Monday, April 13, 2009

DFB – “Operation Intrude N313” (Metal Gear) – Part II

To immediately jump in from my last blog, I established the first obligatory hump for a stealth game to cross in order for growth, and that’s Artificial Intelligence. It’s an overwhelming priority for stealth games given the requisite social machine that’s at work. In a way, it’s an advanced irony to grasp because the games are social in their necessity that the player be non-social as a primary objective. The context created by this structure becomes immense, yet extremely delicate, so the game’s shortcomings become glaringly apparent despite the fact that they may stem from strict technological limitations. Due to this issue, my first curiosity that’s raised is how far the industry has collectively progressed in this area. How advanced has the AI really become for our games? I hear all the time how something F.E.A.R. had AI to be praised; as we’ll get to with these blogs, games like MGS2 were definite jumps forward for the genre specifically as well. However, personal awe aside, they really weren’t that much in the big scheme of things (no offense intended to developers).

Asking for a perfect stealth game in the current environment is like planting a seed in infertile soil and expecting it to grow within five minutes. This is because AI is simply not going to make this step because we want it to. One of the largest problems with AI are the algorithms required for it to simulate human intelligence. Problem solving among machines is an assumed comprehension of our age because most of us have been raised off my little musing in my last blog (i.e. ludicrous yet enjoyable fictional creations such as SkyNet). The most game developers can craft these days is “the illusion” of intelligent beings. This illusion is disheartening to witness because most gamers are extremely familiar with what goes on behind the veil of a game’s development (we all know our way around computers for the most part). The good news is that for right now, the room is open for developers to find extremely clever work-arounds for the dam of limitations in front of them. I’ve never been happy with the amount I’ve been able to see behind a game while playing it, but that’s nobody’s fault really. How silly would it be to ask that game designers/developers find a way to darken or thicken this veil? That’s a question that becomes more and more relevant now to any gamer with more than few neurons firing.


What’s worrisome to me is how stealth games will evolve as the technology continues to progress. Every time there’s a new system to take advantage of, it’s usually compromised under the intention of creating a more worthwhile experience. These technologies as a result, end up being greedily consumed because of this intention to satisfy an insatiable desire. Artificial intelligence in general will progress automatically as time passes, it’s inevitable. Machine perception, combinatorial explosion, and knowledge representation/learning are problems that will be solved eventually. It may not even necessarily be in our lifetime, but it will happen. Pretending not to be happy with that actuality is the consumer spirit that’s been cultivated in the video-game industry, and though it won’t…I’d love it to be killed.

So how do we create the illusions? Since the first Metal Gear reminds me of the base fundamentals, I must express gravitas for the weight of them (before the five sequels start mucking things up for us). Random brainstorming sessions while playing the game presented this list of ideas to consider in stealth games:

Guard Pathing
As a younger sibling, most of my childhood enjoyment was predicated upon successfully tormenting my older sister. During her younger adult years, I would hide behind the front door when I heard her come home late at night. As she entered the house, I would jump out from behind the door, kick her in the ass, and run to my room for the night (scaring her half to death each time). Sometimes, I changed things up by hiding under the couch or purposefully not appearing at all, but I knew enough even back then to shake up my otherwise routine scare. The enjoyment that comes with taking advantage of another’s set path is a cheap high, almost blinding in how shallow of a gift it actually is. I think this is something that must stay in stealth games for the time being. Now, we have to take advantage of any opportunities to shake things up, but this is a luxury we should not forget to leave behind in pursuit of other ideas.

Snake and the bulldozer

Mission Compromise.
I’m not much for compromise these days but it’s a necessity to enjoy any Metal Gear Solid game, particularly the narrative context of it’s world. Anybody that’s played the games know EXACTLY what I’m talking about here. Every time the guards conveniently showcase a collective & intense case of ADD (losing track of Snake whenever the alert phase is over), it begins to chip away at plenty of people’s individual suspension of disbelief. The Metal Gear Solid games specifically and very cleverly combat this very notion through the game’s narrative context (hint: “You didn’t think you made it this far by yourself did you…?”). How does one keep the narrative construct strong without compromising the game itself? After that first spotting, the guards should always showcase an attention to the player’s presence somehow. Increasing difficulties/notoriety that eventually lead to a “Game Over” perhaps? Possibly. The option to end the game at first sighting started appearing later in the series, which is admirable no doubt. However, it does cheapen the experience by compromising the illusion proper. It’s not an easy problem, but it is fun to look to at nonetheless.

