Metal Gear Solid 2 was the original next-generation video game

So, like, in Metal Gear Solid 2, there’s this guy who attached another guy’s arm to his very much arm-free elbow. The transplant apparently included a hidden extra: the spirit of a dead terrorist who’s the genetically identical twin of this guy’s sworn enemy. Ghost terrorist – using this guy’s body – then steals a giant, sea-faring robot that makes animal noises right from under the nose of the US military.

Describe it as inventive storytelling, describe it as amateur schlock, but I totally buy it – I’m totally in: this poor man has been possessed by a sentient appendage who wants to do some very bad things with some very big robots. And as Metal Gear Solid 2 sold around 7 million copies with a whopping Metacritic score of 96, it seems that some very smart people over at Team Kojima managed to convince a fair few of us that a robot-hijacking terrorist ghost arm was a totally acceptable thing back in 2001.

Twenty years later, I think I’ve finally cracked exactly how they made that happen: Kojima and co. sell you big ideas – silly, stupid, ridiculous ideas – on the back of small, sometimes inconsequential details. It sells you on just how real the world is, forcing you to concede that all the silly-stupid ridiculousness that follows might actually be feasible.

And it’s all thanks to that then new-fangled PlayStation 2 machine. With a new generation came the opportunity to build a world that seems real  –  with smeared blood stains, glass bottles and squawking seagulls. A machine that had the ability to transform something absolutely ridiculous into absolutely believable through sheer technological might – and allow Kojima to establish a playbook for how new technology can make video games feel as immersive and legitimate as ever.

Here, that extra silicon isn’t put to drawing super-narrow, hyper-detailed corridors with an enemy or two – it’s used to paint details we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. Snake sneezes in the harsh New York rain, alerting nearby guards to your sneaky antics. Glass bottles and water melons are torn apart by a targeted pistol shot. Seagull droppings cause you to slip if caught under foot. A damp Snake leaves wet footprints in his wake for guards to follow. Even ice cubes melt in real time.

And it goes on and on and on.

It all makes sense in a genre where the gap between success and failure is a hair’s width. If you’re in from the rain, wait to dry off – or don’t, and use those wet footprints to send guards on a brief detour. If you’re stuck for a cheeky sneak, pop a glass bottle as a distraction. That soldier swarmed by flies? He’s carrying a health-boosting ration that’s ripe for the taking. These small details can be observed and accounted for, making the difference between being sneaky or being seen. These aren’t arbitrary, show-off details for detail’s sake, they’re options – ones you simply can’t imagine on an older box.

This, right here, is high-resolution gameplay – a term that really, really needs to catch on.

And those seagulls , polygons that old grey box before probably couldn’t spare, are a prime example of that detail-driven approach in action. They transform what would otherwise be the orange-brown hexagons of Big Shell, an off-shore clean-up facility and the game’s main locale, into something that feels real and alive. Of all the next-gen wet dreams you might’ve had in the space age year of 2000, polygonal seagulls wouldn’t have been one of them. They even poop on your first-person camera. Truly next-generation stuff.

The big stuff’s cool, too. Big Shell offers a sense of scale not seen in generations prior, as does a real-time rendition of Metal Gear Ray – the sea-faring robot – towering over a tanker that’s having a really, really bad day. It doesn’t feel like a world that’s cutting corners due to lack of processing power. It feels like a world that just is because it really exists—it just is.

If video-game technology is about bringing a developer’s vision to life, even the ones with robot-riding ghost terrorists, then each generation should close the gap between the vision in their head and the vision on screen. It’s hard to imagine, then, that any developer’s vision includes more squares please beyond what they deem essential. Kojima’s vision seems almost child-like in its ambition and attention to minutia, like a kid who’s been finally able to unleash his imagination without recourse or restraint with a bigger, better box of toys.

It makes today’s talk of pixel counts seem a bit silly. Arbitrarily pushing for those big-number resolutions really doesn’t feel next-generation — it’s not an experience. That’s literally true if you don’t happen to have the right panel to play it on, too. My machine does ten-percent more than your machine is a string of words that sounds about as a ridiculous as saying a ghost terrorist hi-jacking an animal robot submarine.

A new generation should feel like a series of small revelations that capture details and dohickys we didn’t expect or even know we needed – details that probably sat in some big-brained designer’s mind for decades. Metal Gear Solid 2 is Kojima showing us the extent of his vision in small, subtle ways. Each one is a surprise, each one brings with it a sense that video games will now be forever something they weren’t before.

It feels like Kojima’s making a point here: that technology empowers creators to a paint the most unbelievable worlds in the most believable way – bringing something that shouldn’t exist into the real world. That technological leap empowers creators to do precisely what video games should even better: let us live lives that we never could before. Kojima’s 2001 vision truly held the medium to a new standard in that regard, convincing us that a sentient ghost terrorist arm riding an animal-noise-making submarine robot is absolutely workable – despite it being properly, properly bonkers.

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