‘Metal Gear Solid 2’ Was the Game That Stopped Me Being a Fanboy
Hideo Kojima's <i>Phantom Menace</i> moment threw me from gaming's increasingly unstable hype train.
If it's fair to say that Metal Gear Solid arrived on UK shores on a wave of hype back in early 1999 – and it is – then it's also fair to say that Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, released three years later, arrived on a tsunami of the stuff. The original had come somewhat out of nowhere: a surprise that became a media darling that became a sales phenomenon, despite the stupid name. The second had no such luxury.
Instead, Metal Gear Solid 2 was an event. It didn't have a release window, it had a fucking D-Day: a global countdown of breathless excitement and sophisticated marketing, backed by a games press ready to lap it all up and spew it back out. The recently-launched PlayStation 2 was (once again) being heralded as a new dawn for gaming, described not as a machine of primitive bleeps and bloops anymore but of "emotions" and "jacking in" to the fabled living, breathing worlds. MGS2 was the game that was going to show how far the medium had come. It was, in terms of hype, expectation, and cultural awareness, to games as The Phantom Menace was to cinema.
It was also nearly as shit.
On the morning of March 9th, 2002, I sat dumbfounded as the credits rolled on MGS2, having played it for 14 straight hours after getting it on launch day. To say I was a fan of the series is an understatement. I was a fanboy. I loved MGS, with its grand mixture of stealth mechanics and Hollywood production values (the voice acting especially), its coherent and clever approach to making players feel like they were the driving force in an imaginative, intelligent big-budget thriller that felt like a movie and played like a dream. I'd never seen anything like it. Nobody had.
I had the expensive Premium Package version: it came with dog tags and a T-shirt, which in keeping with games industry logic (and average player BMI) was a thousand times too large for any mammalian body. It also arrived a day later than my friends' normal copies, and I nearly cried. I completed all 300 stages in the spin-off (stop-gap, cash in, take your pick) MGS: VR Missions to play as the Cyborg Ninja for about a minute. I bought anything with the Metal Gear Solid brand on it. At a time when I should have perhaps been worrying more about exams, whether Adidas poppers were really still acceptable, and girls, I was theorising about Solid Snake's next step.
So imagine my thoughts when I found out exactly what Hideo Kojima, the game's creator and the hottest, smartest designer in the world, had been up to. Rather than elation, there came the various stages of grief, each crashing in sharper and faster than an HD Hindenburg documentary on 30x fast forward. What... the fuck... was that? Kojima had badly fallen out with his usual English translator between games, but why did it seem like David Icke had been drafted in to rewrite MGS, while obviously drunk and reading Orwell for Beginners? (Potential upside: would Kojima, now having obviously gone over the high side, soon appear on Wogan? And could I get tickets?)
Where was the bit where Solid Snake fought a Harrier jet on the George Washington Bridge, like I'd seen in one of those gorgeous trailers? In fact, where was Solid Snake in general? After spending two hours playing as him he was gone, relegated to a secondary role, so that players would foster a deeper affinity for his character while they controlled a rookie named Raiden. It was a bold move for a high-profile sequel with a huge established audience (and their expectations), but then so would The Empire Strikes Back have been if it was about a talking door handle that fell in love with C-3PO, and no-one wanted that either.
Raiden – and his section of the game – was so bland and forgettable that it was impossible not to wonder what had gone wrong. The hyper-detailed tanker that opened MGS2 featured magazines you could shred with gunfire, ice buckets you could knock over and watch the contents melt, and plasma screens you could fire at and watch bleed out. It was replaced with a boxy, beige oil rig dubbed Big Shell which was generally so forgettable that Konami had to include a map for you to get around it.
It was a long way from Shadow Moses' cold intensity, an Alaskan backdrop that seemed as unique and threatening as its inhabitants. Both games follow near-identical structures (which is The Point, it turns out), but whereas in MGS you were snaffling key cards and throttling guards to progress deeper into the bowels of an otherworldly nuclear storage base with a world-threatening mechanical minotaur in the middle, here you were constantly circling a featureless warehouse merely to get into another one, like a particularly gruelling work experience shift at Amazon.
