Jonah Schuhart, Contributing Writer
It’s no big news that video games and movies share a lot in common when it comes to storytelling. Watch any cutscene from any game and one is bound to find a cinematic influence.
One of the earliest games to change that was the 1998 smash hit, Metal Gear Solid. The game — which celebrated its 21st anniversary in North America on Monday— went above and beyond in creating one of the first cinematic stories in games while providing a challenging, yet creative gameplay experience.
The two mediums are so closely related in the fact that it can be hard to imagine a time where games had very little cinematic influence on cutscenes, and stories were told primarily through text rather than voice-acted dialogue or visuals.
The game was written and directed by Hideo Kojima, who spared no expense in using new, fully rendered 3D models and environments to tell the craziest, yet expertly written plotlines of any video game ever.
Part of MGS’s legendary status is due to the time period it was released. During the later half of the 1990s, new consoles such as the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 stunned players with advanced graphics, sounds and environments.
At this point in time, fully rendered 3D graphics were a novelty, and game developers were just learning what they could do with the new tools at their disposal. Over time, it was clear this new technology meant more impressive and cinematic games.
“The overall emphasis on creativity did a lot for the appeal of MGS, as it’s a fairly challenging game. It’s that kind of experience that paved the way for other, more cinematic games to come out.” — Jonah Schuhart
Metal Gear Solid was one of the first action games to make its cutscenes and story reach that standard. Before then, stories had to be told through text, and it was impossible to animate characters to the degree needed to make a scene feel like it belonged in a movie.
The game takes place in the distant year of 2005, in a world where all nuclear weapons have been abolished and a soldier’s worth on the battlefield is measured in their genetic makeup.
The player takes control of Solid Snake, the story’s protagonist and a former war hero. Years after retirement, Snake’s old Commander convinces him to come back for one last mission on the frozen Alaskan island of Shadow Moses. Snake’s objective is to stop an army of genetically-enhanced terrorists from using Metal Gear, a giant robot built to wage nuclear war on the United States.
The setup alone reads like the plot of a campy Saturday morning cartoon, and it leads into one of the most convoluted spy/action plots of all time. Snake uncovers a wealth of shady government secrets and conspiracies that lead him to question everything he’s ever known.
The assault of mind-boggling plot twists makes MGS almost impossible to summarize, which isn’t a bad thing. The writing and pacing is good enough that even if it’s confusing, it’s never two-dimensional and it’s almost always fun.
But how do you tell a story with more twists than a Twizzler without losing the interest of the player? This is answered by strong writing and cinematic storytelling. In order to tell a story full of deception, double-agents and misdirection, the designers had to find some way to give the player large amounts of expository information, and it just so happened the easiest way for them to do this was through character dialogue.
The interactions between characters are a huge focal point in this game, notably in the fact that the player cannot save their game without hearing at least a little bit of dialogue and the communication between Snake’s allies through his codec (similar to a radio).
Because of the game’s focus on dialogue-driven storytelling, MGS has a heavier load of cutscenes than most games. Putting aside the codec sequences, which are usually just character portraits and lines of text, the cutscenes using the game’s 3D models actually make MGS seem more like a gritty action film than anything else.
The animators used simple face models of the 3D characters to their advantage and added film techniques to make long-winded dialogue sequences worth watching. Shots are set up cinematically with proper framing, blocking and character direction to suit each scene. Techniques like dramatic closeups and clever flashback sequences were used by the directors that still worked on the character faces that are unable to show emotions.
The overall emphasis on creativity did a lot for the appeal of MGS, as it’s a fairly challenging game. It’s that kind of experience that paved the way for other, more cinematic games to come out. It’s hard to envision a world in which games like God of War or Heavy Rain — which is almost more movie than game — exists without MGS first proving that a cinematic game could be done.
The strong gameplay combined with the uniquely insane story set MGS apart from its contemporaries. While games like Legend of Zelda and Spyro asked players to solve simple problems with a single solution in a familiar fantasy setting, Metal Gear Solid asked them to get intimately familiar with the video game equivalent of a James Bond movie on psychedelics.