Additional MGS4 Commentaries

August 4th, 2008

metal gear solid 4 screenshot

You can find the unscripted prelude to this post here with more refined conclusion on a couple of this article’s major points.

It’s been well over a month since I first finished Metal Gear Solid 4 (you can read my original impressions here). Since then the constructive discussion regarding the game has been limited to the “IT’S ART!!!!” versus “tHE story SUX!!” argument evading any attempt to define this complicated title. Most notably though a few bloggers shared their own opinions on the matter, although there are so few of us to make any real difference.

Basically that’s my excuse to plug away at a few more ideas about the game that have developed over my time away.

Past, Present, Future

Before I get into it though, I ought to contextualize MGS4 within the scope of the previous games. I personally regard the original MGS, MGS3 and Metal Gear II as my three favourite titles in the series. Each of these games finds a steady equilibrium, harmoniously balancing the numerous gameplay constituents that the series is famous for, such as action, stealth and non interactive narrative.

The other main benefactor of these games comes from the storyline which is ambitious but never to the point of harmful. In each of these games, the story is generally comprehensible, believable and balanced well with the gameplay. While ‘fantasty’ based elements are a rarely discussed staple of the series, these games use it only for metaphoric purposes and never to conclude storyline plot holes (ie. the magic fairy did it). For example; Psycho Mantis is a psychic who can do all sorts of unreal actions (floating, controlling minds) while it’s not real, it by no means damages the game in any way, only enhancing the experience.

MGS2 and MGS4 meet at the other end of the scale. They are a kaleidoscope of heightened excellence and awkward stumbles through a largely unbalanced experience created by the breadth of ambition by series creator Hideo Kojima. While these games showcase some of the best work within the franchise (namely cinematography, emotional directive), this work is then tarnished by almost equally misplaced moments of tedium. These games are generally harder to follow, draw out longer conclusions which are never properly explained, left for hand wavy assumptions. The connections are there but the mental ‘click’ is absent. I also found the boss battles to be better in the former three games.

Zanzibar Breeze

The MGS series has been strongly criticized for its archaic control scheme. A criticism that until brought to my attention never really affected my experience with the games (with the exclusion of CQC in MGS3 — dexterity nightmare!). Therefore my transition over to MGS4 was mostly smooth, well…initially it wasn’t as I manually disabled the square button in the options (which is used to move between perspectives) and could not figure it out what I’d done, all my fault, don’t hold it against the game.

Explorative quibbles aside, MGS4’s multifaceted control scheme is incredibly intuitive as it brings together multiple styles of the action adventure genre under the one roof in a mostly seamless fashion. You move through 3rd person to over the shoulder view to first person all by the push of a button, each transition working effectively for different purposes. Contrast this against other successful action adventure titles which are predominately set around a single play mechanic (Resident Evil 4 for example) and MGS4 feels like a much more technical yet versatile action game. This is made progressively smoother with the streamlining of CQC (close quarters combat) and other series mechanics.

This is then coupled with branching paths, native environments from around the world and a wider assortment of weapons – MGS4’s scope is unbelievable. There are just so many ways to play this game and so many details to seek out and explore.

metal gear solid 4 statue joke

Unfortunately this scope foreshadows the amount of available content to play within. While I clocked in at about 23hrs with my first playthrough, a good chunk of that was (lets face it) non interactive narrative. It can be said that Snake has more tools at his disposal than game available for him to practice, learn and master the usages of each piece of equipment, a significant difference from Metal Gear Solid which called upon almost every item in the game.

Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday

There is a common misconception that links Metal Gear’s complicated story (particularly MGS2 and MGS4) with the often long winded length of its cutscenes, used as the medium to narrate that story. In reality though, this could not be further from the truth. You only need to do a search for Metal Gear on this site to discover that I’m a complete nutter about the Metal Gear history and lore. Yet of all the hours of cutscene and codec in MGS4 (maybe 10hrs), less than an hour of it actually advances the story, the rest is just mindless filler and that’s coming from someone who reads heavily into the story.

Spoilers Ahead

In MGS2, codec was used to advance the two dimensional story of Jack (Raiden) and Rosemary and for Kojima himself to push a message about digital information which blew everything logical about the series into the stratosphere. In MGS4 it’s war economy and nanomachines. I genuinely appreciate how games push important messages like these and the MGS series has done an incredible job at this, arguably one of the only games to do this. Unfortunately though when Kojima wants us to know about important issues X, he does so forcefully and uses the characters that we know and love as puppets to bash his messages into your brain.

The other thing which boggles me about MGS4 are the long rants regarding ‘the system’, its AIs and how the protagonists can defeat it. They spend literally hours talking about this technology which is mostly fiction just to further complicate the story, when all they have to say is: the bad guy is here and he plans on doing this and here is how we are going to stop him. Metal Gear Solid and MGS3 managed to be fantastic games with deeply engaging stories without all of this depth, so why include all of this arbitrary nonsense? The same uselessness applies for other parts of the game such as Mei Ling’s character being totally abused by silly Japanese cultural quirks (that’s of the developers, Mei Ling is Chinese).

