For the interactive essay please click here.
For the standard essay read down below.
Warning: The following is full of spoilers and is most beneficial to those who have played MGS4.
Press Start Button
“War has changed.” – Old Snake
Contrary to what the Fallout series and Ron Perlman’s gravelly voiceover say war does change. Unlike Fallout’s premise, war is sustainable, even highly profitable and the primary means for “the machine,” ostensibly the corporate/capitalist economy, to keep running. “War” isn’t a stand in for human nature and our predilection for violence, but instead deals with the very real commodification of war, the military industrial complex. Much like the logic of streamlining inherent to corporate structures, the powers that be in MGS4 have taken it to the future with nanomachines that control soldier’s bodies, emotions, and psychological states. Throw in controlled battles tied to stock market fluctuations and you have a veritable economic foundation more powerful than all the Fortune 500s combined.
“War is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th; the pillar that supports the global [gaming] economy.” – Colonel Roy Campbell
Snake tells us, “War becomes routine.” And it has. Not just in the obvious sense of the world affairs, but in the billion dollar industry of video games. War has become a brand. You see it every Tuesday.
Gaming has changed. It’s no longer about challenges, highscores, or quarters. It’s an endless series of proxy battles fought by developers and publishers. War and its consumption of AAA innovation—has become a well-oiled machine. ID-tagged consumers buy ID-tagged first person shooters. Market control. Gameplay control. “Everything is monitored and kept under control.” Gaming has changed. This has been an age of deterrence for AAA developers, all in the name of averting catastrophe from lost investments. And he who controls the market . . . controls the future. Gaming has changed. When the industry is under total control . . . Gaming becomes routine.
Press Start Button
“War transforms us, Snake. Into beasts” – Drebin
The necessity to “survive” and “conquer” the levels led me to play with little nuance, almost always abandoning stealth for a play style more suited for the modern game market. I’m not new to the series and granted I was playing MGS4 for the first time in 2013 (five years after its release), but, wow, did this game feel archaic. It certainly didn’t play like the 94% rating on Metacritic had led me to expect. Snake/I never had the predilection for stealth that Batman, Sam Fisher, or even Jason Brody exhibit. Stealth mechanics amount to octocamo, crawling, and alarm states. I would have taken the Mk II’s temporary cloaking over the octocamo. For the most part it’s more efficient to circle around cover like you’re playing hide-and-go-seek, than rely on your suit’s 80% or whatever % camouflage. The octocamo does allow you to essentially crawl through most levels without being detected, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I also would have taken a dedicated radar that didn’t look like a neon orange petri dish over the fickle threat ring (as cool as it was). The thing is enemies have the field of view of a homing sniper rifle and you’re not given any type of indication of the scope of that field of view or easily accessible information that you’re close to being spotted. Each of the games mentioned above found very effective and superior ways to communicate this important information. I suppose it’s anachronistic to view MGS4 from mostly future design, but honestly a 94% for broken stealth?
Press Start Button
The option for a modern warfare approach is there, but the cover system, or the one you have to create for yourself, is you crouching behind an object, hitting “X” to uncrouch, shoot, then crouch again. This awkwardness would have been fine if they game didn’t persuade you to play like Gears most of the time.
War seems to have transformed Kojima’s style of game design. A game dealing with the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction was of course topical at the time, but also very western and very marketable. Appropriately enough, the game deals with a rapidly aging Snake, a man possibly out of his depth and time, maybe with the strength for one last show of heroics. Quite similar to where Kojima’s mind was at the time, stating that MGS4 would be his last Metal Gear.
Japanese game design certainly has gained a lot criticism in the last years for losing in terms of innovation [profits], to the western developers. Really? Kojima takes more mechanical risks in his games than all the AAA titles in a year combined. Are they largely successful and well executed? Well no, but that’s not the point. This constant game of catch-up that many eastern developers are playing with western studios is sad and won’t save their faltering NPD figures (More Shadow of the Colossus and less ruining the Resident Evil series).
