This is a follow up piece on some observations I had after replaying Metal Gear Solid, and I of course invite you to listen to Jackson Tyler and myself discuss the game over at Abnormal Mapping.
Terrorists are threatening the world with nuclear damnation if their demands aren’t met. They’re well trained, well equipped, and spearheading a genome army. Clearly this is a job for one man. Solid Snake. Master of infiltration. Sultan of stealth. He’s the man who sneaked into Zanzibarland and took it down from the inside. He’ll rescue the VIPs and disarm the nuke while being no more than a whisper crystallising in the cool arctic air.
Except he won’t. This is no ordinary sneaking mission. He and the player are being lied to!
Metal Gear Solid does a good job of setting up what the player should expect the game to be. We are told that we will be alone, sent in with very little in the way of equipment, with the objective being not to kill the terrorists. Instead we are to secure the hostages and neuter their nuclear strike capabilities. Fighting, we are told, will get us killed.
From the very beginning the game backs this up. The first action the player takes is to lie prone, and crawl under an obstruction that is blocking the path. The camera zooms down to give us the first person perspective of Snake’s view. Wedged within this space, the claustrophobia is palpable. You’re a rat scuttling around between the cracks. Straight off the bat it conveys a feeling that you are a foreign agent in this environment. This space is controlled by opposing forces, who know the space they are operating within. Shadow Moses island is as dangerous in its unknowability as the assault rifles that populate it.
From here the player engages in a brief game of cat and mouse with several guards patrolling your entry point into the island. The first traces of Shadow Moses’ hold over you begin to creep in. In order to progress you must wait for an elevator to descend into the area. It provides the only means for forward progression. The first interaction Snake has with the space is that it forces he and the player to wait. It encourages you to stay on the move to stay out of the sight lines of the patrolling guards. Within the first 5 minutes of gameplay we have been told to stop, yet we must move, and it is through movement that Shadow Moses again impedes us. Large storage containers destroy any clear lines of sight, while puddles of water on the ground will splash under our footfalls, bringing guards to investigate the disturbance. The space is forcing us to act a certain way. That is until it deems it necessary for us to proceed.
From here Snake enters what is one of the most open and also complex areas in the game. The heliport is a melting pot for a lot of the game’s mechanics. A showpiece for what the player can expect, as they strike deeper into the nuclear warhead disposal facility. Large spotlights continually sweep across the central space. Surveillance cameras make an introduction. Footprints in the snow will have guards pursuing you with unhurried curiosity. It acts as a showcase for what we think Metal Gear Solid is. Maze-like game spaces with multiple ways through which to proceed. We can avoid the spotlights, memorise patrol patterns, and duck under the camera’s ever vigilant gaze. A playground of nooks and crannies to explore.
The next area, the tank hangar continues to uphold the sneaking virtues the player by now has familiarised themselves with. Here is another playground, albeit a smaller one that preceded it, where Snake must traverse two levels while dodging guards and cameras. However it is here that Shadow Moses begins to reveal its penchant for violence. Snake meets the first hostage, DARPA Chief Donald Anderson, who promptly dies of a mysterious heart attack. Following this the game then throws the player into a confrontation with enemy soldiers. There is nowhere to run and so the course of action is clear. Kill them before they kill you.
From here it is imperative that Snake rescues the other man being held captive, lest a similar fate befall him. Here the space pushes against you again. Trap doors in the floor will open and try to swallow a hesitant Snake. Key cards bar entry to storage lockers. C4 must be used to blow holes in the walls, in order to get to the room where the president of Arms Tech is being held. It is somewhat cathartic to be able to overcome this space that has toyed with you thus far, through the rigorous use of plastic explosive. Yet this dominance over the architecture of the facility is a ruse. One final feint before Shadow Moses reveals what it has in store for the infiltrator.
From this point on the game becomes something of a gauntlet. Boss fight follows boss fight. We face down Revolver Ocelot, into a confrontation with Vulcan Raven. From Raven we meet Psycho Mantis. From Mantis we fight Sniper Wolf, take down a Hind D attack chopper, face off against the raven and the wolf once more, before heading into the game’s explosive final act. And that is to say nothing of the fistfight with the cyborg ninja.
The environment does its best to funnel the player into these confrontations. The early boss encounter with Raven’s tank is a ludicrous display of power. Set in an open space, the only way to survive is to be aggressive. In its imposing strength it sets the tone for what lies ahead. The first encounter with Sniper Wolf is a literal funnel. The violence is explosive as you trade shots with your opponent. There is little in the way of cover in the killing trench. Your objective is as straightforward as the long unbroken view down that corridor. The second encounter with Wolf may take place across an open expanse, the polar opposite of the previous funnel, yet the objective, and the means of accomplishing it remain the same.
What is significant with the second encounter with Raven though is how it takes place in a space that recalls the very first one in the game. A maze of freight containers that block clear lines of sight, albeit on a larger scale. The purpose of this space has morphed since its previous iteration. Back when we still thought of all of this as a sneaking mission. Now we are not on the move to avoid soldiers, because we are under-equipped and weak. Now we are firing rockets down killzones. Setting up choke points with explosives. We become one with the space to exert our violence and ultimately our dominance over our opponent.
Even when we are not faced with the terrorist leaders, Shadow Moses still makes its power known. One particular area sees Snake’s path blocked by an electrified floor grid. To proceed he must destroy a distant power source using a remote controlled Nikita rocket. What’s more is the room is also being pumped full of poisonous gas, granting a sense of urgency to the task at
hand. Just as the rocket’s fuel depletes, so too does Snake’s health. There is no rhyme nor reason to why a space like this would exist within a government owned facility like Shadow Moses. What’s even stranger is the space itself seems to be largely administrative, with desks and cabinets dotted about the room. It is like the room was willed into being, disguised as a not quite right area where people could feasibly work, out of the island’s darkest desires.
In another instance Snake enters the part of the facility where the nuclear warheads scheduled to be dismantled are stored. In an act of defiance towards the player, all of Snake’s offensive weaponry is taken from him, unable to be equipped until he leaves the area. The logic is that a stray bullet could pose a big risk, what with all of that nuclear material about. The guards however seem unphased by this, happily raking Solid Snake with automatic gunfire if they spot him. It would appear they did not get the memo. We are forced to utilise stealth, but we do not choose to do this on our own terms. Snake himself airs his own dissatisfaction in a codec call to his peers. We are in the thrall of the island once more. We do not make the conscious decision to play it safe, that choice is made for us.
By the end of the game the lie has been fully exposed, as you spar in a shirtless fist fight atop a bipedal weapon of mass destruction. The simple truth is laid bare for all to see. Why are we here? The answer is quite simple. We enjoy all of the killing. This was never about remaining undetected. It was a thrill to fight and triumph over the members of Foxhound. When scores of soldiers fell at our feet as we ascended the communications tower, our rifle thudded along with the elevated pace of our pulse. We reveled in displaying our martial prowess against a cyborg ninja. Confronting a violent past with continued violence. A snake’s deadly venom flowing through every action.
All of this made possible by the violent architecture of Shadow Moses.