Earlier this year, I finished a playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain on PC. It quickly became one of my favorite games. The experience inspired me to consider just what made it so impactful and compelling to me. Organized my thoughts into a short essay on game design surrounding gameplay systems & control within the game.
Gaming is unique escapist entertainment. It allows the user to step into the active role of the hero. This lends control to the experience; unlike literature or film or music, the player runs the experience. This is what sets it apart and makes gaming singularly fun to many. But with modern advancements made over the years in technology, comes higher expectations. The modern gamer often demands hyper-realism. (Don’t get me wrong — Mario is still good as hell, just not part of the wider industry trend.)
We want to feel like Master Chief elbowing aliens in the face, or like Geralt jump slashing a griffin, or like Solid Snake infiltrating a villa full of goons. Not just graphically or within the visible physics engine, but through control. This can be achieved via the input used to play the games and how it feels to the player in control of the hero. The control scheme, the responsiveness of the actions and feedback loops of input and output — this alone can set a gaming experience apart. These things are perhaps the most basic aspects of playing a video game; even so, doing it right is far from simple.
Video games come down to this concept of core gameplay: the repetition of action and systems and structures that make the game “fun.” This core gameplay formula, which essentially makes any game work, lies within systems and mechanics.
Simply put, systems represent the grand complex of things that can happen within a game; mechanics are when the player uses a rule, or a move, within a game to change the state of play within it.
I find the story of the systems and mechanics of a game interacting to be just as salient and valuable to the experience of a game as anything else. For aesthetic purposes, and for the all-important gameplay, the operation of the game itself through these essential design elements is more crucial than the bells & whistles; i.e. the dope PhysX engine is meaningless if the gameplay is boring. The visuals, the graphics, the dialogue, the story, the characters — all of it comes together to form the foreground of the experience. They are important no doubt, and contribute immensely to the game’s quality. But I truly think the most essential character of a video game is this core gameplay experience, produced by the dance of mechanics and their systems together unto one another.
Many games don’t get it right. Those that do — Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania — are all time classics that have spawned a seemingly infinite number of subsequent installments using their uniquely valuable formula of gameplay. Modern gaming has spawned its own great franchises and IPs with their own brand of stellar gameplay systems. One of which is the Metal Gear series, created by legendary Japanese game developer Hideo Kojima.
I had never really experienced an MGS game before (was never a PlayStation guy), but I always knew of the series’ import in the gaming pantheon and specifically for the stealth action game genre. I finally got around to playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain earlier this year, as it had been on my wishlist since it’s release in 2015 (finally on PC). It was my understanding from some online reading, it is considered one of, if not the, best installment in the series (and unfortunately, also Hideo Kojima’s last in the series, as he has since left Konami).
With those expectations in hand, I played through the game and loved it. However, since I am new to the series and know very little of the storyline’s events leading up to and subsequent to the game’s events (it’s a prequel to MGS IV in the MGS timeline) — my appreciation for the game comes mostly from its excellent gameplay. It is a story-heavy game, cinematic in nature, highly dramatic and at time, awe-inspiring. However, my observations & discussion here are centered mostly around the gameplay and what I think makes it so damn good.
Metal Gear Solid V takes place in the 1980s, after the protagonist Solid Snake has been injured in battle. He’s a silent soldier-type with an eye-patch and a turbulent past; we all know the archetype. You have lost your arm (i.e. phantom pain) and it’s really hard to tell what is going on or who exactly betrayed whom. The game quickly throws you into a death-defying escape from the hospital where you were recovering — in what is perhaps the best opening sequence in any game I’ve ever played. You have to sneak past guards as the hospital burns down from a burning superhuman and his floating gas-masked psychic child companion. Also there’s a burning Nightmare Unicorn that can fly, and also at one point a burning whale gets thrown at you while you are mostly-naked on horseback trying to shoot the burning man on the unicorn with a shotgun. It’s fucking wild and awesome, but none of the rest of the game is like this.
Later, after you get set up with a new mechanical arm, your gear and homebase and your allies prepare you to start this campaign of revenge. Basically, the game gives you over to this open world and tells you and your horse to start running wetwork ops. It’s chocked full of desert roads, small camps, villas, big castles, and other military establishments full of armed guards — all manner of stuff for you to infiltrate and complete mission objectives relative to. The best way to describe the gameplay is —stealth-action-sandbox.
You control Solid Snake, or Big Boss as he is known, this legendary soldier and spy. You alone have the power and resources to stop vaguely menacing terrorist plots, again and again, on solo missions in variably chaotic environments full of emergent threats. Supernatural beings also exist and their encounters compose the boss fights in your course; your primary antagonist has a skull for a face and wields both a God Complex and a cowboy hat; an entity called Cipher, who previously sent you and your allies ‘to hell,’ haunts your past and present in unsettling and undefined ways. And there’s other insane shit going on… but like I said, I haven’t played the other games in the series so it is difficult for me to fully appreciate the gravity of the myriad characters and whacky storyline therein. The point is, there is a grand, dramatic scheme to all of it – one feels the weight behind your player-character actions as you progress through the events of the game.
