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Metal Gear Solid: The strangest great videogame franchise

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Two weeks ago, “Call me Ishmael” was just the first line of Moby Dick. But that was before the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. At the start of the game — after you wake up from a nine-year coma, after your kindly Russian-accented doctor holds up a mirror so you can see the helicopter debris sticking out of your forehead like a devil’s horn art-directed by JG Ballard, after you watch your kindly Russian-accented doctor get strangled by an evil lady assassin, after you almost get strangled by that evil lady assassin, after you get rescued from the evil lady assassin by a mysterious dude wearing a hospital smock and bandages that cover his face like Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage….

After all that, the mysterious dude turns to you and says, in Kiefer Sutherland’s voice, “Call me Ishmael.”

(Which is weird, because your voice is Kiefer Sutherland’s voice, too.)

Lest you confuse the reference: Before your Russian doctor died, he said your new codename was “Ahab.” Lest you still confuse the reference: Before the prologue ends, a giant flaming whale flies through the night sky and devours a helicopter.

Metal Gear Solid is the videogame franchise you hope the aliens discover after we’re gone. Not because it’s the best. (It might be; ask me again in 50 years.) It’s because aliens are Metal Gear Solid’s key demographic. I mean that as a compliment: Only some higher machine-god consciousness can rationalize the saga’s magnificent incoherence. There’s the Chris Claremont-meets-John Le Carre-shrooming-on-John Milton in-game world, rife with terrorist clone presidents and pontificating chaingun roidfreaks and the central notion of America versus Russia as dueling military-industrial Mordors.

There’s the skin-pore grit — what we used to call “cinematic realism” when those words weren’t buzzwords. But there’s also an aggressively meta, borderline-Godard anti-realism. (In maybe the single most famous moment from the series, a floating telepath boss named Psycho Mantis has the power to read your memory card and playfully taunt you for playing so much Castlevania.)

Every Metal Gear Solid is humorless and hilarious. Accidentally, on purpose, simultaneously. The serious parts can be Leslie-Nielsen-in-Airplane! funny. The funny parts can be Vince Vaughn-in-True-Detective bad. Early in The Phantom Pain, you rescue an old friend. He’s a soldier who talks in thought-bubble soliloquies. He lost one arm and one leg in a lifetime of fighting: Those missing limbs symbolize all the friends he’s lost, he tells you, almost like some kind of PHANTOM PAIN. You listen to him talk for about 10 minutes; he ultimately lands on the idea that you’re already in Hell, and in order to beat the bad guys, you’ll have to go even deeper.

“I know,” says you. “I’m already a demon. Heaven’s not my kind of place, anyway.”

Heavy stuff…and then a Soviet supersoldier who dresses like a six-shooter cowboy teaches you how to capture soldiers using a rocket-balloon that launches unconsciousness enemies into the air, their screams fading into the sky like reverse Wile E. Coyotes.

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Sorry. Slowing down. Metal Gear Solid started in 1998, one of the first great games on the Playstation. You can’t underrate what Metal Gear Solid was, in the context of videogames right then. The average game was trying towards Super Mario: bright, cartoony, kid-y, separated into levels you could warp toward. Metal Gear Solid felt like you were in the wildest action movie ever. It looked “realistic,” the way Sergio Leone probably looked realistic to a movie culture that only knew John Ford — which is to say, it’s a realism that looks in hindsight like a wilder, dirty, gloriously bloodier variation of of a fantasy.

Actually, Metal Gear Solid was a sequel, or a reboot. Back in 1987, Konami released a game directed by young vdieogame designer Hideo Kojima called Metal Gear. Most action games back then, and most action games now, are about shooting people — because there is a natural assumption that, if you give a player a gun, you want them to fire it. Metal Gear gave you a gun, and it was nominally a game about a soldier fighting a giant robot called Metal Gear. But it was a an infiltration game, what we now call “stealth”: The implicit goal was not firing your gun.

I loved the first Metal Gear Solid. But looking back, I realize I never even tried to be good at it. The game subtly pointed you toward stealth and non-violence — but I could get frustrated, or bored, and I felt zero compunction about pulling out my FAMAS machine gun. In fairness, this was just because I wanted to move forward in the game: I needed more story, and I didn’t have time for another hour of sneaking around. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Kojima made his point more explicit by giving players a tranquilizer gun. You can play the whole game without killing anyone — and so, in a subtle but also head-thwack sledgehammer fashion, the game asks you if you can have fun without killing someone.

