Metal Gear Solid (1998), 2024 Revisit

To say the original Metal Gear Solid is more like a movie than a game would be overly dismissive of how inventive and engaging it. All the same, revisiting it for the zillionth time is much like rewatching a favorite film. You notice new things and your perspective may change, but a core comfort of returning to something familiar resonates through all of Shadow Moses Island. You can't wait to see your favorite scenes, in and out of gameplay. The mind still tickles with the game's slow unfolding of its larger plot and themes. It's charged with real-world issues and an unforgettable emotional core about what it means to live in spite of your own creation.

Every so often, I hear the howling Alaskan winds. The game will just call to me, and frequently, I will heed it. A game that's near and dear to you can do that. I was around 13 years of age, maybe younger, when I first played Metal Gear Solid. A bit young, to be sure, but it was nevertheless a formative experience. By that time, I was already nostalgic for the graphics of the original PlayStation and seeking out more experiences for it. The hype train for Guns of the Patriots was in full swing. To hear about how exciting and brilliant the series is was one thing, but MGS must be played to be believed and understood.

That was 2008, or so. In 1998, MGS snuck up on an unsuspecting public who expected a hi-fi stealth action game with a cinematic style (such elaborate scenes were rare outside of Square RPGs, and even those weren't in-engine). They certainly got that, but the gaming public at large could have never predicted they'd be chastised by Liquid Snake for all the killing they delighted in. Who was ready to have their thumbs hurt in real life during a torture scene? Even today, how do you explain how it all comes together to immerse the player and engage the mind?

This entire franchise will be discussed for decades to come. It's been analyzed every which way, nearly every line of dialogue examined in their greater contexts, and every gameplay scenario reviewed. One of the best things about the series is this ceaseless discussion. Even today, I feel that no one voice is truly definitive in saying "this is what Metal Gear Solid is."

Adding to those voices is a bit intimidating, but liberating as well. It feels like a right of passage for anyone writing about any game to spill their heart about Metal Gear. We can't help it, the series is fascinating from top to bottom. From where I'm standing, few games come close to meriting the conversation that's given Metal Gear its staying power with fans. Don't get me wrong, all but the most schlocky, microtransaction-laden asset flips have something going beyond their immediate "fun factor" (as if fun is a monolith!). In the department of artistic video games though, I would argue MGS is still a house.

The Metal Gear Solid series (particularly, 1 through 3, which I feel make up a strong trilogy) has a common through-line. Life is worth living, and you choose who you are and what you do with that life. In MGS2, "MEMES", (not that kind) don't control your fate, though the game weaves its story about how powerful and scary memes can be. In MGS3, Naked Snake, (fated to become Big Boss), and his mentor The Boss, will be victims of "SCENE", or, the times they lived in. As far as I know, this theming was first displayed in the 2004 TGS trailer for MGS3: Snake Eater. As you can see there, the theme of MGS1 is "GENE".

Every game in this trilogy plays with its theme (and sometimes, the others as well) in a stimulating way, but MGS1 is in a unique position from the other two. While the book is certainly not closed on genetic editing in humans, we generally understand that genes alone do not a person make. The game will make this point at the very end, excellently so through the characters' arcs. But it can read a bit like "Uh, yeah?" to our modern viewpoint. In particular, Liquid's obsession with recessive genes being somehow inferior to dominant ones is a head-tilter.

I'd argue in a big-picture sense, even with a few blemishes, it's no lesser than its sequels. Snake rejecting his birth as a lab-grown clone soldier is still the defining moment of the franchise to me. Nothing hits harder than "My name is David." in the final scene. Otacon breaks the Emmerich curse, using his science and computer skills for good, even though it means destroying his greatest creation, REX. Gray Fox, having been driven mad by years of experimentation, proudly tells Snake that they're not tools of the government. Liquid, obsessed with his origin and believing in "doing what his genes tell him to do", is hopelessly invested in war and glory.

One integral character gets the shaft a bit, and she's worth talking about separately. If the game's story has one honest-to-goodness flaw, it's her.

The Ballad of Meryl Silverburgh

Meryl is the game's female lead, another boots-on-the-ground, weapon-wielding ally to Snake in Shadow Moses. Not unlike Naomi Hunter, Meryl seeks self-discovery and empowerment through military action, idolizing the old soldier stereotype in a way not unlike Liquid Snake(!). Snake will chastise her for making heroes out of soldiers, but is otherwise generally supportive of her mission to find out what she's capable of. He doesn't want her on the battlefield, rightfully so, but nevertheless, Snake is an ally. This would be great, except Meryl is quickly placed in peril and too frequently taken out of the story.

She also might just die a little over halfway through, depending on player choices.

