Playing Metal Gear Solid 4 Well: Being a Good Snake*
by James Paul Gee

*Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and the whole series of Metal Gear Solid games, involve an amazingly complex story which is resolved in this the last game in the series. I will not detail the story in this paper — because it is too long; I have never fully understood it; I don’t pay attention to its details when I play (though its basic themes are important to me); and detailing it would give away many things people may want to discover for themselves. Readers can look up the story and all the characters involved on many websites and on Wikipedia, just as I do when I have forgotten something that I need to know in playing and thinking about Metal Gear Solid games. There is LOTS to say about Metal Gear Solid 4 only a very little of which I say here.

Seth Schiesel — a savvy technology journalist who often writes about video games for the New York Times — had this to say about Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots:

I play games because of the freedom they afford. In contrast to a book or a film or a theater performance, a game lets me decide what happens next, or at least lets me operate under the illusion that my actions matter …. Metal Gear Solid 4 is not like that. Instead it is a linear narrative by the Japanese designer Hideo Kojima. You, the player, are along for the ride. M.G.S. 4 is Mr. Kojima’s world, and you are just passing through for the moment while he tells you where to go next, what to do and more or less how to do it (Schiesel 2008)

Well, Seth is a lot younger than I am. And he does, indeed, know his game stuff. But in my view, he’s wrong about Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (hereafter “MGS4” for short). He doesn’t get it.

But then I have to add: Seth would probably think I’m wrong and I don’t get it. Despite all the Games Studies efforts to search for a grand theory of games, there is, in my view, none to be had.

Different types of video games are different. Different types of players are different. And games and players interact in different ways. My MGS4 isn’t yours and isn’t Seth’s. Yours isn’t mine. And THAT is the freedom I love in video games.

When I say my MGS4 isn’t yours and yours isn’t mine, I don’t mean the obvious truth, a truth about any media: different people have different interpretations. That ho-hum truth is true of books, films, games, and any and every use of language.

What I mean is that in MGS4 I (Jim Gee) am Solid Snake, not you, not Seth, not even Mr. Kojima, the game’s designer. In fact, as far as I am concerned, Mr. Kojima is just along for the ride — in his own game to boot!

Well, o.k., of course, Mr. Kojima IS in this with me. I am willing to say (I guess) that it is not just me, but him and me together that are Solid Snake, really. We’re a team, but I hold the upper hand (I say).

At the end of his review, Seth says:

Of course, by the time those credits did roll, I was ready for the M.G.S. 4 experience to be over. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed it. It was probably the best near-future action movie I had ever seen. But I was ready to make some of my own choices. In short, I was ready to play a game.

MGS4 does have long, gorgeous, exciting, amazing, over-the-top-by-any-standards cut scenes. The final one lasts well over an hour. MGS4 is, indeed, a great action movie.

However, when I played the game the second time around, on a harder mode, I cut off all the cut scenes: too bad, then, for the millions of dollars Mr. Kojima’s spent on them. Hey, there are players who cut off all the cut scenes the first time around.

But, that — cutting off the cut scenes at least the second time around — is what the game is designed to have you do. MGS4 is one of those games that you are supposed to play more than once.

Why? Well that is what this paper is about, so I shouldn’t tell you now. But I will. It’s because to play MGS4 “well”, YOU HAVE TO BE A GOOD SNAKE. And you are a better Snake the second or third time around. There is not just one way to be a good Snake, though.

So Seth, at the end of his first play through, having seen all those great cut scenes, should have been “ready to play” MGS4 all over again. And he could have dispensed with the cut scenes. So much for the movie.

But that’s just my view as a player, not necessarily his. We’re different and his Solid Snake is not mine and mine is not his (remember). Maybe he doesn’t really care about Solid Snake. But I do.

So what does it mean to play MGS4? What does it mean to play it “well”? These are vexed questions (forget — so that we can gradually build to a climax — that I already told you the answer). MGS4, more than any game I have played, makes them vexed.

