Melodrama: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. --Northrup Frye
Melodrama teaches, consoles, punishes and rewards; it submits the phenomena of life and human conduct to the immutable laws of justice and offers reflections upon men's actions and feelings. --Henry Jenkins
Melodrama gets a bad rap these days. Most people consider it a pejorative term - a word we use to describe soap operas and tear-jerker "chick flicks." One sure way to chip away at someone's credibility is to accuse him of being "melodramatic," suggesting a kind of exaggerated performance that shouldn't be taken seriously.
In my business (Theater) we see melodrama very differently. To us it's an important mode of writing and performance that arose in the 19th century and that continues to influence plays and films today. In its original context, melodrama simply meant underscoring onstage dialogue with music to enhance the dramatic effect. Using that definition, nearly every movie you've ever seen is a melodrama. And that's probably not too far from the truth, even if we apply a more modern definition of the word.
Melodrama is a powerfully persuasive delivery device. In his seminal book The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), Peter Brooks argues against the notion that melodrama is all about emotion and spectacle. Brooks sees melodrama as dealing with the problems of recognition:
...specifically the recognition of individual virtue in a world where appearances are always deceptive. Melodrama evokes a universe where a cosmic struggle between good and evil is being waged, a struggle that nevertheless remains hidden behind everyday appearances. Only at moments of heightened emotional intensity does evidence of this other world break through into our own. Melodrama tries to make this otherworldly struggle that structures our own existence visible through elaborate staging effects, a heightened delivery, and a reliance on gestural as opposed to verbal language.
That sounds like an uncanny description of Metal Gear Sold 4 to me...and the vast majority of other narrative video games as well. Interestingly, the balance between gestural vs. verbal delivery that Brooks articulates has been the focal point for much of the critical debate surrounding MGS4. It's a highly melodramatic game, but its verbosity (often superceding its gestural gameplay) perhaps prevents it from fully realizing melodrama's potential. In other words, the problem with MGS4 isn't that it's melodramatic; it's that it's not melodramatic enough.
Lest you blanch at the notion of Solid Snake lumped in with Days of Our Lives or Waiting to Exhale, I would suggest to fans of Braveheart, Lost, CSI, and virtually every sports movie ever made that you are also fans of melodrama. The Call of Duty series, the Final Fantasy series, Bioshock - even significant portions of GTA IV - all rely on melodrama to deliver their experiences.
And at the center of these tales is the classic Melodrama Hero - a man (sometimes, but rarely a woman) of strength and courage who must do great deeds in an environment of heightened emotional intensity; a hero who operates within a clearly defined world of good and evil, charged with restoring order and stability from chaos. Solid Snake and Dudley Do-Right are cut from the same cloth. One may be a conflicted hero with lots more backstory (and, okay, Dudley is a cartoon caricature), but dramaturgically they function in remarkably similar ways.
One more note about MGS4. Given the dominance of melodrama as a storytelling mode in video games, I think Kojima's efforts to do something different with his latest game are laudable. Clearly, MGS4 operates well within the structural confines of melodrama. But Kojima is also reaching for another classical dramatic mode: tragedy.
Unlike melodrama, tragedy focuses on the flawed, solitary hero who must learn a hard and painful truth about himself and/or the world around him. He is ultimately powerless to prevent his own or his society's doom. Melodrama aspires to happiness and resolution. Tragedy aspires to a hard-won recognition of truth. We can debate its merits, but in this regard perhaps MGS4 is a tragedy after all.
Note: For a more dedicated discussion of melodrama as it relates to video games, I recommend "What Melodrama Could Teach Us About Great Game Design" by Henry Jenkins and Matt Weise.