Metal Gear Solid V – What is Happening to Storytelling in Games?

Metal Gear Solid V was released to widespread acclaim from reviewers, averaging 93 percent on the PS4 Metacritic (96 on PC and Xbox One). Fans were suitably amped for the release. What they found, however, was a game that was a little different than they were used to. Metal Gear Solid, a game that has always involved copious amounts of dialogue and long cutscenes, now barely had any. Even the main character, Snake, rarely utters a single word through the entirety of the campaign. Needless to say, there are many fans who feel that Metal Gear Solid V is not a real Metal Gear game due to this rather massive change to the series. That’s not true, of course, but such an exaggeration is a good way of understanding fan reactions. The larger question that comes from this whole minor controversy is the state of story-based games. With the story juggernaut Metal Gear Solid relegating the narrative to the background, should we expect other story games to follow suit, or is the way stories are told in video games evolving with the medium?

MGSV-header

To say the Metal Gear Solid series has relished in its story is a massive understatement. This is the series that frequently opened with long exposition given to players via  two static heads talking over a radio. The same series that enjoyed having multiple cutscenes about nuclear proliferation that lasted over an hour. This kind of storytelling has always been polarizing. Fans who sat through it all were enthralled, but it was a big time commitment. Many newer fans consistently had issues with getting into the game. Nevertheless, the Metal Gear Solid series continued to thrive critically and commercially.

MGS1_Codec_2.With this success, it is an odd choice to have the fifth instalment forsake the kind of storytelling that made the entire series (in)famous. In previous games, Snake could call up a series of companions to chat about everything from the mission to the deliciousness of raw turtles. Though often optional, most of the game’s story was told through mandatory radio calls. These are no longer a thing in Metal Gera Solid V. There is an intel button, but resulting conversations are one-sided and take less than five seconds. In the place of the radio comes cassette tapes. These are added to your inventory as you progress through the game, and you have the option to listen to them whenever you want, including while actively participating in missions. The removal of the radio and the practical elimination of cutscenes in the game have led gamers to calling it a story-less Metal Gear. It is – compared to the previous instalments. What’s interesting, however, isn’t that the story in the game is minimal, but rather the way Kojima decided to put the story into the game, because the delivery mechanism is very much on-trend right now.

The key is those cassette tapes. They are both ingenious and monstrous depending on your point of view. At this point, it’s hard to deny that “open world” is the trend of the day in video games. The main thrust of this trend is giving players as much power and choice in games as humanly possible. Where, in the past, games tended to follow a more linear pattern, the lack of technical limitations in video games nowadays has resulted in developers being able to open game worlds up to players in ways that were never thought possible before. What has gotten in the way of this trend is the story.

endSince the early days of gaming, developers have been using the medium to tell stories. Series like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, and, yes, Metal Gear Solid have spellbound audiences, not with their gameplay, but rather the story that they told. The problem is how storytelling is often done through static cutscenes and dialogue. The whole point of the video game medium is interactivity, and stories in video games often throw that to the wind. Though players are often more attached to characters that they control than those they just read about, stopping gameplay to explain the story has always been somewhat problematic.

The story of Metal Gear Solid V is almost entirely on those cassette tapes you get as you play missions. The choice of experiencing all of the long dialogue and exposition is left to the player. This is an interesting development. It gives the player control over how and when they get the story. This very much fits into the trend of giving the player total choice over how the experience the game, while simultaneously removes the obstacle of constant jarring stops to the gameplay, something that Metal Gera Solid 4 had major problems with. This blending of story and choice could become more common as developers try to focus on choice and interactivity rather than the story itself.

2880243-8317366826-27032Of course this development could be considered to be a massive step back by some gamers. What are the biggest moments of gaming? Some would argue that it’s the little moments you create yourself. Those perfect headshots in Call of Duty, or the time you jumped off a helicopter into a boat in GTA. I don’t buy this line of reasoning. The great moments in gaming are the ones that were orchestrated by the developers. Final Fantasy VII captivated so many, not because of materia loadouts, nor did Metal Gear Solid 4 cause so many grown people to fall to tears because of the cool tranq options. When I think of many games, its the big ‘wow’ moments, and these are all invariably the times the gameplay halted in our face and made us watch a major scene.

The problem with the cassette tape way of experiencing a story is that it divorces you from the emotions of the moment. It’s very much like the open-world trend in that it’s hollow, a whole lot of nothing, under the assumption that interactivity and choice is an experience without any nuance or timing. Its the same reason I lament the death of fixed cameras. Giving the player control means that they will miss half of the majesty. A fixed camera forces the player to experience the tension or see the events that the director wants. So, too, allowing players to experience the bulk of the story on a whim removes all of the emotions that may have gone along with it if it were paired with a few major events. It’s an interesting experiment, but, ultimately, a lazy and unfulfilled one.

What worries me is that this could be the future. Western developers particularly love giving freedom, and rarely see gaming as the experience that it could be. Divorcing the story from the gameplay is a mistake. It is convenient and easy, but could lead to a whole generation of forgettable games. Because remember, you only remember that great Call of Duty multiplayer moment until the next one, but you remember something like Metal Gear for the rest of your life.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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2 thoughts on “Metal Gear Solid V – What is Happening to Storytelling in Games?

  1. Nice analysis, though I’ll still have to disagree with you. I agree that there’s a need, not just in general but on a personal basis, for cinematic games that take control from the gamer in order to tell the story it wants to tell. I enjoy those games, even if with some restriction. They are not, however (and obviously this is just my humble opinion), good games for it. They aren’t doing good game design if their gameplay and storytelling departments exist independently, rather than being melded together in the creative ways games allow. The sand castle anecdote applies here: a contest where people are asked to build sand castles, and for the most part what is delivered are complex palaces, imitations of shopping plazas and modern buildings, and a single child who makes a small castle with a couple of turrets. The winner is, despite an apparent lack in complexity, the child, because he/she did not stray from the basic design. I would never rate any of the MGS games a perfect ten, but there are many less story-driven games, such as Super Mario and Legend of Zelda, which I would consider.

    When I started writing I had a longer reply in mind, but I figure it’d be more annoying than anything else. To sum things up: a game which has hour-long cutscenes mixed with gameplay is shoehorning what it deems to be good story elements into my experience at the cost of the actual playing of the game, and when I weigh the importance of gameplay against that of story in games, there really is no competition. There’s definitely a niche for games like MGS and I can understand that Kojima can stick to his guns and still have a loyal fanbase because there are people who enjoy his style (and I have nothing against that), but it’s vital that the gaming industry continue to strive in search of new mechanisms to help conciliate storytelling with gameplay. A prime example of a story well told using game elements is Brothers: A Tale of two Sons, in which even the way you control the game with both analog sticks is relevant to its narrative.

    • There are certainly ways to integrate story into gameplay without restrictions, and some games do that very well. Many, however, do not, and I feel like a very special director is required to make it work. That being said, as you mentioned, many games don’t need massive, sprawling stories so it often isn’t an issue.

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