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December 14, 2015

PS4nukkah: Metal Gear Solid V

You know, there’s something that’s been on my mind recently.

If you’re reading this post, then you’re probably aware of the current trends in the game industry.  One of the biggies right now: open-world games, for better or worse.  It makes sense for the subgenre to gain some traction, though; setting aside graphical power, the best way to prove the evolution of the medium (technologically or otherwise) is to increase the scale.  We’re thirty years out from the left-to-right stages of Super Mario Bros., so the assumption is that a bigger world = a better game.  And I mean assumption.

By now, gamers have caught on to the issues.  Sure, worlds are getting bigger and players can explore more of them -- but so what?  On one hand, you’ve got the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which puts out these massive, lavishly-rendered, intensively-researched historical cities one year after another -- and instead of being playgrounds that sate the mind and soul, they’ve long since devolved into repetitive chore simulators and window dressing.  Meanwhile, the recent Batman games went from the tightly-knit and small-scale Arkham Asylum to the bank-busting and bloated Arkham Knight; it had a big world and sheer graphical horsepower, but at the cost of a good story, good gameplay, and a game that didn’t have to shoehorn the Batmobile into every situation.  (Again, WHY do you have to drag the Batmobile up a building when you have the Batplane?)

I guess what I’m getting at here is this: are video games getting too big?  And of course, MGSV is here to provide one possible answer.

All right, full disclosure: I haven’t beaten the game yet.  I know I should have by now, but you know how it is -- plus, I’m slow and bad at MGS games, so my pace is even more glacial than usual.  With that said, I HAVE played enough of it to make some substantial points, especially on the gameplay front.  Since I plan to get back to the game at some point and finish it off, there’s a chance that I’ll do another post on it that focuses on the story beats.  But for now, I can at least talk about MGSV as-is -- before Konami decides to botch everything via cartoonish supervillainy.  Because jeez, that company has done itself no favors for, like, the past year.

I’d say that we shouldn’t dwell on the business side of things, but it’s kind of hard to avoid in this situation.  With a rumored $80 million price tag, Konami had a lot of money riding on the game, and it’s not hard to imagine that they got antsy spending so much to fulfill Hideo Kojima’s vision.  Obviously there’s more to the struggle than that -- maybe more than we’ll ever know -- but whatever the circumstances, we all know the ending: Konami booted out its golden boy, harassed him without end thanks to legal trickery, and publically turned its back on gamers so that it could turn beloved franchises into slaves in the pachinko zone.

Considering how much traction #FucKonami has gotten (with good reason), it’s only fitting that the theme of both the game and this post revolves around one element: anger.

What would MGSV be like if Kojima and crew got to fulfill every last aspect of their creative vision?  Again, we may never know.  (We’re probably better off not knowing, since even the mere teases of what Silent Hills could have been were heartbreaking.)  But we can still judge the game in its current state, because even if some stuff got left on the cutting room floor, what’s still there is weighty enough to justify the game’s existence.  So in case you’re just now waking up at the six hundred-word mark, let me be clear: I think Metal Gear Solid V is a good game.  I think it’s a great game, even, and I expect to see it atop plenty of GOTY lists.  Kojima and crew deserve every last bit of praise they get, and that’s without them earning sympathy points vis a vis Konami’s shenanigans.

But let’s say that after Konami smashed the proverbial china vase (and stole some of the pieces), Kojima and crew took the remains, some superglue, and sheer willpower, and still made a work of art.  In fact?  Let’s drop that metaphor and assume for a second that -- barring the excluded content -- MGSV in its current form IS KojiPro’s creative vision.  What does that mean?  Did they want to go open-world with a franchise that’s traditionally had a strict structure?  Did they want to scale back the story and dialogue and even cutscenes by such a huge degree?  Did they want to chase after modern trends on their own terms?  Did they really?

