Friday, August 31, 2012

Naked Snake and the Philosopher's Stone

Like the rest of the series, MGS3 begins with a fucklot of cutscenes. My first mistake, it seems, was paying attention to the dialogue.

Not because the dialogue is bad, mind you--it isn't--but because the MGS series uses the dialogue both to describe the diegetic world and to poke holes in the plastic film of the fourth wall. The map is not the terrain, and the narrative is not the game. The diegetic gameworld has little concept of Continue, of course, and we all accept that any sentence that ends with "...or you'll die horribly" should be read to mean "...or you'll have to restart from the next checkpoint." Stealth games carry their own suspension of disbelief, that searches for an intruder will eventually be called off, as opposed to escalating into the kind of concentric search-and-destroy operation for which security forces are trained. The consequences of getting caught have to be severe enough to be interesting, but forgiving enough to be fun. But Major Zero really lays it on thick with the stealth stuff, exclaiming that you musn't engage the enemy at all, must leave no ammo casings, blood spatter, or any evidence at all that you were ever there. It's a lot to ask, even from a Metal Gear standpoint. Even with the (interesting, but not all that different) non-lethal options available in MGS2, nobody would look at an area Solid Snake had passed through and have any question that a heavy armed and highly trained special forces operative had been in to visit.

Still, I found myself wanting to do a full-on stealth thing, to actually avoid foes entirely, and the new camouflage functionality, combined with my old tricks from the previous games, seemed like it would fit the bill. (It didn't.) So I got seen, a lot. I tranq'd (tranqued?) a lot of people, and felt vaguely guilty for doing so. I broke necks and slit throats when I got annoyed. And I got seen. A lot. To the point that, fifty years later, there ought to be folk legends in Russia about the clumsy CIA agent who kept bumping into guards by accident.

You can imagine how gratified I felt, having tried to hard to be inconspicuous and play to Zero's specifications, when Volgin fired a nuke into the valley. Unlike the knife, the garrotte, and the needle, the Davy Crockett portable nuclear missile has never really been considered a "stealth" weapon.

Perhaps the story was playing a joke on the unrealities of the Tactical Espionage Action genre. Perhaps Zero was merely alerting the player, in a roundabout manner, of the types of things the NPCs would notice that they hadn't in previous games. Perhaps he was underscoring the diegetic point that it's 1964, FOX-HOUND doesn't exist yet, and the entire concept of Low-Intensity Conflict is still finding its legs. Intelligence and counterintelligence are older than dirt, of course, so at times it's difficult to remember that the shadow wars that made up American military operations through the latter half of the 20th century were breaking a lot of new ground. JFK might have been James Bond's biggest fan, but "James Bond" was hardly something that could be made into Standard Operating Procedure.

At any rate, at the commencement of Operation Snake Eater, I'd remind myself that this was still a Metal Gear game, and Zero could go fuck himself, because I'd be engaging the enemy violently and often. Which brings us to the second major point of confusion: the alarm system. More accurately, the lack thereof.

1 and 2 have a pretty simple, standardized, game-like approach to alarms. They go off, you break the line of sight and hide until it goes away. MGS2 added a few things like radio check-ins for dead/unconscious guards, but basically the pattern held. Worse came to worst, you could always just leave the area for a clean slate.

Most of MGS3 is outdoors, and there are very few alarms to pull. Reinforcements are handled by radio and person-to-person contact. So if somebody sees you, even if the Alert is blaring in the upper-right of your HUD, it goes away as soon as your observer does. There is no "general alarm" to worry about, just the guy who saw you, and anyone in range of his voice. The guy with the radio has a very long voice, but the principle holds, and logic compels you to disable him first. The logic of stealth in MGS3 is in this way more brutal than its predecessors: when you've been seen, hiding is useless. You survive by eliminating witnesses, and making sure you don't leave any living bodies, corpses, bloodstains or bullet-casings lying out where people might stumble onto them and get suspicious. (This last point leads to the more hilarious and/or horrifying moments of MGS3 when you're panicked and killing too quickly to hide the evidence, eventually leading to a badly injured Snake standing atop a pile of corpses like Frank Castle in Born.)

I was nearly finished with the game by the time I "got" this at any intuitive level, and consequently I missed a lot of weapons and items along the way. I'm replaying it now, and it's both thrilling and dull to move smoothly through a game that confounded me at every turn for so long. I stumble upon an AK-47, and wonder, why? Knowing for a fact that I can complete the game with a tranq pistol and my bare fists, why would I bother with this clumsy, unpredictable, score-killing death machine?

Which brings me to the third point that confused me for so long: not only are there redundant solutions to every conceivable problem in MGS3, but the solutions learned from the previous games are almost invariably impractical. The heavier weaponry is almost always more fun than it is practical, and I suppose that's a substantive achievement for the genre. Confusing as hell, but substantive.

In summary, 1) genre conventions override narrative conceits, 2) fight, not flight, and 3) prioritize the new shit. One could easily make the argument that these lessons, and my failure to learn them, comprise a neat allegory of my professional malaise. One would not be me, because me has one last to add: the most important red flag, when dealing with depression, is inability to enjoy things that usually bring pleasure. If I've learned one useful thing from the past five years, it'd probably be that it's harder to notice that flag when the things you do for fun are so closely linked with the things you do professionally. When you think of yourself primarily as someone who writes, games, and writes about games, it's not an occupational hazard when you find yourself unable to muster the interest to do any of those things for pleasure. It's a yawning chasm, a bright black void.

I've fucked up. A lot.

And thus, I Continue.

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