Let me start with something really simple: in MSG4 — unlike in any other game I can remember — playing well can mean playing badly. Most anyone would think, especially if they are thinking of sports, say, that to play well is to get things right and do well. But this is not always so in MGS4.

One example: There is a moment in MGS4 where Snake — who in MGS4 is sick, old, and tired — has to remember a code. Surely forgetting the code is not getting things right and doing well. But when Snake (my Snake, me) forgets the code — hey, I’m 60 years old — it becomes part of the story.

Otacon is already worried about Snake’s physical and mental deterioration, as is Snake himself. This code forgetting just confirms (as the game goes on to indicate), both for Otacon and Snake, that things are getting worse, as indeed they are. Aren’t you supposed to forget the code, if you want to go along with the game’s narrative?

When I was playing the game second time round, Snake (I) got the code right and Otacon was relieved. [See, Seth, my choice made a little bit of difference].

Which way is right? Which way is “well played”. Who is the better Snake? Hey, my Snake the first time around is not even my Snake the second time around and he is never your Snake (remember).

In MGS4 Snake is sick, old, and tired, as I said (due to intentional gene manipulation of Big Boss’s clones, of which Snake is one, if you must know). He regularly grunts and holds his back in pain. He has to inject himself with a special medicine even to keep going at all.

So when I play badly — when I mess up on sneaking or miss a head shot, when I have to make do best I can after my mess up — am I playing well? Aren’t I playing Snake as the sick and tired old man he is in MGS4?

Or am I playing well when I and Snake rise above all the pain and succeed in fine fashion, as a hero like Snake might very well do? But, then, even in some of the cut scenes in MGS4 Snake doesn’t do so well this time around. By the end of the game, he is literally crawling on the ground to meet the final boss, Liquid Ocelot.

Which way is being a good Snake for this game?

You see THAT is what it’s all about for me: being a good Snake in this specific game (having been a good Snake, too, in all the earlier games). And THIS in a game that ends [spoiler coming] when Snake’s father (Big Boss) tells him that the world no longer needs any Snakes, therefore: “Go be a man”.

What for heaven’s sake, does it mean to be a good Snake? What does it mean to “be a man” for that matter?

So what DOES it mean to be a good Snake? Well this is embarrassing, I must admit. The first thing (though not the last) I have to say about what it means to be a good Snake is a bunch of “theory” that got me into trouble in my first book on video games (Gee 2003/2007).

In my first book on video games I said that video games were a “semiotic domain”. Lots of reviewers decried my “jargon” (but they were mostly, ironically, academics, not gamers).

I came to regret using the term. Now, low and behold, what does Mr. Kojima do in MGS4 but shove it in your face that video games are semiotic domains. He thereby forces me back to my disgusting jargon (and I hear the readers
creeping away).

Saying a video game is a “semiotic domain” means video games are not pretty pictures, not “eye candy”. They are, rather, “signs” to be “read”. To play well you have to read the signs well.

In MGS4, being a good Snake means reading the signs well. So, what’s that mean, “reading the signs well”? Well, let’s take a quick tour through MGS4, because MGS4 makes a big deal indeed out of reading signs well.

MGS4 regularly plays with the medium to get players to reflect on the fact that they are playing a video game [Some people call this sort of thing “post-modern”, but it is actually “modernist”, but who cares about these sorts of things in a paper like this anyway?]. Let me just say that MGS4 constantly “goes meta” in the sense that it makes you think about the fact that you are playing a video game and does not let you just play it and forget about it.

Remember those great film-like cut scenes? In some of them we see rain or ice on the camera lens. This makes us well aware that the action is being filmed. But wait, it can’t be being filmed, there is no camera, this is a video game!

It’s a regular film technique to do stuff like that, showing muck on the camera lens, to make the viewer aware the action is being filmed and filmed from a certain point of view. It calls direct attention to the medium (film) as a medium, rather than seeing the medium as a transparent window onto the world.

