My mum is a staunch pacifist. As a child I was never allowed anything even remotely violent as a toy. Water pistols were out and I had to use a washing up bottle. Transformers were just about fine but I definitely couldn’t have Megatron. I remember one time she confiscated my copy of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out as she didn’t want me playing something “endorsed by a rapist”. Her mantra was “if someone tries to fight you, it’s best to just walk away”. As a consequence I’ve grown up terrified of confrontation but on the plus side I’ve never been punched in the face. Swings and roundabouts.
Metal Gear Solid is the shooting game for people that don’t like shooting. Its stealth mechanics encourage you to avoid direct conflict, you’re rewarded for being non-lethal and the narrative tells a tale of the horrors of war and of the monsters born on the battlefield. I reckon my mum might actually enjoy it, if it wasn’t also impossible to control and completely bat-shit mental.
It’s a wonder the series is as popular as it is. I’m a huge, huge fan and consider Snake Eater to be one of the best games ever made, but even I have spent my first few hours with The Phantom Pain diving onto sleeping bodies when I’m supposed to be attaching them to balloons. I remember in the lead up to the release of Heavy Rain, David Cage said that he wanted the player to be in actual physical discomfort holding the pad to mirror the difficulty of the actions of their on screen avatar. Metal Gear has been doing this for years. The cut scenes portray Snake as a devastating force of nature but when controlled by a human being he’s hilariously inept. Who hasn’t found themselves crouching, and standing, and crouching, and standing before getting down on the floor and spinning round on the spot in a desperate attempt to pick up an unconscious guard before the reinforcements arrive? You can almost hear the Benny Hill music.
When it’s not asking you to wrestle with an idiosyncratic control scheme it’s asking you to listen to an incomprehensible stream of military jargon and conspiracy theories for hours on end. Large portions of Metal Gear Solid are completely non-interactive; shunning the differential that makes video games so special. Hideo Kojima’s style has often been accused of being so in awe of cinema that it’s to the detriment of the game. It’s easy to come away with the conclusion that he’s a frustrated film director who’s found himself working in the wrong medium.
But despite their shortcomings, Kojima’s games are wonderful and rare examples of what happens when an auteur gets his own development studio. Konami can take his name off the box, but his fingerprints are all over it. From the point you put the disc in, every sound effect, every line of dialogue and every WTF moment is so unmistakably Hideo that you’re never in doubt of his involvement.
Who else would create a reoccurring character whose one defining trait is that he has the shits? What other series would see you taking time out from rescuing prisoners of war to launch a sheep hundreds of feet into the air? Where else would find a faux James Bond title theme that includes the line “someday you’ll feed on a tree frog”?
And then it juxtaposes all this silliness with a story that explores nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic manipulation and the control of information in the digital age. Although it’s to be applauded that it attempts to study complex themes; and the central subject of soldiers being little more than tools of men with a vested interest in war is something I can get behind; the tone is all over the place. In one moment it’s asking you to consider the tragedy of child soldiers, the next its pitting you against a guy that spits bees out of his mouth. In the otherwise excellent Ground Zeroes, there’s a horribly misguided attempt at a rape storyline that’s uncomfortably delivered and would have perhaps been better suited to the cutting room floor. It’s difficult to give these topics the gravitas they deserve when in the next breath you’re distracting a guard with a dirty magazine.
In fact, it’s in the treatment of sex and gender that Kojima has his biggest failures. The character design of Quiet, the sniper buddy in Metal Gear V, is downright embarrassing. Kojima has been fighting off the criticism for months and saying that there is a valid reason why a highly trained operative would choose to wear little more than a pair of ripped tights and a poor fitting, ridiculously unsupportive bra while on manoeuvres in Afghanistan, but then he hardly helped himself by tweeting a picture of him playing with the malleable breasts on the Quiet action figure. EVA in Snake Eater is treated in a similarly poor fashion. Switching to first person view in one of the early cut scenes reveals that Snake is staring down her top and the subplot of her working undercover for the antagonist Volgin is laced with suggestions of abuse. Perhaps surprisingly, this ultra-sexualisation of the cast is not limited to the exclusively female characters. I’ve lost count of the number of times the camera has slowly panned past Snake’s finely-toned buttocks and Raiden spends a portion of Metal Gear Solid 2 cartwheeling in the nude. But these instances are overwhelmingly outnumbered by heaving bosoms and it would be fair to say that the series has an unsettling misogynistic undercurrent that it really could do without.
It’s unfortunate that Kojima has this blind spot as his studio is also capable of producing some truly memorable and amazing characters. The villains in particular are often brilliantly realised and in many ways capture the fine line the series treads between sanity and madness. You’ve got The Sorrow; the forever smiling spirit of a former soldier who taunts the player whenever death is near and forces you to witness the suffering of those you have killed. You’ve got Fatman; the clinically obese explosives expert that whizzes around on roller blades while drinking a glass of wine. And then there’s Psycho Mantis. Quite possibly one of the finest villains in the entire medium and responsible for an iconic, legendary boss fight that captures in a nutshell the playful disregard that Kojima has for the fourth wall.
Metal Gear Solid consistently breaks free from the screen and invades reality. We’ve had important information printed on the back of the physical game case. Parody game over screens. A Raiden lookalike winking directly down the camera. The aforementioned Psycho Mantis reads your memory card and comments on your game collection. In one fantastically meta moment towards the conclusion of Sons of Liberty, Snake assures Raiden that he’ll be fine as he has a bandana that gives him infinite ammo. I can’t think of any other series that has the confidence to completely split the tension of its finale with a silly in-joke.
P.T, the experimental demo for the tragically cancelled Kojima directed Silent Hills, had secrets hidden away in menus and a final puzzle that the combined force of the internet couldn’t quite figure out. One rumour saw players running a short video clip of Kojima laughing down the mic in order to access one of the game’s final triggers. The fact that anyone even considered this as solution goes some way to describing the weird and unique relationship that he has with his fans.
Then there was the completely bonkers marketing campaign that led to the reveal of The Phantom Pain which included a fabricated Swedish development studio and its head Joakim Mogren (geddit?) who conducted interviews with his face covered in bandages. Kojima’s knack for messing with my head meant that when news started surfacing of the grievances between him and the Konami bosses, I didn’t actually believe it was true. It seemed so bizarre that they were trying to remove all trace of him it had to be a prank, right?
Unfortunately, it seems not. We’ll probably never know all the ins and outs but it seems certain that The Phantom Pain will be the last Kojima directed Metal Gear and gaming will lose one of its most distinctive series. I daresay that this won’t be the last we see of Snake. I’m sure he’ll creep up behind us when we least expect it before leaping out and planting an exclamation mark on our head. But you can’t help but feel that his adventures will never quite be the same again. Metal Gear Solid is nearly twenty years old now and during that time no one else has tried to ape its style or unusual flavour. The noises that have come out of Konami since Kojima’s departure suggest that it’s hardly a nice place to work and the microtransactions in The Phantom Pain paint a worrying future for the company when combined with their new focus on mobile gaming. Perhaps they tried to do the impossible and rein Kojima in; tone down the weirdness and bring him in line with the rest of the industry. Perhaps my mum was right after all. If someone tries to fight you, it’s best to just walk away.