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December 8, 2008 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Driving Off the Map by James Clinton Howell is a formal analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2. If you played this game — even if you didn't like it (especially if you didn't like it) — you need to read this to learn what you actually played. If you've never played Metal Gear Solid, it's still an excellent example of serious video game scholarship.
posted by cthuljew (37 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Plate, meet beans.

And I don't care what philosophical tropes you drag out to justify his existence, Raiden still sucks.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:47 PM on December 8, 2008

Holy crap. My eyes hurt. I do want to play MGS2 now though...
posted by awfurby at 9:51 PM on December 8, 2008

Where is the bit where it explains why the game not actually being fun is okay?
posted by Artw at 9:51 PM on December 8, 2008

Artw: Yeah, pretty much. It's why I didn't play any of the MGS games. Well, that and the horrible controls.
posted by cthuljew at 9:57 PM on December 8, 2008

Translation for those of us who have never played a MGS game?
posted by schwa at 10:08 PM on December 8, 2008

I dunno, killing guards and hiding their bodies was pretty fun for a while (until Splinter Cell came along and did it better). It's the un-skippable cut scenes that really sank that game.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:09 PM on December 8, 2008

Where is the bit where it explains why the game not actually being fun is okay?

MGS3 was enough to convince me that MGS2 was an awful lot of fun.
posted by cortex at 10:10 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is the essay any good? I'd like to know more about it before I plunge into its unskippable* chapters.
posted by grobstein at 10:17 PM on December 8, 2008

I thought it was a fascinating read, but I'm one of those people that likes it when authors/directors/game creators actively screw around with their audience.
posted by Benjy at 10:48 PM on December 8, 2008

I got through the Preface, and decided the turgid writing style wasn't for me.
posted by moonbiter at 10:48 PM on December 8, 2008

I still maintain that the first MGS was one of the best games released for the first Playstation. It was fucking fantastic for the time; innovative, gripping, and yes, fun as hell, particularly the wide variety of unique, challenging boss fights. By the time the second one game along, other games had made new innovations that quickly made MGS's control scheme and general premise a little stale, something which the addition of first person aiming didn't help (and might have even hurt).

It still could have been a great game, even so, but for the storyline going so far into left field it crashed through the stadium wall and disappeared over the horizon, and the fact that there were almost no boss fights, and the ones there were, were stupid. The first MGS was really made by Fox Hound, and the replacement schmucks, whatever they were called, were too few and too boring to take their place. Also, the weird thing Otacon had going on with his sister didn't help any.

MGS3 was an enormous improvement over 2, and handily captured the "great game" designation that 2 failed so miserably at acquiring by giving us back control of a character we liked, providing interesting, fun boss fights, adding the camo system which brought a lot of the stealth back to the game, and giving us a storyline that wasn't crazy-retarded. I probably wouldn't put it in the top ten games released for the PS2, but almost certainly it would find its way into the top twenty.

I don't know about MGS4, because I can't afford to drop the cash for a PS3, and probably never will be able to. I doubt the aging gameplay style is holding up well, especially compared to things like Splinter Cell, and considering that it's a sequel to 2 instead of a prequel, which will require it to build upon 2's crazy fucking storyline, I don't hold a lot of hope for that, either.

Anyway, this article looks pretty interesting. I'll have to read it later.
posted by Caduceus at 10:57 PM on December 8, 2008

(And for what it's worth, if any game is worth a formal analysis, it's MGS2, if only because it's so retardedly confusing that's the only way anyone besides Kojima can understand it without half a dozen playthroughs. And who would inflict that on themselves? Besides someone who wants to write a formal analysis of it.)
posted by Caduceus at 11:04 PM on December 8, 2008

I have always felt a bit bad about never appreciating MGS -- like I haven't earned my gamer stripes. With many beers by my side I spent a week in front of the TV watching a friend beat the entire game, however, so I feel like I've done my time. But the over-the-top story, the ridiculous character names, the overwrought attempts at drama, and so on have always left me cold. Splinter Cell, however, pulled me in fully. "This!" I thought, "is what Kojima wishes he could do!" I'm probably wrong, though.