It is important to understand who exactly Snake is, this god-like special operator, and what he is built up to be capable of. He operates as a lone wolf, a one man army capable of successfully infiltrating huge complexes full of enemies, tripwires, cameras, turrets & tanks, choppers, and even wild animals. Snake can be a ghost, or he can be Rambo. It’s up to you as the player which role you will assume. The game certainly gives you the tools — the systems and mechanics — to do either, or something in between.
Before each mission, you can pick a load out to bring with you; essentially, you must decide what a super soldier will bring with him in his backpack. The options are rife with all manner of weaponry, explosives, vehicles, special perks for close-quarter-combat, and companions. I favored the wolf-dog with matching eyepatch or a sniper woman, named Quiet (who wears a bikini because she’s a ghostly inhuman creature who has to breathe through her skin. Good stuff Hideo.)
The loadout you decide upon here at the start presents one with a tentative plan for the coming drama of the mission. Additionally, you begin to form your identity as a super spy, your personalized iteration of Snake. The choices you make here determines what kind of operative you will be. The pure spy, the soldier, the ghostly killer.
Of course, going “loud” is generally ill-advised— detection by the enemies makes life very difficult for you, whether you are prepared to go that route or if you slip up. Once you have been airdropped into the mission area, you have this complete creative freedom on how you want to accomplish your mission objectives, of which there are generally 1–2 mandatory and 4–6 optional — steal the document, kill the high value target, extract the hostage, etc. Do it fast, trying to be as efficient with your time as possible. Or take your time sneaking, marking each enemy and listening to each of the conversations by the target before you nab him. Each path is rewarding it its own way and increases your mission’s ending arcade-like score. To help during a mission’s action, you can also call in airdrops of weapons & supplies, air support from your own chopper, or vehicles you have purchased over time with in-game progressions.
The mission parameters are consistently simple yet challenging. Ultimately, all these resources available for executing these parameters provide one with satisfying choices.
What entry point will you use to enter the villa? — climb onto the roof and sneak in through a window or put claymores by the front doors and slip in during the impending chaos of the trigger? The type of armor and camou you use influences one’s effectiveness in a multitude of ways, namely speed, defense and stealthiness.
What kind of gunplay do you wish to get into? There’s every kind of gun readily in hand, from pistols to snipers to shotguns and rocket launchers, all fully customizable with scopes and silencers. Will you take out enemies from afar with a silenced sniper rifle before making your approach? Or walk in the front door guns blazing with an LMG? Or not kill anyone at all, slipping in, avoiding all contact until the objective is completed and then exfiltrating like a ghost in the night (and be rewarded with the highest formulation of your mission score).
All of these tools at your disposal also leads you to feeling confident concerning your own capabilities. Having versatility within victory is no small thing. No matter the enemy’s numbers, structures, or defense — you generally feel as though you have the right response to be able to get past them.
However, I would argue the greatest tool you have in your arsenal , and what separates MGSV from most games of this type I have ever played — is Snake himself, and the magnificent control scheme.
Here’s a short list of simple actions you can execute in the game with the push of a key / button, as Snake:
- Crouch for increased accuracy & sneaking capabilities; Prone crawling is slower but increases both stealth advantages
- Sprint, fastest method of on-foot movement but increases your sound and visibility to enemies
- Climb / vault, to get on top of structures or cliffs
- Dive into prone, at any point you can “hit the deck” diving into prone position and concealing your visibility quickly in a pinch; (you can also dive off your horse companion or any vehicle while it continues to move)
- Melee attacks to knock guards unconscious
- Aim your gun from the hip or down the sights/scope — quickly bringing the weapon to bear on your shoulder
- Place explosives, with remote detonation or movement triggering
This may not seem that imperative or simply standard to action games. But this control scheme, along with the fluidity of Snake’s movements using it and the ease of learning it & implementing it over time— allows for a near perfectly satisfying experience navigating through the intensity of the gameplay.
Most of the time in this game, Snake is facing dozens of guards patrolling, spotlights, opposing snipers, vehicles, wild animals, mines, etc. (and this is all much worse once the enemy is alerted and they are actively searching for you). You come to rely on the capabilities to avoid being detected or killed, and you often need every resource and capability available to you when everything goes haywire in order to avoid mission failure. Despite his many talents, Snake is relatively easily killed in this game, especially when facing small armies and their own arsensals of heavy weaponry and explosives. Success in this game almost always requires great patience…
From long range, Snake can use binoculars to zoom in and mark enemies. Once they are marked they remain so on your map & HUD until they’ve been incapacitated. Thus, you can easily track hostile movements while going through your steady infiltration of enemy lines. This encourages surveying the area from a vantage point ahead of time, strategizing, and planning both an entry and exit point.
