Metal Gear Solid: A Narrative in the Digital World, A Narrative in the Physical World

by Salvatore Pane

(Note: this is the second in a series of blog posts looking back on certain formally interesting video games of the past twenty-five years. Check out the first one–about the 1994 forgotten gem Earthbound–here)

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I had horrible warts on the bottom of my left foot. We’re talking mini-flesh Death Stars on my heel and they hurt like hell. The first year or two was bearable, but then I actually started limping, the pain getting so bad that I found it difficult to run during basketball games. So I finally went to see a specialist and after multiple treatments, they decided to whip out a laser beam and fry that shit off. To repeat, I was thirteen-years-old and some creepy doctor shot a laser beam at bacteria on my foot.

It was awesome.

However, I learned right before they Large Hadron Collidered my foot that I would soon be in severe pain, that I would have to remain sitting up or prone in my house for a solid week. They numbed the shit out of my foot and told me I had one hour before the agony would set in. Once we left the doctors, my parents offered to take me wherever I wanted, to do whatever I wanted before retiring home for an entire week, a span of time which seemed practically incalculable to a young Sal Pane. I told them to take me to the mall. Metal Gear Solid had just come out for the Playstation, and I was more than ready to trade in three old games to get that gem of a stealth classic. They drove me. I purchased MGS. I spent the next week on the living room floor having the time of my life.

It removes foot warts AND creates black holes.

I had been anticipating MGS for months, ever since Electronic Gaming Monthly–a magazine that was the closest we had in the late-90’s/early-2000’s to Tom Bissell–started talking about it in hushed, reverent prose, declaring it months before its release as the front runner for game of the year. They ran a multi-page cover story over the summer before MGS‘ fall release, but what really hooked me, the moment when MGS really sunk its teeth into me, was when Konami–the beautiful wonderful corporation behind the Metal Gear franchise–released a demo with the latest issue of The Official Playstation Magazine. I purchased a copy the day it came out. Here’s how MGS begins. Prepare to be fucking awed, chumps.

HOLY SHIT!!! What was so shocking about this back in 1998 was that Metal Gear Solid Director–Hideo Kojima, one of the few gaming directors worthy of the title auteur–was clearly as interested in narrative as gameplay. There’s nothing inherently video game-esque about this opening. Instead, it apes modern action thriller tropes right down to the voice actor credits that roll across the scene. And how about the beautiful opera music 3/4ths of the way through the video? All of this was unheard of. What you have to remember is that 1998 was only two years removed from when gaming’s most narrative driven games looked like this:

And the music? The music of the mid-to-late nineties video games, even at its absolute best, sounded like this:

What struck me immediately while playing Metal Gear Solid–both the demo and when I finally purchased the full game just minutes before transforming into an immobile, cheesy foot goon–was how much of a quantum leap forward gaming had now taken in terms of narrative. Earlier game narratives of the culturally repugnant save the princess variety  could now be replaced with the more filmic qualities of political and action thrillers alike. Now that might not seem like such a big deal to non-gamers–is the plot of Clear and Present Danger that much of an artistic improvement over the simplistic story lines of Saturday morning cartoons?–but Metal Gear Solid was one of the first games to really tackle adult material. The politics of DNA mapping. The feasibility of nuclear disarmament. The ethics of genetic enhancement. A ghastly prediction of terrorism in a pre-9/11 world. These are the narrative questions that Metal Gear Solid is most formally interested in, and although it’s certainly not Shakespeare, it’s a massive improvement for an art form that only ten years earlier witnessed the launch of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Over the course of 20 or so hours, Metal Gear Solid tells an interesting story of political intrigue and nuclear escalation set amid the frozen tundras of coastal Alaska. The story interrupts the game frequently with cut scenes that are actually not all cringe worthy to watch (there are filmic perspectives, music, and acting that’s not actually terrible!).

But if all Metal Gear Solid had going for it was a groundbreaking story, it wouldn’t be as fondly remembered as it is. So many video games since 1998 have attempted vastly more sophisticated narratives. But what makes Metal Gear Solid stand out is its combination of filmic narrative with a metatexuality and interactivity only capable in video games. Hideo Kojima didn’t want to create a game that was merely a poor man’s action movie. He wanted to push games to their limit in terms of interaction with the player’s world. He abandons Tom Bissell’s notions of luddonarrative for a stringently linear structure that forces the gamer to actually interact with the physical world in order to proceed. Kojima’s most important tool? The recently released Dualshock controller.

