The Sigilian Calendar

The Sigilian Calendar

My new D&D 5e game is a Planescape campaign, and I’ve decided to set quite a lot of it in Sigil. Weirdly, none of the official material includes a Sigilian calendar, so I thought I’d take a crack at making my own. The way I figure it, there’s no way the Fraternity of Order hasn’t found a way to mark the passing of days and months. I also figure a significant portion of Sigil’s population has no use of any sort of calendar, and just ignores it. In any case, here’s what I’ve come up with.

A messy example of the calendar can be seen here.

Days of the Week

Just like here on Earth, there are seven days in a week. They’re named after the various wards of Sigil. At one time in Sigil’s history each day had a particular meaning or purpose, but now they all mostly blur together. Some traditionalists grumble about that.

Lady’s Day – A day of rest for Sigil’s government, the Court is closed on Lady’s Day. Many Guvner-owned places of business all over town are dark as well. Prison operations used to be suspended on Lady’s Day as well, but since the current Mercykillers factol took charge, they’re open for “business” 24/7. Superstitious folks are extra careful not to raise the Lady of Pain’s ire on this day.

Low Day – The second day of the week used to be reserved for special projects at the Foundry and other forges scattered throughout Sigil. In fact, there used to be a city ordinance (the Sigilian Smog Reduction Initiative) that limited smoke-producing works to three days each week, beginning with Low Day. The unpopular legislation was nixed once it started to adversely affect Sigil’s economy.

Clerk’s Day – Traditionally, Clerk’s Day was the one day a week where attendance was mandatory for all employees of Sigil’s beaurocracy, in an effort to ensure one day each week where taxation paperwork, licenses, records requests and the like were more expedient. This only resulted in said beaurocrats finding any number of loopholes, however, and now the rule is only loosely enforced.

Guild Day – The middle day of the week is traditionally a good time for the movers and shakers in Sigil’s various guilds and businesses to hold meetings and make all sorts of deals. Agreeing to meet to discuss and finalize a business deal on Guild Day is considered a sign of respect. Offering to meet on any other day might be met with suspicion or disdain by old cutters who remember the way things used to be done.

Hive Day – Every few cycles some berk gets it into his head to single out Hive Day for some kind of long form civil works project; cleaning up The Ditch, rounding up the more seedy Collectors, mobilizing Sigil’s upper crust to volunteer work for the downtrodden, that sort of thing. Even the legally-sanctioned attempts die pretty quick, as their organizers drive themselves barmy trying to impose any sort of order on The Hive.

Market Day – There’re a half million rules and restrictions and quirks of law about who can sell what in the Great Bazaar, and on paper lots of these rules are relaxed each Market Day. In practice, it’s rare for anyone to follow or enforce any of these, unless the Hardheads really have it in for one particular merchant. Lots of informal Indep gatherings do tend to happen on Market Day, though.

Ring Day – The last day of the week symbolizes Sigil as a singular unity, rather than any single ward. It’s the closest thing to a weekend the City of Doors has. Many of the city’s temples recognize Ring Day as a day of worship. Lots of galas and parties happen on Ring Day amongst Sigil’s upper classes, considering most of those bashers have the following day off work.

Astral Days

Eons ago it was theorized that the Astral Plane “cycled” across each of the planes it touched, and that this connection moved once per Sigilian cycle. Seventeen days, one for each of the Outer Planes, then one for the Prime Material. Every nineteenth day the Astral’s connection was strongest in Sigil itself, and so those days were declared Astral Days. Of course, the whole business with cycling Astral connections are pure screed, but the tradition stuck.

Every nineteenth day in Sigil is an Astral Day, and these days don’t belong to any week or month. This creates cases where, for example, Lady’s Day doesn’t directly follow Ring Day. Those weeks tend to be particularly raucous. This means that just about every third week has eight days instead of seven. Some folks like to think of the collection of Astral Days as a short month whose days are spread throughout the year instead of coming all together at once.

The official faction of the Astral Days is the Athar. The faction tends to increase its proselytize a big more during Astral Days, and many cagers consider it taboo to worship their powers or enter a temple on these days.


