At the ripe old age of 33, I’ve seen my fair share of seismic changes within the gaming industry. From the excitement and subsequent shunning of motion controllers to the Internet and the age of connectivity, right back to the shift from two dimensions to three, video games have been evolving, changing, and in some cases, devolving, around me for decades. Most of the positive changes – like the advent of the right analogue stick for camera duties and broadband Internet providing quick access to an enormous catalogue of games – have made the experience of playing games more accessible and intuitive, but haven’t fundamentally changed our perception of what games are at their core. It’s much rarer, and thus, much more precious, to find a game that profoundly alters how you view the medium as a whole going forward. No game has ever affected me on a deeply personal level more acutely than Hideo Kojima’s 1998 classic, Metal Gear Solid.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

In the mid-1980s I was an incredibly cool kid, at least by today’s standards. Today, video games are cool. Sci-fi is cool. Comic books are cool. Back in the ’80s, you used to get beaten up for having long hair and a Star Wars T-shirt. In 2017 you get a right swipe on Tinder for it. It’s a mind-boggling change, and for anybody that is too young to remember how nerds were treated before nerds were cool, you’ll never truly appreciate the shit people used to get for talking about The Legend of Zelda on lunch breaks instead of kicking a ball around with the other guys. While I wasn’t adverse to sports in my youth, and I spent more than my fair share of time building forts and Tarzan swings in the local forest, I was quickly drawn to the stories on television, at the movies, and later, in video games, more than anything that involved physical exertion.

Me, circa 1985. Not cool.

Video game stories in the ’80s were a very different beast to those told today. While we may lament the difference in storytelling in movies and on television today in comparison to those of yesteryear, video games have unequivocally changed for the better over time when it comes to spinning us a yarn.

In the ’80s, we were in the midst of a war between the Commodore 64 and the Spectrum ZX here in the UK – both were weird PC/games console hybrids that used magnetic tapes as their method of storing video games. The tapes took ten minutes to load while your television – probably a 12-inch screen and weighing approximately a metric tonne – would spew out garish flashing colours that I later discovered were oddly reminiscent of an acid trip. There was little to do while these games were taking an age to load and so occasionally we’d break out the Pogs or have a go on the Spirograph, but more often than not, I’d wind up reading the flimsy amount of literature that came packed with the game I was about to play. You can’t fit much information into a cassette tape case, as you’d imagine, and so there was just about enough room to deliver some instructions on how to play and a bare bones summary of the plot of the game. But bare bones was all I needed. I was a kid with an imagination and I had ten minutes to fill in the blanks in the backstory.

My favourite games before I got my first console were the Dizzy series on Commodore 64. Dizzy was an egg who wore boxing gloves – more a necessity due to limitations of the hardware than for any narrative reason – and he had to defeat an evil wizard named Zaks via a combination of jumping over things and solving puzzles that ran the gamut from insultingly easy to comically illogical. Dizzy would go on to defeat Zaks with my help, the threadbare narrative being fleshed out in my head, and later games in the series would see the heroic egg escape a treasure island, visit a magic-land, and become royalty among the yolk-folk before the series made an ill-advised jump to the NES and never really recovered. The gameplay in the Dizzy games was never particularly exciting, but for whatever reason, I became enamored with the characters, and the lore of the world that they inhabited. For a few years, Dizzy was my life.

Treasure Island Dizzy cost me £3.99 in 1988. That’s around the same as what a fancy coffee at Starbucks costs today.

By the time Dizzy was trying to make a name for himself in the house of Mario, I’d moved on from magnetic tapes and had embraced the cartridge era. My parents got me a Master System for Christmas – forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing – that became my first ever games console, and I thought it was the best thing ever invented by man until I played my friend’s SNES and realized that I’d been wasting my life. Regardless of what system I was playing on, one thing remained constant; I loved video games for more than just shooting things in the face or jumping on monster’s heads. I was attracted to the lore, to the world building, to the characters and to the story of these games. What little story was there served as a foundation for me to build upon in my head, and while that was enough for me, the dream was that we’d reach a point where games did it for me so that I could sit back and enjoy it without meeting the developers more than half way. I wanted the television shows, the movies, the books that I loved, but in interactive form.

