Archive for the 'Stealth' Category

Metal Gear Solid 2: Kicking over the tattered remains of the fourth wall

I’ve said before that the writers of the Metal Gear games1 are not at all shy about having the characters comment on the game mechanics. It’s not unusual for characters in games to refer to the controls during tutorial sections, of course, and only a few games try to disguise this as something that could plausibly occur in the gameworld. And the occasional sly nod to the fictionality of the setting is a long-standing tradition in games, going back at least to the first Scott Adams adventure, which included a room described as “in the ROM of a TRS-80. I think I made a wrong turn!” But the Metal Gear games really revel in ignoring the line between content and architecture.

In MGS1, the high point of this tendency was the encounter with Psycho Mantis, who demonstrated his psychic powers with feats such as peeking at the console’s memory card and commenting on what other games had saves there. These references to non-diegetic elements were something of a hint for the non-diegetic key to beating him: Psycho Mantis could react instantly to the player’s movements, but only if the controller was plugged into socket 1. Hot-swap it and you had him flummoxed. Unfortunately, playing on a PC, I missed most of this.

In MGS2, the self-reference really starts when “Colonel Campbell” goes Shodan. At a certain point in the game, Raiden and Snake succeed in uploading a virus to the computer system. It doesn’t have the effect they wanted (the code may have been tampered with by the Patriots), but apparently Campbell is an AI running on the same system, and he starts behaving oddly, repeatedly calling Raiden to gabble nonsense at him in a sometimes synthetic-sounding voice, including bits of dialogue from the previous games, as well as this choice exchange:

Campbell: Your role — that is, mission — is to infiltrate the structure and disarm the terrorists –
Raiden: My role? Why do you keep saying that.
Campbell: Why not? This is a type of role-playing game.

And, shortly afterward, this:

Campbell: Raiden, turn the game console off right now!
Raiden: What did you say?
Campbell: The mission is a failure! Cut the power right now!
Raiden: What’s wrong with you?
Campbell: Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual.
Rose (replacing Campbell): You’ll ruin your eyes playing so close to the TV.
Raiden: What are you talking about!?

The effect here is a frisson. There’s that uncanny sense that something has happened that really isn’t supposed to happen, and that you can’t rely on the comfortable rules you’re used to. I’ve seen things like this in literature — heck, it’s practically the definition of postmodernism. But, as always, interactivity enhances the sense of danger.

(Speaking of postmodern literature, the game has a minor character named Peter Stillman. This is the name of a few characters in Paul Auster’s identity-bending New York Trilogy. I don’t think this is accidental. At the very least, the writers are playing similar tricks by reusing the name Snake. Raiden, remember, was also using the code-name Snake in the beginning.)

Not long after this scene is another choice bit of fourth wall demolition. In the middle of a big fight scene, you suddenly hear the familiar “game over” chord, and the game goes to the “Mission Failed” screen. Except it’s not quite right; among other things, it says “Fission Mailed” instead, and the screenshot in the upper left corner, showing your moment of death? It’s still moving. The fight isn’t over. It’s just a trick to distract you for a moment, to fool you into thinking you’ve already lost so that you’ll stop fighting. I’ve seen fake deaths like this in a few adventure games, but I don’t recall seeing it in an action game before. The effect isn’t a frisson this time: the fakeout aspect makes it more like a joke. At least, I chuckled when I realized what had happened.

I haven’t finished the game yet, so there’s probably more of this foolishness to come.

  1. Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names. []

Metal Gear Solid 2: So Far

The Big Shell, ostensibly a oil spill clean-up facility, consists of two hexagonal structures called Shell 1 and Shell 2, each made of six buildings, joined by bridges, around a central core. Raiden’s mission starts on Shell 1, and as long as he’s there, the player enjoys considerable freedom. You pretty much have the run of the complex, and your mission objectives take you all over the place and back. This changes when the action shifts to Shell 2, which is heavily damaged. Suddenly there are fewer places to go. The action becomes more linear, the cutscenes more frequent. In some cases, all you have to do between two lengthy cutscenes is walk across a room. If this continues, maybe the game will turn out to be mostly plot after all.

After Shell 2 comes the descent into the secret depths of the complex, and it is here that things seem to start getting seriously weird. The web of deceit and double-cross is already pretty hard to follow by this point, and this may well be my last chance to make sense of it. Spoilers ho. Let’s start by listing the sides.