But Mr. Kojima is calling attention to the wrong medium: this is a video game and not a film and there is no camera. Maybe he is calling wry attention to all the controversy about how games should not be movies (ala Seth) while they get more movie-like all the time. Maybe he isn’t. I don’t know.

And, of course, he is signaling what genre of Hollywood film he wants you to compare his cut scenes to, namely an avant garde action film. But, wait a minute, there is an irony here. When Snake is at his very best — when you are playing him particularly well — he sneaks quietly past everyone unseen and there is no action. During game play, often it’s only when you mess up (as sneaky Snake) and have to fight it out (as violent Snake) that Snake is in an action movie.

Hey, the cut scenes and the game aren’t the same thing (surprise, surprise). The game is not acting out the cut scenes. The cut scenes aren’t showing you how to play the game. So we will have to worry later about what those cut scenes are doing in this game. [Short answer right now: they are telling you what YOU owe Snake].

But no matter why Mr. Kojima is showing muck on the non-existent camera, he is surely telling us to pay attention to the signs: to the rain and ice on the camera. He wants us to see that these signs signal the fact that this is all artificial, not real, not a transparent window onto the world, even a fantasy world. It’s a video game pretending to be a movie, knowing all the while it’s a video game.

MGS4 also constantly makes references to earlier MGS games as games. It makes constant reference, as well, to the fact that you are playing a video game, even a violent one, and even suggests that maybe such games are training for real violence and, hey, maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. MGS4 even makes several references to the fact that you are playing on a Play Station 3.

The signs that you are playing a game are rubbed in your face. You are told not to forget that you are playing a video game, not to mistake it for reality any more than you should mistake those movie like cut scenes for reality (remember the muck on the camera).

Some specific examples that I love — and there are many in the game: Snake ends up in exactly the place where in an earlier game he fought and defeated a tank by throwing grenades into it. I remember. I did it. Did it damn well, if I say so myself . But Otacon tells Snake that he has checked with an expert and the expert told him that no individual could defeat a tank that way. It’s impossible. He asks Snake how it did it; he marvels that he did it — how did he do it? Maybe it was just a game, not real. Snake just grunts.

Another example: Deep into the game, Otacon tells Snake that the disk needs to be switched. He asks him if he sees a second disk. Snake says no. Otacon says something like, oh, I remember, this is a Play Station 3 with Blue Ray disk technology. We don’t need to switch disks any more like in the old days. He then marvels at the wonders of new technologies and Snake tells him “to get a grip”.

Here is another example: One level starts off with the exact 2D game level from an earlier game. This is a level I remember very well indeed. I have even used screen shots from it in my talks. You (re-)play the old game a bit and then all of a sudden it stops and you see that Snake was having a dream. Hey, he dreams video game dreams.

Yet another example: During those gorgeous cut scenes a little “x” comes on in the corner of the screen every once in a while. If you keep pushing “x” on the controller you see flashes of scenes from earlier games — scenes thematically connected to what you are seeing in the cut scene. The cut scene is totally realistic looking, but the flashback is out of an earlier game and, thus, looks much more “primitive”. The realism is ruined (and after all that money spent for the good graphics!).

This juxtaposition of realism and less realistic graphics from earlier games surely tells the player that no matter how realistic MGS4 looks — thanks to that wonderful Play Station 3 technology — it is still a video game and, in core respects, not different than the earlier games, games which were worse as “eye candy”, but just as good as games. But then it can’t be the graphics that make a game and the superb graphics of MGS4 aren’t what makes it a great game.

Indeed, MGS4 is one of the most realistic looking video games in history. But it regularly undercuts that realism to underscore that you are playing a video game — and not just any video game, but an MGS game. Not only do we get all the references to the earlier games. We also get decidedly unrealistic conventions (carried over from the earlier games) like a question mark or an exclamation point showing up over an enemy’s head when he thinks he has discovered Snake (the question mark) or when he definitely has discovered Snake (the exclamation point). If question marks and exclamation marks are not signs to read, I don’t know what are.

