A Formal Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2

James Clinton Howell


Critical writing about any medium requires specific language to refer to the medium’s technical qualities, and I have defined a few terms to create the essay’s critical language.

Actor refers to a character in a videogame whom the player presumes to control. Character refers to the identity of a fictional person within the game’s narrative context. All actors in MGS2 are characters, while only two characters are actors.

By extension, I have distinguished between Player Objectives and Actor Objectives. The former term describes the literal demands that a game places upon its player in order to complete the game’s objectives, including physical manipulation of hardware and the resulting in-game actions. The latter term describes the actor’s responsibilities as informed by narrative context and as they create the narrative.

The videogame Ms. Pacman illustrates how Player and Actor Objectives traditionally contrast and complement each other. The player must manipulate the joystick to guide Ms. Pacman through a series of mazes, meanwhile avoiding ghosts and eating pellets. In her narrative context, Ms. Pacman must survive her trip through the maze and consume. Ms. Pacman affirms that the Player Objectives fulfill the Actor Objectives since the player’s success guarantees the actor’s success. 

The game splits the rewards: his score increases, and she lives to eat another day. Ms. Pacman has as little practical use for the score as the player has in her survival. He will leave the arcade without regret that she has repeatedly died, and she, in context, becomes no happier when he breaks the high score.

However, each reward affirms the other. Ms. Pacman’s survival guarantees that he will increase his score. The player’s increased score can earn a 1up, prolonging her desperate lease on life.

Literal describes real-world activity relating to the player’s manipulation of the game’s controls or to the technology that runs the videogame’s software. In-game describes virtual activity that occurs within the videogame’s fictional context. Gameplay refers to the sum total of literal and in-game actions.

A player acts literally when he uses his controller, and his literal actions cause in-game actions. When a game tells its player “Press A to run,” he literally presses the button named A, and he runs in-game through his actor. These actions together form gameplay.

Narration describes the means by which the game presents its story to the player. Narrative describes the story, its characters, and the game’s fictional universe. Gameplay can serve as narration when the player’s actions relate to or create the narrative, but gameplay cannot also be the narrative.

Real describes both formal and narrative elements that impact the player’s experience. All imaginative work requires its audience to engage content through the illusion of form, and criticism therefore treats fictional characters and events as though they literally existed. We tend to recognize videogames as “virtual reality,” but the loose categorization weakens videogame criticism. We require finer terminology than the umbrella distinction between virtual and physical realities, and this essay has adopted the specific terms described here in order to examine how the parts of a game cohere. Gameplay arises from literal and in-game actions, and narration arises from both Player and Actor Objectives.

Historical describes events and persons who exist outside the game’s reality. The player’s role as an actor-driving ego places him in the game’s reality, and he exists outside the game in history.

Form describes how a game narrates through gameplay, level design, spatial representations, colors, patterns, and the game’s incorporation of its player.

Now let’s go.

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