The Outer Sandbox
So, I’ve been playing Thief: Gold lately, and my first impression of it was sand-box stealth. I’m only on the second mission and that notion is already beginning to wane though. With Metal Gear I instantly noticed that even for a 1987 game, it’s doing roughly the same thing. If anything, the two Famicom games are more open-ended than any of the later titles (with the exception of Guns of the Patriots). This was Snake Eater’s biggest personal fault for me and was the first time I noticed how nice it is to truly “make your way” through a game. This is especially apparent for stealth games, because the planning and awareness that goes with your goals in those games places the actions under a magnifying glass. This is also a big component that drove the desire to make my little fan- dev for Outer Heaven. Even when regarding it’s age, as a stealth title it makes the player extremely aware of it’s surroundings. This made drawing the halls of the fictional African Base (as well as respectfully adding to most of them)an extremely pleasurable experience.

Diane, Intel for Outer Heaven's Mercenaries.

"Drawing is one of the roots of art. It’s a way of seeing yourself think. An intimate art about cosmic things, and a cosmic art about intimate things, it happens mostly—but not always—sensually, physically, from the fingertips. The nerve endings of the hand listen to the musings of the imagination, which marvels at the movements of the hand. The artist’s face is often very near the drawing. In ways it’s very primitive, very primary, a kind of universal language. Drawing makes old thought new and new thought accessible. Without it, in whatever form it takes, there might be no art."
Jerry Saltz

Social Sickness
It started technologically with the series in Metal Gear Solid 2, but was initiated mostly by the player in Metal Gear. Of course the game allowed a very primitive illusion of the military force in Outer Heaven, but most of it was accessed and assumed by the player. They imbued it with the given context presented around the game itself (e.g. the manual, archaic visuals, weaponry, etc). When the player is spotted, it’s an extremely simply issue from that point on (in other words, leave the floor, the screen, or die). Guards having some sort of collective gathering are a must in these times. Non-MGS Games (e.g. Splinter Cell) specifically feature sequences in which the player has to sneak past guards often relating to each other through conversation and such. This helps perform the illusion as well. This is a futile observation to drag past a certain point when concerning this game specifically, but it is important nonetheless. Working systems of sentries, guards, or patrols could have an indirect effect of tempering the player as well (for example, think how people romanticize the tank controls in Resident Evil). Controlling how information is distributed amongst guards is an interesting mechanic to see as well (the radio check-in that started in Metal Gear Solid 2).

“What was that noise?!”
Learning is an issue for all the dumb guards in these games because it’s divided (from my view anyway) in two contradicting layers. In one sense, the guards do need to appear or actually “be” smarter. At the same time however, over the course of play, making a machine “learn” is an unnecessary expense. This is a super-complex issue that as I said above, worries me. Once the technology remotely appears to be able to solve this problem, some will bandwagon on it without any regard for what it means. What needs to be established first is an already inbuilt knowledge. Guards actually learning in-game is the NEXT step stealth games will have to take. Trying to solve this issue without the “established knowledge” first is akin to trying to ascend a staircase by wrapping one’s foot behind the other leg and THEN skipping steps on the way up. Taking that metaphor even further, I’ll go back to my sister again (or anyone who’s ever lived with me for that matter). After a certain amount of time, I noticed that my sister among many others, started having an involuntary fine-tune in their senses, and they got used to me (“I hear you, you little shit!”). This led to me developing a very idiosyncratic habit in my youth, I involuntarily sneak around wherever I live now via stalking and such (it’s one of my many eccentric habits).The point? There is no specific one really, but once the machines actually have something to think about, the step to how they’ll be able to use it will present itself. Even in machines, it’s a natural development.

Complex Combat
Give something simple, cultivate it, add to it. When I think of this, I think of Nintendo’s typical regimented design process, which intuitively moves players forward with as little as possible. This is hard to do in a stealth game because a lot of things are used as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of them. I constantly find myself scaling my ideas back, specifically in terms of how combat should be handled. In many cases, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 (sometimes Metal Gear Solid) severely punish the player for being caught. Many (I’d argue most) people’s experience with the Metal Gear franchise is simply running around constantly in alert mode, making the game far less enjoyable and more difficult that necessary. To be perfectly honest, that’s not all the players fault (just most of it is). The games have to find some way to aim desire here somehow. An example I’ll use is Wander’s grab action from Shadow of the Colossus. The mass value of the game was based around that simple action, and the player is constantly tested in their usage of it. The same model applies to Mario and the jumping action. A simple-minded person would quickily apply “sneak” to Snake, but what the hell is that? Sneaking is not an action; it’s a collection of actions and that makes matters extremely difficult to deal with.