So, throughout, Mr. Kojima makes it clear that gamers have to read signs: signs like the water on the camera, the question and exclamation marks, the flash backs to earlier games, the wry comments on the fact that you are playing a game and that what Snake has done earlier (and, therefore, probably now, too) can’t be real.

Why this obsession with signs and reading signs? Why the need to keep telling you to pay attention to the fact that you are playing a video game and an MGS game to boot?

Two reasons: First, reading signs of a certain sort in a certain way is what you have to do when you are playing any video game. That’s why I called them “semiotic domains”, for all the grief it caused me. Mr. Kojima is just making the same point in a much better and more entertaining way.

Second: This — reading signs in a certain way — is ESPECIALLY what you have to do in MGS games in a SPECIAL way, not just because they are stealth games, but because that is one of the things Snake is good at (reading signs) and you are supposed to be a good Snake.

Well we are very close to the point now. We have come to the heart of the matter. But, sadly, I have to pause, because I sort of lied to you.

Remember when I told you that MGS4 “constantly makes reference … to the fact that you are playing a video game”? Remember when I asked “Why the need to keep telling you to pay attention to the fact that you are playing a video game and an MGS game to boot?” (it wasn’t all that long ago)?

Well, the weird fact is that MGS4 does not actually constantly remind YOU you are playing a video game, it actually constantly reminds Snake. Of course, you are Snake and so it is telling you, too. But it most certainly is telling Snake. So it is telling a video game character that he is playing a video game! Isn’t that just
plain weird?

But Snake can’t be playing a video game, he isn’t real. But it WAS him — Snake — who defeated the tank (the one that a real person could not defeat, remember), wasn’t it? Well — ok, maybe no — it wasn’t him, it was ME (as Snake) that beat that tank. But then real people — and I am real — can’t defeat tanks in that way. But — ok, I almost forgot — I was only playing a video game. But Otacon told Snake that it was HIM that was just playing and not beating the tank for real. I’m confused!

Here’s my idea: Snake’s a gamer. So am I. We’re both gamers. Sounds weird, uh? Well, ok, stay with me. It will get better (no, actually, it’s gonna get worse, then it will get better, maybe).

Think about it this way. Mario is really good at jumping. But gamers don’t jump. Mario jumps and the gamer does something else. Sonic is really good at speeding, but gamers don’t speed. Sonic speeds along and the gamer does something else. Riddick is really good at beating people up, but gamers don’t beat people up (so much for that “games lead to violence” nonsense). Riddick beats people up and the gamer does something else. Mario, Sonic, and Riddick, whatever they are doing, THEY AREN’T GAMING.

But Snake IS. What Snake is REALLY good at is just what gamers are REALLY good at WHEN THEY ARE PLAYING WELL.

And what is that?

Well — sad news, indeed, here — (I told you it would get worse) just at the dramatic moment when I am about to unveil “the point’, when I am about to tell you “the answer”, I am going to use another piece of jargon. Surely, you would think I had learned my lesson by now. Alas, I am (and I hate it, believe me) an academic.

It means that Snake PAYS ATTENTION TO AFFORDANCES, just like savvy gamers do. Good gamers are really good at paying attention to affordances. And Snake is really good at paying attention to affordances. In fact, it’s his super power. So, unlike Mario, there is one thing that Snake does that gamers do too. Snake is good at what gamers are good at.

So, what in the hell does it mean to “pay attention to affordances”?

An affordance (Gibson 1977, 1979 — see, this is old stuff) is something in the environment that you can use to accomplish a goal. A hammer is an affordance for banging in nails, if that’s your goal. But an affordance is really an affordance only if you have the skill to use it. No opposable thumb and that harmer is no longer an affordance (for you) for nailing. Another example: if you have not taken Skinning as a skill in World of War Craft, then stags are not an affordance for skinning for you, though they are for someone who did take the skill.

