Monday, October 11, 2010

Gongs of the Patriots


Metal Gear Solid 4’s opening cinematic whets players’ appetites with a fairly standard menu of videogame comfort food—a non-specific battlefield somewhere in the Middle East, assault rifles, missile launchers, turbans, crow-scavenged corpses. The game’s protagonist Old Snake, perfecting his nail-gargling Tom Waits impression, croaks the opening line of voiceover narration: “War has changed.”

War may have changed, but gamers have been here before, killed this enemy before, perhaps in this very same war-ravaged desert outpost. As the opening cutscene builds in intensity, the player grips the controller more tightly, anticipating the action to come. Minutes slip by. The player looks on impotently as a firefight breaks out. Somewhere around minute seven or eight, the player sets down the controller. Snake flees for his life from a towering bipedal armoured mech. The player follows this development out of the corner of his eye while getting up to pour a glass of Coke.

The preponderance and length of MGS4’s cutscenes have become something of a running joke. At times the game’s creator—iconic Japanese videogame auteur Hideo Kojima—seems to regard the PS3 controller as an oddly shaped DVD remote, little more than a means of pressing play on the series of short films he’s crafted for his audience to consume. Herein lies the game’s thematic tension: MGS4 is itself a game about control—both literally and figuratively. Kojima comes out and tells players as much.


Amid the overcooked dialogue and thinly veiled Iraq war commentary of the aforementioned cinematic, Snake describes the new face of war: “ID-tagged soldiers carry ID-tagged weapons, use ID-tagged gear. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance and regulate their abilities. Genetic control, information control, emotion control, battlefield control—everything is monitored and kept under control.” And just in case you missed the symbolism of this narration early on, Kojima introduces the Screaming Mantis boss character in Act 5 who hijacks the movements of Snake and a secondary NPC with—wait for it—puppet strings. (I see what you did there!)

Could there be a more blatant metaphor for the relationship between game designer and player? Player agency in any videogame is by its very nature an illusion, of course. Players only possess whatever agency the designer confers upon them. It’s hard to determine whether Kojima is merely being cheeky by calling out this lopsided power differential in the context of his game or if he’s trying to make a larger point.

The struggle between authorial control and player agency in videogames continues to be one of the elements inhibiting the medium's acceptance as art by gatekeepers in the broader cultural intelligentsia. American film critic Roger Ebert famously rejected videogames’ capacity to be art based on this premise: art is the product of a creative mind exercising authorial control. When players get involved and start making meaningful decisions, authorial control breaks down and the work ceases to belong to the author. In Ebert’s mind, at least, this interactivity taints the artistic purity of the creation.

Kojima—who teasingly (and tellingly) credits himself as “Voice of God” in the game’s closing credits—cedes control to the player periodically, but these moments feel like token gestures. Most of the time your actions in the game feel utterly inconsequential.


The game’s impeccably polished stealth mechanic, though fun to exercise, simply divorces you further from the conflict raging around you. If slithering on your belly across an active warzone and remaining undetected counts as victory, what was the point of you being there to begin with? If anything, it makes Otacon look incompetent for not airdropping Snake closer to his objective.

MGS4 takes you all over the world—the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, snow-battered mountain passes—but its level design is rote and uninspiring. Especially Act 2’s South America section, which sends you creeping and crawling through what might as well be a lab-rodent maze forking through a drab jungle. By way of consolation, the game scatters a few enemies about for you to shoot in the head if you get too bored. Or not. The game is too busy loading its next cutscene to care either way. Whether you play as a pacifist or a blood-thirsty headhunter has zero impact on zilch.

Kojima’s decision to repeatedly seize control from players in the interest of parceling out his story would be easier to forgive if he had a compelling yarn to spin. Sadly even by Hollywood summer-blockbuster standards, MGS4’s script is obtuse and syrupy thick with melodrama. There’s just no excuse for over-earnest platitudes such as “a new dawn is rising” and “find a new lease on life.”

Kojima’s unwieldy narrative rambles like a drunken university lecturer, heaping on exposition with babbling, jargon-spouting fervour. If the game’s myriad cutscenes were spliced together and projected onscreen at your local cinema, half the audience would walk out halfway through, red palm imprints gracing their foreheads.

Simply carving your story up into episodic, five-act structure and weaving in retro Metal Gear footage to stoke fanboy enthusiasm hardly makes you the Tarantino of videogames. Idiosyncratic design choices must always remain subservient to a tightly plotted, emotionally resonant story.


Some of MGS4’s creative gambles pay off handsomely—an experimental split-screen sequence toward the finale reminds players what’s at stake if Snake and company fail—but the game ultimately buckles beneath the weight of its own hubris. By ignoring the player’s need to make a meaningful contribution to the experience, Kojima ensures that we snort derisively when Snake’s friend and ally Otacon cheers “WE DID IT!” after the game’s final climactic victory (most of which the player has idly watched unfold in yet another bloated Jerry Bruckheimer-esque cinematic).

