Tag Archives: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

They Changed it And That’s Okay

The band Barcelona enthralled me with their first album, Absolutes, with its soaring melancholic piano-driven sound paired with some soulful songwriting. It was a shock to the system when their sophomore album, Not Quite Yours, instead featured a more rhythm-focused sound and the piano relegated to support in many songs. Their third, Basic Man, sounds even less alt-rock; it’s an album full of mellow synthy grooves. Each of their albums sounds wildly different, which is a bit of a bummer if you’re looking for, say, a follow-up to Absolutes.

I once heard it said that if you wished a band sounded more like their older albums, then you should go listen to their older albums. I was resistant to that idea at first; part of why I get into any musical artist is because I like what I’ve heard; why can’t they keep to what works? Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this sort of sonic shifting. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is a radically different album from Relient K’s prior Mmhmm, but it was instrumental in the band’s growth that brought them to Forget and Not Slow Down, their best album. Change, as it happens, is a necessity for an act to evolve. Run River North has dispensed with the violins that helped make their debut album so singular, but their DNA is still all over their latest Monsters Calling Home, Vol. 1 and there’s little doubt their music is still outstanding. Plus, moving away from the violins has led to new renditions of old songs performed live on tour that are at once wholly unlike from and utterly recognizable as the studio recorded songs.

Consider this ethos in the context of video games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a fantastic game that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improves on which is ultimately perfected in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Fundamentally, all three games are very similar to each other, though there are naturally the differences that come with any sequel. Consider this not unlike U2’s Boy, October, and War; three albums that feature very similar sounds. If you liked War you will probably also really like Boy; if you liked Among Thieves, then A Thief’s End will be right up your alley.

But then some game series like to really shake things up. Though Metal Gear Solid 2 features much of the same features of Metal Gear Solid, the sequel exchanges Solid Snake for Raiden, already a marked difference. Where the first game is something of a power trip, the second is not at all shy about critiquing that power fantasy. Mechanically, it is the next step from the original, but the game makes you question it all and so the game feels quite different. MGS 3 takes away the industrial settings of the prior games and throws you in the Soviet jungle. Gone too is your Soliton Radar: it’s the Cold War and you have to rely on a rudimentary sonar and your wiles to stay hidden. The fourth game upends the weapon system; no longer do you rummage guns from the battlefield; now you can order them through a mobile store. Also, you’re playing as an old man who gets episodes of PTSD if he kills too many people.

All of these variations make some pretty major changes to how you play the game. The focus on camouflage in the third game forces the player to adopt a slower pace throughout the game: without your soliton you really need to keep an eye on where enemy soldiers are rather than hiding in a box and checking your minimap. The new weapon system in 4 gives you more options for engagements: I used a silenced sniper rifle to carve a stealthy, deadly path behind enemy lines.

The next game, Peace Walker, has bite-size missions befitting its publishing on Sony’s portable PSP. Choosing limited loadouts for each mission is a different flavor of strategizing from what’s come before; maybe this mission you’ll shoot your way through, maybe on this one you’ll be sneaky. I was very hesitant about Metal Gear Solid V and its open-world. Up to now, the MGS games have been very linear experiences — all the better to weave its crazy stories. An open world would change all that, right? Turned out that yes, it was wildly different, but it was also a ridiculous amount of fun applying the game’s stealth mechanics to a different setting. It felt like a totally different game, and yet unquestioningly Metal Gear, like how U2’s War, Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby are all very different albums, yet still the same band. Sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as Solid Snake anymore after the first Metal Gear Solid (Old Snake in 4 is very different); but I can go back to MGS1 for that if I want that, just as I can always put on “Like A Song” if I need a change of pace after listening to Joshua Tree.

What defines an artistic work, be it a game series or musical artist, is an intriguing question. There are some cases where wildly different projects aren’t really seen as an issue (think directors, actors, writers), but others where it is a big deal (Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Last Jedi are very different Star Wars movies and some folk ain’t happy about that). While more of the same isn’t often a bad thing — I love how Uncharted 4 perfected the series, there’s always something exciting about seeing a work redefine itself, as in Metal Gear Solid V, The Last Jedi, or Run River’s North latest EP.

And besides, if I have a hankering for the older stuff, it’s all still there if I want it.

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Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

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More Thoughts On An Open World

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.

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