I hoped perhaps this article would explain to me what I'm missing. Instead it just made me roll my eyes and say "Goddamned English majors." I appreciate a good bit of deconstruction as much as the next person heavily involved with academia, but it does tend to feel like it's the hammer too many people want to use to attack all their many metaphorical nails.

And of course, The Onion said it better than me.
posted by barnacles at 11:13 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

On reading it:
1. The article is mildly interesting but really isn't much of a formal analysis, despite the author's adverbial insistence ("formally evokes," "formally recalls," "formally similar.")
2. The central metaphor of this analysis, of the subversion of players' expectations as a misleading "map," is neither insightful nor clever. I personally found it tiring and overwrought.
3. The basic idea - that Metal Gear Solid 2 appropriates material from the original game while simultaneously denying the original context/meaning - is interesting though not terribly original, but interpreting it through this lens of the "series/scenario/solid map" adds nothing but confusion.
4. There is little to no theoretical content here; instead, the bulk of the paper seems to be made up of tedious details ("Snake does X in the first game but instead does Y in the second.")
5. The greatest failing of this piece probably has to be just how unconscionably bad the writing is. Tenses shift without warning (and rare even starting out correctly!) and there is no flow or cadence to the sentence structure.

Therefore, I conjecture that maybe instead of being a formal analysis, this article is actually the work of art itself.

As evidence:
1. The website is owned by Delta Head Translations, which claims to do professional Japanese-to-English translation, specialising in the video game industry. Isn't it convenient that the writing here is essentially of the same quality we see in poorly translated console games? Poor grammar, dubious word choice, and mixed, incomplete metaphors.
2. These kind of analyses (and much of Critical Theory) are strongly steeped in Post-modernism, yet the actual content of the article is very pre-Structuralist - when Snake does Y in the second game, it's opposite to how he did X in the first game.
3. Reading the article is pretty much how I feel about playing a lot of console games - lots and lots of tedious, stultifying detail (grinding) with little pay-off and, at best, a nugget of half-brilliance here or there. (After a while, I'm just playing to get that damned end screen, and I'm willing to sit through whatever it takes to just be over with.)
4. It's high concept and promises a lot but fails miserably in execution and delivers barely a tenth of what we had been lead to expect.
5. Just like video games, lonely nerds are willing to write very long and very pointless analyses of it on the internet in order to impress total strangers.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:54 PM on December 8, 2008 [16 favorites]

MGS2 solidly gave fans the middle finger. Its a bit tragic that people who fancy themselves literary masters devote time to writing impenetrable texts like this essay. You don't need an essay to know what's bad about MGS2; playing the game will suffice -- but no essay contains the magic power to transform intentionally bad into good.

But here's the thing; MGS1 was a neat game, even if you subtracted the fairly cheesy plot. That's why the VR missions discs did well. I actually hadn't played MGS1 before MGS2 (but hey, the Metal Gear games on the NES and GBC were fun), and it was great, if you chose to ignore the growingly stupid plot. By the end of MGS2 I seriously didn't fucking care about who Raiden was or whether his girlfriend loved him or not, or who the Illuminati running the show were. Those poor voice artists recorded probably an hour's worth of material that I doubt many people listened to. Even skipping through all that, it wasn't very surprising to find myself fighting a final boss miles away on a NY rooftop. Just one more random event in the non-plot. The fact that the essayist writes about the plot without using the word "absurd" is either a form of academic dishonesty, or perhaps just a sign that this plot was not for gamers but for academics.

So what about people who actually liked MSG1's game-play or tone? Splinter Cell. Sure, it doesn't have the borrowed themes from Bond or Escape from New York (a "Map" which the author neglects to mention). Or maybe MGS3, wherein the author at least tried to communicate a message.
posted by pwnguin at 12:59 AM on December 9, 2008

I enjoyed it.

