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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Metal Gear Solid: The Great Paradigm Shift

Tonight's post comes from user DevilFox. The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most beloved, well known, and successful series in the video game world, lauded for its heavy anti-nuclear themes, real world settings, political commentary, memorable characters, and long, intricate story segments that draw much inspiration from Hollywood. The first three games are widely considered to be masterpieces of game design and game storytelling, especially considering the era in which they were released. The next three mainline games are still critically acclaimed and praised by fans, but it's hard to deny that the tone and presentation of the games changed in between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots. Devilfox gives a brief analysis as to why this might be, and what felt "off" about the later games in the series.

Warning: Spoilers for all games follow!

Kojima, Fukushima, Murata and whatever happened to MGS after Snake Eater


"I think it's time to have a topic about this argument since it pops up "once in a while" (read: as in every MGS topic). The thing is, even the most hardcore fans cannot deny that something changed in MGS after Snake Eater (or Portable Ops): themes, storytelling, even the style of the cinematics and the representation of women, the fiction stuff and so on. All these changes, somehow, match with Fukushima’s departure from Kojima Productions, which brings me here asking you: what happened? Was Fukushima the key for the classic MGS, or did Kojima just chang style all of a sudden? Let's share what we know, and our opinion on the matter.

First, quick background:

Hideo Kojima: you know him. MGS creator, credited as Game Designer, Screenwriter, Director and Producer (plus more roles…) for almost all the games. Basically the face you picture when someone mentions MGS.

Tomokazu Fukushima: he’s a writer until the early years of MGS4 (see the first trailer) and then he left in 2006. You can see him credited as Writer, Setting Design Assistant, Scripter (codec), Camera Setting, etc.

Shuyo Murata is the other important writer. He technically started on the team with MGS2, but it looks like MGS4 is the real starting point for him as MGS writer.

Personally, I noticed that after MGS Portable Ops...

1) THE THEME OF ANTI AMERICANISM TOOK A BACK SEAT

This is probably one of the most evident things that happened, since it basically changed what the Patriots were meant to be, a very core element of MGS lore. I also think that the original meaning was something that Fukushima wanted more than Kojima, simply because... well, because Kojima changed it. This article, The Decline of Anti-Americanism in Metal Gear, perfectly explains my opinion on the matter. In particular, this piece (from MGS2 Grand Game Plan, page 37):
The evil in MGS2 is the American government. However, this does not refer to Americans in general, nor to any particular persons, but to the festering discharge that has built-up within the democratic state of America over the years. The intention is not to defame any race, state or ethnicity, but rather to look at the ‘monster’ that the country’s political structure has created. It is an intangible entity yet at the same time a massive menace to the world.
and Fukushima's profile in MGS2 make me believe there was a strong vision for something else than what, later, has become. (extra: Kojima had more style with his profile, though)

2) THE SAGA EMBRACED (THE WORST OF) HOLLYWOOD

Yep: MGS4... but it's not alone. While I understand, and even agree to certain extent, that MGS4 wasn't developed under the most positive light, I just can't ignore what I've seen. I can't even pretend this bad attitude was over after MGS4 because it's not true. I'm talking about...

  • Weird (to say the least) cinematics and... logic?

Since I enjoy video editing sometimes, this one pisses me off quite a bit. Cinematics became dumber and dumber with each game, but if I think that up to MGS3 they were somehow stylish (Eva's stunts on the bike excluded), while they were not simple as I would like them to be, I can't say the same for the sequels. I mean, they were still believable.




Then, with MGS4 they reached a drastic point: even ignoring the "comedy" clips (see: Meryl and Akiba), there are a lot of weird choices. We also started to see pointless slow motions (MGSV is full of them, below a couple of examples), lens flares everywhere, and some truly ugly animations (why the Frogs move and scream like that)? To me, it seems like "making sense" wasn't a priority anymore. MGSV is the apotheosis of this: See for example Skull Face, who could've killed Venom like 3 times and avoid all the troubles. Sad, because all the cinematics are great looking.




I'm not considering The Twin Snakes, because we all know that game doesn't exist.

  • Hiring of actors and models.
Not that important, but was it necessary? It started with MGS4, I think. The B&B Unit is based on real life models (Scarlett Chorvat, Mieko Rye, Lyndall Javis and Yumi Kikuchi). Then, of course, there is Kiefer Sutherland as Venom, and Stefanie Joosten as Quiet. I don't think they achieved a great result with any of them, and I wonder if that money could've been spent better.

3) WOMEN'S DEPICTION GOT WORSE

This has been discussed extensively on GAF recently, starting from here. We moved from good or decent female characters, meaning they were either strong, smart or both, independent, well written with a good background and something to add to the plot, to some kind of talking puppets... sometimes, not even talking.

I put in the first group characters such as The Boss, Naomi (MGS1), Olga, Meryl, Mei Ling (MGS1), Emma, Eva, Sniper Wolf and Para Medic.

The second group includes

  • Naomi (MGS4) and her pointless cleavage.
  • Mei Ling (MGS4) as above, this time it's about her butt. The briefing before Haven's attack is just embarassing.
  • B&B Unit. They couldn't be less interesting than they are.
  • Paz and C├Ęcile. All I remember is them dressed with a bikini. The're so weakly characterized that if it wasn't for the final twist, we could take them out of the game and lose nothing.
  • Female Skulls, perfectly dressed for battle (with a bikini).
  • Quiet. Or should I say, her body.

Basically, we haven't have a good or interesting new female character since Portable Ops.

