This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest and worst things to ever happen to gaming: the Metal Gear Solid series. The series (and its MSX predecessors) have baffled and delighted gamers for decades, serving up an inimitable mix of social commentary, action movie escapades and bizarre medium games. Long time fan of the series Zigg is playing through every game fresh and looking back on them from a modern perspective. Warning – spoilers ahoy!
This week: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2, 2004)
If Metal Gear Solid 2 was a cry for help, a disillusioned ‘fuck you’ to the fans and followers of the franchise, then Metal Gear Solid 3 is the morning-after make good, the reassurance that yes, we really do love you after all. Whereas with the previous instalment, Kojima and crew seemed to express contempt for the very idea of the continuing Metal Gear franchise, MGS3 is in contrast a love letter to the saga, a game which embraces the silliness and seriousness in turn of the series. Stuffed full of knowing nods and winks, tongue-in-cheek references, and affectionate homages, it’s the most goofy and charming Metal Gear game, the one which most embraces its pulp origins. Yet in its own way its also the most emotional Metal Gear, the most fatalistic and the the most character driven.
MGS3 owes much of its tone and themes to the decision to move the action back through time to the height of the Cold War. Not only does this add a new and unique atmosphere to the action, it also neatly sidesteps any need to address the controversial and seemingly unresolvable ending of Sons of Liberty. Freed from the shackles of the increasingly convoluted Metal Gear continuity, Kojima and his team were free to draw up a new story, largely divorced from the previous ones, and with no need to continue the increasingly bizarre, labyrinthine conspiracies that the games had become focused around. As a result, Snake Eater feels like a stripped down, back to basics iteration of the franchise, with a narrative that focuses more on character, emotion and actual global politics. Granted, this is still all relative – it’s ultimately a story about a dumb walking nuclear tank after all – but it definitely feels like MGS3 was a conscious decision to realign the franchise after the glorious insanity of MGS2.As it is, Snake Eater takes its inspiration from classic cold war era thrillers such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in portraying Western-Soviet relations as a deadly game of cat and mouse, spy versus spy with double-crosses, backstabbings and betrayals galore. There’s more than a hint of James Bond in here as well, what with the sexy femme fatale, boatloads of gadgets, and the instantly iconic, brassy title theme. While there’s obviously still a fairly complex web of intrigue to unravel, particularly given some of the revelations towards the end of the game, overall we’re looking at a far more straightforward rescue and assassination mission, one which emphasises personalities and characters over large, sweeping metatextual storytelling.
It’s a terrific cast too, one replete with some of the most memorable figures in Metal Gear history – your completely wacko supporting team for example, or the nightmarish, brutal figure of Colonel Volgin. The presence of Ocelot provides a lifeline to existing Metal Gear stories, but as with many of the familiar trappings from past games, it’s given a sly spin. In this case that’s making the previously stoic badass Revolver Ocelot into a whiny, entitled brat, whose comedy attempts to keep up with Snake and raging man-crush couldn’t be more obvious and juvenile if he tried. The game deftly treads between its status as an obvious prequel and a standalone experience, leaving enough crumbs of information for dedicated fans to hoover up but also ensuring that for the most part it plays as a fresh take on the series’ established tropes.
Tonally, the game also shifts away from the technology obsessed, very futuristic focus of MGS2. The relocation to a largely natural, jungle setting; the realignment of the game systems to focus on survival and hunting; and the loss of many of the more advanced gadgets present in the modern games all work to establish a more rustic, barebones atmosphere. The camouflage and hunger systems were often (fairly) criticised for making the game excessively menu driven, but they convey a closeness to the environment that isn’t found in any other MGS game. This is supplemented by the fact that this is undoubtedly the most overtly mystical MGS, one which largely eschews technology-based explanations for its characters abilities and prefers to ascribe them to, if not magic, then certainly nothing concrete and explainable. We’re all super impressed by Volgin’s power to shoot lightning, but nobody ever seems to question it, while each of the Cobra Unit possesses abilities which at the very least seem freakish, and at the most are blatantly supernatural. The entire game is suffused with the swampy, smokey feel of a world that’s fallen off the edge of a map. Even Shadow Moses never felt this isolated and remote.
That atmosphere is only enhanced by the sense that this is the most morally ambiguous of all the MGS games, as befitting its Cold War game of intrigue. Kojima is once again questioning the nature of loyalty to systems and ideologies, but doing so this time on a more personal scale than the vast faceless machinery of MGS2. Snake’s conflict against The Boss is a classic mother/son allegory, and The Boss is such a powerfully drawn and compelling figure (a rarity in a series which generally treats its female characters poorly) that it’s easy for the player to feel conflicted over their mission to terminate her. As ever in MGS games there’s probably too much dialogue, but this time Kojima is able to whittle his speeches down to the point where, if not terse, they’re at least brief enough to communicate his ideas in a relatively concise manner. Some of the lessons of MGS2 still remain present also – forcing the player to press the button that will finally end The Boss’s life is a masterstroke of gameplay and story integration. The entire final fight is in fact a great example of the often overlooked skill in design which goes into the MGS games, being effectively a battle against an opponent which possesses all of the abilities and tricks you’ve been relying on up to this point. When you finally defeat The Boss it truly does feel like you’ve surpassed her in the same way the story tells you you have.
In the end, MGS3 is a study in contradictions. It plays its comedy cards harder than any other Metal Gear game, glorying in its 60’s era camp and knowing self deprecation. Yet it’s also a game which has one of the greatest downbeat endings in video game history, at the same time a bitter validation and repudiation of the ideas of loyalty and patriotism that are shot through the game. In that sense it’s a true sequel to the games which came before it, a look at the damage war does to those who fight it, and the sacrifices that they have to make. Future games in the series that focused on Big Boss would greatly expand his backstory and make huge advances in gameplay mechanics, but they couldn’t come close to touching the style, verve, and sincerity of this first effort. Even to this day it probably stands as the consensus best Metal Gear game, and the one which reunited a fandom bitterly divided over the merits of its predecessor. We’re still in a dream…