In much the same way the sun can be awestrikingly bright if you've been in a cave, breaking isolation from television or culture or video games can be an amazing experience. His mind was definitely blown.

Isolation is both good & bad. His unnecessarily complex structure is somewhat infectious. He's really scrutinizing that plate of beans. MGS2 is old material by now but he stuck with it. I cheer on his overdeveloped attention span. It's a really goofy thing to write, & if you pause & slip out of the deadpan tone you might not be able to start again.

It's a really frivolous piece of work, & that's sort of life-affirming.

I'm blathering & I'm going to shut up now.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:12 AM on December 9, 2008

I think I owned Metal Gear Solid 2, briefly. I took it home, installed it on my PC and fired it up.

"Press Start to Play"

Um? My PC keyboard has no "start" key. I think I was able to guess that they meant "return", but pretty quickly the training level was trying to tell me to press "circle" and "triangle" or whatever. I resorted to the paper manual, but that didn't make any mention of my PC keyboard either. In desperation I tried going through every key on my keyboard, to no avail.

So I took it back to the shop and bought GTA Vice City instead. A much better choice.
posted by mr. strange at 1:15 AM on December 9, 2008

I thought the article was rather interesting, though I feel it spent a lot of time trying to build an academic structure for itself that could have been better spent... well, not doing that, because it was pointless.

I'd say summarizing the article as "Snake did X in MGS1 and does Y in MGS2" is a bit oversimplified. The character/actor/player divisions are more properly the meat of the article, and the "map" blather was a needless distraction. The discussion of Pac-Man at the beginning and the discussion of Raiden's emergence at the end are really where this article makes solid points, and it's a shame that the author got so lost in the minutiae throughout the middle. (I think he thought up that "map" conceit and fell too much in love with it to scrap it when it turned out not to work well at all.) Overall, it was a useful piece for pinning down some of the disquieting thoughts I'd had about the game. I'm one of the (apparently) few who really enjoyed MGS2, both as a game and as an odd/intriguing text, and this article articulated a lot of what I felt but wasn't quite able to express (and didn't care enough to examine more closely).

Overall, I'd give the article a B, maybe a B-. Needed to trim at least two chapters off and rethink its focal metaphor somewhat. I rather enjoyed the (unnecessarily) complex prose, myself, but I'm used to being in the minority on that front.
posted by Scattercat at 1:54 AM on December 9, 2008

MGS2 had its problems, but they made up for it all with MGS3: Subsistance, which offered a normal 3rd person view in lieu of the fixed camera. As far as Raiden went, I didn't think we were supposed to like him.

MGS3: Subsistence just blew me away, though- I couldn't believe they did that on a PS2. The outdoor areas? The water effects? All without bump mapping? And the bosses were some of the most innovative boss fights I've seen in a video game- to the point where it didn't even feel like a boss fight.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:00 AM on December 9, 2008

It's verbose, as Scattercat says, "(unnecessarily) complex", and paradoxically will in the end not be all that accessible to the people who would actually be interested in reading about MGS2. Perhaps it was a university-level essay, which would go at least some way in explaining the form, but in any case, he posted it on the net. And we're all about lolcats.

It doesn't really help that he does miss the mark on certain points, but as for overthinking and plates of beans: it's a winner.
posted by flippant at 2:14 AM on December 9, 2008

I read this a while ago and found it very interesting. Yes, he's really overanalyzing in some places, but there's a good deal of trickery going on in MGS2 and I think he nails a lot of it. Of course, I'm one of those people who enjoyed the game quite a lot, even the ridiculous plot (it helps that I think the whole series is satire), and this essay deconstructed some of the strange stuff going on.