About six months prior to the North American release of Metal Gear Solid, Sony released the highly advanced Dualshock controller for use with their sales chart topping Playstation. On the surface, the controller doesn’t look that different than their original controller; the only noticeable improvement is the addition of two analog controllers beneath the d-pad and face buttons. But the Dualshock actually contains two motors inside the controller that simulate tactile feedback experienced in video games. For example, let’s say you’re playing Gran Turismo, one of the most popular racing games of the era,  and you crash your vehicle into a wall. Prior to the Dualshock,  the only feedback you would get from the game would be visual. But now, the motors would spin causing the controller to vibrate,  thus simulating the impact of the crash. The Dualshock was much more advanced than Nintendo’s rival product–the Rumble Pak–because it could vibrate at various speeds and intensities. The Dualshock could mimic crashing into a wall at a hundred miles per hour as well as driving over a small speed bump at thirty. Although the controller was only released a few months before Metal Gear, Kojima was given a prototype and fully implemented Dualshock features into the game.

The first few hours of Metal Gear Solid are a delight to play. As mentioned, the narrative stands out as one of the best of its era and its gameplay–in which you’re actively encouraged to flee from enemies instead of taking them head on–was downright revolutionary for its focus on evasion over murder. But one of the first truly memorable scenes–when you first realize that Kojima is doing something far more interesting formally than you might have realized–occurs around the four-hour mark. Solid Snake–the gruff main character, a government manipulated soldier pulled out of retirement for one final mission–tracks down the DARPA Chief, one of the primary objects of the game. Kojima launches into a seven-minute cut scene that portrays the Chief’s death via heart attack. And what’s so intense about this scene, what’s so unlike anything in gaming that had come before, is that the two motors in  the Dualshock simulate this man’s heart attack. It mimics his racing heartbeat, climaxing with the seizure that causes his death, all in the palms of your hands. I could be wrong about this, but this is the first example I can recall of video game narrative being combined so artfully with real world stimuli: the mechanized simulation of a dying human heart.

From this point on, Kojima and Metal Gear Solid take great pains to blur the lines between playing a game in the digital world and playing a game in the physical world. The most meta moment–and easily my favorite moment in any video game ever–occurs less than an hour after the DARPA Chief’s death. Via Snake, the player encounters a character who tells you that you must contact an in-game character named Meryl. Your only clue on how to contact her? “Use the code on the back of the CD case.” Metal Gear Solid uses a simple radio program to contact its in-game characters. They all have different frequency codes, and you can pause the game at any time, enter one of these numbers, and talk to the various characters who are monitoring Solid Snake’s progress from afar. The first time I got this clue–laid-up with a throbbing sour foot don’t forget–I wandered around the limited area of the Shadow Moses fortress that I then had access to, searching for an in-game CD case which would hopefully contain Meryl’s frequency. I searched for hours, and then, in total desperation, opened up the case the game had come in to scan the instruction booklet.

What you have to remember is that this all occurred at the dawn of the modern internet era. I did not have internet access at the time, so unlike today, I couldn’t just go to GameFAQs and look up a walkthrough. I scanned the useless booklet for awhile, then gave up and sealed the case. Here’s what’s on the back.

See that box  toward the bottom middle? The black one with green faces? That’s the radio screen. On the right is Solid Snake, and on the left is Meryl. And what’s that in the middle? That’s right. Meryl’s code. There is no in-game CD case to find. The character was referring to the actual case you bought the game in. He needed you to inspect something that existed in the physical world.

This utterly blew my mind at thirteen, but I don’t think I truly understood the ramifications of what Kojima and MGS had actually pulled. For the first time that I’m aware of, a video game called on you, the player, to do something in the real world in order to advance. Let me be clear on this. If the player does not get up off the couch and inspect the back of the CD case, there is no way to advance. You’re stuck. You can continue playing the game, but there’s no way to further the narrative. The only way to move forward depends on an action in the physical world, not the digital one. This may not seem like such a huge deal, but what will the interaction be between digital narratives and physical narratives in ten years? How about fifty? Hideo Kojima was and is limited by whatever technology is available to him at the time. His imagination is limitless, but the same cannot be said about technology, especially about the now vastly underpowered Playstation. If Kojima is interested in blurring the lines between the digital and the physical–which I would argue that he is–what happens when the technology catches up with Kojima’s imagination? What happens when he’s able to make what happens in games “real”?