Press Start Button
“Hold it, Snake. Time to change the disc. I know. I know. It’s a pain. But you need to swap disc 1 for disc 2. You see the disc labeled 2?”– Otacon
Kojima reminds me of a less talented Thomas Pynchon: Lots of characters, metaphor, walking the line between comedy and drama with jokes you’ll cringe and chortle at. MGS4 falls into the description young Goethe (no he’s not a rapper) once said of his seminal work Faust: “A very serious jest.” There are many lol moments in the game and after a while I came to the conclusion that many are actually intentional. When Akiba and Meryl propose to each other during their fight to the death, it’s supposed to absurd.
The fourth wall breaking moments like the above quote show a self-referential embracement of “gaminess” that shouldn’t be avoided in such an unimmersive game.
The playfulness extends to the boss battles like a throwback moment where you/Snake defeat a boss because he can’t pull the same trick from the original Playstation. The dream sequence of playing a part of Playstation’s Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses sequence clued the player in on how to infiltrate the MGS4 version of the level. It also made me glad I never went back to play MGS. The promise of these moments kept me playing a game I otherwise would have no qualms about forgetting since I only paid $11 for it. Kojima’s games have personality and that alone has made them memorable and adored. MGS4 is like an annoying friend you put up with mostly because everybody else thinks he’s cool and he’s always pretty entertaining.
Press Start Button
“I’m no hero… Never was. I’m just an old killer… Hired to do some wet work.” – Old Snake
For every arguably interesting line like the one above, there are 10 more “I AM LIGHTNING! THE RAIN TRANSFORMED!” When doing research, I came upon a review that happened to give the game a 10/10 and had a few commenters belligerently claiming that The Last of Us sucks in comparison to MGS4. Besides having far superior stealth and gunplay, LoU has one other thing going for it: Infinitely better writing. There seems to be some confusion with fans of the MGS series of what makes good writing. An exciting story isn’t enough. Kojima’s dialogue and plotting is inconsistent in a way that shouts, “I’m in bad need of an editor” (My services are currently available). Sure, MGS4 was a love letter to fans, but one written like an adolescent male’s first sci-fi story in an introductory creative writing course. MGS4 has more infodumps than Wikileaks and more deus ex machinas than all of Greek dramas combined. Kojima throws out plot twists like he’s racing the story through a tōge mountain. That many plot twists isn’t intriguing; it’s overcompensating. I had to look it up, but the word subtlety does exist in Japanese.
It’s tradition for Snake to respond to dialogue with questions that he wouldn’t need to ask, but it’s clear Kojima is attempting to clarify his mess of a plot. One of my favorite plot holes rears its head during the microwave hallway scene. Old Snake is sent into this hall that can destroy organic flesh accompanied by the remote controlled robot, Mk III. Reread that sentence again. There’s not one good reason that Snake had to risk his life going into that room. Otacon uses the Mk III to push whatever stop-the-end-of-the-world-button he has to without any real help from Snake. Don’t say it needed to be defended. There were enough scarabs to take out Snake and the Mk III..
The microwave tunnel gameplay leading up to this metal gear sized plot hole had me smiling and worried for Snake’s wellbeing (They might actually let him die since this was supposed to be Kojima’s last Metal Gear, I thought). The tiresome triangle tapping functions perfectly as a game analog for Snake’s struggle. It’s actually a bit difficult and excruciating for your finger to tap like that. It’s a small inconvenience in comparison to Snake’s skin being melted off as he drags himself (for nothing) through the microwave, but it’s a powerful moment where the narrative and gameplay work in tandem. So what does Kojima do once he achieves ludonarrative resonance? He interjects this potentially moving game mechanic with footage of Meryl and Akiba fighting FROGS because the man can’t get enough cutscenes, so they have to start invading my gameplay. Dear Mr. Kojima, this isn’t innovative or artistic. It’s just simply annoying and completely undermines an otherwise clever bit of interactivity.
Press Start Button
“Snake . . . had a hard life.” – Otacon
After his needless suicide mission, Snake lies in the server room convulsing and whimpering with the pains of a helpless, dying man. He’s vulnerable in a way that we’ve never seen. It hurts us. The hero may not make it out alive. This isn’t a Hollywood film after all. Those were the whimpers of a man who has finally been broken after years of us and the government using him like a toy. We watch him take what seems like one final enervated breath. “Snake! Snake! No!”
Save the game?
