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metal-gear-2

A tough sell: Metal Gear’s ‘hero’ in action.

 

Ever since the infamous debut trailer offended the sensibilities of scores of peace-loving watermelons around the world, Metal Gear Solid 2 became an event that simultaneously solidified (editor’s note: hurr) the Playstation 2’s market dominance and – thanks to its lofty ambitions and grandiose scale – suggested videogames could tell a bombastic and unrealistic tale just as effectively as Hollywood. But during this elongated pre-release the series’ cheeky mastermind, Hideo Kojima played his cards very close to his chest, only showcasing events – and digital fruit – from the first part of the game. When MGS2 finally came out, it was revealed that he’d played a switch and bait with the audience: fan favourite Dave ‘Solid’ Snake was replaced by a peroxide lady-man called Raiden and the majority of the game took place on an oil rig: forever known as places where nothing interesting ever happens.

With hindsight and greater familiarity with Kojima’s work, the ‘twist’ in Metal Gear Solid 2 is far easier to see. For someone obsessed with freedom and creative interactivity, it’s always been a little perplexing to find that Kojima is equally preoccupied with taking the player out of the equation and presenting reams of storytelling through barely interactive cut-scenes and CODEC chats. But whatever contradictions are apparent in the man’s work he has a definitive idea of how his story should progress and by telling the majority of MGS2 through the eyes of Raiden, he can tell the tale, and exhibit the selfless heroism of true star Solid Snake, without inviting the player to fuck it up.

This works on paper, but within minutes of meeting Snake – or the mysterious ‘Iroquois Pliskin’, who looks just like Snake and has the same voice-actor – the formerly stoic mullet-bearing warrior is worryingly eager to bond with pretty boy, Raiden. After a few moments’ exposition discussion he then passes out. Kojima’s attempt at presenting a paternal role-model falls at the first hurdle; Snake’s more like a drunken uncle on Christmas day, clumsily attempting to bond before passing out and spending the rest of the day loudly flatulating on the sofa. Later, Snake sends us off the complete the mission while he hangs around a broken helicopter for a bit, eventually showing up to fly around while we take down a harrier with a missile launcher.

Kojima’s over-ambition may trip him up a little but the story is so complex that it barely matters. After the hundredth twist you could be controlling a Cornish pasty for the way your actions affect the story. In fact, the reveal that you’re actually a regional based pastry snack made of meat and vegetables is one of the few narrative threads not yet woven by Kojima, perhaps he’s saving that for the forthcoming ‘Project Ogre’. Anyway, I never really understood the upset Metal Gear fans had at MGS2’s switcheroo: they derided Raiden for being silly and unrealistic while pining for a man dressed in skin-tight spandex called Snake. Then again, I’m probably wasting my time looking for logic. Maybe they were controlled by nanomachines, or errant AI? Maybe this isn’t even real? We haven’t met, after all, have we?

These twisting flights of fancy are what makes Metal Gear Solid, and part 2 in particular, so great for me. The basic premise is a hostage scenario in an isolated area but the execution is like an Elseworld, where Ken Russell made Die Hard. You never know what’s going to come next: there are vampires, giant fat men on rollerblades, a villain who’s apparently possessed by the arm of the hero’s dead brother, giant robots, some stuff about AI and the unique opportunity to get pissed on by a terrorist, slip on some seagull crap and have the President of the United States awkwardly grab your penis. It’s a stew of mentalism created by one of the few remaining unique voices in videogames, one who still holds enough sway to package the unfettered ideas in his head and have them sell by the metric bumload.

That’s not to say that the fan complaints didn’t have some effect on Kojima. He later went back and appeased the Snake-heads by offering a bunch of self-contained missions that show what Dave got up to while you’re fending off the amorous advances of the Leader of the Free World. And surprisingly, this didn’t just involve hiding in a bathroom stall with a few copies of FHM and a hollowed-out watermelon. Stripped of incessant CODEC chatter and cut-scenes these little missions offer a pared down and refined display of Metal Gear’s engaging stealth mechanics. The missions may amount to little more than ‘go here and pick up this’ but they’re as compelling as ever, and I must admit, it is pretty cool to control ‘Dave’ on the world’s most exciting oil rig.