 My understanding of the franchise is that it was a structured, narratively-driven experience.  That’s not to say the gameplay was a total wash (even if cutscenes could go on for minutes on end, up to MGS4’s hour-long ending), but it was a balancing act between tactical espionage action and the tales of legendary super-soldiers.  Sneak through this area, get a cutscene.  Shoot your way through that area, get a cutscene.  Meet a boss, beat a boss, go on your way.  Hide like a coward when you get spotted.  Witness the birth of a dozen new memes.  Et cetera, et cetera. 

MGSV is different.  The amount of story beats relative to my play time is extremely disproportionate.  Off the top of my head, here are the most relevant events that have happened as of writing:

1) Big Boss (or Punished “Venom” Snake, if you prefer) wakes up from his nine-year coma.
2) Big Boss escapes from the hospital he’s holed up in when it comes under attack, thanks to an assist from Revolver Ocelot.
3) Big Boss recuperates and returns to fighting form via montage.
4) Big Boss goes on a mission to rescue his comrade Kaz and meets the SKULLS Parasite Unit.
5) Big Boss starts taking on missions to bankroll the Diamond Dogs mercenary army, build up his Mother Base, and get revenge on the guys that wrecked him the first time.
6) Big Boss meets Skull Face and his Metal Gear.
7) Big Boss meets Quiet, and after a “boss fight” he takes her hostage.
8) Big Boss meets not-Otacon, Huey Emmerich and carts him back to Mother Base…after they both elude Skull Face’s Metal Gear.

Oh, and you save a dog somewhere along the line.

That sounds like quite a bit to digest, but it really isn’t.  The first four points are basically compressed into the opening/tutorial missions.  Number five is the overarching goal more than a story beat.  Six is tagged at almost the end of one mission, while I stumbled onto seven randomly on a non-specific mission.  Eight is substantive…ish, since the story takes some steps forward from the mission’s last phase to the cutscenes that follow.  But the problem is that those eight events have happened over the course of…I don’t know.  No fewer than ten hours of gameplay?  Fifteen?  It can’t be more than twenty, hopefully, but between the frontloading and the movement of all plot progression to roughly the ends of missions (and downtime at the base, albeit briefly), it’s hard to get a grasp on the plot thanks to its extreme stop-and-go nature. 

As others have noted, codec conversations are pretty much gone.  You can still get advice from Kaz and Ocelot, but on average they’re not as flippant as Sigint or Para-Medic.  Again, story events tend to not happen during missions, but more pressing is the fact that a number of missions don’t have anything besides a briefing from one of your comrades.  Luckily, you can listen to cassette tapes at your leisure; that’s understandable given the nature of the game (i.e. you’re alone and away from the home base), but it’s still no substitute for the face-to-face conversations…which to be fair are still in the game.  There just aren’t as many of them, or MGSV backloads its progression.

That brings me to my big question: does MGSV have a generic story?

I know I’m not in much of a position to say that, but hear me out here.  You wake up as a guy with very little context about what’s happened or where you are.  Suddenly there are a bunch of bad guys out to get you, because reasons.  You’re guided through the area by a helpful companion, though given the circumstances it’s likely that your “savior” was just Big Boss’ inherent soldier instincts -- but then you’re actually saved by a helpful companion who whisks you away to a magical world (of military operations, sure, but the point remains).  It’s not long before you find out that you’re Big Boss, the greatest soldier in the world -- and in the span of a montage, you go from an atrophied husk to fighting fit.  Why?  So you can be the leader of the Diamond Dogs, go on big whompin’ missions, and fund the organization that idolizes you by continuing to be a badass.  It’s all for revenge, or something like that -- which would be more interesting if that wasn’t, like, the default motivation for video game protagonists nowadays.

