MGS4: Greatest Game Story Ever Told? Really?
[Editor’s Note: Article contains spoilers. If you do not wish to have certain elements of Metal Gear Solid 4 spoiled, please do not read.]
If certain sections of the Internet are to be believed, June 12th, 2008 marked the second coming of Jesus Christ. Though Jesus didn’t come back to us on the Mount of Olives as prophesized–instead, He was distributed in a plastic case to anyone with $60 and a PlayStation 3. Ecstatic gamers in message boards and comment sections crowed about how they were “ashamed to have lived before playing this game,“ or that “God couldn’t have created a better game himself.” (Take a look around, I’m sure you can find some equally humorous hyperbolic comments.)
In the week and a half since Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) has been released, much has been made about the game itself, but more interestingly, much more has been made about the game’s story. From critics to gamers, many people are lauding the “supreme storytelling” of MGS4. One commenter remarked that MGS4’s story was “on par – maybe even better” than Saving Private Ryan. To an extent, after forgiving that person for saying something so inane, it’s a forgivable statement after considering that this is probably a person that has been invested in the Metal Gear Solid franchise for 10, if not 20 years, and the series finale recently came out. Crazy comments are made about any new “big” release–BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV being no exceptions.
What’s jarring to see is that this sort of hyperbole and hype has trickled into the professional reviewer space. (Some wouldn’t call this a new occurrence, but it seems much more pronounced and is continually getting worse.) GameSpot’s Kevin VanOrd, in his video review of MGS4, boldly claims that the game is the “pinnacle of storytelling prowess within its [gaming] medium.” Not arguably, not possibly, Metal Gear Solid 4 is the pinnacle of storytelling in games. IGN’s Jeff Haynes asked if it “was possible to give a game an 11?”
VanOrd and Haynes aren’t alone in their high praise of MGS4. On the June 13th, 2008 edition of 1UP Yours, Shane Bettenhausen quipped that Metal Gear Solid 4’s story is “transcending the medium, pushing the envelope, [and] setting all these new high watermarks.” The burning questions are: Is it really the pinnacle of storytelling? Is it really “transcending the medium,” and setting new standards for future games to be judged on?
Bettenhausen’s main argument for the importance of Metal Gear’s storyline revolves mostly around the real-world aspects the game delves into. “Metal Gear Solid 4 made me think about PMCs [private military corporations] which in a way I hadn’t before,” said Bettenhausen. “I’m involved in this 20 hour experience that’s all about war and about your opinions of war…and the fact that he [Kojima] brings up these real issues and brings them to life to people who don’t really think about that normally,” continues Bettenhausen.
If Bettenhausen is to be believed, MGS4 should be commended for, at the very least, introducing gamers to real-world political issues. As a proponent of “games as art,” I can appreciate the attempts at political discourse that is explored in the game. The problem with his argument is two-fold; if you are not aware of PMC groups like Blackwater, are you the type of person that will be interested by its discussion? Would you actually seek out more information? Then secondly, if you are more politically aware, will you be able to swallow the obtuse language that, when analyzed closely, has nothing of real importance to say?
Metal Gear Solid 4, when talking about PMCs, has a special language that isn’t easily grasped by Joe Blow game player. The game incorporates words like “war economy,” “control,” and “proxy wars” –buzz words that never amount to much. If you look very closely, the argument I picked out of MGS4 is this: the “war economy” creates “proxy wars” which then controls us as people. In other words, PMCs are creating false wars which then allows them to control the population. How is this anymore profound than a high school student with left-leaning [Democratic or liberal] tendencies screaming out their version of buzz words, in lieu of a coherent political argument? “No blood for oil!” “Big Brother is watching!” “Multi-national corporations!” Not that I cannot sympathize with the arguments, as I’m left-leaning myself, but there has to be something more than just stating things as fact.
