August 10, 2015 5:30 AM | Joel Couture
Images courtesy of The Metal Gear Wiki.
Kojima's work in Metal Gear Solid walks a very strange line, bouncing between outlandish and serious. Within the same scene, I've seen and heard some of the dumbest stuff ever while also hearing some touching dialogue tinged with stark honesty and scathing criticism. It's something I'm of two minds on at most times while playing it, which is why it seemed like a perfect idea to set two writers to work on it. Ashly and Anthony Burch often bring two differing viewpoints, sometimes intersecting or sometimes diverging, to their new book, Metal Gear Solid from Boss Fight Books. At times nostalgic and at others harshly critical, it is an honest, heartfelt look at the game and franchise.
Metal Gear Solid (I will refer to the book version from here on out as MGS) treads many different paths as it wanders the game's oddball cast and narrative. The book goes on at length about Snake's character as a gruff hero and what that meant to the Burch children growing up, as well as how his portrayal can be perceived all these years later. Snake, for all his one-liners and tough exterior, carries some nuance in his character that makes him more than an action movie tough guy, although not all of it is a good thing. The Burch's question his treatment of the women in his life, his emotional health, and the hardships he faces as a soldier. It's an interesting look into the softer side of Snake - one I'd scarcely considered since admiring his fighting ability and tough attitude as a teenager.
This consideration is done through a written back and forth between Ashly and Anthony, an exchange that gives the book a comforting, conversational style. The siblings don't often agree on any one aspect of their study, or at least not entirely, and their exchange helps open up various ideas between one and the other. The language of this conversation is also quite approachable, covering complexities of character and narrative in a way that makes them easy to understand. Reading MGS feels like sitting in on a talk with friends, sharing stories and thoughts that, while occasionally in complete disagreement with one another, enrich each other through mutual respect. It promotes a deeper examination of the work, even when one disagrees with what's being said. There is no single line of thought on any one subject, but rather a slow approach from differing angles.
The playful nature of the Burch siblings helps keep things light even while examining the less-pleasant aspects of the game. Even in damning chapters on the failure of certain game mechanics, the cardboard characters that could have been much more, and the lives of women used as plot devices, the siblings play back and forth with each other. They tell jokes and tease each other in the footnotes, creating this alternate version of what's going on that shows the two really love and care for each other even when they're in complete disagreement on a subject. MGS is an in-depth, critical look at the game, but it is also a pair of siblings talking about a game they loved as kids. The game was a shared moment in their bonding growing up, so it feels right for them to be carefree and playful as they speak about it, no matter how seriously.
It's not critical that you get this sense of love and fun from the authors to comprehend this kind of work, but it helps to ground the duality of their feelings about the game. The book is both serious and absurd, just as Metal Gear Solid is serious and absurd. You can crawl around in a box and have to stare at a woman's backside to solve a puzzle while assuming responsibility for your actions as a soldier or sacrificing yourself for a greater good. Like the game, this duality works in the book, creating a work that is highly critical of its subject matter in what feels like a friendly way. The authors love and hate aspects of this game, but it is perfectly reasonable to do so.
MGS pulls no punches in its look at the game. The combat is called out for being linear and a little too necessary for a game that's supposed to be about stealth. The radar system pulls too much of the challenge out of staying hidden and sneaking around. The paths around the enemies, and your tools for dealing with them, all work in similar ways. The alert system makes various plans impractical, meaning the player falls into solving most enemy encounters in a handful of similar ways. Mechanics, like the footprint system, are tossed aside after wasting player time on teaching them. The Burch siblings may have loved this game as kids, but they are not afraid to talk about what's wrong with it.
The characters many love aren't let off easily, either. Meryl's one-dimensional use a helpless damsel is discussed, as is the way the game uses the lives and deaths of other women to further Snake's narrative. Liquid Snake is shown to be a weak, cartoonish supervillain with little interesting backstory, and what little we do know is revealed far too late. The book delves into the condescending or outright dense ways Snake interacts with the other characters. The narrative and characterization of the game are positively skewered.
And yet, in both gameplay and storytelling, the book shows examples of wonderful moments of mechanical wizardry and narrative genius. It explores the Vulcan Raven fight in depth, explaining how the various capabilities of all of your tools can be brought to bear on the boss, letting the player fully take advantage of their arsenal. It examines the puzzle where you need to know what Meryl's backside looks like to progress, showing how it is one of the best uses of the stealth mechanic in the game. It also deals with the excellent characterization of Grey Fox and what his character means as a villain and as Snake's opposite. For all of the things the Burch siblings dislike, there are shining examples of the game's brilliance.
For, above all, MGS is a book written by people who both love and hate the game for various reasons. There are flaws and excellent moments alike, and somehow, Kojima's unique storytelling techniques make it all work. Stupid and genius all at once, Kojima's oeuvre is an affecting work, one that promotes thought when it is good or bad. It defies a simple explanation one way or another, instead encouraging conversation in the people who enjoyed it. This is what drives the book as it bounces between criticism and congratulation. Ashly and Anthony Burch's work here is fascinating, thought-provoking stuff that has me considering the game in ways I hadn't thought of before. It also serves as a reminder that we can love something and be critical of it all at once. Nothing is simple black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. Like the game's themselves, the more interesting elements come out somewhere when these points intersect.
Metal Gear Solid is available for $4.95 from Boss Fight Books (or more if you would like a physical copy). For more information on the publisher, you can head to their site or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. You can also follow authors Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch on Twitter.