You may remember about a month ago I asked about whether or not I should go buy Metal Gear Solid 4. I loved the first one, enjoyed the second, avoided the third and now, rented the fourth.
There’s a phenomenon that’s popping up far too often in major game releases, especially anything that’s got more than a threadbare plot. I first noticed it in Halo 2: there’s a scene where Master Chief has to eject from a spaceship and guide himself through a raging battlefield of ships firing on each other, through a planet’s atmosphere to the surface of the planet below. You walk Master Chief up to the lip of the ship you’re jumping out of…and then a cutscene shows him doing all the cool things to survive, giving you control once the exciting part is over. You walk right up to the brink of something entertaining and enthralling, and then have it taken out of your hands so that the cinematics guys have something to do.
With MGS4, imagine that…but for about half an hour.
You start out the game in a war zone – no, wait, you start out by watching a jarringly live-action faux game show, followed by a commercial, followed by the war zone – where you literally walk around until you trigger the game showing you something exciting happening. Walk around, cinematic of you getting fired at. Walk around some more, cinematic of giant robots walking through the street. Run into a building, cinematic triggers showing you escaping from the robots. Another 5-10 minutes of cinematics and backstory later, and you’re actually in a situation where you’re allowed to, you know, do something.
It was at the “do something” point that I ran around, hid from some soldiers, and then realized that any will I had to play this game any further was totally sapped. How a game starts is a lot like how a novel or a movie starts: without a hook to grab on to, to hang your intrigue on, what you’re ultimately left with is the overindulgence of the auteur, deciding that their vision is more important than your experience. What games like MGS4 teach you as a player is that your involvement is a necessary evil rather than a desired outcome, the game itself the imperfect vessel of a vision.
I may have missed a life-changing experience, a deeply revelatory reimagining of the way I play games. On the other hand, I have several hours of my life that I would have otherwise spent wondering when the hell that was going to happen. I’d say I came out ahead.