Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Six: The Six Million Dollar Gear

I don't mean to suggest that the scripted plot points and boss fights in the Metal Gear Solid franchise undermine the "proper" form of the game, or that somehow these games are somehow in a more pure form when you're lurking about and garroting faceless thugs. A large portion of what makes these games memorable occur within boss environments: The grandiloquence of these cartoonish villains, the defiance of physics in no-holds-barred supernatural brouhahas, the sheer weirdness of it all.

Even admitting that Metal Gear is always pretty weird, these are the moments that crank the weirdness to eleven.

Well, it's one weirder, isn't it?

Being spaces that function with their own internal logic, the boss fights are often locations where new sorts of play rules are imposed. There is the player-referential fight with Psycho Mantis, where through mental manipulation the game is manipulated through psychic hoodoo. Mantis would make the screen blank out, as if resetting the game, activate the controller rumble, and would taunt the player based off of other Konami games on the save file. In MGS3, there are easter eggs like letting an antidiluvean sniper die of old age by leaving the game file alone for enough time. And then there is the gauntlet of metatextual weirdness that is the final chapter of MGS2, in which a simulated reality system breaks down, trying to convince the protagonist that he is, in fact, just a character in a video game.

Hideo Kojima has a keen understanding that at these moments the game exerts complete control over the play experience. Notions of play choice and option management, staples in a game like Metal Gear Solid, disappear completely in favour of a singular, cinematic viewpoint. This exercise of control is put to use several times, to various effects. However, there is one point in the series which deliberately brings together the experiences of both aspects of gameplay, to elaborate an experience of play violence

In the nearly final confrontation in Metal Gear Solid 3, you square off against your former mentor, appropriately titled "The Boss". Though you assume that she is a defector, after besting her, she admits that she has been working as a double agent. Throughout the game, the sub-bosses that she sent to kill you were sent, by her, to die - thus internalizing and repurposing the sensation that it is not the player who kills these figures, but the game - and now, in order to further maintain the secret of her affiliation, orders you to kill her.

This is done via cutscene, but as you are ordered, the camera pulls back, and everything stops. It is here that the player realizes that it is not the character of Naked Snake being ordered to kill "The Boss", but the player themselves. Here, rather than defer any emotional ascription of the act of killing to the cinematic impulses of the game, the player's play experience intrudes into the scene. In order to proceed, the player must hit the "shoot" button, shooting "The Boss" at point blank range in the head, killing her instantly.

As a play experience, it is painful and unpleasant. Kojima, who has attempted through the course of his games to draw attention to the player's complicit role in the experience of playing a characer, here forces the high signification of violence sphere of play atop the high mediation cut scene experience upon which the player has come to rely. Doing so not only kills "The Boss" as a boss, but as a character - and it is the same act that metaphorically kills Naked Snake, now destined to become a non-player character and seeming villain for the remainder of the series.

In the same way that No More Heroes is a game about video game violence, rather than simply a violent game, Metal Gear Solid 3, and to an extent the entirety of the series, are not just games in which the player lacks control, but games in which that lack of control is thematized and made central.

I don't mean to equate this level of manipulation to directly positive gaming experiences, only notably different ones. It's precisely this reason that Metal Gear Solid 2 stands in my mind as one of the most skull-smashingly bad experiences I have ever had playing a game. I would rather brush my teeth with a straight razor rather than sit through the whole thing again. I think it's fair to say that it fails as a game, but succeeds as an experience. As to what kind of experience, who can say? For me, it succeeded as an experience of hating, hating, hating it.

So that may be something.

- Rook


  1. *supremely enjoys this entire series of posts*

  2. I have to say I've had a great time writing them. It started as a series of notes I took while on a trip to San Antonio - I kept thinking "Okay, I'll blog on this. And this. Oh, and a thousand other things."

    By the time I was through, I noticed I had sketched out the material for several thousands of words worth of writing, rather than, say, a couple hundred.

    It's just like Pascal, Twain, and Voltaire probably didn't say: I would have written it shorter, but I didn't have the time.

  3. lol... well it's been a pleasure reading them, and they where exactly as long as they needed to be.