Meryl's story is deeply, deeply confused, a stark contrast to nearly every other character in the game. Unfortunately, it starts even before factoring in that she may live to reappear for the finale or die with Otacon in her place. First off, it's a bit unclear about what we should want for Meryl. Soldiers are bad, wars are bad, killing people is bad, Snake is right about all that. This positions Meryl awkwardly. As subversive as the game can be, Meryl is still patterned and written like we're going to see her in action. You almost expect her to come in and say, defeat a boss in a cutscene with Snake in a pinch. Snake accepts the reality of the situation and encourages Meryl to be strong and hold it together, while emphasizing how hard and bad all of this is. It's challenging to have it both ways with almost anyone who isn't given the same level of focus as Solid Snake. Genre convention suggests that Meryl should be running around blowing up people with grenades as shorthand for being strong and independent. Metal Gear Solid storytelling suggests otherwise, but can't go all the way with it.

Promptly after meeting Meryl in the bathroom (literally, like, 60 seconds later), she is mind-controlled by Psycho Mantis. Not necessarily a horrible thing for her character, but it's not good. Mantis uses Meryl to lure Snake into danger, taunting and teasing him with flirtatious comments and threatening her life. When this is all over, Meryl apologizes as if this is her fault. As if she lacks the grit, and determination to...not get mind controlled? Snake even tells her to "learn something from it". What is she supposed to learn? If this was almost any other situation, it would make sense. It has to be exactly mind control for this to fall over, so it's a shame. The rest of the scene, as far as Snake and Mantis are concerned, is very good. Meryl also starts to sniff out if Snake "likes anyone", to which she seems disappointed. There's a larger context to this with learning about Snake in general, but this is about 10 to 15 minutes after we were told she had no interest in men. That aspect is going to get much worse, unfortunately.

After walking through the cave together, Meryl is shot and incapacitated by Sniper Wolf. Every replay I do of this game, this gets more and more disappointing. Meryl bleeds on the floor (again, to lure out Snake), and bemoans, regrets that she ever wanted to be a soldier or see action on the battlefield. Uh, what did we just talk about five minutes ago? Which also didn't make that much sense in context? The kink in my neck must be whiplash.

It's shortly after this that Meryl is hidden away in arrest, not just for Snake but for the player as well. If Snake submits to the torture scene, Meryl will die. I never liked this. Yes, Ocelot says that they will kill Meryl if Snake gives in, I feel there's still a disconnect between this event and the result. Meryl isn't here to say or do anything, yet her life hangs on the Select button. Is there any reason this couldn't be either one of the other scenarios that decide her life? And even that suggestion is made ignoring that a character with a story arc should not be so flagrantly tossed around AND be missable "content". This is rapid-fire situation number three where she's held over Snake. It's far too many for a game that's otherwise short and tightly packed with great scenes, dialogue, and setpieces.

If Meryl does die, Otacon will step in her place. Otacon gets a far better deal than Meryl. In this situation, the last you will hear of Meryl is her sorrow at her choice to be a soldier. This isn't ideal, maybe not even good. But at least it does make some sense from a story perspective. Meryl grew up with this idea that soldiers are great heroes and tough, wanting to be like them, and learned that there's nothing glamorous or cool about killing. This makes an adult woman seem unusually naive, but having this kind of character in an anti-war story isn't uncalled for. It doesn't change the fact that everything I described above happens in about thirty minutes total, but still.

If Meryl lives...well, she wakes up from the wreckage of the REX battle wrapping her arms around Snake and flirting with him. This is weird, but the romance between Snake and Meryl is somewhat expected from previous scenes. Meryl mentions that she was tortured and "things worse than that", which ruins the entire thing. And is the thing about psychotherapy destroying her interest in men just a bogus lie? I'm not terribly fond of the implication that there's simply no way a woman cannot be attracted to a man. Sniper Wolf gets a bad deal in that respect as well.

It ultimately works out alright if Meryl is in the ending, she'll vow to make a new, peaceful life with David. That's all well and good, but her path to get here is filled with potholes and spike traps in a way that it's just not for Snake and Otacon.

Men Will Get Together

On the flip side, the relationship of Snake and Otacon is something I daresay rivals Kirk and Spock. I mean that in every way, homoromantically, gay, yaoi, however you wish to name it. While textually it resembles a "bromance" of sorts, especially in this game only, it is fairly suggestive of something greater that Otacon is fit to substitute at all for Meryl in the ending. The ending is David and Hal Emmerich's most intimate moment, of course. But their character arcs resemble each other's much more closely than Meryl's does. Hal overcoming a cursed legacy of his own gives him reason all the same to start a new life with David. As an audience member, it's satisfying to watch him go from sniveling over Rex's true purpose as a nuclear death machine to excitedly providing Snake's directions on its destruction.

