I never beat the original Metal Gear for the American NES. The timing and patience required for stealth gameplay on an 8-bit console was beyond my pre-adolescent skills. The initial stage of the game was unforgivingly difficult as well – having to sneak past several guards, defeat some dogs in hand-to-hand combat, and then climb aboard a truck without being spotted. As such, I never made it past the mercenary mini-bosses, rescued any hostages or defeated the mastermind, Colonel Vermon CaTaffy.
I hadn’t given my failure at this Everest of my childhood much thought until February of this year, when the big boss’s cartoonish namesake, Moammar Qaddafi, came under risk of defeat at the hands of
Solid Snake tens of thousands of Libyan rebels. Qaddafi had fallen off my radar. As a child of the 80s, Libya had reigned in my mind as a source of villains – the West Berlin disco bombing, the Pan Am 103 attack, their communist ties to the U.S.S.R., and their assassination of Emmett “Doc” Brown. As the Cold War faded, however, I stopped worrying. I grew to take State Department pronunciations of “enemy countries” and “Axes of Evil” with some degree of cynicism.
So, oddly enough, did the video games I played.
Home video gaming started to come into its own in the mid to late 80s. After the E.T. fiasco wrecked Atari, Nintendo and the NES console stepped up and took over the home market. The demand for games was intense. So game after game was churned out, most of them throwing a lone hero against an unceasing army of foes.
Who were the bad guys in these games?
An exhaustive list of every NES game produced between 1985 and 1995 is more effort than I can put in on a deadline (unless some of those volunteers who helped Belinkie out with his L&O database want to pitch in). But most military shoot-em-ups featured uniformed bad guys, square-jawed heroes and simple, patriotic themes. The enemy countries were rarely made explicit, but you never needed details. They’re the bad guys, you’re the good guys – go get ‘em!
Of course, any detail on who exactly the bad guys were usually came from the instruction manual. If you slapped the cartridge into the console and hit Power, you’d usually get a slow-scrolling text box and then a quick shove into the action. Consider the opening “cinematic” for Bionic Commando.
Or for Metal Gear.
Or for Jackal.
Or for Rush’n Attack.
Or for Rolling Thunder (just to break the Konami kick a little):
You get the idea.
I don’t know if the current generation of video gamers realizes how recent the notion of Video Games With a Plot is. Sure, second-generation RPGs like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior had plots. But those were slow paced games where reading was half the point. Who’s got time to read when the Ikari Warriors need you to lead them through the jungles of … y’know, wherever? Or when armies of ninja terrorists have kidnapped the President? Hit the Power button and start firing!
But now, you can’t even settle into an evening of mindless Locust massacre without sitting through five minutes of cutscenes:
If Gears of War came out twenty-five years ago, it would be Contra. Hell, it was Contra.
But with the growing graphical capabilities of home consoles came a growing emphasis on story associated with gameplay. And as stories grew more cinematic, they grew more complex as well. Even standard military shooters and espionage action/adventure games started to take on deeper plots, more fleshed-out characters and a more theatrical feel.
And the biggest turning point was Metal Gear Solid.
Metal Gear Solid for the PSX was the most successful action platformer to incorporate cutscenes. While Japanese RPGs had made use of them for years (Final Fantasy 7 breaking a lot of ground), they had never been used in an action game as effectively as in MGS. Plot details, mission assignments and clues for how to proceed were all revealed through 3D rendered graphics. They looked clunky, even at the time, but moved with a fluidity that was closer to real than we’d ever come.
Why did MGS in particular need so many cutscenes? Because Hideo Kojima had a story to tell.
He’d had a story to tell with the original Metal Gear as well, but American audiences missed out on it. In the original version for the Japanese MSX2 home computer, the final boss was not Colonel Vermon CaTaffy but the military commander who sent you on the mission – “Big Boss” himself! What a twist! Unfortunately, the home video game console Famicom and the NES got an unauthorized port, changing up some of the gameplay and the villainous mastermind.
So video gamers got a straightforward story in 1988 with the original NES Metal Gear and a highly complex story in 1998 with the PSX Metal Gear Solid. But in the intervening ten years, the story didn’t just change. It also grew a lot more cynical.
To sum up briefly (deep breath):
In Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake is dispatched to nuclear weapons facility Shadow Moses deep in Alaska, which has been seized by terrorists. However, in the process of sneaking through the facility, Snake learns that (1) a Metal Gear walking tank is being housed at the facility; (2) the terrorists are former members of an American special forces unit, codenamed FOXHOUND; (3) Snake has been infected with a virus that’s tailored to kill only members of FOXHOUND, (4) so that the U.S. Gov’t can get its hands on the Metal Gear tank, (5) which is piloted by Liquid Snake, Solid Snake’s twin brother, (6) both of whom are clones of military commander “Big Boss” (remember him?).
And that’s considered one of the simpler plots in the franchise.
But this isn’t just about the Metal Gear franchise. This is about the evolution of video games as a storytelling medium. And it’s also about Libya.
1988: simple stories, like the original Metal Gear or Bionic Commando. The gameplay itself was complex, with players wandering between levels at their leisure, but the story had no twists to it.
1998: complex stories. Now the plot will twist at least once before we get to the end. Friends become enemies (Rainbow Six) and enemies become family (Metal Gear Solid).
Can the stories get any more complex? What happens in the late 00s: 2008, 2009, 2010?
