The Right Kind Of Success

Does the ease of a run-and-gun approach in Metal Gear Solid make its voluntary avoidance all the more rewarding to stealth players?

[one_third]Does the ease of a run-and-gun approach in Metal Gear Solid make its voluntary avoidance all the more rewarding to stealth players?[/one_third]

The specific scenarios and mechanics are always changing, but the broad strokes of an encounter in Metal Gear are the same: sneak into a room. Study the pattern of guard movements while remaining undetected. Carefully move past the guards without causing alarm. Repeat until philosophical cutscene is triggered.

The interesting this is that you don’t really have to do any of that. There is a way easier way to advance through Metal Gear. Plunge into a room, running past all of the guards. They will shoot at you, but you can soak up a lot of bullets. Plough forward into the next room. You may find that the guards chasing you have forgotten that you are intruding. If they don’t forget, that’s fine. Let them kill you. You’ll respawn in the new room, alert status reset, and a melodramatic cinematic will be just a few steps away.

The careful approach is fun. The reckless one, although easier, is not. This means that when we play a Metal Gear game, we enter into an unspoken agreement to make the game harder than necessary. It’s a lonely contract, but an important one. We know that we could blunder our way through without taking any steps to hide, and the next cutscene will play out as planned. But a true sneaky bastard is attracted to finesse. It isn’t enough for us to succeed; we have to look good while doing it. Of course, none of the guards would be able to tell us we do, because they wouldn’t ever see us in the first place.

"No, Snake, don't use your gun! You're certain to have far more fun!"

The series’¬†“European Extreme” mode, which treats any detection as an immediate fail-state, could be considered the true way to play Metal Gear. If the game stops cold any time you are detected, it becomes a fundamentally different experience. There is no panicked “can I take this guy out before he calls for backup?” phase. No longer must you frantically ditch you pursuers and hide in a locker. Lost is the drama of hoping no one notices the sudden appearance of a cardboard box before the end of the cooldown timer. Though we do love the challenge inherent in a zero detection policy, we feel the drama created by occasionally being detected, the game of cat-and-mouse that follows, and the elation of coming down from an alert mode are key components of Metal Gear.

"So, you just gave me this bad-arse sword... but you don't want me to use it?"

Back down from the European Extreme difficulty, it’s inevitable that you’ll be detected at some point. The game won’t classify this as failure, and it’s very much possible to enter combat and use Snake’s vast array of tools to overcome the encounter. Often, pulling out the shotgun or the infinite-ammo Patriot rifle is far easier than the stealthy approach. And as long as you don’t perish, it’s a success – but, for us, it’s the wrong kind of success. There is something in the blood of a true stealth aficionado¬†that makes us appreciate having this easier way forward so that we can choose not to take it. The subtle art of tactical espionage (minus the action) becomes all the more rewarding.

In nearly every Metal Gear encounter, there are multiple layers of success to be pursued. On the most basic level, there is simple forward progress. Digging deeper, there is the act of clearing an area of all threats without being detected. Even better than that is the act of clearing an area non-lethally. Of course, the purest victory belongs to the player who can leave an area without a single trace that they had ever been there. These self-imposed limitations are not constraints set by the game itself, but are often rewarded with unique ranks or extra items for a New Game Plus. And even though they may not be explicit objectives, we understand that these goals are the real game.

The older you get, the shootier you get. Apparently.

As the Metal Gear series has continued, it has increasingly become easier to play each successive title as if it was a straightforward shooter. Purist may consider this pandering, but we feel just the opposite. The genre is at its best with the restraint you bring to it. Being able to effectively murder guards makes the act of not murdering them all the more rewarding. Stealth comes from within, and the genius of Metal Gear lies in how it allows players to express it.

8 thoughts on “The Right Kind Of Success

  1. I heartily disagree. This was one of the main reasons I disliked MGS4 so much. If it\’s both easier, and more beneficial (in the form of Drebin points) to take the straightforward \”shoot everyone\” approach, you\’d be mad not to.

    That\’s why I love MGS1 so much, doing the head on thing is hard. You can only carry a relatively small amount of ammo and rations and all of the rooms are designed with doubling back in mind. This contrasts with, for instance, the first area in 4, where it\’s more or less a linear street. You felt pressured into gunning down everyone with a P90, simply because it was the best solution.

    If you did get seen, you not only had to deal with Alert and Evasion, but the ridiculously long Caution phase. There just wasn\’t enough incentive to wait out that period when you could just sprint through the level.

    1. I feel that a head-on approach in MGS1 was difficult purely because of how primitive the shooting actually was. I mean, this was a game where you could not aim or shoot in your first-person view. Encounters were obviously designed around this, as evidenced by the Twin Snakes remake on the GameCube, where you could shoot in first person; it made the game so much easier.