The most gratifying narrative-driven videogames go out of their way to bolster the player’s sense of involvement and contribution—BioWare, please take a bow. At least where MGS4 is concerned, Kojima comes off instead as the attention whore who corners you at a party and prattles on about himself while you struggle to get a word in.

5 comments:

  1. It says a lot about my conflicted feelings on this game that I can both agree with pretty much everything you say and also think back fondly on my experience with it.

    The whole thing has kinda blended in my memory into this bizarre, fever-dream encounter with the work of a super-weird auteur. But man, I super-agree with so much of what you say here... and I love the idea that Snake's stealth actually makes the player even less consequential than had he been an action hero. I've read elsewhere that it's actually some commentary on non-violence, but whatever. It feels truer that really, Kojima just wanted his tightly-controled battlefield to play out one way and one way only, so he made players creep through it.

    That said, Snake's final crawl through the irradiated hallway was so fucking intense, with the split-screen and the HAMMERING of triangle... but even so, it was an intense illusion. I'm sure that not pressing the button fast enough either doesn't make a difference, or Snake just dies and you reload.

    And it's telling that I put the game in again to revisit it and wound up sitting there for like 20 minutes during a mission briefing and almost falling asleep. When the mission itself actually started, it was getting late...

    You know what, though? I really want to play Peace Walker (if only I had a PSP, jeez), and I also think Rising looks great. I don't even know anymore, I guess, heh.

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  2. I played MGS4 before I got a PS3. I played it with a friend, who desperately wanted me to be impressed by it. I think the real low point was during the European level, when he pointed out (during a cutscene), "This game is so amazing. Look at the detailing around those windows. How many games would put much effort into making the windows look that good?"

    He also kept getting annoyed when I zoned out during cutscenes and forgot to hit the "flashback" button when the prompt appeared.

    I probably shouldn't, but I treat MGS4 as a litmus-test game. Anyone who seriously thinks this game is visionary, or even comes within hailing distance of an original or insightful observation about our world, is someone whose tastes I don't really need to take that seriously. MGS4 is the work of a intellectually stunted, stylistically conceited artist whose fans tricked him into believing he was a master. With MGS4, they got the game they deserve: a towering monument to Kojima's self-importance, with fans rightly relegated to the role of cheering bystander.

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  3. One additional gripe I didn't manage to slot into the review: the Eastern European NPC-trailing sequence is one of the most tedious videogame experiences I've ever had. I mean it, that part felt like a shot of novocaine to my brain's pleasure center.

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  4. Even though I can understand (and to a limited degree agree with) some of the general points in this review, it's inaccurate and biased. Have you played the other games in the series? What difficulty mode did you play in, and how many times did you play through the game?

    1. You complain about there being no consequence to violent methods vs. pacifistic methods to beating a given stage. If you meant a gameplay consequence, of course there is! You receive 40 000 bonus DP at the end of an act if you beat it without any kills or alerts. If you keep that up the whole game, you unlock bonus items for the next playthrough such as the bandanna and the stealth camouflage. I do agree that there's very little change as far as the story goes, but going on a killing spree causes Snake to remember what Liquid said in MGS1 - "You enjoy all the killing! That's why."

    2. You complain that the player feels as though his/her actions have little consequence in MGS4, but this is an unfair criticism for most action adventure games. If you meant that you didn't feel like you were accomplishing anything, that's your opinion and I disagree. However, if your point was that MGS4 doesn't have a branching storyline based on gameplay choices made by the player, then the same goes for other critically acclaimed games like Uncharted 2 or Bioshock.

    More importantly, the player actions do have major consequences in the short term. In the Middle East, the militia can (and will in Extreme mode) lose the battle against the Praying Mantis PMCs without Snake's assistance. Allowing this to happen makes Snake's mission more difficult, since the PMCs are no longer distracted by the militia, and can detect Snake much more easily. The same goes for South America, except you can help the rebels even more than the militia, by rescuing their captive members from the PMCs. Even the "tedious" trailing sequence in Act 3 is affected by player actions. The resistance member will take a quicker and more direct route without getting caught even once, if the player is fast and skilled enough. MGS4's stages are much more dynamic than you give credit for in your review.

    3. Kojima's writing can be rather corny and bloated at times, but one thing Kojima is great at is creating memorable moments and characters. Your review only mentions Snake and Otacon, the former merely as the player-agent and the latter briefly in passing. What about Meryl and her maturing from a gung-ho greenhorn in MGS1 to a competent squad leader in MGS4? Raiden and his apparent failure to come to terms with himself after MGS2, and his falling out with Rose? You also fail to discuss anything about the return to Shadow Moses in Act 4 or the surprise appearance of Big Boss in the epilogue. All this makes me doubt that you know or played much of the series.

    If you haven't played the previous games, you owe it to yourself to play through those if you want to write a fair review.

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