In 2007, the Brindle family fortune was divided equally between each brother, there being no will to determine otherwise. Last month, however, one of us – I’m not saying who – claimed to have uncovered just such a document in one of Tom Brindle’s old filing cabinets. After the initial brouhaha, expert analysis and cryptographic elbow grease eventually confirmed that the document was merely an invoice to a long-dead developer for selling them the concept of ‘escort missions’. Anyway, that’s why there haven’t been any posts for a while. We’re back now, I guess. What else are we going to do?
I wanted to respond specifically to Bunbury’s post about Metal Gear Solid. There, he argues that the game benefits the more it resembles Pac-Man, and claims that stealth games – and games generally – are better when their rules and mechanics are explicit, clear, known. That may be so, but to me, it’s Metal Gear Solid 3 that most resembles Pac-Man – because it’s all about eating.
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. From Pac Man to We Love Katamari, eating mechanics send hooks right down into the centre of your lizard brain – right down into your stomach – and tug at something crucial there. I have played System Shock 2 but once, in demo form some time in the hinterland of the 90s, but what I remember more than anything is 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 her identification with her player character.
Perhaps for that reason, eating in MGS3 feels personal, feels powerful. I cannot explain the libidinous pleasure I get from my gourmand escapades. My gustatory zeal is never exhausted: birds, fish, snakes, I consume; mangos, mushrooms, spiders and scorpions feed me; beeswax, goats and frogs are my fodder. For all my gluttony, I never fall to sloth (though I 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 her 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, I always make sure that I 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? Cunt. 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.
Imagine a game where the player character was a cannibal serial killer, escaped from a remote Appalachian penitentiary into a mountainous wilderness. The introductory areas see him happen upon a clutch of hippy campers and prey on them, horror movie style. But the game proper begins when he finds a survivalist compound. Right-wing nuts with hunting rifles patrol the woods, self-sufficient, smug and secure. Then and there, our Nietzschean hero decides that by whatever method – by trap, by snare, by spike pit, by strangling – he is going to kill and eat every single one of them. Not because he needs to, not because he is hungry, but because he is a terrible person and he wants to.
This may be a fleeting vision of a game that will never exist. But in the end, it shows just why MGS4 is disappointing: the developers failed to take the logical next step of letting you eat the guards.