So to pay attention to affordances means to pay attention to how your skills match up with aspects of the environment to take advantage of them as affordances for accomplishing your goals. It’s all about matching your skills with what’s on offer in the world, what’s out that that can be manipulated for your purposes.

When you are playing a video game, the skills you have pay attention to — that you have to match up to the world — are: (a) your skills as a gamer; and (b) the skills you inherit from the character you are playing (Snake in this case, who, for example, can’t speed like Sonic, but is good at moving quietly); and (c) the skills you inherit from the character you are playing that you choose to use (say, sneaking, rather than killing).

So playing video games as a savvy gamer is matching skills to aspects of the environment that can become affordances to carry out goals. In MGS4 this means carefully observing the environment to find good hiding places; to find vantage points for stealth attacks or sniper shots; to find paths around enemies; to find just the right place to stand or the right way to move in the environment to defeat a boss. And much more, all with due regard for your own skills as a player, for Snake’s skills (remember, he can’t speed), and for what sort of Snake you want to be and can be (say, a sneaky Snake, rather than a lethal Snake).

Once again, Mr. Kojima is well aware of all this, even without using my jargon. For instance, in MGS4 he gives Snake a device that just shouts out my affordance theory: it’s all about matching your skills with your environment.

Snake has a special suit that allows him to meld into his environment (like a chameleon) so well he becomes virtually invisible. With the suit, nearly every part of the environment is an affordance for Snake to disappear. Without the suit (and you don’t have to wear it) he cannot meld and no part of the environment offers him an affordance for disappearing.

O.K., I know some of you think I am making all this stuff up about gamers, gaming, and affordances. But obviously Mr. Kojima doesn’t, since he devotes one level of MGS4 to a tutorial on the matter, as if the Octocamo suit wasn’t enough already.

In this level, Snake has to use his “Solid Eye”, a device that gives him hyper-vision where he can clearly see foot prints, hidden enemies, and other “signs” (like where loot, such as ammo and rations, are) even in bad light conditions. Raiden (yes, he’s back) tells Snake that he must track the people who took Naomi (yes, she’s back), all the while watching out carefully for enemy soldiers.

But Snake says he really has no tracking skills (oops, that’s a problem). Therefore, nothing in the environment is going to be an affordance for Snake to track.

Raiden comes to the rescue. He gives Snake a tutorial on how expert trackers like Native Americans use all their senses to pay close attention to every little sign (e.g., broken twigs, heavier or lighter foot prints, the distribution of the weight shown by a foot print, sounds, disturbances however small in the environment). He tells Snake he must read these signs carefully (see, I told you, it’s all about reading signs). After the tutorial, Otacon coaches Snake through the whole thing.

So Snake (and you) learn to pay very close attention to the environment (thank god for the Solid Eye). Snake (and you) learn to read all the signs, no matter how subtle. Then Snake (and you) can use them as affordances to know where to go — which path out of many choices to follow — so Snake (and you) can pursue Naomi’s kidnappers without being seen. Snake is getting a lesson, and so are you, a lesson on tracking and, I argue, a lesson on playing video games, at least games like MGS4.

Because, after all, Snake is usually good (though not this time) at reading the signs to use his environment to his advantage. It’s his “super power”. He is always acutely aware of his environment and has many different skills for getting through it (and, thus, there are many different ways to play the game, to be Snake). And you need to be good at this, too, if you are going to be a good gamer and a good Snake.

Snake can sneak past enemies, he can sneak up on them and stun them, he can snipe them, he can meld into the environment to avoid them, he can check out his environment with a robotic drone. He can do much more. And he and you need carefully to match these skills to the environment to find affordances to accomplish your goals.

I must say that my Snake was not all that good at the tracking. But remember Snake said he wasn’t good at tracking. He is just learning, like me. And he is old (so am I) and sick and tired. So this is another case where not doing well is doing well (being Snake as he is). But he gets through (not all that badly — for Snake, for me, or for my Snake — I must say, especially the second time round and remember I said above that the second time round is important).

