The Backlog is a monthly quarter-sheet zine that crafts an essay around a specific game. Sometimes the goal is to highlight a game, other times it is to make a point about the game’s place in the canon. The zine is available for free online or can be purchased in print for $2.
After a decade of fiction classes, a degree in English, and hundreds of hours reading books and essays about writing, I’ve learned dozens of rules writers debate over. I’ve also found a few common threads that, for stories I care about, apply to almost all storytelling mediums. Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back demonstrates all of these threads perfectly and manages to tell an emotionally fulfilling story in (for a video game) a short amount of time.
This issue of The Backlog is going to explore Cavanagh’s masterpiece by exploring its story beat-by-beat. Since the main element of a video game narrative that separates it from any other medium is the interaction, I highly encourage you, the reader, to play the game before reading this zine. The game is available online for free here. It takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete.
If you’ve already played the game all the way through, or you just don’t want to, then please keep reading. Otherwise be warned: the story will be spoiled. Unfortunately, it’s absolutely necessary so that I can demonstrate how Don’t Look Back is the perfect video game example of how to tell a story.
Deception will become the most common theme throughout the series. Big Boss’ goal was to feed the US government bad information. Gray Fox becomes an enemy to Snake in MG2, hinting that he might have known Big Boss’s true intentions in the first game. So was he really kidnapped in the first game? Or was that all a part of Big Boss’s plan? So, if Big Boss’s plan was to confuse and deceive, then what if everything went according to plan? AHHHHHHHHHHH! From the very beginning, Metal Gear makes you second, triple, and quadruple guess everything you thought you know.
These games also introduce the idea of Science Fiction as an explanation for the unexplainable. In MG2, OILIX isn’t a magic alternative to oil: it’s algae! While “sci-fi explanations” are relatively realistic in this game, they will get crazier as the series continues. Continue reading The Themes & “WTF?” of Metal Gear & Metal Gear 2→
Before the Xbox, Microsoft created the MSX. Released in 1983, the computer system was an attempt at creating a “standard” for home computers. Before the popularity of standard operating systems, disks were unreadable between operating systems, but all MSX disks worked in any MSX machine.
The MSX demonstrates a fascinating cultural difference between the East and the West: unification vs competition. The MSX never became popular in the West because Westerners prefered competition more than a “standard”. Similarly, in the early 2000s, Japanese mobile gaming became popular years before the advent of the iPhone because Japanese phones were more standardized.
This could also explain why PC gaming has never been as popular in Japan. PC games can work on one PC and not on another because of minor differences in hardware. Why not just buy a box that plays all of the games for that machine?
However, I’m not an expert on Japanese culture. If you have some insight, or or want to add to the conversation, please comment on this article below!
The early Metal Gear games are played from an overhead view that is angled, also known as a “Three Quarters (¾) Perspective”, which allows them to navigate the avatar along the X and Y axis in a seemingly 3D world. That avatar is Snake, a bandana-wearing action hero with dark hair and dark clothes. The player can assign two items to Action keys, such as a weapon, a health item, a key card, or anything else. As the player navigates the world, they will encounter enemies that won’t immediately see Snake, so they are encouraged to navigate Snake around enemies in order to avoid confrontation. If Snake is “spotted” by an enemy, an alarm sounds, which floods the screen with more enemies until Snake successfully hides for a few minutes or dispatches all of the enemies. Continue reading Heaven & Algae: The Gameplay & Stories of MG & MG2→
Some games are intimidating. Dark Souls is known for punishing players who aren’t patient. Games like the Persona series require a daunting time commitment. Then there are some franchises that have been around for so long, and have such tangled narratives, that they are incomprehensible to players that haven’t done the homework. Nothing perfectly encapsulates the latter than the Metal Gear series. In an epic tale spanning 28 years, Hideo Kojima crafted a masterpiece that covers everything from heavy political topics (such as nuclear disarmament) to deep philosophical ponderings (like the nature of consciousness and the illusion of free will). It also contains poop jokes and constant objectification of the female form. It is a series that I often criticize more than I praise.
The series, as a whole, sounds like something a 13-year-old boy scribbled into the margins of his middle school notebooks. Yet somehow it was adapted into a multi-million dollar spectacle created by hundreds of talented artists and hard-working programmers. The series takes its story more seriously than it should while still making fun of itself at every opportunity. In many ways, the complete Metal Gear saga represents how a visionary artist duped the corporate world into telling anti-capitalist, anti-war stories by veiling them in gun fetishism, US military soap operas, and anime tropes. Not only that, but it popularized fourth-wall-breaking “mindfucks” for video games and catapulted its creator to “rock star” status. In order to truly understand the culture created by this series, you have to play every game. But sometimes you don’t have the time.
In a rare mini-series of The Backlog, we will attempt to understand Kojima’s 30-year masterpiece, starting with games on the Japanese MSX2 computer system and ending with modern consoles. Since the games can be appreciated in many ways, each issue is split into three categories that explain the story, the themes, and the mind-bending narrative hooks that have kept Metal Gear players asking the all-important question: “What the fuck?”