Making a Game That Acts Like a Film. July 5, 2008Posted by Admin in Software.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots isn’t really my kind of game.
I play games because of the freedom they afford. In contrast to a book or a film or a theater performance, a game lets me decide what happens next, or at least lets me operate under the illusion that my actions matter — that within the bounds of the game system, my choices, conscious or not, will play the key role in determining the outcome of my entertainment.
Millions experience that freedom most fully in online games that involve other people. My favorite games provide a sort of social framework within which the players set their own storylines over weeks, months or years.
Then there are the great open-ended, single-player games. Many of the most revered Western designers, like Will Wright (SimCity, the Sims and, soon, Spore) and Sid Meier (Civilization) have made their careers on providing those wide-open sandboxes. The Grand Theft Auto series has revolutionized console games because it has delivered what was an unseen level of dynamic freedom within a real-world electronic context.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is not like that. Instead it is a linear narrative by the Japanese designer Hideo Kojima. You, the player, are along for the ride. M.G.S. 4 is Mr. Kojima’s world, and you are just passing through for the moment while he tells you where to go next, what to do and more or less how to do it.
The plot, which encompasses the final act of the near-future warrior Solid Snake and a cast of foes and rivals, bears the burden of wrapping up the series’s two-decade history. It has so many loose ends to tie up and so many characters’ destinies to reveal that it can feel like a catalog of unfinished story arcs.
So Metal Gear Solid 4 really isn’t my kind of game.
And yet, after more than 20 hours playing through it, I came away so deeply impressed with its lustrous production values, so gobsmacked by the meticulous attention paid to its visual style, so captivated and giddy at times with the sheer detail, power and energy of its presentation, that I pretty much stopped caring about playing the game. And that is an entirely unexpected compliment. I just sat back, took in the show and thoroughly enjoyed it.
There is no question that M.G.S. 4 is the entertainment product Sony has needed to showcase the PlayStation 3, the only system for which it is available. There were rumors for years that Microsoft would throw a barrel of cash at Mr. Kojima and Konami, the game’s publisher, to make the game also for the Xbox 360. But I can see now why that never happened, or at least why Microsoft failed in whatever efforts it made. I just do not believe that M.G.S. 4’s quality and quantity of visual presentation would be possible on the 360 at the moment.
Gamers and game developers have known that the PS3 has more pure silicon horsepower under the hood than the 360 and that every PS3 has a hard drive, an optional feature with 360s. Also, the PS3 employs Blu-ray optical discs with far more capacity than 360 discs. The problem has been that the PS3 has been difficult to program for, and so developers have made most games on the 360 first, then converted their software for the Sony console.
But most gamers knew a day would come when, with the right investment and work, PlayStation 3 games began to outstrip 360 games in the level of detail and quantity of content. That day is here. If Sony can continue to foster exclusive games with M.G.S. 4’s depth, Microsoft will soon be playing catch-up.
Of course, with M.G.S. 4 the catch is that a lot of that depth isn’t interactive. Yes, the gameplay is interesting and fun as far as it goes — mostly, though certainly not entirely, sneaking around with various gadgets and taking out bad guys — but what makes M.G.S. 4 so interesting is that it is basically one long, sporadically interactive film.
There are literally 30-minute segments when all you have to do is press a few buttons to advance to the next clip. Long segments of complicated plot exposition pass while all you do is watch.
And those movies are more frequent as the game goes on. The second half is in some ways barely a game at all. It is a collection of movies interspersed with interactive segments, and those segments make no difference in what actually happens in the story. You the player are merely inhabiting the role you have been given to play.
But the excellent acting and the depth of character development kept me going. And what got me up and staring with amazement at times, what got me saying things out loud that are not appropriate for a family newspaper, were some of the rip-roaring action segments. There are combat scenes that are just as good, if not better in their intensity, than anything I have ever seen in a film. No lie.
And give Mr. Kojima and Konami huge credit for, uh, crediting the real-life actors within the game. As each major character is introduced, the name of the actor lending his voice is splashed over the screen, an innovation other developers owe it to their talent to follow. Most developers, like Rockstar, makers of Grand Theft Auto, seem to want their actors to be anonymous. I doubt that the M.G.S. 4 actors are getting huge residuals, but at least their names are acknowledged alongside their roles, not kept for a list of credits at the end.
Of course, by the time those credits did roll, I was ready for the M.G.S. 4 experience to be over. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed it. It was probably the best near-future action movie I had ever seen. But I was ready to make some of my own choices. In short, I was ready to play a game.