So the other day, Platinum Games announced that this year would mark its tenth anniversary. Hard to believe that they’ve been around for that long, but they’ve got the games to prove it -- and some sick-ass art to boot. Without a doubt, I’m thankful for their presence in the gaming world. Still, I can’t help but wonder what the landscape would be like if the crew (built from the ashes of Clover Studios, IIRC) hadn’t been cut loose from Capcom. Would we have seen more Okami? Viewtiful Joe 3 -- and not just Double Trouble for the DS? A Capcom that was willing to put Gene in Marvel vs. Capcom 3? I don’t know. But the house that Mega Man built hasn’t done itself any favors by refusing to make use of its stable of characters.
I don’t think anyone’s going to fight me for saying that the games industry is in a weird place. It’s capable of putting out some great products, as 2015 showed us. But it’s also capable of putting out some grade-F tripe, as 2014 showed us. We’ll see some highs and lows from here on, as per the nature of the beast; still, guys like Platinum are going to show us all what the medium can do. Style, skill, spectacle, savvy -- you name it, they’ve got it. They’re proving that video games are indeed an art, even with something like Metal Gear Rising. (Which I’ve tried to prove in Part 1 and Part 2.)
And not to demonize anyone out there, but sometimes I worry. Sometimes I worry that there are indeed people out there who want to burn that art to the ground.
In light of events and tragedies -- and controversies, if you want to whack that hornet’s nest -- outsiders looking in have blamed video games for warping people’s minds -- making them more violent and eager to kill, or at the very least desensitized to violence. They’ve done it in the past, they’re arguably doing it in the present, and they’ll likely do it again in the future. There are others who are willing to give games a fair shake, and use (admittedly slow and inconclusive) scientific evidence to figure out what games can do to their players.
Plenty of gamers have gotten pretty furious about the mud-slinging, given that Mortal Kombat has yet to result in anyone eager to punch out spines and turn into dragons. But still, gamers -- people up and down the industry rungs -- have been wondering something. I know, because I’ve wondered the same thing: what if video games ARE too violent? What if they DO have a negative effect on us?
But believe it or not, I think Platinum actually offers a perspective on the discussion -- not an answer, but at least items to digest. There’s no denying that even if MGR is extremely violent, it’s also extremely fun. You’re killing off goons like a bikini-bottomed tornado of steel, and the game rewards you every step of the way with awesome cutscenes and points, and a ranking system that wants you to kill more efficiently. You’re meant to be a killer. The people in your way aren’t living people as much as they are notches on your gamer’s belt -- or rather, masses of polygons and AI protocols. You haven’t been feeling any sympathy for them, or thinking of them as anything but a chance to show off and cut loose.
Raiden’s realization (or reaffirmation) of his targets’ humanity during his Denver visit is supposed to be a shock to both the character and the player. BUT there’s a distinction. The thrust of the story is not “violence is bad”, or that you’re a terrible person for indulging in violence; that would just make the entire game a hypocritical mess. The thrust is that you’re supposed to be aware of your actions and consequences, not stop them entirely. You’re a killer, yes, and it would be great if you didn’t slaughter your way to justice, but the important thing is keeping in mind what you’re fighting for. It’s a question of “does the end justify the means?”
In my case, my answer to that is “No, not entirely -- but it definitely makes a difference in the long run.” “Is fighting inherently wrong?” the game asks. “Well, no, it isn’t. But pretending like it’s all a game and the people you’re fighting are drones might do everyone a disservice.” And “Is it wrong to enjoy a good fight, even if -- especially if -- it gets violent?” And I say “No, of course not; video games or otherwise, conflict and combat are ideas deeply entrenched in our minds. What’s important is being able to control those violent impulses, and doing the right thing however and whenever you can.”