Obviously, I haven’t written off the game just yet.  There are still a lot of questions that need answering, and I want to see those answers for myself.  But it’s obvious that whether Konami interfered or not, MGSV is a much leaner game.  As a guy who puts a lot of stock in straight narratives (for more reasons than one), I can’t overlook the fact that this game’s narrative has been so downplayed, you’d be forgiven there wasn’t one for hours at a time.  For some people, that’s a problem.

For me, though?  Remarkably, it isn’t a problem.  The reason for that is simple: you make the story in every single mission.

It’s easy to think of MGSV as an open-world game, and for the most part it is.  Even so, it still has some semblance of structure; you go into your helicopter, choose your mission of choice, and then head to it.  You get your briefing, and then get dropped off at a landing zone.  After that?  Virtually everything that happens next is up to you.  Sure, some missions have stricter requirements than others -- like an extensive rescue mission that has you tailing guards to find a prisoner -- but even then you can typically choose how things will play out.  It’s as if the game says “All right, here’s what you need to do.  So do it.  Good luck.”  And then it quite literally pushes you out of a helicopter.

I guess this is that “organic gameplay” thing people talk about.  It’s not about stringing a player along from point A to point B; it’s about giving them a toolset to use, and a playground to explore.  Once upon a time, that was the promise of open-world and sandbox games.  The subgenre’s kind of lost its way recently, but maybe a game like MGSV will bring it back to the purest form.  All things considered, it probably couldn’t hurt.

But like I said, MGSV still has some level of structure.  You’re plopped down in some massive environments, though there’s no reason to worry about a million icons popping up and telling you about your choice of chores.  There’s a specific mission you need to focus on (with optional sub-objectives, granted), even if it’s at the other end of a canyon trek.  Massive areas are given a sense of flow thanks to the sort of mini-challenges on your way to the main objective -- outposts you may need to clear out, or buildings with all sorts of goodies you can reap.  In a sense, the game is still pushing you from one encounter, scenario, and enemy layout to the next, just as it did years ago.  You just have a MUCH bigger range of motion, whether it’s getting to the mission area or hiding like a coward in the middle of it.

Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I always figured that in Metal Gears past, getting into a firefight practically tripled your chance of failure.  Whether it was from the camera perspective or the finicky controls (sure, let’s use a nice enough word to describe them for now), it felt like a conscious design choice to make shooting esoteric.  If you could solve every problem with a bullet to the head, then the “sneaking mission” would lose its oomph.  In MGSV, the devs managed to strike a good balance; sometimes it’s good to sneak around, and sometimes it’s good to bust out the guns.  Admittedly I feel like you should start with stealth to weed out enemy soldiers, but if for whatever reason you get spotted, you can still make it out OK.

That really is the beauty of the game: no matter what approach you choose, you can still carve out a win -- and have the legendary stories to show for it.  I’m not saying that MGSV is easy, of course; it’s still more than possible to die, especially if you screw around too much while bullets are getting lodged in Big Boss’ picturesque ass.  The question, if it gets to a point where the bullets are flying and the music is pumping, is how you resolve the situation.  Do you bust out the machine gun and fight back?  Run at Mach speed to the other side of Afghanistan?  Fall back so you can snipe from a distance?  Find a safe place to hide so you can outlast the heat and get back to sneaking?

MGSV’s gameplay is a test for the player, and in more ways than one.  For a game built on a bunch of guys furiously campaigning for revenge, what’s important is that the player keeps a cool head and doesn’t freak out when things go wrong -- or, alternatively, they don’t snap to rage whenever their “perfect run” gets botched.  I’d imagine that even the legendary soldier Big Boss has had to do some on-the-fly thinking when a mission goes wrong, so it’s only natural that the game plays to that.  While there’s merit in trying to score that perfect run, it’s more about being able to complete the mission by any means necessary.  And yes, sometimes missions can get messy; sometimes, they have to get messy.

The degree of messiness is technically still controllable, though.  You don’t HAVE to murder everyone in a base when things go south, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut the option is there if you suddenly snap and decide to stop being Mr. Nice Greatest Soldier in the World.