On my second or third playthrough of Sons of Liberty — when the game felt less like a movie than a sandbox with plot points — I snuck up on an enemy soldier, grabbed him, and knocked him unconscious on the floor. I pulled out my pistol, the kind that shot real bullets. I had been using the tranq gun — as further incentive toward nonviolence, the tranq gun had a silencer so firing it wouldn’t attract the guards — and I can remember feeling some lizard-brain frustration. I didn’t want the bad digital humans to fall over asleep; I wanted them to fall over dead. I pointed my pistol at the soldier’s head, paused for a second, heard the sound of him breathing, and pulled the trigger; the soldier’s head jolted a little, and blood splattered all around the ground.

This sounds so stupid, but it’s true: I still feel bad when I think about that soldier, lying dead in some banished dimension full of games I never saved. Playing Phantom Pain now, I’m only using tranq guns and stunguns. This is not just because I’m a liberal wimp. In Phantom Pain, every enemy soldier will become part of your army, if you knock them unconscious and send them back to base using your rocket-balloon. “Incentivizing pacifism via capitalist imperative”: How’s that for a design philosophy?

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Like every franchise since Star Wars, Metal Gear Solid lives across platforms and definitions, through spin-offs and expanded-universe canon. When I talk about Metal Gear Solid, I am talking about the five games directed by Hideo Kojima, one of the most famous and most inscrutable videogame creators. Kojima has spent essentially his entire career working on Metal Gear games, developing them across generations of videogame technology. (By comparison, imagine if one director made every James Bond movie — and imagine if James Bond franchise started right after The Jazz Singer.)

I say “inscrutable” because it is hard to tell — even after a lifetime spent playing Kojima’s lifetime of work — what, precisely, Kojima has been doing with Metal Gear Solid. Did he bring storytelling to videogames? The first game reintroduced lead character Solid Snake as a vivid hero. As voiced by David Hayter (also a screenwriter behind a couple X-Men movies), Snake was an Eastwood-toned action guy with a bizarro backstory as a child soldier; Metal Gear Solid also twist-reveals that he is a clone-son of the bad guy from the original Metal Gear games, whose codename was Big Boss, because nobody ever accused videogames in the ‘80s of overthinking character names.

You figured, at the time, that the point of Metal Gear Solid was the story, the characters: That it was the story of Solid Snake. Then came the second game, and the most infamous pump-fake in the history of videogames. You begin Sons of Liberty with Snake onboard a tanker doing his own personal Speed 2: Cruise Control. All of the pre-release hype for Sons of Liberty showed Snake on the tanker — so it qualifies as a full-fledged Psycho fakeout that half an hour into the game, the tanker suddenly sinks and the game flashes forward one year. For the rest of the game, you play as a guy named Jack but codenamed Raiden, who looks like every blonde-haired androgynous RPG hero from the ‘90s. Raiden is either the Poochie of Metal Gear Solid or a brilliantly sustained meta-commentary about how uncool the coolness of games really is.

(ASIDE: According to Kojima himself, Raiden happened after the game’s design team surveyed a group of of high school girls, asking them if they would ever consider playing a Metal Gear Solid game. One girl responded with a resounding no: “I hate games about stupid old men!” Thus, says Kohima, they created Raiden, a character designed for maximum female appeal. There are a few dozen things to get upset about in this story — mainly, the implicit idea that the way to “appeal” to females is to let them play as hotter, younger, more androgynous-looking dude character. If you want to get outraged over this, you’ll also appreciate how there’s a mild but present perviness running throughout Metal Gear Solid: Cleavage-y battlefield attire, crazy psycho Judas ladies, oft-captured strong female characters introduced in their underwear. It’s not necessarily worse than anything in a Sean Connery James Bond movie or Conan the Barbarian — which is to say, it’s both hilariously regressive and disturbingly regressive. But to play Devil’s Advocate here: If you trust Kojima’s telling of the story, and you consider that he willingly tossed aside one of the most popular videogame characters of the decade in favor of Raiden, then you have to admit that he really, really, really wanted women to play his game. END OF ASIDE.)

