Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
It was another day for my brothers and me visiting our cousin’s place back in 1998, and we were looking forward once again to see what awesome new game he’d show us on his PlayStation. The memories blur into a jumbled mess of him playing Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Brave Fencer Musashi, but I distinctly remember him telling us about this game he just got that had him cracking up for some reason.
Once he loaded his save file, he was controlling this half-naked guy in a high-tech prison cell with a black man rotting in the corner. Sure, the absurdity of the entire situation without any context warranted a dumb grin. Then he put his back to the wall and started knocking.
And he kept on knocking. Over and over, to the point that the guard watching over was shouting at him to knock it off. “Shut up in there, will ya!” For us kids, that was comedy gold.
We didn’t get to see him play past that because his dad came in to tell him that he shouldn’t be playing that game in front of us younger cousins. We would only get bits and pieces of the story from our cousin during the occasional family get-togethers, where he would recount to us the battles he had against a cyborg ninja named Gray Fox.
It would take me two years before I could finally understand what the hell was going on with that locked up topless guy and why he was fighting a super cool mech warrior. Well, understand would be pushing it.
[In Level Up, we discuss games that made us, and the industry at large, evolve.]
Hideo Kojima Presents
Just from the intro cinematic, I was overloaded with information about nuclear weapons, black ops, and a Next Generation Special Forces unit with animal codenames which sounded totally cool to 12 year old me but are admittedly ridiculous to hear now. All that, and I haven’t even gotten to the title screen yet.
After OIC Roy Campbell gives me a little tutorial (chipping away at the fourth wall in the process) to officially start the game, I only realized then that aside from a pair of binoculars and (gasp) a pack of cigarettes, I was virtually naked. My mission was to rescue two important leaders in the military-industrial complex and neutralize a nuclear threat, and I didn’t even have so much as a knife.
But apparently, I had one thing going for me. I was the top covert operative who defeated the greatest soldier of the 20th century not once but twice, tearing down mercenary fortresses in the process. I was Solid Snake.
Name Means Nothing on the Battlefield
It’s just that I wasn’t quite ready to be Solid Snake. All the games I’d played before, I faced enemies down head on, swinging swords or shooting lasers or just jumping on their heads. As great as Snake was, he was still human. Confronting the two heavily armed guards patrolling that first area without a weapon in hand meant a rain of bullets that led to embarrassing death.
As the first time I’ve ever played a game that focused on stealth, I put the legendary infiltrator’s name to shame, getting caught multiple times on that first damned area. It didn’t help that the sound the game makes when an enemy spots you was a high-pitched jolt that would make anyone drop the controller followed by heart-pounding electronica that puts you in a state of panic.
And just when I finally managed to reach the elevator that would mercifully take me out of that muddy grey purgatory, I was informed by Campbell that I had to wait till it came down, having earlier transported a trenchcoat sporting blonde with a British accent on his way to “swat down a couple of bothersome flies.”
After waiting out agonizing minutes hoping not to get found, the alarm for the lift started blaring. It sounded like trumpets, heralding my escape. But again, the game would only tease me as it brought another machine gun-toting mook to the mix, making the already difficult passage to the actual base more complicated. This game was going to eat me alive.
Video Game Players, Huh?
It did just that, but not just in the manner of kicking my ass. For a 12 year old kid whose only experience in gaming narratives was limited to a mustachioed plumber saving a princess and a furry blue animal jumping on robots, trying to make sense of this seemingly grounded world of espionage and conspiracy almost broke my fragile innocent mind.
There were references to the KGB, DARPA, NATO, START III, MIRVs and ICBMs, etc., all of which I didn’t even know were real. All of a sudden, I got crash courses in geopolitics, the problems of arms and nuclear proliferation, the history of secret intelligence agencies, advanced robotics, and genetic engineering.
There was the winding plot unfolding in 10-minute compelling talking head conversations and revolutionary cinematic cutscenes, all using the in-game graphics and not the usual CGI FMV sequences. It had Snake running around in circles (at times, even literally throughout the facility) made to be an unwitting pawn in a game manipulated by his adversaries, and even his superiors and closest allies, with only the intrepid hero left utterly in the dark.