I'd like to believe that Kojima intentionally made MGS2 this way because I'd like to believe that at least one game designer has (or tries to have) a deeper understanding of how people interact with games. And I think I'd rather play a game that can be intellectualized this way than skip it and choose something more technically "correct." There are a lot of areas of interaction that games aren't exploring because it's easier to follow a previously successful model, and it's kind of sad that our common reaction to essays like this is to criticize the effort or offer our own quick ideas of what rulz and what sux. Something like this should be a jumping off point for a larger discussion about game design, but I don't know if the industry is mature enough yet.
posted by palidor at 3:02 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, huh. I was just skipping through the recent posts when my eye caught "solid snake" in the description here. Hell yeah, MGS on the original Play Station was a bad ass update to the NES MG, and a great game standing alone. Very immersive, and the cut scenes actually aided the story and gave it a sort of epic -- "Game as a Movie you're the Star of" feel.

Then MGS2 came along and I got all excited and then it kicked me in the nuts. Raiden? Who the? Give me Snake! Wait.. his hair.. spikey... what... ghosts... what..

I spent the whole game laughing manically going "LOO LEE LAAY LEE LAH LEE LOO LEE LA LA" whenever they tried to say it seriously. And then I grudgingly beat the game -- tranquilizing the seagulls was kind of fun -- and said hell no, never again.

I was teased into MGS3 but by then I had sold my console and it wasn't enough to get me to buy another one.

And MGS4? Someone introduced me to Yahtzee -- err -- Zero Punctuation, a scathing 4-5 minute audio/animated video game review over at Escapist magazine when the Eve post was here -- and he did a swell enough review of MGS4 here that I have no burning desire to even play it at a friend's house.

Ok. So I also watched the cutscenes on YT. Errchhh.

Thanks for the link. I look forward to reading more about the LI LO LA LA LOOEY LOOEY and all the other blender drama shite.
posted by cavalier at 6:05 AM on December 9, 2008

Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation was great. MGS2, not so much, as others have pointed out.

That said, MGS2 is worth playing just for all the dialog between Raiden and his girlfriend, which is fucking hilarious. "I went into your room Raiden, and it was empty. Empty! Just like your heart!" WTF?
posted by chunking express at 6:21 AM on December 9, 2008

“Is the essay any good? I'd like to know more about it before I plunge into its unskippable* chapters.”

All the action and thrills of literary criticism crammed into the sagacious wit of repetative motion disorder. Best of both worlds really. Like dancing broadcast on radio.
The beauty and fluid grace of modern dance as only radio can describe the human body doing something in the third person subjective.

(I’m eating blueberry waffles now covered with fresh blueberries (the governor, strangely, didn’t want his today *smirk*) and rich delicious orange juice, such a savory mouth watering breakfast only has the full sumptuous impact when discribed over the internet.)
posted by Smedleyman at 7:00 AM on December 9, 2008

They [videogames] aren’t my greatest treasure. Poetry wears that crown.

Aaaaaaand we're done. (In the Preface, no less.)
posted by The Bellman at 7:16 AM on December 9, 2008

Apparently I'm the only person here who actually liked MGS2 a lot. Sure the story was crazy and convoluted, but I had fun with it anyway. The article is okay. I saw it sometime last year and gave it a quick read and completely forgot about it, so I guess that shows you how good it is.
posted by azarbayejani at 7:32 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where is the bit where it explains why the game not actually being fun is okay?

Right here:

Players still complain about Raiden, and they still complain about the quality of MGS2's script. The persistence of these gripes suggests that we lack the ability to regard games as formal rather than narrative experiences. The gripe that MGS2 is more movie than game falls through because a close look at MGS2 reveals its form as a videogame that deliberately frustrated the player through the medium's interactivity.

. . .

MGS2's defenders have attacked the game's critics by claiming that they "just don't understand the plot." Those critics then respond that MGS2's script isn't very good. No, its script isn't as good as MGS1's. It's not supposed to be. The key to MGS2 isn't its script or its narrative, but the form that both ultimately serve.

posted by brain_drain at 7:40 AM on December 9, 2008

I enjoyed MGS2, but this comic was spot-on.
posted by Dr-Baa at 8:38 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Apparently I'm the only person here who actually liked MGS2 a lot.

