Final paper for a video game class that I’m taking – the discussion of both narrative in video games and Metal Gear Solid 3 as the example were both of my choosing. I’ve been busy with assignments like this, so please bear in mind that we’re coming up on finals time.
“What a thrill…” – not only are these the first lyrics of the theme song to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, but it is also the way most fans of the popular video game succinctly summarize the experience it has to offer. Released in 2004 by Konami and directed by gaming auteur Hideo Kojima, MGS3 was a groundbreaking title that reached the limits of what Sony’s Playstation 2 console was capable of. At the same time, however, the title was critically acclaimed for what it brought to the table in terms of its cinematic and gameplay experience, especially regarding the game’s narrative. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 3 breaches most perceptions on how narrative in a video game works through the game’s historically real setting, the story’s subtextual correlations, and the player’s emotional connection to the protagonist.
One of the most intriguing things about Metal Gear Solid 3 is that it attempts to be historically accurate, which was a brand new concept for the series at the time. The original Metal Gear Solid, published for the Sony Playstation in 1998, had its events take place in 2005, while the story of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001) transpired in 2007 and 2009. Even MGS3’s successor, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008), had its story set in 2014. However, MGS3 went back in time to cover details of past events for the canon’s sake, and as a result, the game was set in 1964. The game makes you aware of this when you start the story, with text read aloud that says “After the end of World War II, the world was split into two – East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War.” As expected of a work that dives into the intricacies of the Cold War, the primary tension in the story lies between the United States and the Soviet Union, as you traverse through the jungles of the USSR. However, when it boils down to the essence of the game, as the game’s player, we are not told that this storyline is an alternate path in time set in the Cold War era. Instead, what Hideo Kojima tries to do as director of MGS3 is make you believe that the events of the game could have theoretically occurred, but were instead covered up.
There are a few certain instances in the game where historical individuals or instances become very prevalent, typically with altered motives. Within the first ten minutes of the game, we learn that the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis was only resolved because the United States agreed to return a Russian scientist named Sokolov back to the Soviet Union. The game makes the claim that “the Jupiter IRBMs deployed in Turkey were obsolete and [the CIA was] going to get rid of them anyway” as a way to explain the “cover-up” of the resolution (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater). Later, at the beginning of the game’s second mission, a cutscene is shown which recounts a conversation between U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson and USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev. Since the public is not privy to these kinds of private discussions, there is no way to refuse that it ever happened, which only enhances the game’s compelling case. Finally, at the heart of MGS3 is the idea that political upheaval was truly in the works in the Soviet Union between the KGB and GRU factions. Americans typically associate with the KGB with terrible things, yet MGS3’s primary antagonist is one of GRU’s top colonels, who is trying to remove Khrushchev from power by obtaining a military tank developed by Sokolov called the Shagohod. Amazingly, in a politically-surprising move, the player becomes sympathetic for the KGB as the protagonist tries to quell GRU’s motives. As the story finishes, the game makes itself very self-aware, as just before the credits roll, a timeline of events scrolls, mixing in real-world events with canonical moments that preface the backstory behind the original Metal Gear Solid. However, it must be noted that before each MGS title, a disclaimer is generally shown that indicates that the story’s events are fictitious. Regardless, the player cannot help but consider what could have been, if this were the way history actually played out. MGS3 makes a bold statement trying to explain the events of the Cold War and it is this audacity that helps make it so recognized when it comes to discussing the narrative in video games.
