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We gamers love choice.
Presumably, that's a large part of the reason we play games. We love to choose, whether it means going for the rocket launcher over the rail gun, picking Storm instead of Sentinel or playing through Civilization II as a ruthless emperor instead of a republic's president. We love our games because they reflect us and all the decisions we make, even if that means getting fragged, having to put up another quarter or getting erased from history by the barbarians at the gates.
This is why I'm continually baffled by the gaming industry. We like our gameplay open-ended, our endings multiple and our cameras free-rotating, but we rarely see a game evoke the same kind of primal calls of conscience we see in, say, a movie. Watching Luke Skywalker decide between good and evil in the original Star Wars trilogy was a wholly gut-wrenching, existential experience. Watching me decide whether I want to be good or evil in Jedi Knight II means watching me figure out if I want the Force Heal power more than the Force Choke. Even the gaming industry's darling Grand Theft Auto series, for all its widely acclaimed in-game options, has precious little meaningful choice. Steal cars to make money to buy bigger guns - whatever. Stealing cars to make money to set up youth community centers for low-income neighborhoods - now, that's an interesting moral conundrum I haven't seen in any games yet. And to be honest, seeing the same crap make it onto EBGames' shelves month in and month out really gets a gamer down.
So, perhaps you can understand why I was so surprised to find, during my first play through of Metal Gear Solid a year ago, some game designers really do understand the tools of their craft well enough to convey a truly meaningful choice. While MGS' iconic stealth gameplay has been imitated far and wide, from Splinter Cell to Syphon Filter, the skill and intention Hideo Kojima lends to the Metal Gear Solid series haven't. Kojima uses the unique choice-driven attributes of the videogame medium to get across a simple moral - do not kill - in a way that hits much deeper than any book or movie.
[SPOILER ALERT: These games are pretty cool. You might want to consider playing them for yourself before reading on. I'm going to try and be gentle about spoilers, but not too gentle.]
The original Metal Gear Solid is commonly remembered for its TACTICAL ESPIONAGE ACTION; that is, its emphasis on sneaking around and being stealthy instead of mowing down anything and everything between you and the goal. When we play this game several years later, amid the countless stealth-based games composing the genre MGS spawned, the TACTICAL ESPIONAGE ACTION feels stilted and somewhat contrived. Controlling Solid Snake with the degree of precision that any gamer born on first-person shooters is accustomed to is virtually impossible, and the combat itself is a downright nuisance, since the lack of any first-person aiming system makes it difficult for Snake to aim at anyone not caught in the camera's immediate view.
A few nights ago, I was tasked with finding a mine detector before taking on a very large tank. This wasn't too bad, thankfully, as I had already played the game before and knew where it was. But it still took me a good 15 minutes to do, and the first 10 or so were spent trying clumsily to sneak up on and whack the guards between Snake and the mine detector. I tried silenced pistols, automatic rifles, grenades of all shapes and sizes, even hand-to-hand combat - none of them could get me to the mine detector and back satisfactorily unscathed. After dying repeatedly ("Snake? Snake? SNAAAAKE!" ad nauseum) I tried it without attacking anybody, and got it on my first try. Hmm.