Editorial: The First Gaming Epic

He's sad because his depth perception won't allow him to play Metal Gear Solid 3DS.
I do believe I have managed to find a way to make Metal Gear even more elitist.

What ho and hail, Lusiperpendicular humanoids!

A reoccurring theme in my thoughts of late has been the comparability between video games and film, especially in the misty-afterthoughts of E3. Year after year we hear consistent refrains about “cinematic experiences.” Hell, we have even been seeing the steady rise of imported Hollywood talent and techniques in video games, from Michael Biehn playing himself in Blood Dragon to the use of Snyder-esque green screen sets for video game cutscenes. Yet for all that it makes sense to compare video games to a similarly visual medium, I have wondered if we are too hasty in our attempts to emulate film. Perhaps some games should be seen as emulating other mediums: painting, music, or even books. Dust blows off the cogs of my brain. The wheels slowly begin to turn…

In the comments on an earlier post I referenced Hideo Kojima as being a developer whose personality can be clearly felt within his games. Since then, a wealth of information has sprung up around Kojima’s latest project, Metal Gear Solid V. This slew of trailers and interviews got me thinking – had I been too hasty in my dismissal of Kojima’s intentions for the Metal Gear series? The themes of the games, from Metal Gear to The Phantom Pain, are surprisingly consistent. In some ways, we might even suggest that Metal Gear provides Gaming with its first (and I would argue sole) Epic.

Seriously. Consider that most Metal Gear games begin in medias res, a common technique in Epic poems, placing the player right in the middle of the action at the very beginning. Homer’s Iliad opens in the middle of the Trojan War, just as Metal Gear Solid opens amid Snake’s infiltration of Shadow Moses. Taken as a series*, Metal Gear opens with Solid Snake breaking into Outer Heaven, with little to no context of who Snake is (beyond an amalgamation of Snake Plissken and the aforementioned Michael Biehn) or the purpose Outer Heaven serves. These details get fleshed out as the series continues.

Are those tentacles? Let Love BLOOOOOOOM!!!
What…the…hell…are those people doing in that volcano?

The fleshing out of the details is something else I feel elevates Metal Gear to the status of Epic. Unlike other series, Metal Gear manages to expand on its premises and characters without blowing them up into bloated, arbitrary Resident Evil style monstrosities. This is due, in part, to Metal Gear seemingly always having its eyes on the global, and in a sense epic, stage. Whereas Resident Evil was forced to continually up the stakes in more and more ridiculous methods, Metal Gear evolved in consistent ways that made sense, subtly poking the complexities of their narrative until gamers finally gathered the pieces themselves. In a more concrete example, by the time Metal Gear Solid 4 rolled around, gamers were used to the idea of soldiers with supernatural powers- they had been an integral part since the early days. Resident Evil 5, on the other hand, ends with a fistfight in the middle of a volcano. In a game series that started as a zombie horror game. Because consistency is a four letter word to Capcom.

Metal Gear is further elevated beyond its brethren for its willingness to discuss (at length in many cases) such heavy handed topics as War, Pacifism, Nuclear Proliferation, and Love Blooming on the Battlefield. Kojima’s willingness as a writer to literally stop gameplay to have a discussion on philosophy harkens back to the writings of Tolstoy and Hugo, who were both known to do much the same thing. While other commentators have criticized this, to me it is one of the greatest joys of playing a Metal Gear game. The juxtaposition of the Overman Snake, a hero whose sole purpose is to sow death and destruction, with the obviously personal values Kojima holds is one that keeps me riveted to my seat throughout the games. Other games with seemingly epic storylines such as Resident Evil or Halo fail to even hold a candle to such strength of theme.

We feel the paaaain of a lifetime lost in a thousand days / through the fire and the flames we caaarry oooooooon!!!

The ironic bit of this entire thought exercise is that Kojima himself was explicitly influenced by film. Metal Gear‘s Solid Snake was inspired by Kurt Russel’s Snake Plissken, while Big Boss was inspired by Sean Connery. The films The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarro were also listed as inspirations for the stealth emphasis. Despite this, however, I firmly believe that if we examine the Metal Gear series on its own, we find that Gaming may have its first epic to share with the world.

