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December 30, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid 2

Part 2

A few months ago I finished playing Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty on my PS2, and I wrote about it a bit and said that I would come back to it. I know there's been a lot of digital ink on the Internet about this game and this series, but part of playing these old games is writing up what I learn about game design from them, and so here we are.

My experience playing the Raiden section of the second one was a bit different from the first. At the beginning of the game you play as Snake, and for the culmination of that experience the penalty for failing to sneak through areas is "game over," as you're surrounded by ranks and ranks of marines. Returning to the location of the incident as Raiden is like slipping into a comfortable suit.

The early stealth game was wonderful, that terrific Metal Gear experience of moving through an area out of sight of your enemy, occasionally taking out a particularly pernicious guard with your silenced pistol or sleep darts. There was even a nice addition of guards who would report in at particular places in their patrol routes, which meant that eliminating these by any means would result in calling in reinforcements, which could be extremely difficult to evade.

But I found as I played this second installment I was less focused on making the stealth work one hundred percent all the time; Kojima changed a little bit in his thinking about the stealth mechanics as it interacted with mission failure this time around, and this changes the feel of the play somewhat significantly, at least as regards the moment-to-moment sneaking¹.

This time out, Kojima drops the need to load from a save game at every failure, instead allowing players to continue from their previous location, with health restored. It becomes possible to run through areas alerting enemies and making it through a door, only to have them chase you down and kill you -- but starting you from the other side of the door, past the sneaking challenge, after your death. When I discovered this, perhaps midway through the game, my experience of these stealth areas changed significantly.

I can remember one room in particular which early on was the site of much careful sneaking, a sort of two-level warehouse room where guards patrolled upstairs and down, with a clever pattern of sight lines that made sneaking a real exercise in patience, with one of the guards additionally being the sort who would radio in at a particular stop in his patrol.

Towards the beginning of the game, this was a hugely tense experience, though the lower floor had affordances for attempting to take out guards in different ways and hiding bodies and all that fun Metal Gear stuff, with tense moments of waiting out the alarm in a safe hidey-hole if you failed. But in the later game, once I stumbled onto the effects of the change in the mission fail/start from last location mechanic, getting through these rooms to the other side only needed to be a mad dash. Sure, I'd probably get spotted, but just as surely I'd get to the other side of the room and through a door. Guards would chase me down and probably kill me, but I'd have the opportunity to continue from the other side of the door. I found myself gaming these sections in this way more and more as time went on.

That said, perhaps that's as it should be -- though I lost some of the experience of being the superspy bad-ass, I gained a little bit of my time back in navigating these spaces, some of which you need to traverse several times over the course of the game, going back and forth to achieve different objectives or to rendezvous with various bosses. But there's clearly a trade-off here and I'm not convinced that this is the best resolution for it.

There are competing pressures here: you want to streamline the player experience so that they aren't losing lots of progress at every little mistake, but you still want to allow for the player to experience the wish-fulfillment fantasy of being a stealthy super-soldier. The other options to achieve the former aren't all that terrific: for example, reducing the difficulty of the stealth sections with looser patrol and sight line patterns would also reduce the thrill of successfully navigating the stealth experience. It's a tricky and fine line to navigate; the choice Kojima made here is clearly of its time and I don't have a better solution, though I do tend to favor loosening the rules surrounding player failure after the player has demonstrated that he's having difficulty with a section². That's somewhat tricky to do here, but not impossible.

I think I'll come back one last time to talk about Metal Gear Solid 2 with respect to the macro story and boss battle framework, as well as my particular favorites. Cheers!

¹The boss battles are much the same, though arranged slightly differently, which ties into part of the story, and which will likely be the subject of the third and final post about MGS2.
²The example here is the suggestion I gave to Jamie Fristrom about difficulty surrounding the Spider-Man 2 game -- in the various "chase character X" sections, if you failed them a couple of times, the game would slow down the character you were chasing to make it easier on the player. The illusion that you are getting better at the challenge is preserved as long as you don't recognize the trick.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 30, 2012 10:22 AM