Metal Gear Solid is aggressively strange both as a game and as the progenitor of a series. For every hour of stealth action promised on the box is a matched hour of nuclear proliferation policy discussion, and reconciling the videogame legacy of that series with the on-the-ground facts of actually playing the originating object is generally difficult to do. It seems that most people are either all in for everything, from temperature-controlled keycards to clone presidents to balloon kidnappings, or they skip through every cut-scene with wild abandon. In their book Metal Gear Solid, siblings Ashly and Anthony Burch ride the line. They love the danger.
I expected a book on Metal Gear Solid to pick one of those sides. I thought we might get a personal story bound up in a “Snake was me the whole time” wrapper. Or, on the other end, I thought we might get some pure mechanical evangelism that extolled the virtues of the game’s “tactical espionage action” that always seems to veer away from tactics and espionage. Those expectations were partly developed out of an understanding of what Boss Fight Books publishes and my own experiences of reading many things in the wide, wide world of popular (and unpopular) games criticism.
The writing that the Burches do in Metal Gear Solid isn’t that kind of partisan work. It takes positions, of course: they hold it accountable for its sexism, its hamfisted writing, and its strange plot beats that cohere simply because the game tells us that they do. The Burches tell you at the opening of the book that they are going to be relentless in their criticism of this object that clearly meant so much to them in their shared childhood.
But somewhere near the end of Metal Gear Solid a Burch says that there’s a romantic appeal to how weird this game object is. It does lots of things that don’t quite make a lot of sense when any scrutiny is applied to them, but it does all of those things with ultimate sincerity. It might be annoying, or it might make no sense, or it might be goofy, but the wide-eyed innocence that permeates the experience drives it toward some kind of endearing endgame where you look at a caribou and weep.
The Burches hold it all in tension, and they do it by taking turns writing about different topics. Their childhood love of the game gives over to hardcore critique gives over to ruminations on the state of contemporary narrative design. It all flows together into a superstructure informed by two lives spent playing and working in the games industry. While Metal Gear Solid never strays far from its namesake, the book also has a wide breadth when it comes to context and comparison. The authors take full advantage of the wide field of games in order to make specific claims about the game and how it functions alongside its players, and while that isn’t fireworks, a free hot dog, and a party with fifty puppies, it is something that I loved for how well it was executed.
The only real criticisms that I can level at the book center around the use of humor. It isn’t that the book isn’t funny. Rather, it’s a certain kind of funny that doesn’t quite work every time it’s deployed. When I’m told that Konami was wrong about Hideo Kojima’s abilities to create a game with “Konami was full of dicks,” what immediately comes to mind is early-2000s Something Awful frontpage articles. When the authors fight back and forth one-upping each other in the footnotes, I think about Trey Hamburger’s Ghosts/Aliens, a book wholly dependent on its footnote comedy to sustain itself, and I take my eye off the ball that is the book. There’s nothing wrong with any of these methods in isolation, but taken altogether it feels as if an already-funny book was punched up in a later stage to a mellowing effect.
That said, if the most extended critique that I can muster of the book is that it isn’t my kind of funny, then it is probably worth checking out. Metal Gear Solid is a great critical book about a game that the authors clearly love, and the switching of voices between Ashly and Anthony Burch provides a nice point and counterpoint that allows the text to disagree with itself fairly often. What emerges is some firm yet friendly back and forth analysis that opens up a canonical videogame further than it ever has been before.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.