The last day of the year is Dabusdan, and is considered to be separate from any month, although it still falls on a day of the week. It’s the one day a year the dabus do no work in Sigil. In fact, it’s very rare to see one out and about on this day. Since it occurs so regularly (once every 368 days), it’s a good way to mark the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

Ethil Rué

Halfway through each cycle, the calendar is interrupted for two weeks connected with the Inner Planes. Each week includes one day for an Energy Plane, one day for each of the four Elemental Planes, and two days for the Ethereal. These two weeks prove exceptionally busy for the Bazaar, as merchant princes from the Inner Planes come flooding in with their exotic goods.

The first week (known formally as Ethil Rué Fulaan) begins with a day called Life, marking the Positive Energy Plane. The second week (Ethil Rué Rufaan) begins with Death, marking the Negative Energy. To further confuse things, the Earth and Air days switch positions during the second week. This gives official recognition to every possible Para- and Quasi-Elemental Plane, although nobody but the Guvners particularly cares.

If an Astral Day happens to fall in between two Elemental Days (which only occurs once every few years) an offshoot of the Sensates takes it as a sign and puts on a marvelous celebration of the Para-Elemental Plane that results from the combination. This can be fun when it’s Ice’s turn, what with the sledding and snow cones. People are less enthusiastic about Magma, Smoke or Ooze’s celebration, though.

Death, the first day of Ethil Rué Rufaan, is the official day of the Dustmen, although they don’t do anything special. The Doomguard are the official faction of Ethil Rué Rufaan in total. The Godsmen were assigned to Ethil Rué Fulaan, but they have unofficially abandoned it in favor of an entire month elsewhere.

Months of the Cycle

Each Sigilian cycle includes nine months. Four months have 36 days, four have 38, and one (the center month) has 40. The months correspond with the nine alignments, and are named for powerful members of each exemplar race of the Outer Planes. In addition, each month has an official faction. Some factions take their assignments seriously, planning city-wide events and celebrations during their time. Others could care less.

It’s thought that long ago the nine months were much more strongly connected to the outer planes they represented, and Sigil’s overall mood would gravitate in that direction. That’s not the case anymore, if in fact it ever was, but tradition still holds that each month is the best time of year for different kinds of business and actions. Others say that the personalities of those born in Sigil is determined by the month in which they’re born.

Amnizuus – Named for the Amnizu, stewards of the fifth layer of Baator, Amnizuus is also called the “Blood Month”. It has 36 days, and is considered to be a good time in Sigil to make strategic decisions regarding bargaining and warfare. The Blood War tends to spill into the streets a little more during this time, although the fiends tend to behave themselves more often than not. The Blood Month’s faction is the Mercykillers, and the moniker suits them just fine.

Quintember – Named for the Quinton, the Modron record keepers of Mechanus. 38 days long, Sigilians also know it as the “Metal Month”. It’s known to be a good time to undertake long-term planning, or to break ground on new construction projects. Not surprisingly, Quintember’s faction is the Fraternity of Order. Guvner appointments and term limits begin and expire in this month. Most years a splinter group of Guvners appeal to move Quintember to be the first month of the year, rather than the second, to more neatly correspond with the new cycle, but this motion always meets with strong opposition from even inside the faction.

Toma – Named for the hawk-headed Tome Archons of Mount Celestia, the 36 days of Toma are seen as a time for self-improvement and honing of raw physical strength. Sigilians also know it as the “Light Month”, and the three lawful factions traditionally keep their lanterns lit throughout Toma’s nights in recognition. Officially, the month of Toma belongs to the Harmonium. Patrols tend to be larger and tighter during the month, as the Hardheads take great pride in keeping things especially in line when they have the spotlight. This also means recruitment efforts are redoubled during Toma; good news for those looking to join — or infiltrate — the faction.

Ursina – Ursina has 38 days and is named for the philosophical bear-folk of the Guardinals, the Ursinals. Its connection with the plane of Elysium makes Ursina a good month for charity and good works, but also for relaxation and introspection; lots of Sigilians take their holiday during Ursina. Elysium’s connection to the River Oceanus have led Sigilians refer to Ursina as the “Water Month”. The official faction, the Ciphers, have latched onto this symbolism to better illustrate their fluid connection between thought and action.

