From Pac-Man to Metal Gear Solid, we explore simplicity in stealth and the pursuit of consumption. It’s time to take Snake Eater literally…
From Pac-Man to Metal Gear Solid, we explore simplicity in stealth and the pursuit of consumption. It’s time to take Snake Eater literally…
Indie developer Andy Schatz mentions in our Welcome to Stealthjam presentation that he considers Pac-Man to be the greatest stealth game of all time. The arcade classic a direct inspiration for his current project, Monaco – a deep and complex multiplayer heist simulator – as mentioned about three minutes in.
Pac-Man, by contrast, is brilliantly simple, but no less exhilarating. The enemy ghosts will chase Pac-Man, but not with perfect efficiency, and a good player can outmanoeuvre them just long enough to grab a power pellet and completely turn the tables. This leads to those clammy-joypad inducing moments where you’re desperately trying to nab the last power pellet before a horde of ghosts descend upon you, and force your feeble circular form to rip itself inside-out in one quick convulsion.
This pursuit gameplay is at the core of stealth-action games such as Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed. Indeed, upon closer assessment of the game’s mechanics, it is possible to classify Pac-Man as a sort of ‘inverse’ stealth game. We pointed out that one of the defining characteristics of stealth games is their low threshold for failure, meaning that it’s very easy for the player to get discovered, something which usually results in a rupture of normal play and the commencement of a pursuit scenario in which the player must escape. In Pac-Man, this state of ‘failure’ constitutes normal play, whilst power pellets buy the player essential time to manoeuvre freely before the pursuit begins anew. Pac-Man, then, is essentially a distillation of this rupture or turning point – keeping us constantly on the cusp of this exhilarating pursuit, with only brief glimpses of breathing room before we’re plunged back into the fray. And by examining how Pac-Man succeeds in providing this experience, we can also understand how other stealth games succeed or fail.
What the designers of both Pac-Man and Metal Gear Solid understood was that truly engaging game experiences occur when the player is in complete awareness of the game entities around them, and the mechanics by which they operate.
Sneaking on the D-Pad
An important aspect of Pac-Man’s design which contributes to this sense of awareness is one it shares with many other retro games: a preference of abstracted, simple aesthetics over any attempt to imitate reality. All Pac-Man’s game elements are broken down into simple shapes and colours to give them distinction. The maze boundaries, edible dots and empowering power-pellets are all starkly contrasted against the black background, while the enemy ghosts and player-controlled Pac-Man are equally distinct from one another, looking like stylised puddings and a partially consumed cheese wheel respectively. The result of this aesthetic choice is twofold.
The cheese wheel comes to represent the player’s vulnerable, digital self within the game, while the puddings become emotionally-charged oppressors…
The first occurs in any game with visually represented elements, but Pac-Man’s simple design facilitates the process: each game entity becomes an easily recognisable symbol within the playable game space. The cheese wheel comes to represent the player’s vulnerable, digital self within the game, as well as their sole way of exercising their agency (i.e. the ability to eat things), while the puddings become emotionally-charged oppressors, pursuing with the intent to destroy. We are, after all, pattern-seeking animals – our brains love to apply structure and rulesets to anything we come across – and so it only takes a few seconds of playing Pac-Man before a new player’s brain has filled in the gaps, and these abstract shapes have become value-charged game entities.
Secondly, because all relevant visual information is displayed on the screen at once and is designed to be individually distinct, the player is in complete awareness of the playable space and can always comprehend the ludic significance of any moment of gameplay – in the above screenshot, for instance, the player is being hounded by a number of ghosts, and is in something of a tight spot. But thanks to the game’s clarity of design, their strategic options are obvious; they can flee the enemies in pursuit of more dots, or they can take a chance and make a dash for the power orb, a dangerous but potentially profitable move.
This fight-or-flight scenario is just as complex as the strategic opportunities we have in modern games. Sure, in Assassin’s Creed we may have a plethora of lethal devices with which to hinder or incapacitate our enemies, but more often than not the true drama – the true strategy – of the game comes down to that moment where you have to make a snap decision. The Byzantine guards have spotted me, and are highly suspicious. Do I retreat, hide, maintain anonymity? Or engage, and hope I can dispatch them all before arousing further attention? These are the moments that make games exciting, and Pac-Man conveys them with ease, with just a few symbolic game elements and four directional buttons. Compared to contemporary games it’s like a design brief, or even a synopsis – it’s the core elements of a game, laid out bare, easily digestible and entirely comprehensible.
