Title: Metal Gear Solid
Authors: Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
I don’t often talk about Metal Gear Solid.
It’s like how I might feel about a middle-school crush – my emotions concerning the games were once so intense that now I’m almost embarrassed by the object of my affection. There were so many cool things going on in the series, but it’s difficult to look back as an adult and not notice its glaring flaws.
Still, it’s impossible to deny the influence of the Metal Gear Solid series (and of its controversial director, Kojima Hideo), so I’ve always been on the lookout for someone to proselytize the games and remind me why I once loved them.
That is exactly what Metal Gear Solid, the latest title from micropublisher Boss Fight Books, manages to do. As Anthony Burch explains in the opening chapter:
Ash and I are, to put it bluntly, going to shit on Metal Gear Solid. We’ll talk about flaws in its story. We’ll talk about how it’s sexist and regressive. We’ll talk about how, despite its reputation, it’s actually a pretty bad stealth game. Today, MGS1 represents many things we either disagree with, find irritating, or actively fight against in our jobs as critics and creators.
But: Metal Gear Solid was the perfect game to Ash and me as kids. We love it with the part of our hearts protected by Kevlar nostalgia. In the chapters to come, we’re going to try to remember that love and we hope you’ll do the same.
Anthony Burch is one half of the brother-sister team that has co-authored Metal Gear Solid. Burch writes both for and about video games, and he also runs one of my favorite sites on Tumblr, No Wrong Way To Play, which documents creative and unusual gaming challenges and objectives meant to surprise players into seeing classic and popular games in a different light. He trades off sections with Ashly “Ash” Burch, a writer, speaker, voice actress, and online personality. The siblings respond to and play off each other both in the main text and in their footnotes to each other’s writing, and reading through Metal Gear Solid feels like being a fly on the wall during a conversation between two fun and intelligent people who obviously have a great deal of respect for each other.
(What I’m trying to say here is that the joint authorial voice of this book is really cool. I want to see more of this in nonfiction writing, please.)
Anthony and Ash don’t waste any time breaking down what the Metal Gear Solid games are and how they work. Or, as the case may be, don’t work. Their comments are consistently apt and cleverly stated. To give an example from one of Anthony’s sections:
The are two Hideo Kojimas.
One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.
The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle.
One Kojima is interested in genetic and memetic legacies, and predicted the rise of social media and information overload before Twitter.
The other Kojima helped design a sniper whose breasts are so large and exposed that she caused a controversy before the game in which she appears even had a release date.
These are all things that are true, but the authors don’t simply throw them at the reader without further analysis. Instead, they take these shortcomings and try to make sense of them. In the case of the above dichotomy between serious themes and ridiculous fanservice, Anthony points out that there are many such dualities implicit in the game. Although the player’s avatars in the games are supposed to be master soldiers, the players are just players, prone to making mistakes and dying. This in turn points to a paradox regarding the player-protagonist’s agency vis-à-vis the agency of the player, a constant negotiation that becomes increasingly complicated as the Metal Gear Solid series progresses.
Unlike the earlier titles released by Boss Fight Books, which include EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario Bros. 2, Metal Gear Solid does not delve deeply into the personal histories of its authors, who do not chronicle a playthrough of any of the titles in the series. Instead, the book focuses on key elements of game design and how these elements reflect the narratives and characterization patterns of the games, as well as how they affect the player.
Anthony dominates the first half of the book, which is largely focused on gameplay; but, when the discussion shifts to story and character development, Ash becomes the more impassioned and articulate of the two voices. She begins dropping truth bombs that are both spot-on and beautifully stated, and I wanted to applaud after every one of her sections in the latter half of the book. Unfortunately, the radiance she cast was often blighted by the shadow of her co-author, who for whatever reason had trouble reading the atmosphere.