The video game that inspired this survey, a game I recently completed, was 2010’s Just Cause 2. It’s a compelling 3rd person shooter that blends the sandbox play of Grand Theft Auto with the high-energy stunts of Bionic Commando. It’s set in a richly rendered tropical paradise. The game features a variety of play styles and mission types, all challenging and satisfying.
But what’s the story?
To recap: the “Agency” (read: the CIA) sends in one of its top hitmen and saboteurs to destabilize a foreign government. Why? Because the last President was a willing pawn of the U.S. and the new one isn’t.
While the game doesn’t make explicit the U.S.’s interest in Panau until the final mission, it’s not hard to deduce. Especially as the game starts rewarding you for blowing up oil rigs. And petroleum depots. And oil pipelines. As special agent Rico Rodriguez, you can advance the storyline by either causing random chaos or by aiding the cause of a local warlord – a Communist demagogue, a radical Islamist or a crime boss. At the end of the game, you’ll have to pick one of these to be the next ruler of Panau, after you get done murdering the old one.
I consider myself pretty cynical when it comes to global politics. But I couldn’t write a game this gritty and expect it to sell. You play a CIA agent who invades a foreign country, topples the current President and replaces him with a new one who’ll be more friendly to the oil-hungry powers. Forget all notions of liberty, justice or peace – that’s as mercenary a view of geopolitics as one could hope to find. And it’s in one of the most popular video games of 2010.
Playing Just Cause 2 while the news is full of stories about Western special agents intervening in the Libyan rebellion is a little bracing.
(JC2 walks back a little from its cynicism in the final chapter, but that’s almost an afterthought)
And Just Cause 2 isn’t alone in this. Consider Grand Theft Auto 4 and the rest of the series, in which you play a rising druglord pitting inner-city gangs against each other. Or how about Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, in which the American intelligence community allows a Special Forces soldier to participate in the massacre of civilians at a Moscow airport?
Rescuing the President from ninjas, this ain’t.
So what’s changed in the last twenty years?
For one, graphical rendering capabilities have grown more sophisticated. The miniature movies that bridge the levels of play are no longer just cartoon heads and scrolling text accompanied by a teletype noise. They’re now full-motion video, or animation so rich that it almost passes for reality. With these tools at your disposal, you can communicate a more layered message. The mission briefing is no longer limited to 255 characters.
But that’s not quite enough. Having a more movie-like medium at your disposal doesn’t guarantee a more complex message. As evidence, I submit the corpus of Michael Bay.
For another, the line between “action” and “role-playing” has been blurred. Video game RPGs have always had complex plots. Plots were their chief feature – if they didn’t have plot, all they had was a different palette of enemy sprites and a new name for the “Healing” spell. So you had the Dragonlord offering you the chance to rule at his side in Dragon Quest, or Golbez’s true identity in Final Fantasy IV, long before action games offered any twists in their linear story.
But that’s not quite enough, either. There’s a difference between being betrayed by one’s former masters – a plot common to many stories involving ninja, government assassins or super cyborgs – and serving one’s masters faithfully to accomplish a questionable end. One’s a recognizable tale of redemption. The other leaves you asking whether it’s worth it to get up in the morning.
My theory (and I’m only partly satisfied with this) is that this is a natural evolution of the medium. When a new storytelling outlet emerges, the first stories will always be the common ones – the Hero’s Journey, the Community Triumphing over Adversity, Boy Meets Girl, etc. The next generation of storytellers will stretch their wings, trying more complex tales. And the next generation after that will be the ones to turn the gaze inward, using metafiction to question the validity of storytelling rhetoric itself.
Film is a good example, one of the few new media that’s unfolded in recent memory. The very first films were straightforward stories, from the simple narrative of The Great Train Robbery to the light but intricate hijinks of The Philadelphia Story. Later generations used movies not just as another voice for culture, but as a means to question the existing cultural narrative. Consider The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, or In The Heat of the Night. By the late Sixties and Seventies, movies were now rewriting the narrative format in order to tell stories that challenged our conceptions (Easy Rider, Dog Day Afternoon, Apocalypse Now).
The process of using movies to challenge an audience seems natural to us now. But it took at least three generations to get to the point where it was common. Plenty of movies were preachy before that point. But the language of film itself – editing, pacing, cinematography, soundtrack – wasn’t used to confuse the notions of Hero and Villain until the movie business was good and established.
Perhaps the video game industry, now more profitable than Hollywood, has reached that same point. Maybe the stories available to a video game have evolved from simple beat-em-ups – you’re the good guy, there’s the bad guy, kill kill kill – to introspective journeys. Maybe the third generation of video game designers has looked back at the last two and said, “Yes, but what else is there?”
As the villains of my childhood – Qaddafi, Mubarrak – give way to the politics of new generations, I started reconsidering the games of my childhood as well. Is Just Cause 2 a response to Rush’n Attack? Is Grand Theft Auto a commentary on the urban warfare of Bad Dudes? Are we not just supposed to beat these villains, but question whether the Hero/Villain label fits anymore?
Maybe. I’m guessing here. I’m honestly not 100% satisfied with this answer. If you have a better notion for why video game plots are more complex, cynical and meta-fictive than ever before, sound off in the comments. And tell me which games you’re playing, too. I’m always looking for something challenging, and I don’t just mean the boss battles.