Friday, March 20, 2009

The Sensationalist: The Aging of Old Snake

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

I have written about maturity in games before, but mostly in terms of a game's thematic or marketing approach. It was not until Metal Gear Solid 4 that I found myself examining maturity in games in a much more literal sense. MGS 4 presents an image rarely seen in the video game medium: the aging and decline of an iconic hero. Snake's transition from "Solid" to "Old" imbues the game with a strong sense of what it means to age. MGS 4 vividly conveys the feeling of mortality that aging elicits, and it does so largely by employing graphical finesse and extended character development. Despite a vastly improved control scheme and a wider variety of moves, Snake still feels hobbled by age, thus demonstrating the importance of passive game elements like cut scenes and graphical splendor in a medium increasingly lauded for interactivity.

Snake's age is striking because it is an aberration in the milieu of iconic video game characters. Mario has kept a decidedly robust figure over the decades with nary a grey hair in his mustache. Sonic has gone through some "extreme" phases (including lupine), but the blue blur looks essentially the same today as he did during the Genesis era. After fighting hundreds of battles, Ryu and Ken are in better shape now than they ever were. Although Link has been subject to some chronological wackiness, I will be surprised if we ever see a wrinkle in his noble Hylian visage. In the Neverland line-up of Super Smash Bros., Snake is the sole character for which time refuses to stand still.

MGS 4 illustrates Snake's aging by taking full advantage of the PS3's ability to imitate life. Grey and wrinkled, Snake moves deliberately and gingerly in the cut scenes. His low voice has become exceedingly gravelly the point of comedy, although things get less funny when he seizes with uncontrollable coughing spasms. The aggregation of old psychic wounds compounded with new physical ones make him reliant on pain relieving injections during his missions. While still able to sneak through enemy territory undetected, any moment of rest sees Snake groan and rub his undoubtedly sore back. Perhaps Tactical Espionage Action is better left to the young?

The interesting thing about MGS 4's overwhelming thematic focus on aging is that it exists in contrast to most of the gameplay. Until the last scenes of the final act, the player has more nuanced and varied control over Snake than in any previous Metal Gear game. Clearly the old dog has learned some new tricks: side rolls, strafing, log-rolling, face-up crawling, crouched running, along with a bevy of new customizable weapons make Old Snake the most skilled incarnation of the legendary soldier to date. The physical degradation communicated by the cut scenes and story often runs counter to the skill in which Snake utilizes cover and dispatches enemies. It seems MGS 4 is a textbook example of that bogey-man of critical gaming: ludo-narrative dissonance. So which end of this ludo-narrative tug of war wins out?

As can be gleaned from my Twitter posts, I was quite trepidatious about starting MGS 4. However, the disenchantment I felt for the series after MGS 2's overwrought story and MGS 3's stagnant gameplay was wiped clean by Snake's latest (and hopefully last) adventure. Although the controls and updated move set were welcome surprises, what I will remember most about this game is my empathy towards an aging Snake. As I saw him wince his way through the missions, I was reminded of how long I had been following this character, and how much punishment he has received. More accurately, I was remined of my complicity in his scars. I could not help but think about all the times I lead him into a suicidal firefight or carelessly traipsed through a mine field. The milege Snake acrued was milege I had put on him over the decades. This connected me to a character that I had only previously thought of as a campy, stoic, bad-ass, trained to fight on in a never-ending war. It soon became clear that this war did have an end, as did its chief combatant: Snake.

A common explanation for how games differ from other mediums focuses on the role the player takes in helping explicate their meanings. I have always been part of that subset of gamers that claim to be wholly devoted to gameplay; to hell with story and graphics, if something is satisfying to play, that is all that matters. MGS 4 is a powerful challenge to this mindset, as the game conveys the sense of Snake's aging by letting the graphics and cut scenes tell the story. The gameplay and the player have a relatively small role to play in creating the narrative, a design choice that seems to find itself out of favor in current games.

However, like Snake himself, these techniques persist, and they were able to express "aging" in a video game as I had never felt it before. Perhaps traditional narrative techniques themselves have aged better than we give them credit for?


  1. It seems appropriate that the Metal Gear series would be one of the first games to deal seriously with aging because this is the main series that helped create the stealth/espionage genre of games that put you in contact with your own mortality by using a game design that would not allow you to just blow everyone up with ease. If you get caught by a group of soldiers with guns in a metal gear game, you likely will die if you don't figure out how to sneak around or ambush them. Many videogame heroes can take on the world with guns blazing, but Snake always had to play it safe because he dies when he is outnumbered, which made his death seem all the more frighteningly imminent as a player. Because of the nature of the game design, the stealth genre lends itself more readily to dealing with our fears of death, mortality, and even aging.

  2. @JT

    Good point about the connection between the stealth and fear.

    I didn't get to talk about this in the post, but MGS 4 also implements a "psyche" gauge that begins to deplete if Snake enters stressful situations. Getting caught or running from enemies depletes his psyche, which leads to poor accuracy and responsiveness.

    They psyche gauge also takes hit when someone gives Snake bad news or criticizes his him. Despite the somewhat trite way of displaying his emotional state, the thing actually made me feel more connected to the character. Weird what a little bar can accomplish, eh?

  3. For an interesting "videogame" that deals heavily with aging and death, you might want to try "The Graveyard". It only takes a few minutes to play through the whole thing and it can be freely downloaded here:

    I think you should try it before reading my next paragraph because it is best left as something to just experience, but my thoughts on the game follow....

    The Graveyard is an art concept piece where you walk an old woman through a graveyard and sit her down on a bench to reflect on death. Her slow, hobbled movements force you as the player to slow down, pay attention to the little details, and reflect on what you are seeing and feeling. With the stark black and white imagery of tombstones and heavy clouds cutting out the sunlight overhead, you are drawn into thoughts of death and our limited youth. It's not terribly fun to play, but it is emotionally evocative. After walking the old woman to the bench and back out I actually felt compassion for her at the end of the journey and I felt like I understood her in some way, even though she never speaks. It doesn't work as an entire videogame unto itself in my opinion, but if it were a scene in the context of a larger storyline in a game, I think I would love it.