I’m not just pulling that out of my CHEEKS OF JUSTICE. I came to those conclusions thanks to MGR. True to the Metal Gear franchise, it’s not a cut-and-dry case of “fighting is wrong”. It can be, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. And indeed, it could have been for Raiden if he pretended like his foes -- some of which weren’t battle-ready kill-borgs -- were just foes destined to fall prey to his “tool of justice”. He realizes that, and even if it means going down a darker path, his refusal to be a delusional hero is an important one. Given that, there’s a real level of intelligence here; in the same sense that South Park is a lot savvier than its felt fabric aesthetic suggest, so too does MGR offer platforms of thought underneath its cyborg showdowns.
And on that note, let’s talk about the boss battles for a bit.
They really are the highlight of the game. They’re fast, they’re furious, and they rely on whatever skill and savvy you can muster. Still, I’m positive that the reason they’re so fondly looked upon is because of the music that plays during them -- songs designed to get your heart pumping, especially considering that the lyrics only kick in when you’ve done enough damage. (Side note: the game’s composer, Jamie Christopherson, is also responsible for the music of Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, which not only has some fantastic music in its own right, but one of my favorite video game songs ever.) It’s very easy to assume that the lyrics are supposed to represent the boss’ thoughts and voices, and in many respects that’s the case. But even so, I have my own theory.
Once he tunes into their frequency, Raiden can hear the thoughts of cyborgs he’s about to cut down. So what if during their duels, he ends up hearing the bosses’ thoughts and having them mix with his own? What if their feelings and ideas are being forced inside his mind by virtue of them trading blows -- two fighting spirits and wills melded into one another?
I like the music in this game, but there’s a part of me that feels like the tracks are a little…well, juvenile. Like they’re the kind of roaring declarations of freedom/rebellion you’d hear from Linkin Park or any number of songs used in the average Naruto AMV. It skirts a dangerous line, but I think it’s a smart move; Raiden’s loss against Sam has pretty much knocked him into a state of internal flux, so it’s only natural that he tries to figure out who he is once more. So in one sense, you can argue that the developers -- and Christopherson -- knew their audience. In another, you could argue that the chaotic nature of these songs represents the clash (if not the merger). Just listen carefully to the songs; in this case, let’s go with Mistral’s theme.
It’s a reflection of her nature, of course, and as you’d expect it has vocals spearheaded by a female vocalist. But if you think about it, couldn’t these lyrics apply to Raiden just as well as Mistral? If MGS4 is to be believed, Raiden could have stepped off the battlefield and lived with his wife and son in (relative) peace. But he came back to fight and slash his way from one corner of the world to the next. Why?
Because, arguably, “he finally found what he was looking for -- a place where he can be without remorse.” There’s an undeniable state of flux to each song, because he’s coming to grips with the fact that he’s not so different from the Desperado cyborgs. As another example? Listen to Sundowner’s theme, “Red Sun” -- if only because it’s my favorite of the bunch.
There’s an incredible focus on the setting during the song -- and the scenery isn’t exactly fit for a Disney princess. But it makes perfect sense; remember, Sundowner is perfectly at peace with the death and destruction, and his entire motivation is to spread the war economy and revel in the desolation. He’s long since accepted that he’s a monster, and now he just wants a playground befitting his trusty big-boy swords, Bloodlust.
But you know what? If Sundowner won, then Raiden would win, too; it would mean that Mr. Lightning would get to keep globetrotting, keep fighting, and keep acting like he’s an agent of justice. As depressing as it sounds, the battlefield is where he belongs (as you’d expect; I have a hard time imagining a sword-swinging cyborg running some files down to human resources). Raiden indulges in it just as much as Sundowner; hell, he’s part of the problem in some scenarios. “The reptile tail ripped from its back” is eerily reminiscent of a successful Zandatsu, isn’t it?
Like I said, Raiden’s in a state of flux -- of tumult, and inner turmoil. In fact, the one time when the music is at its “calmest” is the final boss theme. You’re more likely to perceive the song as something sung by Raiden instead of the burly last boss. As for the lyrics? Well, just listen for yourself.
