This time we’re headed to 1964 in the series’ first prequel, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (something something blowjobs…) MGS3 has you filling the boots of legendary soldier Big Boss, the antagonist of the first two games and the person of which ordinary protagonist, Solid Snake, was cloned from. MGS3 introduced a number of changes and departed from a lot of the series’ conventions. It was met with a somewhat smaller hype train during its release period, likely because a lot of fans were left puzzled by the sheer mindfuck that was MGS2. Still, it amassed significant critical acclaim and was generally taken as a return to form, with a lot of people considering it the best game in the series.
As a change of pace I’m going to start by going into the most radically different aspect of MGS3 and that is, simply, atmosphere. The MGS series until now has always been set a couple of years ahead of its release date, creating a sort of light sci-fi tone all wrapped up in a futuristic spy-fiction aesthetic. The big inspirations for the series were films like Escape from L.A., The Terminator, Total Recall, and others. MGS3, on the other hand, brings us back to the Cold War and instead takes its inspiration from older spy fiction, the likes of the early James Bond films and action flicks like The Deer Hunter. The whole feel of the game shifted from the heavy blues and weird oranges of the futuristic high tech facilities to mostly greens and browns in dense jungles and military research buildings. It’s a welcome change of pace.
It’s an interesting choice given the philosophical antics of its predecessor. The game almost plays like an apology for upsetting the core fanbase, with the cutscenes toned back in favour of longer more deliberate periods of uninterrupted gameplay and there’s even some playful jabs at the unpopularity of the last protagonist, Raiden. There is still the occasional fourth wall break and some suggestive themes if you want to go looking for them, but its very much the side pallet rather than the meaty mind-food the last game spent all of its free time throwing at you. An early example is that one of the first bits of dialogue has an exchange between Big Boss, under the codename Naked Snake (I genuinely can’t tell if this innuendo is purposeful) and Major Zero. Zero says the “Virtuous mission” and Snake replies “Virtual Mission?” It’s a playful throwback to MGS2. Kojima continues to expand and develop a fictional video game universe with it’s own sort of logical consistency.
See, the previous games were science fiction and speculated on technologies and potential dynamics that could spur the conflicts of the game, but this is set in the Cold War, which as we know, actually happened. So at some point in the game, the history that we’re aware of shifted to allow for the events of the Metal Gear games. Before MGS3 came out, it would have been assumed that this happened around 1995 with the development of the first Metal Gear, the TX-55. (That thing.) But with MGS3, Kojima extends the lore of his universe all the way back to the 60’s. It’s a really daring and ambitious move. It’s still a video game, and its still speculative fiction, but fleshing out Big Boss’s backstory adds layers of depth to the mythology of the world that wasn’t there before. And you know, you could argue that the series didn’t exactly need more complexity (*cough*) but if you’re into that sort of thing (and if you’ve made it this far, I assume you are) it’s a really great direction to take the series.
Right about now I hear you begging for my evidence to support my hypothesis that even MGS3 carries the theme that everything is just a big video game world that the characters are ironically unaware of. Well, this one is actually a lot simpler, in a lot of ways. For starters there are no tropical rainforests in Russia. (Seriously, this blew my mind). The whole setting is fictitious, and I think, designed to represent the disparity between the Metal Gear universe and ours. Second, there’s a dude who makes a gun out of bees and uses it to shoot bees at you. I top-loaded this write-up with the philosophy stuff suggested in the game because frankly there isn’t much to work with. It seems like the criticisms levelled at MGS2 really gave Kojima quite a fright because MGS3 sticks mostly to the more traditional areas of world-building and, well, plot, as opposed to all that postmodernism stuff. Although, honestly, this game may be grounded more in realism than any of the others and yet it still waves the banner of batshit insanity prouder and more unashamedly than any of them. If you took even a cursory look at the thematic underpinnings of MGS2 you’d have to conclude that all of this isn’t coincidental, but rather a concerted effort to continue and extend the themes of the previous games… Or you know, maybe Kojima is just a bloody lunatic who really likes messing with people. Either way, let’s move onto the technical changes before I give myself an aneurysm.