Philanthropy: Solid Snake and his tech support. Their mandate is to destroy Metal Gears. Part of the fallout from the previous game was that the Metal Gear schematics were leaked to the public, and now every armed force in the world is trying to build one.

“FOXHOUND”: Supposedly an elite anti-terrorist unit, Solid Snake’s alma mater, now represented by Raiden (the player character), led by Colonel Campbell. I say “supposedly” because we’re pretty sure that the real FOXHOUND was disbanded following the events of Metal Gear Solid, and it’s abundantly clear by now that just about everything that the man claiming to be the Colonel says is a lie. He’s probably tampered with Raiden’s memory, and may well not even be a real person: Raiden comments pointedly at one juncture that he’s never met the Colonel face-to-face, only talked with him over their comm link. Raiden’s girlfriend is also doing mission support through that comm link, and I don’t think she’s real either.

The Patriots: Twelve people who secretly1 rule the world, controlling the outcome of presidential elections and suchlike. They’re apparently the prime movers of most of the plot, and any random plot event can, without warning, turn out to have always been an essential part of their master plan. Their ultimate interest here is in the vast implausible computer system they’ve built under the ocean (the real purpose of the Big Shell), which they will use to control all the world’s information, invisibly censoring anything that might threaten them. They control the Metal Gear project, and probably did all along. In fact, they’re mass-producing Metal Gears to protect the computer. Note that the end boss in the previous games was a single Metal Gear.2

The Sons of Liberty: The people who attacked the Big Shell. It’s not at all clear to me if there’s actually anyone calling themselves by this name; it might have just come out of Raiden’s mission briefing, which I won’t even bother describing here, because it was all lies. But given that it means the people that the “Colonel” wants you to fight, it seems to refer to an alliance of Solidus Snake (another of Solid Snake’s evil twins), Revolver Ocelot3 (Liquid Snake’s sole surviving henchman), Dead Cell (a small clan of creepy level bosses, one of whom seems to be a vampire), Olga Gurlukovich (enemy of Solid Snake from Chapter 1, now leader of the Russian mercenaries that form the game’s grunt force), and the President of the United States. They’re basically opposed to the Patriots, and their goal is to destroy the aforementioned megacomputer. They had first tried to do this by means of the electromagnetic pulse created by detonating a nuclear missile in the atmosphere. These are the people that Raiden was sent to fight, which I suppose means that “Colonel Campbell” is a tool of the Patriots.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Sons of Liberty all have personal agendas, and some of them betray their cause. The President really believes that having the Patriots in charge is preferable to the chaos that would result otherwise. Ocelot, who lost an arm in the previous game, had Liquid Snake’s arm grafted on in its place, and it periodically tries to take over his mind. Olga, blackmailed by the Patriots (who hold her child hostage), has been donning a disguise and helping Raiden fight the troops under her command. Solidus seems to have some plan of his own, although I don’t know what; he just doesn’t seem the public-spirited type. The freaking vampire just out and attacks the one person who has a chance of stopping the computer from going online at one point. I don’t know what his problem is. Maybe it’s just uncontrollable vampire urges.

Solid Snake cooperates with Raiden for most of the game, but abruptly betrays him at the end of the Shell 2 sequence. This came as a surprise, but in retrospect it makes a certain amount of sense. They were never really on the same side, whatever Raiden thought. They just had some common goals for a while. Solid Snake is the Good Guy. He wants to rescue the hostages, which means getting past the Sons’ defenses and preventing the Big Shell from being destroyed with everyone inside. Raiden is a well-meaning dupe of the Patriots. His assigned mission is to get past the Sons’ defenses in order to “rescue” the President, and preserve the Big Shell from harm until it’s fully operational. He’s also okay with helping to rescue the hostages, even though the “Colonel” keeps reminding him that it’s not part of his mission. But in the end, Raiden’s masters are building Metal Gears, and Snake can’t abide that.

