How much of an experience has to be interactive for it to actually be a game, and not a movie?
I’m not being snide; it’s a legitimate question. If an experience is mostly passive, isn’t it a movie with elements of gameplay, not vice versa? Or is there some sort of "one drop rule" with entertainment where even the tiniest bit of interactive content makes an entire work a game?
Or maybe you’re not absolutist about it and simply see it as both: the interactive parts as Game and the non-interactive parts as Cinema. But if that’s the case, how does one evaluate such entertainment? Two review scores, one for each aspect? Or one score that represents the title’s overall entertainment value?
If there’s one thing both critics and fans can agree on, it’s that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is good at raising these sorts of questions.
Assuming you don’t skip the frequent and lengthy cutscenes, you do indeed spend more time watching MGS4 than playing it. Long cutscenes and extensive dialogue have always been the series’ trademark, but MGS4 takes it to an unprecedented level, regularly subjecting the “player” to scenes that run as long as a television show, some even as long as an actual movie – complete with intermissions that give you a chance to save your, ahem, game.
For devoted fans of the MGS saga’s story, this might be thrilling; for purists interested in gameplay, it’s a appalling: a shameless, self-indulgent exercise in artistic excess that comes at the expense of a legitimate interactive experience. The nagging absurdity in the frequent watching is that many of the game’s cinematic sequences easily could’ve been – indeed, should’ve been – gameplay.
The clearest example: As is the series’ tradition, the game ends with a fistfight. But MGS4's innovation is to make the fisticuffs totally non-interactive at first, the player simply watching a virtual brawl for five uninterrupted minutes before abruptly handed the controls, as if the game snapped itself out of a masturbatory stupor and realized “Oh, I guess we can let you do this part.”
Here's the problem: even judging it as passive entertainment, MGS4’s story suffocates under its own mass like a beached whale. Ask yourself whether the Matrix movies got better and better or just sillier and more Byzantine: your answer is a fair predictor of how you’ll react to MGS4’s narrative. The game’s producer, Hideo Kojima, has gotten himself so hopelessly lost in his own labyrinthine plot, he shamelessly resorts to resurrecting a long (several times) dead character in the last act just to help give him a boost over the wall to escape. Yet despite all the gymnastics required to tie up every loose end (however clumsily), the writers cop out at the last moment, leaving what was portrayed as the conclusion of the MGS saga wide open for sequels and opening as many doors as it closed.
So what about MGS4’s secondary element, the gameplay? Let’s say you ignore the convoluted storytelling and conspicuously unedited, redundant script – when you get to play it, how’s the game? Mediocre and routine. A feature pushed heavily in the game’s promotion – Snake’s chameleon-like OctoCamo suit – is a red herring, as it's always available and requires nothing of the player, thus making it a mere visual effect. (The suit might have been compelling if it could be "jammed" in certain areas by some sort of enemy countermeasure, or if it required deliberate capturing of certain patterns that were saved to a finite memory bank, forcing you to make due with imperfect patterns.)
Virtually none of the commands in the game are straightforward, almost all requiring a sequence of button presses to perform simple actions as opposed to one. Ironically, the gameplay – just like the story – feels overly complicated, bogged down by a slavish devotion to the past and thus inscrutable to the uninitiated.
So again: how do you evaluate a game like this? Review each aspect individually, or the overall entertainment value, or – since this is a game column – strictly as a game? At least in this case, it doesn’t really matter; MGS4 falls short by all those measures.
Playing through MGS4 in all its extravagant glory, I can't help but think of it as something like a Tyrannosaurus rex: the biggest, most extreme, most fully realized example of something that's ultimately an evolutionary dead end. The storytelling seen in MGS4 - giving the player little to do other than patiently wait for the cue to press start, the gameplay little more than navigating your player to the next cutscene trigger - is the past. To grow as a medium, for games to truly become an art form all their own, they can't be movies, nor can they be books (a fine line Lost Odyssey walked). Games need to tell stories in a way only a game can, and offer experiences only active participation - as opposed to passive appreciation - can provide. That's the future of games as a storytelling medium - a future BioShock, Portal, and even GTAIV have shown us glimpses of.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Platform: PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: M (for Mature)
Score: 6 (out of 10)
Reading this over and not totally soulless, I felt compelled to say something nice about MGS4: it resulted in a very enthusiastic review by "UltraNeko" from Sadie's Gaming Infection, seen below. This chick is hilarious. Skip to 1:45 if you're impatient, where she begins her first play of the game with full commentary.
Pardon the bad pun, but her excitement is almost infectious. Only almost though. Still a 6/10 from me, sorry UltraNeko.