I make games now. Play my game.

screen1Return of blog, I blog again. Hello there, after an extended period of radio silence I have emerged from the ashes with a video game that I have made.

You can play it here: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/653101

This is my first ever game, hopefully the start of bigger and better things. It’s not a great game, but it exists and that gives it a significant advantage over my many ideas for things that don’t.

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Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)

metal-gear-solid-3-snake-eater-ps2-cover-front-eu-49290

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.

raikov
This is actually exactly what it looks like.

tx55See, 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.

mgs3 big boss

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.

Yeah he definitely just likes messing with people.
Yeah he definitely just likes messing with people.

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.

mgs3 the boss

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.

mgs3 the end

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!

BEES!!!
BEES!!!

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.

They did add this bike sequence to the formula, which is nice
They did add this bike sequence to the formula, which is nice

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.

young ocelot

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.

mg the boss

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.

Dem feels
Dem feels

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!

Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)

mgs2 cover

Ah, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Obligatory background talk: MGS2 was one of the most anticipated games of all time. The long awaited sequel to the critically and commercially successful PSone gem, Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 was hailed as amongst the first and greatest truly defining titles of the PS2’s illustrious catalogue of games. This was something new for the industry, video games by and large hadn’t seen this sort of hype before. People had MGS2 pegged as possibly the greatest game of all time long before it was released.

So how did it hold up? MGS2 amazed me when I first played it way back when. I was always a big fan, I even liked Raiden (yes, I’m one of those people). So let’s talk about it now that I’ve returned to it with added, y’know, maturity and stuff. Before I dig into the plot I’ll talk about the technical and gameplay changes. For starters the graphics were amazing. Crisp, gorgeously detailed and still amongst the best on the PS2. It also had some physics effects that were any self-respecting nerd’s wet-dream. Insignificant objects in the game were given painstakingly detailed animations so that, for example, if you shot a bottle, it would realistically break from where the bullet hit it. Yes, MGS2 sure was (and is) visually impressive.

mgs2 tanker
Ta-dah!

The sound design also saw a significant jump in quality. Creator Hideo Kojima recruited bigwig Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams to do the score and it’s really impressive. It makes you appreciate how significant a musical score is to feeding into something’s production value. I mean, I loved the soundtrack of Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid but this went above and beyond what was expected from a video game. It has a really fitting electronic soundtrack that plays with minimalism really well but is also downright epic in places (but who would expect anything less from the great Gregson-Williams?) That said, being slightly controversial it was a bit repetitive here and there, especially that the same tune is used for almost all the boss fights.

Onto gameplay, it’s pretty similar to the first Metal Gear Solid but it introduces enough new features to change the general feel and approach in a more engaging and believable way. The basics are the same, solo infiltration mission, equipment procured on-site, sneak past the guards, getting caught springs alarm, mechanics heavily favour stealth, etc, etc. Enemies are now a lot smarter, they have realistic fields of vision that isn’t perfectly illustrated on your radar so you are required to use more cover and common sense when sneaking around. They also now need to actually call in backup over their radio before an alarm triggers which gives you some welcome leeway before the whole damn facility is instantly aware of your precise position. The alert mode now has enemies doing realistic sweeps and covering exits. You can aim for specific parts of the enemy to take out their radio, their firing arm, their legs, a shot to the heart or head is an instant kill. You have a useful first person aiming mode, a tactical dodge-roll and a broader range of close-combat skills. The level design is another step up, interesting layouts, varied patrols, a larger range of options to progression. Generally things feel a lot more tense and interesting and crucially a lot more realistic. Your character now moves with his gun aimed at the floor (as opposed to the James Bond style gun against the shoulder stuff of the first game), and the feel of the game is a lot more organic, you spend a lot of time looking at where the enemies line-of-sight is falling and planning you way across the landscape. You also see the first appearance of the tranquilizer gun, which adds a nice variation to the gameplay whereby you can put a guard to sleep rather than killing him, which won’t trigger an alarm nor will it fill you with a dreaded feeling of guilt.

mgs2 screen

Critically, it has some of the same downfalls as the first game. Backtracking means that you end up rushing through some areas at the expense of stealth. A lot of the rooms have all of the guards instantly in view, so you can just whip out a tranq gun and get all of them to hit the floor and then sprint from one side of the room to the other. It takes you out of the experience. The level design also frustratingly gets more derivative and easier as the game goes on, having a totally backwards slanting difficulty curve (though not half as bad as the first game). Also, whereas a lot of the shortcomings of the first game can be explained away with hardware limitations that isn’t really the case here. It’s kind of silly when you can shoot numerous hydraulic powered syringes with powerful sedatives into somebody’s face only to have them go for a little nap for a few minutes and then wake up as if nothing happened. Plus it’s really difficult and impractical to knock somebody out, which makes a no-kill run (although an admirable thing to feature in your game) pointlessly more difficult than it needs to be. I also think some of the controls were needlessly complicated, shooting from around a corner involves holding multiple awkward buttons simultaneously. The worst aspect of the gameplay by far is the optional collectables: dog tags. To get a soldier’s dog tags you need to sneak up behind him and hold him up at gunpoint. I really love this game so I was considering going for all of the achievements until I realised that that involves holding up every soldier in the game on every difficulty level. That means beating the game in this stupid, unappealing playstyle at least four times. This is not a good way to shoehorn extra content into your game.

mgs2 hold up

Let ye be warned, this rest of this retrospective is a critical examination of the game’s story and themes and assumes you’re already familiar with the plot. Here we go.

