I've been writing about video games for close to nine years now, and I've never been able to write about my favourite game in a way that satisfies me. It's become my white whale – every so often I go after it, catch a bit of flesh, and the sea stinks of hot blood until it passes again.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is about hunting. And eating. It's a game where you lie in the grass with your knife out and watch the pale green blades flatten in the distance, a rustling of something moving ever closer. You must not be found. You have to hold still for long stretches, the enemy's footfall incidentally retreating while you think about dinner. While the snake comes within your arm's reach.
It's also about the low ache of human bones and how a big man's body can break and bruise inside, with deceptive ease. How I have to fix it, with splint and styptic. This big, big man, this military machine – and it's me who has to dig out the slugs and sew up the holes.
It's about how he wants his mama.
It's a Japanese game about the Cold War between America and Russia, about the fear of nuclear proliferation. Your adored mentor, an elite military agent, unexpectedly and inexplicably defects to the Soviet Union, and you have to go and kill her. You have to; it's an order, and the third World War will start if you don't.
At the end of the game's prologue of sorts, our hero, Snake (AKA Naked Snake, later Big Boss), a CIA operative who's just had the world yanked out from under him, lies battered and addled on the bank of a river as a rogue mushroom cloud blooms into the sky. We have just been put in charge of nursing him. We feel the shudder of hellfire flickering over his eyes and skin. We feel the heat of humanity's capacity for evil against itself, and we feel for our burly and brutalised young charge. We can pledge to bring him nobly through this – not because he's a hero, but because he is breakable.
Here's a thing I tell everyone: it's the only war game where mastery is dictated not by how many people you shoot, but how few. You wanna be a badass? Play it only with a tranquiliser pistol, an Mk22 "Hush Puppy".
Metal Gear Solid 3 is an indictment of patriotism, about the grim manipulation that underlies most of the duties publicly marketed as noble. It's the salute that hurts, the handshake you don't want to return, the grave you planted yourself.
The Metal Gear Solid 3 trailer, as shown at E3 2003
Until I played it for the first time, a few years after 9/11, I didn't actually know that nukes do not just go away. That their rods and their fetid coolants remain thrust into the guts of this planet forever like bad cells – the fear of them freezes us all forever, leaves us counting our breath, lying there and thinking of our countries.
It has a doomed Russian cosmonaut walking in systematic circles, immolated by his own memories, still wearing his space suit, counting grandly down to a take-off that will never happen. That boss fight is such a fucking pain.
MGS3 has secret frogs, and you get a special outfit if you shoot all the frogs in the whole game. From someplace in this dead-serious Russian wilderness, the frogs sway back and forth in response to your attack. Bleating loudly, they're toys. Remember: games are toys. MGS3 also launched with a brand tie-in to Sony's Ape Escape. You can play a little optional mini-game where you catch cartoon monkeys. "Gotcha!" Snake gloats. "You're mine."
MGS3 is a ridiculous parade, a silly and off-putting video game. It has interminable cut-scenes and poorly-written dialogue – detached jawing about the movie Godzilla, about microfilm containing the secret fortune of nations, about bipedal tanks that hurl warheads; nerdy sci-fi garbage. It has weak sex jokes, heavy-handed references to James Bond and Austin Powers alike in the same self-satisfied breaths. I couldn't exactly tell you to play it. I couldn't tell you to sit through it.
I mean, I feel like you just wouldn't be able to appreciate it, mostly.
Like all of director Hideo Kojima's work, it's a game about video games – the ambitious, rebellious act of taking "level design" outside of the familiar military buildings and molecular structures of the previous two games and depositing you, the eager player, into woolly-massive wilderness. At the time MGS3 was unveiled, we'd never seen a character's crawl physics adapt to uneven land before, to weave, snakelike over its peaks and hollows rather than to skim along its geometry superficially. The tech is the thing; the onward march. The grass physics. It was Kojima's idea of an innovation, and it also meant to be a message about how climate and environment shape intent.