There is a point in MGS2 when the game’s whole world starts breaking down, and you discover A) that you’re working with the bad guys, but also B) the bad guys might be some kind of synthetic Matrix-esque digital consciousness, and eventually you start to wonder if C) the whole entire game is just a Total Recall illusion.Adding to the lysergic quality, Sons of Liberty is the game where everyone is everyone: Solid Snake reappears as a side character, and the evil clone-brother of Solid Snake from MGS1 is still alive because someone reattached his limb to a different character’s body, and there’s another clone-brother of Solid Snake who’s the President of the United States and also the final boss.

Sons of Liberty infamously overdosed on cinematics: It’s a game you watch as much as you play. For all of these reasons and so many more — overweight bomb fetishist on roller skates! — Sons of Liberty gets a bad rap. It’s understandable. Most people want their sequels to be The Empire Strikes Back, or The Dark Knight, and Kojima delivered something that was like a straightfaced Gremlins 2. Except it’s both a self-parody and a monument to thematic overreach: It’s a videogame that argues, almost in passing, that the United States is controlled by a top-secret cabal of Illuminati corpo-fascists; the final battle takes place on the roof of Federal Hall; as I think I’ve mentioned before, the final boss is the President of the United States. (If Elliot took acid instead of morphine, Mr. Robot would be Sons of Liberty.)

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater arrived three years later, in 2004. You play as Snake this time: Evidence that Kojima listens to his critics. Except this Snake isn’t that Snake: Snake Eater is set 40 years pre-Metal Gear Solid, and you’re playing as Big Boss, who was originally the bad guy in the 1980s Metal Gear. (Snake — and half the characters in Metal Gear Solid — is a clone of Big Boss. Don’t ask; there are subreddits.) Snake Eater took the franchise out of metallic facilities and into the wilderness. You wore camouflage suits to hide inside shrubbery. You could carve a crocodile into a cool hat. In the single best sequence in the game and maybe in the franchise, you get into a sniper duel in the middle of the forest, and potentially spend hours crawling around on the ground hunting out any sign of your opponent.

(Your opponent is named The End, and he’s an old man. If you save when the sniper duel starts, and wait a week before you play again, then The End dies of old age.)

Snake Eater is probably the best Metal Gear Solid game. It’s the one I can recommend without any qualifiers. (Playing the first game now requires a connoisseur’s appreciation for primordial rough edges, like watching a black and white silent movie; playing the second game requires a connoisseur’s appreciation for bad dialogue and gas-leak dramatics, like watching Showgirls.) It also has a theme song, titled “Snake Eater.” Sample lyrics:

I give my life

Not for honor, but for you (Snake Eater)

In my time there’ll be no one else

Crime, it’s the way I fly to you (Snake Eater)

I’m still in a dream, Snake Eater

I have to stress that this song is sung in direct imitation of old-fashioned Bond movie themes. To my ears, it sounds uncannily like “Skyfall,” except whereas “Skyfall” exudes a uniquely modern self-importance, the sheer ludicrousness of “Snake Eater” feels much closer in spirit to old Bond themes, where Tom Jones tried to make “strikes like Thunderball” into a thing.

Kojima has packed an impressive and insane array of pop culture homages into his little spy-tech action series: References to 2001 and Moby Dick, the ability to collect cassette tapes playing “Kids in America” and “The Man Who Sold The World.” I sometimes think the best way to understand Kojima is to say that he has done for Western culture what Western creators have freely done with Eastern culture for years: mix, match, homage and spoof, take tropes like “samurai” and “ninja” and “slow-motion gun ballets” and hyperbolize them. When you play enough Metal Gear Solid, you realize that Kojima is maybe the only guy on Earth who decided that Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and James Bond movies and superhero comic books and Isaac Asimov science-fiction novels were all the same, deep down.

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Maybe all that stuff matters. Or maybe it’s all just window dressing. Like most people, I tried playing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Like some people, I gave up after a couple hours. Guns of the Patriots is a feast for mythology nuts and a chore for everyone else. It is the “end” of the story that ran throughout the first three games, and like most endings to stories that weren’t supposed to be stories, it is an incoherence of exposition.

Kojima had talked about leaving after Snake Eater, and he talked about leaving after Guns of the Patriots. When the game arrived in 2008, it sold fine and got fine reviews. But you had the sense that Kojima had become George Lucas doing the prequels — or Peter Jackson doing his prequels, to pick our latest archetype for a brilliant creator held hostage by his most popular creation.