This is not unlike other stealth games; considering the best of the genre: Splinter Cell, Hitman, the Rainbow Six series, even Bioshock. Each of these games requires careful planning and decision making, a mindful strategy in place before and during any action. However, MGSV’s open sandboxy world allows for so many more possibilities when undertaking your mission objectives — location of entry and timing, including day-night cycle, and your chosen equipment / playstyle are all quite variable. This means more options and greater creative freedom in how you use Snake. It ups the number on how many truly winning strategies can be formulated.
The resources, the wide variety of weaponry, the countless entry points, and using those control options listed above in – all in combination – allows for you to expertly (or amateurishly) infiltrate, evade and escape with more smoothness and satisfaction than any stealth game I’ve ever played. Once you get a handle for them, the controls make you feel like you are actually Solid Snake. And it’s fucking awesome. I can say with confidence that MGSV probably has the best control scheme and feel of any video game I’ve ever played. It captures the fluid ease of a platformer-type game, with the hyper-realistic grit of a modern epic.
The mission framework, and their objectives, are certainly repetitive. But the formula they offer is good and simply, you will want to keep doing them. The increasing challenge of the progression of missions work to make the gameplay feel fresh. You fail, learn, and continuously come back for more. Eventually, you will know exactly what to do to be effective in certain situations, like a true veteran super soldier. Reactions to potential detection become muscle memory, ideation improves for what can actually be done in the game.
When when it all comes together, you end up executing some Bond / Bauer / Bourne / Batman / Big Boss-level ish, and consistently. Some example vignettes from my own experiences within the game:
- Someone sees you ! Gotta take out this super surprised guard fast and you only got one shot, so square up your AR and take the shot even if you are out of silencer integrity… Once this loud bullet goes off, you’ll need to think of an exit strat… while exiting.
- Dodging tank fire using my patented sprint n’ dive repeatedly technique while simultaneously setting up RPG shots on its weak spot. Don’t stop moving and firing until it’s down.
- Upon detection of an enemy gunship, sprinting like a madman inside a small shed to protect from machine gun fire while you call in your own chopper to battle it in the sky.
- Aggressively sprinting in the rain or in a sandstorm because you know the sounds will be masked from the nearby guards you’re about to ghost.
- Counter-sniping the look outs on the guard towers before moving to the interior of the compound.
- Pushing a guy off a ledge down to the ground next to other guards on accident, but then realizing you still aren’t detected and you just struck fear into them and enlightened them to the fact they are all being hunted by some kind of Murder-Batman.
- Sneaking up on a trio of guards thinking of the perfect scenario to take them all out the most efficient way — melee striking the closest, moving in to the choke hold the other as a hostage while gunning down the third with your pistol — just like Bourne. But then mucking it up and having to shoot all three with your unsilenced assault rifle — alerting everyone in the camp while also getting shot in the leg in the process (never restart checkpoint after one of these — powering through the mania of the alerts can be some of the best experiences in the game).
- Using your wolf son to stab a guards with his little knife while you ghost the guy next to him.
- Commanding Quiet (the sniper bikini companion) to snipe the lookout right when you run into his vision, to efficiently move closer to your target.
- Tracking a convoy of 1) tank, 2) truck with VIP you need to take alive, 3) APC, and moving ahead on the road to plant claymores to detonate upon approach and C4 next to them to pack the punch needed to take out the tank first. Then once the tank is down and stops the movement of all three vehicles, snipe the driver of the truck, and RPG rapid fire the APC to hell — to leave the VIP the only one alive for extraction. (this took many tries, but so satisfying when you finally get that sequence down).
- Attaching C4 to the grill of an enemy truck and driving it into a densely populated enemy camp, diving out and detonating it in one motion. In the burning chaos, leap through the back window of the room with the intel, bag it and then ride out of there on horseback in a mountain range hidden path.
I could go on. These kinds of gameplay experiences were commonplace in my time playing the game. Truly, a thinking man’s action game. Or if you don’t give a shit and just want go in guns blazing, you could also do that and be successful. This creative freedom resonated with me and made the game unforgettable. And throughout my playthrough, I can’t really think of a time when the game got boring or I didn’t want to complete one more mission. It continued to ramp up the difficulty of the missions as you progressed to obtain better weaponry, companion abilities, and vehicles. Game locales varied from the deserts of Afghanistan, to the jungles and marshes of Africa, to massive villas in the forest and dense compounds with dozens of enemy targets like oil refineries or military bases.
The game design surrounding MGSV is superb and it’s no wonder Hideo Kojima is considered to be a legendary genius within the medium. Its gameplay formula is optimal for creating an experience that is both entertainingly cinematic and personalized to the exclusive journey of each player and their own in-game choices. Every MGSV player gets to be their own super soldier, a killer, a pacifist, or something in between. Relatively more or less effective routes exist along a spectrum of challenge and skill, but any way you decide to go, there is a unique level ownership over the experience.
In Snake’s boots, you come to know you can handle any situation, overcome any obstacle, defeat stacked odds. You develop an unconscious mastery over his movement and actions. The exquisite control scheme has everything to do with this. In MGS, you are truly the star of the show and the game makes it feel that way. An endgame to good game design.
Also, there’s this:
“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”