Ah, MGS2. This game is famous for it’s mad-cap story, multiple confusing plot-twists and outright insanity. There is far too much to summarize but the essence involves a rehash of the first game with our new protagonist, Raiden. Kojima describes MGS2 as a “postmodern” video game, but that doesn’t really mean anything (I don’t remember any period of “modernism” preceding it), I take it he means that the game has subversive elements, and I certainly won’t take that away from him. MGS2 really takes to the realm of philosophy more so than any other MG game. This succeeded in isolating fans of the gameplay and confusing the hell out of fans of the story. Me? I loved it. I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that people weren’t really ready for MGS2 in a lot of ways. There are a lot of retrospective interpretations that talk about fancy things like “ludonarrative dissonance” but the fact is game critics didn’t really have the necessary frameworks to critically evaluate MGS2 at the time it was released. The thing is about MGS2 though, I think a lot of the philosophy behind it, or at the very least the philosophy that people see in it, is very playful by nature. None of it really radically affects the actual canon of the story. It sets up a series of thought experiments and gives you the option of dissecting them or not, there are clues and secrets to root out, but none of it really interferes with the story. I don’t know how much of it was intentional, but there certainly is a lot here to think about, if you’re willing to put on your conspiracy cap.

MGS2 is all about subversion. There are a huge amount of visual clues indicating that something is not quite right in the logic of the world. When you die in first person mode, the screen cracks along the centre. Raiden says things like “It feels like I’m in a nightmare”, “I could wake up any minute”, “you can’t tell VR from the real thing”. The areas at the end of the game are decorated with computer code, they are surrounded by a bottomless expanse, mechanically the whole genre of the game is altered. There is even a part where Snake, completely in earnest, says not to worry about running out of ammunition because he has a bandanna that provides him with “infinite ammo”. This is in reference to a special item unlocked in MGS1 after completing the game. One has to explore the possibility that the entire game is a simulation. I thought about this and I thought about how it fits in with the canon of the rest of the series and then it hit me: of course the entire game is a simulation. That’s what a video game is. If the purpose of this “post-modern” video game is subversion, well that’s it. Think about it, the infinite bandanna is an unlockable, equipable item in the first MGS, it’s not a cheat code, it’s a canonical item within the structure of the game. So why shouldn’t it be featured as a plot element? So much of the game takes liberties with realism, breaks the fourth-wall, has characters that say things like “press the select button”, so why is the infinite bandanna so unsettling, so subversive. Why is that where the line is drawn in the virtual contract the player makes when suspending their disbelief?

infinite ammo
Is this just one big joke to you Kojima? Is that it?

Expanding from here brings meaning to almost the entirety of the game’s symbolism. It’s also a direct extension of the same theme brought up in the first MGS. Consider Raiden as an analogue for the player. Firstly, he’s intentionally left without a backstory for the vast majority of the game and his personality is fairly generic. He’s very different from Snake and more reminiscent of the sort of ordinary, farmboy heroes that people are supposed to project themselves onto. Also, he has no field experience except for virtual reality simulations of the previous games and he’s vaguely altruistic but admits that he doesn’t know what he is fighting for. These can all be said of the person who is manipulating his actions through a small piece of plastic connected to their television. Think about the crucial scene from MGS1 when Liquid addresses the camera and says “You enjoy all the killing don’t you?” This point is driven home even harder in this game when Raiden, the player character, confesses to enjoying the killing, to not having a greater reason to fight except for following orders, in the same way we sit down to play and follow the mission objectives. We don’t play the game for moral reasons. This game provides us with the option to go through the whole game without killing a single person, but how many people bother to use the tranquilizer guns and non-lethal combat? If so, why? The enemies aren’t real, right?

raiden mgs2

If the game begins by presenting Raiden as a bland character we are supposed to project ourselves onto, this is not how the game ends. In the breadth of a few minutes we discover that he has a hugely complex backstory being raised as a child soldier, his clothes and equipment are stripped from him, he is naked and vulnerable, totally antithetical to the player who is controlling his actions. Suddenly this almost non-character who we’ve grown frustrated at for being so void and uninteresting is somebody we absolutely cannot connect with, he is distanced from the player in a significant way, he joins the ranks of the gamey cast of characters and we never really get to connect with him again. All of this happens just as it’s revealed that a secret organisation in the game world control and manipulate almost everything, in fact the entire sequence of events from the previous game was orchestrated by varying degrees by this same organisation. The name of the game is deconstruction. Just before the credits, Raiden throws away a dog-tag with your name on it, the name you input at the start of the game, symbolically severing his ties to the player. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but this makes Raiden’s next appearance as a hacky-slashy cyborg ninja at least slightly more logical (slightly).

raiden
Hmm. Makes sense.

The way MGS2 deals with the illusion of choice in video games is genius because it extends the choice into your own living room. At the start of the game Raiden knows almost nothing about the mission, the briefing is peculiarly brief and uninformative and the player is left in the dark for much of the game. So why does Raiden carry on? Well it’s the same reason that you continue to play the game. I got to wondering if Solidus was really the “bad guy” in this game. Other than being callous and ruthless, he was ultimately working towards the same goal as Snake, Otacon, Liquid and Ocelot. Raiden kills him at the end because the Patriots tell him to and they have leverage against him. I realised, maybe that’s the point. Maybe he isn’t the bad guy. But I still killed him, through Raiden, because that’s how you advance the plot. When you think about it like that it becomes a striking metaphor. Why do we go back and replay the game? Why make Raiden go through the whole thing again? He isn’t real sure, but the game makes the point of saying that something is only as real as your brain tells you it is. I mean, when playing from the start why listen to what the Colonel has to say when we know he’s just a manipulative artificial intelligence? Isn’t the act of not playing the greatest solution to the story?