Cuprilember – At 40 days, Cuprilember (or the “Spire Month”) is the longest month of the year. It is split in half, however, by Ethil Rué, and so is often referenced as “early Spire” or “late Spire”. It’s named for the Cuprilarchs, a subrace of the enigmatic Rilmani known for brash acts of violence in their quest to uphold some cosmic balance. Being the center month, and having no month representing their home plane, Cuprilember has been adopted by the Signers. Jokes abound that having the longest month sooths their fragile egos. In addition, having no month of their own, the Indeps have unofficially claimed Spire Month for themselves, as well. (That is, those among them who care enough about such things.)

Arcanuus – 38-day Arcanuus has an interesting history. Originally it was tied to the Grey Waste and assigned to the Bleakers, who (predictably) didn’t much care about the appointment. At the time the Fated were trying to get their home plane of Ysgard recognized in the calendar, with no success. Instead of fight an eternal losing battle, the Fated seized Arcanuus for themselves instead, and embarked on a lifelong campaign to change its dreary connotations. Named for the Arcanoloths, the month’s new identity was strongly associated with arcane study, and now is known in Sigil as the “Arcane Month”.

Marlithuus – Originally called the “Dread Month”, Marlithuus is associated with the Abyss and is named after those terrible seven-armed demons, the Marilith. Originally no faction wanted to be associated with it, but the Bleakers have been stuck here ever since the Fated grabbed Arcanuus from them. Not content with having such a horrible month in every year, the Sensates, Godsmen, Signers and a few Ciphers were able to re-cast the month’s selfishly chaotic bent into a celebration of the creative arts. Nowadays it’s known as the “Song Month”, although that doesn’t keep some barmies from filling its 36 days with violence.

Graalember – The Slaad don’t have fancy names for themselves, only colors, and there is a lot of debate amongst greybeards over whether Graalember is named for the Grey or Green variety. Most folks find the confusion caused by the name to be the perfect fit for the month associated with Limbo. Officially the month is the domain of the Xoasitects, but they don’t recognize being tied down to one particular box. Instead, the Godsmen have unofficially taken the month for themselves, indulging in the pure joy of creation made possible by the most chaotic of planes. Also known as the “Shape Month”, Graalember is 38 days long and is associated with luck and psionics.

Ghaela – The last month of the year, 36-day-long Ghaela, is named for Arborea’s Ghaele Eladrin, warriors of compassion and protectors of the innocent. Most people in Sigil, however, know it as “Wine Month” and look forward to the many end-of-cycle parties thrown by the Sensates. Ghaela is known throughout Sigil as a time of brotherhood and good cheer. Or, at least, slightly less dismal cheer.

Sigilian Holidays

The number of holidays and special events in Sigil is infinite, but there are a few traditional days, many of which are faction-sponsored, that make it onto just about everyone’s calendar.

New Cycle’s Dawn (Amnizuus 1) – The first day of the cycle is a popular time for parties in all of Sigil’s social classes, from the snobbish galas of the Lady’s Ward all the way down to the fervid debauchery of the Hive. A tradition amongst Sigilian children is to keep count of fiends walking the street on the first day of the Blood Month; whomever spots the most gets a special treat during the evening’s festivities.

Green Beer Day (Amnizuus 9) – An old Spinagon named Rakakkukan has lived in a tiny kip in the Lower Ward for as long as anyone can remember, and just about as long he has been Sigil’s benefactor on Green Beer Day. Every Amnizuus 9, precisely at peak, the lights go on in Rakakkukan’s kip and he begins rolling cask after cask of powerful Baatorian ale out into the street, free to anyone who brings their own cup. The old devil’s reasons for this uncharacteristic charity have never been identified, and makes a lot of folks uneasy, but the bubbers line up year after year all the same.

Wyrm’s Day (day after the first Astral Day in Amnizuus) – The only “holiday” sponsored by the Mercykillers, Wyrm’s Day is a favorite amongst Sigil’s lower classes who just want to see a bit of gore. Traditionally the Mercykillers do a bit of housekeeping in the Prison on this day, offering pardons or executions to large numbers of long-time prisoners. As of late there have been far more of the latter, making for particularly grisly and memorable Wyrm’s Days.

