Tag Archives: Metal Gear Solid

This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Violence and Video Games

Violent video games are a hot topic, or at least they really were six months ago. Well, here’s the thing: video games aren’t violent. Angry bears are violent. Video games aren’t. That said, there is violence in video games. The thing is, the portrayal of violence in video games is as varied as in books of film.

Can video games glorify violence? Sure. Look at Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel. You play as two mercenary-commandos sent into a cartel-run town in Mexico to escort/rescue/defend a mayoral candidate. Like any action movie with a similar pitch, Devil’s Cartel is light on the thought and heavy on the guns and explosions as you blow limbs off cartel members. Is it violent? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it clearly fictional? Yes. Despite some tidbits in early loading screens, the game is completely detached from any semblance of real-life cartel warfare. It’s a video game; the characters even call out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the game. Like The Expendables or one of the GI: Joe movies: it’s over the top and meant purely for entertainment. Being unable to distinct differentiate a game like this from reality is a problem that lies not with the game itself.

But video games with violence aren’t all senseless and flashy with blood flying everywhere. There are games out there that attempt to address or at least justify the violence in the game. It could be Elizabeth calling Booker out on his ease of killing in BioShock Infinite or Snake forced to walk a ghostly river populated by everyone he’s/you’ve killed thus far in Metal Gear Solid 3. They’re often just in passing as the game’s focus lies elsewhere.

At first blush, Spec Ops: The Line seems like your standard military shooter. Captain Walker and his squad are sent into Dubai months after its been ravaged by a massive sandstorm in search of John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion. Then you realize it’s been called Heart of Darkness: The Video Game and it starts to set in. Sure, in early combat you’re shooting faceless middle-eastern men like many other shooters. Then you meet members of the 33rd. And you find out they’ve gone rogue. And now you’re shooting American soldiers.

It’d be a ballsy move in any form, but in a genre and medium where more often than not you’re Sergeant American gunning down terrorists, nazis, or soviets, seeing the familiar American ACU in your reticule is especially jarring. Spec Ops: The Line revels in this discomfort and uses it again and again. Sneaking around a building you see two soldiers at the foot of the stairs, one asking the other for a stick of gum. Not only are they not wearing balaclavas or any kind of face mask, they’re speaking English — with an American accent. You have to kill them. The game does not give you a choice.

The Line has a feature where any explosion causes the game to briefly switch into slow-motion. In most games it’d be a cool little gimmick where the player gets to delight in their destruction. The Line isn’t much different: you get to watch your target — more often than not a familiar American soldier — get blown apart or lose his legs by the grenade. Then suddenly you’re reminded of wounded veterans and any sense of empowerment quickly dissolves. At another point you might, out of reflex, shoot someone running towards you only to realize immediately after your target was an innocent woman running to safety. You will encounter soldiers and civilians burned alive by white phosphorus. You will become a monster. You’re not playing a hero here; you’re doing horrible, terrible things. The game doesn’t let you forget it either. There is little glory in the violence of this game.

Similarly, The Last of Us will never let you glibly take a life. Whether if its you as Joel sneaking up on a sobbing Infected — are you executing her or putting her out of her misery?— or Ellie swearing as you blow a man’s head off with a shotgun, The Last of Us will not let you forget the consequences of your actions. You will wound a man and fire the killing blow just as he begs for his life and exclaims he has a family. You see the effects of violence on the relatively naive Ellie and as it chips away what little that’s left of Joel’s soul. The Last of Us is the only action game I’ve played where I’ve wished I could continue the game without having to shoot anyone else.

Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us force players to think about the violence they deal out. There is violence in video games, and the violence can be gruesome. But it’s not always mindless. There are games out there that give violence its due diligence and those that revel in it, just as there are movies or books that do. To write off video games as a whole because of their violence is a thoughtless disservice to the medium.

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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No Home from War

I’m in college now, and one of the things you do in college is write essays. Every now and then one of these essays (which are certainly not rants) have a similar thread to the ones I post here.

So I have an assignment to look at a contemporary depiction of a soldier’s return home in light of a classical work of literature. Said paper is underway.

I’m taking Ulysses as my example, or Odysseus as he’s known in The Odyssey. But the man I want is Ulysses from The Divine Comedy (or as everyone who’s not a literary snob calls it: Dante’s Inferno). See, in the Inferno Dante meets Ulysses in hell.

After the ten year long Trojan war (y’know, Helen, Achilles, the Trojan Horse and all that) and the ten year journey back (cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, his own trip to the underworld, etc) Ulysses finally returned home to his wife and son.

Finally.

Thing is, as Ulysses tells Dante, that wasn’t enough for him anymore. He couldn’t sit still. Despite how much he loved his family and kingdom he couldn’t resist that call of adventure, to return to the seas.

And so he does. He assembles his crew once more for a final push, one last hurrah. It’s an epic adventure, crossing seas uncharted and finding lands unknown. But the sea overcomes them and their ship sinks and, as Ulysses tells it, that was it.

Ulysses couldn’t go home.

 My contemporary example is The Hurt Locker: Sergeant First Class William James is an EOD technician in Iraq. He’s really good at what he does. Really good.

Then, as the film draws towards its close, his tour comes to an end and he goes home. He’s home with his wife, shopping for groceries. Told to get cereal he’s suddenly overwhelmed by choice. This isn’t what he’s been trained for. He’s a weapon: a machine forged to diffuse bombs. Choosing cereal and shopping are as foreign to him as planting a C4 charge would be to his wife.

He confesses to his infant son that he doesn’t love much, and the one thing he thinks he loves is war. Bomb disposal. So he returns to the battlefield and starts his next tour.

So what’s this theme? This irrepressible call of battle? Why couldn’t life go back to normal?

It’s because they changed. The people who went off to war are not the same who returned. They have skill sets refined for warfare, some of which are not easily translated into civilian life and many of which have no equivalent. Suddenly they feel useless. Like the world they worked so hard to save has no space for them. Shooting bad guys is easy, coping with everyday life is something else entirely.

In Ender’s Game Ender saves the world from the alien invasion. But for him to return to earth would ignite a political storm. So he heads out into space to help start a colony. But even then, life as a mayor/governor is not enough for him. Ender leaves the colony for another, using relativity to stay young as the world ages around him. He cannot stay still: normal life is foreign to him.

Raiden, the player character for most of the second Metal Gear Solid game Sons of LIberty supposedly got his happy ending with his girlfriend at the end of the game. The soldier has beat the bad guy, saved the world, now he rides off into the sunset, right?

In the chronological sequel Guns of the Patriots, however, we find that it’s not the case. During the interim between games Raiden tried to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. But he couldn’t. His almost-forgotten past as a child soldier haunts him and he grows distant and eventually leaves to find a war.

Because there’s always another war, another fight. These people don’t come home. Some, like Raiden and Ulysses, have been at war for so long that that is all they know. Others, like Sergeant James, get off on war: it’s their drug, it’s what they do. There’s no rest for them, because for them rest is torment.

It’s a question we see posed not just in fiction but in reality: once you’ve been through hell where do you go?

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who aren’t sure about home in it too!

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