      As for the Caution phase, I feel it\’s necessary to flesh out the AI\’s logic. Their reaction states would be a little too binary if they simply went back to being docile after definitely spotting an enemy combatant or dead body in their midst. In the Caution phase, the AI also becomes less predictable. It feels less like a puzzle game, where you\’re examining set patrol routes, and more like you\’re sneaking against actual intelligent human beings.

    2. I can appreciate the main point of the article, that having the \’easier\’ way makes *choosing* the stealth option more rewarding. I would contend though that usually when the \’action-option\’ is included however it usually detracts from the stealth gameplay. Too often the alert-status is designed to induce the \’fight\’ reflex, and not the \’flight\’ reflex that great stealth games elicit.

      I typically enjoy stealth experiences when I don\’t feel like I have to super-impose them on the game, that is when the game is more focused in its design. I want the feedback from the game rewarding me for succeeding in a stealth-situation, which I feel can be lacking when I have the option to run-and-gun.

    3. Clearly I must be must be mad, because I do not feel that pressure that you describe. I see where you\’re coming from, but I\’ve never found \”you have to sneak because our shooting mechanics are terrible\” to be a satisfying inducement to stealth.

  2. I see where the article is coming from and agree that self-imposed stealth can be rewarding. Like most commentors, though, I think the game has to meet you halfway. Take Far Cry 2, for example. It\’s a FPS where most of the time you\’ll be gunning down enemies in droves – but it does have a number of silent weapons, and this, coupled with the movement system, means you can turn most missions into stealth missions if you so choose. This was incredibly rewarding; when I\’ve been paid to assassinate a single man, it feels so much cleaner and accomplished when I sneak in and kill *only* that man (and maybe a few guards that get in the way).

    Compare this to a game like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Most of you won\’t have played it; I think it\’s a brilliant game overall but it really fell down on the stealth. I was constantly reminded, in those informative loading-screen texts, that if I snuck up behind an enemy and smacked them with a melee weapon they\’d go down in one hit – so I should consider using stealth sometimes. The problem was, it was so easy to be detected, so difficult to sneak up on a guard before his patrol route made him double back and see you, and ammo was, if not plentiful, at least sufficient, that it was just easier and better to shoot the blighters.

    I kind of got the same feeling in MGS4. Stealth was possible, and made perfect narrative sense, but so was shooting, and since a lot of areas were full of people who were shooting each other anyway, it seemed strange to not just shoot stuff now and then. I just read another article on here with a spectrum of stealth gameplay: being detected is a fail state (albeit one you can recover from), being hidden is a win state (albeit one you can always forfeit); the tension in a stealth game results from dancing around the middle, the area of the spectrum where a guard\’s noticed something and you hope to goodness he won\’t come much closer. The problem with making shooting a viable option is that the fail state (ie. alert mode) doesn\’t become a dangerous situation you\’ve got to claw out of, but a different sort of game with different objectives. While I don\’t think this is a wholly bad thing, I think the stealth gameplay can suffer if you take the game\’s centre of gravity away from that \”guard\’s noticed something!\” moment of tension.

    1. I agree completely, and believe you were able to express my opinion better than I was able to.

      This is what I was talking about, everyone: The lack of tension in MGS4 because there was practically no problem with being seen.

    2. Seconded. Well said. Good stealth gameplay comes from dancing around the alert mode. When alert mode starts \”shooting mode\” it\’s less satisfying. I prefer alert mode to encourage to me get the hell out of dodge and hide. It should encourage the flight reflex.

  3. I\’m always confused by claims that you can shoot your way out of MGS games, but this article is the first that\’s made the case in a way which makes sense to me – I haven\’t played 4, but I can see how 3 forms part of a trajectory along which combat gets more and more viable.

    Nevertheless, I do think the combat in 2 and 3 remains fairly difficult. It involves just as much complex equipment, the guards are pretty brutal, their AI is cunning, the injury system must be grappled with, and there are still plenty of options (e.g. rolling barrels down hills). In this sense, by the time you\’ve learned to actually fight like a (big) boss, you\’ve probably also learned to sneak competently as well.

    The caution state, of course, makes a third way possible, a kind of half-stealth where the player shoots at enemies and then ducks away to come at them from another angle. The fluidity of alerts in 3 was just one part of what we might call the game\’s analogue conversion of its \’digital\’ forebears – where the simple binaries of seen/unseen, noisy/silent, grab/leave are converted into more graded spectra based on camouflage, multiple guard perceptions, pressure-sensitive buttons, and varying movement speeds.

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