But now I’ve played several hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and Guns of the Patriots makes sense. Patriots was all-story, all the time: cinematics and explanations. At least 15 hours in, Phantom Pain is the precise opposite. It’s the first open-world entry in the series: You play as the Snake from Snake Eater, 20 years older, missing one limb and one eye. After a prologue tutorial, you get set down in a corner of Afghanistan that’s been cleared out of any civilians. It is the ultimate stealth-mission playpen: You can ride your horse in any direction and find a few Russian soldiers to sneak up on.

What story there is feels very melodramatic — I point you to the Moby Dick references — but the game feels like it has been purposefully designed as a playing experience. If Metal Gear Solid argued that videogames should be movies, Phantom Pain explicitly takes the TV episode as its cross-medium reference: Every mission has its own credit sequence, and can play out as a distinct two-or-three-hour node of gameplay set off from the main storyline.

It feels very Far Cry, really, which isn’t a bad thing. And I guess there’s the argument to be made that Kojima — who turned 50 making Phantom Pain — wanted to show that he could out-Open World all the hip young Rockstar wannabes who’ve turned every other game franchise into an open-world GTA riff. If so, mission accomplished. But by giving the player so much freedom, Phantom Pain also loses the hallucinatory, breakneck narrative structure of the earlier games, which unfolded in nightmare realtime. (The first game takes place over one single endless night.)

Like, I couldn’t stop playing Sons of Liberty once I started. (I don’t just have vivid memories of that game; I have vivid memories of the living room I was playing it in, at a friend’s house. My friend and his little brother were watching me play. My friend had already beaten it once before, and for some reason decided to spend like 13 hours watching me beat it again.) Phantom Pain‘s episode structure encourages you to take a break. This is good thing, because I am probably too old to play a videogame for 13 hours in a row. But you could argue that the whole idea of an Open World Metal Gear Solid violates whatever Metal Gear Solid was supposed to be: like making a Mortal Kombat game without blood, or making an unfunny Fantastic Four movie.

But Phantom Pain isn’t like other open worlds. The atmosphere is subdued; there’s no real sense of an active social environment, no GTA bystanders or Assassin’s Creed crowds. Each fortress is its own opportunity for whatever kind of game you want to play. I prefer stealth — tranquilizers and silent interrogations and stuffing unconscious enemies inside of porta-potties — but you could also always just call up an attack helicopter if you’re in the mood. It’s an open world full of closed worlds, really: every fort is an opportunity to start your own kind of game.

More than any previous Metal Gear Solid, Phantom Pain encourages you not to kill people: recall the jet-balloon and those unconscious Russian soldiers, sent back to Mother Base to become members of your own army. The narrative text of Metal Gear Solid has always been hilariously upfront about the horrors of war, usually because people use phrases like “horrors of war.”

There’s a dream sequence in Snake Eater that maybe sums up what Kojima has been trying to accomplish. It’s a boss battle, technically, although the boss you’re fighting, named “The Sorrow,” is already dead. You follow The Sorrow’s spirit down a long river. The ghosts of soldiers appear, walking towards you. How many soldier-ghosts you see will vary — because you are seeing the ghosts of all the soldiers you have killed in the game. If you don’t kiill anyone? No soldier-ghosts, and the boss fight is easy. When I played Snake Eater, there were a lot of ghosts. I often think about that long walk down the river. (Kojima supposedly based that level on the mythic River of Three Crossings from Japanese Buddhism, which just isn’t something you ever hear about Call of Duty.)

Phantom Pain feels like a logical extension of that moment. Snake Eater argued that you shouldn’t kill soldiers because it made a boss fight difficult. Phantom Pain argues that every dead enemy soldier is an ally you’ll never have. You can even make a narrative out of it, if you want to: having experienced an epiphany in his purgatory walk, Snake realizes that every death — even the death of an enemy — will ultimately make his life harder.

But Phantom Pain crystallized for me what Kojima’s real accomplishment has been with the Metal Gear Solid series. When you drill down to it, most popular action-adventure games are based on the twin principles of Destruction and Conquest. In the Destruction model, you go into a world filled with enemy agents to shoot/squash/explode. In the Conquest model, you begin as a weak character and become a strong owner of things: Purchasing land, purchasing improvements to yourself. There’s a weird third route — a Third Crossing, if you will — of Exploration.

