Metal Gear Solid 4: A Revolution And A Revelation
Real quick: I'm well aware I'm very late in beating MGS4, but I'm a pretty busy guy, so get over it. Thanks. :)
Being an avid reader of literary classics, and being an avid attempter of the dying discipline, I'd like to think I can acknowledge true skill in the realm of the written word. For the most part, there is no video-based entertainment medium that can compare with books; nothing is even remotely close to the likes of Joyce, Marquez, Collins, Melville, Milton, Fitzgerald, Bronte, Dickens, Conrad, Ovid, Kafka, Eliot, Chaucer, etc, etc, etc. Even in terms of playwrights - not my favorite - a video game can't stand up to the classic plays by Williams, O'Neill, Ibsen, and of course, Shakespeare. As for movies, I think we can all agree there's a sadly significant lack of quality writing, and it's easier than ever to compare them to video games.
Of course, we must factor in the interactivity aspect of gaming, which makes it the only one of the three mentioned forms of entertainment that's not entirely passive. Hence, given the fact the viewer (or in this case, "participator") has some control, it can be extraordinarily difficult to form a cohesive, well designed story. I recognize this, and others should as well. But all this being said, I still enjoy watching the strides the gaming industry has taken in terms of storytelling, and in my estimation, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, represents another big leap forward. To be perfectly honest, I must say I haven't seen many movies in 2008 that can compare to the level of accomplished quality found in MGS4; including, dialogue, choreography, character development, acting, writing, and pacing. I wonder if others feel the same way, and if so, I further wonder why more people aren't surprised. I mean, Hollywood should be embarrassed.
They face none of the restrictions Kojima Productions faced - again, due to the interactivity - and yet, a movie with great writing and acting seems more and more difficult to locate. Instead, we get cheap comedies that only semi-impaired teenagers would laugh at, and even Academy Award nominees that seem to fall well short of expectations. After completing MGS4 last night, I reflected on the story and the more I thought about it, the more surprised I became. Prior to this, I had seen very little of professional literary skill in the video game industry, although there have been glimpses of it in certain titles. Now, we get something that makes me look back on the days of Super Mario Bros. with a certain form of awe that is born of a contrast I can scarcely believe. Now, before I begin to heap praises upon the game, bear in mind the first paragraph of this piece, and also bear the following in mind: the writing in MGS4 still falls prey to relatively amateur flaws that aren't seen as "amateur" in today's world.
For example, there's a whole lot of "telling" and not "showing," which is the cardinal sin of fiction. I won't explain what this means (look it up if you need a description), but MGS4 is guilty of this major transgression. Of course, one will argue that this is a visual experience, which means the developers are supposed to "show" certain things, but that doesn't change the inherent rules of writing. At least, I don't think it does. With such a new entertainment medium as games, it's hard to say... Anyway, moving on: during the storytelling in MGS4, they will belabor the point, they won't know when to end a scene, and as much as the hardcore fan wants to prove otherwise, some of the plot-line really is convoluted. Examples of the preceding include the final scene with Big Boss (the ending was satisfying, but they didn't know when the end should come) and flashback scenes that seem to leave out important pieces of information. Furthermore, it was a little disconcerting to be in control of a protagonist who is constantly in the dark about...well, everything, apparently.
But now that I have this out of the way, let me try to explain the upside. At times like these, I curse the lack of literary brilliance the true masters found magically injected into their souls, because I'd love to adopt an epic, poetic tone for this description. But as much as I'd like to describe Walter Hartright's first glimpse of Laura Fairlie as well as Wilkie Collins, I'll never be able to summon that insane level of descriptive ability. But I can still try! Despite all its flaws, MGS4's story did something no video game has done before it: it presented us with a story that contained all the crucial elements of a finely honed tale, from the initial conception of the premise, theme and characters to the detailed climax designed to reward the viewer/participant for following along. Occasionally, we are treated with a little less respect than I would've liked (that telling instead of showing issue rears its ugly head, here), but not anywhere near as often as usual. In the end, the writing is sound, the actors absorb these lines and make them their own, thereby successfully portraying and distinguishing each character, and the pacing really is quite good.
There's a sweeping, majestic tinge to the story, and although the philosophy and theory is firmly cemented in futuristic, technology-oriented themes, the Kojima team still manages to include a steady dose of humanity. This isn't easy to do, especially considering the focus of the plot and the action foundation the game is built upon. Furthermore, upon completion, all good fiction causes the reader to accept and believe the events that transpired, but above all else, he or she will embrace newfound questions. The story in MGS4 features an inherent question from start to finish, and while it's a tad too visible, we're always given a chance to see the purpose of each side. Sympathy and understanding are dishes best served on the side of villainy, because this invokes immediate questions that involve the entire cast of characters. Intelligent villains who contain several shreds of truth and human weakness beneath a rock-hard exterior grab our attention, and this augments the conflict between "good" and "bad."
Like many fantastic stories written in the past, MGS4's plot presents itself, inverts itself, and then opens up to show us both angles in all their unveiled glory. On the one hand, we are examining a certain concept through a microscope, as the characters act as players in a hypothetical play that revolves around critical questions. As the play progresses, we not only begin to assess the microscopic characters and their motives, but we also begin to get a sense of the bigger picture. We can tell it all ties together somehow, but the real mystery remains hidden behind a veil of unfinished drama that seems to accompany every new development. Granted, I still think Kojima withholds too much in all his games, putting too much emphasis on crowd-pleasing, bombshell twists, but the story maintains the mystery and appeal, and that is a solid accomplishment. This whole experience is dark, effectively misleading, intricate, and somehow, strikes a virtuous chord between overstating the situation and leaving us entirely ignorant of the proceedings. Many writers wish they could do this on a consistent basis.
In short, and I think you've seen this coming for a while, since when do we see this in a video game? Sure, we still have a ways to go, but if this doesn't represent a complete revolution - in terms of storytelling, not gameplay - than nothing does. An emotional, thrilling journey punctuated by flashes of supreme brilliance and never crippled by adolescent-esque errors, I was most impressed with the result. Those who wish to be anal and point out the drawbacks can do so, but it'd be most unfair to ignore the strides Kojima and Co. have taken with this game. The bar has once again been raised, and perhaps some time in the not-so-far-off future, video games will have legitimate Oscar-worthy scripts. Think it's impossible? That wide-eyed kid who stomped his first Goomba with a pure, innocent giggle I couldn't muster today...well, he believed the video game world began and ended with the controller and the screen. I no longer believe that, and who's to say what will happen 5 or 10 years from now?
Chasing a dream is both intoxicating and dangerous, and at some point along the journey, the dreamer must accept both personal limitations and realistic restrictions. Only once this has been accomplished can the dreamer move forward. He will select the appropriate time to take that extra fearful leap, he will hope for the day such a leap is no longer fearful, and he will chase the nightmares from his reeling thoughts with a barrage of positive energy that only the most determined minds can generate. I don't pretend to know much about Hideo Kojima, but from what I've read, he strives to be a dreamer in a world of pseudo-dreamers that aren't willing to take those frightening steps and bludgeon the demons that hold them back. Kojima and the rest of the crew? They stepped up and made me think...not about the story itself - those thoughts will fade with time, as they always do - but about where the industry is headed. I can count the number of games that have made me do that in the past quarter-century on one hand.
And that's the best I can do for a quick editorial piece that probably deserved more time and attention. :)
9/12/2008 Ben Dutka