I’ve been a massive Metal Gear fan, since MGS2: Sons of Liberty. I’ve played every game released with the words ‘Metal’ and ‘Gear’ in the title, except for the god awful Kojima-less MG2: Snake’s Revenge. I love this series for all its flaws as well as its strengths. But nobody will ever convince me, except maybe through the use of hypnosis or mind control, that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was anything less than an unmitigated disaster.
If I could describe that game in one word, it would be ‘bloat’: the story, the dialogue, and the cutscenes all suffered from a rare case of video game-based elephantitis. To make matters worse, MGS4 takes its sweet ass time doling out its way-too-verbose exposition: you famously don’t even touch the controller for the first half hour. The ending cutscene is over an hour long. AN HOUR.
Shakespeare famously said that “brevity is the soul of wit”. Well, there’s no brevity, let alone wit, to be found in this turgid marathon of expository dialogue, over the top action scenes, and babbling nonsense that somehow passes for story development. MGS4, in terms of being a compelling gameplay experience, essentially ends after Act 2. For the rest of the game, virtually every element that made the previous MGS games work is jettisoned for a style of pompous, indulgent, jibberish-laden over the topness; the likes of which someone like Michael Bay could only gawk at, dumbfoundedly. Perhaps most shocking of all, MGS4 made it seem like Kojima forgot the very elements that made his previous three games in the series so wonderful.
Sure, Peace Walker was a big step up – especially since the emphasis there was in gameplay, and not story. But even Peace Walker had some major problems and disappointments in its story, setting, and dialogue. What I’m getting at here is simple: how do we know MGS5 isn’t going to be a major disappointment in the story department? What do we do if this game makes absolutely no sense, like MGS4 – or relies too heavily on sequel baggage and forced nostalgia like both Peace Walker and Guns…? As much as it pains me to say it – considering how long and hard KojiPro (RIP) worked on this game, and how stunning it looks in the various gameplay demo videos released online – I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried MGS5 won’t be hot garbage in the story, dialogue, and general presentation department once released.
Metal Gear Solid 4 and Peace Walker both were excellently designed video games in terms of gameplay mechanics – please don’t misunderstand. They are fun to play, and enjoyable enough to sit through if you’re a big enough fan of Kojima’s series as a whole. And Peace Walker actually presented many of its themes admirably – at times reminding me of Kojima at his best. That all being said, neither of these games had plots, characters, or dialogue anywhere near the quality established by Metal Gear Solid, MGS2, and MGS3. Though both MGS4 and Peace Walker were in many respects entirely different games, there’s one major commonality between the two that I fear will rear its ugly head in MGS5: blatant fan service.
When I say ‘fan service’, I mean elements of the plot or dialogue that serve no purpose other than to indulge the hardcore fans with some heavy nostalgia. Nostalgia is fine in small amounts – but look at MGS4. The plot is so busy integrating and connecting the entire Metal Gear franchise together, it never gets around to crafting a compelling tale that can stand on its own. A momentary nod to a previous game is totally fine – like in the opening of Snake Eater, when Big Boss does the same pose as Solid Snake from the intro to Sons of Liberty. That was acceptable- because it happens for a moment, then goes away to allow the plot of MGS3 to begin. Y’know, as a standalone story that works on its own level rather than merely recreating all the same moments from other Metal Gear games.
Compare this minor moment to the overload of nostalgia presented in Guns of the Patriots. Snake and Ocelot duking it out, just like Liquid and Snake did in MGS? Check. The pointless-beyond-fanservice return of characters like Meryl, Psycho Mantis, Vamp, and Rose? Check. Way, way, over the top fight between Metal Gear Rex and Metal Gear Ray? Check. The return of Arsenal Gear? Check. If it happened in MGS 1-3, it probably was called back to in MGS4. I’m sorry, but that’s just lazy writing. We need more than references to care about a story – if we want to relive those moments, we can replay those games for pete’s sake!
This thought clearly never occurred to Kojima and Shuyo Murata, since their game is chock full with little other than flashbacks. Flashbacks, flashbacks, and more flashbacks: MGS4 is drowning in em! I understand that Guns of the Patriots was aiming to be the big finale to the entire series: but did we really need so many revisits to previous locations, characters, and moments? The entirety of Act 4 takes place IN the ruins of Shadow Moses – was that entirely necessary? And don’t even get me started on the big Rex vs. Ray showdown. If the scene in your game could have just as easily shown up in an amateur work of fan fiction, it’s probably a good sign your game will only appeal to die hard fans whose critical thinking is being drowned out by all the nostalgia feels.
And Peace Walker had a similar issue: the entire game follows Big Boss as he chases the ghost of his mentor, The Boss. Remember Snake and the Boss’s relationship? Just in case you forgot, or couldn’t be bothered to fire up your copy of Snake Eater, you have 75% of Peace Walker to relive their essential dynamic all over again! Even more galling, in Peace Walker we’re given the laziest-written of any MGS character with Huey – Otacon’s father, who is conveniently voiced by the same actor, just in case people missed Hal’s voice.
Even the return of Kazuhira Miller is a big nostalgia trip for fans of Metal Gear Solid (PSX). I wouldn’t be so against Miller as a character if he didn’t – through both Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes – incessantly yammer on about the basics of sneaking and CQC to ostensibly the most formidable soldier in the entire world.
Why can’t Kojima write any new characters? You’d almost think it’s easier reintroducing tried and true characters than, you know, coming up with new and independent plotpoints and characterization. Oh wait, that’s exactly the case.
