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On the Level: The Prison Cell of ‘Metal Gear Solid’

We focus on the pluses and minuses of a memorable scene from Hideo Kojima’s 1998 stealth classic.

by Ed Smith
Nov 24 2016, 10:11am

Our new column On the Level, by Ed Smith, examines how small moments in games can resonate throughout—and beyond—the games themselves, encapsulating all of their various qualities.

A handkerchief, a ration and a bottle of ketchup. The three items Otacon gives Snake, to help him escape from a Shadow Moses prison cell, encapsulate what most people find wonderful about Metal Gear Solid.

It's a strange collection of things, and you don't really know what to do with them. Much like the actions of the game, too. Sneaking through a tank hangar, fighting a robotic ninja and chasing a rat through a drainage ditch, after it's eaten a keycard you need to save the world: tonally, these feel like they come from completely different games.

Hideo Kojima's script borders on incoherent. In the later, longer, arguably more sexist and masturbatory Metal Gear Solid games, plots get twisted into almost impossible knots. But if you adjust your mental filter and use a little imagination, the idiosyncratic flourishes of 1998's MGS work perfectly well together, and form an amusing, colorful logic.

To wit: to trick the guard into opening the cell door, ketchup can be used as fake blood. The handkerchief helps you to make friends with some wolves.

A lot of plot beats, some explicit, some implied, flow in and out of  Metal Gear Solid's prison cell sequence.

A lot of plot beats, some explicit, some implied, flow in and out of Metal Gear Solid's prison cell sequence. Submitting to Revolver Ocelot's torture decides whether Meryl will live or die. You can call the Ninja for help, you can call Otacon, or you can break out yourself—it's all a small part of a big game that defines the player-controlled Snake's relationships to other characters, and with himself.

The prison scene serves also as a breakwater between the two halves of the game. Technological limits may have prohibited it, but the prison cell feels like a more natural place for you to swap Metal Gear Solid's first disc for its second, as instead of fighting alongside Meryl, your mission becomes saving her.

In the prison, Snake reveals to Naomi that he killed his father, Big Boss. The narrative stakes of Metal Gear Solid, during the prison sequence, change from those typical of military and espionage intrigue (stop the bomb, defeat the terrorists) to something closer to melodrama. As well as beating Liquid, Snake now has to find personal redemption in rescuing Meryl. His revenge against Sniper Wolf is complicated by the fact Otacon has a crush on her.

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More telling is how the atmosphere of Metal Gear Solid changes after the prison sequence. Everything takes place on the same Shadow Moses Island, but the initial sneaking sections through the heliport and the nuclear warhead storage building are more brightly lit than Snake's latter incursion through the communication tower.

When you escape the prison cell and walk back through sections you've already explored, everything is much quieter. There is no tank waiting to ambush you on the snowfield, no Psycho Mantis in the commander's office, no Sniper Wolf at the foot of the tower. Snake is much more alone.

The dank confines of the Shadow Moses base betray a gloomy, isolated mentality. Particularly at the summit of the second communications tower, when Snake, inside a rusty, chain-link elevator, has to fight—quite literally—enemies he cannot see, Metal Gear Solid starts to feel like Konami's other late-1990s game, Silent Hill, a game that openly tackled the crushing effects of psychology and unresolved guilt. After escaping prison, losing Meryl and sharing those personal moments with Otacon, the Ninja and Naomi, Snake is very much inside his own mind.

For all its qualities, the prison cell sequence also betrays Metal Gear Solid and Hideo Kojima at their worst.

But for all these qualities, the prison cell sequence also betrays Metal Gear Solid—as a game, as a series—and Hideo Kojima at their worst. It's a scene wherein the player is held in place, again quite literally, while force-fed exposition. Evocative visuals and playful touches: MGS is filled with these things. But the majority of its story is nevertheless communicated through heavy, overwrought dialogue.

The cutscenes with Ocelot. The cutscene with Otacon. The 15-minutes-or-so Codec call with Naomi and Colonel Campbell. The prison scene feels like a plot dump. Small, repetitive actions—wait in the cell, hit circle repeatedly to resist torture—allow Kojima to turgidly and ham-fistedly deliver story in a single, thick chunk.

But while the player does nothing in this sequence, it's still distinctive. The ketchup bottle twist is one of Metal Gear Solid's most memorable and delightful moments, as a series. Yet freezing the game's action so deliberately, in order to drive home characterization, story development and an overall change of pace, is a plainly visible, inarticulate choice.

'Metal Gear Solid' screenshots courtesy of Konami

Occasionally in Metal Gear Solid, Kojima is able to imply plot through action. The surprise reveal of Raiden, at the start of Metal Gear Solid 2's Plant section, is a fantastic way to throw players off-balance. They are frustrated not to be playing as Snake and doubtful of what they are about to experience. 

And when it's later revealed that the entire Plant mission was a test of how susceptible people are to received information and how they will keep going even when situations are absurd, since we all continued playing even when we didn't like Raiden, it's clear the illusion, terrifyingly, has been pulled off.

Related: The Greatest Moments of the Metal Gear Solid Series

But such grace is absent from the previous game's prison sequence. It feels like the culmination of everything Kojima desperately wants, but is unable to do in his games, to hold players in position while, rather than entertaining them, he verbosely explains recycled, academic ideas. This is the Metal Gear Solid series' worst impulse.

If I'm feeling generous, inasmuch as it twists the game's narrative, unites disparate ideas into a colorful whole and also bores players senseless with overwritten jabber, one might say the prison cell sequence is Metal Gear Solid perfectly encapsulated. He makes a noble effort to resist, but just as Snake might eventually submit to torture, the prison sequence, occasionally smart, also demonstrates Metal Gear Solid's weaknesses.

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