Metal Gear Solid. Those three words alone are enough to trigger huge waves of nostalgia and fuzzy feelings for gamers all over the world. It’s one of the most influential and important games in gaming history. The game that showed how stealth could work in a 3D environment; the game that pushed video game narratives miles ahead; the game that was serious and dark in its implications while also being dumb and breaking the fourth wall at key moments; the game that introduced “can love bloom on a battlefield?” and so many other ridiculous and amazing quotes. Whatever Metal Gear Solid makes you think about, it’s the game’s codec that is arguably the single most iconic and enduring part of that weird and wonderful game that launched 20 years ago today.
Bullet Points is a regular series that looks at a unique aspect to one game. You can find more of them here.
This Bullet Points piece could’ve been about any of the other elements mentioned above. There are so many things about Metal Gear Solid that are cool, significant, and worthy of discussion, but for me, it’s the codec that truly stands out. Large portions of the game’s story are delivered through the codec. At its face, it’s just two faces with very limited animations talking back and forth. It doesn’t sound that exciting on paper and yet it manages to be incredibly engrossing thanks to great voice acting and excellent execution. The limitations actually help to give it some of its charm, which is funny because it was clearly just a smart and convenient way to show characters talking without having to deal with the PlayStation’s limited technical ability.
Not only is it an excellent tool for exposition on almost anything—characters, locations, weapons, how much Snake likes to flirt with every woman he meets—but it’s also a great way to explain the game’s systems and mechanics, and the tools at your disposal. Even though it’s pretty silly to hear Colonel Campbell telling Snake to “press the Action button,” the way that Metal Gear Solid goes to such lengths to explain everything within the context of the world is admirable.
Metal Gear Solid is known for its excessive exposition and gratuitous detail. This is all done through the codec, and it’s all in service of this need to justify everything. Every mechanic, every weird superpower that villains have, the way the codec is operated by “stimulating the small bones in your ear.” It’s hard not to love how hard Metal Gear Solid tries to explain everything, even if the explanations are often pseudo-scientific nonsense.
It also further extends on its exposition by serving as a hint system. If you’re struggling on a boss, or you aren’t sure where to go next, you can call Campbell or Otacon and they’ll point you in the right direction. Keep pressing them and they’ll give you increasingly pointed help. It’s a subtle way to help the player out, but it also allows them to give further details about bosses. Calling the codec during a boss fight will give you some form of “you should do this, Snake,” “this person is vulnerable to this.” However, instead of simply being the typical video game thing of “hit the weak spot because this is a video game” Metal Gear Solid goes out of its way to educate you on why this is a vulnerability and, particularly in later games, why this is the case, how it came about, what day in January they became afflicted by it, etc.
It’s since become an embedded piece of gaming iconography and with good reason. The look of the codec is instantly recognizable and the call sound is super iconic (and so good). The codec introduced a new way to deliver exposition and introduced the idea that you can tell a narrative in unique ways and still have it work. It’s an awesome and integral part of the game and, frankly, I still get excited when I hear it ring.