All games involve some kind of exploration, but I’m talking about something like Myst, the long-ago graphic adventures by LucasArts and Interplay, where the whole central mechanic of the game was basically “click on everything everywhere.” Today, those games can feel hilariously primitive, and they were probably always pretty boring for the vast majority of people who didn’t start playing videogames until they got an iPhone. But there’s a serenity to Myst that you can’t really find in any major videogame today. It’s videogame Tarkovsky, really: The whole point of the game is experiencing the quiet, looking at everything. So Myst is boring, but only in the way Tarkovsky and Russian novels are boring. (The problem isn’t that they’re slow. The problem is that the world has made you too fast.)

I admit: This all sounds pretty point-headed for a game where you play a one-armed badass who sneaks up on people inside of a cardboard box. But I do think that, with Phantom Pain, Kojima is aiming for something like Pure Gameplay, shorn of all the affectations that defined Metal Gear Solid and then pushed it into self-parody. The characters are over-the-top again, but it doesn’t feel like Kojima’s heart is in the narrative. Or maybe he’s just learned that a little goes a long way.

(ASIDE: Kojima controversially ditched longtime voice-of-Snake David Hayter in favor of genuine Hollywood person Kiefer Sutherland, which is a bummer. But, bizarrely, Sutherland has way less dialogue than Hayter ever did. You could argue that Kojima argued Sutherland because he wanted a high-powered actor for the performance-capture process. But given that Snake barely looks like Sutherland and doesn’t really make a lot of facial expressions besides “Tough Grimace,” I’m starting to wonder if this is some kind of wildly expensive riff on a Shia LaBeouf prank. END OF ASIDE.)

All the Metal Gear Solid games are interesting, especially the terrible one. I think the first game and the third one have a claim to Top-10 Videogames Ever status —and the second belongs on a special list, alongside the Monkees’ Head and Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, of franchise extensions seemingly designed to enrage the franchise’s fanbase. But Phantom Pain might actually be the Metal Gear Solid game I recommend the most. The gameplay mechanics have been refined to the point where you don’t just want to play the game. You want to be good at the game. And, in this context, being “good” means being less violent, capable to problem-solve laterally, able to take in the complete macro view of a situation and then executing your plan with a series of micro-level strategies. Being “good” at Phantom Pain means being good, period.

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Hideo Kojima said Snake Eater was his last Metal Gear Solid game, and Guns of the Patriots, and now Phantom Pain. But this feels more real. Kojima has worked at the videogame company Konami for almost 30 years — which is to say, for the entire post-Nintendo history of videogames as a popular form of entertainment. Kojima and Konami have now parted ways, for reasons that sound both mysterious and banal. The story is familiar: a company that wants to focus on smaller, cheaper, potentially more lucrative mobile games; a creator run amok with a massive budget.

It’s a weird moment right now for the rarified class of famous(-among-nerds) videogame developers. What happened to Kojima sounds a bit like what happened to Ken Levine, who spent years turning BioShock Infinite into maybe the most expensive videogame ever: The game sold plenty, but it’s hard to know if it could’ve ever sold enough to justify the cost. And Infinite couldn’t platform the way a game is supposed to now. (No multiplayer.) And arty game auteur Fumito Ueda finished his long-anticipated The Last Guardian as a freelancer: That game’s impending arrival, and the way that Sony is treating such a quiet-weird-unfranchised game as a AAA release, feels like the last gasp of an era that we didn’t even know was an era.

Metal Gear Solid will probably continue in some capacity without Kojima, because all franchises live forever now. And there isn’t, like, a crisis in videogame artistry now or anything. If anything, the notion of the videogame creator as director/author/auteur — a notion Kojima helped popularize — is alive and well. Smaller indie games feel more like self-expressions than anything with a roman numeral in the title ever did.

But the central weirdness of Metal Gear Solid is how the franchise could be both a shameless iterative product and a radical, half-crazy work of self-expression. (It could also become, with Sons of Liberty, a parody of shameless iterative product.) We won’t see it again, whatever it was. And centuries hence, after we’re all long gone, the aliens will wonder why there weren’t more games like Metal Gear Solid.

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Want to talk Phantom Pain? Need to know my pitch on the Metal Gear Solid movie? (Rooney Mara = Sniper Wolf.) Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in the next edition of the Geekly Mailbag.

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