Firstly, graphics. You’d be hard pressed to find a game with better graphics on the PS2. This game looks impeccable, probably better than quite a few games from the next generation of consoles. The cutscenes utilize motion capture so everybody moves believably (erm… mostly) and there’s actually a decent amount of expressiveness in the facial models. The voice acting is pretty solid, particularly fan-favourite David Hayter who manages to convince us that we are playing a different Snake, but my seal of approval goes to Lori Alan for her role as The Boss. There’s a decent variation in setting too, from jungles to deserts to factories. The GUI is nice and suitably retro. The game just has a really interesting visual style that acts as a neat contrast to the other Metal Gear games.
However good the graphics are, the really outstanding part of this game’s technical achievements is the soundtrack. It really feels like a labour of love, with Harry Gregson-Williams returning in top form to compose some truly amazing pieces of music. Have a listen to how cleverly it evokes the setting and mood of the game, while subtly referencing spy-themes from the 60’s.
So what about the gameplay? It’s different. I will say that MGS3 was definitely the cleanest game up to this point. The mechanics are very intuitive, easily understood, consistent and generally it just makes fewer mistakes than its predecessors. Having said that (*raises controversy shield*) I preferred the feel of MGS2. MGS2 (and MGS1) took place mostly indoors, so you spent a lot of your time with your back to walls, peeking around corners, carefully planning your movements to sprint to your next cover point. In MGS3 you spend most of your time on your belly, hidden in some grass. You have a camouflage index that tells you how well you’ve blended into your environment and you can change your camo pattern at any time. It makes for some very cautious, methodical gameplay. Which is great, I love MGS3. Don’t get me wrong, I just prefer the indoor infiltration. MGS3 certainly works as something different though, it still feels like a Metal Gear game, you still get those wonderful moments of tension when somebody patrols very close to your hiding-spot. The absence of the Soliton radar was also a great decision, it’s a lot more engaging when you manually have to scope out your adversaries with your binoculars rather than having all the information handed to you. I will also say that the level design is endlessly better. The areas are larger and in general, laid out a lot better. There are always multiple ways to progress creating mini sandboxes that forces you to stay on your toes and cleverly navigate areas with a decent variety of options available to you. Maybe you want to crawl through the airvents to stay away from the danger, maybe you want to risk a detour to a supply shed to restock your ammunition, maybe you want to take a more hands on approach and sneak your way to a light machine gun installation. Also, the game finally has a sensible difficulty curve. It took them five attempts but this is the first Metal Gear game that gets more difficult as you progress through the game, utilizing continuously clever and varied level design.
Like I said, in general there’s just fewer mistakes. The optional side-quest now involves shooting little hidden plastic frogs, which is a minor and reasonably easy excursion (much better than those godawful dogtags from MGS2). Going through the game without killing anybody is now a totally valid playstyle, which is a really nice touch. Mechanically, not much has changed except that you now have a much better range of abilities when it comes to melee combat. Snake utilizes what’s called CQC (close-quarters combat) so beyond the usual punch-punch-kick combo and chokehold you can now throw enemies to the ground, knocking them out, and you have more options available once you enter a chokehold. It’s very cool, everything from the stance to the judo throws become really iconic aspects of the series from this point on. However, I also think the sheer mechanics of the game favour indoor infiltration. It’s incredibly frustrating and totally illogical that Snake is unable to move while crouched. You didn’t really need that feature in the urban environments but when stalking through the grass it’s silly that you have to be either very vulnerable and fully standing up or completely prone and moving at a snail’s pace. The camera was originally the same top down camera of the earlier games but this was thankfully updated to a more sensible third-person camera in all of the re-releases. I also thought the equip system started to show its age here, tapping the weapon or item equip button instantly removes or equips whatever the last thing you were using, meaning you can instantly dematerialize and rematerialize an RPG launcher, notably also removing the need to ever manually reload. A rare lapse in immersion (well, at least as far as the gameplay is concerned).