raiden naked
Insert joke here

Examine the plot twists in the series so far. MG1: it’s revealed that your commanding officer is actually the leader of the facility he ordered you to infiltrate. MG2: The C.O. from the last game is actually alive and leading the second facility too, plus the man you saved from the first game has converted to working for the same C.O. MGS1: You are actually a clone of the C.O. from the first two games, your twin brother is the terrorist leader, the whole operation was orchestrated by the US government, one of the henchman was actually a spy for the president, and that dude from the last two games is now a crazy ninja. MGS2: Your whole mission was an elaborate experiment by a secret organisation that effectively runs the world, your character is actually a manipulated war orphan, the henchman from before actually works for the secret organisation except now he’s possessed via the dismembered arm of the twin mentioned before, the former president is the terrorist leader and also another clone of the aforementioned C.O. Now, consider the irony of all these twists, escalating and escalating and yet still nobody seems aware of the possibility that none of it is real, everyone (like us) seems totally willing to embrace the lunacy of their own world. Consider once more, the ultimate conspiracy that Raiden is being controlled by somebody playing a video game.

I can also fully appreciate how much of this sounds utterly convoluted. I wonder how much of this deconstruction was actually intended by Kojima, but then again, it doesn’t really matter. The game is rife with symbolism and certainly up for numerous open-ended interpretations. I’m not going to say that MGS2 is perfect, but it was certainly progressive and it’s hard for me to do anything but respect it when I was left pondering it for literally days after I completed it. Of course the MGS fanbase was less accepting. MGS2 got overwhelming critical acclaim but the main criticism levelled against it was its confusing, philosophically inclined plot, and it’s no surprise that the next game in the series (a prequel), MGS3, played it a lot safer thematically. Even MGS4, the game that tied all of the others together, kind of glossed over the Big Shell incident to a large extent. I wonder just how bizarre things would have gotten if the fans were more onboard with the philosophical underpinnings of MGS2.

mgs2

I also always had a soft spot for Raiden. He was different from Snake, and that was okay. In a lot of ways he was easier to connect with as a character and I think that was intentional. An important aspect of the focus shifting to a newer character was also how it allowed Snake to be characterised in a way he couldn’t before. Suddenly we can see Snake as somebody who is clued in, somebody who has learned from his previous endeavours and can offer support and backup to somebody who has to learn it all from the beginning again. Raiden inherited Snake’s cluelessness and echolalia so Snake didn’t have to be burdened with it anymore (“Metal Gear.” “Metal Gear!?”) and that is something that I’m perfectly okay with. That was actually one of the problems I had with MGS4, when Snake seemed to lose all of his characterisation and resort back to a blunt instrument designed to soak up exposition.

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I think unfortunately MGS2’s major let down is that it spends so much time getting you to think that it forgets to get you to feel. The individual components just aren’t as memorable as in the other games. We have no history or emotional connection with the cyborg ninja, Olga. Your codec support is a lot weaker. The Big Shell itself lacks the sheer atmosphere of Shadow Moses or Zanzibar Land. Emma Emmerich is a good character and sets up a genuinely poignant moment but not in the same way as Gustava or Meryl. The biggest disappointment by far and, honestly, had it been different I would probably definitively say that MGS2 was my favourite in the series, is the absurdly weak boss battles. They are absolutely the worst in the series. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but in the Metal Gear series it actually serves as a massive boon to the overall game. The boss battles are so unmemorable that they actually seemed new to me as I was playing them, and then immediately forgot about them again. I mean, Fatman is probably one of the better bosses if only because it tried to do something somewhat creative but it’s still terrible. The Metal Gear RAY showdown at the finale is boring and easy too. The final boss with Solidus is pretty good, and the best in the game but certainly the worst final boss in the overall series, reaching nowhere near the emotional high of the first two Big Boss showdowns, the two battles with Liquid atop the Metal Gears or the battle with the Boss in MGS3 (yup, that’s literally all of them).

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When I’m saying that this guy is one of the best bosses in a game, that game got problems.

The plot of course is the same sprawling twist-ridden guilty pleasure as always. Ocelot really starts to turn insane at this point, he’s always a joy to watch. Structure wise I’d say there’s arguably too much in it. The world is given so much complexity that it’s a genuine challenge to keep track of everything that’s happening. There’s literally a novel in the main menu that summarises the MGS1 and the events leading up to MGS2. I won’t attempt something so deluded as a plot summary but I can assure you that I’m a veritable fountain of inane Metal Gear trivia at this stage. I mean, I’m tempted to say that the Metal Gear series is in fact badly written, but it’s so fun and full of passion that it’s hard not to get sucked in to. It’s the kind of writing you just throw adjectives at. Exciting, dense, convoluted, atmospheric, stupid, memorable, complex, ridiculous, melodramatic. I mean, some of those words are good.

I bloody hate Rose.
I bloody hate Rose.

I feel like I should focus at least some attention on the big reveal at the end. The Patriots, a clandestine group seeking to control the digital flow of information in order to mold the shape of history into whatever way they see fit. That’s important. People can learn from that. It’s very 1984 but it’s delivered with such sincerity that I think it really works. They do linger on the “bad guy explains his cunning plot for no reason” part but that’s okay, it sort of added to the atmosphere. I actually found it to be quite a powerful bit of fiction with real relevance to the world we live in today.

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I could honestly write about MGS2 for days. There’s just so much here, and I didn’t even bother to try and dig into the plot and write about the actual nuts and bolts of it. What I really love about MGS2 is that it’s a game that’s willing to take risks. It’s willing to create a brilliantly fun and creative bit of spy fiction and then actually say something about the world on top of it. It’s a downright clever game and it’s topical. I won’t say that MGS2 is a masterpiece but it is an excellent example of how somebody can create something that supersedes its own genre by intelligently and playfully bringing in philosophical themes and social commentary. I still think it’s probably my favourite game in the series and I would be delighted to ramble on about to anybody who chooses to provoke me.