When it comes to the subtext behind Metal Gear Solid 3, the narrative unveils many metaphors and symbolic correlations. It is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that MGS3 seems to play out like a James Bond movie. You play as “Naked Snake,” a CIA agent in the height of the Cold War who is on a stealth mission to save the world. During his quest, you encounter characters that follow typical tropes, such as the evil Colonel Volgin and the femme-fatale “EVA.” While those who are new to the Metal Gear franchise can play this game and still understand the basic plot, the game rewards the hardened series veterans with many references to the world’s canon. A prime example of this is the idea that Naked Snake eventually becomes “Big Boss,” an important character in the franchise and the villain in the original Metal Gear (1987) and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990) for the MSX2 home computer system. Playing a character that eventually becomes a villain, albeit a misrepresented one in the Metal Gear Solid storyline, is quite the unique experience. One could make comparisons to Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader in the recent Star Wars films. Yet, instead of watching Anakin’s fall from grace, playing MGS3 makes it seem as if you are personally responsible for Big Boss’ fall, since you were the one who controlled his actions. There is a moral dilemma that is discretely present in Metal Gear Solid 3, and while Naked Snake is a very endearing individual, knowledge of the franchise’s storyline enhances this ethical dichotomy that much more.
One of the themes that becomes highly evident when Metal Gear Solid 3 is analyzed is the concept of “scene” (Metal Gear Wiki). The first two titles in the MGS franchise generally take place inside buildings, likely because it was less demanding for the console to render these environments. However, MGS3 pushes the boundaries on the Playstation 2 by making the scene for the story primarily be the Russian jungle. After speaking with several friends who enjoy this game, they claim that MGS3 has the “best atmosphere” of any Metal Gear Solid title. With beautifully rendered environments and incredible sound design, it is easy to see why – the immersion in the game’s scene can only be perfectly expressed by actually playing it. Expanding beyond the physical interpretation of “scene,” a metaphorical one exists as well. Since the game is very political in nature by dealing with the Cold War, most characters have their own personal “scenes” or are affected by external agendas. The narrative in MGS3 stresses that when it comes to war, motivations can change very easily. Everything is relative and your enemy one day might not be your enemy the next. This could not expressed any better than through the character named “The Boss,” Naked Snake’s mentor. In MGS3’s narrative realm, The Boss is the ultimate soldier who heavily contributed to the Allies’ victory in World War II. However, soon into MGS3’s plot, The Boss defects to the Soviet Union and is eventually killed by Naked Snake, all because of the United State’s political “scene.” The Boss is by far one of the most intriguing characters in Metal Gear Solid 3, as some even make the correlation that she is a deity-like figure. The concept is relatively valid, as “her memory becomes central to the philosophy of virtually all the main characters, with the next game overtly depicting her as a Virgin Mary/goddess figure. Her final student, Naked Snake, is also featured as a Christ figure” (Ligman). The player can take what they want from the game on a subtext level, but Metal Gear Solid 3’s narrative so complex and present that it leaves itself open for deep metaphorical interpretation.
Metal Gear Solid 3 makes a tremendous case for the effectiveness of the narrative in a video game because of the player’s emotional connection to the protagonist. When one plays as Snake, he controls his actions in the jungle through a third-person perspective. Occasionally, a first-person view becomes vital to aim a weapon, but since MGS3 relies on stealth, this only truly important during boss battles. The concept behind the stealth genre generally allows for more immersion into the atmosphere because the player has to pay attention to so many details in the game space. Knowing the locations of all enemy soldiers and how they are moving is essential to beat the game on harder difficulties. In addition, MGS3 relies on a camouflage system that allows you to blend better with certain surroundings, allowing you to not be seen as easily by enemies. With these elements in mind, playing a Metal Gear Solid title in a solely first-person perspective would be a nearly impossible accomplishment. The player connects emotionally with the protagonist because he is worried about getting through the area without being spotted, because this generally ends in the player’s death. If the player messes up slightly, he is punished for it by essentially failing the mission, and he is in essence letting down Snake. However, that doesn’t mean that the player is completely limited in how he can direct the flow of the story during gameplay. Over time in the game’s story, Naked Snake faces bosses from the Cobra Unit, a group of The Boss’ creation. One of the more famous battles from the game involves an aged sniper known as “The End,” where the player has a multitude of options on how to clear the battle. While most players end up facing The End in a long, brutal sniper battle, there is also the option to wait or set the system’s clock forward seven days, in which The End would die of old age. Also, there is a brief moment in the game where The End can be seen before your battle with him, and one sniper shot to the head would kill him. Hideo Kojima has a track record of putting small easter eggs of this sort in his games, in order to have the player feel like they are synchronically involved in the game’s world and narrative while they play. In this style, a connection to the game’s protagonist is forged that generally is not present in other third-person titles because of the minute margin of error and the intense level of immersion that the gameplay has to offer.