The original PlayStation was a massively important console for both gaming as a whole and for me personally as a gamer. Whether you care for the Sony brand of gaming hardware or not, it remains an indisputable fact that they changed the course of the gaming industry in ways that led to the medium becoming more respected as an art-form and that allowed games to move beyond their reputation as merely a childish pursuit. Games aimed at older teens and adults became commonplace, and while Mario and Zelda titles still provided quality gameplay experiences, it was on the Sony console that people went in droves in order to find richer stories and more varied gameplay options.

The original PlayStation gave the world many games that would wind up on my personal all time greats list – Silent Hill, Broken Sword, Final Fantasy VII and IX, PaRappa the Rapper, Resident Evil 2, Suikoden I and II – the list goes on. All of these games offered experiences that would never have been possible on any console before the PlayStation, and all of them had a narrative component to complement the gameplay that spoke to me on a deeper level. Ever since the first time I played Super Mario World on my friend’s SNES I have loved the Mario series, and as far as gameplay goes, I don’t know if a game will ever be better for me, but ten seconds after I’ve saved the princess I’ve moved on. It’s a fleeting thrill for me, and it always has been; a roller coaster, and nothing more. Those games are great and I’ll always love them, but I don’t think of them in the same way that I now think about a game like Broken Sword, which was by no means a joy to play, but did teach me everything I know about the Knights Templar thanks to an engrossing story of ancient conspiracies based in some semblance of historical accuracy.

Broken Sword is a classic of the adventure genre, in which an American tourist finds himself unwittingly caught up in a war between the modern Knights Templar, and an order of assassins sworn to eliminate them.

Metal Gear Solid was hyped in magazines – actual, physical gaming magazines that we used to read back in the day – since it was a new take on the action genre. While most video games of the time not only encouraged you to defeat enemies but actively rewarded it, Metal Gear Solid would allow the player to progress in the game using stealthier methods, avoiding many conflicts outright. When the demo disc for the game was given away in one of the PlayStation magazines I subscribed to, I sat and played the opening section of Metal Gear Solid over and over again, amazed by the way the characters spoke to each other, the set up for the story, and the multiple routes you could take to complete the first objective. Seriously, I probably spent more time playing the first fifteen minutes of Metal Gear Solid over and over in slightly different ways than I did playing some fully priced games.

Metal Gear Solid was the game I had been waiting my whole life for. It was an interactive action movie starring a grizzled old army veteran coming out of retirement for one last job to take down some terrorists and the occasional giant robotic death machine. It was kinda ridiculous, and kinda campy, but it had a story full of twists and turns, a colourful and entertaining cast of characters, and a smattering of real world politics to give the player something to think about in amongst all the action movie clichés and occasional melodrama. It had surprisingly strong voice acting for the time – seriously, Metal Gear Solid came out like two years after the original Resident Evil, and well before Final Fantasy X‘s laughing scene – and the in-engine cut-scenes rather than FMV many games were using meant that there was a greater level of consistency and tone in the various story updates between gameplay sections.

This ridiculous moment in Metal Gear Solid might just be my favourite moment in a game, ever.

Obviously, Metal Gear Solid was a massively influential game. You can see the DNA of Solid Snake’s first PlayStation adventure in many story heavy games that have released in the years since, and it’s almost impossible to guess what the industry might look like today had the game never happened. But Metal Gear Solid meant more than that to me because it was the moment in which I realized that I didn’t just like video games, I loved them, and I was excited to see what the medium could do going forward.

Since 1998 we’ve seen thousands of games come and go, many of which featured more accomplished writing, better-told stories, and certainly better gameplay than Metal Gear Solid. We’ve seen storytelling in gaming progress to the point where titles like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are not only comparable to what we’d see on television and on the big screen but in some ways better thanks to the interactive nature of the medium. We’ve got games like Gone Home that tell us smaller tales of love and acceptance using non-traditional gameplay loops, and we’ve got games like Thomas Was Alone making us feel emotional about faceless squares and oblongs. Storytelling is now a huge part of gaming, just like I always hoped it would be, and just like Metal Gear Solid showed me it could be.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he’s drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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  • RabbitFly

    Your experience is very similar to my own. I also believe it is the game that made me realize that gaming was more to me than just something to throw my time at.

