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June 2nd, 2005

Since it's difficult to focus on text for more than a couple of hours right now, I've been playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

I like video games, but i don't buy a whole lot. For most console games, I'll rent, or borrow (this is with PC games mostly), but I've bought all three of the Metal Gear Solid games. Simply put, I'm a big fan of the Hideo Kojima directed nuclear threat/tactical espionage action epics, from the voice acting to the game play to the narratives and, even, to the extensive cut scenes that have the characters interact and flesh out their back story such as in a movie. Due to the style of the game, that means it can get a bit info dumpish, but I've certainly read and watched things that do it worse, and I'm certainly not as hooked in as much as what happens here. The third installment of the series appears to have Kojima finally deciding that what he's really creating aren't games, but rather interactive movies, and he's allowed the cut scenes room and space to breath and climax much as a narrative in a film or novel might. The end of Snake Eater, for example, is a good half hour cut scene, and lays the ground work for the earlier games which follow it.

If you've never heard of Metal Gear Solid or any of its sequels, the concept at the beginning of the game is pretty simple. You play the character Snake, a soldier/spy who has been made from a mix of Kurt Russell's Snake Pliskin from Carpenter's Escape from New York and LA, with a touch of Eastwood in the voice and design. (In the second game, Sons of Liberty, Snake disguises himself under the name of Pliskin if you're not convinced of this logic.) In the first game, Snake is dumped on a base to recover a man who has been kidnapped, but sure enough, everything goes to the shit as genetic engineering, nuclear weapons, corrupt governments, mad brothers and a bit of new age shamanism all get thrown in with rocket launchers and machine guns and snapping the necks of soldiers. It's all good fun from any direction that I look at it, but to actual sit down and explain a plot that takes about thirty hours of game play to finish first time, would take up a huge amount of time--and wouldn't be nearly as interesting as actually participating in the game and watching the scenes unfold with increasing surprise and joy.

I know that for some gamers the extended cut scenes of the Metal Gear Solid games doesn't work. When placed against one of the first person shooters, the cut scenes and storyline are intrusive. They break up the energy. But a lot of those games have nothing but the paper thing resemblance of a plot, and I don't find much immersion in the games. With the Metal Gear Solid franchise, however, Kojima wants you to have that loss of the conscious self, to give yourself over to the narrative that you are, unlike film and prose, interacting in. He has gone so far with that to make it a point of one of the games: in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the thematic concern of the game is just how real the world is becoming with virtual experiences. Do you really understand the concept of killing someone when you can spend a game running around and shooting the shit out of everyone with an AK-47?

Sons of Liberty is the weakest of the three Metal Gear Solid games, but this is because the plot becomes convulted in an attempt to link to the original when there was no need, really. The Sons of the Boss storyline that was the at the heart of the first didn't have a place in the second. But where the game actually does become subversive is when it allows the narrative to question the nature of reality, and even go as far as to question the very game you are playing. In the final scenes, end screens appear while you fight and characters turn out to be nothing but programs (within the larger program of the game, which they acknowledge).

However, in Snake Eater, Kojima has gone back to the original format of the game: a lone figure is dropped into a hostile environment and told to stop the bad guy. The main difference between this third game and the first two is that it is set earlier, during the Cold War, in fact, and the game makes the most of this. In this storyline, the villain of the piece is the Boss, a female mercenary who defects to the Russians, and raises the questions of loyalty and patriotism. "What does it really mean," she asks, "to be loyal to a country? Regimes change, directives alter. Your enemies were once your friends and may still, later, be your friend once again?"

Kojima's answer is, I suspect, that patriotism to any Government within any country is ultimately hollow.

The Metal Gear Solid series could have easily been realised as a novel or movie (there is a comic being illustrated by Ashley Wood of the first game). To do this, you would have to make changes to ground some of the characters, because what works in a video game might not in another medium, but that complex, twisting, morally grey storyline about world powers and the place of the individual would still be there.

Lastly, I'm just going to say that the music is fantastic, especially the Bondesque intro. I can't get enough of that song, and the places where they play it int he game are just excellent. My favourite is as you climb the shaft leading into the mountains, the song softly in the background. It's just perfect. And while I know I said it earlier, I'm going to bring the voice acting up again, because I just can't get enough of David Hayter's gravelly, Eastwood inspired voice of the main character, Snake.