How can Metal Gear Solid be inscrutable, interminable — and great?

As someone who has more than a passing interest in the maturation of video games, I’ve found some reviews of the would-be blockbuster Metal Gear Solid 4 to be very interesting — and telling.

The reviews of the Playstation 3 game at Slate, Wired’s Game|Life blog, and The Onion A.V. Club (all sites I like and regularly read) are curiously and similarly schizophrenic, alternately criticizing a major part of the game (its story) while praising — well, it’s not exactly clear what’s so great about it. That such praise outweighs the ambivalence in each review shows just how far video games still have to go.

All three reviews agree on one thing: Metal Gear Solid 4’s story is as incomprehensible as it is ambitious.

“In the fourth and (presumably) final chapter, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots, Solid Snake has to defeat human war machines and thwart the biggest global military conspiracy William Gibson never dreamed of,” Russ Fischer writes at the A.V. Club. “Embedded are ruminations on self-sustaining war economies, privatized military forces, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

That sounds cool, but apparently the story didn’t turn out so well: “The backstory is almost impenetrably dense,” Fischer writes, with “dozens of overwrought conversations” adding up to “hours of concentrated narrative abuse.”

At Slate, Chris Baker likewise describes “interminable monologues on the evils of war and private military contractors. These play out in ‘cut scenes,’ cinematic sequences that unfold with minimal input from the player. These scenes sometimes spool out for 45 minutes or more. Seriously. Despite (or because of) those huge dollops of plot, I still find the story utterly incomprehensible.”

Game|Life’s Chris Kohler first says that the game’s cut scenes “can be so riveting that you barely notice you haven’t touched your controller.” Then he actually describes them: “The story’s pretty much crazy. … There are so many expository sequences that deliver reams of information about the game’s military-industrial conspiracy theory back story, so many weird characters and so many last-minute twists and turns that it’s difficult to keep up.”

So if hours of the game are taken up by impenetrable narrative sequences that even the game’s admirers can barely take, what makes the rest of the game “as compelling as the very best the medium has to offer,” as Fischer puts it? I’m still not sure.

(Now might be a good time to mention that the Metal Gear Solid series is one of the biggest holes in my gaming experience, along with World of Warcraft and Sim City. I’ve only played a couple hours of the first Metal Gear Solid for the first Playstation. These reviews — and others, like Kyle Orland’s hilarious take on the game’s first hour [minute 32: “The game asks if I want to save. Save what? Nothing has happened!”] — haven’t exactly given me a reason to try part 4, let alone take on the first 3.)

Fischer writes that MGS4’s character movement is “slightly less artificial” than the earlier games; the way your character gets tired “isn’t a great” model but is “a good start”; the boss battles “are fairly routine,” not groundbreaking. He’s most impressed by the different ways you can complete each level. All this somehow balances the narrative shortcomings to push the game into A- territory.

Kohler argues that MGS4, like the recent Grand Theft Auto IV, heralds a new era of video games that focus much more on story than previous games have, even at the expense of interaction. He writes that MGS4 is leading the way by “showing that there can be a whole bunch of non-interactive story in a game, as long as it’s excellent. The stumbling block was never that movies don’t work in a videogame, but that terrible ones don’t.”

A few paragraphs earlier, though, he writes that “the story they’re telling is such a bizarre tale that I couldn’t see recommending it to a random person purely on the strength of its narrative.”

Kohler seems to be separating the technical aspects of the cut scenes — he lauds the quality of the graphics, camerawork, and voice acting — from the narrative aspects. But this amounts to having it both ways: ostensibly highlighting a game’s narrative to show how video games have matured, while actually focusing on the presentation of that narrative (which looks great) instead of the narrative itself (which, as all three critics note, is awful).

For his part, Baker’s loftiest praise goes to Metal Gear’s bizarre surrealism and the game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, who he says “gets the difference between games and movies in a way that many designers never will.” Baker defines that difference as interactivity’s potential for immersion, and notes that the trick with video games is that technical issues and gaming conventions constantly pull gamers out of their virtual worlds. (i.e. when a human character bobs along a street like a poorly animated Shaggy instead of walking realistically, you think “oh yeah, just a game.”)

So you’d think that Kojima getting the difference between games and movies would mean he finds a perfect balance between interactivity, immersion, gaming conventions, and narrative. Baker says no — Kojima is great because he plays up the illusion of immersion: “Kojima continually elbows you in the ribs and reminds you that you’re playing a game, as well as rewards you for doing something ridiculous. He breaks the fourth wall more frequently than the Kool-Aid Man.”

But breaking the fourth wall isn’t particularly original — Super Mario Bros. 3 did it in 1990 by referencing the “Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle” line from the first Super Mario Bros. — nor does it inherently make a game good. (Fischer and Kohler also reference the fourth-wall breakage.) It’s how Baker describes the fourth wall being broken that really creates a paradox for game critics, and points to how far video games still have to go:

“For instance, there’s a motion sensor in the PS3 controller. During one of the interminable cut scenes, you might discover that shaking the controller makes a female character’s breasts jiggle. It’s puerile, sexist, and ludicrous, but it makes it hard to take anything about the game for granted.”

Leave aside whether we should be winking at puerile sexism in a video game (particularly a tone-deaf sexism, as Fischer notes: “A conversation will detail the painfully damaged history of a defeated female boss, but only after we check out her tits. At length.”). Baker really seems to be saying that MGS4’s farting-in-the-back-of-the-classroom juvenilia makes it hard to take anything about the game seriously.

For a game with such pretensions, that’s a huge flaw. Combine the lack of seriousness with an incomprehensible story and bad writing, and the game appears to have flopped in every non-game respect.

As I’ve written before about the larger games-as-art discussion, that would be fine if games aspired to nothing more than being fun games. But many game makers and most critics do want games to be something more, as evidenced by Kohler’s persuasive thesis that MSG4 and Grand Theft Auto IV point to a future of movie-game hybrids. If we’re going to place games in the same space as narrative art, we have to start assessing those games — or at least the elements that overlap with narrative art — according to the critical standards of that art.

That means trying to answer the question Dave Itzkoff poses in a New York Times article about Metal Gear Solid 4: Can video games “tell a story as satisfyingly as a work of cinema or literature?” It means an impenetrable, unending story is not something extraneous to shrug off but rather is a central element of the work and deserves a serious critique. It means going beyond the technical aspects of the narrative portions’ presentation and assessing the narrative itself: pointing out specific cliched or original dialogue, calling out unoriginal characters or jarring shifts in tone. It means grappling with a work’s cultural or political arguments — including, yes, a creator’s puerile sexism.

If those elements are so unsophisticated or obtuse as to make such a critique impossible or pointless — if the answer to Itzkoff’s question is a resounding no — then the game has failed as a work of narrative art. No matter how many ways there are to get to the next boss battle.

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