So here’s a question for you: what happens when you create a game full of options and variables, and make everything that happens the result of the player’s whims and skill (or lack thereof)?  The answer: pretty much anything can happen, with varying levels of hilarity.  Here are some highlights from my “illustrious” career, with varying levels of triumph:

1) Blowing up four dudes simultaneously with one grenade.
2) Using a sandstorm to try and sneakily dispatch a bunch of soldiers -- only for the sandstorm to give out midway and reveal me to a gunman standing five feet away.
3) Using an enemy base’s own mortar to blow up its comms, and the tanks I had to destroy to complete the mission
4) Trying to snipe the pilot out of a helicopter, only to miss and draw it toward me -- wherein I hijacked a small mech and shot it down with heavy machine gun fire
5) Hiding in a porta-john to ride out the heat -- only to have the most sincere “oh crap” moment in my life when a grenade landed three feet in front of its door
6) Punching a sheep into unconsciousness
7) Waging a one-man assault against an entire air base’s worth of soldiers, including infantry, snipers, gunmen manning turrets, and mini-mech pilots…and winning in one try

Finally got a chance to use this GIF.

Helpful or harmful, glorious or groan-inducing, there’s so much that can happen in one MGSV mission.  That really is one of its greatest strengths; even if the story takes a backseat this time around -- as aggravating as it might be that the last Kojima-made Metal Gear didn’t get the conclusion it deserves -- the gameplay compensates by offering up a wealth of experiences.  And since those experiences are almost entirely the product of the player, it creates a sense of ownership.  There’s a personal element, even without the tale of Big Boss and the other Diamond Dogs demanding the player’s emotional investment.

I can’t help but think back to Final Fantasy 10 -- how Tidus was convinced for so long that the game was his story.  That’s debatable, for sure, but I’d say that MGSV gets closer to that ideal than most.  You’re not just going on missions, even if that’s the bulk of the game; there’s also a whole suite of upgrade and customization options on tap.  Choose your outfit!  Choose your guns!  Choose your tools!  Choose your items!  Upgrade your guns, tools, and items!  Upgrade your base!  Customize your base!  Go into battle with a horse, a dog, a mech, or a scantily-clad woman!  Upgrade that horse, that dog, that mech, or that scantily-clad woman!   Oh, and don’t forget to organize your personnel!  Can’t run a successful independent country spearheaded by killer mercenaries without proper staffing!

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Fulton device.  Basically, you steal stuff from the field -- equipment, vehicles, containers, animals, and people -- by strapping a balloon to them so they can rocket into the sky.  That opens up a lot of questions I suspect not even Kojima himself could answer, so let’s move on. 

A while back, I asked if video games need good stories.  The gist of my argument was that ultimately, games don’t need good stories to be good, as long as they have outstanding gameplay to fall back on.  (That’s not to excuse poor or outright awful stories, of course, but that’s a discussion in itself.)  MGSV is proof of what games can do, and the elements the medium can take advantage of.  Strong gameplay can make up for a lot of things -- but despite what I said earlier, I’m not at a point where I can say MGSV has a bad story.  Pieces of it are familiar, but it’s rendered with a level of style and intimacy that makes for a surprisingly powerful experience, even with something as passive as a cutscene.  Not-Otacon nearly gets his leg snapped in half -- bent backwards at the knee -- and I’ve never been made more uneasy by a piece of fiction.  (Which is weird, because it’s usually damage to the eye that makes me tap out.)

So, where does that leave MGSV?  In a really good place, obviously.  I’m not even close to done with the game, and a part of me is thankful for that.  It means that I can continue to make my own legendary stories, however full of failure and silliness they may be.  That’s cool…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut there IS a counterpoint to all of this.  Or rather, there’s a dark side that can’t be overlooked.

What is it?  Well, there’s only one way I can explain that.  And it’ll be made possible with this.

See you  next time.

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