Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid

Title: Metal Gear Solid
Authors: Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Pages: 178

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.

You can purchase a digital copy of Metal Gear Solid on the Boss Fight Books website (or on Amazon), and you can read an excerpt on Kotaku.

The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.