War has Changed, and So has Metal Gear
Creativity and relentless self-promotion often go hand-in-hand. Nowhere in video games is that fact more evident than in the Metal Gear series, which have probably done more to insinuate auteur theory into games criticism than any other work.
Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima has never been shy about using the series to promote his personal brand, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. For a while, his insistence on putting his own name on the box ("A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME") inspired publisher Konami to follow suit on a number of unrelated titles for a while, briefly making a statement that video games are interesting, meaningful, creative works that should be treated as the result of individual imaginations rather than of production committees. Regardless of what you personally may think of Kojima or his games, he's played an instrumental role in positioning video games as creations rather than products -- a mindset that seems all the more crucial as exploding budgets make big-name games feel ever more impersonal.
Metal Gear Solid V definitely looks to continue the series' trend of reflecting Kojima's personal tastes and obsessions, which makes it a marked contrast to other big-name blockbuster titles of late. Besides (arguably) BioShock Infinite, how many recent AAA games can you think of that so clearly spoke of a single personality? Publisher-mandated checklists tend to steamroll the personal passion individuals invest into AAA games, which leads to many of them looking and playing much the same.
Case in point: Nearly every big title shown at E3 this year was an open-world game. Including this one.
Even MGSV isn't immune to this trend. The game represents, to some degree, a forsaking of the franchise's history; its opening chapter, Ground Zeroes, represents a sort of transition from the older games to the more open, contemporary format of its second portion, The Phantom Pain. It shoehorns plenty of modern game design conventions into the series: Protagonist Big Boss now has regenerating health, a minimized heads-up display where damage is conveyed as those industry-standard on-screen blood spatters, and greatly streamlined controls. Not everyone is happy about these changes; yet for those for whom change represents a terrifying and unwelcome fact of life, everything else about MGSV should be comfort food for the soul.
Beneath the HUD-free design and regenerating health, MSGV clearly speaks to the tastes of the same guy who broke the fourth wall in Metal Gear Solid by feigning a broken console video signal via a blank screen emblazoned with his own name. More to the point, MGSV speaks to Kojima's obsession with Hollywood -- a fixation that perhaps reached its zenith just a few weeks ago when he hosted an open house for his studio's new Los Angeles office, located specifically for maximum synergy with the film industry.
For starters, MGSV makes a major step toward bringing the series in line with potential Hollywood collaborations by replacing long-time voice actor David Hayter with 24 star Kiefer Sutherland. One rumor suggests that Sutherland is favored to play Big Boss or Solid Snake in an eventual silver screen rendition of the games, and Hayter was dropped to allow for consistent motion capture between mediums; another, however, suggests that Hayter priced himself out of the job, not unlike Alec Baldwin is said to have done with the Hunt for Red October's sequels. Metal Gear just can't escape the shadow of Tom Clancy, it seems.
Featuring a cameo by the Lich King.
Sutherland's involvement in the game hasn't gone down well for many fans, and even as someone completely neutral about the change I haven't been impressed by what I've seen so far. Sutherland's performance so far comes off less as acting and more like recitation, and his reading of Snake's introductory trademark line in particular ("Kept you waiting, huh?") feels like a lifeless obligatory reference rather than a savvy callback to previous games. In fairness, that's not entirely Sutherland's fault; sure, it would have been nice if he had put even a ounce of enthusiasm into it, but the line itself doesn't make a lot of sense in context. It's just there because that's what the leads of Metal Gear games say at the beginning of every game.
And that's Kojima's Metal Gear conundrum: Dealing with the weight of history and continuity versus his reputation for always doing something new; for unfailingly coming up with fresh ideas that make gamers do a double take while dragging around 25 years of fan service. In a lot of senses, Metal Gear Solid 4 repudiated these expectations, handwaving massive portions of the series' convoluted lore ("nanomachines did it") while taking tremendous liberties with the game design. Yet with MGSV, Kojima has waded right back into the thick of continuity and all the complications it entails by returning to the 1970s and '80s.