No, I liked it a lot too. It was nutty, yes, and I think the essay is spot-on where it calls out the intentional frustration of the player (especially the MGS1 veteran's) expectation of victory and catharsis, but the actual gameplay was a lot of fun and I've probably cleared the damned thing five or six times. It's one of those games I can keep coming back to.

MGS3 really, truly was hard for me to stay engaged with, and I haven't made it through more than perhaps half of it because of that. I feel like it played like MGS2-with-some-fiddly-bits—I both admire the notion of the camo system and resent the goddam menu-jockeying it represented.
posted by cortex at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I still haven't read this essay, but based on the quotations and descriptions in this thread, it sounds a whole lot like another analysis of MGS2 which I've read. It's got some stylistic tics but I found it convincing.
posted by grobstein at 9:28 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

A game is like a joke. I'm not going to like it better after you explain it to me.

This game is like a joke in other ways, too.
posted by Bokononist at 10:06 AM on December 9, 2008

oh god, i've gone off on huge tangents about this series so many times before. can't... do it... again...

snake! eater!
posted by shmegegge at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2008

MGS3 really, truly was hard for me to stay engaged with, and I haven't made it through more than perhaps half of it because of that. I feel like it played like MGS2-with-some-fiddly-bits—I both admire the notion of the camo system and resent the goddam menu-jockeying it represented.

it's worth mentioning that mgs3 pays off in the end. it took me 2 years to beat it because i couldn't commit myself to its stupidity for the entire duration, but when i did come back now and again to continue it the end eventually was worth the price of admission. as with all the others in the series, mgs3 was a big joke and a middle finger to the fans most of the way through, but you learn to like that about it by the end.

not owning a ps3, i can't say if the same is true for mgs4, but from what I understand, it's loaded with fart and poop jokes. so I'm going to assume that - yes - kojima is still a child but the game is still good anyway.
posted by shmegegge at 10:36 AM on December 9, 2008

I actually liked MSG2 a lot. Sure, MSG1 was focused, fun, and the bosses were great, but MSG2 got weird and started to go in directions that video games don't go. I felt like that boy in The Neverending Story does when he thinks, "Wait . . . are they talking about me??" I found out later that it was inspired by the novel City of Glass and it shows (originally, they wanted to name many of the characters after the book, but Peter Stillman was the only one that got through). Maybe because I like works that, like Garden of Forking Paths work in a spiral function do I like MSG2. It was long-winded and melodramtic a lot of the time, but it also really wanted to grasp with concepts that you don't get all the time. I still remember when the AI's are trying to explain the control of information to Raiden, "No the point isn't to control content. It's to create context."

MSG3 was just plain great. I was hesitant to buy it at first because it was a prequel and I dislike prequels, but boy was I wrong 3 years later when I finally played it! The ending still makes me tear up a little and the soundtrack was phenominal.

MSG4 also was delicious for it attempts to synthize 1,2,3 and form a sort of coda. It reflects on the series while still being a great game to play (I played through several times as the controls were so much better). In light of MSG4, I've very much learned to love MSG2.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 10:38 AM on December 9, 2008

Pretty good parody of / tribute to MGS1 & 2 in flash animation. The voice performances for Snake and Otacon are pretty dead on, too. Part 1, part 2.
posted by grobstein at 12:31 PM on December 9, 2008

Oh, yeah, I always wanted to write a paper comparing MGS3 to Gnostic scripture and the idea of a needed sacrifice by forcing someone to betray you. You could even go so far as to compare the Gnostic/Catholic-Orthodox split with the corruption of the Boss's Vision that occurs as her disciples attempt to fulfill her will. The biggest difference, of course, is that while Judas knowling betrays Christ in the Gnostic accounts (after colluding with him for a great good), Naked Snake unknowingly betrays his mentor. Maybe not a paper, but an interesting parallel, I thought.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:36 AM on December 10, 2008

Stephen Spielberg hates cut-scenes
posted by Artw at 12:20 PM on December 10, 2008

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