Archive for July, 2007

Metal Gear Solid 2: Final Thoughts

It’s July 4th, American Independence Day, and high time for me to finish my writeup on fighting the Patriots.

All that remained after last session was two boss fights and a whole lot of exposition. The first boss fight was against a bunch of autonomous Metal Gears, part of the armada guarding Arsenal Gear, the mobile complex housing the Patriots’ computer system, which was advancing on New York City. Since these Metal Gears lack human drivers, I find it impossible to keep thinking of them as anthropomorphic tanks. They’re robots, pure and simple. They’re a variant of Metal Gear Ray, the model seen in chapter 1, which was designed specifically to fight other Metal Gears. This explains why they’re so bad against a single human opponent.

The second fight was a sword duel against Solidus, who was by that point clearly the end boss. I should have picked up on this sooner: Solidus’ true goal was not to destroy the computer, but to seize control of Arsenal Gear for himself. This explains why his lackeys in Dead Cell were trying to stop me from completing their own stated aims. At the end, we find out that he didn’t want Arsenal for its own sake, but as a way to learn the identities of the Patriots: as he points out, part of its function is to find and destroy that information anywhere it exists, so it must have some record of what it’s supposed to destroy.

Some more revelations happen after that, but to me, this is the point where the willing suspension of disbelief reaches its limit. According to Revolver Ocelot, who’s been working for the Patriots all along, Solidus, and everyone else, is just a dupe, acting out their roles in the S3 Program, a project to turn Raiden into a super-soldier like Solid Snake by subjecting him to a scenario similar in many details to the Shadow Moses incedent (the plot of Metal Gear Solid 1). Except that’s a lie too: according to the artificial intelligence program we know by the name “Colonel Campbell”, the real purpose of the S3 Program is social control, and by winning the game you’ve proved that it works. Or something like that. So in a way the Patriots win, but at the same time, you’ve fulfilled your “role” and are suddenly free, or as free as anyone else in the world, and Raiden and Solid Snake have a long talk about the meaning of freedom over a montage of New York street scenes. Perhaps the gradual loss of interactivity over the course of the game is supposed to be part of this theme, but I kind of doubt it. Then, after the credits show, we find out that the twelve people named as the leaders of the Patriots have all been dead for a hundred years.

It’s clear by now that the writers are thinking of this more like an anime than a videogame — specifically, something like Evangelion or Lain that abandons the story in favor of philosophy at the end. I don’t know a lot about how the development of this project went, and can’t really say that there’s a cause-effect relationship here, but there were also some expected boss fights that just didn’t happen. One of the members of Dead Cell is a woman called Fortune who can’t be killed: bullets veer away from her, grenades become duds until she’s out of range. There’s an encounter with her earlier in the game, the sort where you can’t actually do anything effective and just have to avoid getting killed until the timer runs out and the scene ends. Structurally, it seems like a demonstration-of-power encounter, a way to establish her invulnerability so that you’ll be both more prepared and more emotionally engaged when you fight her again later. But that never happens: in the end, she gets killed in a cutscene by Revolver Ocelot, who you never get to fight either.

Other impressions: First, it’s a very slick package. The controls, the music, the way the camera automatically swoops from overhead to horizontal views as appropriate: the production values are very high. Second, there are a lot of pin-up girly posters scattered around on walls and inside lockers, including product placement for FHM, clearly pandering to the core adolescent male audience. I suppose it’s realistic for a game involving soldiers, but they stick out somewhat as photographs in a rendered world. When you have a person who’s actually present standing next to a poster, it’s weird for the poster to look more real.

Finally, there’s the matter of the dog tags. These are the game’s collectible items, used to unlock bonus items. But the process of getting them is fairly involved: you have to “stick up” a soldier by sneaking up behind him with a gun, then search him using the thermal goggles, apparently. This isn’t easily discoverable, and I didn’t read the part in the manual that explains it. My completism is itching, but although I certainly want to try to get some of them, I really don’t think I’ll try to get them all — apparently you have to replay the game on all of the difficulty settings to do so, and I don’t think I’ll be able to maintain that level of interest. It its, after all, primarily a story-game, and I’ve already seen the story. The fact that they put something like the dog tags in a game like this at all is a little strange, if you ask me, but it’s just a standard part of console games. You have to include something to give it “replay value”, even if it’s not something you’d really want to replay. Somehow, PC games have managed to avoid this — maybe because they’ve longer had the possibility of extending the game with add-ons and fan-made levels and other downloadable content. Are the newer consoles abandoning replay enhancers, now that they have the same content-downloading capability as PCs? I don’t know. If they aren’t yet, I expect they will eventually.

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

I’ve said before that the writers of the Metal Gear games 1 Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names. 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.

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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 secretly 1 Although not too secretly. An awful lot of the NPCs know all about them. 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 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.

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 Ocelot 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. (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.

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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.

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