There’s also a new stamina bar that you need to top up by eating food that you can hunt from your environment. I loved this system. It helped to develop Snake’s character as a sort of rugged outdoorsman too, and I really love when gameplay marries nicely with narrative. There’s also a cure system that lets you treat serious injuries by using suture kits, disinfectant, styptic, bandages etc. It didn’t add much depth but it was still a pretty neat feature. The radio cast were also really helpful this time around, you definitely use them more in this game because they serve a useful function outside of exposition and plot. Para-medic tells you which foods are poisonous and gives you advice on navigating the environment. Sigint helps you out with camouflage and weaponry.
Before I go onto the plot, the boss-battles in this game definitely deserve some attention. These are not only some of the best bosses in the series, but some of the best of all time. Snake faces off against the Cobra Unit, the former comrades of his old mentor, The Boss. Throughout the game you will shoot an invisible, crossbow wielding spider-man down from the treetops, battle an angry cosmonaut with a flamethrower, drift by the ghosts of all the people you have murdered in an eerie river, wrestle a sadistic colonel who can shoot lightning out of his hands and, my personal favourite, engage in a lengthy sniper battle with an old man and his parrot. Remember when I said this game is grounded in realism? Look, I think MGS1 probably has the most memorable bosses and general atmosphere. The jaded FOXHOUND unit you go up against introduced a strange, almost supernatural element, and it really worked. It suited the campy, spy-movie style they were going for. MGS3 also has good bosses, but it does push things a little far. I mean, there’s camp and then there’s a man lifting a contortionist holding a scientist onto a helicopter with a cloud of bees. I just… *sigh* I like MGS3. A lot. And I love the boss battles. But it fills me with the same sort of ambivalence that MG2 did. I’m on board with a fist-fight on top of minefield but poisonous Zanzibar hamsters are taking things too far dammit!
So what’s it all about? Well it basically follows the same formula as all the other games, although you may not have noticed the extent to which it does. Essentially MG2 established the structure, MGS1 rehashed it in a 3D in environment, MGS2 copied it for plot purposes (SSS plan) and MGS3 just uses the same basic structure for the sake of familiarity and nostalgia but introduces enough new elements to make it seem very fresh and novel. The gist of it is Snake is sent on a mission, equipment is procured on site, your main mission is to investigate and destroy a newly developed nuclear-armed tank, but you also have to rescue the scientist who designed it. Along the way you meet a feisty girl character who you have to escort at some point and there’s also a loose cannon character who helps you sometimes but there’s also a rivalry going on. There’s also a final confrontation with somebody who you have a close relationship with.
MGS3 moves storytelling to the forefront in a way the others didn’t. It actually works as a standalone game, although there are still plenty of references for the fans, especially one scene where you meet a Russian weapons designer with blueprints for his theoretical bipedal tanks. MGS4 actually goes quite a long way towards tying MGS3 really satisfyingly into the other games, to the point where almost every character in MGS3 becomes significant later on. It’s also a lot of fun to see Ocelot as a young guy. In MGS2 you find out he’s a quadruple agent, it’s so crazy it gets to the point where it seems like he just gets a kick out of adding numbers to his agent status. I mean he becomes a quadruple agent to achieve the same goals as he would have had he remained a double agent! (Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about MGS2) It’s neat to see him so young because it characterises him as somebody who you really can’t work out his motives. Does he just like double-crossing people? Maybe he’s just crazy, but who cares? He’s a great character. He’s so unpredictable it’s hard not to love him.
