With our review for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain not quite ready yet (turns out the game is bloody huge) I wanted to bring up a topic that came to me within the first few hours of gameplay. You see, on top of providing a top-notch stealth experience, Kojima Productions have also delivered something I wasn’t expecting at the time – tense set-pieces that could have been from a survival horror game. Before I go any further, let’s make it clear that **this article will discuss spoilers from the first few hours of MGSV.** Turn back now if you’ve yet to play the game and don’t want to wreck the experience for yourself.
When you look at some of the best horror experiences in gaming – Silent Hill, Outlast, System Shock, Amnesia, Five Nights at Freddy's – they all share that feeling of weakness against a relentless foe. Players may gain a way to fight back or survive a little better, but more often than not the danger is amplified just as things get familiar, and the process begins anew. P.T. had already demonstrated how well Kojima (with the help of Guillermo del Toro) could create a similar horror experience, but I was surprised to find that it was MGSV that truly made me realise how good it could have been.
Early trailers and footage for the game had already shown us how the game would kick off – leading a fresh-out-of-coma Snake out of a hospital under siege with barely any strength to crawl, let alone walk. Even with the surprise factor gone to some sections, the entire sequence was brilliantly done. Snake trying to bring himself upright by grabbing onto anything nearby, only to crash back down again, highlighted a lack of power in a legendary figure. With danger closing in all around, his weakness heightened the tension, especially during moments when the guards were right upon you.
Of course, as the sequence went on Snake regains portions of his strength, to the point where he can begin to fight back against those who are trying to kill him. The thing is, just as the player is given that power, it is nullified almost instantly by the appearance of the Man on Fire. All of a sudden, Snake is once again weak and powerless by comparison, as the chase begins anew.
Now as I’ve pointed out, all of this isn’t much of a surprise, so its effect to scare or shock players is drastically reduced, but I could still appreciate the sequence for how it made me, as a player, feel helpless at times. For a title that is meant to be more action than horror, it gave us a glimpse at what Kojima could have delivered with scripted moments in Silent Hills. Just think – what if you had no idea that the Man on Fire was going to turn up? Or that the guards were there to specifically kill Snake? Knowledge is power in the regard – we were ready for the scenario – but I could see that Kojima has an eye (or mind) for tense moments.
However, that’s not the real example of how MGSV shows how good Silent Hills could be. For that, I need to take us to the early mission where Snake rescues Miller.
As those who have played it will know, the extraction doesn’t go to plan thanks to the appearance of the Skulls Parasite Unit. Snake is forced to find a way past them to get Miller to safety as a sandstorm hits the area, impairing the player’s vision. At this point in the game, once again the player has gone from being fairly capable with the limited toolset available at the time, to utterly powerless against the foe in front of them. After all, there was no way I could survive a head-on fight with them, and so the chase began once again. The thing is, this time it is different. This time we were in an open world, and the scripted rails from the hospital are gone. In other words, what happens next is up to the player.
It should be noted that I know you can complete this section with stealth (in fact I replayed the mission just to do so) but during my first playthrough I had no idea what was going to happen. With Miller slumped over D-Horse and the Skulls shambling towards Snake, I needed to think fast. I attempted to go down the side path next to the bridge they were slowly crossing to get to me. “They won’t see me if I take it nice and slow,” I thought to myself. Unfortunately, I hadn’t even made it halfway up the path when one of the Skulls spotted me, and the deer-in-headlights moment commenced.
All of a sudden the Skulls Unit jumped into action, warping around the map in an inhuman manner and firing their guns. I was out-matched by their superior power, and had no idea how to get to the new extraction point even with an objective marker, all thanks to the ongoing sandstorm. I did the only thing I could do – I rode as hard and fast on the back of D-Horse as I possibly could, hoping I was heading in the right direction. Heaven help me if I found my way into a dead end.
My heart was pounding away at this point as I had no idea if I was going to make it through in one piece, let alone escape the Skulls, who were seemingly toying with me with their pursuit. All I could do was hope for the best and keep riding. Thankfully, some trial and error navigation managed to put me on the right course, and I eventually made it out of the hot zone, but for a few minutes I experienced a tense and frankly scary scenario.
As I sat there afterwards, I contemplated how the sequence had made me feel. After all, in horror films or scripted sequences the hunted usually does something stupid before the chase begins, and that was exactly what happened with me. In a stealth action game. In an entirely optional section of gameplay. I wasn’t restricted to a tiny corridor, or hiding in a cupboard – I was out in the middle of the wilderness and felt like I would never find safety.
So, with that in mind, just imagine what Kojima could have done with Silent Hills.
We already know that he could nail the atmospherics and feeling of weakness with indoor locations in P.T, but that chase proved to me that Kojima could even make a player feel powerless with open-world environments in The Phantom Pain. Imagine Norman Reedus’ character, having just escaped a house filled with foetus-in-a-sink moments, now must evade some sort of Pyramid-Head-esque horror throughout an entire ghost town.
Imagine where even the slightest mistake – opening the wrong door or knocking something over results in your location being broadcast, restarting the chase. You could still have those scripted moments the Silent Hill series is known for, but Kojima could have delivered some player-driven moments that might have created unique, scary, and more importantly personal moments of gameplay.
Ultimately, we’ll never know if that was the intention with Silent Hills. We’ll never know if Kojima could have matched the ideas in my head, or just reinvigorated familiar corridor-style gameplay with new ideas, but my time with The Phantom Pain only makes me mourn the loss of the problem even more. Admittedly, I might just be romanticising that specific moment of gameplay because I failed a stealth section and wanted a good story, but I still think we’ve been robbed of a truly outstanding game.
So, dear reader, do you think Carl has a point? Does The Phantom Pain make the cancellation of Silent Hills taste even more bitter? Is Carl reaching a bit too far? Let us know in the comments!