In regards to what MGS3 has to offer in terms of the entire narrative experience, gameplay is only a fraction of what the title consists of. The Metal Gear Solid games are well-known for having some of the longest and most intricate plot-driven cutscenes in video game history and its third title is no exception. Some game theorists may argue that this is the franchise’s biggest weakness, claiming that “There is an attempt to create friction between the various characters but by their very comic-book nature it’s hard to sympathize with them and so engage with the dialogue” (Rowlings). However, the cinematic offering the game displays truly sets it apart from other games because it has to be done in order to tell the complex character relationships with other individuals, as well as with the world the game is set in. Cutscenes like this certainly make the narrative progression diachronic, but at certain times, MGS3 gives the player the option of pressing a button on the controller to see through Snake’s perspective. Whether this is giving an alternate camera angle as Snake peers around the corner, or if it is amusing in nature, such as when Snake is caught ogling at EVA’s chest, these varying angles not only enhance the immersiveness of the player as the protagonist, but it also allows for the player to participate in the cinematic scenes. With these cutscenes, MGS3 supports the narratology school of thought, in that “games should be held up next to other forms of narrative media and that while games and movies are two different things, [there are] significant similarities and differences between the two” (Thecatamites). Since these sequences are so similar to a movie, we cannot help but participate emotionally in the character arc that Naked Snake goes through. In the moment where Naked Snake loses functionality in one of his eyes just to save EVA’s life, we understand and can feel the sacrifice he made just for her. Equally so, when he fulfills his mission by killing his mentor The Boss, realizes that EVA is really a Chinese spy who has been using him, and then learns of the American government’s role behind why The Boss had to give her life, Naked Snake surely feels a deep and terrible sense of betrayal. As he stands in front of The Boss’ grave, giving a salute with tears in his eyes, it is easy to see why this scene typically ranks highly on a compilation of a gamer’s most emotional moments in a video game. With its powerful emotional moments, Metal Gear Solid 3 goes above and beyond in using the narrative to tear at our heartstrings by making us feel like we are attached to the protagonist in both synchronic gameplay and diachronic cutscenes.
Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 3 consistently ranks among the best video games of all time primarily for what does in defining how a narrative can function in a video game. It can emulate real-life events such as the Cold War, making you believe as if this alternate reality really occurred. The narrative can also provide many symbolic correlations through its subtext, whether it boils down to tragic character arcs or heavy thematic content. Finally, a game’s story can create powerful ties between the player and the protagonist, even if a third-person perspective is used, simply because of the emotional ride the plot provides. In all of these aspects, MGS3 is one for the ages – it is almost no wonder why fans look back and can only say “What a thrill.”
Ligman, Kris. “The Women of Metal Gear Solid (Part 3).” The Hathor Legacy. 27 Jan 2009. http://thehathorlegacy.com/the-women-of-metal-gear-solid-part-3/
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Dir. Hideo Kojima. Perf. David Hayter. PS2 DVD. Konami, 2004.
Metal Gear Wiki. “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” Metal Gear Wiki. 5 Mar 2009. http://metalgear.wikia.com/index.php?title=Metal_Gear_Solid_3:_Snake_Eater&oldid=31694
Rawlings, Tomas. “Narrative and Interactivity.” Game Research. 23 Oct 2006. http://game-research.com/index.php/articles/narrative-and-interactivity/
Thecatamites. “Narrative and Videogames.” Gaming World. 14 Sep 2008. http://www.gamingw.net/item.php?id=74936