Thomas Deehan on why Metal Gear Solid 4, with its intricate plot and innovative approach to player agency, is the video game to end all video games.
Video game pundits will often cite the first Metal Gear Solid as being the defining moment when the ability of video games to compete with Hollywood on a narrative scale was solidified. The PlayStation 1 classic was an eclectic blend of American and Japanese sensibilities, science fiction and a dab of wartime espionage. Being a child of the early 1990s, I was a little late to the party, so late in fact that it wasn’t until the fourth instalment of Metal Gear Solid that I finally hopped on the band-wagon and experienced my own personal epiphany. I had finally found it – the perfect game, or as close to perfect as one could be.
Going into Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots blind is a big mistake as the game is so intrinsically linked to earlier instalments in the series. Nowadays, it’s incredibly rare for any industry that tells stories to publish definitive concluding chapters to any franchise, and yet that is exactly what MGS4 set itself up to be. The series’ iconic protagonist, Solid Snake (yes, a great porn name in its own right) is a far cry from the sleek, stylish hero that we knew him to be in previous instalments. Here we find an old man whose ageing has been accelerated by the unique FOXDIE virus that runs through his veins.
The change in Snake’s age isn’t purely an aesthetic choice either, as in the heat of action you’ll notice that he encounters fatigue more frequently than before and suffers from back pain in strenuous situations. These factors have a direct impact on player agency, as you’re less likely to go guns blazing if you aren’t carrying any anti-anxiety pills to give Snake an extra boost and focus his aim.
Speaking of which, Metal Gear Solid had gradually teetered the brink between being an action and a stealth game, but while the restrictive corridors and jungle paths of old lent themselves more to the stealthy player, MGS4 gives you complete freedom to tackle each scenario as you please. Don’t like that guy’s face? Whip out your grenade launcher! Worried you’re about to get caught? Stand next to that statue and pretend to be part of the sculpture! The choice is yours.
However, what truly sets MGS4 apart from any game I’ve ever played is its story. This is a fully-blown, Lawrence of Arabia style epic with cutscenes that last up to 90 minutes! Snake’s plight is compelling – a man who has known only war for his entire life is determined to avert a global crisis one last time before his demise. Watching Snake come to terms with his own mortality after having been portrayed as an unstoppable force of nature is heartbreaking. His internal dilemma changes how he approaches the task at hand and converses with familiar faces of the past.
The way in which lingering plot lines are tied up is immensely satisfying and fans of the series couldn’t have asked for a better send off for one of video games’ most iconic characters. Very few games have come close to replicating its scale (even MGS5 is suspiciously light on narrative), meaning that MGS4 has aged like a fine wine.
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