((Warning: this post will discuss secrets and boss fights in Metal Gear Solid games, which you may wish not to know. No significant plot spoilers, though))
If you have been on any gaming site recently, you probably heard about a little game that came out, titled Metal Gear Solid V. It’s been captivating critics and gamers alike, and if my office is any indication, literally everybody on the face of the earth has already played this game, and avoiding spoilers is far harder than any level of Battletoads.
It seems with every Metal Gear game that this happens. The series draws attention like few others, and is one of those rare ‘event’ games, where it dominates conversations for a time after that. There are plenty of reasons: the gameplay is good, and improves with each entry; the story is engaging in with all of its conspiracies, double-crossing, and melodramatic characters (note: I said engaging, not good, or brief); I’ve already made my case for the benefits an auter can bring to the general feel of a game. These are all great things that are worth celebrating, but there’s one particular unique element of the series that warrants more discussion: its approach to secrets.
90% of the conversations I ever have about Metal Gear Solid in some way or another involve the phrase ‘did you know that you can _?’ It’s a rare modern series that can still invoke a childlike sense of wonder, at the sheer number of hidden elements waiting to be discovered. Since there are so many secrets, the games begin to evoke the illusion that they are endless–just when you think that you are done, you discover something completely unexpected and cool.
What makes Metal Gear Solid notable, though, is that many of its secrets are not environment-driven, like most games. In the old secret-filled NES games, most of the discoveries are awaiting you in the levels; hit this block, bomb this wall, enter this cave. Even in the modern secret-filled world of Dark Souls, most discoveries involve hitting a wall, or talking to the right person, possibly with the right item.
Metal Gear Solid, by contrast, puts many of its secrets in its mechanics. One of the most famous fights in the series is a boss fight with The End. It’s an epic sniper duel that beautifully uses the game’s stealth mechanics to create a tense encounter. It’s also completely optional.
And I don’t mean that in the usual manner where you can avoid a fight because it’s not in the main path–you’re supposed to fight The End. But there are secret ways to skip the fight that illustrate the series’ main approach to secrets. One way is to set your system clock ahead a week, and let The End die of old age–a typical Metal Gear Solid parlor trick involving your system’s information. The other is to snipe him when he shows up in an earlier scene in the game. No secret paths or hidden walls–just observe a situation carefully and take a shot at the boss before he’s actually fighting you, and get rewarded.
Less critical is the way to upgrade your grip level in Metal Gear Solid 2: pull ups. When hanging from ledges, if you pull yourself part way up instead of climbing all the way up, you do a pull up. Do enough of these and you increase your grip. In that same game (and future entries), if you sneak up to an enemy and hold up your gun to their back, you can hold them up and get things like their dogtags.
The brilliance of this approach to secrets is that it encourages you to look at all of your moves and encounters as an opportunity, and gives the illusion of endless depth, even when early entries in the series often had very simple mechanics. Part of the joy of Metal Gear Solid is that it’s not just a stealth game/long movie about the virtues of nanomachines, but that it’s an endless toybox, where any arbitrary combination of actions could do something. For many players, this provides a great reason to keep playing the game, hoping that there’s a new discovery around the corner. And of course, these secrets provide many a water cooler conversation.
It’s a great trick, and one that I would encourage more games to implement, since it makes for a richer experience and doesn’t necessarily have to involve that much extra time and effort (seriously, the pull up mechanic is just number tweaking and a couple of extra assets). Sure, it won’t truly capture the insanity of Kojima, but if we can get just a few more ketchup driven escapes, the world will surely be a better place.