Welcome to the third installment of The Retrospective, where I, an internet nobody, plays and evaluates games from the past that I just happened to miss out on at the height of their popularities. In the greatest of all my convenient coincidences, I just happened to pick and play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty mere days before the official reveal of MGS V: The Phantom Pain (no big surprise there, of course, but damn what a good trailer).
So yes, before this past week, I had never touched a Metal Gear game. Truth be told, the only reason I chose the game was because the recent release Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance caught my attention thanks to its affiliation to Platinum Games (a developer I adore for its spectacular Vanquish), and I wanted to familiarize myself with Raiden. Well I’ve since finished the experience and have some choice words for what proceeded to astound, conflict, and deeply affect me. Let’s dive into it.
First a little bit of perspective. The Metal Gear games, of course, are some of the most beloved, consistently well made titles ever made. Hideo Kojima has, of course, dumped a lot of himself and his crazy understanding of the world into the experiences, and many like the series for both its absurdist tone and occasional relevance to modern politics. That’s what I already knew before playing a single one. What I didn’t know or expect is an underlying layer that speaks to gaming as a whole, and specifically the role of the player. Metal Gear games are not merely content to be games in the conservative sense, but instead they reach into areas of the metaverse that I didn’t know existed.
But more on that to come. What I found regarding Metal Gear Solid 2 surprised me for how divisive the game is historically. Many view it with far less rose tinted lenses than they do its predecessor and sequel, despite at the time having a fantastic metascore and incredible sales data. Much of today’s frustation with the title comes from a controversy surrounding Konami’s lack of transparency at the time, as they essentially lied about the protagonist. Before launch, trailers featured Solid Snake in what would really become Raiden’s segments, a devious trick that many long-time fans still feel wounded by. Raiden is not as compelling as Snake, they all seem to say, and his whiny, anime-ish behavior and cartwheels don’t belong in a series dominated by the raspy-voiced reptile.
Even still, fans of the series are hard-pressed to call the game straight up bad, as it still offers the same supreme level of complexity found in the other titles. Included in the recent HD collection, MGS2 has naturally been getting a solid amount a attention lately along with MGS3, which seems fitting considering that a new title in the series is on its way.
Ultimately, the legacy of MGS2 goes beyond making Metal Gear Solid into a series. It set a precedent in its day for stealth and still offers a greater attention to detail than most games made even today.
Going into Sons of Liberty, I had little to no idea what to expect. I always heard that the Metal Gear games were a force to be reckoned with, but I had never quite known why. I didn’t know how long to expect the game to be, how many locations it would take me to, or in what ways the narrative would shift or evolve. All I knew was that the game featured sneaking and that more often than not avoiding conflict was the best means of moving through the given circumstances.
That was perfectly fine with me, as I loved the stealth elements from more modern homages to this form of design like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonered. Naturally, it took quite a bit of time to get used to the distance between me and the character being controlled. Such a high angle isn’t a common fit with this style of gameplay, as it usually suits older RPGs and strategy games, not titles that require more minute maneuvering and combat action on a moment’s notice.
But once I assimilated to the controls and button layout, I began to realize what a well crafted experience Kojima had devised. Despite a sharp learning curve at the beginning, the sophisticated mechanics felt deeply natural. Soon, I was in control of every situation and could devise my way though all manner of enemy guard posts.
Now, it wasn’t long before I began to realize that, with the exception to the bookending events, the entire experience was packed into a single, elongated location. I was a bit surprised, but to be fair this comes from the modern contextualized perspective used to games that change locations constantly (hell, even Metal Gear Rising manages to change continents twice in the scope of an hour or so), so it felt odd to stay in one place. But that’s hardly a knock against it, as it clearly allowed the location to be extremely fleshed out. Every corridor, panel, and pocket seems to serve some strategic purpose, and maneuvering through the separated struts was always a worthwhile challenge.
Even at its most frustrating, MGS2 manages inspire waves of personal satisfaction by presenting constant problems in need of solving. And wonderfully, those problems rarely devolve singularly into combat. Even the boss fights feel decidedly defensive, focusing more on the attacks from the enemies with the response fire feeling like an afterthought. I found it all to be incredibly refreshing.
As for the storytelling (not the narrative itself, I’ll get to that in a moment in my verdict), I will have to say that I find issues with Kojima’s reliance on lengthy exposition. The fact that this can exist and work is astounding and proof that storytelling and gameplay are, in general, quite separate. In my mind, the best games know how to weave their narrative into the actions you make, whether through choices or not (think Bioshock or, again, Dishonored). Luckily, the story itself makes up for it, as it really sent me through a number of loops.
Beyond the gameplay and the setting, Metal Gear Solid 2 is an excellent game for its understanding of the medium alone. Kojima clearly isn’t satisfied commenting on just society and politics alone, as the narrative manages to function in a ether between a solid fictionalized universe and the meta. At one point in the game, my understanding of what the game and its world was changed drastically.
I always love it when a game’s atmosphere contains just the right mix of aura and mystery that allow me to appreciate that something supreme is at work behind the scenes. Ico is perhaps the best example I can think of, as the story and action always seemed to hiding great secrets behind a veil. The same is very true here, and when the veil falls the earth cracks and the game bathes its narrative in the awesome power of the unexpected. But more importantly, the game context ceases to exist merely in its own world, as the codex messages from both Rose and the Colonel begin to unravel a deeper message directed squarely at the player.
Much like how Cabin in the Woods delves into the core relationship between viewer and film, Metal Gear Solid seems to be the very same, only for player and game. Raiden is not merely a catalyst for the player’s action and directive, Raiden is, in all his attitude and naivete the player him/herself. I’ve only ever seen this in one other serious, dramatic game, the recently released Spec Ops: The Line, in which much of the same horrifying player/game meshing occurs. I had thought that game to be an anomaly, alone in a sea of titles that stake the value of their narratives at face value, afraid to explore the deeper connotations of playing games.
And yet, ten years prior, a Japanese title did the very same, simultaneously celebrating and mocking the medium to put things into perspective. I feel like a better game enthusiast for having played this week’s title, and while it still may take time for the vast narrative to sink in, I’m completely and ineffably sold on the series as a whole. And that’s more than I can say about most games in our wide spectrum of historical and forgotten games alike.
As for Raiden, while I am a little disappointed that my first experience with the series was not with Solid Snake, I actually think he makes for a perfect introduction. As I mentioned, Raiden, by the end of the game, becomes a fusion of the player’s expectations and the narrative’s twists. For a newcomer, Raiden works because he too is uninitiated and fresh in this overly complex lore. Kojima wanted to make the central conflict appear fresh and new from a separate pair of eyes, and on my account, his effort succeeded. Sure, he’s no Snake, but I felt a great solace knowing that the character I was playing as had no greater connection to the plot than I.
Still, I left with a few key points of knowledge still left as a mystery. What, exactly, did Snake and Otacon have to gain? What truly happened at Shadow Moses Island? I guess I’ll just have to indulge my curiosity and play the rest of the games.