In 1995, I purchased a Sega CD from my cousin. With it came a forgettable sampler, an overly-punitive shooter, and two decent games: Sonic CD and Lunar: The Silver Star. Despite my investment, the Sega CD never became a mainstay console for me. I purchased it on a whim because I didn’t want to see it tossed into a dust bin. But the games that came out of this great experiment never really gripped me.
What it did do was introduce me to a world of audio that made the rich compositions of the SNES sound as primitive as the Bloops from Pong. The sweet R&B vocals behind Sonic CD’s theme song, “Sonic Boom”, were as crisp as anything from my parents’ Hi-Fi stereo. The heavy orchestral tracks that formed Lunar’s incidental music punctuated the 16-bit world with joy, immediacy and sorrow. The Sega CD brought stereo into my bedroom, made me realize how a few words could transform my gaming experience, and made me dream of music that was not created on a chip, but in front of an orchestra . Most of all, it helped bring the spoken word into gaming.
Metal Gear Solid takes all of these expectations and shatters them completely. It is the absolute apex of gaming as a scripted sonic medium, and a milestone in the development of the games I play.
It seems odd to be typing this about a game in the Metal Gear series, of all things. In the NES era, Metal Gear was synonymous with horribly translated Engrish and confusingly non-linear gameplay. The series protagonist, Solid Snake, was little more than a generic commando. And the idea of stopping a rogue terrorist organization may have had a bit more weight in the 8-bit days, but seems like an action movie cliché to players of today. In the intervening years, though, the series found some novel legs.
Snake is still fighting against terrorist cells, but the ideas his enemies stand for are grander than just world domination. Snake’s antagonists come to represent fundamental ideas that shape war. They question love born of suffering, insight (or perhaps insanity) as found through unique gifts, and hatred derived from perceived inadequacy. These individuals become more than just obstacles to overcome. They portray the kind of complex compromises, equivocations, and circumstances that create enemies. The end effect is that you sympathize with the characters, even as you’re pumping them full of tracer rounds.
Likewise, the game concerns itself with more than just a preoccupation with stopping the forces of evil. There are heady, longwinded sections dealing with the history of strategic arms reduction pacts, the implications of genetic engineering, and the specter of atomic war. Despite feeling like a one-man army, the player is continuously reminded that war is not a game. Instead of glamorizing the soldier, he is seen as a cog in an ever-complex, uncaring system. Solid Snake is portrayed as an unwilling accomplice: a man venerated for his steel resolve, but left spiritually empty thanks to years on the battlefield. War is not seen as an avenue through which mankind can gain security, but rather as an organism that serves to propagate misery. In its most extreme incarnation, it is able to rob the individual of his humanity.
Metal Gear Solid features extensive use of high quality, professional voice acting. I don’t mean this in the sense that pivotal moments of the game are expressed through dialogue, or only that cut-scenes feature spoken components to help move things along. Instead, virtually every interaction with a character includes masterfully directed voice talent. It’s such an obvious progression from the awe that I felt at listening to my Sega CD that it’s hard to believe it took this long for production values to catch up to ambition. As a result, Metal Gear Solid delivers a cinematic feel that is completely unrivaled by current games.
Ironically, the bulk of the dialogue found in the game occurs in radio calls to other characters. The visuals here are mostly still graphics. The result is more “radio drama” than live action tet-a-tet, but the static pictures can’t be faulted too much, given the sheer amount of talking that is to be found. Honestly, it’s hard to play an hour of MGS and then go back to the sterile quiet of an RPG. There’s no longer an excuse to shy away from voice acting. Metal Gear Solid has not only proven it feasible, it’s set the standards.
Kudos should be given to Solid Snake’s voice actor, a man by the name of David Hayter, as he carries the game on his gruff vocal chords. There isn’t amazing range to be found in Hayter’s performance, but what is there is an earnestness and professionalism that keeps the sometimes stilted dialogue from flopping in “master of unlocking”-esque mediocrity. His mannerisms and devotion to the character are part of the magic here.
At the beginning of the decade, I was enamored by the possibility of experiencing a full-motion video game. The prospect of a live, controllable movie seemed to be the way of the future. Now, as I prepare to face the close of the decade, I’m less interested in capturing reality and more in wonder of the way established media forms are finding their way into my entertainment. It seems that games are fated not to become movies, but to draw upon the strengths of cinema, literature and visual arts provide well-polished stories. Provided the games are still fun, I’m all for it.
Metal Gear Solid stands at the vanguard of this new age. If it is any indication of how the new millennium will play out, I may find myself spending more time listening to my games than watching them.