  1. Although not too secretly. An awful lot of the NPCs know all about them. []
  2. To go off on a wild tangent, I’ve long thought that one of the weaknesses of Return of the Jedi is that it tries to show how ill-prepared and outclassed the rebels are by revealing that the in-progress Death Star’s weapon systems are already operational. Big deal, we already saw them fight a fully complete Death Star and win in the first film. In my opinion, a much better big reveal would have been multiple Death Stars — a Death Star factory, filling the sky, gearing up to put one in permanent orbit around every inhabited planet in the galaxy. Plus, that way they could end the film with a whole series of Death Star explosions. Perhaps accompanied by the 1812 Overture. []
  3. All the henchmen in Metal Gear Solid had code names consisting of their preferred weapon and an animal. The resulting names are strikingly similar to the main enemies in the Mega Man X series, but there, Revolver Ocelot would be a cat-shaped robot with special attacks based on making things spin. []

Metal Gear Solid 2: Stealth

Let’s talk about gameplay a little. MGS2 is basically a stealth game punctuated by boss fights. I think the first stealth game I was aware of was Thief: The Dark Project, and consequently this is in my mind the canonical stealth game, the one that I think of all others in terms of. Thief was released in 1998, the same year as the first Metal Gear Solid. There had been stealth games before — notably, the original Metal Gear that Metal Gear Solid was based on — but only a few, and they didn’t have as much as an impact as these 3D ones. There still aren’t all that many games based mainly on stealth mechanics, but it seems to be fairly popular as a temporary constraint in platformers and shooters, a way of varying gameplay. Here, of course, that’s reversed: it’s the occasional shooting mission that keeps the sneaking from getting stale.

The point of a stealth game is, of course, not being seen. The designer can enforce this by making the game end (or, more likely, restart from the last checkpoint) as soon as an enemy spots the player character. And indeed, that’s a common approach in those stealth scenes in non-stealth-based games, presumably because it’s simple to implement. But that’s a bit harsh for extended use, so in the MGS games, as in Thief, being spotted simply has negative but not-immediately-fatal consequences. The sentry who saw you sounds an alert, unless you can stop him in time, and suddenly you’re facing more foes than you can easily handle. What happens then varies from game to game. In Thief, it is always at least theoretically possible to defeat all the enemies and wander unhindered until you decide to finish the level. This can break the mood somewhat. MGS does it differently: the enemies are effectively infinite in number, with new troops coming in to replace those killed. The player basically has no choice but to find a place to hide until they decide to stop looking for him, and then resume sneaking. This approach makes for better gameplay, in my opinion, but it’s not without its drawbacks. To support it, there have to be certain places that the guards will never look: inside a locker here, behind a crate there. And once you figure out where they are, you can easily spend most of your time sitting in those spots, waiting for the alert timer to run down. This can also break the mood somewhat.

There’s also something about the MGS approach that I can’t quite articulate, a feeling that I find typical of console games as opposed to PC games. Something about the way that the level of detail in the solution (such as ducking into a closet) is on a much coarser scale than the level of detail in the presentation. I may return to this point as I go through more PS2 games.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Cutscenes

A comment to a previous post called MGS2 “mostly cutscene with the occasional gameplay”. Well, I’m in a fairly big piece of gameplay right now, searching all over the Big Shell (a facility in the ocean) for bombs to defuse. Someone very skilled at the game might find this scene fairly short, but for me, finding each bomb involves several iterations of the basic stealth-game cycle: venture forth, get spotted by an enemy, run away, find a hiding place, wait for the hue and cry to die down, venture forth once more. 1 This is the single largest uninterrupted (or at least not-significantly-interrupted) assignment I’ve had so far, and it’s hefty enough that I had to break off in the middle to sleep. So at this point, I’m thinking that “mostly cutscene” is an exaggeration.

I can see where it’s coming from, though. The cutscenes in this game have a quality about them that makes them seem interminable. I don’t think it’s mainly because they’re excessively long, though. It’s because of how they’re structured. There are several different purposes for cutscenes: assigning new objectives, explaining new equipment or UI features, explaining the backstory, introducing bosses that you’ll be fighting later, etc. Usually, when a game does a cutscene, it will have one purpose in mind. When MGS2 starts a cutscene, it often goes for several of these things sequentially. And when it finishes one, it may even change format (from scripted actions in the game’s main graphics engine to a conversation over the player character’s comm link, or to FMV), creating the sense that the cutscene is ending. So the player expects to immediately begin playing again, and that expectation is thwarted. Repeatedly.

  1. Or, alternately, don’t find a hiding place, get killed, and resume from the last save point. Sometimes I just jump into the ocean to speed the whole process up. []

Metal Gear Solid 2: Change of scene

The first chapter of MGS2 ends with one of Liquid Snake’s henchmen (who he’s apparently possessed) making off with the new Metal Gear prototype. Metal Gear is a bipedal walking tank armed with nuclear missiles. It seems every episode in the series introduces a new Metal Gear prototype, which the player fights and destroys at the game’s climax. This time around, it’s an amphibious model, designed to evade detection by walking along the ocean floor or something like that. A company of marines is transporting it by ship, and the theft is accomplished by sinking the ship, killing everyone on board who isn’t inside an amphibious walking tank at that moment — including, apparently, Solid Snake. (As if.)