To his credit, the last couple of independent characters Kojima created were hated by most of the diehard fans – from Chico to Rose to Raiden, these are not typically thought of as fan favorites. Maybe Kojima feels the pressure to give people what they want, considering how much controversy his fantastic yet strange MGS2 received. Though I can sympathize, acquiescing to the demands of rabid fans never makes for good art. And that’s why I’m worried about The Phantom Pain.
What we’ve seen so far in the trailer is enough to make me nervous.
A young Ocelot, two kids that look like they’ll probably be young Snake and Liquid, and the Ground Zeroes villain that still looks lame and un-intimidating(Skull Face) don’t inspire the greatest of confidence. And when you watch the trailer, which is more interested in spouting a bunch of long-disproven theories of linguistics rather than telling us anything about the plot, there’s some evidence that MGS5 may have been written with the same kind of devil-may-care, editor-less chutzpah of MGS4. Then again, it may be just a creative method of telling us a bit about the game’s themes indirectly.
I can only hope so – since, amazing New Order song aside, this trailer hints towards another Kojima game full of heady philosophizing. If this goes the route of MGS2 or MGS, by giving us a unique and compelling story that sets a new bar for narratives in video games, then obviously I’ll be happy. But if it goes the route of MGS4, I may again find myself regretting out loud that the series didn’t end with MGS3. Or at least, that Kojima didn’t hire a brave enough editor to call him on his purple prose.
Which brings me to the second major worry: that The Phantom Pain will rehash some of that frustratingly awful writing in Guns of the Patriots. These games have always carried a rep for being a tad convoluted – but I’d wager there are soap opera sagas with less needlessly complex plot points, character arcs, and dialogue.
Ocelot’s whole ‘I’m Liquid’ thing is a ruse to fool the Patriots? Ok, sure. The Patriots have been replaced by AI systems, which run the world? Why not? The original Snake Eater team became the original Patriots, with Sigint being the DARPA chief Snake eliminated with FOXDIE in Metal Gear Solid? The big deus-ex machina computer program is called Fox Alive? Every nation on Earth is totally fine with outsourcing all their military forces to private mercenary firms? Everyone’s hooked up to nanomachines, which can basically be used as a mcguffin to solve every conceivable plot wrinkle? Big Boss’s corpse that you see burned in the river in Act 3 was actually Solidus, because of reasons? Nanomachines? More Nanomachines? Naomi’s stupid looking outfit? Meryl and Johnny Sasaki’s wedding? Drebin’s convoluted role in all this? My head hurts just remembering all this prolix nonsense. If it isn’t outright laughable, it’s because the plot point in question is too convoluted to make fun of. That is a serious problem that was assuaged partially in Peace Walker. Partially, but not entirely.
The strongest narratives in the Metal Gear franchise are found in MGS and MGS3, and it’s no coincidence that these are also the cleanest, simplest plots as well. A guard revolt at a secret nuclear facility? Easy to grasp. Crazed bad guys have superweapon and need to be eliminated? No problem deciphering that riddle. Contrast these to-the-point yet awesome set ups with the basic premise of MGS4: A bad guy is trying to control the AI system that runs the world’s war economy, which is bad – even though the world is now a dystopia being run by a shadowy secret group that are really machines and… oh, God, I can’t even. You try to summarize MGS4 if you want, I think it’s impossible without just telling the entire story of the game. How did this game average a 94 on Metacritic? Seriously!
In Peace Walker, the narrative problems were less serious – but the plot felt completely phoned in. Sure, I appreciate the pro-peace themes and monologues: but as I said, a huge chunk of the game is spent rehashing the ending of MGS3. The Doctor Strangelove character feels out of place and poorly written, even if I’ll admit building ZEKE was a pretty cool spin on the Metal Gear Solid storyline.
It’s possible that seeing the man once known as Naked Snake finally transform into the legendary Big Boss in The Phantom Pain will be a compelling narrative experience. But the issue with this – from the general premise of the game down to Paz in Peace Walker working as a double agent for Cypher – is that all of these games are tainted by the awful legacy of MGS4. And since MGS5 is, like Peace Walker, another prequel, I don’t see how Kojima can avoid this all over again. Everything is set up to build up to Guns of the Patriots, and its basic premise that Ocelot and Major Zero are at war over how best to honor the Boss’s memory. And like the Star Wars prequels, having the final outcome of your story already set in stone doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting storyline.
By the way: does this huge plot point (the war between Ocelot and Zero) even make a shred of sense? I get that Boss is Ocelot’s mom, and that he wants to serve her memory well. But why does Zero even care? Shouldn’t it be Big Boss against Ocelot over the legacy of the Boss? That would make way more sense, since Big Boss was as emotionally invested in the Boss as Ocelot. What’s more, would the Boss really want either a dystopian nightmare version of society or Lord of the Flies-style anarchy for the planet? Wasn’t her whole thing more about bringing longstanding peace than anything else? Why are so many people clamoring to make huge decisions on the global scale in the Boss’s name who don’t even appear to understand what she stood for in the first place?
The Boss was loyal, not a revolutionary. She was a soldier, not a politician. Yet in MGS4 we are told that everything from the Patriots to the PMCs were set up with Boss’s ideals in mind. How do any of these games make sense now that MGS4 has ruined them all? How can a new Metal Gear surmount the narrative roadblocks that MGS4 imposes?
Don’t get me wrong – there’s no chance MGS5 will be less than stellar when it comes to gameplay and general design. Kojima always makes addictive, supremely enthralling video games despite whatever narrative shortcomings they are inevitably saddled with. But I remember when the name ‘Metal Gear Solid’ carried the reputation of having some of the best writing in gaming. And since Guns of the Patriots, that reputation has been steadily changing to ‘most unedited writing in gaming’. I don’t know about you, but from where I’m sitting that isn’t an improvement.