The Big Shell's anodyne nature was made worse by a story that went from intriguing to baffling to The Matrix Reloaded in about six hours. Magical realism is Kojima's thing: the original game featured a character called Decoy Octopus. Decoy Octopus. But that made sense in context. None of MGS2 makes sense in any context beyond "hubris". Particularly galling is Raiden's girlfriend calling you up all the time to bemoan your relationship and demand a 20-minute chat about fuck all, squared, while you attempt to avert world-ending catastrophe. Oh, and she's called Rose, to your Jack, because Titanic must have been on at some point.
It gets more nonsensical at an almost geometric rate. There are so many plot threads, in-jokes, call backs, double-crosses and needless interruptions that it feels like the video game equivalent of pressing the "random article" feature on Wikipedia for 14 hours.
In attempting to tell a postmodernist tale encompassing societal control, AIs, the role of the player and the currency of information, among a trillion other things, Kojima dropped the ball, the baby and the fucking bomb. Sons of Liberty deliberately echoes the original for both narrative and tonal reasons, in every area apart from the rather crucial one of being interesting. By repeating the previous game's beats, Koj had to match or better its narrative and characters. Something to go alongside the intensity of this Sniper Wolf battle, or the invention of Psycho Mantis reading your memory card. We got a fat man on roller skates. Boss battles, staging, pacing: everything is a faded copy, a reflected glory. MGS's FOXHOUND appealed because they were unique, as were the places you fought them. Dead Cell is a covers band, and MGS2 is a tribute album filled with empty yet painfully over-earnest renditions of the original material.
MGS2's final hours are the worst: a barely-interactive mess of Codec calls and cutscenes filled with nothing but mindless exposition, a descent into madness as Kojima, desperate to tie everything from Raiden's relationship with Rose to him being the adopted amnesiac son of the President of the United States (Snake's brother) who's now Dr Octopus and is planning to bomb New York, to set it free, to Snake's other brother who is dead but is really still living in an arm grafted onto someone else but isn't really, goes totally fucking mental.
It was, quite simply, a phenomenal let down, burying its incredible aesthetic and mechanical advances – holding up guards, multi-layered alert and escape phases, non-lethal play – under a load of drunk gibberish.
The reviews weren't much better. Like me, members of the games press were obviously fans of Kojima. He was a genius, but he also made "adult" games: that is to say they weren't overtly childlike, as opposed to actually being mature. And in an industry yearning for acceptance as being something other than glorified toys, Kojima's sermons on nuclear proliferation, asymmetry theory, genes, memes and so on seemed like a turning point. If Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was the Steven Spielberg of games, then Kojima was both Wachowskis: a high concept king with a faux-intellectual edge pushing (some of) the boundaries of a medium.
We wanted to love MGS2, and the coverage was rabid. One mag had a regular "MGS2 Watch" segment. Usually, there was nothing in it. But the reportage of nothing was something. MGS2 was a business, and it sold magazines. Back before the mass uptake of the internet, games mags were still king. To get the latest information, you had to pay. And I paid. I followed MGS around from cover to cover, place to place, like some demented early 2000s equivalent of a Bay City Rollers fan, there the second doors opened no matter the venue, believing all the hype.
So when I read the reviews, I was elated. To see them now is like reading the babblings of children. When I finished the game then I wondered what they had been playing. One of the lone dissenting voices, Play (who I wrote for years later) gave it 78%, presumably killing whoever wrote it immediately after.
Still: did the others really love it? Later, another thought: had the mags, like me in the hours after I'd finished it, tried to convince themselves it was actually brilliant? The pressure from fans and PRs – and, in some cases, editors – to score big games highly is real: it persists to this day. Was this a factor? Was I just an outlier? Or had we all been suckered by ingenious, sophisticated marketing and our own expectations? I was in denial. I tried to convince myself I'd missed something. It had to be good. When friends asked about it, I said it was great. Parts of it were amazing. Had I missed something?
In reality, there was nothing to miss, but MGS2 was important. It was a personal watershed: the first time I'd really been let down by a series I loved, and also the first time I realised the terrifying ease on which hype warps both expectations and creative freedoms. Kojima, always keen to be seen as an auteur, joined fellow millennium-era zeitgeist busts such George Lucas and the Wachowskis in a grand mistake: presuming we cared about the minutiae of universes expanding, bloating, at a geometric rate. We didn't. Our mistakes lay elsewhere.
Kojima recovered with MGS3: Snake Eater, one of video gaming's finest hours. Its predecessor, however persists in my mind now as not a great game, or even a good one, but instead as an important reminder of the danger – and perniciousness – of the good ship hype, and all those who sail in it, whether they're fans, creators, or journalists.