What really makes MGS3 shine are the characters. Naked Snake is appreciably different from Solid Snake. Having played the first four games, it’s interesting to see Solid Snake’s transformation. At his inception, Kojima had very little to work with in terms of the limitations of the MSX. When the most you can give your character is a four line synopsis in the instruction manual “grim mercenary with a dark and mysterious past” is about as much as you can do. MG2 fleshed him out a bit more, made him more altruistic. MGS1 saw him voice acted for the first time so he really developed a personality, he was dark and mysterious but also quite funny at times, and never afraid to fight for what he believed in. MGS2 brought him forward quite a bit, when you have an impeccable super-spy what can you really do with that character? Well, you can kill him off or you can turn him into more of a mentor character, Kojima opting for the latter. Naked Snake is different. Kojima was able to give him more of a backstory and develop his personality right out of the gate. I think the fact that with time Kojima has become a better writer, combined with the fact that a character like Big Boss is easier to write for than Solid Snake just led to a winning combination. He’s more conventionally masculine, he’s a gun fanatic and he loves the survival aspects of the mission. But he also subverts certain masculine tropes in important ways, particularly how he remains stoic in the face of seduction. In fact, one of the things I really like about this game is how it evokes all of the best parts of old timey spy fiction but leaves all the negative parts behind. The main villain, for instance, happens to be bisexual, strangely one of the most level-headed approaches to sexuality I’ve seen in video games. The classic femme fatale is also given a fresh spin, she constantly tries to seduce Snake but at the conclusion it’s revealed that it was an act, she was a double agent under orders the entire time. Suddenly the scantily clad eye candy is shown as being completely in control. Most significant of all is The Boss. She’s a spectacular female heroine who is highly respected and considered the greatest soldier of her time. In fact her gender doesn’t really come into it. She’s one of my favourite characters in the series.
This is the first time I’ve played MGS3 having already played MG1 and MG2. One of the things I was curious about was how Kojima would shape the character of Big Boss into the cartoony, one-dimensional villain of the original games. And I was surprised, it’s actually very well written. The Boss’s speech at the end evokes Big Boss’s speech at the end of MG2. (“Whoever wins, our battle does not end. The loser is free from the battlefield, but the winner must remain there and the survivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.” ) You start to see the gears of change turning in Big Boss, seeing how he may someday seek to preserve the integrity of soldiers at all costs. Boss talks about how soldiers can change sides like the winds change, today’s ally is tomorrow’s enemy. Countries change allegiances all the time, so can you ever call somebody a true enemy? She challenges the concept of patriotism. After, Snake finds out that she was true to her country until the very end, she goes down as a war criminal and a traitor when in truth she was a war hero and a patriot. It’s a very poignant moment and you can see it having a profound effect on Big Boss. Admittedly it’s simpler thematically than it’s predecessors but it’s so emotional and well told it’s hard to criticize it. It’s one of the high points in terms of sheer craft in the entire Metal Gear timeline.
That about sums up my thoughts on MGS3. I thought it was a really clever direction to bring the series, even though being the only person on the planet (besides Kojima) who actually liked Raiden I found some of the MGS2 bashing to be an oddly personal dig. I understand why he left the philosophical leanings behind him but MGS3 is still immensely satisfying as a nostalgia-tastic Bond-style spy game. It’s clever, progressive and represents a massive leap forwards in terms of tight, tidy gameplay and exceedingly well designed levels. I had a few nitpicky problems with it but overall I still think it’s a hell of a game. Now, onwards to a game that I’ve never actually played all the way through, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Looking forward to this one. I leave you with the strange and wonderful theme song to MGS3, proudly embracing all of the campy goodness!
Gearing up (ha, puns) for the release of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes later this year I’ve decided to run through all of the canonical Metal Gear games thus far in release order, starting with the first title in the series, 1987’s “Metal Gear” originally on the MSX. I’ll be playing the remastered version that comes with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (thankfully free from some of the faults in the more popular NES version, like the notable absence of the actual Metal Gear and some hilarious “Engrish” translations.)
The Metal Gear Solid series meant a lot to me growing up. My copy books in school were covered with doodles of Solid Snake and badly drawn SOCOM pistols. Despite my love for the series, I never actually got around to playing the two original games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.