    It is one of those games that I lived with a long time too, completing it countless times. It will always be one of my favorite games of all time.

    • John Cal McCormick

      I honestly think I’ve beaten the game like ten times, maybe more. In fact probably more. For a game that is so linear it seems so bizarre, but to me it just changed the way I thought about games entirely. I played it over and over doing things in different ways and I never tired of it.

  • Patrick

    It’s interesting what different ways games have left an impression on us, and how that has molded what we want from them. I tried to play MGS but hated the way it felt, gave up on it after about an hour, and never looked back. I’ve always played games for the way they feel, never caring about their stories beyond the slight amusement some have elicited. I suppose that explains my Nintendo bent. But as someone who loves cinematic storytelling enough to continue writing screenplays a decade after studying it at university though, it’s fascinating to read a view like this. I personally find video games to be a vastly inferior medium in which to tell stories, but I have to acknowledge that they have affected people in meaningful ways. Great article, really enjoyed it.

    • John Cal McCormick

      Thanks!

      I think the thing with storytelling in gaming is that it’s a different medium to movies or television or whatever, and to get the most out of it then it needs to be treated as such. That will probably happen over time once the medium is pushed further and further forward.

      Stuff like Gone Home, for example, only works as a game. It uses the nature of the medium, and the advantages of it, to tell a story that would be less compelling were it told in any other medium. What Remains of Edith Finch, too, is another great example. As a book, or a television show, or a radio play, or anything else it wouldn’t work. The interactivity is a valuable part of the storytelling. Viewed as an analogue to a movie then the stories, it can be argued, are inferior to those we’d see on television or at the cinema, but viewed as a whole – i.e. the gameplay and the story together forming a narrative experience – then I think it’s fair to say they rival what we get out of a movie or show. Both of those games resonated with me emotionally in a manner comparable to the best movies or shows I’ve seen.

      A lot of games aren’t using the medium to its advantage though. I played Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare the other day, and it’s fine. Fun and silly and over the top, but it’s just a series of shoot em up sections of gameplay interspersed with cutscenes that are similar to what we’d see in a movie but not as good. Games like this often feel like sub-movie level storytelling because they’re not using the benefits of the medium to enhance the storytelling. It’s just a movie gameplay movie gameplay movie etc. Metal Gear Solid kinda falls into this category, and so while I enjoy the story, I don’t think it’s one of the best examples of how gaming can tell stories.

      That’s fine. It’s just like a big dumb blockbuster. Captain America: Civil War isn’t Hitchcock, and Call of Duty doesn’t need to be either. Both can be entertaining. But I think it’s games like that that are distracting people and stopping them from realising just how strong the storytelling component of gaming can be, providing developers look at the inherent differences in the medium compared to passive mediums, and channel their stories accordingly.

      TLDR; As a movie, BioShock is a dumb underwater action/horror story. As a game, BioShock is a commentary on the nature of player agency and video games as a whole. It’s all about using the nature of the medium to its advantage.

      • Patrick

        I’ll agree that games haven’t figured out quite yet how to optimally tell stories using their unique strengths quite yet, and I wish developers would realize that they don’t need to do the same things that movies and novels do. They seem to have some sort of inferiority complex with those mediums, wanting to prove they can do the same thing just as well. The thing is, they can’t, and it’s doubtful they ever will. Instead of trying so hard to be like their older siblings, they should concentrate on being themselves, figuring out what they do well. Immersion and storytelling aren’t the same thing, but games do the former better than anything else, and that’s something they can build off to offer alternative experiences to films, books, and TV. I love the environmental storytelling in the old Resident Evils and something like Metroid Prime. Discovering clues that make a world come alive is a powerful experience; no cutscenes needed. But first and foremost they are games.

        My own personal tastes aside, like I said, I enjoy that other people get so into them if even if I probably never will. It’s fun to hear what people react to, and why. As someone who loves storytelling, it makes great food for thought.