I’m not saying it’s perfect. In fact, the dialogue is risible. All of Snake’s conversations with Mei Ling are toecurlingly, knucklebitingly awful, and the game’s attitude to women in general is really embarrassing. Every female character is defined by their relationship to men – Meryl falls in love with Snake immediately, and is initially recognized as a woman (while in disguise) by her “sexy walk”. Naomi, an extremely talented scientist, swoons when talking to Snake. Mei Ling is a racial caricature, full of Chinese wisdom (like all Chinese people).
The only independently heroic woman in the game is Sniper Wolf, and she’s quickly dispatched over the course of two battles. She has the most interesting arc of any of the game’s women – they are soldiers, doctors, and scientists, and aside from Sniper Wolf they mostly crumble at the first sign of danger, and it’s up to Snake to support them. The series would later go on to address this further, but it remains a weak point in the whole experience.
The same goes for Otacon – you’d think that computer nerds in video games would get a more sympathetic portrayal, but no – he’s a pants-wetting whiny loser who becomes good in the end, but only through being exposed to Snake.
Snake is portrayed throughout as the ultimate man, heroic in every single way. The series would go on to play with and prod at this trait, but the Snake here isn’t very rounded – sure, we discover some of his history, and his family, but he remains difficult to empathize with. It could be the graphics, not allowing for any facial expressions, but then again, Final Fantasy VII created timeless characters with the bare minimum of polygons. Snake mostly remains wooden and two-dimensional throughout; that aforementioned wooden dialogue doesn’t help, and neither does David Hayter’s hammy performance.
That MGS has this many flaws, to modern eyes, and still remains immensely playable is testament to the true strength of the game – its design. Be it a wide-open space or a confined corridor, each area knows just what buttons to press to illicit which emotional response. This can be used to ramp up the tension, as in the scene in the minefield in which you do battle in the open with a tank; or in an incredibly confined computer lab, when battling against Gray Fox (we’ll come to him later).
Now, my preference is for classic games, and while I do enjoy modern games – Borderlands is one of the greatest games of all time, and I dedicated more hours to Skyrim than I’d ever admit in public – I find that the games I played in my early teens are the ones I return to most often. I have a run through Final Fantasy VII once a year, and return to Pokemon on the Game Boy on a yearly basis too, but I’m not a gamer in any sense of the word.
Case in point: I’ve never finished Metal Gear Solid with the bandanna. Never have. I’ve never survived the horrific torture sequence in the middle of the game. I don’t think it’d be that hard to do, I’m just not really a completist. I play for the atmosphere, the story, and the experience that Hideo Kojima and his team managed to create. He made a truly ambitious story work in a video game format, with an important message about the scope and ambitions of science, combined with the ethics that go along with that. This is a game with a message, and somehow not awful.
It helps that the game is so damned creepy too. Sneaking around bloodied bodies, freshly slaughtered by Gray Fox, is terrifying. Crawling through wolves, hiding in a box soaked in the beasts’ urine, with night vision as your only friend, is really tense. Your second battle with Sniper Wolf, in the snowy field just before the boiler room, is draining. The game is emotionally torturous. It messes you up. You go into Snake mode in real life while you’re playing the game, scoping out cardboard boxes in the supermarket and air vents in museums. At least, I did. I could be alone in that.