4) YEAH! SCIENCE BITCH! AKA "We need to explain this!"

After MGS3, someone believed it was absolutely necessary to explain everything they had introduced as fictional stuff, which was a key part of a good MGS, with the good old science. So it began: nanomachines, AI, the Wolbachia bacteria. No more Vampires or photosynthetic old men, no more fiction, everything must be explained, possibly even retroactively and if we can't, well, who cares!

Guys, I hate this. It killed a good part of the charm MGS had. I like to believe Fortune was able to deviate those missiles without that chip simply because she strongly believed she could. I liked to believe the Cobra Unit wasn't some kind of freaks born out of a bottle, but the incarnation of the emotions a Naked Snake had to defeat in order to become the legendary, feared Big Boss we knew.
And it's not about science alone. The "we need to explain this" attitude involved characters too, and it ruined them all! Big Boss, Liquid, Mantis, Kaz... I can only save Campbell.

The way Big Boss became a pawn in particular disappoints me. I loved him until Portable Ops included, when he realized his purpose. Starting with Peace Walker, though, Kaz takes the lead even if it's behind the scenes: literally everything is his idea, and he's the one who tells Big Boss what to do all the time. This is not how I picture a legendary leader.

5) SOMEONE STOP CARING ABOUT LORE AND CONSISTENCY

There's a general lost of interest towards some details, such as technology. It's evident that MGS Peace Walker and MGSV both feature some awesome tech that not only isn't real, which is ok, but it's also more advanced than the tech we find in the MG positioned later in the timeline. It's not a big deal for some, but I truly appreciated the effort with MGS3 and MGS Portable Ops to adapt MGS formula to a different era with older technology.

Then we have some retcons, that took a more serious weight with MGS4. Some are not that important, but some others (Big Boss saving Frank and Naomi, Big Boss and Zero motifs..) definitely are. I think a writer should've more respect for such things.

6) IDEAS THAT DIDN'T WORK ANYMORE

Kojima has always been a master of not delivering. Even MGS3 should've been different, way more deep, but they achieved a masterpiece nonetheless. With MGS4 he did it again: "no place to hide", "different allies", "you can decide to kill or not to kill". Guess what, none of that worked or mattered.

I believe that in order to achieve an emotional impact, you need good writing as support. Off the top of my head I can think of two similar situations that worked before Portable Ops, and didn't work later:

  • Raiden and Venom

The "you think you're playing as someone else" trick didn't work with Venom for a number of reasons, with the most important being probably the emptiness of this character that made impossible for me to care about him, let alone link to him. In addition, MGS2 was smart enough to actually show Solid Snake in the game, so you could see him from the outside, from the eyes of Raiden, and appreciate the hero as the others in that world did.


Venom is nothing and no one. I mean, the idea of him being an avatar for the player is nice, but that's it, an idea. Take him out of MGS universe and nothing changes, he's there for the sake of the final twist. Maybe with better pace, better performance and more real Big Boss somewhere, it could've worked... shame.

  • Meaningful kills: The Boss and Diamond Dogs

How do you achieve a meaningful kill? If you want the player to feel something when he presses a button, you better work on your writing to make him care, but also on lighting, scenario etc. to make the moment unique. It's definitely not easy, but with The Boss, they did their best. I'm sure we all agree on this.

I didn't feel a thing during the "Shining Lights, Even in Death" mission for the same reason above: there was no proper build up. Who are these guys if not resources for my Mother Base? Did I ever talk to them? Are they people, or are they faceless puppets? If I'm supposed to be Venom, then I'm supposed to feel like him... but I didn't. The cinematics were nothing short of amazing, really, kudos for that, but again, the idea didn't work. It wasn't well thought out, because that single shot I took on The Boss had more impact than the two magazines emptied on my soldiers.

So, final thoughts. I believe Kojima really grew tired of a lot of stuff. He desperately wanted to try something else, but he was never allowed to, nor did he have the courage to leave for whatever reason, like other professionals of his era did. Consequently, he started to care less and less, thanks to the press that, quite honestly, praises everything he does regardless of its quality. I mean, look at MGSV, and Quiet in particular.

I also believe Fukushima was a great help for him, and yes, the key for a good MGS, as I personally learned to like it. I picture him as the guy that was able to make order and sense of Kojima's crazy mind, the one that made ideas actually work, a role that Murata apparently has never been able to cover, maybe even due to Kojima's increasing decisional power over the years (which could be the reason Fukushima left, although we'll never know).

Finally, I must confess that with MGSV being such a huge disappointment, I've questioned Kojima's talent as a developer. He can be great, especially as a game designer, but I think he should be more modest, honest (all the lies before MGSV, why?) and stop trying to prove himself as the master auteur of the gaming world because there are devs out there that are doing things better and more efficiently. I mean, if even Cage realized he needs more writers in the team, it can't be too hard for Kojima to take a couple of steps back, right?"

I don't necessarily agree with everything DevilFox has to say, such as questioning Kojima's talent and the concept of the Venom twist, but he makes a lot of valid points. The games after MGS3 lack a sense of cohesion and restraint that the first three do, and one can't help but wonder if this is due to a change in the team members, the internal workings of Konami as a company, or both. Perhaps we'll never know, as Kojima has now moved on from Konami in a not-official-but-obvious-that-he-was-forced-out manner and begun work on a new game with his own studio.


Maybe the truth will come to light years from now, but until then, we can only speculate.

Side note: It may be a divisive opinion, but I love when series try to explain things scientifically. Especially a series like MGS, which feels relatively rooted in the real world. But, I digress.

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