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When it comes to visionary videogame auteurs, there are few names that can stand above Hideo Kojima, the man behind the incredibly successful Metal Gear franchise. With his refreshing focus on mature, blockbuster storytelling, Kojima almost singularly turned the burgeoning world of late 90’s videogaming from a seemingly childish pastime to a respected narrative medium with the initial instalment of Metal Gear Solid.
This PlayStation classic was a action-packed stealth thriller, following lone espionage agent Solid Snake as he attempted to infiltrate an Arctic army base and neutralise a team of armed terrorists threatening nuclear destruction. Along his journey, Snake became embroiled in the international conspiracy surrounding the mysterious terrorist group FOXHOUND, their global aspirations, and the world changing weaponry behind it all…
Metal Gear Solid was praised by critics of the day for its mature narrative, cinematic presentation, and strong emphasis on tactical espionage action. Equally praised was Kojima, who not only directed, produced, wrote and designed the game, but also branded it with his unique perspective on the themes of war, technology, and the future of humanity as a species. At the time, Metal Gear Solid stood near peerless in execution, and such an immense experience begged to be developed into a new, exciting franchise.
The subsequent release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty on the PlayStation 2 in the early 2000’s (sensing a theme here?) saw a natural progression in the series’ scope; new gameplay elements forced players to hide bodies, watch their line of shadow, and even manipulate their environments to overcome enemy AI. Kojima built upon the narrative of the first game to include exploration of environmental disasters, fallibility of memory, and the increasing digitisation of society, all while manipulating the player expectations. Gamers and critics heaped praise, and Kojima grew ever bolder in his directorial vision.
However, the truest (and possibly the best) representation of Hideo Kojima’s exceptional skills as a videogame auteur arrived in 2005, with the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Suggestive name aside, Snake Eater stands alone as one of the most unique and finely constructed interactive thrillers of the 2000’s, and acts as an expertly-crafted argument for the continued existence of the auteur in the videogame industry.
Set as a prequel to the previous Metal Gear Solid releases, Snake Eater abandons the primarily urban setting of prior games in favour of the dense jungle landscapes of the Cold War Soviet Union. However, the rest of the conceit stays largely unchanged: following a stealth HALO jump deep into enemy territory, U.S. military operative Naked Snake is tasked with rescuing a Russian nuclear arms specialist, sabotaging Soviet-built Metal Gear weaponry, and assassinating The Boss – a peerless American soldier turned double agent. Oh, and she also happens to be Naked Snake’s former mentor as well. Dip!
One of the most notable elements of a Hideo Kojima production is its visual execution, and Snake Eater had the prestigious honour of being the most unique presentations in the series’ history. Save for the blocky restrictions that characterised the original Metal Gear Solid, the sequels have been commended for their graphical fidelity and finely directed cutscenes (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots remains one of the most exceptionally polished games to this day, despite being released in 2008). In Snake Eater, Kojima deployed his unique brand of stealth gameplay under the guise of a period action thriller.
As a 60’s spy movie, Snake Eater comes replete with a James Bond-esque theme song, an otherworld array of villains, and a plenty of cloak and dagger espionage. Each cut scene is lovingly rendered, with motion-captured performances and appropriate attention to detail. The extra challenge of convincingly rendering the lush flora and fauna of dense jungle landscapes is simply icing atop the proverbial cake.
This all served to inspire Kojima’s writing, as he padded out the game’s main narrative with untold reams of possible character interactions. Equipped with an emergency radio and a ready support team, Naked Snake can spend hours discussing tactics, war stories, and period appropriate pop-culture without moving an inch from his starting position. With every new area, adversary, and tactical situation, more discussions and dialogue becomes available, and it almost seems like this pool of pontificating is without bottom. Kojima’s work is so obsessively detailed and researched that you’ll end up learning more about Cold War era conflict and international politics than any university course.
Keep in mind that I’m only talking about the supporting dialogue here. I haven’t even started to examine the main narrative script of Metal Gear Solid 3, or incidental chatter. The interplay between Snake Eater’s main cast spans between topics as diverse as the horrors of war, the concept of patriotism, the acknowledgement of man’s indifference to man’s own suffering, and the inevitable march towards global conflict and destruction. This is all counterbalanced against the gentler themes of love on the battlefield, self-sacrifice and the façade of heroism in the midst of true horror and chaos. Heavy, man.