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Now, back in time to the Cold War and onwards to Metal Gear Solid 3!

Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid (1998)

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We’re on to the main series! Metal Gear Solid was originally Metal Gear 3 but as time went on the MSX fell into obscurity and production was moved to Sony’s new home console: the PlayStation. This introduced an amazing new feature to the series: polygons! The Metal Gear franchise was rebranded as Metal Gear Solid and its first installment was Kojima’s most ambitious project yet.

Let me begin by saying I love Metal Gear Solid. I’m sure for most fans of the series this was their first Metal Gear game. It was one of the most well-received and best-selling titles on the PlayStation and was probably one of the most significant and influential games of all time. I remember being blown away by how novel everything was, the idea of sneaking to get past enemies, tension coming from potential capture, the huge and varied inventory, the long dramatic dialogue, the cinematic action sequences. Metal Gear Solid was fresh, inventive, cheesey and smart all rolled up in a vaguely futuristic spy movie aesthetic. So how does it hold up after all this time? I haven’t played the original Metal Gear Solid in a couple of years so I’m excited to return to it, I’m particularly interested to see the stuff that went over my head last time around.

First a quick heads up that this is going to be spoilertastic, less of a review and more of a deconstruction.

Let’s start off with context: Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998, a hefty eight years on from it’s predecessor, Metal Gear 2. 1998 was a fantastic year for gaming, over on the N64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released, totally revolutionising and setting the trend for large open-world action-adventures, while Valve’s Half-Life came out on PCs. Interestingly, while Half-Life was playing with what could be accomplished in terms of immersion uniquely in video games, Metal Gear Solid seemed to be doing the opposite, toying with intentional dissonance, fourth-wall breaks and increasingly moving towards its cousin: cinema.

From the offset Metal Gear Solid is one cinematic beauty. Beautiful music and well-framed camera shots open the game, with an underwater infiltration sequence and mission briefing. Once again, Kojima succeeds in improving upon his previous games in virtually every way. Additions to the series are almost too numerous to detail, the movement into a 3D space updates the gameplay into something totally unique and genre defining. Tonally, Metal Gear Solid is quite similar to Metal Gear 2, but it’s just that the scope of everything has been increased exponentially.

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Once again, you are Solid Snake and infiltration is your game. You are underequipped for combat, Snake goes down quickly when he starts absorbing bullets and stealth is the order of business. Enemies patrol, you examine their positions on your nifty radar system and scurry about with your quirky arsenal of gizmos and gadgets attempting to sneak through a large open map and get to the baddies’ big ol’ Metal Gear and feed it some of your surface to air ballistic missiles. Exposition is driven partly by codec calls and partly by cinematic cutscenes. This time Snake is infiltrating Shadow Moses, a former nuclear disposal facility that has been taken over by terrorists and are making demands to the US government. The plot is really big and really complicated and filled with more twists than a Dire Strait’s pool party but I’ll try and tackle it as best I can.

I’m going to dive into the gameplay first. There really isn’t enough good I can say about Metal Gear. It’s fun, tense, exciting and there’s nothing else like it. It’s difficult to be overly critical of it because this is a PSone game. Given the average quality of games from the same era, MGS is a bona fides masterpiece. It’s immensely playable, immensely enjoyable and just damn damn damn good. Good? Good. Let’s get critical.

There’s a couple of problems with Metal Gear Solid. First of all by the time I had finished the game I noticed that I was breezing through every area. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “It’s amazing how much better I am at this now compared to the start of the game.” Well, on reflection, that isn’t really the case. In reality the most difficult part of the game is the first three or four rooms. Snake is very underpowered and there isn’t a logical increment in difficulty. This isn’t even a design choice made for the sake of realism, if anything there should be more enemies doing more complicated patrol routes as you get closer to the heart of the facility. In fact the opposite is true, the game gets very sparse and samey and it gets far too easy to run around without getting detected. The best and most challenging area of the game by far is the second area, the heliport. Does anyone else remember how good that was? Enemies could find you if you left footprints in the snow, they could hear you if you splashed in some puddles, there were multiple security cameras, rewards for thorough exploration, multiple paths to progression. I got the feeling that that whole area was designed as to show off the features of the game in a demo context, does anyone know if there was a Metal Gear Solid demo and was it that area? Regardless, as the game went on it relied more on linearity and pre-scripted action sequences and less on quality game design in which to utilize the stealth mechanics.

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This place!

Something that I feel could be criticized but I feel is a necessary trade off is how Snake’s actions are so tailored to stealth that it makes him ineffective at open combat. For example, if you equip the pistol and hold the fire button, Snake tracks his gun onto an enemies position and fires when you release the button. This makes aiming in a firefight slow and cumbersome but it makes using your pistol in the context of sneaking very precise. Good stealth game design. When an enemy spots you, it’s frantic, it’s usually more sensible to run and hide. Snake feels hugely vulnerable and weak against even two or three soldiers, but when you’re cautious and take them out one by one you feel like the goddamn Batman, a superpowered sneaking machine. Personally I think the mechanics are balanced absolutely perfectly.

You’ll spend about half the game immersed in the story, watching the cutscenes and radio calls. The game is fully voice acted and the cast do an amazing job for the most part, particularly Snake and Colonel Campbell. I was genuinely astounded by how well shot the cutscenes were, my memory did it no justice. The cinematography is good by film standards. Kojima uses obscure angles to create dissonance, framing to create symbolism, close-ups and dynamic action shots. It’s very impressive for a PSone game. There was a moment I was playing when my sister came to visit, she walked in on an unskippable cutscene and being a Metal Gear fan, she sat in to watch a bit of the action. The first thing she pointed out was the blank pixelated faces jerkily moving to the voice-overs. It was actually surreal when I noticed that I hadn’t noticed. I was so immersed in the dialogue and the voice acting that I hadn’t even realised the character models look like the developers made them with just lego blocks and blue sharpies. It just goes to show what you can do with poor hardware if you have passion about what you’re doing. I’m not saying all of the writing is good or well-acted (Snake does suffer from a chronic case of echolalia) but it’s engaging enough to overcome graphics that look like, well see for yourself.

