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October 3, 2015

Open World, Closed Story: The Non-tale of MGS5

-- Wherein we find that 1998 > 2015

The attention to detail in Metal Gear Solid 5 is something to behold. IGN has a comprehensive list of the minutia madness, but in case you don't want to read through a list of 100 facts I've highlighted a few of the more noteworthy details for you. Take this for example. If you knock out an enemy soldier and drop them in a puddle face down, they'll drown. If you leave them in a larger puddle, they'll drown faster. Enemies' eyes bulge in terror when they discover you. A box decorated with a hot chick can distract enemy guards. C4 attached to a jeep can be airlifted into the sky and detonated to take down enemy choppers. Your horse can poop in the middle of the road on command causing enemies to swerve out of control. Inflatable dummies can be used to confuse soldiers. Overuse of long range rifles will lead the enemy to deploy more binocular-wielding soldiers. A squirt gun can be developed and used to disable enemy electronics silently. Your dog can bark as a distraction and maul enemies on command. Flies will circle you and enemies will be more likely to find your hiding spots due to stench if you don't shower frequently enough.

Note this breadth of detail is enhanced three-fold by the open world backdrop of the game. Freedom in carrying out missions is perhaps unmatched in MGS5. You choose the time of day for your invasion: prefer the night and its concealing shadows? Be prepared for more guards. You choose your drop points, your mode of travel. You can kill targets, or kidnap them, or do nothing and stumble upon an alternate path of solving the mission. You can sabotage power generators, call in an artillery strike, be rescued by your chopper in the midst of post-mission chaos or ride out of the hotzone and into the sunset on your steed. Is the point coming across yet? You can do anything.

Just in case you don't have an extensive video game background, allow me to say other games do not do stuff like this. In fact other games don't even come close to doing things like this. But here's the catch: while the Metal Gear team seemingly deployed every resource it had into making the gameplay so hilarious and great and realistic and expansive, they missed one crucial thing. Over at Naughty Dog I believe they call it, Story. MGS5 does not have one.

About two hours ago I had to ask Google if I had beaten the game or not. I repeat, I had to look online to confirm I had finished the game. I even had to search multiple links because even the internet wasn't very clear on the subject. You won't be shocked to hear that hasn't happened to me before. And so this game managed the rarest of double dips: incomparably deep gaming content while displaying the shallowest story I've ever encountered -- and that's with me having recently seen The Age of Adeline.1
1. Only joking of course. Blake Lively could star in a San Antonio Spurs commercial and I'd probably like it.

Things weren't always this way with Hideo Kojima and company. MGS5 is, as persons with a solid math background may have guessed, the fifth installment in the Metal Gear series. Seventeen years ago the first game debuted and it was very much was the missionary in my video game conversion, a game that to this day ranks second on my list of all-timers. Though It boasted a level of detail seventeen years inferior to that of Metal Gear 5, Metal Gear 1 was elite for its day and age. Still, the mighty fine gameplay stood secondary to a story that has found few peers in the video game industry.

To explain it would drive away even the last of my reader(s), but let me just say that story man. It was so good. People dying, others being saved, one of which is dependent on your ability to withstand an in-game torture scene by living the real life torture of button mashing. In the holy trinity of video game narratives, there is The Last of Us, there is Uncharted and then there is Metal Gear Solid 1. Somehow one of those games is from the 1990s.

Loss of story is always a risk when developing an open world game. As opposed to linear storytelling that leads a player through set pieces A, B and C, the open world model allows the player to go to point E, then C, then A if they so desire. The intended atmosphere is to give the player a sense of agency, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The problem is that in allowing  a story to develop randomly, at the player's choosing, often requires each story element to be interchangeable, lived and experienced free of the time constraint of a legitimate arc. The fallout of Mission E simply can't impact the events of Mission B (or vice versa) if they can be played out of order, or back-to-back, or however the player seems fit. This kills storytelling.

In today's world of video gaming, graphics and gameplay are reaching all-time levels. I'm not sure how many more leaps are out there apart from the storytelling side of things. But as more and more games adopt the open world approach revolutionized by Grand Theft Auto, the harder it becomes to pursue sensible narration. Batman Arkham Knight came out two months ago boasting visuals and gameplay vastly superior to its forebearers, Arkham Asylum (2009) and Arkham City (2011). Yet critics and fanboys alike claim the oldest and least inventive of this trio (Arkham Asylum) as their favorite of their series. Why? Because it had story. Purpose was felt in every action. Is it coincidence that Arkham Asylum was the only one of the games not to follow the open world model?

Certainly not all open world games are lame, and not all linear games are great.22. Red Dead Redemption rode the open world to perfection, as it should have. When you're a cowboy riding along without purpose is your purpose. And with equivalent certainly I remind you MGS5 is a terrific piece. Sure, it may not have had a single boss fight (maybe it did, again I'll have to consult the interwebs) and sure the final conclusion reminded me a lot of the final 'battle' in the Twilight series, but I lambaste because I love. Metal Gear Solid 1 brought me into the world of gaming and Metal Gear Solid 5 is here as I ponder departing from it, as a baby due any day may force a reshuffling of life priorities. If MGS5 ends up being one of my final plays, I'll go out smiling, but wondering too. What could have been if a little 1998 was mixed in?

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