Saturday, March 21, 2009

How Metal Gear Solid ruined gaming

Yes, yes. Direct your hate to the comments section (preferably not before you actually read the rest of the article). And yes, I am talking about the Metal Gear Solid, the classic 1999 PlayStation epic that started the hugely popular and critically acclaimed series. (It is also, I might add, one of my top favorite games of all time, before anyone starts accusing me of being "unfair" or "hating" the game.) Well, actually, Metal Gear Solid is the third game in the series, which makes the recent Metal Gear Solid 4 the sixth game in the series. Confused? Tough, because since the series history is not the topic of this article, that's all the explanation you're going to get.

So what is the topic of this article? Cutscenes. When MGS premiered it pioneered a new style of story-telling in video games. While cinematic cutscenes had been used in games prior, they were usually brief and found mostly at the beginning and/or end of a level. Ninja Gaiden is often recognized as the first game to feature cutscenes, and RPGs have featured in-depth storylines and long-winded conversations since their heyday in the early 90s, but MGS was the first game to combine stylized cutscenes with live-action quality direction and lengthy dialog, which were used (in combination with considerably less visually interesting CODEC conversations) to move the story forward in a much more cinematic way than ever before. The result was not only an amazingly immersive game experience, but also a groundbreaking advancement in video game storytelling.

After MGS's success, many game makers followed suit, filling their games with full voice-acting, deep character development, and twisting storylines, trying to duplicate the Metal Gear Solid formula. Nintendo jumped on the bandwagon, as second party developer Rare filled its next two N64 titles, Perfect Dark and Conker's Bad Fur Day, with cutscenes and tons of dialog using the then-revolutionary MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 format (more commonly known as MP3).

It didn't stop there. By the time MGS2 came out, the market was filled with dozens of cinematic imitators. The general belief seemed to be that the closer a game got to motion pictures, the more accessible, and therefore profitable it would be. Even series like Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario, neither of which had ever been focused on story or character development before, featured cutscenes in their following games, causing several long-time fans of both series to raise their eyebrows.

These cutscenes often try to insert plot where it is not needed. At the start of Super Mario Sunshine, Mario is en route to a tropical vacation, when a shadowy impostor appears and starts spraying inky goop all over the island, causing the locals to suspect Mario himself. Mario is arrested (???) and sentenced to clean up the mess. Along the way he discovers the impostor is Bowser Jr. (NOTE: not one of the original Koopalings), who kidnaps Princess Peach, believing she is his real mother (???). All this is made even more ridiculous by the fact that, even though Mario has an official voice with Charles Martinet, in typical Nintendo fashion, he never speaks any actual dialog. A great game thrown off track thanks to a nonsensical plot.

Cinematic cutscenes also remove an element of individuality from the game. Take the second GTA game for PS2, Vice City, for example. You were no longer a voiceless avatar, free to be however you wanted to be in the game. You were now Tommy Vercetti, a loud, short-tempered, Italian mobster with a plan to take over the city. That works well for a GTA game, but what about its portable prequel, Vice City Stories for the PSP? In that game you play as Vic Vance, a corporal in the U.S. Army who is somehow manipulated by his drug addict superior to do illegal jobs until he is dishonorably discharged, then goes to work obediently for a wife-beating gun-runner. The illogic of the whole situation pulls the player out of the game and causes him to wonder "why?"

The biggest violator, in my recent experience, is Grand Theft Auto IV. In the latest entry to the series, you play the game as Niko Bellić, an Eastern European immigrant who leaves his war-torn home to find solace, success, and revenge in Liberty City (The GTA equivalent to New York City). The underlying theme of the campaign is redemption. Niko is looking to leave behind the terrible things he's seen and done for a chance at a new life in America. This is reflected in decisions the player must make at certain points in the game, for example, whether to spare the life of your mission target, or murder him/her, or even choosing which character you'll off, knowing you'll eventually have to kill one of them. This creates an ironic juxtaposition when the player decides to have Niko spare the life of someone who may have done him wrong, then turn around and kill a random stranger just for his car. While the story on its own has its merits, it seems force-fed into a gameplay style which does not support the concept of altruism.

Fortunately, not every game feels the need to include cutscenes. Both BioShock and Portal managed to tell their story entirely in first person, without using a single cutscene, save for an intro and a conclusion (Portal didn't even have a cinematic intro). Conversely, not all games with cutscenes are made worse by them. The Halo series juggled movies and gameplay with a near-perfect balance. Most of the story was delivered through the game's action, while cutscenes filled in the gaps that would be difficult to produce as an interactive media. These methods are difficult to implement effectively however, leaving developers to use cinematics as a shortcut.

It's an epidemic that shows little sign of slowing, and with Metal Gear Solid 4 still fresh in gamers', and game developers', minds, it probably won't again for a while. And with games getting more like movies, it's encouraging movie producers to make more movies based on games, which, as history has proven, is rarely a good thing. What worked great for MGS does not necessarily work well for every game. I believe it is time games return to focusing on what games do best: providing innovative, engaging gameplay, and leave the movies in the movie theaters.


  1. NOW I know who to blame when I'm sitting through yet another long exposition in Mother 3. Thanks, MGS!

  2. I completely agree with you(although i haven't played halo so i wouldn't know), but it is definitely true.

    Reading about how you jacked cars in gta, u must really suck at the game if you are forced to kill a person to steal a car...
    But i get your point, it just weakens your arguement when you use an exapmle that isn't entirely true to make the reader understand your arguement.

  3. If you read it, I never said you HAVE to kill the person, though personally I usually do, which only further proves my point. Why is it I am made to feel guilt and remorse for murdering the man who killed my family (I spared his life in my game), but take joy in, say, mowing down pedestrians?