WARNING: What follows are major spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
There was an article at Kotaku a while ago about tragedy in videogames. More specifically, it was about tragedy in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The following passage sums it up:
That's what feels so unusual about MGS4 even compared to the other MGS games. This is a sad story, one that feels destined to end in defeat. Snake is aging and dying. He's literally become toxic to the people around him. And his back hurts. (Which you'll see him clutch in pain if you let him crouch too long). MGS4 is the rare effort of video game blues and tragedy.
I find it amazing that people are saying such things about Metal Gear Solid 4, a game where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, the world is saved, and everyone lives happily ever after. Somehow the fact that Guns of the Patriots has a schmaltz-drenched Hollywood ending doesn't stop Kotaku from concluding:
Gamers are used to being asked to save the day and be the hero. Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it's the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy. That's what feels novel.
Hailing Metal Gear Solid 4 as a tragedy is wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. First of all, MGS4 isn't a tragedy. Secondly, even if it were it wouldn't be an interactive tragedy. Thirdly, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 qualify as better tragedies than MGS4. And fourthly, there are several other games out there I can think of which are both more tragic and more interactive than any Metal Gear game.
MGS4 may present itself as bleak and cynical, but its ending proves this entire attitude is a smokescreen. The Metal Gear series has grown more and more morally complex with each installment, but all that comes tumbling down in Guns of the Patriots, crushed to death under a mountain of fan-service. The Patriots, the totalitarian puppet masters of America first introduced in MGS2, are dismantled in an instant by a computer virus without the mechanisms of modern civilization so much as shuddering. This is followed by a 20 minute scene where two long-time series characters get married. Then there is another 20 minute scene where even more characters are reunited with lost family members, accompanied by ample tears of joy. Somewhere in the middle of all this Snake decides not to kill himself, at which point his long dead father, Big Boss, shows up thanks to some ridiculous plot magic, gives Snake a 30 minute monologue about the value of life, and promptly dies. Taken all together this is an endless, pummeling assault of mushy sentiment and convenient resolutions. It's all about as tragic as the end of Independence Day.
And even if the ending of MGS4 was tragic, even if Snake died, even if destroying The Patriots meant leaving a gaping hole in the world that only anarchy would fill, and even if no one got married at the end, MGS4 would still not be the "interactive tragedy" that Kotaku claims it to be, because it would still not be interactive. There is not a shred of meaningful choice the player is given during the cut-scene strangled final hours of MGS4. Is that what tragedy is? Just a bunch of cut-scenes? Wouldn't tragedy, realized in a procedural way, be a system in which it is impossible to reach a proper win state? Wouldn't it be a game in which the player's own inability to master the system and reach their end goal is cathartic, illuminating, and meant to encourage reflection on the limits of choice and agency a fundamentally unfair world? Wouldn't it be something like Deus Ex, where at the end the player is actually given the choice between anarchy or totalitarianism... and both kind of suck?
The frustrating thing is, Metal Gear has historically been quite clever at working tragedy into its gameplay structures. While they never aspired to the clear-cut open-endedness of Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 did some wonderful and subversive things with genre, exploiting videogame conventions for commentary on the horrors of non-agency in the face of corrupt political power. You want tragedy? Try Metal Gear Solid 2, the game where the bad guys win. In the final stretch of that game The Patriots rub your own pathetic lack of agency in your face as you soldier on, their willing puppet, forced to complete the "story" they've designed for you: killing the terrorist and saving America. Is it just a clever excuse for MGS2's own lack of player choice? It certainly is. It's also a very effective metaphor for totalitarian control. You have no freedom to do anything beyond what that game forces you to do, and that's the chilling thought MGS2--quite intentionally--leaves you with: you are a slave. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a variation on this theme. This time the player is forced into a familiar genre, the James Bond film, but the morality is turned upside down. Killing anyone results in their ghosts haunting you. And your final objective, to kill your mentor and friend whom the U.S. government has branded a traitor, must be carried out with cold determination. The game even pauses in the final cut-scene so the player can pull the trigger himself. Metal Gear Solid 4, by comparison, doesn't come close to the bleakness of these two games. Anyone who claims it does clearly has put no thought into the matter.
Even Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 are not the best examples of tragedy in videogames. They are interesting examples (far more interesting than MGS4) but they still don't come close to what other games have done. I've already mentioned Deus Ex, but there are many others. How about Fallout, where your reward for saving the world is being kicked out of your home and forced to wander a nuclear-irradiated wasteland? How about Shadow of the Colossus, where the player must literally let go and accept the fact that Wander will never be with his lover again? How about Suikoden 2, where you are forced for murder your best friend before the game is over? How about Ikaruga, where the goal of the entire game is to survive to the final boss so you can commit suicide? Or how about the mother of all tragic games: Planescape Torment, the game where the "best ending" is going to hell to atone for your sins? The length of Torment's entire playtime is about discovering what a bastard you really are, how you've hurt all those around you, and how the most noble thing you can ever hope to do is accept responsibility for all your wickedness. How's that for a win state?
I can't imagine how someone could be aware of all these things and still be impressed by Metal Gear Solid 4. I want nothing more than to see a real watershed in procedural tragedy, but if people think Guns of the Patriots is it we've got a big problem.