June 18, 2008
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!
While I’d love as many as possible to read my little rant, I cannot emphasize more strongly to anyone that has not yet completed Metal Gear Solid 4 in its entirety, or who do not otherwise wish to hear discussion of the game’s ending and plot details, that this editorial contains serious spoilers on all aspects of the game. Please refrain from reading any further if there is anything you would be upset about having revealed about MGS4. If you choose to keep reading anyway, consider yourself warned!
“I initially decided to write this rant (and it began as a rant) during the final hours of the game. My critical thoughts on the title reached a frustrated climax…
…as the worldweary Snake stood once again in the graveyard housing Big Boss and The Boss, the game’s standout artistry being put to use to convey his final moments as he placed high definition pistol into high definition mouth. The camera pulls away, and the shot is heard.
At that moment, I had had enough of this needlessly convoluted game series (the complexity of which would put Final Fantasy VII to shame) and the ham-handed way it purported to “resolve” all its loose ends. Kojima gave us the What — the Patriots are gone, their system dismantled; Meryl is married and reconciled with her father; even Raiden, the fanboy’s bane from MGS2 now turned unstoppable badass cum god of lightning, got his happy ending — but he never told us the Why. He physically tied up the loose ends, but he left you feeling hollow, wondering why the hell you even played this game, as if maybe Snake’s demise represented some kind of personal spite against the gamers that demanded a total resolution.
That would make some twisted sense, given the other ways he layered imagery in this final entry (to varying degrees of success). His constant linking of the war economy and American/Patriot unilateralism ever so slightly with real world events (right down to Act I’s Middle Eastern setting) fell just short of upsetting my delicate political sensibilities. He tiptoed around the political angle, fired warning shots of real world commentary (though the “global warming is sinking Shadow Moses Island” made my eyes roll back, through my head, and out into the next room), but in the end he showed a level of discretion I wish more American filmmakers would pattern. I’m looking at you, George Lucas. In the end, I think I liked his cautionary messages about war and the unchecked evolution of technology. I especially liked the use of Otacon as a proxy for the videogame player — always shut away from the real action, the greatest passion in his life being a double agent’s manipulative embrace, and the tragedy of losing her taking place entirely via the screen of his MacBook. But from Snake and Liquid’s painfully choreographed final showdown to the hero’s gunpowder-burned moment in the graveyard and the ensuing credit roll, I was dissatisfied. The ending was empty. I was pissed.
If you’ve beaten the game as well, then you’ve known all the while reading this that I’m forgetting one crucial piece of the puzzle, namely the Epilogue: Naked Son. Snake’s suicide and the credit roll are cut short by Big Boss, arrived on the scene at the last to set the record straight. Each person’s reaction to every facet of the game will differ, but for me, my frustration and bitterness at that moment coalesced into a greater appreciation of the game and its creator than I could have imagined. After the surprising bait-and-switch of Raiden’s injection into MGS2, I never figured Kojima would be able to so effectively defy my expectations again. Looking back, I think it was all part of his final deception with Solid Snake’s saga: Snake had the mutating FoxDie; Snake couldn’t possibly survive the torture he went through on Outer Haven; besides, technically the story was done, and Snake needed to die for the sake of the world anyway. All the pieces fit, but with a bitter aftertaste. But in the real conclusion of his magnum opus, Kojima accomplished something poor Lucas didn’t, and Square Enix’s design-by-committee Final Fantasy series never will again — create a true masterpiece.
Like Star Wars, Kojima doubtfully created the early Metal Gear games with any thoughts to writing a meaningful resolution to it all. After all, he was designing twitchy 2D NES games to save his job, so he made Solid Snake, the super soldier (just as Lucas was just making popcorn sci-fi movies and needed a villain with a twist, so he made Darth Vader). We’ll never really know if it was at the start of the Solid series on the PS1 that he laid the whole course of events out for himself, but just as with the first two Star Wars prequels, the first three entries in the MGS series seemed primarily concerned with tying back into itself only as it served the current title, and it was left to MGS4 (or Revenge of the Sith, in Star Wars’ case) to make it all work. But Episode III didn’t represent anything great. Fans of the series could merely watch it and say, “Yep, I guess that sets it all up for A New Hope.” MGS4 cut through the bullshit of Liquid’s arm magically taking over Revolver Ocelot, gave every character, even Snake, a purpose in life, and left players with something besides shallow villains bent solely on world domination. You could be cynical and just call it the benefit of writing a chronological ending as opposed to part three of six, or say that one simple conversation between two dying men hardly resolves two decades of melodramatic entwinement. I prefer to take my hat off and give Kojima his due credit.
Like Final Fantasy, the Metal Gear series has been filled with characters of all stripes, every manner of test and tragedy, and the uncanny ability for the hero to have an incredibly toned old man pound the shit out of the face of another toned geezer (see: Snake and Liquid’s showdown) and emerge entirely without a scratch. Okay, maybe I’m stretching a bit on the last one, but neither series seems to represent much damage on its heroes unless the story gods demand it. As anyone who knows me can attest, there was nary a more hardcore fan of Squaresoft’s flagship series. I think I could someday move on from gaming entirely, but I would forever keep a weather eye out for narrative greatness to return to the name Final Fantasy. However, MGS4 starkly embodies the divergent paths videogame storytelling has taken. Ten years ago, I would have called the game for FF in a heartbeat. Ten years ago, the gaming medium was still moving from an age where winking character sprites was expression, and a dark and mysterious past was character development. You couldn’t realistically compare those stories to the depth of a mature film or novel, but luckily our creative and youthful minds filled in the gaps. And so games became stories, and the stories became legend. But those stories aged like their graphics, and while Square may be all to happy to update their visuals for the platform du jour, the cookie cutter characters and comic book stories stay behind to remind us that perhaps we were not, in fact, experiencing greatness (no offense intended to either baking utensils or graphic novels). In response to an increasingly adult audience, however, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear have taken different approaches with regard to storytelling. The former has increased the complexity and made passing attempts at political intrigue (though conversely, its protagonists have gotten progressively younger). Its stories are no longer one man’s vision but are designed by committee, always taking the safest roads with the flagship, to appeal to the most gamers. The latter has kept the same admittedly high level of complexity over the years, tied itself spiritually to real politics, and its hero is definitely not getting any younger. Its story is the culmination of work by a single, if questionable, auteur, and itâ€™s his vision alone that shines through in every aspect of the series’ plot. Even if sales figures do not bear it out, I would submit that the two series are nearly incomparable to any mature, modern gamer.
As the real credits began to roll on this last adventure with Solid Snake, I found myself filled with a genuine satisfaction not felt at the onscreen arrival of Darth Vader, a hope for the future of videogames as a medium for mature storytelling not felt when Vaan and Ashe saved Ivalice from the evil Vayne. I believe real character depth is found in the little moments — in Jack witnessing his new family in the mirror; in a father and son who, arms locked in combat, find the anger changed in an instant to familial embrace, now that there’s no longer anything left to fight about — and true storytelling is in the binding of those moments, resolving both the external and internal conflicts with poise and graceful denouement. It requires a gifted storyteller expressing his unique vision, something both Star Wars and Final Fantasy lack in one respect or the other. But fortunately for all of us, Metal Gear Solid seems to show us, in the end, it had just that.
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