Maybe MGS4 does. As Bettenhausen points out, this is a 20 hour journey. Surely there is a deeper explanation. This is the pinnacle of game storytelling after all. Sadly, MGS4 misses out on a key plot thread that could have redeemed its shortcomings–the militia. Throughout the game, especially in the first two Acts, you’ll be placed in tremendous looking battlefields. On one side, you have the PMC soldiers and on the other, the militia. But as been pointed out by many different outlets, the militia is never given a face, nor a cause. Why are they fighting the PMC soldiers, exactly? Even the PMC soldiers aren’t very well fleshed out. It is assumed that these are the bad guys. It’s never hinted that these soldiers are only there for the money, nor their motives explored, so I never felt any disdain towards them. Kojima Productions missed an opportunity to create stark differences between these two forces and give weight to concepts and arguments that they were trying to promote. Instead, they were content in leaving the political discourse beneath the surface.
After all, they’ve got a job to do–wrap up this game series. For as convoluted as the storyline is, the numerous characters, the different plot threads; this is a gaming opus to many. It has a rabid fan base (that I’m sure will love me after reading this article) that it has to cater to, and that’s one of the MGS4’s biggest downfalls. When you’re arguing that the Metal Gear Solid franchise is setting “new, high watermarks” and “transcending the medium,” it comes with certain connotations. Most important of which is that this is a game that others should emulate and aspire to surpass.
What is there to take out of the Metal Gear series, though? That well-crafted cut-scenes are more important than well crafted plots? I could never connect with the characters in MGS4 because few seemed to ever die, even after things happen to characters that defy reason, even when considered in the context of an already “out there” Metal Gear universe. The moment that most sticks out is at the end of Act 4, where Raiden protects a feeble Snake from Outer Haven, a submarine. In the cut-scene, Raiden manages to stop the several hundred ton boat with the sheer strength of his legs, back and sword. The notion itself is ridiculous, but the fact that he lives makes it even more ridiculous. If that was not enough, towards at the end of Act 5, Snake goes on a “suicide mission” through what essentially could be described as an oven. His body is appearing to fail prior to this, and he must crawl through searing heat that is breaking away both his OctoCamo and his flesh. A very powerful scene. After GW is destroyed and the world is yet again saved, Snake is lying on his back, groggy and seemingly gasping his last breaths of air. Then, Liquid arrives and hovers over Snake. Suddenly, Snake pops to (much like a pro wrestler feigning injury) and is doing well enough to get into an all out brawl with Liquid. After all of these wacky things happen, is it any surprise that we don’t see the death of Snake? The sense of danger has been completed lifted for Snake and Raiden and is confirmed by the ending cut-scenes, which provide a rosy picture for all involved.
It’s not just that the game is unbelievable. It’s long-winded. Personally, I had no problem sitting through the cut-scenes. I do not think anyone can dispute that the cut-scenes are cinematic and well-crafted. However, when you say that this is the best game story, when you say that this is transcending the medium, the story should have mainstream appeal. As much as Metal Gear fans want that to be true, nothing could be further from it.
It’s style is very anime-inspired. (Sorry anime fans, but that’s a no-no) Look at the way competing characters interact with each other in a very melodramatic fashion, the way characters have supernatural abilities, the insane plot twists, and the complex and tangled narratives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just not anything that is going to penetrate a wide swath of people. This is a game that was made for Metal Gear fans. Only hardcore players have the time to play through the old games or research old plot lines to be up to snuff on the plot. Franchise newcomers won’t understand the significance of the return to Shadow Moses or the battle between Metal Gear Rex and Ray. These moments were crafted for people that have been with the series since its inception, not for a mainstream audience.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either. In fact, it could not have been done any other way. But game critics and gamers alike are allowing their nostalgia and their excitement for this series cloud their judgment and lose their sense of proportion. Metal Gear Solid 4’s story is not innovation in narrative, it’s a conclusion to a 20 year journey that its fans and the enthusiast press should rejoice. Metal Gear Solid 4 was not meant to be a hero for game storytelling. Don’t treat it as such.
Originally Written By: Art