[Editor’s Note: This article does have some SPOILERS for Metal Gear Solid 2. You have been warned!]
Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending is the most important moment in the history of video games.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that one out, let’s back up and see how I got there.
Last week, we finally saw the release of Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Metal Gear Solid V. Since then, message boards have been flooded with talk about in-game transactions, the twist, repetitive missions, which voice actor made the best Snake, and Quiet’s rampant sexualization, all with Konami and Kojima’s dirty laundry in the background. I’ve not played the game yet, but initial impressions seem relatively negative.
But, really: who didn’t see that coming? To say that it’s been a bad few months for Konami would be an understatement. Although the fall from grace of one of Japan’s most legendary and influential publishers has been on display for a few years now, it’s a pretty bad time to be a Konami fan. The company had been separating itself from a number of its developers for quite some time (such as DDR’s Naoki Maeda, Castlevania’s Koji Igurashi, and the entirety of Hudson Soft), but getting rid of Hideo Kojima, one of the most influential figures in video games, was the last straw. Since then, the world lost hope of ever seeing Silent Hills, the company is shifting focus to mobile games, and we found out that Konami’s moving to a “play-for-fun” model. For many fans, Konami will never be the same.
It’s fair to say that Metal Gear Solid V was doomed from the start. Although the game has reviewed extremely well, it’s hard to tell how the game will ultimately be remembered by Metal Gear fans as the game will forever be associated with Konami’s dark descent into chaos. Honestly, I’d argue even further: Metal Gear is precisely what destroyed Konami. Not Kojima, a board of directors, or anything like that, but what Metal Gear Solid had come to represent and symbolize over the years.
Now, back to that claim I made earlier. If you haven’t played through MGS2 or don’t know what happens, please, and I really mean this, stop reading now and think about playing through the game. If you’re a fan of video games as an entertainment and artistic medium, MGS2 is required reading. And, also, it’s 2015. How have you not played Metal Gear Solid 2 yet?!?
That last 20% of Metal Gear Solid 2 changed gaming forever. From the first time you watch naked Raiden do a somersault to the final fight against the former POTUS, Metal Gear Solid 2’s sudden swerve into absurdity marks the moment where a video game could finally be taken seriously.
On one hand, when I say seriously, I mean that MGS2 was one of the first games that made people outside the gaming world pay attention. It wasn’t only a critical success—it was a commercial one, as well. With graphical capability finally reaching a point where Kojima could produce a very realistic, sophisticated graphical style with mainstream appeal, the next-gen shine of the PS2 marked the perfect storm for the game’s release. Reviewers were praising the game’s graphics and storytelling, suggesting that Kojima had unearthed a whole new set of possibilities for video game narratives. When I look back at what’s happening in the gaming industry, I can’t help but put my finger on Metal Gear Solid 2 as the moment where the industry became 100% focused on creating a cinematic experience. While this trend didn’t explode until the next gen (HD graphics made “realism” easier), it was clear that MGS2 was in a totally different ballpark than Crash Bandicoot, Mario 64, or even the original Metal Gear Solid.
The more important aspect of being taken seriously—and what I’m really getting at— is that MGS2 was a game that was also art. Kojima, like any great filmmaker, writer, or painter, achieved this by devoting attention to his form (being video games). No matter how cinematic Metal Gear Solid 2 gets, it never forgets that it’s a game, first and foremost. MGS2 has such a complex relationship with the player and that’s precisely why the ending of the game is so important. Metal Gear has always been notorious for not playing by the rules that most video games follow. Kojima has shown that he’s very interested in reshaping how we experience and play video games by being completely self-aware. Fighting the former POTUS with a samurai sword on a rooftop in Manhattan is what happens when you take the instinct behind a moment like Psycho Mantis’s reading of your memory card in the original Metal Gear Solid and turn it up to 11.
I think Metal Gear Solid 2 is a masterpiece because it delivered a gameplay experience that was 100% dependent upon the construction (and deconstruction) of its narrative. Now, I think that Metal Gear Solid 3 is a fantastic game, but I think it’s fantastic for different reasons. While MGS2 was focused on completely dismantling itself, I think MGS3 was more interested in doing the opposite. The choice to make the third game a prequel denotes a desire to distance itself from the chaos of the second game’s ending. By staying as far away from the absurdity of the second game, Metal Gear was free to focus more on its storytelling and cinematics. The third game is much more story-driven than its predecessor (the ending of 3 is beautiful in its own right) and, by the time you get to MGS4, the series has gotten so wrapped up in its own mythos and lore that it trips itself up constantly—it starts treating itself more like a movie and less like a game—and becomes more self-parody instead of self-aware. The later Metal Gear games have their playful moments, but nothing else in the series really captures the magic of the second game’s final “WTF” moments.
Of course, I’m not saying that this shift is necessarily bad. I think it was inevitable. When the heads of Konami and other video game publishers (aka the board members who know nothing about games) saw the success of MGS2, they took the part that they could see, the cinema and realism, and ran with that instead. It’s interesting—you look at so many games that are being touted as “art” nowadays and you notice that so many of them are being judged and interpreted by the standards that we’ve set for film. One of my students recently used the Gears of War 3 “Ashes to Ashes” trailer for a rhetorical analysis; she argued that the trailer was mainly focused on attracting people who weren’t actually into video games by choosing to highlight the game’s story.
We’re at an interesting point in this post-MGS2 world. After a torrent of cinematic-at-the-expense-of-gameplay releases last generation, the overall failure of games like The Order suggest that gamers want more substance. Uncharted, The Last of Us, and even Tomb Raider have done well because they manage to balance their gameplay with their stories, but do these games really take any chances? Practically every major release exists within a vacuum of fantasy. I’m not saying that everything has to have a twist like Metal Gear Solid 2 (Star Ocean III had a similar, but less effective turn), but am I wrong in wishing that more games decided to go off the rails and really challenge what we’re doing by playing a game? What if, at the end of Uncharted 4, we had to come to terms with the fact that we’ve murdered hundreds upon hundreds of enemies through Nathan’s hands over the last few games? What if UC4 ended with the game deleting all of your saves from all four games if you took a more violent approach throughout the game? It may not be the conclusion that people necessarily want, but it would hopefully push people to think why we play games the way we do. The Last of Us got close to this at the end of the game, but it still felt too ornamental; there was no real weight given to your choice.
Why can’t a major game do more to connect what’s happening inside of a game with the people who are spending hours upon hours of their lives playing them? Metal Gear Solid 2 is an example of what games can really say and do when they’re taken seriously, and, while Kojima and other developers may be willing to take that step, I’m not so sure that the gaming public really wants them to do that. Maybe MGSV will surprise me when I finally play it.