My friend Steve Gaynor wrote me to say that he finally finished Metal Gear Solid 4 "out of spite." I was curious about his opinion of the game, partly because I respect his judgment so much, but also because I've struggled to articulate my own thoughts about the game. What exactly is it about MGS4 that disappointed me so much? I've already written about Kojima's cinematic blind spot, but that doesn't fully account for it. And why, if I was so disappointed, did I bother to finish it?
Steve may have finished it out of spite, but I finished the game out of an inexplicable sense of obligation. To whom or what, I don't know. I was supposed to review it for PopMatters, but I bowed out after sitting down to write it twice and getting nowhere. Konami wouldn't provide a review copy, so I had planned to do it on my own dime. In the end, I couldn't muster the enthusiasm for spending more time thinking about the game. I was exhausted and just wanted to move on.
A couple of hours into it, I wrote that I considered MGS4 "a brilliant and inspired game." Why did I think that? Upon its release, the collective perception was that MGS4 was an important game. 26 separate reviews scored the game a perfect 100. Everybody, including me, expected Kojima's magnum opus. The buildup for the game in the months leading up to its release was immense. From the moment the opening screen loads, MGS4 presents itself in such an unabashedly self-important way that the awesomeness of the game and the profundity of its message become simple facts, regardless of their actual merits.
When I reflect on it, I persevered in MGS4 long after I would have baled out of any other game because I kept thinking it was all going to coalesce into something meaningful. I wasn't interested in how Kojima would weave together the storylines from previous games into something that made sense. Honestly, the Metal Gear games have never made sense to me.
I got caught up in the pure thematic ambitiousness of the story and earnestly thought it would add up to something important. Those four tortured women. The helpless victims of violence. The futility of war. Video games just don't deal with these things, After about the 5th in-game PowerPoint presentation I realized it just wasn't going to happen. MGS4 claims to be interested in these things, but really it's all about fan service; making sense of the series; tying together multiple loose ends of a baroque and nearly incomprehensible plot. In the end, MGS4 spends most of its time staring at its own reflection.
We bandy about Citizen Kane because we're looking for a comparable game we can point to as indisputable evidence of video games' cultural respectability. I've already argued why I think that's the wrong way to go, but maybe there is a lesson in Citizen Kane after all.
Orson Welles was a powerful director, but he wasn't a free agent. He fought with studios, producers, writers, and anybody else that disagreed with him throughout his career. Citizen Kane was not the product of one man's unfiltered imagination. Welles had two powerful collaborators in cinematographer Gregg Toland and screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Both contributed mightily to the film, and neither hesitated to inform the 26-year-old Welles when they thought he was wrong; a fact Welles acknowledged gratefully for the rest of his life.
I wonder if Mr. Kojima's inspired creative ownership over the Metal Gear series may have ultimately suffocated the final installment. MGS4 desperately needs an editor. Kojima is a gifted designer, but someone needs to tell him Drebin is a cumbersome narrative crutch, and Sunny is a cipher; and a bloated epilogue with an interminable death scene is a very bad idea. With all due respect to Kojima and his genius, if he had lost a few battles with strong savvy collaborators, MGS4 might have been a better game.
I guess it's easy to be surprised by little games and disappointed by big ones. At the moment, PixelJunk Eden is my idea of a nearly perfect video game, and MGS4 is my idea of a bloated failure. I realize that's probably unfair. An enormous amount of time and energy went into Solid Snake's last hurrah, and I enjoyed quite a few of the stealth missions. But I so wanted it to be more. PixelJunk Eden is what it is. It makes no claims to be an "important" game. MGS4 lays claim to much bigger territory. It aspires, in all sorts of ways, to be an important game about important things. But it's not. I wish it was.