In case anyone doesn’t know, Metal Gear is a series of stealth video games (well, “stealth” games with one notable exception)
where you play as a grizzled super-soldier code-named “Snake”. The series is famous for popularizing the stealth genre and also for its wacky humour and recurring features, like hiding under a cardboard box to avoid detection and the titular bipedal nuclear tanks. Series creator, Hideo Kojima, is known as quite the eccentric fellow in the world of video games and with every new installment the plot gets increasingly dense and convoluted, in the best possible way. I’m long overdue a good Metal Gear Marathon and I’m looking forward to taking a drive down memory lane. Without further ado, let’s get on with reviewing this classic piece of gaming history.
So. This is where it all began. Metal Gear puts you in charge of a young mercenary named “Solid Snake” tasked with the solo infiltration of a dangerous nuclear-armed military base called Outer Heaven, run by an illusive and unidentified mercenary leader. You belong to Special Forces Group FOXHOUND, who’s previous infiltrator “Grey Fox” has been captured inside the facility. Your mission: rescue Grey Fox, learn about the mysterious weapon “Metal Gear” and neutralise the threat if necessary. Exciting stuff.
Compared to the multi-layered mind melting you get from the convoluted plots of the later games, the series starts with relatively humble beginnings. The plot is fairly threadbare and honestly it’s referenced with more gravitas in the later installments than is suggested in the original itself. It is interesting to see the framework that would lead to the franchise’s defining series, Metal Gear Solid, laid down here. You really get a glimmer of genius playing through it, and you can see the gears (ha, I can’t stop myself) turning in Kojima’s mind. Much of the series’ iconic features are birthed here, from cyborgs to cigarettes, bipedal tanks to off-beat fourth-wall humour.
From the get-go it’s clear that Metal Gear is intended to be more cinematic than its cousins of the same era, a trend that carries on in later titles. There’s a real air of Hollywood floating around, not surprising when you consider Kojima was heavily inspired by Western action flicks.
It’s interesting from a design perspective that Metal Gear has always pushed to make its games closer to film in a lot ways, yet the games also pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished solely by video games, being truly pioneering within its own medium.
Like anything dated, I think to really appreciate its significance you need to understand the context in which it came out. The 1980’s saw incredible innovation in the fledgling young games industry as people were still trying to figure out what exactly a game could or should be. Does a game need points? High scores? Lives? Should it require skill? How does narrative fit into any of this? 1986 saw pioneering titles like The Legend of Zelda, an early example of action-adventure, open-ended gameplay. The first RPG was released the same year in Dragon Warrior. Crucially for the young Kojima, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was released in 1985, supposedly opening the flood-gates of possibility for the concept of interactive story-telling. Metal Gear led the charge in genre innovation by being one of the first “stealth games”. Enemies were given a primitive line-of-sight and only attack when the player crosses their vision. It’s easy to take for granted just how revolutionary Metal Gear was.
I can assure you in comparison to many of its contemporaries, Metal Gear is immensely playable, thankfully void of concepts like lives and high-scores. From a game design perspective, its actually pretty remarkable. The map layout is appreciably organic, enemies patrol in unpredictable patterns and you do get some great on-the-fly finger-biting moments when you shuffle down a narrow alley that a patrolling enemy promptly decides is on his patrol route. Pretty amazing when you consider what’s governing the enemy intelligence is a sequence of a few hundred on/off switches.
Speaking of, you do get a nagging sense of hardware limitation. The radio calls that would become a series mainstay mostly consist of “SNAKE! INFILTRATE THE BASE. OVER.” Apparently they originally cut lower-case characters to save file-space. In fact a lot of concepts that appear in later games are in their infancy here. The cardboard box, for example, is basically running a line of code that says if under the box and not moving, do not trigger alarm mode. It’s funny, and opens up some of the self-parody in later titles.
One thing I really liked about the game was how much paper I used in real-life. It soon becomes clear that the only way to navigate the facility is to make complicated hand-drawn maps. It’s also fun to keep track of your radio frequencies that you need to contact your various informants. I like a game that’s light on hand-holding. There’s something rewarding about having turn the frequency dial on your transmitter while your character says “This is Snake, come in!” My inner child was screaming “this is so neat!” It’s a lot rarer to see stuff like that in newer games.