Metal Gear Solid is peppered with moments like this throughout. None so brilliantly capture how blended players have become with their digital avatars as the CD code, but there are other interesting examples. Later in the game, one of the bosses gives a demonstration of his physic abilities. In a cut scene, Psycho Mantis looks at the camera, at the player, and tells them whether or not they’re fans of certain games. I remember sitting there on the floor and Psycho Mantis shaking his head and telling me how much I loved the most recent Castlevania game, the now legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Holy shit! I did love Symphony of the Night! But how did Mantis know?

Like the Dualshock, one of the big peripherals for the Playstation was the memory card, a small plastic trinket that you plugged into your system, allowing you to “save” your progress in various games. Kojima programmed Metal Gear Solid to scan your saved files at this point in the game and then have Psycho Mantis announce whether or not you owned any other Konami products. A bizarre bit of meta-corporate commentary to be sure, but this was nothing in comparison to Mantis’ next trick. He looks at the player once again and instructs you to put the controller on the floor. I looked around the room, startled, and did as I was told. Mantis points his fingers at the controller, and then, with only the power of his mind, causes the controller to rattle across the physical floor in your living room! Obviously, this is accomplished via the motors inside the Dualshock. They rev at maximum intensity when Mantis points, causing the controller to jerk around. Once again, Kojima proves that he wants to obliterate the line delineating avatar and player. For this brief moment, the player is no longer herself. For this brief moment, she is absorbed into the digital world; the player becomes Solid Snake.

And the highlight of the Psycho Mantis encounter? That’s unquestionably the boss fight itself. No matter what you  try and do, Mantis anticipates your attack and easily dodges, chalking it up to his psychic abilities. You call your advisers via radio, and they don’t know what to do and only say that you must break the connection between Mantis and your mind. And while all of this is happening,  the picture keeps going out. The screen keeps going black with the word Hideo appearing in green on the top edge of the screen, just like old televisions used to look when you’d switch to the video channel. The implication here is that Psycho Mantis has actually taken over your television and is changing channels at will in order to kill you in the game world.

The only way to win the fight is to stand up and unplug your controller from the player one socket and insert it into player two’s, thus disrupting the link between Psycho Mantis and your mind/Dualshock/television. This bizarre marriage of technology and implied flesh really disturbed me as a young man. And after killing Psycho Mantis, while watching him bleed out on the floor and tell you about his terrible childhood in a third-world country, I felt like I’d been put through something, that I’d experienced something emotional. It’s sort of like with short stories, how when you get to the end of a good one you find that moment of emotional resonance. Only here, it wasn’t a character who had gone through the journey; I’d gone through that journey.

There’s so much more I want to say about Metal Gear Solid, and in many ways, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. What about the part when you get sick, and Dr. Naomi tells you to put the Dualshock up against your forearm so she can give you a shot? You do as instructed and feel the controller’s motors vibrate once against your bare skin. How about the complicated–for a video game from 1998 at least–questions about love? How about the final battle which goes on and on, moving to set piece after set piece in a manner so obviously culled from a thousand Hollywood thrillers? How about Metal Gear Rex, the cartoony, yet alarmingly plausible weapon designed for launching nuclear missiles at any target on the planet? How about the character of Grey Fox, a dead soldier brought back to life through illegal cybernetics, a terrifying premonition of the military industrial complex gone mad? All of these things could justify their own essays, but what made Metal Gear Solid truly matter to me all those years ago sprawled out with my throbbing foot was the way in which a mere man–Hideo Kojima–had been able, if even momentarily, to merge my identity with that of a video game avatar, that he could so easily merge the physical and digital worlds. It’s an experience that has always stayed with me, and one that I continually go back to every few years with a six-pack of beer. How comforting it is to play through Metal Gear Solid one more time, to find that no matter how much I or the world have changed that Solid Snake and Meryl and Psycho Mantis are exactly as I left them, ready to once again bestow their curious gifts upon me.

Is it that unlike rewatching a favorite film? Is it that unlike rereading a beloved novel?