amazing, from putting Snake on a cloak-and-dagger like mission where he must tail an informant in a foggy Eastern European city that recalls something out of The Third Man, to some extraordinary split-screen sequences that have you controlling Snake on one half while a glorious cinematic plays in the other half, the game does it like no other.

Like the other games in the series, the one seems at times self-aware of it's own existence, toying with the player through fake reboot screens and characters specifically mentioning the gaming hardware. The game also has a certain self-importance about it. Kojima knew he was crafting a huge finale to a wildly popular series, and this is evidenced in his song selection. The opening song is a pathos-filled dirge sung entirely in Hebrew; the closing song a cover of Joan Baez's "Here's to you" from the film Sacco and Vanzetti. It's like Kojima wouldn't settle for anything less than these heavy, burdensome pieces to give his work some sort of gravitas.

I want to say more but I'm not sure what I want to say. There's so many different points of discussion, one could write a dissertation or hold an entire lecture series on this one game alone. Hideo Kojima is perhaps the most gifted auteur in the medium, and the amount of ambition in this game is staggering. I'm just not quite convinced the game lived up to that ambition, though it is still far and beyond anything else in videogaming. This one quote I found online says it best:

“That’s not to say that MGS4 is a failure because it simply isn’t, it is one of the best produced pieces of media of our time which so happens to be under the control of a mad man.”

After playing the entire series all the way through I've come to the conclusion that though this game may have it's flaws, I just might consider it the best narratively-focused videogame of all time (as opposed to something like Tetris, which might qualify for the best non-narrative game of all time), though it's difficult not to take the series as a whole into consideration when making that claim. But this comes with the heavy caveat: for now. No one else has ever come close to what Kojima tries to accomplish in this game; his ambition is extraordinary and the fact that he can pull it off with only a few gripes is equally extraordinary. But as I said, this is just possibly the best videogame series for now. Another game developer with similar ambitions and creativity could probably do better if they could manage to just rope in their ambitions a bit. Well, that's it. If you've made it this far, I thank you for reading this. Till next time.


Little Earl said...

I made it! Some of my favorite Zrbo turns of phrase:

"bleeding edge game design"

"reeks with overblown ambition"

"the War & Peace of videogames"

"corral this giant beast of a story"

"grab the story by the balls"

"Jungian archetypes"

"arch-villian Liquid Ocelot bristles with lightning"

AMG writers, take heed!

Herr Zrbo said...

STE eat your heart out.

It's strange, I wasn't even trying to write like an AMG writer. Maybe I should apply for a job at, their reviews are pathetic.

Really amazing blog.. Thank you so much.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

Yeah, it was awesome work [seriously]. Thank you so much [no, really, it obviously took quite some work].