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.

It’s not perfect, to be sure. To credit Konami with intentionally making combat obnoxiously clumsy is a stretch, and the entire scenario above could have transpired simply because I am amazingly bad at playing MGS. But it’s not hard to see this was what Kojima was trying to get across. Snake’s own role as the reluctant hero, elaborated in Codec conversations and storyline moments, very clearly illustrates his distaste for unnecessary killing, and Liquid Snake even goes so far as to accuse Snake of enjoying gunning down enemy soldiers, just to get a rise out of him. Kojima intentionally uses everything in MGS – from the memory card to the back of the CD case to the Dual Shock controller – with the intent of telling his story, so it would be uncharacteristically inconsistent of him to not keep that in mind while designing the gameplay itself. But MGS is still too crude to articulate any of this very well; to a certain extent, it feels like the player has no real choice quite yet.

So, from here, we proceed to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a game which managed to piss off all the newly created Metal Gear Solid fans by giving them a whiny bishounen punk kid instead of the beloved Solid Snake, and telling a story that is half spy-thriller and half love story at the same time. Perhaps the greatest improvement MGS2 had over MGS was a combat system that didn’t suck; thanks to additions like a first-person combat view and localized damage, killing was easier than ever. However, we also had a new weapon at our disposal, namely, a tranquilizer gun that works on everyone, including bosses, meaning, for the first time, the player was capable of getting through the game without killing a single person. Unlike MGS, attaining the highest end-game ranking (“Big Boss”) required the player kill absolutely nothing throughout the entire game.

But if MGS gave us too strong an incentive to avoid killing, MGS2 ditched the incentive altogether. Sure, hardcore Metal Gear Solid fans will most likely rise to the occasion, but the average Joe or Jane is probably not going to even bother playing through the game a second time, and will have had little to no idea they were ever supposed to avoid killing people. Where MGS may have been too heavy-handed, MGS2 wasn’t nearly heavy-handed enough. The same do not kill theme was in there, but it was buried underneath a plot full of weird. It didn’t do what MGS did right – that is, tie the theme directly to the game. Instead, the incentives to avoid killing were virtually irrelevant, if you don’t care about rating or collecting all the dog tags.

Last comes Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Unlike the first two, the game’s balance and pacing was heavily inspired by action movies, and as such, it was perfectly reasonable to play through like Rambo. The rewards for using non-lethal means increased, though; in addition to requiring zero kills for a Big Boss rating, each of MGS3‘s bosses only dropped their trademark camouflage items when you knocked them out. Perhaps one of the most significant moments of the game, however, pitted you in a boss fight against a long-deceased psychic named The Sorrow, who had the supernatural ability to communicate with the dead. This haunting “fight” took place in a ghostly jungle river similar to one the player had traversed earlier, except this time Snake was forced to wade upstream, dodging bullets and encountering the ghosts of every single life he took, ranging from jungle animals he killed and ate to gruesome shadows of enemy soldiers who recount exactly how the grisly deed was done. And, despite his extensive arsenal and elaborate hand-to-hand combat training, Snake couldn’t fight back – all he could do is continue upstream and do his best to dodge the ghosts of his past. This was no minor segment, either; should the player be fairly indiscriminate in his killing, it could take upwards of 20 minutes to complete.

The moral, here, was unmistakable, of course. Rather, it’s the way Kojima went about conveying it that was so interesting. Instead of using the story and dialogue sequences to communicate to the player, MGS3 managed to use the elements of player choice to set the medium of a videogame apart from, say, books and movies. In a sense, Kojima gave you a portion of the game entirely, and somewhat perversely, player-created – that is, a product of nothing more than the player’s earlier choices – and derived a meaningful message from it. He completely surrendered his game to the whims of the player’s choice (which stands as artistic anathema to people like Roger Ebert), and in doing so, he got across exactly the message he wanted. Indeed, it is the player’s personal involvement in the game – and thus killing dozens of virtual human beings – that makes this scene so compelling. Books and movies, as passive media, relate a message to the reader by presenting a story where the reader sees the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions and interprets from there. Videogames, as MGS3 would have us understand, can be aimed directly at the player.

It is the regrettable truth that as popular as the Metal Gear Solid franchise is, it’s never popular for any of these reasons. If MGS is the original TACTICAL ESPIONAGE ACTION game and MGS2 is the one with the annoying protagonist, MGS3 will be forever remembered as the one that is half James Bond, half John Rambo. But underneath that action-movie exterior lies a brilliant sense of game design that does, ironically, what so many games fail to do adequately: tell a story only a videogame can tell.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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