So that’s what good gamers do: match skills to the environment to create affordances for accomplishing goals. That’s what they do when they play Sonic or Snake. So Snake and I both got a lesson from Raiden, Otacon, and Mr. Kojima on the whole theory. Get some skills and match them to the environment to accomplish goals. That’s gaming (later I’ll tell you that that’s life, too).

But, unlike Sonic, Snake himself is good at THAT — it’s his super power, as I said — and so he, too, is a good gamer. Snake is a model gamer. He and I are both gaming, just as GMS4 keeps telling us. [If the point is still too arcane, then consider this: Mario jumps, gamers don’t. Snake pays close attention to affordances, gamers do too. Snake and gamers do the same thing. Mario and gamers don’t. Mario’s great, but this paper’s about Snake].

To be a good gamer is to be a good Snake; to be a good Snake is to be a good gamer. But remember, Snake’s father told us that after our heroic accomplishments in MGS4, the world needs no more Snakes — “go be a man”. Perhaps, Mr. Kojima wants us to stop gaming and go out and change the world.

No, that’s not what he means, I think. Or, at least, not all that he means. In “Self, video games, and pedagogy” Jenny Wright (to appear) compares heroes in Native American myths and heroes in role-playing video games. She says: “[t]he sense of achievement you gain from becoming an expert manipulator of any environment is addictive and affirming”.

Being a good gamer and being a good Snake in fact requires the core skill, not just of heroes, but of “a man” or “a woman” — of an effective, efficacious human being — and that skill is: becoming adept at gaining and matching skills with different aspects of the environment to use them as affordances to accomplish important goals.

Sounds too academic, doesn’t it? But try changing the world without that skill.

To play GMS4 well means to be a good Snake. And that means to be a good gamer. And that means to be a hero. And that means to be a thoughtful human. Pay attention to those affordances.

Every hero, every human has different skills, different desires. Every hero, every human matches skills and desires to environments to accomplish goals differently. Every player plays Snake differently. My Snake is not yours, yours is not mine. My life is not yours, yours is not mine. My excellence is not yours, yours is not mine. As long as we are trying to play well, to honor Snake, to be good Snakes, the best we can, we are all the hero crawling to the last boss to become “a man”, “a woman”, “a human”.

But why does Seth have to play MSG4 a second time and maybe a third too? Because each time around, you’re a better Snake.

And why are all those gorgeous cut scenes there? Just to tell you that Snake is a hero and what sort of hero he is. Snake IS a hero and YOU can’t let him down.

But, remember, too, the best Snake (in fact the one you have to be on the hardest level of the game) is a sneaky non-lethal Snake, the Snake that always misses the action movie in favor of disappearing unseen, unheard into his environment, all the while accomplishing his goals [On “The Boss Extreme Difficulty” level, you must complete the game in under 5 hours with no alerts, no humans killed, and no continues, while using no health replenishing items and foregoing the Octocamo stealth suit. I’ve beat the level. In my dreams].

Being a sneaky Snake is hard this time around, in MGS4, the final game. Snake is old. So am I. So it’s ok to make mistakes. But we play again. Make less mistakes. Snake and I get better — perhaps, too, just a bit younger.

And why is it ok to cut off those cut scenes? Because I know Snake already and have long wanted to be him and have been him now four times. He is my hero.

And what a ride it has been. Snake and I became good gamers together. Time now to be “a man”. Or find another game.

I have tracked her unique prints in the snow (and they said I was no good at tracking!). But I am far away. She does not see me or hear me. She does not know I am here. But I know she is there. I wait. The world is covered in wind and snow and ice and mist. It is a pure white out. There is no visibility. Then all of a sudden the mists part. I have waited patiently. I am ready. My silenced sniper bullet hurls through the air for a perfect head shot. Unseen. Unheard. Crying Wolf is defeated. I have been a good Snake. Even though I am old. Oh, but I will be a better Snake next time around. I’ll use non-lethal ammo. I’ll stun her.
And move on.