This Old Game: Metal Gear Solid

How real can a video game be?

Imagine: You’ve been dumped all alone in the middle of a nuclear weapons disposal site that’s crawling with hundreds of enemy soldiers. They’re all carrying assault rifles and hand grenades. They all want to kill you.

Quick — what do you do?

You’d do the same thing I’d do: Hide under the nearest cardboard box and pray that nobody will notice.

And that’s just what the player does in the world of Metal Gear Solid, a video game released nine years ago for the first PlayStation console. Despite its age, the game still seems revolutionary in a world of Halos and Grand Theft Autos.

From the days of Metroid and Contra right on up through Doom and Quake, the credo of all video game heroes was “Blast The Snot Out Of Everything That Moves.” Sneaking around got the gamer nowhere. The options: kill everything, or find oneself splattered against that wall over there. (Or, in the quainter 8-bit visions of violence, finds oneself disintegrating into cute little pixels.)

Nearly every video game indulges in the narcissistic fantasy that a single, superbly skilled person — that would be you, the gamer — can overcome impossible odds, single-handedly destroy thousands of enemies and save the world. That’s even the model for the cartoonish quasi-violence of Super Mario Bros., wherein the hero saves the day by throwing fireballs at evil turtles and gains higher scores by stomping dozens of mean-looking mushrooms into oblivion.

What a load of crap, responded Hideo Kojima.

Kojima, a budding Japanese video game designer back in the 1980s, rejected this one-vs.-thousands model and decided that, if a single person really were going to take on a whole base full of enemies, he’d have to do a whole lot of sneaking around. Running in with guns blazing would just get him killed.

Thus was born the first Metal Gear game, released in Japan back in 1987 for a kind of home computer and later for the Nintendo. Kojima went on to create six sequels, including Metal Gear Solid — the third game in the series and the first to leap from two dimensions to three. It was also the first to be a huge commercial success, selling some six million copies instead of the original Metal Gear’s 700,000.

In Metal Gear Solid, the main protagonist of the series — a grumpy, disillusioned supersoldier codenamed Solid Snake — is dragged out of early retirement at gunpoint and dumped in the middle of the aforementioned nuclear disposal site. He starts off with no weapons, just a pack of cigarettes and some fancy binoculars. He crawls through air ducts and sneaks along walls, trying to avoid surveillance cameras and searchlights. He can draw the guards’ attention by knocking on walls and then slipping past while they’re investigating the noise. And, yes, he really can hide inside a cardboard box — though the disguise doesn’t always fool the enemy.

Even when Snake does find a gun, firing it only draws the attention of other guards, who show up in droves and almost always kill him. If Snake somehow survives, he loses points for every enemy he kills.

And so the game progresses. Snake follows field mice to learn the best route out of a maze of ducts. He finds a silencer for his pistol; he learns to pick off enemies with a sniper rifle. He catches a cold and looks around for medicine so that he’ll finally stop sneezing and giving away his position to the enemy. He gets help from friends and observers, only to have nearly every one of them lie to him and betray him.

It’s at about this point that the player might finally realize that this isn’t really hyper-realism after all. Kojima was just messing with our heads.

Some gamers didn’t get it, and still don’t. They complain that the sequels after Metal Gear Solid become increasingly surreal, introducing characters such as a vampire that walks on water and a guy that has mental control over bees.

But I think Kojima was laughing at those critics, because his games were surreal all along. For all of Solid Snake’s sneaking around, it’s still based on the same video game fantasy that one soldier could infiltrate a base and save the world single-handedly. Next to that ludicrous premise, what makes cyborg ninjas and a telekinetic mind reader any less plausible?

Throughout this bloody shoot-’em-up game, other characters taunt pale, spindly gamers like me who so readily deal out death from the comfort of our dorm rooms or basements. Characters repeatedly break the fourth wall, explicitly reminding me that I’m no supersoldier, just a schlub with a controller and a TV.

If I really were stuck underneath that box in the middle of an enemy base, I could never sneak out, load a handgun, and shoot a guard in the back. I couldn’t even punch him hard enough to knock him out. I’d just lie there in my little cardboard fort, shivering with terror until somebody found me and put a bullet in my skull.

Which is what Kojima was trying to tell me all along.

Article © 2007 by Michael Duck