Press Start Button
But there’s truth in Otacon’s observation. Snake’s life was hard, so are the lives of all the masked and unnamed soldiers who are doomed to die their virtual lives for a virtual eternity. To Kojima’s credit, he makes some sort of attempt at discussing the horror of war. We have the B&Bs and their trite war trauma exposition. Snake’s psyche meter, although maybe as annoying for some as malaria in Far Cry 2, is probably the closest gaming has come to recreating the stress of the battlefield for the player and character simultaneously. We get to see Snake knocked out, stabbed, shot, and become a human hot pocket for the simple purpose of inciting tension. Snake suffers at the hands of Kojima’s word processor. For all this talk of the horrors of war, the player is never given any equivalent of PTSD, of a character undergoing one of the most prevalent and horrible mental conditions war can cause. The fanboy will say this is because—wait for it—nanomachines. Yes, like everything else in the plot. Oh sure, Snake tries to kill himself at the end, but that’s easily remedied with a pep talk from Big Boss.
Hardcore Kojima fans will taut his writing as “deep.” Volume does not create depth. Overflowing with themes and buzzwords is a good way to create the illusion, and it’s the perfect way to not say very much of anything. This is why teachers tell us to use a single thesis. You can’t go in multiple directions at once. Kojima comments on war, PTSD, the military industrial complex, etc. but by comment I mean just regurgitates these concepts. Kojima has nothing new or interesting to say about these issues. He doesn’t develop these ideas into enlightening solutions or even insights into the problems he’s depicting. “The military industrial complex is bad.” “PTSD is a terrible side effect of war.” “War transform us. Into beasts,” i.e. “War dehumanizes those involved.” In the end, what I learned about war that I didn’t already know is that the heroes never die and that war will change, but war will also always remain.
Press Start Button
“This is good… isn’t it?” – Ocelot’s last words
I’ll give you that, Ocelot. MGS4 was “good,” not great, not worthy of perfect scores or a 94% on Metacritic, but good. It was a memorable experience. Kojima made a game with a personality and playfulness that I would like to see embraced by western developers.
The characters we’re ridiculous, but well rounded. Kojima has so much time and cinematic space that he’s able to flesh out even the most minor character with some semblance of a backstory and character arc. I really did come to care for Snake and even Otacon with his melodramatic tone and dialogue.
The boss battles we’re particular highpoints for me. They were unique and inventive, forcing the player to use different tools and tactics with every new encounter. The game only hinted at how you should proceed, if you obviously weren’t going to figure it out on your own. Figuring out how to take out Vamp had the logical workings of an adventure game all while keeping with the game’s 3rd person action identity. The player puppeteering of Screaming Mantis had me smiling at such creative novelty. The final fight with Liquid was a great risk in design, transferring the CQC mechanics into a fighting game format. It’s one of the greatest gameplay twists I’ve played and it actually made narrative sense. No other developer would ever throw an essentially new mechanic at the very end of game. However novel, the combat comes off as shallow due to the native CQC mechanics being underdeveloped and awkward sometimes. Kojima could learn a thing or two from Rocksteady’s Batman series.
Press Start Button
Tom Bissell recently wrote in his The Last of Us review that critics “by their nature crave novelty.” As critics, we should be aware of this. Falling for novelty that makes no real contribution is as bad as falling for hype, two failings of mainstream critics reviewing MGS4. Why do we, the critics, do what we do? It’s not just because we like to hear ourselves talk, but because we are the biggest fanboys there are. Not fanboys of a console or a singular FPS. We’re the fanboys of a whole medium. With that fanaticism, comes a parental instinct, hoping for the best future games can achieve and constructively criticizing its mistakes. Mainstream reviewing rarely goes deep enough. For every probing game review like Matthew Matosis’s “Bioshock Infinite Critique,” there are 15 more reviews giving the reader brilliant insights like “upgrades make you feel more powerful.” Novelty, hype, and brand name seem enough these days to garner critical worship. Looking closely, one can see that MGS4 is overly long, fragmented, erratic, has bio-polar mechanics, and is self-indulgent, much like this essay. Not diving deep enough into these games is a disservice to developers/artists and consumers/audiences. A game that doesn’t play to the strengths of the medium shouldn’t be rewarded. A 60$ experience should never be a side of game with your movie. Gaming has changed. Shouldn’t “gaming journalism,” too?