Metal Gear Solid is so endearing because, like Pac-Man, it makes its core gameplay mechanics entirely comprehensible to the player from the start – no small feat for a 3D game which is also attempting to convey a realistic aesthetic. This is, in fact, a problem which still persists with contemporary titles. It’s easy to communicate the ludic function of a game entity through abstract symbols, as we’ve seen with Pac-Man, and this is because game mechanics themselves are abstract and digital. But to veil the game-world in a realistic guise is inherently detrimental to the goal of communicating game mechanics, because entities with digital, limited functions (an enemy which can move in eight directions on flat ground, for example) are disguised as having analogue, potentially infinite functions (a human being who can traverse a wide range of terrain types), and our knowledge of the latter impedes our ability to learn about the former. Put simply, with realistic-looking games the player has to learn what entities CANNOT do, whereas with abstract games each entity is a blank canvas, and the player can learn a truer sense of such entities’ ludic abilities through trial and observation, unclouded by preconceptions based on a pseudo-realistic aesthetic.
While many contemporary games would prefer to exacerbate the illusion of realism for the sake of ‘immersion’ or somesuch, Metal Gear Solid highlights the dichotomy between the pseudo-real and the underlying digital game mechanics throughout. It gleefully tears the two apart, and revels in inviting the player to peer through the seams and recognise the game’s artificiality (just think of those Psycho Mantis cutscenes, for example).
Indeed, Metal Gear Solid chooses to first convey the gameplay mechanics to the player in an environment almost entirely devoid of pseudo-realism, in the optional VR training missions. These missions are not dissimilar from Pac-Man’s level-maze, what with their small wireframe environments containing a few distinct gameplay elements. In this context, soldiers and security cameras stand out as clearly as the ghosts in Pac-Man, almost reverting them back to the status of symbols. Furthermore, these missions are often designed to convey how overtly predictable the guards’ behaviours are. They have short, repeating patrol routines, and the levels force you to exploit their blind spots and obvious deficiencies. Stand shoulder to shoulder with one, and as long as you are outside of the guard’s cone of vision, the player is invisible. Knock on a wall, and the nearest guard in earshot will investigate without fail. The game wants the player to understand that these are AI systems with limited agency and predictable behaviours which can easily be exploited.
In the VR Missions, soldiers and security cameras stand out as clearly as the ghosts in Pac-Man…
Even in the game proper, Metal Gear Solid constantly undermines its own realistic aesthetic. The radar in the corner of the screen also functions to remind players of the game’s artificiality. It breaks the level down into a traversable maze, and reduces guards to their cones of vision only. It is essentially a window into the realm of the digital and the symbolic, reminding us that we inhabit a space of limited game elements. Even in the level as a whole – in the space of the pseudo-real – there is an economy to the game’s realism, where seemingly decorative elements are drawn back into the game’s functional ludic core. Footsteps in the snow and puddles of liquid, for instance, are both methods of attracting a guard’s attention rather than being simply decorative, while every door and ventilation shaft can be entered (with the right keycard, at least) where in other games they would be illusory – ‘locked’ and leading nowhere. The symbolic even pervades the pseudo-real at times, with exclamation marks appearing over enemies’ heads to signify the detection of the player, and items floating above the ground like a pick-up in an arcade shooter. These elements are all the more noticeable for their distance from the realistic world they inhabit; a ration, slowly spinning in the corner of a room, is just as obvious as a flashing power pellet against Pac-Man’s black background.
The camera helps too, hanging disembodied above the player-character and allowing for a wide survey of the player’s immediate surroundings at any one time. Its default alignment is always the same, with the top of the screen leading north, which helps to orientate the player within an objective space and makes it easier to memorise the layout of the level (it is interesting to note that while Shadow Moses may seem like a sprawling complex, the entire game is actually one long road north, much like a Mario level is a constant journey to the right of the screen. In Metal Gear Solid, the top of the screen is always the direction of Metal Gear Rex – the ultimate objective of the game).
Metal Gear Solid, then, attempts to educate the player of the game world from the bottom-up, making its gameplay mechanics obvious from the start and intending for the player to have a complete awareness of their situation at all times. It does this by giving the player an awareness of space, visually identifying elements of ludic importance, and by making these elements deterministic and predictable. As a result, the gameplay on both sides of the aforementioned ‘low threshold for failure’ found in stealth games is improved. When the player is sneaking, they have control over their immediate environment; they are empowered not in strength or ability, but through their understanding of the world around them and the strategies available to them; they have the means to exploit a game system which they recognise as deterministic. And when the failure threshold is breached and the regular rhythms of play are interrupted, and the deterministic game world breaks down into unpredictability, the same comprehension of game mechanics which empowered the player before now enhances the emotion and exhilaration found in their escape. The player, aware of their surroundings, has numerous strategies for evading their pursuers; but is also constantly aware of who is chasing them, and the danger this poses. It is at this point that Metal Gear Solid most closely resembles Pac-Man, as the player knows full well their vulnerability in the face of a relentless oppressor, and is forced to quickly navigate a level-maze in search of a hiding place – a power pellet which will turn the tables.
