Metal Gear Solid and In-World Logic

I was recently replaying Metal Gear Solid. It’s of course a game that has gotten its fair share of praise since it was released in 1998. The game has a reputation that has cemented it as a captial-C Classic, and I generally agree with the praise it gets. The quality of the voice acting, writing, and presentation were incredible for the time and still hold their weight today. It’s a game that’s been referenced, homaged, and parodied from hell to back. It’s been written about and disected ad-nauseum. Solid Snake, codec calls, and cardboard boxes are legitmately iconic. The franchise has been a serise of highs and lows but has never failed to be interesting. Director Hideo Kojima holds an auetuer status that very few other game developers do. It’s Metal Gear Solid; you already know what it is, and it feels a little bit silly to feel like I have anything meaningful to say about the game nearing its 20-year anniversary. It’s feels especially silly to just write something whose main point is “Metal Gear Solid is pretty good”. But I was playing through it, and I was really struck by the way that game goes out of its way to make Shadow Moses feel like a real place, and I think this has a larger impact on the game than just being a neat novelty or adding to “the immersion”, so let’s talk about it.

To explain this, I’m going to talk about two specific details, one that’s a little obvious and one that I had to take a moment to think about. The former happens fairly late in the game while Snake is climbing the communications tower before the fight with the Hind. When Snake comes to a door in the first tower that won’t open, Otacon tell him that the door gets frozen shut and that the guards use C4 to blow the door open from the outside. Snake later finds himself outside this door, and not only does using C4 on the door work, but there is actually a box of C4 next to the door that Snake can pick up.

Now this could be argued as being less about world building and more about game design. Using that door is never required, but I actually decided to go back into that tower to stock up on rations during my playthrough. I had C4 on me, but if I didn’t the C4 next to the door would have allowed me to get through. If it wasn’t there the player could get stuck, and that’s bad game design. However, it also makes sense from a world building perspective. If the guards use C4 to open that door, then it makes sense that they would store some right next to it. The fact that the C4 being placed there both makes sense and is the right decision from a design perspective is actually more impressive considering how often games prioritize one of these aspects over the other.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2017-03-18 00-04-19
The door to Otacon’s office

The other example I want to talk about also revolves around a door, this one being the door to Otacon’s office. First, some context for those uninitiated with the game. In Metal Gear Solid, getting a higher level key card is a main form of progression. Snake gets them periodically throughout the story, and this system is used to gate off certain areas until the game deems necessary. It’s a lite take on a Metroidvania structure. Another important thing to note is that Snake receiving these cards is always justified in the narrative.

Going back to Otacon’s office, by this point in the game Snake has a level three card. He got this card off of a guard at the end of the last boss fight, and it is about time for him to get another one. After he fights Gray Fox in the office, the narrative option that makes the most sense is for Otacon to give him the card. The two of them are there talking to each other, and it’s obvious for Otacon to say something like “Hey, here’s this key card”. There are other ways of approaching this, but this is the one they went with, and that works. But the question that then needs to be answered is why would Otacon have a level 4 card. Unlike any random soldier, Otacon has a very specific reason to be in certain places. Otacon is somebody that needs to be mostly contained to his office because those in charge don’t want him to know too much. Therefore, the level card he has should not surpass the level that is required to enter his office. Liquid wouldn’t give him a level 4 card if he had a level 3 office and risk him sneaking around. He would only take as much of a risk as he needed to. Given these details, how do you make Otacon giving Snake a level 4 card make sense?

My Great Capture Screenshot 2017-03-18 00-04-10
Gray Fox and his handiwork

So the answer to my weird question is simple: Make his office door level 4. But this introduces another problem. Snake needs to get into the office before he gets the card. There are a few ways that this could have been handled. Both dropping in through the vents and blowing up walls with C4 have been used already. What happens instead is that Gray Fox breaks the card reader in order to enter, causing the door to open for anyone. This choice is a smart one because it doesn’t draw attention to this predicament. You never see Gray Fox do this; it’s just implied by the fact that he killed everybody in the hallway and that the card reader has smoke coming out of it. I didn’t notice this my first time playing the game and only noticed it this time because I started to switch to my key card before looking at the 4 on the door and realizing it was unnecessary. When I discovered this, I was happy to see the game’s internal logic hold together so well. The Metal Gear Solid franchise is full of bad logic, but the construction of the Shadow Moses facility usually doesn’t fall victim to this.

So why does this matters or why would anyone who isn’t a pendatic nitpicker who cares more about plot holes than anything actually meaningful care about this? These details, while not being what make Metal Gear Solid stand out upon first sight, are what elevate the game to a higher level. They make the game fun to go back to because players are bound to pick up more details on subsequent playthroughs. But more importantly they help maintain the illusion that game’s often break, and this permeates throughout the rest of the game. When there is that level of thought behind something as small as a door, players will then believe that there is that level of thought put into things like boss fights. The boss fights in Metal Gear Solid get praise because while there might be a way that the developers intended for players to complete them, the best ones in the game (Ocelot, Wolf, and Raven­) allow for multiple approaches. When players think that the game has an internal logic that is never broken, then they decide to experiment with options like using Nakita missiles in the Sniper Wolf fight. That’s obviously not the intended way of completing that fight, but it works all the same. The game’s worldbuilding is part of what encourages the player to try these different approaches.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2017-03-18 00-02-05
Otacon giving Snake the level 4 card

In fact, the place where Metal Gear Solid falters is the few places where this logic is broken. Returning to that communications tower I discussed earlier, when Snake first enters it he gets spotted by a camera. It’s impossible to know that the camera is there, so most players run in, get spotted, and then complete that section with an alert. However, if a player dies or remembers the camera on a second playthrough, throwing a chaff grenade doesn’t interfere with this camera. There’s no logic or reasoning behind this. Chaff grenades have an effect on every other camera in the game. The only reason they don’t on this one is because the game wants you to set off an alert there in order for the set-piece to work. The same thing happens shortly afterwards in the elevator with four cloaked guards. Throwing a grenade into that elevator does nothing, and the game doesn’t let you place claymores or C4 until after the guards reveal themselves. What would be seen as minor annoyances in most games stick out more in a game that goes so far out of its way to maintain its in-world logic. It feels like the game is wresting control away from you.

Metal Gear Solid is a great game for all the reasons I mentioned up front. The characters are enjoyable, the plot is engaging, the presentation was revolutionary, and the gameplay is pretty good once you get a hang of it. The attention to detail and in-world logic only enhance these features by making the player believe more in the world and thus get more invested in it and hopefully try wierd things with it. And thankfully the game obliges by giving players a story to get invested in and mechanics that can be used in weird ways. A bad game with a lot of attention to detail would still be a bad game. But consistent in-world logic is what can turn a great game into a classic.

Note: This piece was lightly edited in September 2018 as part of a site overhaul.

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