I was recently replaying Metal Gear Solid, a game that is often cited as being a turning point in videogame storytelling. While I think people let the game off the hook a little bit for some of its heavy-handedness, I generally agree with this praise. The quality of the voice acting, writing, and presentation set a new bar in 1998. However, the quality of Metal Gear Solid’s narrative goes beyond just these obvious aspects. The setting of Shadow Moses is built with an in-world logic that helps the game maintain a high level of immersion. Small details that a lot of players probably don’t notice (and that I didn’t pick up when I first played the game a few years ago) make the world feel real and make the player more invested in 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.
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 basically Metroid if Samus opened doors in the most boring way possible. 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 question that then needs to be answered is why would Otacon have a level 4 card? Sure he’s an important person in the operation, but why level 4 specifically. Otacon is somebody that needs to be mostly contained to his office because those in charge don’t want him to know the negative implications of his work. Therefore, the level card he has should not surpass the level that is required to enter his office. Given these details, how do you make Otacon giving Snake a level 4 card make sense?
You’re probably thinking that 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 getting 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 doesn’t fall victim to this.
The question that I should probably answer now is the one about why this matters. 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.
In fact, the place where Metal Gear Solid falters is the few places that 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.
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 hold up its end of the deal. 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. 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 masterpiece.