One feature that’s present here that I’m surprised didn’t return in subsequent titles is a level-up system. Scattered around the facility are prisoners of war and if you rescue enough of them you earn another class star, up to a total of four. By raising class you gain more total health and increase your carrying capacity for items and ammunition. There’s also a resistance leader who is so proud that she will only offer radio support once you reach a sufficient class level, which again I thought was a nice touch. I understand why it was left out of the rest of the series, if its goals are to press for realism it isn’t logically consistent to have an arbitrary rank system that increases the amount of bullets that can fit in your gun, but I still thought it added some welcome depth.
Of course it isn’t all positive. There are some technical hiccups. Enemies can only see in straight lines in the direction they’re facing, so Snake can stand at a slight diagonal to their position and go completely undetected, allowing for some immersion breaking experiences. There’s also some gratuitously frustrating design choices, like slowly choking to death in a room of poison gas because you’re messing about with your eight numbered key-cards trying to open an unlabelled door (why do early video games do this? It’s not challenging, it’s just frustrating!) The graphics and animations too are very dated, although there is at least a decent variation in colour. There’s a wee bit too much backtracking too, a trend that carries on into Metal Gear Solid 1, but I never really pulled my hair out over it. The sound was also pretty bad, the main theme got very repetitive very quickly and was nowhere as deftly handled nor as defining as the themes from Zelda, Mario, Megaman or other games similarly limited by hardware.
Seriously, if I have to listen to that thing one more time I’m going to feed the composer his own ears.
On the whole, yes it’s a little rough around the edges, but this is the game that started it all. Technical limitations aside, it’s still a game that fills me with more emotion than a lot of modern games. There’s tension, excitement, intrigue, betrayal and more than anything else it’s a game that’s full of promise. There’s a skeleton here that future instalments grew out of, the big names and features are established. Snake, Big Boss, Metal Gear, cardboard boxes, floating exclamation marks and deactivating electrified floors with remote controlled missiles. I’d recommend fans of the series to go back and give it a playthrough, I finished it in a pretty modest three hours or so, and it will give you a satisfying, if primitive, taste of tactical espionage action. There’s not much there in terms of plot, but it is a whisper of things to come.
I enjoyed my time with the series roots more than I anticipated. You could say my mettle has been bolstered, and I’m all geared up for the sequel. I hope it will do me solid, and not snake through my high expectations (kill me). Roll on, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake!
Disclaimer: if you do know anything about computers, please forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how true these impressions turn out to be the deeper you dive into this strange computery world. These are just simple thoughts I had that made me think all this tech stuff is more fun and artistic than I originally gave it credit for.
1. Everything is more complicated than I thought it was.
The first game I made on GameMaker was eloquently titled “My first game EVAR!!!” and because I cheaped out on the free version that won’t let you export to HTML, no you can’t play it. However, I can describe it to you in vivid detail.
Essentially there’s a little blob named Blinky and when you press left he goes left and when you press right he (can you guess?) goes right. It’s very artistic. Anyway, the first thing that struck me is just how damn complicated everything is. I mean, yeah, you can just say “when the left key is pressed, move left at 5 pixels per frame per set” or whatever but that’s a boring, uninspired way of moving. You get a much nicer, more fluid way of moving if you set it so that you accelerate up to a top speed, and when the key is released, you slide to a stop by playing with the friction settings. It’s really pretty fascinating. And to be honest, it’s that sort of macro stuff that’s the easiest to pull off, it really snowballs when you want to add a delay to a jumping animation so you can see the little dude bending down to ready himself. All of these things you take for granted when playing big budget games. It’s really the simple, nuanced things that make a game feel polished and professional that are the toughest to pull off.
2. Everything is way simpler than I thought it was.
I mean really, who knows how a video game works? For that matter, who knows how a computer works? I think I could give a pretty good rough explanation of how pencils and paintbrushes work, hell I could probably take a decent stab at explaining the camera, but the idea that all these letters appearing on this lit up screen in front of me is the result of some complex series of zeros and ones? On a scale of one to making sense that scores a grapefruit. It’s completely alien to me, but really once I started tinkering with the code, I sort of figured its all just maths, and not even particularly complicated maths.
