Between Silly and Serious: Metal Gear Solid V

Kevin VanOrd and Carolyn Petit analyze the latest Metal Gear Solid V trailer, seen at E3 2013.

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One of the highlights of Microsoft's E3 2013 press conference was the Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain presentation that opened it. Editors Kevin VanOrd and Carolyn Petit began a spirited exchange over what they thought of the demonstration, but instead of keeping it to themselves, they decided to share their thoughts here. And we invite you, in turn, to share your own in the comments section below.

Kevin:

"I expect you'll become quite familiar with those binoculars as you plan your next move."

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Fellow GameSpot editor Carolyn Petit and I exchanged glances when hearing this line, which was uttered near the beginning of the Metal Gear Solid V presentation at Microsoft's E3 2013 press conference. Yes, this super-obvious dialogue was kicking off the Metal Gear demo in fine style. We expect self-conscious, redundant dialogue in this series, with a slight edge of cheese, and sure enough, here it was, reminding us of one of the many things I love about Kojima's personal brand of craziness.

"Then go, and let the legend come back to life."

Carolyn:

I've always thought of the over-the-top cheesiness of the dialogue in the Metal Gear Solid games as part of the experience. Kojima creates this world of larger-than-life characters and ludicrous conspiracies, a world that's much more comic-book absurdity than believable intrigue. Sure, Kojima always tries to work real-world concerns into his games--there's the nuclear proliferation theme of the original Metal Gear Solid, stuff about the military-industrial complex in 4, and so on--but really, it's the borderline-comical level of emotional intensity that makes those stories fun for me. The first time I heard Otacon ask Solid Snake if love can bloom, even on the battlefield, I was won over by the goofy earnestness of it all. But as much as I've loved this aspect of all of the MGS games, I've always gotten the sense that Kojima thinks he's creating truly dramatic stories, not cartoonish soap operas.

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After watching the trailer for Metal Gear Solid 5, though, I'm concerned. There are shots of child soldiers, and indications that blood diamonds may play an important part in the game's narrative, in a more front-and-center way than, say, the mentions of Raiden's traumatic past in MGS2. I just don't know if Kojima's instincts as a storyteller, which I think tend toward the silly and overblown, are a good fit for such grim, serious subject matter.

Kevin:

And that's where the problem in the demo arose for me: the odd contrast between the sheerly ludicrous and the ludicrously tragic. I was immediately drawn in when the camera zoomed around Snake and we saw him ride into the desert on horseback. But then the demo showed off Metal Gear Solid V's new stealth mechanic--the ability to slide to the side of your horse to avoid being seen--while speeding up the footage, apparently for convenience. But the fast-motion effect was rather silly, and broke the initial mood. When the real-time weather was shown off, the demo didn't stick to its own real-time aspirations, hurrying the scene along so we could see the dust storm in action.

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Even the usual Metal Gear product placements felt too blatant to make the right impression. That big Seiko watch logo while we were introduced to the game's realistic passage of time brought back memories of Metal Gear Solid IV's iPod, a totally unnecessary and blatant bit of advertising that came with no gameplay benefit. Throw in plenty of text overlays and a corny song ("Sins of the Father"), and I was struck not by the awesome bits (and trust me, Metal Gear Solid V looks plenty awesome), but by the inconsistent tone.

Carolyn:

I had high hopes when the trailer started. The thought of riding on horseback through a dusty, natural open world stirred fond memories of Red Dead Redemption. Meanwhile, the clumsy combination of dramatic declarations ("You're a legend in the eyes of those who live on the battlefield!") and gameplay tips ("I expect you'll become quite familiar with those binoculars as you plan your next mission") was the sort of thing I might criticize in most games, but Kojima makes his characters so committed to their beliefs and so accepting of the game-like nature of their lives (Snake never batted an eye when told to switch controller ports or look at the back of a game box) that it all works in the crazy world he has created.

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By the trailer's end, my feelings were more mixed. Many of the elements that I love in Metal Gear games appear present, including the outrageous cast of apparent adversaries like Skull Face. (The Quiet could stand to be more sensibly dressed, though!) And the increased versatility in terms of stealth options and close-quarters combat should make the series' action feel more flexible and empowering than ever. So I'll be very surprised if, in gameplay terms, Metal Gear Solid V doesn't end up being thoroughly enjoyable. But the very grim, very real plight of child soldiers isn't something you just toss into a crazy comic-book story to elicit an emotional reaction from players. You need to handle a topic like that with respect. I hope Kojima knows what he's doing.

Kevin:

Something tells me Kojima does know what he's doing, though. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will surely be over the top, sometimes even silly, but when it comes to melodrama, few game franchises do it better. Ultimately, I wish the trailer had captured a more consistent tone, but I have faith in Kojima's ability to keep the sense of drama high without diminishing the impact of his serious themes. I am excited to see the new generation of Metal Gear. And I suspect that the inadvertent comedy of the presentation will give way to another beautifully self-important, politically charged adventure.

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