The other bothersome feature of the cut scenes is how superfluously length they are. MGS4 (and MGS2) seem like playgroundS, in place only to quench Kojima’s desire of direct movies. Too often the controller is taken out of your hand and you are forced to play the ‘sucky’ part. This isn’t the Metal Gear Solid that I grew up with, back then you worked hard and then the game rewarded you with stylish cutscenes to reward. Such as in the first battle with Ocelot in MGS, for a newbie beating Ocelot was a little tough, so when it was over you got to watch a kick-ass sequence where Ocelot’s hand got chopped off by Ninja. In MGS4 though, the cut scene exchange roles with the gameplay.

Who Am I Really?

What makes all of this so difficult to swallow is how Kojima Productions could have created another masterpiece. They’d proven so with MGS3, then, Hideo Kojima’s ambitions, much like the Patriot’s, became big and bloated. That’s not to say that MGS4 is a failure because it simply isn’t, it is one of the best produced pieces of media of our time which so happens to be under the control of a mad man.

  • So it wasn’t just me.

    The earlier MGS games felt more cohesive story-wise despite having a lot of codec dialogue. I never did feel impatient because the twists were keeping me on my toes.

    Interestingly, I felt that the last one (MGS4) droned on and on. There were many instances when the explanations spoke of redundant things which I believe ought to have been cut from the final product.

    And here was Kojima complaining that the Blu-Ray disk wasn’t big enough.

  • Saud

    I totally agree … this game is a success and what angers me is that they could’ve done it much better if they hadn’t ruined it with stupid japanese jokes and an unbelievable sometime ridiculous story … they could’ve entered history once again like in MGS1

  • M

    Well I hope you don’t take all your comments as an absolute truth of what the game is, because someone like me could easily say you’re the one misunderstanding the game, and that perhaps this kind of game is not for you. The “flaws” you point out about the complexity of the story aren’t really flaws; it’s just not made for someone like you. Just doesn’t fit your type and taste, that’s all. So pointing them out as flaws or whatever parallel to that is in itself biased.

    Plus, a lot of westerners didn’t understand the complicatedness and the style of long winded narrative of this game, so their common reaction is to criticize it. It’s just something cultural; in east asia, those long winded stories and complex, complicated, even not understandable stories and tails are part of the history since milleniums, so for the youngsters who have been brought up with such cultures, MGS’s complicatedness is just something beautiful. I consider it as something beautiful, and the more complicated it is, the more it makes me want to spend hours and days thinking about its meaning. It’s just something cultural. So no one can criticize it.

    It’s just about culture and taste differentiations. It’s not about the game’s flaws.

  • M, thank you for commenting.

    Of course, my comments are just my opinion and the analysis is simply my interpretation of the game based on points of opinion. It’s totally subjective, as you say. Biased? Well yes, that’s the nature of opinion.

    Perhaps it’s cultural, I’m not sure. From my experience in China, the Chinese prefer narratives which can be followed and do make logical sense, MGS4 does not. (It might be a Japanese thing?) Leading up to the release of MGS4, I spent many, many hours scouring for clues, re-watching key cut scenes and reviewing the entire series chronology and still MGS4 was completely unclear at times. I even missed one of the plot twists entirely, thank god for Wikipedia.

    Defenders of the Matrix trilogy make the same accusations, chalking up the negative reaction of Reloaded and Revolutions as too layered, too rich for thick-headed westerners, I also disagree here. I actively seek out rich, layered narratives which challenge myself as a reader. However, as with the later Matrix movies, Metal Gear Solid 4 glosses over crucial parts of the story line and spends literally hours waffling on about nanomachines etc. I love the MGS series, but I’m not going to be in denial over MGS4; there’s a difference between deep and needlessly complicated.

  • Will Oliver

    M, I’m sure you won’t read this, but saying that the long-winded speeches of MGS4 are just “something cultural” to Japanese stories does not constitute a legitimate defense. Bad writing is still bad writing. If you’re going to defend it as genuinely good writing, explain how and why it is good. Having an unnecessary amount of details that don’t advance the story is not good storytelling, and having characters act as sounding boards for morals is not good moralizing. I love Kojima’s work on the MGS series, I think he’s brilliantly creative and a very good director, but sometimes I think he needs to go back to Writing 101 to learn how to tell a story concisely. Or hire an editor.

    Regarding the Matrix sequels, I know how their defenders think because I used to be one of them. I thought they were the deepest movies ever because of how much confusion and ambiguity there was, and because of how the characters rambled on about “profound” ideas like choice and fate. I thought they were too deep for their critics to appreciate. I eventually came to realize they were just silly movies; the intellectual ideas were still in there, but they were in the context of a very poorly told story that did not illustrate them in a remotely artistic way.

    Most of the MGS series, and the first Matrix movie, are still awesome, though.