Metal Gear has never given the player that simple action and it has never tested the player in their usage of it. What I see specifically in this title with all the “gameplay glitz” removed, is that Snake was never treated as if he could have one (possibly under the guise of the individuality of it as a stealth game?). I think the truth of the matter is that Snake needs an action of equal value and more as a necessary requirement. Metal Gear is a game that showcases the series’ tendency to simply & tortuously tease the player for their failure, it NEVER punishes them. Mario falls and dies, Wander falls and possibly dies, and if not he has to scale all over again. If Snake is caught, he has to hide…either that or he can stand ground and fight (which taints the context in itself see “Mission Compromise” above). The MGS games covered this broken arm with a band-aid by giving the player an overwhelming amount of combat options to deal with their assailants. These band-aids are far more apparent in this game when one considers it in the big picture. Even in Metal Gear, Snake had access to a large amount of weapons, and I’m wondering now, how ludicrous this may be…as it’s a bit distracting in that sense. Some things can only be accomplished/defeated with certain weapons as well which cheapens and taints the experience overall. The end picture I’ve arrived at is to give Snake access to an extremely limited amount of firearms/explosives. It traces the aforementioned “simply complex action” so that I can see it more clearly (because I’m blind to it now). Suggestions are welcome of course…

Solid Snake

Quick Story Overview/Catchup of my Progress
After Snake dispatches the Shotgunner, he continues in his quest to retrieve Dr. Madnar. Along the way, Snake rescues three more POWs and learns that in order to reach Madnar who is locked in the courtyard, Snake must parachute directly into it. Deeper in the base, Snake successfully bypasses a laser system (via infrared goggles) and runs directly into the Machine Gun Kid. This former SAS member gained fame by his expertise with a machine gun. Despite his skill however, Snake was able to defeat him by use of the corridor’s thick walls. After successfully neutralizing the Machine Gun Kid, Snake finds a parachute in the room that MGK was guarding. Snake then proceeds to the roof, but find out that a wind barrier is preventing him from further progress. This leads to him having to retread the basement and eventually he comes across a Bomb Blast suit, which Big Boss told him to seek out. This allows Snake to penetrate the wind barrier and proceed further with his mission. On the roof, Snake encounters guards equipped with jetpacks and they hinder his progress across the roof, which ends with his confrontation with a HIND, a Russian assault helicopter.

The Kid

After some lucky usage of a grenade launcher, Snake destroys the HIND and proceeds to leap off the roof of the base, landing in the courtyard. Upon landing, Snake doesn’t find Madnar, but yet another POW, who informs Snake that the doctor was moved to another building 10k to the north. Snake then frees the prisoner and makes his way across the desert, where he finds himself the target of an unsuccessful bombing run. At the gate to the next building, Snake meets a tank blocking his progress. Through the use of landmines, he’s able to defeat this obstacle and continues to the front of the second building. He hears the guards being told not to let anyone enter at all costs. Just then, Snake receives a call from Big Boss informing him that he’ll need to disguise himself in order to gain access to building two. After scouring the base, Snake finally comes across a spare enemy uniform, and proceeds back to gain access to building two. Inside, Snake finds his access to the waterway (the only viable path) obstructed by a quickly oncoming bulldozer. As with the Hind, Snake successfully subdues the machine with his grenade launcher and proceeds further into building 2, in search for Dr. Madnar…

Recurring "Thechanics" #2

“A Hind D…?” – Solid Snake
This isn’t the first time that Snake comes across the “Mi-24”. Well, technically it IS the first time, but he fights it once again in Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In each game, it’s a pain in the ass to deal with as well. Even in Snake Eater when it wasn’t a properly setup boss battle, it lit up a mountain side in alert phase, forcing Snake to retreat into the mountain until the alert phase dissipated. Also an interesting thing to note is that the Hind had a recurring “appearance” in the Rambo films (which is usually cited as a major influence for the first Metal Gear title). The awe surrounding things like the Hind was cinematically (and perversely) shot to the forefront in Metal Gear Solid, but that will have to wait a while. Much later down the line, we’ll see it (along with it’s significance) lying derelict outside Communication Tower B, buried under the snow…

The Hind fight

“You Belong On the Ground…” – Vulcan Raven
For me, my first experience with Metal Gear was this stupid fucking tank. I hated it and I actually quit the game at this point because I couldn’t figure out how to beat it when I was a kid. I came back a long time later and figured out that it was structured around the god damn mines and became extremely pissed about that fact (I was even angrier at myself because I never called Diane about it either).