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Thematically, Metal Gear Solid extends the scope of the series to cover not only nanomachines and nuclear armament but introducing: genetics, genetic augmentation, cloning, double agents, ninjas, fate and more! I suppose, let me begin by saying that Metal Gear Solid came out following a trend of silly Hollywood action flicks with an intellectual edge. And boy is Metal Gear Solid silly. It is very pulp, and if it was just a stupid action game with all of the cleverness taken out of it its safe to say that it would still be a very important game. But Metal Gear Solid is more than that, if you dig a little deeper you actually find a pretty deep cerebral edge. Like great satire, it uses it’s aesthetic as a platform to launch deeper and more meaningful themes.

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Kojima undoubtedly took some inspiration from these kinds of American action movies.

Part of the magic of the Metal Gear series is that there’s just so much to deconstruct if you’re willing to grab a shovel. Even some of the silliest moments launch some pretty punchy discourse. Take Psycho Mantis, who basically turned the whole established mythology on its head by introducing a supernatural element. His dying speech evoked genuine sympathy from me, and this is a man who burned his entire village to the ground to rid himself of his past. This is a guy wearing a tacky S&M costume and a gasmask.

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Stay out of my head you sick freak!

The fourth-wall stuff is way ahead of its time, some of the areas it touched on here 16 years ago still hasn’t been tackled with much greater depth to this day in this medium. It’s interesting how straight-faced everyone is when they address the player, “press the select button”, “place the controller against your arm”, this all happens within the world of the game and it isn’t done for comedic effect. It’s extreme self-awareness and ignorance simultaneously, it’s like everybody is intrinsically aware of the convoluted and ridiculous reality they exist in but fail to notice the ramifications of it. There are two revelations in the game that Snake has been manipulated by the people around him, completely unaware. The third revelation, of course, is the player. We have been pulling his puppet strings the whole time. There’s a blisteringly clever speech at the end of the game by Liquid when he says: “Why do you continue to follow orders while your superiors betray you? I’ll tell you then: you enjoy all the killing!”. Liquid looks right at the camera and says this to the goddamn player. It’s an intelligent sucker punch. In all the subsequent sequels it is possible to play through the game without killing a single person, but actually the necessitous killing in this game is used ingeniously to drive home a deep and personal statement. Like, yeah: I was mercilessly killing. I snapped a guard’s neck while he was taking a piss because it was easier than manoeuvring around his patrol routes. I didn’t think about it, it seemed logical at the time. That really made me think, it made me think of the extent of desensitisation in action oriented video games. It uses that platform to push a message and it bloody works.

Here’s a stylistic choice that bothered me: homage to Metal Gear 2. I spent some time thinking about this, trying to work out if there was any hidden cleverness to it. I’ll write extensively about this in my Metal Gear Solid 2 retrospective because it evokes Metal Gear Solid in the right way for really clever reasons. This one, not so much. The similarities are many and oddly specific. In both games you: meet and fall in love with a women disguised as an enemy soldier in the women’s bathroom; receive useful anonymous messages from Gray Fox; fight a major character from the last game, now a drugged-up super-ninja; run up a trillion staircases with enemies following you; have magic temperature-affected shape-changing keys and more besides. But why? The best reason I can come up with is nostalgia, and that isn’t very satisfying. Unless there’s some incredibly vague and convoluted point to be made about the games co-existing in a virtual world or some nonsense. I’ll leave that up to the sequel.

Of course MGS also introduced ceaseless double-crossing and plot-twists as a staple of the series. Like the original two games, at the conclusion of the game Snake discovers that he’s been played. Campbell has been lying to him for the entire mission about the extent of US involvement in the operation, but this time there’s so much more to it. To briefly summarise: Nuclear facility Shadow Moses sees development of nuke tank Metal Gear. Special forces group FOXHOUND sent to investigate. FOXHOUND led by terrorist leader, Liquid Snake. Holds facility, threaten nuke, asks for ransom from US. US send super sneaky guy Solid Snake out of retirement to sort this shit out. Plot twists: Solid Snake is actually injected with a secret virus called FOXDIE designed to single out and kill the terrorists. This was done to clear the facility without damaging the Metal Gear because the USA actually built it and want to use it to re-establish military superiority. Liquid has actually been manipulating Snake the whole time under the guise of Master Miller and tricks him into arming the detonation sequence. Naomi, the medical correspondent actually has an ulterior motive of her own and wants revenge on Snake for killing her brother, Grey Fox, in the last game. She changed the FOXDIE virus at the last minute and nobody knows how or why. Grey Fox is actually alive and is now a weird cyborg ninja who’s motives are unclear. Also, Snake and Liquid are the results of a genetic experiment attempting to create perfect soldiers using the genes of the legendary Big Boss (you know, the dude from the last two games) Confused yet? Don’t worry there’s more where that came from. Once Metal Gear is destroyed the Secretary of Defence assumes control of the operation and wants to bury the whole facility in a nuclear blast to cover up the whole debacle from the public. Penultimate twist: the Secretary of Defence was in fact acting without the consent or knowledge of the President and is then reprimanded and the nuke recalled. Snake escapes and everyone lives happily ever after. What does that mean? Doesn’t it seem awfully neat to you? That’s because it is. After the credits we see that Revolver Ocelot, Liquid’s second-in-command, is actually a deep cover spy working for the US president, he convinced Liquid to mount the insurrection and also stole the Metal Gear data, all under presidential orders. It’s a great twist because 1) it’s the only time in the series we receive any indication that Kojima actually plans ahead for future installments and 2) just when everything seemed neat and tidy the complexity plunges to insane depths. Consider this: the final twist is intended to denounce the very concept of a neat ending. It is intended as a nod towards the ultimate conspiracy of the Metal Gear universe: that it is a fictional video game reality. If you look at the full series chronology and compare how it mirrors our world and how it differs I think there’s a lot of evidence for this playful philosophical position Kojima likes to toy with. It sounds a little contrived here but it gets elaborated on in later games.