In the face of a relentless oppressor, the player is forced to quickly navigate a level-maze in search of a hiding place – a power pellet which will turn the tables.
Essentially, the design decisions we have assessed in both Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man enhance the experience of playing a game with a low threshold for failure. It’s easy to see where similar games have failed. Assassin’s Creed, for instance, lets its pursuit of pseudo-reality get in the way of actual gameplay (ironically, considering the whole thing is set in a computer simulation). When the player is spotted, chases are dull affairs as the player must focus on running and climbing, and usually cannot see their pursuers behind (imagine a chase scene in a film if you could only see the person running). Furthermore, the openness of the game world prevents the tense strategy of manoeuvring in a cramped environment – a factor which is essential to the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man.
I’d even go as far to argue that the gameplay of subsequent Metal Gear Solid titles has been impeded by attempts to modernise the series. Metal Gear Solid 4, for instance, attempts to draw the player closer to Snake’s perspective with its more intimate third-person camera and the lack of a contextual radar. And while this is all in keeping with our contemporary desire to immerse ourselves into the ‘experience’ and merge with the character we are playing, it comes at a price; at best the game is simply more fiddly, and at worst it becomes disorientating and frustrating.
It is Metal Gear Solid 3, however, that most resembles Pac-Man – because it’s all about eating.
I will eat you and everything you love
Oh, yes, there’s more to the game. There’s the beauty of its environments, the fractal perfection of its ludic net, the options available to you and your opponents, the way you speak to each other, and those exquisite cat and mouse boss battles. But let’s be honest: what’s really important is that when a crocodile pisses you off by knocking you on your back, you can get right back up, roar at the top of your lungs, and empty a clip into it before gobbling down its flesh in one go.
There’s something deeply satisfying about consumption in videogames. Eating mechanics send hooks right down into the centre of your lizard brain – right down into your stomach – and tug at something crucial there. The most memorable aspect of System Shock 2 was the crisp, full, crunching sound that played when its snacks were consumed. Because we depend for our sustenance on cramming other organic matter down our maw-tubes and swilling it about in our turbulent acid-bags, we cannot help but regard the activity as central to our emotional being; “you are what you eat.” When games tie that process to clear gains and losses in the player avatar’s size and capability, it acutely strengthens their identification with their player character.
Eating in Metal Gear Solid 3 feels personal, powerful.
Perhaps for that reason, eating in Metal Gear Solid 3 feels personal, powerful. We struggle to explain the libidinous pleasure we get from our gourmand escapades. My gustatory zeal is never exhausted: birds, fish, snakes, we consume; mangos, mushrooms, spiders and scorpions feed us; beeswax, goats and frogs are our fodder. For all our gluttony, we never fall to sloth (though we have eaten one). It’s aggressive self service, Bear Grylls’ 3-Michelin-starred bear grill.
Yet far from being a peripheral gimmick, hunting and foraging are threaded throughout the game. Until the later stages, by which most players have built up a stock of noodles and space-food, it’s essential to survival – but it is also interwoven with other mechanics. Startled birds give away your position, the rustle of a snake in the grass distracts your roving scope, and guards can be cowed by throwing creepie-crawlies in their faces. In boss battles, The Fear is vulnerable when he scuttles down from the trees to feed, while the eyes of The End are ever upon the unwary (or hungry) hunter. His shots sap energy, not health, meaning the player must carefully hoard and manage their pantry. Wherever The Fury’s flamethrower turns it brings in a harvest of scorched animal corpses; knee-deep in The Sorrow’s river, corpses of old meals bob gaily past.
And then there is that moment when, hidden in a thicket just feet from a guard, you come face to face with a king cobra… which looks at you, hisses, rears its head, and prepares to blow your cover with a poisonous bite. Sometimes you have the presence of mind to carefully pull out a silenced weapon and clock it in its head. But sometimes you fumble, or think you can slowly back away, and it darts forward with its bullet head, and Snake’s involuntary grunt of pain starts a ten minute firefight that paints the jungle red. On those occasions, we always make sure that we find the offending animal, and kill it, and eat the craven shit-eating pissant stealth-breaking fucking bastard for breakfast.
That is the singular joy of Snake Eater: eating for revenge. You think you can poison me? FUCK YOU! Think you can ruin my flow? GET IN MY BELLY. You? You’re lunch. You? You’re dinner. You? You’re fucking dessert. It’s emotional, visceral, lizard-brained, glorious, and it brings the dynamics of the game back to their most primal level: predator and prey, eat or be eaten.
In the end, it shows just why Metal Gear Solid 4 is disappointing: the developers failed to take the logical next step of letting you eat the guards.