Imitation, Evolution, and Metal Gear Solid 5

Imitation, Evolution, and Metal Gear Solid 5

Is the Metal Gear series throwing away its heritage and personality by latching onto concepts from more successful games? Or is it all part of Hideo Kojima's master plan?

Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear took the world by storm in large part because his creations were like nothing anyone had ever seen or played at the time of their release. The original game, back in the '80s, looked an awful lot like its contemporaries, such as Capcom's arcade shoot-em-up Commando. Unlike them, though, it took a totally different approach to action, stressing avoidance over conflict. A decade later, Metal Gear Solid updated that design with 3D graphics, an insane amount of detail, and a complex story conveyed through top-notch voice acting and dialogue.

As so often happens, Metal Gear Solid's success and quality made it tremendously influential. It inspired its own subgenre (stealth action), with the likes of Syphon Filter and Splinter Cell eager to ride its bandwagon. But these days, Metal Gear still inspires frothing demand at media events -- witness this year's Internet freakout over the Metal Gear Solid V trailer at E3 -- but it doesn't seem to inspire many actual imitators. The world, it seems, has largely moved on.

No, today, it's Metal Gear that follows in others' footsteps. MGS5's move to open-world design comes off as a clear attempt to get in on the continuing craze for Assassin's Creed. And before that, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker tried to strike a perfect balance of portable design by nakedly lifting structural concepts and mechanics from the Monster Hunter series, which of course dominates Japan's handheld market like nothing else this side of Pokémon.

Metal Gear 2 rather infamously used digitized photos of Hollywood actors for its character portraits. [Image source]

You can't really blame Kojima Productions for these newfound tendencies. The Metal Gear games must be astronomically expensive to create, and hiring well-known Hollywood talent like Kiefer Sutherland (who provides both the English voice and all the motion capture work for protagonist Big Boss, AKA whatever weird "Snake" code-name variant he's going by this time, in MGS5) surely isn't helping to keep its budget in check. Metal Gear's newfound habit of chasing blockbusters is hardly unique, of course; the M.O. of practically every big-budget game these days seems to involve conspicuous duplication of reliable money-makers. Every shooter wants to be Call of Duty; so it makes sense that Metal Gear, being more about stealth, wants to be Assassin's Creed now -- even if Assassin's Creed implementation of "stealth action" is a shallow puddle next to Metal Gear's relative depth.

Unlike so many other franchises currently twisting their legacies into pretzel twists in order to put publisher-mandated AAA bullet points on their boxes, though, Metal Gear's trend of imitation feels like a logical development in the series' natural evolution. Kojima has always been a big fan of borrowing from other media: Witness the Blade Runner riffs in Snatcher, the Lethal Weapon-like lead duo in Policenauts, or the famous Hollywood nods that have infused every part of Metal Gear from the beginning. As gaming has expanded and matured, it seems Kojima's most sincere flattery of others' work has moved to encompass his own medium, not just film.

Not only that, but Metal Gear has embraced the absorption of all manner of things -- not just film and other games -- since Metal Gear Solid 2. There, it consisted of a few cheeky nods to magazines (literally cheeky, in the case of the buttock-baring FHM pinups hidden in certain lockers) and little more. But Metal Gear Solid 3 saw the encroachment of more real-world brands. These still made a certain amount of sense; its most famous inclusion was the result of a two-way collaboration with Japanese diet supplement Calorie Mate, which (despite its anachronistic timing) neatly fit the theme of a game involving wilderness survival through foraging for sustenance. Later, iPods and Mac computers appeared all throughout Metal Gear Solid 4 simply because the dev team were Mac fans.

Despite dressing up its mechanics with silly names like "love boxes," Peace Walker drew its inspiration from Capcom's Monster Hunter.

It wasn't until Peace Walker that Metal Gear truly took collaboration to a new level. Brand-name products littered the game as usable items: Axe body spray, Mtn. Dew soda, Doritos, and more. These all appeared in the Japanese game, but not in other regions; presumably this had to do with licensing, but honestly their removal wasn't to the game's detriment. One assumes finding a bag of 2010-vintage tortilla chips while crawling through a jungle in 1970s South America probably didn't do wonders for immersion.

However, Peace Walker pivoted on a much deeper, more intrinsic form of collaboration, one that made its way outside Japan intact: A tie-in with Capcom's Monster Hunter series. Both Peace Walker and Monster Hunter 3rd featured elements of the other game in cameo form as high-level quests. This was an old trick for Kojima, Konami, and Capcom; the Boktai and Mega Man Battle Network games had included crossover content several years prior. And for Monster Hunter, that's as far as it went.

Not so with Peace Walker, though. Kojima Productions made a conspicuous effort to imitate Monster Hunter's structure when creating their first truly console-quality portable Metal Gear. While its bite-sized mission structure had already been pioneered in Metal Gear: Portable Ops, the game's central base elements seemed to hearken to Monster Hunter. Its multiplayer aspect definite drew from Capcom's goliath, particularly with the massive, grindy boss encounters, which proved frustratingly difficult for solo players. And just to put any doubts to rest, the game even included a controller setup patterned after Monster Hunter's, to help ease fans of that series into tactical stealth action.

Solid Snake, suffering a case of severe Altaïr envy.

In that light, MGS5's Assassin's Creed connections make perfect sense. In fact, Kojima developed close ties to the Creed team early on, having appeared on-stage with the original Creed's producer Jade Raymond in promotional events for both franchises. Metal Gear games have included Creed character skins and vice-versa. For all that people criticize Kojima for lifting ideas from other people's works, he's never pretended otherwise. On the contrary, his open admiration for other creators has long been one of his defining traits, and his work often carries a post-modern edge, with commentary and clever media manipulation that straddles the line between mere imitation and brilliant reinterpretation.

Its Metal Gear's tendency toward metatextual introspection that makes MGS5 so enticing. Certainly what we've seen of the game so far draws heavily on ideas from other, more popular games, but knowing the series' history it's safe to bet that MGS5 will bring more than just a pretty new game engine to the mix. As Big Boss sneaks past guards by clinging to the opposite side of a horse trotting past them on the opposite side of a dusty field, you can definitely see hints of Assassin's Creed at play. As the trailer fast-forwards through what looks like several minutes of low-stress traversal through desert land, you may wonder if open-world design even belongs in a Metal Gear game.

But then Big Boss calls in a helicopter, which descends to the strains of "Ride of the Valkyries," and you're reminded that, yes, it's definitely still Metal Gear. And there are plenty of elements that leave you wondering if you're seeing sharp commentary or simply Kojima's excesses on display, just as the scantily-clad female sharpshooter Quiet, who apparently never speaks in the game. Is she eye candy, or is she a pointed commentary on the treatment of female characters in video games? Or, even more likely, is Kojima trying to have it both ways?

It's been a perilous generation for old game franchises, and the upcoming generation doesn't seem likely to treat them with any particular kindness, either. We've seen an alarming number of classic series abandon their legacies in vain pursuit of big sales. The curious paradox of Metal Gear, though, is that in incorporating piecemeal elements to satisfy its designer's creative envy, it's actually upholding its own legacy.

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