A scene transition covers a lapse of two years, and gameplay resumes in a different place, with a different player character. He’s also code-named Snake (although he’s quickly redesignated “Raiden” to avoid confusion), and like Solid Snake in his early days, he’s an agent of FOXHOUND (which was disbanded years ago — something weird is going on there), but this one has no field experience. He’s has extensive training in virtual reality, though, as the dialogue keeps on reminding us over and over. Add to this some suggestive changes to the design of the “Game Over” screen, and it seems likely that we’re looking at a trapped-in-the-holodeck scenario here.

The weird thing about this chapter is that there’s much more tutorial content than the chapter that preceded it. Raiden is unfamiliar with the things that he has to do on a real mission (“real”, yeah right), so, as he explores, his commander gives a piecemeal explanation of the controls over their comm link. (The writer is not at all shy about having the characters comment on game mechanics.1 ) But to a large extent, the things covered here are things that we’ve already had to do back on the tanker in chapter 1. It all makes me wonder if the game was originally designed to start with Raiden, and the first chapter was designed later to make the continuity with MGS1 clearer or something.

  1. There’s a point in MGS1 when a character tells Snake to look for a number written on a CD case. I honestly thought at first that I had hit a bug — that I was supposed to have found a CD case object by that point in the game. But no, he was talking about the game’s packaging. []

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

So, I just moved from New York to California. Currently, my desktop PC is in a moving van somewhere between those two points. The slimline PS2, on the other hand, fits easily in one’s carry-on luggage.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is one of the games from my shopping spree when I first got a PS2. I had played the PC port of the first Metal Gear Solid and found it had an entertaining if somewhat off-kilter vibe, somewhere between Tom Clancy and GI Joe. You get all this military jargon, political analysis, and technical detail about weapon systems, and then you get attacked by an invisible cyborg ninja. Who eventually turns out to be your former boss, who you thought was dead.

Last night’s MGS2 session didn’t really involve much playing. I familiarized myself with the controls (new to me, since I had played MGS1 with a keyboard and mouse), and played some hide-and-seek with enemy soldiers on a boat, but it was mostly cutscenes and exposition. This isn’t entirely the game’s fault. Since it’s been years since I played the first Metal Gear Solid, and since it had a pretty convoluted storyline, the first thing I did was read the plot summary available from the MGS2 main menu. Or rather, summaries, plural. There are three. The first is in the form of a review of a book written by a minor character from the game, and gives a basic outline of the story in broad strokes. After you finish reading this, the game makes the second summary available. This one is an account by a conspiracy nut (and it takes some doing to be a conspiracy nut in the world of Metal Gear, where the government really is controlled by secret cabals) who somehow got an advance copy of the book, and it goes into most of the implausibly-many plot twists in the game. Read this to completion and you get access to the third summary, which is the book itself. This not only contains a great deal of the more important dialogue from the first game, it even has new revelations about things going on behind the scenes that the player character never learned about.

Actually, the dialogue from the first game is somewhat improved here. At one point in MGS1, the hero, Solid Snake, is confronted by his evil twin, Liquid Snake (yes, really) who reveals that the two of them are clone-brothers, products of a secret project to create genetically-engineered super-soldiers. But (Liquid Snake whines) Solid Snake got all the dominant genes. Liquid Snake was left with nothing but recessive genes, and he’s been struggling with that handicap all his life. To which the confused player says: I do not think those words mean what you think they mean. Well, when that scene is recounted in MGS2, they don’t use those words, explaining instead that the super-soldiering process involved selecting desirable and undesirable traits and shuffling them between two gametes or something. Which isn’t terribly plausible either, but what can you do? It’s important to the story that Liquid thinks that he’s both (a) a clone from the same source as Solid and (b) genetically inferior to him.

Those familiar with MGS2 may be thinking at this point that I’m paying way too much attention to the plot. MGS1 gave a strong sense that they were just sticking in dramatic revelations at random as they went along, and MGS2 somewhat notoriously takes a nose-dive into the outright nonsensical. Well, that’s part of why I bought it. Notorious is interesting. I want to see for myself just how long I can keep making sense of it before it defeats me.

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