I don’t know who invented the “if statement”, but whoever it was is the patron saint of compooter things. It’s a stroke of genius, you give the program a condition (like if the left key is pressed) and then the computer stares at it, and it keeps giving off zero, zero, zero, zero, and once it lights up and turns into a one, it executes whatever code you put in the if-statement (go left). It gets really cool once you have a string of them together. If the up key is pressed, and if the player is on the ground, increase vertical speed, if vertical speed is greater than zero, play jumping animation, if player is off the ground, set gravity variable, if player is on the ground, set gravity to zero, if vertical speed is zero, play stationary animation. There’s a really beautiful synergy to it, when all the different parts of the code come together and run smoothly. You get the hang of threading these things together really quickly and it’s very rewarding.
3. Your personality is inevitably going to come across.
I always thought that the real magic in game design came from the idea men, the storyboarders, the artists, the musicians. I thought the actual programming was a monotonous, mechanical process that was simply necessary to glue all the other bits together. Boy was I wrong. It’s really a lot like making music. You have a sort of rough idea of how you want the game to play but in the end you’re just pumping in figures and variables, play-testing, and seeing what feels good. You’re not going to program the perfect jump in one go, you’ve got to play around with it until it feels right. I found that it’s really the accidents that make for the best game experiences, it’s all about recognizing what works. A lot like how most of the major developments in electronic music have been people making mistakes, but realising that it sounds good, so they stick with it. It’s a lot more of an artform than I gave it credit for.
It sort of blew my mind when I realised that your individuality is inevitably going to come through in any bit of programming you do, no matter how generic. A lot like how if you got 50 people to paint the same tree, you’ll get 50 different paintings. If you get 50 programmers to make Space Invaders from memory, you’ll get 50 different games.
4. There’s art in games and games are art.
The late great Roger Ebert once butted heads with the gaming industry by saying “video games can never be art”. Honestly I think its a fairly ridiculous argument that pretty much just boils down to a semantic disagreement. Firstly, art has to be defined and secondly we need to decide if video games are “games” in a true sense. Neither are things I’m particularly interested in doing. I’m sure if games were called “interactive audio-visual works with peripherals for generating input” there would be no debate but because they’re called games we have to clash with critics (similar to how “comics” are stigmatised even when they’re not comical).
Anyway, I always knew that there was art in games. There’s concept art, narratives, soundtracks etc. but this is the first time I realised that the mechanics themselves can be art. I’ve spent a little time searching for interesting contemporary examples of people using technology in innovative ways to create poetry and it’s definitely something that will only get bigger in the future. I for one think it’s already there, there’s definitely a sort of intrinsic beauty to a block of functioning code, and there’s an amazing physical sensation you get from the visual feedback in a game. It’s amazing when a jump you programmed feels just right. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental!
Video games! We all love them and we all want to see them continue to enrich our lives in interesting and innovative ways. I think most of us already know that a lot of the common tropes associated with games and gaming culture are outright fallacious but let’s look at it in a little more detail.
In 2012, the Entertainment Software Association published this report with many statistics concerning the gaming industry. Some findings are surprising, some aren’t. However it certainly does go a long way towards disproving the myth of the “average gamer”, this notion that we’re all fat, pimpled American teens, swearing down our headsets and shoveling pizzas and doritos down our faces while playing BulletFuck V: Redemption. One of the more interesting finds is that 47% of gamers are female. (I wonder what qualifies as a “game” in these studies, I imagine games on mobile devices and social networks go a long way towards equalizing the percentages. The reemergence of heavily gameplay centred gaming, particularly on mobiles, is fascinating and I wonder if there should be more of an effort to class these as a distinctly different art form. But hey, “defining games” is a really interesting topic and deserves it’s own full article!)