I suspect that one of the greatest strengths of the game is its ability to stay memorable (fitting, considering the scoffed at micro-discussion on memes). The moment-to-moment encounters are striking enough, especially when you meet a new enemy type for the first time and have to figure out how to beat it. The boss battles are even more memorable, with the music serving as the icing on the cake.
I won’t soon forget cutting a frozen Mistral, and accidentally leaving nothing but a pair of legs standing in place. Nor will I forget parrying Monsoon’s smoke screen assault, one rapid blow after another. Nor will I forget being able to break through Sundowner’s armor with some well-placed cuts, and slashing the big boss to pieces as he flew towards me. Nor will I forget hitting Sam with my palm blasts, and realizing that in order to parry some of his attacks, I had to wait longer to input the command than usual.
And then there’s Senator Armstrong.
Who is Armstrong, you ask? Well, he’s the main baddie of the game -- one who’s used all the turmoil up to this point (and more) to engineer a conflict and secure himself a spot as the new president. Admittedly, it’s kind of a shaky plan -- it almost feels like Armstrong’s borrowing from the Resident Evil school of thought where he’ll further his political goals by causing a global catastrophe and thus somehow profit from it -- but it is defensible, in that he’s trying and somewhat succeeds in altering the American mindset.
Still, what people might remember is A) his “alpha-male” approach to life, B) the savage beat-down he gives Raiden, C) an insane boss fight that looks like it’s taking place in hell, D) NANOMACHINES, SON, or E) all of the above. Indeed, Armstrong has a marked presence on the end game, and his presence alone is enough to elevate MGR to a whole new level. He’s a thematic fit in terms of gameplay (he relies solely on his technology and brute force to win, versus Raiden’s battle-honed skill) and in terms of story. He wants a world where the strong rule unchecked, and Raiden -- in spite of fighting for the weak -- is a worthy successor and kindred spirit. But in spite of all that, there’s a bit of a problem with Armstrong.
And indeed, there are a few problems with the story in general. Such as…
1) Who the hell is this guy?
It’s telegraphed relatively early that Armstrong is going to be the last boss -- and even without the hints you can intuit that he’s the main villain, because videogames. But in spite of his bombastic finish, he’s removed from a huge chunk of the action. If this is what he’s like at the end of the game, can you imagine what would have been gained if he was there from the start? I feel like the story would have been better served if
Evil Mike Haggar Armstrong had a stronger presence…or at the very least, alluded to ownership of a giant hexapedal tank. There is a counter to this, but it highlights another problem.
2) Sam could have been the last boss.
This should be obvious. Sam is the one who shakes Raiden from the outset. Sam is the one who continues messing with Raiden’s head and calling him out at opportune points. There’s bad blood between them, and while they do get their grudge match later on, Sam could have served as a great endgame challenge. After all, he is something of an anti-Raiden (more than any other character, arguably, though the others do get to make the connection). It feels like a missed opportunity.
3) Raiden’s world tour bonanza!
My understanding of the Metal Gear franchise is that -- barring MGS4 and 5-- they tend to take place in a single location and have most, if not all of their events take place there. MGR opts instead to have Raiden travel all over the world, with his jump from A to B becoming a plot point later on. It’s not exactly a full-on fault, but the movement from one location to another is a bit frenetic. We’re in Africa! Now we’re in Mexico! Now we’re in Denver! I know the game is set up in an arcade-esque string of fights, but it feels like a disservice to gloss over locales so quickly.
Uhhhh…that’s all I’ve got, really. I mean, there are minor complaints that I could make, but as it stands I’m VERY satisfied with the finished product. In fact, I feel like I have to debate a certain point raised by comments and reviews.