Then again, maybe he's not too worried about the fine details. "I believe that [the story] I'm creating is like a series of dots," Kojima told me in an interview at Tokyo Game Show. "One dot here, one dot there. The ones who draw the lines between those dots are the players. They're the ones that fill in the gaps. So I don't quite have an idea of how to fill in those spaces and draw the whole circle around. But rather, I'd like to have the fans connect those dots."
Even if Kojima would prefer to leave the reconciliation between the Big Boss of the prequel games and the one we know from the original Metal Gear -- a noble champion of soldiers' rights versus a cackling terrorist mastermind -- in players' hands, there's still the question of what new game mechanics and concepts MGSV will bring to the table. The early Metal Gear games invented new ways of playing one after the other, but that innovation has grown harder to come by as the series has aged and other developers have adopted Kojima's tricks and techniques as their own. Where once Metal Gear led the way through its blending of movie-like storytelling and envelope-pushing play, MGSV and its open-world design instead fall into step with the industry's macro trends. Can a derivative Metal Gear still be true to its heritage?
"I'm not sure if I feel pressure [to innovate]," Kojima said, "but there's always this feeling, this need to create something new -- something that'll make people say, 'What the hell is this?' At the same time that I want to create something new, though, I have this mission to expand Metal Gear Solid and have it remain for future generations.
"That's part of why I took this challenge of making Metal Gear Solid into an open world game. I know that it looks like something that's already been done – open world stealth isn't completely new – but beyond that, there's new gameplay and a new experience for players."
Certainly MGSV looks to have plenty of those moments that will inspire people to ask, "What the hell is this?" -- among other things, Ground Zeroes features a character who has a headphone jack built into his own chest -- but Kojima seems less concerned with doing something never before seen in video games than with ensuring innovation within the franchise itself. He declines to call MGSV entirely open-world, explaining instead that it's less about total freedom and more a means of completing concrete goals in a variety of ways.
"More than an open world game where you can do whatever you want, this is a stealth simulator where you can take any approach that you want and that you think is possible," he said. "In previous Metal Gear games, you'd start here, you'd go through here and here, and you'd get over here and clear the mission.
"Now that we've made it an open world," Kojima said, gesturing to the table we were sitting at, "let's say that this whole table here is the game world. You just have to get over here. How you get here is up to you. You could go here to achieve the mission and get back to the helicopter here, or you could take a risk and call the helicopter over here. That's up to you.
For the first time in a Metal Gear game, driving a vehicle is just a thing you do as opposed to something that launches you into an on-rails shooting sequence. And you said change was a bad thing.
"Story-wise, we've also made a very big change here. Since the game isn't completely linear, depending on what information the player picks up, they'll follow certain parts of the story. During the missions, you'll come upon story elements that might give you more or less of the experience, or add different elements. It won't be like prior games, where you just watch the cutscenes and encounter all the elements of the story."
I'm curious to see just how mutable the story in MGSV turns out to be. Plot has always been the driving force behind Metal Gear, and again, this latest entry sits firmly in the middle of the franchise's timeline, with events in its future clearly defined by older games. Metal Gear Solid 3 even forced a non-standard game over screen on players when they strayed too far from established continuity, citing a time paradox. I can't help but wonder if the new sense of freedom in the game is meant to differentiate MGSV from whatever film projects Kojima devises as a tie-in. His games, after all, have always suffered from film envy; now that the prospect of a true Hollywood Metal Gear venture seems certain, perhaps there's more room for the games to be, well, games. The L.A. Studio could be the best thing to ever happen to the Metal Gear games.
But of course, for Kojima it isn't enough to simply have an office a stone's throw away from Burbank; he went the extra step and built it in one of Howard Hughes' former homes. When his staff led a contingent of press on a tour of the place during the studio's open house, the tour guide brought us to a sitting room on the top floor, which evidently served as Hughes' television room. Once, we were told, he didn't like what he saw on television, so he called the network and complained. Within minutes, something else was playing on-air instead.
