I am a big fan of linear, narrative gameplay. I love the Uncharted series for its tight and moving narrative that thrusts the gameplay along and I will critique the Assassin’s Creed games for their tendency to waylay their own plot with an overabundance of pointless side missions. I yearn for games that propel me along, marrying good gameplay with an strong narrative. Including so-called ‘walking sims’ like Journey or Gone Home that may not have revolutionary gameplay, but still use their gaminess to move the player. I like these closely curated experiences that lead me along a journey.
And then, there’s frickin’ Metal Gear Solid V.
Though as batguano crazy as the others in the series, MGSV is downright restrained compared to the preceding games. Sure, there are the weird parasites, the bizarrely sexy sniper, and “the day weapons learned to walk upright” (actual quote), but it’s not as propulsive as we’ve come to expect from creator Hideo Kojima. There aren’t ten minute lectures on nuclear proliferation or odd digressions into code names, nor cutscenes that rival a television finale for length and spectacle. Oh, the story missions – and their accompanied plot developments – are fun and well crafted for sure, but they’re hardly the main draw.
Rather, it’s the game’s open world, the well-crafted vistas of 1980s Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region — and all the military kerfuffle it entails. And all the kerfuffles you can cause.
Consider the following.
You, on horseback, come across a Soviet patrol in the Afghan wilderness. You kill them and leave your horse in favor of the jeep. Your target — home to the side quest objective of a blueprint or hostage or some other macguffin — is not too far away. You drive up to the outpost’s outskirts and take out your sniper rifle to start picking off guards. But you miss the fourth one and he shines his searchlight on you, exposing you against the night. The remaining guards rally and start shooting. You figure there’s nothing for it so you put “Kids In America” on on your high-tech Walkman and jump in your car.
Shortly thereafter, you’re driving your captured jeep into a Soviet Outpost in Afghanistan while blasting Kim Wilde. You dash to the prisoner’s location, drag him out into the open air, shoot the soldier running at you with your tranquilizer pistol, then attach the prisoner to a Fulton balloon to extract him. Your base needs more staff too, so you run up to the tranquilized guard and Fulton him too. He rises into the air with a terrified yell. That gives you an idea – you put Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” on. Gunfire! The other guards are after you! You sprint out towards the desert and whistle up your horse, leaping onto your steed midstride as you disappear into the night.
The beauty of MGSV is that none of that is scripted or planned. Rather it’s the game — and me — reacting to emergent developments. MGSV gives you a wild playground and an awesome array of tools, and it’s up to you to figure out what to do with it. It’s also fun when things go wrong, of course, and you have to conceive some other bonkers plan to salvage your rapidly deteriorating one. You make your own fun, often it’s as much — or more — fun than the more planned story missions.
The two pillars of gameplay and narrative are a constant tension. There are some, like game designer/critic Jonathan Blow who firmly believe they are inherently in opposition. But then there are games like Uncharted 4. But then you have something like MGSV that has compelling story missions that keep you coming back, but wonderfully fun, emergent gameplay that provides copious entertainment between missions. It’s hard to narrow this down to just one system (though the inclusion of a Walkman and an excellent selection of 80s tunes springs as readily to mind as the game’s base management) and that earlier description of events
When all’s said, I wouldn’t say that MGSV is inherently better than a linear game due to its open world nature; but then, Uncharted 4 isn’t great because it’s linear and well defined. Like how Lost isn’t an incredible television show because it’s an hour long show and not a half-hour one. The trick is to do something good with it.