Storytelling Through Gameplay: Metal Gear!?

A popular topic amongst gamers, developers and critics is one of game storytelling and where it fits within gameplay proper. The debate often veers off into whether or not to consider interactive storytelling "games". That semantic debate I'll save for another topic. This series is going to explore storytelling through traditional gameplay means, their effectiveness, and the inclination for developers to segment their storytelling and gameplay into disparate pieces they shuffle together to produce a "story-based" game. For this first post, I'll analyze an individual sequence in one of my favorite games and explain why it's so powerful.

If you know anything about what I consider my favorite games (I count Metal Gear Solid 3, Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Trigger among my favorite games of all time.), you'd think that storytelling is my primary draw to gaming. You'd be wrong. Storytelling is a great thing in many games, but to me, it's something that's complementary to the fun I have in playing. In a lot of ways, storytelling in my favorite games are thoroughly intertwined with gameplay.

Take for example my favorite gameplay-as-story moment in Metal Gear Solid 3 (spoilers follow). In the opening act, our protagonist Snake is betrayed by his mentor and confidant, The Boss. She reveals she's defecting to the Soviet Union and leaving America, her mission, and Snake behind. She fights and defeats Snake in hand-to-hand combat which ends in her throwing him off a bridge into a ravine below. An emotional and physical blow is dealt to our hero, one we literally just started getting to know an hour earlier.

We're then called up on our radio to let us know we are in grave condition and we'll need to patch ourselves up. This opens up a gameplay sequence (and tutorial!) on how the injury system works in the game. Opening up the health screen, Snake is shown with broken bones and bruises from the fight. You as a player are required to heal him up using bandage, splints, and the like. It's a simple sequence, but it completely reinforces what just happened to your character. There were immediate gameplay repercussions and you had to deal with them. And just like that, you're emotionally invested in this character. You know that you (as the player) can hurt Snake and your enemies can, too. You realize you're responsible for Snake and his survival. Snake is you. You are Snake. It hurts to survive, but it's necessary to complete the mission. What would take a film an hour in character development to get invested in the character takes this game all of five minutes.

This is theme of survival is reinforced everywhere in the game in the survival system. You must hunt for food, track your mental and physical stamina, and tend your injuries. You must rest when you are tired, take medicine when you are ill, and eat when you are hungry. You have to care about Snake. It's an excellent way of getting the player invested in the story and the main character.

And that's one of the reasons the video game medium is so special. You can do things that in film would take you an hour in half the time by putting power  in the hands of the player. One button press and they're emotionally invested. You've established a link almost immediately.

Now, you may be laughing ironically, because Metal Gear Solid is notorious for it's removal of player control during it's cutscenes. This is altogether true. But most games with a story to tell have similar problems. We're still working on that, as a medium. But we've got to give credit to Metal Gear Solid for something few other games did: experimented with storytelling in games and succeeding in making it emotionally powerful. We owe it a lot for that.