The punishing controls may be a relic from a time when games wouldn’t look you in the eye, let alone hold your hand, but the creativity and clean art style of Metal Gear Solid 2 still hold up pretty darn well. It may be crazy, overblown and long-winded but it’s perhaps the last time Hideo Kojima created a game in a bubble, completely unaffected by fan feedback and market demands. And that’s as refreshing today as it was in 2001.

I’m currently sneaking my way through the Metal Gear Solid HD collection. Next up: the provocatively titled, oft-regarded highlight of the series, ‘Snake Eater’

Also published here.

walking-dead

Hey, we’re trying to complain over here…

For those who’ve managed to shamble over to the remote control and dodge one of Autumn’s biggest televisual letdowns, series 2 of The Walking Dead has thus far concerned itself with one storyline: the search for a missing girl. In some ways this is quite audacious: my worst memories caused by the magical flickering box in the corner of my room over the past few years have concerned storylines that are way past flat-lining and have done their best to tarnish what was thus far a fairly enjoyable journey. I’m thinking of Kim Bauer’s Groundhog/Mountain Lion Day in series 2 of 24, or the prolonged voyage of sexual discovery that Vito took in the last series of The Sopranos. Every-time I heard the roar of a big cat, or saw Vito divert his puzzled gaze from a plate of johnny cakes to an actual Jonny Cakes, I knew shit was about to get real, in the worst possible way.

Now, I don’t think The Walking Dead has scaled the heights of the former, so the fact that it’s basically spent seven weeks staring at its un-dead navel is less disappointing, but no less un-entertaining. The lack of storyline momentum may be fairly realistic – they are, after all, survivors from a zombo-apocalypse who’ve spent the previous few episodes doing a more than passable impression of the Littlest Hobo chasing his tail – but for some reason they seem posses completely inconsistent character traits. There’s one guy who’s gone from being an encyclopedic illustration of a ‘loose cannon’ (redneck sociopath, lost his brother due to the careless actions of the group, probably on ‘the meth’) to resembling a Care Bear with a crossbow in the space of a few weeks. In the last episode he actually went through this transformation and back again in the space of three scenes.

The only way I can explain this is that every scene in punctuated with an unseen blow to the head – perhaps from a series of carelessly discarded rakes left around Hershel’s farm – that wipes their collective memories. Or maybe they just got the script pages in the wrong order? Easily done when the scene headings only seem to consist of: ‘EXT. FARM – Complaining’ or ‘EXT. Woods – Looking for Sophia’. It’s hardly surprising that it’s come to this; there were rumours of budget cuts that suggested the new series would take place in static locations with fewer zombies. It’s a bit like the makers of The Cosby Show removing alpha-Huxtable, Cliff and replacing him with a few pre-recorded offstage soundbites and a body double in a terrible knitted sweater who leaps out of the pantry at irregular intervals to take the piss out of Theo.

Unfortunately, The Walking Dead series makers can’t fall back on their writers, since most of them have already been purged in the real-life climax of the first series, following a nadir that featured a talking computer. Unsurprisingly they decided to decapitate their writing team (figuratively, at least) but now, with a rumoured budget cut, they’ve had to attempt to re-attach the severed head and ask them to get them out of this mess. And with seemingly no money to make anything happen they’ve attempted to manufacture depth and pathos through a string of emotive scenes featuring dishevelled actors squinting at each other, or, in the case of Shane, a man attempting to knock his eyes out by stretching his eyelids and repeatedly hitting himself on the head. So far he’s failed. Sometimes these scenes will feature a single zombie appearing from stage left, sometimes they won’t.

It’s strange really; Shane wants to kill zombies and move on, which wouldn’t just good for the team, it would also be great for the viewer, but he’s portrayed as a bug-eyed loon (perhaps not unfairly). It seems everyone would rather just sit around and work out a way that will enable them to keep sitting around in the same place for the foreseeable future and not bother with the inconvenience of finding somewhere with no zombies and a warmer welcome. ┬áIt’s a bit like the end of Shaun of the Dead when they re-unite with the opposite group who’ve had a far more interesting and exciting journey than our heroes. But this has lasted for about 7 hours…and isn’t remotely funny – well except for the moment it seemed Carl had been shot by a deer, which would also offer a far more interesting twist than what was eventually revealed on Hershel’s farm*. There’s clearly a far more exciting tale out there, they just need to go and find it.

* For the record I thought they might turn out to be cannibals on the farm. SPOILERS: they weren’t.