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Culture quirks slow down Metal Gear Solid 4

Snake isn’t the only creaky thing in MGS4.


Snake isn’t the only creaky thing in MGS4.

Like most gamers for the past month, I've been playing Metal Gear Solid 4 practically nonstop, running my Mk. II all over the place and soaking up hours of talky-talky cutscenes. And I can uncategorically say one thing about it — it's boring.

Two things here: 1) My e-mail address is below, so flame away, you fanboys; and 2) That's not to say it isn't a great game. In fact, I think the game is spectacular. At least, the interactive parts of it are.

Hideo Kojima's entire epic franchise is full of grandiose exposition on patriotism, humanity, warfare and the effects of technology thereon, and that's not a bad thing. What's amazing to me is that there's so much of it.

If you stop and smell the cordite, MGS4 features about 20 hours of adventure. Note I don't say "gameplay," because gameplay would denote time spent actually doing something, not wading through hours upon hours of characters discussing nanomachines and proxy wars.

It's not so much what they talking about, but how long they talk about it. Characters gab on for long minutes, explaining every little detail to Snake like crazed parents reading Tom Clancy novels to children on Adderall.

But Kojima has his story, and he tells it in a way that has sold millions of discs over several sequels, so it must have some merit. (Lord knows I've bought and played through every single one of them, because the arc is interesting enough to follow.) In this case, there's a distinctly Japanese-style narrative that is being consumed not only by Japanese, but Americans and Europeans that have been weaned on Japanese culture.

My generation grew up being saturated with a Nihon-jin spin on everything from monsters in rubber suits to Italian plumbers. Was it not predictable that a mythos like Metal Gear Solid's — full of acronyms, pregnant pauses and characters named Decoy Octopus and Revolver Ocelot — would eventually become accepted as the pinnacle of interactive storytelling by gamers the world over?

Zero Punctuation's Ben Croshaw has said of JRPGs: "This is not interactive storytelling; this is just reading." It's the same with the MGS series, which uses its action as a mere break between reams of dialogue that could be summed up nicely in a third the time. All the beautiful graphics (and they are beautiful, easily among the best the new gen has to offer) aren't going to change the fact that often the game just takes too long to get where it's going.

This is a problem plaguing many games today, like Lost Planet, the Devil May Cry series and even my favorite, the Resident Evil franchise. Developers rarely strike a good balance between action and stilted, overlong cutscenes. But why is it so prevalent among Japanese-penned games?

Author Alex Kerr, in his book Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan, theorizes that cultures often treasure that which is lacking in their own cultures. This explains to Kerr why the Japanese are preoccupied with natural beauty and preserving history while simultaneously destroying their environment (another MGS staple), but in this case it may also tell us why their games are so full of nattering plot analysis.

Japan is a culture of nuance and subtlety, with the very language they speak full of implications and reading between the lines. Maybe that's why they feel the need to pack all this chattiness in their games — it provides a release to Japanese wanting to spill their guts and say things out loud, no matter how long that may take.

That says volumes about a game like Gears of War, which actually cried out for more background. If what I'm inferring about the Japanese is true, then American games are underdeveloped because Yanks don't know when to shut up.

Like I probably should have done a few paragraphs ago.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. You can challenge his opinions at

Culture quirks slow down Metal Gear Solid 4 07/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 12:28pm]
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