Hashkar’s Address (Quintember 1) – Every year on the first day of the Metal Month the factol of the Guvners publicly addresses the people of Sigil in a very long, very boring speech. A huge variety of topics are discussed, mostly involving the state of Sigil during the previous cycle, and plans for improvement in the upcoming cycle. The speech tends to go far longer than anyone can stand to listen, with the record stretching just past 15 straight hours of Hashkar’s droning, methodical voice.

Forum of Law and Order (Quintember 2) – In theory the Hall of Speakers is available for anyone with enough jink and an opinion to rent out, but traditionally the Signers hand this one day over to Sigil’s triumvirate of law: the Guvners, Hardheads and Mercykillers. (No doubt for a very large fee!) Nobody else gets the floor on this day, and lots of lively debate ensues about the proper application of Sigil’s laws and the enforcement and punishment thereof.

Day of Civil Judgment (last Lady’s Day of Quintember) – While the courts are usually closed on Lady’s Day, an exception is made for this holiday, where the factol of the Guvners himself sits the bench for 24 straight hours hearing grievances. The regular court schedule is wiped clean for the day, and citizens are heard on a first-come, first-serve basis, no matter how petty or delusional their cases may be. On this one day only is the factol entrusted with final authority to hand down judgments without slowly grinding through the usual channels. For many Sigilians, this is their only shot at justice in civil matters.

Toma’s Resolution (Toma 1) – The first day of Toma, a month of betterment and self-improvement, it is customary to make resolutions on how one will make oneself better throughout the remainder of the cycle. Popular resolutions include weight loss, persuing a new profession, and finally hopping a portal out of this miserable place and setting up kip elsewhere ont he planes.

Toma’s Regret (Toma 2) – An inevitable favorite throughout Sigil, Toma 2 is an unofficial, tongue-in-cheek way to celebrate all the short-lived resolutions made the day before. Usually with lots of drink.

Good King Garfareon’s Name Day (Toma 21) – Sigil’s not the type of place where a high-up’s name day is likely to get much recognition, but an exception is made for Garfareon, ruler of whatever kingdom the Harmonium originally hailed from, on whatever Prime Material world that was. While it’s an official holiday and the Hardheads take it very seriously, most everyone else celebrates by rolling their eyes and making fun of the good king’s silly name.

Deva’s Day (Toma 35-36) Towards the end of the Light Month a venue is chosen — usually in the Lady’s Ward — for a large gathering of celestials to come together on neutral ground and share the past cycle’s triumphs and experiences. Bloods from all over the Upper Planes turn up for the two-day event. The first day consists of more formal meetings, discussion of business, peaceful resolution of conflicts, what have you. That all taken care of, the second day is spent socializing and partaking of good-aligned brotherhood of all flavors.

The Grand Games (first full week of Ursina with an Astral Day) – This eight-day-long event is sponsored by the Ciphers and takes over the entire Gymnasium and much of the surrounding area. The days are filled with formal athletics competitions and games of skill, and is the most organized most folks ever see the Ciphers get. Registration is open to anyone who wishes to compete, but only those with the most brutal training regimens have a shot at a medal. Despite the Ciphers’ best efforts to combat the seedier elements of gamesmanship, the Grand Games are the most popular gambling event of the cycle.

Prime Appreciation Day (first Ring Day of Cuprilember) – An official Sigilian holiday no doubt proposed by some greybeard who was kept awake at night by the Prime Material Plane not being recognized anywhere in the city’s calendar, Prime Appreciation Day is considered a joke by the best cutters and an excuse to torment Clueless by the worst. Currently no faction sponsors any events on this day, and by the time most Primes learn the ropes well enough to realize they have a day, they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves by celebrating it.

Annointed Morning (Life) – While not an official holiday, the Hall of Records keeps a formal census of children born in Sigil before peak on Life. Having Life as one’s name day is considered especially lucky, and is a good way of making oneself stand out from the crowd. A non-faction-affiliated group called the Annointed Sisterhood congregates just after peak to announce all the births, and each family on the list receives a small gift of freshly baked bread.

