Video games are growing up. We’re dealing with more mature stories, we’re addressing important topics like racism, sexism, crime, violence, love and so on, and bridging the gap between those stories and themes to gameplay is more and more becoming a major talking point when discussing games as art. Say what you will about the Metal Gear Solid series’s storytelling (and I certainly plan to at some point), but there’s one sequence in the original Metal Gear Solid that I think is the perfect example of using gameplay to tell a story, to make you feel for a character, and to experience what that character is going through. It’s a fantastic use of video gaming’s interactivity to make players empathize with a character and further an understanding of an important and still relevant issue today.
Here’s the setup: Solid Snake, our mullet-wearing, gravelly-voiced, best-of-the-best, super tough spy hero, has snuck his way into a nuclear weapons disposal facility to stop a rogue counter-terrorism group who are threatening to launch nukes unless they’re paid one billion dollars and given the remains of Big Boss, their former leader. Now since it’s Hideo Kojima and it’s a Metal Gear Solid game, the story is actually a lot more convoluted and ridiculous than that, with a myriad of double-crosses, secret motives, twists, retcons, and revelations, but none of that stuff is important. What is important is that Snake has infiltrated the facility and met up with the niece of his commanding officer, Meryl, who is going to help him take out the bad guys. The sequence of note occurs after Meryl and Snake are captured by the baddies.
We get a cutscene where Snake is strapped to a large futuristic-looking metal table and the bad guys are saying a bunch of stuff in gravelly voices because it’s a Kojima game. Then Snake’s captor explains to him, and the player, what is about to happen. He’s going to torture Snake by electrocuting him. As he’s being shocked, Snake’s health will drain. The player can “restore life” by tapping the circle button. If you’re worreid about dying, you can press select to “submit” and get out of having to finish the sequence. With traditional game rules, a sequence like this wouldn’t have much of an effect, but Kojima designs the sequence to have consequences for the player putting them in Snake’s position and, even if it’s just a microcosm of the actual event, experience the dilemma faced by somebody being tortured.
By traditional game standards (and Metal Gear Solid‘s standards up to that point), we’d expect that if the player failed to tap the button fast enough and Snake died, that there would simply be a checkpoint right before the sequence and the player would be given another chance at it. Because the sequence is rather difficult, the “submit” option, even if it meant hurting their pride a bit, would get the player out of having to go through it. But Kojima doesn’t give the player an easy way out. Snake’s captor tells the player before the torture begins that if Snake dies, that there are no continues. If the player dies they have to load the game from their last save, no matter how far back it is. What the player isn’t told are the consequences if they choose to submit. Naturally, most players would want to avoid submitting to the enemy’s torture, but there’s also the unforeseen consequence of changing the game’s ending. If the player does submit, then Meryl will die by the end of the game.
Snake is shocked three times, each time being longer than the last. It’s hard to accurately describe what the sequence is like without playing it, but needless to say it isn’t fun. If anybody reading this hates those quick-time events where you have to tap a button really fast to open a door or unlock a chest or finish off an enemy, well, it’s like that but with serious consequences. My first time through the game I played on normal and by the end my arm was beginning to hurt from having to tap the button fast enough. The tension the sequence produces is real. You worry about the progress you could lose or what might happen if you submit. Your health bar depletes and the closer it gets to the end, the more you become worried that you won’t make it. There’s that internal struggle as you try to figure out if you can hold out long enough or if you have to give in to avoid failure.
The sequence isn’t perfect. If you die, you’re still able to load the game from your last save so if you saved right before the sequence there really isn’t much to worry about except for having to navigate the main menu. So like pretty much every other game made, it suffers from a lack of true consequences.
Now I’m not dumb enough to say that the sequence perfectly portrays to the player what it’s like to be tortured, but the sequence does affect the player. It’s not fun, it can make your arm cramp up, it downright sucks. And that’s what makes it so great. If it had simply been a cutscene of Snake being electrocuted then the player would have not given it two thoughts because we all know the game isn’t going to end with our hero dead on a metal table, mullet smoking. Having to endure the torture sequence and face up to real consequences for their failure makes the player understand the pain and struggle the character is going through. Being able to convey to the player even one-one millionth of what that’s like is brilliant.
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