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Now for the loopholes: if the purpose of Snake being sent to Shadow Moses was to infect the terrorists with FOXDIE (ie. he was expected to fail, he was merely meant to be a carrier for the virus) then why did they send the only man who has proved himself capable of overcoming insurmountable odds, infiltrating enormous, well-armed facilities and destroying bipedal nuclear tanks (twice)? If they expected (and wanted) the mission to fail, why send the only person with a chance of success? Also, if Liquid was manipulating Snake into arming the Metal Gear, then why was he constantly trying to kill him? Why did he go in his Russian attack helicopter, blow up his own satelite dish for no reason, launch several dozen missiles at him and then spiral out of control in a fiery inferno (a great risk to his personal safety)? In fact, why did he sacrifice his whole supernaturally powered mercenary death squad to Snake if he wanted him to survive!? And who designs a “3-in-1” nuclear arming key that alters it’s shape based on temperature? That’s a totally arbitrary design choice! You only need that one key! And why didn’t Snake just use friction from his hands to warm the key rather than travelling halfway across the facility to stand in a slightly warmer room for a bit? And why would the deactivation sequence be identical to the activation sequence? And if Decoy Octopus was supposed to kill Snake while disguised as the DARPA Chief, well, why didn’t he? He wasted like 10 minutes feeding him more plot and then died of a heart attack. What was his plan in the first place? Was he going to try and take him on unarmed? Was he just really incompetent? When Sniper Wolf shoots Meryl to lure Snake into the open, why didn’t she just shoot Snake? Who, ironically, was in the open before she decided to scare him away with sniper fire. But hey, you can’t have that many twists without opening a few holes, right? I jest, Metal Gear Solid is actually pretty consistent for the most part, the twists don’t seem contrived and they are all adequately foreshadowed. The holes are less holes and more the price you pay for an over the top action-spy story. I forgive you Kojima. Write more things.

Argh there’s just so much to write about! Revolver Ocelot appears for the first time. This character is incredible, he’s so damned unpredictable that every time he shows up for the rest of the series, you just know he’s going to bring a meaty plethora of backstabbing and plot twists with him. Gray Fox’s touching story also continues, a man robbed of his humanity after an attempt is made to turn him into a dangerous killing machine. Meryl too, is a great character in her own right. She wants to be a soldier to live up to the expectations of her dead father. She’s also the most rounded and interesting female protagonist in the series yet, although everyone does still instantly fall in love with Snake the moment he opens his gravelly larynx.

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I should also mention that MGS is the first Metal Gear to feature the incredible artwork of Yoji Shinkawa. The style lends itself so well to the series. It’s sort of wispy and abstract but at the same time defined by very realistic proportions and perspectives. The colours are soft and airy, the figures almost look like they’re breaking up and drifting away from you, and yet they’re so punchy and powerful. It perfectly compliments the series’ realistic roots while being masked in an air of silliness and candid philosophical ramblings.

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There’s just so many incredibly memorable moments in the game. It’s absolutely brimming with atmosphere and everything comes together to form this really cohesive experience. Remember walking through this hallway for the first time?

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Remember how powerful this scene was? I think it stands out as one of the most memorable moments in the series.

Okay, so when taken in isolation it seems extremely melodramatic and cheesey, but that’s the thing, MGS is just so damn atmospheric. You get caught up in the experience. It’s so unashamedly hamfisted in it’s approach to drama that you can’t help but let yourself be endeared to it. It’s just brimming with passion and enthusiasm and it shows. (Let that be a lesson to all y’all budding game designers, the secret ingredient, is love.)

Man I gotta start wrapping this up. Here’s the thing. Metal Gear Solid isn’t high art, but it is close to perfection in achieving what is sets out to do and it is greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of gameplay, it’s innovative, exciting, tense, downright wonderful. The plot is hamfisted and silly as all hell but underneath the spy action stuff lies some moving character arcs and clever motifs. If I’m being ultra-critical some of the game design is questionable and dare I say there is a bit too much exposition. Regardless, it remains one of the greatest games on the Sony Playstation and a true classic piece of video game history. The success and influence of Metal Gear Solid is still seen to this day, pioneering the idea of creating games with a heavier influence on cinematics and character driven plot. For better or worse, Metal Gear showed games how to be more like films, I’m tempted to say that I’m not fond of this approach but Metal Gear does it so well and so intelligently that it’s hard to get angry.

Now I am very excited to move on to Metal Gear Solid 2. It’s actually the game I’ve played least and the game I haven’t played in the longest time. In fact, this whole marathon was basically an excuse to go back and play MGS2. I will be back with more!

Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990)

 

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Continuing with my Metal Gear Marathon I played Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

 

Metal Gear 2 was released in 1990 on the MSX, exclusively in Japan. Us Westies would have to wait until it was packaged up as a bonus with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence to see an official English release. I hadn’t played MG2 before so I was excited to give it a go.

 

Interestingly, there was another sequel to the original Metal Gear titled Snake’s Revenge and it came out on the NES. It was developed without the knowledge of the series creator, Hideo Kojima, and made specifically for Western audiences. Given that it isn’t canon and is apparently a bit crap I decided to pass on it. Moving on.