He grows and charges through the events of the story, becoming a stronger person, but not losing any individuality that made him so endearing to players everywhere. Christopher Randolph's performance lends an extremely lovable and human quality to a nerdy, sweet guy. A guy who's fighting a war within between the grim reality of his own career at ArmsTech and his honest, maybe even naive love of robotics and anime.

Otacon is patterned after a typical 'codemonkey' type of character from films of the 80's and 90's. A computer hacker who can do all the technical things that others can't. In the Metal Gear story, this is the perfect kind of character to have. Snake is a battle-hardened soldier, basically from the analog era. Meryl has genre, story, and gameplay reward tearing her to shreds in three opposite directions. Otacon can play an active, heroic role without having to get shamed for it. He's also one of the only major characters to not have suspicions raised against him in the back third of the game. Entirely, he is Snake's ally, and he's treated with a certain respect and trustworthiness. And he's the character who pees himself and hides in a closet!

In other words, he's the goat, and men will get together. The dynamic between the two is wholly entertaining and feels genuine, even though by all measures Snake and Otacon have very little in common. But that's the beauty of it, isn't it? They got through this together.

A Surveillance Camera?

A defining aspect of Solid's gameplay is its puzzle-like room layouts and clever challenges. While nearly all of it is lifted or remade from the wildly good Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the MSX, it's no less fun for it in 3D. MG2 might be one of the best 2D games ever made, certainly one of the greatest of the era. Solid capitalized by introducing it all to the much, much wider audience of PS1 owners outside of Japan. The list of similarities between the two games reads like a summary of what you do in MGS, so I'll spare breaking every single one down.

It's still novel even today to check for destructible walls by examining the color, track the Hind D with stereo sound, and use cigarettes to reveal laser tripwires. Finding semi-secret items and tools, and uncovering deadly traps evoke the cool, labryinthian charm and hostility that drove MG1 and MG2. It's so charming and neat that it rather quickly takes over the stealth gameplay. There aren't a whole lot of patrolling guards in Shadow Moses, and I believe only the two guards in the whole game can ever see your footprints in the snow/water. It doesn't make it any less surprising that the guards can "see" like that. MGS is full of detail like that, but it's only in select areas and doesn't always impact the moment-to-moment stealth action. In other words, how many screens are there where could you reasonably use the Night Vision Goggles?

Something in MGS that is unique to it from the previous two games is the UI. It might have the greatest item selection menu ever, something fresher than the traditional inventory screen of the MSX games. The sound design and loud CLICK, as items slide along into the corner is beyond satisfying. The decision to have Yoji Shinkawa's artwork in monochrome when using the Codec is a deliberate and outstanding choice. After all, portraits were in color in MG2. The Codec is so iconic that the simple sound of the call can still drive people nuts, like in Snake's Brawl reveal. We've all had it as our ringtone before, something I am strongly considering doing again.

Speaking of the Codec, did you know the name Codec was created in localization?

Jeremy Blaustein

Something that sticks out for me whenever revisiting MGS1 is how differently it is written and acted compared to its sequels. Metal Gear Solid was translated by one Jeremy Blaustein, a now very famous name, partly because of MGS but other projects as well. I very highly recommend this interview from Polygon to hear about the localization process in his own words. We're very fortunate to have that kind of voice from someone who touched and processed the original raw materials for the game!

Localization and translation have always fascinated me. The art of preserving the emotion of something and its literal meaning for a different audience, linguistically and culturally, can only be difficult. Even today, there is a myth that one need only simply create a "literal translation" to get something faithful to the original work. In reality, it takes a ton of creativity, knowledge, and writing skills to get even basic ideas across. I lack most of those traits and am monolingual, but folks like Blaustein or Clyde Mandelin help give us insight into what it's like.

Without repeating the Blaustein interview verbatim, I feel MGS1 is the best-presented game in the series. At least from a dialogue perspective (I did just groan about poor Meryl after all!). I find myself largely agreeing with Blaustein's given examples. It's somewhat paradoxical because the slightly more literal style that would follow in MGS2 and MGS3 are just as iconic to the series as anything in 1. That style really comes out in future games, where characters are even more prone than this one to getting into history and philosophy lessons at a moment's notice, something that can invite hiccups and unnatural-sounding voices. Blaustein sat in with the voice director as well during recording, another thing that MGS1 excels at versus its dreadful Gamecube remake, Twin Snakes. Pick nearly any scene you want and compare, Twin Snakes sounds stiff and flat. While I can't claim to say how much Blaustein's influence in the room influenced the acting for 1, we can speak to the impression all this leaves.