Meryl’s characterization is problematic because her entire purpose is to act as an objective for the male hero to achieve, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that the interesting thing about Meryl’s characterization is how it acts as an objective for the male hero, and therefore it has a purpose. I wish Ocelot could have been a point-of-view character, because his perspective as a someone capable of feeling deep yet complicated emotions shows just how damaged and unrealistic Snake is, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that Ocelot has too many feelings, which is why the obviously emotionally balanced Snake gets to the hero. Sexism in the stories of games is a problem, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that sexism is an opportunity for interesting gameplay.
As I continued reading, I became increasingly frustrated with Anthony. I resisted this at first, because up until that point I had been in complete agreement with every word he put on the page. What this the same person that I quoted earlier in this review? How could someone who had made such a compelling argument for the ludic effectiveness of Snake’s vulnerability be working so hard to justify sexist game design? This was the moment when I snapped:
ASH: No exaggeration – time actually slows down so that Snake and the player can take a good, long look at Meryl’s sweet, blocky butt. But don’t worry, it’s not like it’s in there just so that dudes can gawk at her hind quarters. It’s actually a game mechanic! That’s right. In a cinematic stealth game about the horrors of nuclear warfare, you are required to stare at a woman’s ass to advance the plot.
ANTHONY: This scene is objectifying. It’s sexist. It undermines the game’s attempts to characterize Meryl as a smart, tough, self-possessed woman. It’s also, infuriatingly, one of the many interesting gameplay twists in the series. Where many of the game’s one-off challenges ask the player to disregard all of the stealth mechanics on which the game is based, the Butt Mission encourages the player to gain a deeper understanding of enemy patrols, vision cones, and proximity.
He then continues to talk about how great the “Butt Mission” is for another few paragraphs. I wanted to reach out across time and space and tell him to PLEASE SHUT UP. Somehow the rote acknowledgment that sexism is bad made this exchange even more maddening to me.
If you’re wondering how a less face-palm inducing version of this conversation might have proceeded, let me provide you with a model:
FEMALE CRITIC: The objectification of this female character, when combined with the way that all of these games develop all of their female characters in relation to members of their overwhelmingly male casts, made me hate women and myself as a younger gamer and contribute to a toxic culture of gender relations among older gamers. Both the objectification and the consistently sexist characterizations of the women in the series are ridiculous. I have developed this theme over the past dozen pages, and now I will offer a particularly egregious example to illustrate my many cogent points.
MALE CRITIC: You know, I previously thought your example was one of the more interesting gameplay twists in the series, but now that you’ve put it into a larger context I can appreciate how totally messed up it is. Since sexism is gross and stupid and I’m super interested in gameplay, let us brainstorm several alternative game mechanics that aren’t sexist and might be of immense practical interest to the current and future game developers reading this book!
If the male half of this conversation couldn’t be redirected to something more interesting and useful, perhaps it would have been better to omit it altogether. According to the book’s colophon, the editors at Boss Fight Books are all male, which is something a shame, because I have no trouble imagining a female editor rolling her eyes and crossing out Anthony’s five-paragraph justifications of sexism with a red sharpie without thinking twice.
I’m dwelling on the unpleasant gendered aspects of Metal Gear Solid not just because they grated so harshly on my nerves but also because they extend over roughly 2/5 of the text. This conversation about the intersections between gender, story, and gameplay is important and fascinating, and the Metal Gear Solid series is an ideal framework for such a discussion. It’s a shame it was handled so poorly, especially since the rest of the book is so brilliant and engaging.
There are a few other missed opportunities in Metal Gear Solid. Attempts to explain Kojima’s bizarre fourth wall breaking antics fall flat (although the jokes the authors make at the director’s expense are much more successful), and there was very little acknowledgment that the games weren’t made by an American developer for an audience of Americans. Regardless, Metal Gear Solid contains some of the most insightful and entertaining writing on gaming and game design that I’ve read in the past several years.
If you’ve never played any of the games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, I would still recommend this book, which references many of the big topics and debates in the gaming community, rendering them accessible even to non-gamers.