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I don’t even…

 

 

In Metal Gear 2 once again you step into the boots of ex-special forces merc Solid Snake. Your mission is to infiltrate a mercenary facility in the rogue nuclear armed state of Zanzibar Land, a country bordering the Middle East, China and the USSR. The year is 1999 and the world has entered an era of peace categorized by nuclear disarmament. Zanzibar Land has been raiding nuclear disposal sites and is now the sole nuclear state in the world. On top of that, the world has suddenly run out of crude oil! Fortunately a scientist has developed a kind of nanomachine (yes, this is the one that starts that trend) that can magically (er… scientifically) synthesise crude oil. Unfortunately Zanzibar Land has him too. That all sounds a bit silly but once you get on board with the premise the story actually starts getting pretty damn good.

 

Straight away it’s clear that MG2 is a lot more ambitious than its predecessor. Apparently Kojima had no intention of making a sequel when he made Metal Gear and you can sort of tell. MG2 puts a lot more effort into world building and establishing characters, this is really the game that kicks off the series. Frankly, the difference in scope is staggering. MG2 is possibly the greatest 8-bit game I’ve ever played and I honestly think the face of video gaming would be very different today had it seen a Western release. I think a decent analogy to show the difference in content is that Metal Gear 2 is to Metal Gear what A Link to the Past is to The Legend of Zelda.
It’s strange that the setting of the first game, Outer Heaven, is brought up again in every sequel with reverence but most of MG2 seems forgotten about.

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Clockwise from top-left: The Legend of Zelda (1986), The Legend of Zelda: A link to the Past (1991), Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990), Metal Gear (1987). There was such a string of absurdly good sequels in the early nineties.

 

 

Once the game kicks off it’s clear we’re in for a much more refined experience. The game opens with a pretty slick futuristic intro sequence with a pitch-perfect tension-building tune playing over. It’s all very 80’s cinema but it works so well it’s hard to complain.

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If that isn’t the future I don’t know what is.

 

Once you start up a new game you see Snake scaling a cliff, crawling along the ground and stopping to contact the Colonel over his radio. Once I was finished drooling over the new animations (the last game’s run animation had two frames for Pete’s sakes!) I was amazed by a long and detailed radio transmission from Colonel Campbell. Once I got the chance to move around I was delighted to see that Snake can now crouch and crawl and also is fitted with a nifty radar that shows the map layout and the location of enemy soldiers. Also, enemies and items no longer reset when moving from one screen to another. The enemies themselves see a big improvement, more varied patrol patterns, a realistic field of vision, they now search for Snake when he makes noises, and the iconic Alert Mode sees its first appearance where enemies fire at the detected Snake, and the Evasion Mode when they search in more aggressive patrols following an alert.

 

Truthfully MG2 is an improvement over MG1 in virtually every way. Almost all of my grievances with the first game has been addressed, the sprites are crisp and pleasant, the environments are varied and colourful, the soundtrack is stellar by 8-bit standards, hell, they even give you master key cards so you don’t have to mess about with your 8 numbered keys while dying in a gas chamber. They thought of everything!

Feel the epic.

 

I really didn’t expect it to be this good. I always thought Metal Gear Solid was the game-changer, the really pioneering title, but it owes a hell of a lot to Metal Gear 2. An awful lot of MGS is copy and pasted from this game, from Snake coming out of retirement, the secret radio informant, the woman disguised as an enemy soldier (and finding her in the ladies’ bathroom), the imprisoned scientist, the finale’s escape sequence. Even much of the radio cast return (or do they? heh heh heh).

 

Now, the game was damn good but I wouldn’t be me unless I had something to nitpick about it. For starters I think it was a wee bit on the difficult side. I ended up consulting a walkthrough a lot more than I like to because the path to progression can be downright convoluted at times. There’s also a bit more silliness abound than in the other games, there’s one particularly ludicrous sequence where you have to lure a pack of “poisonous Zanzibar hamsters” through a crevice with some cheese rations, then shoot them one by one. If you come into contact with one it means a frustrating instant death. Kojima’s fondness for backtracking also returns with a vengeance, with this being easily the biggest culprit in the series for needless trekking through previously explored areas. There’s one maddening part at the very end that takes a decent 20 minutes or more to take a trip all the way to the area at the beginning of the game and back again.

 

I’d be interested to read a feminist critique of the game, it’s definitely a topic I’ll return to when I go through the sequels. On the one hand, the female characters are a lot more in the vain of femme fatale than damsel-in-distress but on the other they do all instantly fall in love with you and are given some pretty bodacious sprites.

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I’d like to *8* her *bits* if you know what I mean… (…sorry)

 

I suppose it’s not a bad gender portrayal when you consider the protagonist is a strapping cigarette smoking rebel-without-a-cause whose name evokes a certain phallic underpinning… I think it’s easy to forgive a game that is a sneaky-shooty-action-megadventure-spy-thriller.

 

Thematically MG2 is quite complex. It doesn’t quite reach the levels of the Solid titles but there’s still a lot to work with. The ramifications of nuclear armament and the nature of war are the big hitters, but it also touches on micro-technology, conspiracy, oh and love and betrayal and all that stuff. It paints a picture of a unified world entering an era of peace but then mentions the UN and NATO using subversive military tactics to further their global agenda away from the public eyes. It’s interesting and still relevant today. There’s also these wandering children scattered about the base, apparently war orphans taken in by Big Boss. It adds a harrowing dimension to the base, it’s quite hard-hitting, and goes a long way towards adding some depth to the story. Characters like Gray Fox are fleshed out a lot more and given backstories, and your radio gang is a lot more useful and interesting, particularly the aviator-wearing “Master Miller” who looks to be given a large role in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5.