Efreeti’s Court (Fire 1) – All of Ethil Rué, the Bazaar fills with exotic visitors from the Inner Planes, selling all manner of strange wares. Fire 1, however, marks the official arrival of a huge trade caravan from the City of Brass. Sale of slaves is forbidden inside Sigil, but just about everything else that can be sampled from that vast Inner Planes marketplace abounds on this day. Chant is that no small amount of souls gets whisked off to the Plane of Fire, caught up in the swirl of excitement each cycle, never to be seen again.

Ordial Day (Astral Day durin Ethil Rué) – There isn’t always an Astral Day during Ethil Rué, but those cycles where there is, a few of the more creative factions come together to celebrate the mysterious, un-visitable Ordial Plane. This theoretical place is said to connect the Outer and Inner Planes, but has never been observed by anyone who came back to tell about it. Ordial Day is a favorite day to spread conspiracy theories and play pranks.

Para Festivals (Astral Days that fall between two Elemental Days) – More rare than Ordial Day are the Para Festivals, which only occur in cycles where an Astral Day lands between two Elemental Days. Depending on which elements are observed, the Sensates put together a whole day of festivities related to the appropriate Para-Elemental Plane. An Astral Day between Fire and Air results in a Festival of Smoke, where every exotic leaf and weed in the multiverse is collected, rolled, and puffed on. Air and Water result in the Festival of Ice, where Sensate wizards turn the roads to ice and engage in sled races and epic snowball fights. Water and Earth cause the Festival of Ooze, which results in quite a lot of naked mud wrestling. Earth and Fire bring the Festival of Magma, the hardest to celebrate by far, which almost always ends with property damage and a few poor sods sorched to death.

Dead-Book Festival (Death) – The Dustmen don’t much care they only get one day a cycle where the other factions get a whole month. They care so little, in fact, they don’t even sponsor an event on their one day. Instead, the Sensates throw a one-day parade throughout the streets adjoining the Civic Festhall celebrating all the facets of death. Folks dress up like skeletons and other undead creatures, share legends and stories of the various powers related to death, and essentially make mock of everything the Dustmen stand for.

Doomguard Riots (Fire 2 – Air 2) – The Elemental Days of Ethil Rué Rufaan are particularly nasty for folks minding their own business in the Lady’s Ward. The Sinkers sponsor a massive faction-only melee outside the Armory (the second most popular gambling event of the cycle), offering every upstart in the faction a chance to prove their martial prowess. That’d be bad enough, but the more unseemly members of the faction always use the melee as an excuse to cause general mayhem throughout the Lady’s and Lower Wards. Used to be the Doomguard would keep a lid on the violence, but since the newest factol took over that hasn’t been a priority. There’s always a body count by the end of the week.

Day-Again of Foul Luck (any Astral Day that follows or precedes a like-numbered day of any month) – Day-Again usually only comes once a year, and always at a different time. Whenever two days in a row have the same number — say, the eleventh of Arcanuus immediately followed by the cycle’s eleventh Astral Day — everyone spends the day looking over their shoulder for the especially bad luck following them around. Chant is that any misfortune that comes your way on the first day is sure to happen a second time on Day-Again, and any good fortune you enjoy on the first day is a cert to be undone.

Tax Holiday (Arcanuus 18) – Of course the one and only holiday sponsored by the Fated would be about collecting taxes. While its name implies it’s a holiday from paying taxes, Tax Holiday is quite the opposite: all fees, fines, leins, bonds and overdue payments come due on this day, and the faction offers its members a cut on anything they manage to collect. Lots of doors get knocked in on Tax Holiday, and lots of berks get thumped by the Hardheads for inability to pay.

Festival of the Arts (Marlithuus 1-7) – The first week of Marlithuus was seized upon by the Sensates as a celebration of the creative energies inherent in the tides of chaos. Everything from orchestras to puppet shows are lauded in the Festhall during the week, and special consideration is given to pieces that are unique, rather than those which display actual quality.

Festival of Blood (Marlithuus 6) – Sponsored by no one in particular, but practiced nonetheless by no small number of chaotic fiends, the Festival of Blood celebrates all the monstrosities of the Blood War smack dab in the middle of the Festival of Arts. While some high-ups have taken to having mock-parties “celebrating” the Festival of Blood behind the secure walls of their manors in the Lady’s Ward, the Festival proper always leaves a gruesome wake in the Hive. A popular Sigilian joke is that the Festival of Blood is the only holiday the Lady in Pain celebrates herself, as it usually sees a few of the more malicious participants flushed down into the Mazes.