I'm not sure it's a coincidence that this single anecdote of the studio's former resident was the only one we heard during our entire tour. It seems like the kind of story that would hold some fascination for a known media-manipulator as Kojima -- to have such influence! -- and perhaps he fancies something of himself in an eccentric genius like Hughes. Of course, no one mentioned the part about Hughes refusing to leave his home for months at a time, letting his hair and fingernails grow wildly out of control, or walking around with tissue boxes for shoes. That wouldn't be very aspirational, would it?
Self-promotion at its finest.
Rather than doing the standard gameplay demo, Kojima created a custom demo of MGSV: Ground Zeroes which involved protagonist Big Boss sneaking into a military facility in search of a special patch promoting the L.A. studio. This was seamlessly spun out of the cutscene Kojima showed off last year at PAX Prime to announce Ground Zeroes: At one point in the introductory cinematic, the apparent villain of the piece tosses a handful of FOX Unit patches into the night in a seeming attempt to implicate Big Boss' team in a false-flag incident. For the demo, one of these patches was recolored from amber to red, making it resemble the Kojima Productions L.A. Studio logo (Kojima Productions' logo is the same as the FOX Unit logo that appears throughout the games). It's a clever twist and self-promotion all at once -- the essence of Metal Gear, really.
Metal Gear Solid V wouldn't be Metal Gear without that touch of personal obsession and hint of self-involvement. But even those trademarks aren't without their complications these days, as seen in the recent controversy over Quiet, MGSV's female sniper. Earlier this month, Kojima tweeted a render of the character's full costume along with some remarks about the design's sexiness and suitability for cosplay. Many people found the whole thing distasteful, mostly because Quiet's outfit consists of a bikini, torn fishnet stockings, and a light assortment of webgear -- quite the contrast to the game's male characters, who wear functional, head-to-toe fatigues and combat gear. This is compounded by the fact that Quiet, as her name implies, doesn't speak, which seems very much to support the outmoded adage "women should be seen, not heard."
"To be honest, I regret it a little bit," Kojima admitted of the incident. "In this very specific case, [I tweeted the image for the benefit of] a cosplayer that I know personally and that I get along with. She wanted to do this costume for TGS, and she didn't have all the details. I couldn't give her official data just like that, though, because it's something in development. I was thinking about how to do it for the L.A. event we had, where [Quiet actress Stefanie Joosten] came along.
The battle bikini that launched a million blog posts.
"As I said on Twitter, it's the most fair way that I could give her the details of the costume for Quiet without infringing any rules. But like I say, I kind of regret it, mainly because I learned – I didn't know this at the time – that per the rules of TGS, swimsuits can't be used as costumes, so she couldn't do this cosplay in the end."
Even Joosten admitted at the L.A. event that she was surprised to see the character that her face and performance had been attached to. Joosten's response hinted at a touch of discomfort with the entire situation; thankfully, Kojima didn't follow through on his idea to have her meet the press in costume. Both actor and director have repeatedly stated that Quiet has her "reasons" for dressing the way she does, and that the development team is well aware that her revealing apparel is deeply incongruous with the idea of a desert sniper. Whether or not they'll manage to justify the design remains to be see, but at least they're conscious of the gaming community's response.
In fact, Kojima claims he keeps a finger on the pulse of gamers' feedback at all times. "I pay close attention to the opinions that fans have," he told me, "but it's not like I'm cooking a dish and letting everybody taste it – 'Oh, you should make it like this, you should change it like this.' I have my philosophies and my original ideas about how I want to create things. But when it comes to specifics of things like how the game controls or the user interface, I always want to know what people want and what people think should be fixed."
In other words, Kojima welcomes feedback... but he's still Hideo Kojima, dammit, and he's going to do it his own way in the end. For better or for worse, that's a big part of what makes a Metal Gear game Metal Gear. Whatever compromises it appears to make, whatever trends it appears to jump on, the auteur mindset remains the engine that powers Metal Gear Solid V.