The Metal Gear Solid series is widely known for two things: its excessively convoluted storylines and themes, and presenting those themes in incredibly obtuse ways. Its longwinded, feature film-length cutscenes and often overwrought dialogue are frequently lampooned for being far too complicated for people to ever really be able to understand what’s going on.
In spite of the fact that Metal Gear Solid is so widely decried for its abysmal game-to-cutscene ratio, what playable portions there are are expertly crafted to efficiently communicate the core attitudes and aspects of the game, resulting in an incredibly well crafted stealth action game.
Don’t believe me?
Convoluted story aside, one thing that’s practically axiom is that Solid Snake is a badass, and you want to be him. Fortunately, from the moment you emerge on the docks of Shadow Moses, Metal Gear Solid is leading you, teaching you to be a better FOX-HOUND operative. Not only does it flesh out the game’s controls, but the opening segment also serves to emphasize what the game’s tagline (“Tactical Espionage Action”) really means, by forcing you to play with patience, precision, and caution.
If you’re stalwart enough to make it through the opening cutscene (and let’s be fair, if you aren’t, you should probably just stop now), you’ll be inundated with information before you even have to touch the controller. You’ll hear a bunch of stuff about some such nuclear something or other, and you’ll hear quite a bit about a bunch of people who are apparently Big Deals. But the main takeaway from this exchange between Snake and Campbell is that you’re going in alone, and you’re going in empty handed.
Your first codec conversation after you exit the water not only introduces you to your supporting cast, but also breaks the game’s intimidating opening salvo down into a much more manageable chunk by giving you a very simple objective: get to the elevator on the far side of the docks. Objective in hand (but, barring a pack of cigarettes, not much else), you’re finally free to take your first steps (literally) through Shadow Moses.
Of course, you won’t get very far. A mere couple of steps into your infiltration you’ll run up against your first obstacle – a pipe. You can’t walk through it, you can’t climb over it – what to do? This pipe actually serves a few purposes. Firstly, it gives you a chance to practice basic movement control; the top-down perspective is, admittedly different from the Goldeneyes and Mission: Impossibles and other action games of the time, and in a stealth game precise movement is key for success, so you’re going to want to practice with that controller. Run around in circles, hell even run back down into the water (you’ll find a ration for your troubles if you do).
Throughout the course of your various failed attempts to climb over it or pass through it, you will likely have tried simply walking through it, and witnessed something magical happen – Snake will press up against the pipe. The camera angle switches from top-down to over the shoulder, and you can see in front of you. This is an important (indeed, crucial) maneuver that you will be required to come back to time and time again, as it not only helps with concealment but also as a way for you to see what awaits you around corners. Now you’re thinking like a FOX-HOUND agent.
Now it’s time to actually get past that damn pipe, which can only be done by exploiting yet another of Metal Gear Solid’s unique movement features – crawling. Get down on your belly and slither underneath and you’re ready to move on. We’ve already explored the intricacies of in-game movement – arguably the most important skill for a player to have in Metal Gear Solid – and we’ve only been holding the controller for minutes!
Of course, savvy cutscene watchers will remember the guards that patrol the area; they’re still there, and unfortunately they stand between you and your precious elevator. A quick scan of your inventory will confirm the Colonel’s words – you indeed have no weapons and (seemingly) no way to dispatch these guards, so you know that you’re going to put that sneaking suit to good use.
This opening area is a veritable playground for neophyte FOX-HOUNDers to practice their sneaking and evasion – a giant box, bisected by near-perfect gridlines of ubiquitous videogame crates perfect for breaking line of sight. Also at the top of the screen is the soliton radar with an interesting feature – a real-time representation of your enemies and a blue cone that you’re pretty sure you want to avoid.
After waiting patiently for Guard #1 to turn his back, you’ll take a few steps forward – right into a puddle, right in the middle of the floor. It’s a puddle. It’s wet. And it’s loud. It’s at this moment that players will get their first experience with perhaps the most important aspect of stealth in Metal Gear Solid.
That fucking sound. The one that seasoned Metal Gear players have been classically conditioned to sweat at the sound of. The sound an adrenalin rush makes. It is what “oh, shit!” sounds like.
It is the sound of detection.
Now it’s time to think on your feet. Do you try and fight back hand-to-hand? Do you run back into the water? You’d better think fast, because now the guards are converging on you like lions to a wounded gazelle. They’ve got assault rifles, and you’ve got a stupid look on your face. Once you die (and you will, at some point. It’s ok. It’s necessary), you will have learned perhaps the most important lesson – Do not. Get. Spotted.
Metal Gear Solid is, at its core, a game about managing and avoiding detection, and this first experience with it in the docks will embed itself in your brain and yes, you will remember. You’ve already learned the importance of caution, of using your radar, of watching your step (since different terrain makes different sounds). Now it’s time to move on.
You’ve made it. you’re at the elevator, and the end is in sight. You push the elevator button triumphantly and…
You wait. In a final test of patience and cunning, you have to wait for the elevator to arrive, all while remaining unseen by the guards who are still out there walking around. Because at the end of the day, to succeed in Metal Gear Solid you need to be skilled, and precise, and above all, patient.
Finally your patience and skill have paid off – the elevator has arrived. You sneak on to it, throwing a final disdainful look to the sentries you’ve left behind, feeling like you have actually accomplished something. Because you have. You are playing Metal Gear Solid, and you have just figured out exactly what that means: Tactical. Espionage. Action.