You could crawl into grasslands, through logs, into swamplands full of Indian gavials (in Russia?) and dangerous mushrooms. Bright, poisonous frogs. You must always watch your camouflage index – a percentage that changes based upon what you're wearing in what kind of biome, your clothes and face paint. Thrill: Russian soldier rooting around in the grass just a few feet away, unable to see you hiding in plain sight.
You have to kill to eat, because your nation has abandoned you. Everything you kill goes bad if you save the game, shut the machine off and come back later. You are not saved from the passing of time.
If you die you don't get a "game over" screen, you get a "TIME PARADOX" screen.
The best part of the whole game is a long, slow climb up a ladder, to music.
The ladder climb
It's all a lot of nonsense, actually. Make sure you get the Crocodile Cap and the Poop Camo. It's funny. In this game about patriotism and how climate shapes intent, you will have to listen to interminable cinema puns and weird bathroom jokes.
Actually, I don't know what to tell you any more about Kojima's sense of "humour". MGS has a stupid gay joke, and in its PlayStation Portable sequel Peace Walker, you can have sex with a 16-year-old girl in a cardboard box. In the recently released Ground Zeroes (which VICE covered here) you can find a bomb planted in that same character's vagina. I'm not going to try to solve this cognitive dissonance – my loving Metal Gear Solid, my hating this shit – with another good old Western swing at "othering" the Japanese. I don't know what to say.
See, I love answering these kinds of questions, but I don't know what to tell you when it comes to Metal Gear Solid. It moves sinuous and dark and slimy ahead of me in the water. Yet MGS3 remains the only war game where I can aim perfectly, hover the weapon sights perfectly – even quickly, if I have to do it quickly – and pew, my silencer, my tranq dart, the choke and crumple of my enemy.
Very rarely when I'm playing, I'll forget that I've accidentally equipped the real gun, the one that causes red-brown blossoms of blood to explode unexpectedly on the bodies of foreign soldiers. A BANG that causes me to panic and reload. I mean, reload the entire save file and go back. I want a no-kill game.
There isn't really a game that knows me as well as this one. Where I cry at the end every time. Where I love this sad, grim, muscled man called "Snake". Like, really love him. Maybe because I've been entrusted with his care. Maybe because he doesn't have answers about love and country, like I don't have answers.
MGS3 is a perfect video game. Just perfect. Well-paced, well-plotted, technically flawless, meta as fuck.
Okay. It's not perfect. But it's perfect to me.
But come on – you should play it. You should see if you're up for it: a no-kill game. You should see if you can feel the flicker of history over your wrists and arms – chilly gooseflesh – when they talk about Cold War, and the little tiny role video games can maybe play in teaching you what that means. The nobility of de-escalation, of invisibility. The sick, spoilt vein that throbs inside patriotism's animal.
There's this one boss fight, several areas wide, where your enemy is a man who's a hundred years old. He's been saving his energy for this final battle. This sniper – can you find his scope glittering in the jungle? Can you sniff out his heat signature from his footprints? Can you sneak up behind him and whisper, "Freeze," into his brittle, wrinkled earlobe?
The end boss battle
Can you? Instead of just beating the boss, can you do this? Are you able? How does it feel?
Come on. Come on. I can't do "game criticism" about MGS3. But I have nothing else to tell you. This is the end.
Okay, actually, what if I tell you it's really fun? You spread your spider-fingers all over that Japanese-made Sony controller, and you attain silent mastery. It's up to you if you wanna think about Lyndon Johnson and Nikita Khrushchev when you pull those video game triggers. Think about the walls between "East and West".
Aim and let go – pew. Succeed in perfect silence. Hush, puppy, here's mama.
I mutter at the siege I'm simulating, when my aim is perfect: "I'm the fucking Boss."
Never forget: nukes are still pulsing deep in the body of this planet like slugs, like bad veins. My favourite game about it is made in Japan, full of stupid jokes and long, distended periods of embarrassing dialogue.
Just play it, though. War games are your language. You can do it, right? Don't move. Don't make noise. Just aim, then believe. Pew.
Missed. Shit. Unsatisfied. Cold.