It’s one thing to set a high bar for a series, but to flagrantly somersault over established patterns and set a whole new paradigm is just absurd. Like it or not, Kojima lands it, and incorporates it into the core mechanics of Snake Eaters’ gameplay. Spies still need to hide from enemies, and that means occupying shrubbery, setting environmental traps, and even changing outfits and camouflage to best match your surroundings. Snake Eater’s ‘Camouflage Index’ plays a major part in maintaining stealth, and brought a whole new dimension to the series subtitle of ‘tactical espionage action.’ Similarly, injuries sustained in the wild must be tended to with impromptu splints; viruses and venoms counteracted with antidotes; stamina and focus preserved with stimulants and food. Spying wasn’t easy before, but Snake Eater forces you to earn every advancement.
When it comes to the characters of Snake Eater, Hideo Kojima saw fit to include all the horrific extravagance that fans had eaten up since the first games. Each Metal Gear Solid comes with a cadre of villains with otherworldly origins, and Snake Eater is no different: first comes The Pain, a disfigured warrior with the power to control hornets. Then comes The Fear (an agile Linda-Blair wannabe), The End (half-plant, half-man sniper), The Fury (flamethrower-wielding cosmonaut) and The Sorrow (bloody-eyed medium). This isn’t even including the electricity-conjuring Colonel Volgin or the gun-obsessed Revolver Ocelot, both of whom heap their own punishment on our dear heroes. Such is the imagination of writer Hideo Kojima, that these characters easily occupy the world of Snake Eater without becoming parody or farce, but as fully fleshed out antagonists. Half the fun is learning the new gimmick or the tragic backstory that shapes these monstrous foes, allowing them to stand out against the many patrols of conveniently masked men.
Most importantly, Hideo Kojima intimately understands the subtleties and nuances of the world of videogames; as such, he is able to manipulate the player’s experience in a number of thoughtful and heart-breaking ways. He seems to anticipate the actions of a typical gamer, whether it’s how you behave in a gunfight, where you might think to hide, or what happens if you just want to tea bag an unconscious guard – all eventualities have been considered, and addressed appropriately. Quick thinking on the player’s part can even alter the game’s narrative significantly, though I’ll leave that up to discovery.
An interesting part of this is Kojima’s integration of these videogame conventions into the stone-faced seriousness of the game. Supporting characters and antagonist will often stop actions and break the fourth wall, referring to possible controller options or acknowledging the game as part of accepted reality. However, Kojima delicately balances these moments against the accepted stakes of Snake Eater’s narrative; this may be a game, but Naked Snake has to save the world regardless. It’s a double-act that I’ve never seen another game pull off with such conviction, and Snake Eater is chock-a-block.
Outside of Metal Gear Solid 3’s main campaign, Kojima was sure to include some modes that weren’t afraid to make fun of the seriousness of his series – included are a plethora of Snake VS Apes trials, where Naked Snake must do combat with the colourful primates from the Ape Escape series (complete with banana stun guns!), as well as a Cinema Mode allowing you to relive the many cutscenes with added costume manipulation. Want to watch a tense pistol duel between Snake and Revolver Ocelot? Why not put Snake in Kabuki make-up and an American flag-covered set of fatigues? ‘MURICA!
There’s so much I could write about the Metal Gear Solid series as a whole, and yet no entry better encapsulates the true idiosyncratic experience of playing a Kojima production like Snake Eater does. As the first title in the games historical chronology, it’s a fantastic entry point for new fans eager to discover the series that put stealth games on the map, and it’s fleshed-out gameplay and imaginative narrative will keep old fans coming back for more. It also holds one of the most emotionally engaging and thought-provoking experiences a gamer can have, particularly with Kojima’s understanding of player expectations and the fine line between simulated experience and personal choice. The Metal Gear series is irreplaceable, but Snake Eater is the entry that earns the Solid.
What do you think of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater? Is it the stealth game to end all? Let us know in the comments below!