-1) We don’t know the Desperado bosses intimately -- and that’s a good thing
People have argued that these bosses come out of nowhere, are poorly explained, and vanish without as much as a pre-death monologue. And there is some merit to that argument…buuuuuuuuut I think that in the grand scheme of things, it’s better this way. Let’s set aside the fact that it’d add some unneeded fat to this very lean game. Remember, these are soldiers meeting on the battlefield; there’s only a certain -- maybe even superficial -- level of sympathy we’re allowed to have for our enemies. We’re right, they’re wrong, and our cause is the only one that matters. Given that, isn’t it more appropriate to avoid dredging up too much information?
But there’s another reason: sometimes less is more. We don’t know a damn thing about Jetstream Sam when we meet him, and when don’t know a damn thing about him when he dies. We can reason things about him, but everything else about him is shrouded in mystery (DLC aside). So why is that a bad thing? I say it’s good to have this enigmatic soldier who loves to fight standing in our way. Once more, he highlights the difference between himself and Raiden, and serves the latter’s arc; it’s the age-old struggle of will versus reason. In this case (and with the other bosses, too) there’s no need to weigh that mystery down with backstory that’s ultimately pointless. They’re going to be cut down, and what happened to them in the past won’t change anything. And on that note?
-2) Bladewolf is awesome.
Actually, this doesn’t have anything to do with it. I just figured I’d be doing wrong if I didn’t mention this guy. And while we’re at it, thank you Platinum Games for making a black character who isn’t a wacky sidekick or a fight-happy wall of muscle.
And with all that said…
-3) This is a good game.
And more specifically, it’s a power fantasy.
There really is no way around it. The fact that you’re playing as a one-eyed, feather-haired, super-strong cyborg ninja who at one point drifts his way through a city street should be an obvious tip-off. And indeed, you are playing as an ultra-skilled badass who takes on several other ultra-skilled badasses in fights that wouldn’t be out of place in Shonen Jump.
But the reason why I like this game as much as I do is because it’s a GOOD power fantasy. There are multiple levels of thought running underneath the surface, asking you to consider your actions and beliefs. Raiden may be a radical cyborg, but he’s also a father who’s traveling the world instead of spending time with his son, indulging in his violent impulses and only just now realizing how much harm he’s done to the people who’ve stood in his way…and then continuing to fight because he knows he needs to carry on as much as the world needs a maverick ninja.
There are things that are being said and left unsaid, spoken and thought, that make this game more than just a chance to show off some flashy moves or peddle some dime-store philosophy. This game -- its writers, its developers, et al -- had something to say, and communicated that with the means available to them with gusto. It’s a game that you can not only enjoy on multiple levels, but find merit and satisfaction no matter how deep you feel like diving in.
There’s an extremely telling moment in the last few minutes of the game. Even though Raiden has beaten Armstrong, Desperado, and put a damper on the baddies’ plans, he’s still out there fighting for what he believes in -- even if it does make him a killer. He knows that the job isn’t done; he knows that beating the bad guy isn’t the be-all and end-all to a conspiracy that involved the harvesting of children’s brains. He knows he has to keep on fighting. He knows that there are going to be consequences, both because of what happened throughout the game and his own righteous kills. He knows that it’s not over -- as the song goes, “violence breeds violence, but in the end it has to be this way.” In a sense, he’s growing up. And that’s really all I could ask for out of games.
And I’ve gotten it. I ask for challenging, impactful gameplay, and I got it. I ask for thoughtful, meaningful scenarios, and I got it. I ask for a tale that manages to weave in smarts and simplicity, spectacle and substance, savvy and spirit, and I got it. And amidst it all, there’s no shortage of laughs to be had. No shortage of joy, wonder, amazement, and genuinely good times, all wrapped into a short-but-sweet package.
So to that -- all that and more -- I say thank you. Thank you, Kojima and pals. Thank you, Platinum Games. Thank you, Raiden. Thank you, Metal Gear. Thank you all for doing the one thing that any game, no matter what the style, no matter what the genre, should do.
You’ve made me happy. Very, very happy.