The tank

“One of the Terrorists...?” - Raiden
Dressing up as one of the terrorists played an admirable solo moment in Sons of Liberty but like plenty other “thechanics”, it found it’s origin here as well. The only thing that really got to me in Metal Gear is something I don’t mind romanticizing here. That is realizing I didn’t have it when I needed it and scouring the base for it. Also there is a contextual disconnect here as well. Much like the rolling pin, it’s acquirement makes absolutely no sense solely for the furthering the “game”. To find it without a guide, I ended up punching every wall in the basement until I heard that funny creak in the wall suggesting I could blow it up.

Uniform Hunt

“They’re Flying!” - ???
Ironically, the guards that do their patrols in flying contraptions appear primarily in the Metal Gear games that take place during the pre-2000 era. In Snake Eater, Snake encounters patrols on flying platforms, which SIGINT describes to him detail. In Metal Gear, these guys appear on the roof of building one and although it is possible to avoid detection from them, it’s very unlikely because the movement they’re allowed doesn’t give Snake much room for maneuvering. There’s a slight annoyance caused when it’s pretty much a forced alert mode. It’s topped in annoyance even more when the player is forced to take out an electric floor while the flying bastards are shooting at you as well. Lastly, the cheapest shot of all, fleeing the guards runs you into either a cheaply placed bridge, a room that they can pursue you in, or the Hind-D boss encounter. Gotta love options.

Stupid Jetpack Guards

“STOP FUCKING CALLING!!!” – Solid Snake in Egoraptor’s “Metal Gear Awesome" flash video.
Metal Gear’s radio charms sometimes float by in this game as well. The most memorable one for me is calling Diane (who provides Snake with intel on the boss fights) and having her annoyed brother answer the call. There’s a few indirect calls that are now humorous mainly due to the atrocious localization of the game. This is also one of the first games I played where the player can be tricked into dying (Snake gets a misleading call later in the game). This is all leading up to the “big twist”, but provided the player survives the devious call, it’s an almost hilarious realization of what’s actually going on.

Gray Fox

"The Only Thing the Patriots Forgot Was to install Norton Antivirus" – Gamespot Forum commenter
In Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4, the narrative weight of the situation regarding the “La Li Lu Le Lo” is laid out for the player. An advanced artificial intelligence is necessary for global stability. Given my extremely long opening in this blog, it ties perfectly into the realization that through the first game, a fundamentally advanced AI is requirement not only for Metal Gear, but stealth titles in general. Not only does it fit, but it shatters the fourth wall to do so. =)

Machine Gun Kid

Digging Leftovers

The Swaying Bridge is in the Same Family as the Rolling Pin
When I was crossing the swaying bridge on the roof of Outer Heaven, I picked up a new intrigue in how antiquated “gamey” mechanics are. These sequences, which have an offensive priority for “interactive entertainment” at the sake of it’s context, are extremely jarring to me. Of course I don’t believe all games have to be some strict narrative based experience, but fact of the matter is…Metal Gear IS a strict narrative based experience with very little lee-way for this type of thing. As a result, it becomes jarring when I experience. This is a 1987 game though, my complaint carries very little weight. However, I do see this type of thing in plenty of other titles out right now. The later Metal Gear games cleverly hide this within their backdrops (i.e. the stairway in the Communications Tower from Metal Gear). Things like the wind-barrier on the roof were in there to achieve more playtime within the game, not to act as an obstacle. Once you acquire the bomb blast suit, it basically serves the same purpose as a key.

Parachuting into the courtyard

“The Bee-Bee suit”
Speaking of that bomb blast suit, the road towards acquiring it are related to above problem, but at the same time, something like this translates across dimensions pretty well. Visual surroundings firmly dictate the perception in a game. It’s not necessarily uncommon to see people get lost in the basement, and it’s setup like a very rudimentary maze that the player exhausts their plastic explosives on. I can take advantage of this slip however, as sensible reason can be injected into a labyrinthine basement. The basement is also “visual pacing” in a sense as it takes place directly after Snake’s capture/confrontation with the Shot Maker. It may be unintentional on the part of the original 1987 team, but it’s structured just right for me to take advantage of here.

“I C U”
In Metal Gear, guards can’t see the player unless one is literally in their “line” of sight. Even if the player walks right by a guard, as long as they’re not directly in front of them, they won’t be seen. This flawed mistake quickly gave rise to MG2’s excellent solution, as the guards could hear to some extent in that game, and their gaze incorporated head movement. This evolution is appreciated on my end, as in the latter Metal Gear games, the player can never sneak up on guards without careful attention to their movement past a certain proximity. That’s lovely progress, and as one of the key pioneers for stealth titles, it’s one of it’s more admirable traits.

A quick gouache painting of Snake

Next post is hopefully Wednesday...we'll see if I can make it.