Metal Gear Solid at twenty: Ode to Hollywood and Revolution for Gaming

 

After booting up Metal Gear Solid and selecting “New Game” from the menu, you’ll hear melancholic traditional Irish folk music, and in a short cutscene see protagonist Solid Snake swimming toward an underground cargo dock. A mysterious trench-coated figure in the back of the room tells an armed guard to stay alert, before riding an elevator to the surface. The camera pans back to Snake, who climbs onto a hidden ledge, removes his diving gear, and contacts his support team. It’s a tense and cinematic opening to a game that remains so right the way through. Released in 1998, not only did it set the standard gameplaywise for the stealth and action genre, but it warned Hollywood that video games were becoming competent in cinematography and storytelling.

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Looking aged today, but the dock scene set a standard for the future of cinematic gaming. 

The game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, is a proud film buff who wanted to make movies as a child. He watches Taxi Driver once a month, and used to watch Diane Lane’s singing scene in Streets of Fire every day before work[1]. His passion for cinema is evident in everything he’s ever made – there were plot twists even in his technologically restricted 1980s releases – but it was in Metal Gear Solid that this really began to shine through. He now had the means to go 3D, which meant fun with camera angles during gameplay, and cutscenes that played like movie scenes.

 

The camera is typically looking down at Snake from an overhead perspective, but it changes at specific times. Pressing triangle brings us into the first-person view, for example – and this happens automatically whenever we equip certain weapons or crawl into confined spaces. As Snake flattens himself next to a corner, the camera will swerve down to view him head-on, letting us check the coast is clear. Kojima took influence from a scene in John Carpenter’s 1978 horror Halloween for shots like this; Jamie Lee Curtis hides from slasher Michael Myers in a closet, which limits her view.[2] Is he approaching – is he even near? Playing MGS, you’ll find yourself asking these questions throughout – especially during a certain boss fight.

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Laurie hiding in the closet in Halloween

This tense atmosphere continues into the cutscenes, which weren’t pre-rendered, but rendered using the gameplay graphics. This seamlessly merges the story and the gameplay; even by today’s graphical standards, it still feels like taking part in a movie.

 

The plot has geopolitical conspiracies worthy of a John le Carré novel, and wacky sci fi ideas reminiscent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. In the near future, members of high-tech special forces unit FOXHOUND have rebelled against the US government during a training mission on Shadow Moses, an island containing a nuclear weapons facility, off the coast of Alaska. They’re demanding the remains of Big Boss – the greatest soldier who ever lived – because with his DNA they can use gene therapy to create the ultimate army. Two hostages are being held. Snake – a battle-hardened, stoic, bandana wearing heavy smoker – reluctantly comes out of retirement to accept the mission. Metal Gear Solid is actually the third in the series, but the previous two weren’t particularly well known – one wasn’t even released outside Japan. To save us playing through them, their story is told in Metal Gear Solid through clever exposition; clever because it’s always relevant. When Gray Fox, a character from the previous games, makes an appearance, we’re filled in on his backstory through well-acted dialogue.

 

It never takes itself too seriously, however. This isn’t the Citizen Kane or Bicycle Thieves of gaming – it’s a blockbuster, and proudly so. If Snake, to you, sounds like the protagonist of an 80s action action flick, you’d be forgiven. His physique is based on Jean Claude Van Damme[3] and his name, gruff voice and smoking habit are clear echoes of Snake Plissken in 1981’s Escape from New York. Snake’s dialogue and one-liners are reminiscent of the cheesiness Arnie used to articulate in his heyday. “I’ve got to go swat a noisy fly”, he says before shooting down a Russian Hind helicopter with an FIM-92 Stinger missile, and “that takes care of the cremation” when the job is done. The game often breaks the fourth wall too; at one point a mind-reading villain comments on how often you’ve saved your game, calling you reckless if you rarely do it.

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Cheesy lines prevented it from ever taking itself too seriously

Despite its silliness, there’s no escaping the fact that it was a landmark game. Cinematic gaming is commonplace now – just look at The Last of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn – but this release was the first, in my view, to truly harness the potential. Later releases in the series continued the tradition: the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 is a postmodern study of the digital age, and number four is about fifty per-cent cutscene. If you look up footage of Death Stranding, Kojima’s upcoming release starring Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen, you can see how far he’s come in blending the magic of film and video games. But MGS was where it began, with Snake paddling towards that cargo dock.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.gamecrate.com/hideo-kojima-films-vs-games-and-his-favorite-directors/16556 “Also, Taxi Driver I’ve seen quite a lot. I probably watch it once a month or something. In Streets Of Fire, that scene where Diane Lane is singing, I watched that one scene everyday before I went to work.”

[2] https://www.gamecrate.com/hideo-kojima-films-vs-games-and-his-favorite-directors/16556

[3] https://www.shortlist.com/film/metal-gear-solid-film-who-will-play-snake-gibson-walken-craig-jackman-sutherland/354655 “Game designer Yoji Shinkawa based Solid Snake’s body on Jean-Claude Van Damme when designing the character for 1997’s Metal Gear Solid.”

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