“But Josh!” I hear you shout defiantly through the monitor (is that healthy?), “if 47% of gamers are female, then why are all the mainstream games so clearly marketed towards men? Personally, I find it hard to believe that all of these game developers are so blatantly misreading the market data.” Hmm. An excellent point. Let’s take a look.
This is a list of the best selling games of 2012.
1. Call Of Duty: Black Ops II
2. FIFA 13
3. Assassin’s Creed III
4. Halo 4
5. Hitman Absolution
6. Just Dance 4
7. Far Cry 3
8. FIFA 12
9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
10. Borderlands 2
11. Mass Effect 3
12. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes
13. Need For Speed: Most Wanted
14. FIFA Street
15. Mario & Sonic At The London 2012 Olympic Games
16. Skylanders Giants
17. Battlefield 3
18. Call Of Duty: Modern Warefare 3
19. Max Payne 3
20. Sleeping Dogs
Notice a trend?
All right. How do we get to the bottom of this? Why is it that the most saleable games appear to involve copious amounts of violence and teabagging? Well to help us out, let’s look at gaming’s nearest cousin: film.
This is a list of the best selling films of 2012.
1. Marvel’s The Avengers
2. The Dark Knight Rises
3. The Hunger Games
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
7. The Amazing Spider-Man
10. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
11. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
12. Wreck-It Ralph
15. Django Unchained
16. Ice Age: Continental Drift
17. Snow White and the Huntsman
18. Les Miserables
19. Hotel Transylvania
20. Taken 2
Notice a trend?
Okay so there’s a couple more kid’s movies than there are high grossing kid-games but let’s not forget that children have rubbish coordination and can’t be expected to pay large sums of money for entertainment they’re not able to operate effectively. Why? Because kid’s are lazy. Back in my day I spent hundreds of hours parked in front of a television playing video games. Kids these days. What happened to the world?
This still doesn’t explain why more games aren’t geared towards women, but it does explain what kinds of things people seem to be willing to pay for. I think the biggest factor is to do with development. To make a film all you need is a camera and some can-do attitude. To make a game you need a hefty amount of IT experience. It means that there’s big pressure on games to deliver and if something is selling, they’re going to exploit that. A film studio can justify more risky endeavours, and I think we can all think of a few low-budget gems. Depending on what type of game you want to make, you may need several developers all working on different areas which makes it difficult to get a unified goal. Plus the cost of making a top-selling game is astronomical and getting more expensive, not to mention the shear length of time it takes to develop a modern video game. We can grow disillusioned with the repetitive formula in the Hollywood bigs but in gaming it’s a nightmare. There’s no room for risk when your dealing with cash and time investments on that scale. The growing prevalence of indie games is certainly a redeeming factor though, and honestly it really deserves a full article to itself too!
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Let’s analyse the data. What comparisons can we draw between blockbuster games and blockbuster films? Three simple words. Ex PLO! sions.
I watched the trailers for the top five highest grossing films of 2012 and counted the number of explosions in them. My findings were explosive.
The Avengers: 19 explosions
Dark Knight Rises: 12 explosions
Hunger Games: 1 explosion… Sort of. The logo bursts into flames. This proves nothing.
Skyfall: 6 explosions
The Hobbit: 1 explosion, BUT! they had plenty of ancient equivalents to explosions, like rocks crumbling and hitting other rocks, and fire. Lots of fire.
So it’s clear. Men are willing to pay top dollar to see stuff explode. Some directors even make a living out of exploiting this fact.
Case and point. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, had 283 explosions! This video on youtube has almost 12 million views.
I call this the Profitable Explosion Principle.
Reddit user MikeDane drew up this graph on imgur. Using advanced mathematics, it proves conclusively my theory correlating profitability to explosions (also that M. Night Shyamalan is terrible and after what he did to The Last Airbender he should never be allowed near any filming equipment ever again).
To me, the answer is simple. We all want better video games. We want games that are deep and meaningful and enrich our lives. For too long have these types of games been considered “risky” or “not profitable”. All we need to do to make these artistic games saleable is to periodically make something in the game explode. So simple. It was staring us in the face this whole time.