Weeping Day (Marlithuus 33) – Against all odds, one splinter group of Bleakers have actually embraced their official space in Sigil’s calendar with Weeping Day, a day to lament the grotesqueries of mortal existence. Though there is no formal planning, most everyone in Sigil manages to get an earful about poverty, or the high murder rate, or unfair application of law, or this or that injustice at some point during the day. Truly canny alehouse proprietors will capitalize on the day by offering discount swill.

Forum of Chaos (Graalember 1) – Similar to the Forum of Law and Order — and also paid for by the Guvners, Harmonium and Mercykillers — on the day of the Forum of Chaos only members of the Xaositects, Doomguard and Bleak Cabal have the floor. Most see the sponsorship as a cynical PR move; the lawful factions get to claim moral high ground over their enemies by making a cursory attempt to let them have their say. Turnout is generally mixed, and some cycles the Hall of Speakers sits empty all day. Other cycles the Hall is filled with swirling, beautiful nonsense. Many Sigilians fondly remember the year 106 Chaosmen all lined up and each delivered the exact same 8-minute speech about the abhorrent state of rodent meat available in the Hive.

Ysgardian Revelry (first full week with an Astral Day in Graalember) – The plane of Ysgard is no slouch when it comes to drink and debauchery, but the plane has no official recognition in Sigil’s calendar. That didn’t stop a few Ysgardian powers from organizing its denizens to come to Sigil and throw a week-long party, though. To many Sigilians, the Ysgardian Revelry begins a two-month-long holiday season, with the planes of Ysgard and Arborea competing with endless supplies of food and drink. The Ysgardian Revelry tends to be a bit more violent than the Hardheads would like, and a few of them get thumped each cycle when trying to break things up.

Tourney of Chaos (Graalember 11-15) – The Godsmen sponsor various shows and competitions for craftsmanship every year, but the biggest annual event is the Tourney of Chaos, in which a portal to Limbo is opened and entrants from both sides of the door demonstrate their skill with chaos shaping. Githzerai allies on the Limbo side guarantee safety from the dangers of the plane, so the people of Sigil get to see strange and wonderful things from literally beyond their imagination.

Day of Zerthinon (Graalember 31) – A somber day of reflection for the githzerai citizens of Sigil, to remember their liberation from their illithid captors and to contemplate their hated foes, the githyanki. The day means something a little different for each individual githzerai, but informal gatherings tend to pop up all over Sigil, some of which are observed with curiosity by those on the outside.

Bariaurmat (Graalember 38 – Ghaela 1) – This two-day celebration seems to exist only because the bariaur want it to. While most folks can’t participate in the many frequent bouts of head-butting, the vast quantities of drink that spill in from Ysgard and the Outlands during this time is more than welcome. One favorite activity of Bariaurmat is for a bariaur to make a public wager with some humanoid berk, who climbs aboard the bariaur’s back and tries to stay on while the bariaur kicks and thrashes about. Other cutters bet on what sort of injuries are sustained, instaed.

Grand Arborean Festival (Ghaela 1-7) – To many Sigilians, and certainly all Sensates, this is THE Festival of the year. When folks ask each other what they’re doing for Festival, or Fest, they’re inevitably talking about this weeklong celebration of all the finest, most indulgent food, drink, song and sex to come from the plane of Arborea. Especially hedonistic cutters have been known to bankrupt themselves during Fest, all trying to one-up each other in the quest to throw the most memorable feast imaginable.

Celebration of Dead Gods (last Astral Day of the cycle) – The only formal event sponsored by the Athar, this celebration is little more than a faction recruitment drive. Athar greybeards take careful notes throughout the cycle of powers whose grasp on their worshippers is slipping, realms that are shrinking, or clerics and paladins whose power is waning. Cycles where a new godly corpse winds up in the Astral are especially desireable. Most non-Athar participants are those berks who are just looking for any excuse to stretch out the Arborean Festival as long as possible.

