My cousin used to force me to watch him play video games by sitting on me. Specifically, he made me watch him play Resident Evil and Silent Hill. It was, for sure, traumatizing for a 9-year-old, but the trauma had a silver lining: this was the first time I realized how immersive video games could be. I didn't have the words to describe my awe then, but now I know that I was realizing people could create entire worlds from their vision, write stories to validate that world's existence, and give players agency to explore it.
(In retrospect, being pinned under my cousin's ass could, very easily, be the catalyst for my eventual pursuit of a film degree and, ultimately, a job in the games industry.)
I remember sitting and watching my cousin stitch bus maps together in Silent Hill to help him reach his next objective as he awkwardly maneuvered (#tankcontrols) through the ashes. I was completely haunted by the atmosphere and totally enthralled with the story of this place. Incapable of knowing how to play it myself at such a young age, I was mesmerized just from watching someone else play. A year before that, in 1998, I remember holding my breath and my heart racing as a guard slowly approached Solid Snake as my cousin played.
That was the first time Hideo Kojima entered my life. Now, 16 years later, he's being forced to leave Metal Gear behind and give it to Konami. Whether he left by choice or not (this is a whole other can of worms), it's undeniable that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the closing chapter in one the most transformative series in gaming.
Why Kojima and Metal Gear Solid Matter
A few nights ago, I failed miserably trying to convince my boyfriend that MGS V was a big deal. Unable to articulate my way through the entire history of Konami, Kojima, and Metal Gear, I decided to show him the reveal trailer for The Phantom Pain. In doing so, I forgot that my boyfriend hates gore and violence. In case you forgot what that trailer is like, a lot of people get shot in the head in really upsetting, personal ways.
"Ugh, Carter. Why did you show me this? It's just guns and shooting. This isn't interesting!"
While I write this to explore the magnitude of influence Metal Gear has left on me, I'm also writing it for people like my boyfriend. I want him, and people like him, to understand why it's a big deal that this is the final Metal Gear. Anything Kojima touches is immediately made near-unapproachable by anyone not dedicated to reading pages of lore, listening to fan theories, and watching 2.5hr long cutscenes. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'm going to boil away a ton of important nuances to get the real meat of why Kojima and Metal Gear Solid matter so much to the entertainment industry.
The first Metal Gear invented and popularized the stealth genre at a time when video games were "just guns and shooting." In Metal Gear, you didn't have scattershot weapons, the ability to jump 50ft in the air, and your goal wasn't to kill everything you saw. Instead, Metal Gear introduced the world to a more strategic form of player agency where direct confrontation was often not the best way to move forward. It showed people that video games could be more mechanically complex and, with its exposition-heavy dialogues, narratively complex as well.
Metal Gear certainly didn't shy away from world-building. Kojima's unbridled confidence in the story he created allowed him to create a world with dizzyingly complicated political affiliations and grandiose danger. His characters struggled with strife never before seriously tackled in gaming (like rape, loss of humanity, PTSD, etc) and Kojima gave each character time of day. There were double agents struggling with their allegiance and loyalty to country. Snake himself had to overcome his emotional hangups to complete missions, the most brutal of which being when he had to kill his mentor. Kojima understood that, if film could do it, games could go 10x deeper. The story of Metal Gear is, in no exaggeration, an epic. Hour long cutscenes are the norm in this series.
Thankfully, you don't need to understand Metal Gear Solid's story to understand its impact in gaming. At its core, the Metal Gear Solid franchise tackles the effect war has on people. Most recently, MGS V: The Phantom Pain addresses losing limbs, sure, but the lose of limbs is meant to symbolize wartime trauma. You may not be able to see the damage and toll war takes on a person, but those who went through it suffer daily. It's also about the power of technology and how we use it. But, at the end of the day, looking past triple agents and politics, MGS is about people.
Baked into Kojima's radical seriousness and boundary pushing topics (like a woman has bomb put into her stomach and into her vagina) is a goofiness that punctuates the series. i09's James Whitbrook put it better than I ever could.
"Metal Gear Solid’s ability to wildly swing between the serious and the insane, and still somehow stick the landing, is what’s helped make it one of the biggest series in gaming today. Its irreverent quirkiness is something that no franchise can compare to, or even attempt to do without falling flat on its face. It’s kind of why the serious side of it actually works: you come for the over-the-top melodrama and ridiculous giant robot shenanigans, but stay for the weirdly insightful socio-political commentary. Without its charm, Metal Gear Solid would be far too self-serious for its own good; without the philosophical debate-mongering, it’d just be another quirky Japanese action series. They’re symbiotic in a way that should never really work, but it’s created a legacy that endures today."
Glossing over Kojima's questionable treatment of women, MGS constantly reminds you that you're in a video game. Sometimes it does this literally with magical, floating, fourth-wall-breaking bosses that require you to plug your controller into another slot or an arm that possess its owner (because nanomachines) - and sometimes less overtly by cracking jokes or having your main character cartwheel naked through an enemy hallway. But Metal Gear Solid's legacy is that it introduced gamers to confident storytelling and the idea that games could be about more than just shooting everything in the face.
Beginning the End of Metal Gear
Last night, I sat down to play Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - and my expectations couldn't have been higher. I usually try to not get myself too hyped up, but, given the impact Metal Gear Solid has had on the industry and that this will be Kojima's final Metal Gear Game, I couldn't help myself. Upon booting the game up, it was immediately clear that my hype was warranted.
Mild spoilers for the prologue and first two episodes of MGS V below...
The beginning of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain isn't pretty. It's not funny. Waking up from a 9-year coma, Snake (called Big Boss in this game) realizes he's missing an arm and that people are coming for him. A raid ensues. Helpless people are killed as they beg for your help and their dead eyes stare at you when their bodies collapse into lifelessness. It's over the top in the most grisly way possible, the Fox Engine makes it look nearly lifelike, and it was disturbing. You're helpless, guided by a mysterious "Ishmael" through bloodstained hallways as you try to escape. At one point, a group of patients are gunned down while trapped between soldiers in a hallway. In another, something much worse happens.
Just when it all becomes too much to bare, you're reminded this is Metal Gear. Without spoiling the best moments, there are all of the supernatural and comedic moments you'd expect from Metal Gear. These moments continue to make the story digestible amidst Snake's trauma. Kojima blends the reality of open-backed hospital gowns with the absurdity of zooming in that character's ass, recognizing that gamers think they're mature enough to see death, but may not be mature enough to see a man's ass. It's exceptional. With Metal Gear, you need to read between these lines (so to speak). This is Kojima. Every camera angle is intentional.
Despite how much of what I expected being there, Kojima also subverts my expectations in seemingly minor ways. Characters aren't introduced the way they were in the trailer. Characters are missing from the trailer. Supernatural enemies are relentless. Playing with these expectations is classic Kojima. It kept me on edge and my heart racing.
After the prologue, you're released into Metal Gear Solid's first open world - and it's massive. More important than its size, the open world feels natural for a game that has long given players the agency to decide how to tackle objectives. If you're unfamiliar, this is the same series that let you kill a boss by waiting for him to die of old age. With the open world, you choose how to infiltrate every outpost and base. The fact that I still botched my missions with so much choice is a testament to the game's level design.
Is Metal Gear Solid V a fitting final chapter to this series? I don't yet for sure, but I do know it's off to a most perfect start. I'm three hours in the game now, and there's still a very long way to go. Like, 99% of the way to go. Over 25 years since the first game, Metal Gear Solid continues to push every boundary it can in its gameplay, story, and themes. It's, very nearly, the world's most perfect video game. It's, undoubtedly, one of the most important.