Friday, September 6, 2013

"M.G.S.S.P.P."



Ever since Metal Gear Solid 2, I've had a rather love/hate relationship not with the series, but with people's grasp on it. As many problems as I have had with how Kojima has handled things over the years, they pale in comparison to the weariness I feel for 'defending' the series at this point. This is wrongheaded on two accounts. First is the grasp that I've only recently let go of in the past few years and that's feeling like I am defending or excusing the series for a myriad of things.

The second problematic foundation I've had is with the allowance of credence (specifically how much) that not only I but most everybody grant to people's judgement, criticisms, and base opinion of the series. This could be applied to a number of other things (though blanketing it is generally just not a safe thing to do), but where it's specifically relevant for Metal Gear is in how 'artistic' the series has always been. Now, I certainly wish I could leave that shorthand as is, but I can't---so to clarify...I'm speaking of artistic in the sense of what people will take away from the experience when it's 'up on the wall' for a critique. The wide array of what gets interpreted and said varies greatly for these games. I know of no other long running video game franchise that can make such a boast. 


I've seen people write these games off, formulate academic essays around them, passionately hate/judge them, and some uncompromisingly love them (while most will mix and match between all of those and more). It was one of the first games to do this in my experience as well. It may have not historically been the first, but it was definitely the most popularized watershed moment---especially in 1998 when game cutscenes, and the amalgamation of cinematic elements was still rather fresh. Now, people have setup the traditional binaries to where if one is not a devout follower and fan of the franchise ("Kojima is a GOD MGS4ever!"), they are telling tired jokes at the expense of it as a whole (*insert tired-ass joke about cutscenes being too long or the story being too silly*)

And on that note, times have changed for Metal Gear as well. It hasn't kept its teeth sharp on this and other matters fundamental to its identity as a whole, and it's started to suffer significantly because of it. As a stealth game it remained mechanically archaic until 2004 while things like Splinter Cell came into the picture prominently and usurped its at-the-time, unchallenged claim at the stealth-tactics throne. This occurred narratively even more so, while the first two Solid games could always tout the boast of having something poignant to say, things began to become murky around Snake Eater's inception/release. This eventually culminates into Guns of the Patriots where Kojima seemingly drowns in his own meta-narrative unnecessarily.

Things Kojima has increasingly needed more equalization on since MGS1 are traits that can be provided in spades by two things: a producer and an editor. I make this statement not in jest, but in the context of what it means to Kojima specifically as a Japanese designer with a noted affinity for Western cinema and now---game design. Metal Gear Solid 4 is the first title I saw how deep Western game design was resounding with Kojima and his studio. Sure, he's always probably had some degree of editing (and certainly a producer), but its his influence that's felt, and what his current crew provides him with will ultimately be lost culturally in translation to his North American audience for the most part (which is the only one he appears to care about anymore). The charm of how the series' concepts, presentation, and dialogue are localized reflect this, so it's always been a safe deduction to make in my eyes.


So we're at Metal Gear Solid V, right? People are starting to notice some problematic things. The question is why now? Age? Tastes? Variety? Of course they all had their hand in the pot, but this also works on both sides. Both the audience and the artists are shaped and changed by these things, and they all just work through different mirrors and refractors.

The ones that seem to be relevant towards the today's superficially topical address (and the catalyst for me writing this) concern the Westernization of the mechanics and the aberrant sexual iconography that has ranged from quirky and humorous to downright crass.

The first is easy and I kind of grazed it above. Kojima has played a lot of Western designed games since his initial forays into 3D gaming and has apparently developed just as much respect/reverence for Western game design as he does Western cinema and it's showing (perhaps to a detriment, but that's another story). Not only has the tonal consistency wavered across the series, but the actual canonical design and traditional UI layouts have seen significant trimming in something more akin to a Western developed shooter (see Metal Gear Solid 4, Peace Walker, and supposedly---MGSV). 

An example is how the traditionally and ever-present codec radio functionality saw a significant dial-back after Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. By Guns of the Patriots, there were really only two frequencies the player had access to which ironically conflict with it being set during the most technologically advanced setting in the series (excluding Revengeance of course). Peace Walker goes even further with this weird juxtaposition (though consistently showing a more Western focused foundation in player interaction with the radio function), locking literally hours and hours of interesting dialouge in briefing files not accessible in-game. In this somewhat specious respect, the 'interloper' Revengeance is 'more of a Metal Gear' game than either Peace Walker OR Metal Gear Solid 4.

This rings true for things like the camera, item management, health/stamina economy, shooting, and a dozen other things I've already stated before, so I won't retread them now. I will however move onto the second and more interesting anchor of discussion and that's Metal Gear Sex (har har, I made a pun).