Dabusdan (last day of the cycle) – The Dabus day of rest. Most Sigilians note it with trepidation, as the city’s silent caretakers are in very short supply. Depending on one’s faction and belief structure, it’s either a day to take the betterment of Sigil upon oneself, or a day to wreak havoc on the city’s infrastructure without those creepy dabus spoiling your fun. Rumor has it that nobody has ever been flayed or mazed by the Lady herself on this day, and none can recall seeing her form float about the city, either. Some really reckless berks use the day as an excuse to thumb their nose at the Lady’s laws. The Mercykillers are on sharp lookout for such foolishness.


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Six: You’re pretty good!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Good ol’ Ocelot. He’s everybody’s favorite gun-spinning, double-crossing, apple-crushing, torture-obsessed, moustache-sporting, trenchcoat-wearing supervillain(?).

Metal Gear Solid has lots and lots of characters, and while most are integral to the contained plot of whichever games they appear in, Ocelot is one of the few that has broad importance to the saga as a whole. While it’s hard to keep tabs on his plots and allegiances from story to story, it hardly matters when he’s chewing on the scenery.

Here are some of my favorite Ocelot moments!

#6: No Ocelot! Waaaahh!!

No one character appears in every single Metal Gear Solid game, but Ocelot comes close; Peace Walker is the only game he doesn’t grace with his presence. If Peace Walker has a bright and glaring failing, surely this is it!

I suppose it could be argued that this is an essential slice of Big Boss’s life story, free from hyper-manipulative agents such as Ocelot. And from a narrative perspective, I will grudgingly concede that three or four more layers of backstabbery wouldn’t have improved anything.

But in his absense there was nobody to spin guns or crack wise. Big Boss just completes his mission without anybody taking the piss. What a shame.

#5: Taking the Tanker

There’s not a lot of context for Ocelot’s actions throughout Metal Gear Solid 2. At first he’s working with Gurlukovich, but then he shoots Gurlukovich. Later he needs the President alive, so he shoots the President. He needs Olga and Solidus and Fortune to help take the Big Shell, so of course he shoots all of them too. At times it really feels like he’s betraying people for the sheer thrill of it. And also he’s possessed by a magic talking arm…? Weird. It all reeks of setup for a sequel, which I suppose was his primary role in Metal Gear Solid as well.

He makes a hell of an entrance, though. First, he emerges from the shadows at the end of the Marine commandant’s speech, complete with deprecating, sarcastic applause. Then he shoots everybody important, acts all smug about it, and proceeds to blow up the tanker you’ve spent the past two hours carefully sneaking around. And while most MGS villains wait until the final act to hop inside of a Metal Gear and start lipping off, Ocelot decides to break tradition and do it right at the beginning. All that’s missing is a bout of maniacal cackling.

Sure, there’s that stupid bit where Liquid Snake’s dead arm is taking over his brain, or whatever. But I choose to believe, within the context of MGS2, that Ocelot is just letting Liquid think that’s what’s happening.

#4: Betraying Colonel Volgin

Metal Gear Solid 3 is chock full of fantastic Ocelot moments. Set during the Cold War, we are treated to a much younger, much cheekier Ocelot. In that simpler time Ocelot still had all the bravado and aplomb he’s so well-known for, but hasn’t yet tempered it with experience. As a result, quite a lot of MGS3 shows Ocelot taking his lumps, not from magically-appearing ninjas or supernatural talking hands, but simply the result of his own lack of humility.

There’s always the question of just who’s side he’s on, though. Very early on Ocelot develops a rivalry with Naked Snake that transcends his orders as a Soviet officer or an American CIA double-agent. While most of the rest of the characters seem to be disciples of The Boss, Ocelot becomes infatuated with Snake instead. As a result we’re treated to a lot of great character moments where Ocelot, dangerous though he is, just so very desperately wants senpai to notice him.

My favorite scene, though, is Snake’s confrontation against the dispicable Colonel Volgin. When Volgin orders Ocelot to stand down, depriving him of the showdown he feels he deserves, you actually feel for the little bugger. Ocelot responds to the situation by abandoning all pretense of being Volgin’s subordinate and openly starts rooting for Snake to win, going so far as to throw his equipment to him and giving him some encouraging finger guns.