So what do you think, good Lusireaders? Are the Metal Gear games just a bloated mess of words and cutscenes, or are you as struck as I am by their obvious greatness? Are there any other series that you believe could hold their own in the Epic genre, or is there a game you feel is better compared to an obscure medium rather than to film? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

*Though it should be mentioned that in medias res is not anything with a prequel


  1. MGS1 had decent narrative,

    Then MGS2 completely ruined it with memes and silliness.

    MGS3 had a sublime narrative,

    And then MGS4 left me feeling utterly betrayed by having one of the worst stories in gaming…

    Maybe MGS5 will tell a decent tale?

    At any rate, MGS is hardly typified by good storytelling.

  2. I’d agree that the storytelling isn’t always necessarily good; the long-winded expository cutscenes hardly make for the tight storytelling that I personally prefer. But I would say that, even with all its faults, the Metal Gear series has more in common with epic novel like War and Peace or Les’ Miserables than most games do. And on a side note, yeah, I’d suggest that MGS4 “ended” the series on a less silly note than RE5, if only because the silly elements of MGS4 (ermahgawd nanoviruses, ermahgawd double/triple/betrayal, ermahgawd shutthatoldguyupp) were, at the very least, consistent with the ridiculous tone of the series.

    But that all being said, I really agree with your rankings. MGS3 is probably the pinnacle of the entire series, which leaves me with some hope that MGS5 can resurrect the series from the dastardly nonsense that was MGS4 because, for me, it’s because Naked Snake/Big Boss is the more interesting character. Solid Snake never really evolves as a character from his stance as a more deadly mouthpiece for Kojima’s philosophy, whereas Big Boss has a character arch to complete.

  3. MGS4 had enough narrative for at least four different games, and suffered for the fact that plot elements were picked up and discarded within minutes of surfacing.

    I kind of blamed Kojima for trying to rush the end of the franchise in order to be rid of it [we’ve all seen how effective that’s been]!

    I completely agree with you about Naked Snake vs Solid Snake.

  4. Having never played a MGS game, would it be a wiser idea to try 3 first to play the best game, or to start with 1 to get the unfolding narrative?

  5. @Mel – Their narratives are relatively self-contained, so my first instinct is to say that you could probably start with 3 and leave it at that. However, MGS relies heavily on repetition and self-references, so if you decide to go that route you’re going to want to -at the bare minimum- read a summary of MG, MGS1, and MGS2 (MG2 is really only important for MGS1 and…maaaaybe MGS4). This’ll let you skip the aged graphics and, to a certain degree, digest some of the wackier plot twists of MGS2 on your own time.

    That all being said, though, I think playing at least MGS1 will give you a sense of the tone of the series, as well as emphasize the importance of Big Boss (the main character in MGS3). Plus the Psycho Mantis fight is always a joy to share with people.

  6. Ugh…reading my comment back to myself and I’m realizing that I basically said “Yeah, they’re all separate stories. Except they’re not.”

    MGS3 is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. It introduces characters and you don’t really have to play the other games to understand them within the context of MGS3. Really, there are only about two characters that showed up in the series by the time MGS3 rolled out, and even then it’s a prequel (so most of your joy comes from knowing how those people end up).

    But on the other hand, the references and the prequel status of the game (it attempts to set up the shadowy shadow antagonists revealed in earlier games) make it difficult for me to guess if you would enjoy the narrative as much as Julian or I did, given that (I’m assuming in the case of Julian) we played the games in release order. Hence the recommendation to at least read summaries.

    There. Now hopefully I won’t feel the need to write a clarification comment for my clarification comment.

  7. Start with MGS3 – there is no downside to that approach.

  8. As much as Mr. Matt Dance might secretly pine to be me, Tim, he is not me. But thank… you?

  9. Oh, shit. There’re too many “M” names in the comments.

    Matt, you’re now “Toby” to me.

  10. Thanks for the recommendation – it’ll be fun to try a different style of game when I can get my hands on that one. But my name is not confusing as it is, and I will continue to use it as well as my own self-identity.

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