As I've said, I've seen so many takes on how people judge and analyze this series, but there are also common threads that run through them too. One such is the false equivalence. Instead of explaining it, here are some easily more comprehendable examples:
  • "Sniper Wolf basically has her tits out, why does Quiet surprise you?!" 
  • "Metal Gear's combat has always kind of sucked, you're not supposed to fight anyway!" 
  • "Why are you calling Revengeance ridiculous!? Metal Gear has always been fucking silly."
People take one aspect of the series and will use it to write an personal agenda towards the series at large. It's a disturbingly common practice among people that either flat-out don't like the franchise or refuse to play more than one game in the series (which they've never played more than a few hours of anyway). 

BUT...to continue...


That first example I listed is what I'm after here and that's how Metal Gear has taken runs at sex. Just in a general sense, it's always been a a part of the Solid games and to some extent the MSX games as well (though it's a very thin coating with those). Now while men have been mildly sexualized and pandered through to a certain female demographic, sex often just means women's depiction for the sake of men and that's not very different when speaking on Metal Gear. Mind you, I could have made a very different argument if the series had stopped at Sons of Liberty or even Snake Eater, but Kojima and co. submitted to pandering towards a culture obsessed with with questionable ideals long before Quiet's appearance in this year's E3 video. Depending on how far you're willing (or not willing) to give them the benefit of the doubt, it can retroactively tarnish other areas of the series. 

For example, at what point does EVA's depiction in MGS3 (and some extent Guns of the Patriots) stop being an quirky homage to the admittedly already-problematic depiction of a Bond femme fatale and just a masturbatory digital toy? The medical viewer screen in Snake Eater will certainly help define this line for some, but it really does draw into question just what the aim was here.

Metal Gear Solid 4 was my personal line. Almost everything regarding the Beauty and the Beast Corps. rubbed me the wrong way, Naomi's very presence introduces some logic gaps highlighted purely in sex, and Meryl had her issues as well. Why did I need to make Rose's tits jiggle with the Dual Shock exactly? I'm in not in a place to be offended by it, but I won't pretend I enjoyed these these things either. They weren't cute or funny for me, they just represented a line I'm surprised I didn't notice Kojima wouldn't cross eventually. 

There was a certain amount of charm to the earlier titles because there was also stylistic context to support it. When Sniper Wolf had her chest exposed in sub-zero Alaskan weather, I wasn't phased because Vulcan Raven was also running around in just cargo pants while Liquid Snake donned only a trench-coat and a fuckload of animosity. I didn't take Olga's specifically light rendering of armpit hair as some weird humorous fetish because there was context to support that she was a woman that had bigger concerns to address. The illusion felt crafted, now it just feels pandering. 

A lot of this isn't just Kojima either. I'm sure folks such as Shinkawa can shoulder some of the blame as well. As much as I love the actual drawing, the context to support a sole nude sketch of Sniper Wolf is out of place in a book full of hundreds of design documents (The Art of Metal Gear Solid). When I heard how the The Boss was originally meant to be shown in Metal Gear Solid 3's final confrontation, that was when I felt that murkiness begin to creep in. They went half-assed on a depiction that should have been full bore. By adhering to whatever rating standards demanding that she not appear topless sporting her iconic scar, the symbolism presented by what was shown loses some of its clarity as well. Sure there was even the possibility of it being messed over had they gone full bore; it just as easily could have been ruined had they chosen to go that route and have her breasts jump around in the tasteless fashion commonly seen in many video games today (so sadly it might have been for the best). The point is that it was a matter of what they could get away with at this point, not what they could actually accomplish with it. It brought all measure of integrity into a question for me when I considered this for the first time.


This is a shame because the series has no dearth of interesting and complex females either, my favorite being a self-styled misandrist with an overtly ambiguous sexual orientation. Whatever talent and genuinely enthusiastic attention to craft that exists with Kojima and his team has also seen an encroaching shadow fall across the series causing people to question what qualities it even possesses at this point. It's been a long process, and it presents differently with people each time a new title is released. This is particularly relevant with Metal Gear Solid V, which has been touted as a more 'realistic and raw' depiction of war, bearing the series-wide overarching theme focus (MGSV's being Race & Revenge). I don't trust Kojima to deliver on that in earnest anymore. I haven't trusted him to to capitalize on his ideas for a very long time now (going on ten years now actually). 

I don't blame people for their confusion, anger, or self-doubt with the franchise either (though I will question them, often doggedly at times), as MGSV's theme in my eyes will ultimately be one of perception, be it the audience or the developers on their own damn title.