How Metal Gear Solid’s timeless yarn raised the standard for video game storytelling

Metal Gear?!

Back in 2001, I was no stranger to video games. In fact, after formative years spent obsessing over Pokémon, pummelling my cousins in Tekken and bullying sheep as Spyro, I thought I’d seen everything games had to offer. Then Metal Gear Solid came along. Hitting UK shelves the same year as The Matrix (1999), being nine years old, Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece initially eluded me. Wandering around my primary school at break time, The Matrix was the talk of the tarmac, eliciting excitable playground-shaking screams from the kids lucky enough to have seen it. Until one day, whispers of a strange Japanese PlayStation game reached my ears.

Suddenly, break time was dominated by kids impersonating cyborg ninjas, shouting nonsensical sentences about something called ‘Foxdie’, and diving dramatically to the ground in imaginary gunfights. I had no idea what the hell was happening, but one thing was clear – I had to play this game. Swiftly convincing my parents to ignore that pesky 16+ age rating, I soon came home clutching a preowned copy of Metal Gear Solid.

The second I popped that scuffed disc into my chunky grey PlayStation, my perception of video games changed forever. In Metal Gear Solid’s opening ten minutes, I was sneaking past heavily-armed guards and avoiding military helicopters, enthralled by the gravelly tones of Solid “I eat cigarettes for breakfast” Snake. As voice actor David Hayter grumbled intensely about something called nanomachines and talked solemnly about ‘the battlefield’, I strained closer and closer to the grainy CRT screen, completely and utterly entranced. For ten-year-old Tom, this wasn’t just another video game – this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

Metal Gear Solid. Credit: Konami
Metal Gear Solid. Credit: Konami

I clearly wasn’t the only one left spellbound by Metal Gear Solid; Kojima’s PS1 debut launched to rave reviews across the board. It’s not hard to see why. Released just two years after the entirely voiceless Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid’s fully-voiced dialogue felt like it had come from another planet. Where most ‘90s games featured a smattering of sound effects and intermittent character noises, Metal Gear Solid’s seamless segues between 3D cutscenes and voiced codec conversations felt like pure magic. Sure, some of the performances feel a bit am-dram now (we’re looking at you, Liquid Snake) but even in 2021, full voice acting isn’t a feat that every AAA game managed.

It wasn’t just the gravelly tones of Snake and his comrades that had me enthralled, though – the game’s soundtrack is an all-timer. Throughout its ten-plus hour run time, Metal Gear Solid’s orchestral score is a masterclass in tension and spectacle, somehow feeling simultaneously grand, subtle, and consistently menacing. With Snake on a one-man mission to take down a terrorist cell before they can launch a nuclear warhead, it’s the eerie music that really hammers home how perilous Snake’s mission is.

Metal Gear Solid. Credit: Konami
Metal Gear Solid. Credit: Konami

As commanding officer Colonel Campbell finishes relaying intel to Snake via a hidden Codec communication device, the footsteps of patrolling guards reverberate around the water-logged base – and it’s impossible not to be sucked into Snake’s world. While I’d sunk many hours into JRPGs, this was something else entirely. From the grainy real-world military videos to the codec conversations ruminating on philosophy, its collage-like presentation felt like sensory overload. Despite the controller in my hand, playing Metal Gear Solid seemed less like a video game, and more like starring in my very own interactive movie.

That’s no accident, either. With Solid Snake based on Escape From New York’s Snake Pliskin, Kojima’s love for cinema oozes through every pixel of Metal Gear Solid. Case in point: the opening. Where most games leave the credits to the end, the names of animators and programmers dramatically flash up on the screen right at the start, adding a dramatic flair to an already iconic prologue section. It’s a statement of intent, making Kojima’s lofty Hollywood ambitions clear from the word go.

Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid. Credit: Konami

It’s easy to think that – thanks to its gun-glamourising story, cyborg ninjas, and giant robots – Metal Gear Solid wouldn’t be quite so revered by adult me. Yet as I play Hideo Kojima’s magnum opus 20 years later, I still find myself lost in its wonderful madness. Thanks to its futuristic-feeling but utterly made-up tech and larger-than-life characters, Metal Gear Solid feels oddly timeless. Sure, the controls are fiddly for modern players, but this 22-year-old game is still a masterclass in atmosphere, and a tour de force of interactive storytelling. It still plays brilliantly, too (dodgy controls aside). Thanks to its compelling blend of stealth and all-out power fantasy, gameplay is perfectly balanced between sneakily outsmarting your foes and letting you go hard with a machine gun.

It has some pretty out-there ideas in it, too. From its infamous controller switching gimmick during the Psycho Mantis boss fight to a vital codec frequency hidden in a screenshot on the back of the physical game box, Metal Gear Solid pushed the limits of what a video game could be. Its collision of brilliant gameplay, narrative ambition, creativity, and sheer swagger made it such a ridiculous but entrancing ride. A ride that’s stood the test of time.

While a lot of its story is ridiculous – giant robots, invisible ninjas, evil twins – there’s just enough real-world truth to tie it all together in a plausible package. With Snake sent to Alaska to single-handedly stop a terrorist cell from launching a nuke, this tale of a grizzled veteran undertaking “just one more mission” initially feels fairly straightforward. Yet as the story unfolds, a web of military conspiracies, corporate corruption, and meddling politicians adds an unexpected layer of complexity to proceedings. From nuclear materials being sold on the black market to shady Pentagon deals, these were topics that video games simply weren’t exploring back then. It may lack the chilling presence of its 2002 sequel Sons Of Liberty, but this PlayStation classic also tells a tighter, less convoluted story.

Where you may balk at its blocky aesthetic now, Metal Gear Solid was a jaw-dropping technical showcase for Sony’s first foray into the console market: this was a game where running through snow left behind a trail of footsteps, alerting guards to your presence. In many ways, it’s one of the first attempts at a convincing 3D sandbox, with its meshing of layered systems still impressive to this day. It’s something that Kojima would later perfect in his MGS swansong, MGS V: The Phantom Pain. Yet the foundations are expertly laid here, decades earlier.

At its heart, Metal Gear Solid works because it spins a yarn that is entirely its own. From its (worryingly) plausible web of military conspiracies to its iconic villains, this perfectly-paced adventure is still just as essential now as it was in 1999.

In one fell swoop, Kojima proved that video games could tell stories just as grand and outlandish as Hollywood’s best, encouraging a whole generation of developers to push the boundaries of what players expect. With Kojima’s Hollywood love affair now coming full circle in a movie adaptation starring Oscar Isaacs – and a long-rumoured MGS game remakeMetal Gear Solid’s untouchable legacy continues to endure. If you have a PC and you’ve yet to experience Solid Snake’s breakthrough classic, you owe it to yourself to pick it up on GOG, or to find other, sneakier means of infiltration.

Tom Regan is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME. You can read the rest of the Remastered column here.

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