There was the gameplay that frayed my nerves every time I ducked for cover and waited for a guard to pass by, sprinting to the next hiding spot and hoping to dear god I timed it right so the nearby oscillating surveillance camera didn’t spot me.
After successfully weaving through these dynamic obstacle courses, the game saw it fit to reward me with exhilarating boss battles against the likes of an M1 Abrams tank, a Hind D attack helicopter, and to top it all off, against a giant freakin’ robot – Metal Gear itself.
Not to mention a Russian cowboy who could control his bullets’ ricochets, a femme fatale sharpshooter with inhuman aim, a supernatural psychic prodigy that could only be beaten by switching to the second controller port, a gatling gun wielding shaman that shrugged off C4 and Stinger missiles, and yes, the Cyborg Ninja.
But in the end, it was those characters along with Solid Snake and the rest of the cast, developed in their own personal stories, that ultimately engulfed me into the world of Metal Gear Solid.
It was in the way Sniper Wolf cared for her wild canine companions like a doting mother; how the world at large ignored the atrocities committed to her people, the Kurds, alluding to the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s; and how she sought revenge through the life of a mercenary only to realize she had shamed her people in the process.
It was how the creator of Metal Gear Rex, Hal Emmerich AKA Otacon, soldiered on after literally pissing himself in fear then finding out his life’s work was turned into a weapon of mass destruction; how he believed that even love could bloom in a battlefield, cheesy as it may sound.
It was in the anger of Psycho Mantis for being seen as nothing but a freak even by his own father; the disgust he felt in finding out the base animalistic desires to copulate in every human being he has met; and in the warmth in his dark heart that glowed even for only a moment in his only act of kindness.
It was how Liquid Snake was fueled by a life of emotional abuse, thinking he was simply the reject in the Les Enfants Terribles project that spawned him and his twin brother Solid Snake from the genetic code of Big Boss; how he wanted to prove that he was above them all by bringing to life what even his dead “father” could not accomplish—a place where soldiers need not be mere tools of the government.
It was in the mental anguish of Gray Fox, seeking a noble death after being unceremoniously brought back to life in a twisted military experiment to test the capabilities of cybernetic augmentation and gene therapy, and how he found what he was looking for through a sacrifice that saved millions of lives.
And most importantly, it was how Solid Snake came to terms with his PTSD after the events of the first two Metal Gear games for the MSX; how he slowly began opening his heart to people only to have it crushed through secrets, lies and betrayals; how he learned to forge ahead and trust in a handful of people despite such setbacks; and how he still came out a hero in the end after repeatedly denying the label.
Not the Right Guy
In my first playthrough when I finally reached the part where Snake was stripped of his clothes and locked in a cell, I only realized then the pain he went through before that, as he was tortured by the sadist Revolver Ocelot. Nothing funny at all about getting continuously electrocuted for minutes on end, and it didn’t help that it was up to me to survive or submit with the fate of plucky young soldier Meryl Silverburgh’s life on the line.
No matter how many times I tried, my little stick fingers just weren’t fast enough to stave off death, for Solid Snake nor for Meryl. I had a turbo controller, but I fell for Ocelot’s bluff that he’d know if I cheated. I even tried the spoon trick to no avail.
The girl who idolized Snake so much that she would enter the armed forces to one day be like him, the girl who believed in Snake to be more than just another grunt who only feels alive killing others, that girl died when I gave up.
I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t the hero like in the movies. I wasn’t ready.
Although Otacon, the bro that he would turn out to be, would give Snake a much needed prep talk as Snake held Meryl’s lifeless body, I carried her death like a stone. Back when I first played it, I hadn’t gotten the confirmation that the canon storyline had her living through her ordeal thanks to the player overcoming Ocelot’s abuse. It was then that I had glimpsed into what Hideo Kojima truly had to offer to the world of gaming.
(Joseph has since beaten MGS multiple times, and he has never let Meryl die a single time, hoping to see her alive and kicking in Metal Gear Solid 4, the only game in the main series he has yet to play.)