 

Thar be series spoilers ahead in the next two paragraphs!

 

I still think it’s clear that Kojima didn’t quite have the scale of his future projects in mind when he did this game. There’s no indication that Snake is Big Boss’s clone, and I think it’s pretty obvious that decision came a lot later. I also think the Big Boss we meet at the conclusion is not the same one we played as in Metal Gear Solid 3, his talk of a perpetual battlefield where soldiers can live and die sounds a lot more maniacal and cartoonishly villainish than the idealistic “soldiers without borders” talk in the later games. I wonder how loose the canon is going to get around MG1 and 2 when he start approaching that timeline in MGS5. I will say the final boss is pretty great, Snake loses all of his equipment and has to MacGyver himself an improvised flamethrower. Really neat moment.

 

But while I’m in spoiler territory, let’s talk about Gray Fox, who’s story stands out as a real gem in this piece. Snake briefly has to travel with Gustava Heffner, a Russian former olympian who acts as your sassy sidekick for a portion of the game. Eventually she tells a part of her story, how she has only loved one man, a man named Frank Hunter (being a series fan I instantly knew who she was talking about, unfortunately spoiling the twist). She says that they were torn apart by the politics of the Cold War, each on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. They never saw each other again. While crossing a narrow bridge, Snake and Gustava are betrayed by the scientist behind Metal Gear, Pettrovich Madnar, and he signals for Gray Fox to destroy the bridge, unknowingly blowing up his only love. Gustava dies in Snake’s arms. At the climax of the game, Snake confronts Gray Fox once again, the two men fight unarmed atop a minefield. It’s a beautiful moment, one of the best in the series. Gray Fox talks about how many times Big Boss has saved him, how he took him in. He talks about his war injuries and how he needs to fight, the only thing he was ever good at. Snake tells him that Gustava will be waiting for him on the other side as he passes on (or does he? heh heh heh). It’s a really touching story.

 

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One of the best moments in the series.

 

 

End of spoilers!

 

This game also has the most amount of real-world work to do. I actually loved this part of it. There’s a number of sequences where you need to decode a tapping sound using a grid from the manual and another where you get a coded message that you need to convert to digital lettering and turn upside-down to find a hidden radio frequency. Modern games are all about building immersion, making sure you never leave the world of the game but it’s strange, I actually found this got me more engaged and immersed in the game. It made me feel like I was a spy, paradoxically I felt more in the world of this game while in my room, shuffling through papers deciphering codes than I do in a lot of modern games that focus on this illusive concept of immersion. I was genuinely giddy with excitement at times, it also utilizes interactivity, a feature unique to this medium, in a novel and interesting way. It created something authentic to video games while breaking the video game status quo, I’m really surprised that I can’t think of a single other game to do this.

 

You know, I feel like I’m really gushing affection for this game and yeah, I loved the heck out of it, but it also marks the beginning of Hideo Kojima’s unedited scripting. It’s clear that this guy loves what he does and once he puts pen to paper he really gives it his all and I guess that’s part of what makes it fun. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep themes in Metal Gear but it’s all stitched together in this cheesy pulp aesthetic. The bump in complexity with each game almost makes the MSX games seem anachronistic for being so tame. I was combing through the Metal Gear wiki recently, trying to work out my Shadow Moseses from my Zanzibar Lands when I realised it really is in exercise in futility. Metal Gear has so many plot twists that the term holds no meaning. Do you know how many characters in Metal Gear get kidnapped, pumped full of drugs and turned into cyborg ninjas? Like, at least four. Possibly more. It’s goofy and fun but it seems like a series that can’t decide what it wants to be. There’s a po-faced lunacy that I’m just a tad ambivalent towards.

 

To conclude I really loved Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Where the first game is nice for fans of the series to return to, its successor is a genuinely outstanding game by itself and surely one of the greatest sequels ever made. Great gameplay, story, characters, music, and funny as hell to boot. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t played MG2, go! Do it now! I can’t recommend it enough. It’s with more than a little enthusiasm I move onto 1995’s Metal Gear Solid. With a rekindled love of the franchise I can’t wait to get stuck into one of the defining games of my childhood. It’s not over yet, Snake!

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Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear (1987)

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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.)

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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.

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In case anyone doesn’t know, Metal Gear is a series of stealth video games (well, “stealth” games with one notable exception)

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I’m looking at you, Cyborg Ninja Raiden.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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ImageIt’s interesting from a design perspective that Metal Gear has always pushed to make its games closer to film in a lot waysyet the games also pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished solely by video games, being truly pioneering within its own medium.

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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.

 

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Riveting…

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.

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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!

The Poetry of Game Development

Over the past two weeks or so I’ve been diving into the world of computer coding and making video games. The program I’m using is GameMaker (the free version, which I got off steam) because it seems to be the easiest to start off with. It’s pretty fun, and it has its own coding language which let’s you take it up a notch if you want to get more advanced. I was also learning JavaScript from a very cool website called Codecademy which turned out to be very useful since the languages are quite similar and the learning curve for this stuff is so steep you could get a concussion if you ran headlong into it. Since I always revel in the opportunity to shite on about video games, here’s a list of simple observations I made that really surprised me, given that I had virtually no experience with any kind of programming beforehand. Maybe if you’re computerly illiterate like me you’ll find them interesting too!

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.

I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!
I predict that soon Blinky the Blob will be held in as high esteem as Gordon Freeman. Watch this space!

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 get it!
I get it!

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.

For science!
For science!

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.Space Invaders

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!

The future of gaming is here.
The future of gaming is here.

Here’s some examples of some neat code poetry. And here’s a Wikipedia article on digital poetry. Lastly here’s a cool competition I found if anyone feels like making some digital poetry of their own.