MGS1's is notably, more natural sounding than, say, 2. While again, acting is at work (I sometimes suspect almost no one involved was truly prepared for how ambitious MGS2's story was!), MGS1 excels in conversational scenes. There's a lot of those, mind you, one need only think of Snake and Naomi's conversation while he's imprisoned. Or Otacon's frequent interruptions as Snake climbs through REX's hangar, picking up and putting down a conversation repeatedly. Here's a random Codec scene in MGS2, for example. (at 4:27) I just happened to get one that has good shades of that game's themes, so let's read.

Otacon: "...we won't even have to ask, people will be grabbing the pictures! There's no way anyone can stop it. Information has a life of its own. And as long as it lasts, it'll keep existing, even if it has to change its form or location."

Snake: "Life?"

Otacon: "Yeah! The desire of people to learn. The demand for data."

Snake: "That's called idle curiosity in my book."

"Otacon: Everyone's got some of that. And sometimes it can pave the way for truth. That's what I believe."

Does anything about that seem wrong? I'd say no. Does it sound natural, like two real people speaking to each other? Not totally. I swear, even Hayter sounds a bit confused outside of his character. How natural is it going to sound when we're talking about big concepts like this? It's hard to say, it would certainly be challenging, but one wonders what the "MGS1 Voice" would give to a scene like that. "As long as it lasts, it'll keep existing" can surely get a little trim?

I wouldn't suggest that MGS2 and 3's presentations are bad, mind you. Far from it! Plenty of talented people touched the series, and thematic concepts got bigger and bolder, making the whole affair tricky. Snake's speech at the end of MGS2 is legendary stuff. To my ear and eye though, MGS1 just reads cleaner, cleanly enough that one could believe it was written in English, something that's a bit more of a stretch in the sequels. I wish these natural performances and writing could have stayed, but it wasn't meant to be. David Hayter in particular, amazing as he is in MGS2 and beyond, brings a softer, more human voice to Snake in 1. Listen to how Snake's voice cracks, almost whimpers when Fox engages REX (5:33:38). Snake speaks in that gruff "Hrrrngh" voice when he's stressed or upset, in future games it is his default voice.

The Master Collection, And Experiences

Metal Gear Solid just got a modern re-release this past October. I had almost forgotten, possibly because I'm still playing my physical PlayStation discs out of convenience and habit. The thought of someone getting into the MGS series for the first time delights me. Imagine going in blind. I envy the unsuspecting audience that met the game in '98. Today, the series is so deeply enshrined in gaming culture that Meryl's codec number might be known by heart from countless, occasionally poorly aged parodies. I'm fairly confident that MGS1 will remain in that conversation of interesting, unique experiences. It's a little hard to recommend purely based on stealth-action gameplay, of which we have seen further innovators in the twenty five plus years since. But to deny someone at least the chance of one of gaming's most unique experiences would be criminal.

That's what I chase down every time I hear that howling wind from the game, or when classic dialogue worms its way into my brain. I'm not necessarily thinking about the game from a gameplay, story or aesthetic perspective alone. It's the totality of all those elements. It's how I felt nervously wandering down the cargo elevator as Naomi's intentions were in doubt. It's the stomach-turning feeling of wondering "what is going on here?". It's the delightful surprise of learning a new strategy for a boss. It's that feeling of your mind expanding about what emotions a game can invoke, as "The Best Is Yet To Come" plays over that beautiful nature footage. No game has ever made me feel the way Solid did, on that first playthrough, even knowing a lot of what was coming. Few games tickle my mind so often and beg for me to replay them as this one does. I think every gamer has one or two virtual environments that feel like home to them. Shadow Moses is one of mine.

To play Metal Gear Solid is to have all of the elements that create those kinds of feelings weave together into your experience. You can argue about how cohesive that experience ultimately is, and how much of it lands on any given individual. But I'd say that one does not simply play Metal Gear Solid, and you can't just read about it or watch the cutscenes online. There's just too much going on, intertwined with itself. "This was really cool when it was new" doesn't tell the whole story either. If we can continue to discuss our personal histories and emerging thoughts from the game, I feel that keeps it alive better than anything. Even if those thoughts are dissonant with my own, all the discussion and examination will do much more heavy lifting in keeping the game alive for future player's curiosities than simple recommendations. The only way to find out what anyone will think of a game like this is to hold the controller in their hand and just play it. As I began, how can you explain it?

These were the most predominant thoughts I had on this playthrough. To do a complete breakdown of every character, every idea, and every story beat is a project for another day. In my heart, the game is certainly deserving of having that kind of thing crafted. Perhaps in 2025? For now, though, I think I'm starting to hear the seagulls cry at the Big Shell...

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See you next time!

- James