The moment when Volgin shouts in exasperation, “Just who’s side are you on!?” is the moment Ocelot becomes the man he’s destined to be.

#3: The Torture Event

Leave it to Metal Gear Solid to make a rote button-mashing minigame engaging and memorable. The rules are simple: Snake’s life bar will constantly drain as Ocelot electrocutes him, and you can mash the button to make the bar goes back up. If you die, the game doesn’t let you continue. If you’re about to die, and you don’t want to replay the last hour of backtracking, you can hit another button to give in to the pain… but then you get the bad ending.

We know the rules so clearly because Ocelot explains them to us, as though it were a game. Which it is, I suppose, to the guy holding the PlayStation controller… but it doesn’t feel that way. While Snake is strapped half-naked to a metal table waiting for the shocks to start, Ocelot spells the situation out in terms that we-the-player understand all too clearly. He taunts us if we haven’t saved recently. Admonishes us for thinking about using a turbo controller. Calls us back to his torture dungeon, over and over, if we can’t figure out how to escape his prison cell.

By the fourth session, when your forearm aches and your hand is cramped up from all the mashing, Ocelot’s offer of making the pain end start ringing all the more true. The way he gets into your head with a combination of total moral depravity and gleeful fourth-wall breaking… it’s no wonder this horrorshow is Ocelot’s most famous scene in the series.

#2: Final Fist Fight

Throughout Metal Gear Solid 4 Ocelot (properly Liquid Ocelot, at this point) remains a step or six ahead of the player at all times. And yet, it still feels like a cheat, because there’s that nagging sense that Ocelot did all the work and got all the character development, only for Liquid to take over his brain at the tale’s end and take all the credit.

Ocelot doesn’t get to take control of SOP by setting off fireworks on the Volta. Ocelot doesn’t get to face off in an epic Metal Gear vs. Metal Gear battle at the docks of Shadow Moses. As great as these scenes are, it keeps coming back to that stupid talking arm from MGS2, and the knowledge that Liquid is stealing the spotlight. If Liquid was going to be the big bad in the end anyway, what was the point of that great after-credits monologue from MGS1?

But then we get to the final battle, not only of MGS4, but of the entire Metal Gear saga. No nanomachines, no weapons, no equipment; just two old men pummeling each other senseless, mano-a-mano. After a few punches, Liquid’s MGS1 character model flashes on the screen, and the name beneath his life bar changes from “Liquid” to “Liquid Ocelot”. A few punches later, the flash displays the talking arm scene from MGS2, and his name switches to simply “Ocelot”. What’s more, Snake’s name changes too — to “Naked Snake”.

Then the realization of what’s happening finally hits home: there never was any Liquid. Ocelot is such a chessmaster that he had to fool himself in order to complete his schemes. The player controls Snake in this fight, but we’re seeing things from Ocelot’s perspective. As Snake clobbers him, he regresses back through the damage done to his psyche over the years until, in his own mind, he’s a kid again, the world around him fades entirely away, and he gets his long-awaited tussel with Big Boss.

It’s a fine and fitting end for the character, but it’s cathartic for the player as well. After many years of cursing the stupid talking arm subplot foisted upon us by MGS2, we get to finish off the series with a real fight against Ocelot where we literally beat the Liquid out of him.

#1: Guess we’ll wait and see…

Ever since his first appearance in the Phantom Pain trailers, I’ve been giddy with anticipation to see what sorts of shenanigans Ocelot gets up to during his time working with Big Boss. This time around he won’t be a villain. Or, at leat, he won’t be an antagonist. It’s a new role for the character, and I’m more excited to see how it plays out than I am about any other part of the story.

Of course, it may all be a ruse, and there’s another heel-turn waiting in the wings to catch me off guard. If that’s the case, though, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Godspeed, you marvelous bastard.

That brings us to the end of Metal Gear Memory Lane, but I have one more little surprise for you tomorrow, just as The Phantom Pain hits our PlayBoxes and X-Stations. Thanks for taking the journey with me!


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Five: Snake, open the Survival Viewer…

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

The worlds of the various Metal Gear Solid games are very finely detailed. My first exposure to the series was Metal Gear Solid 2, and I recall my mind being blown while watching my friend pick individual bottles of ketchup and mayo off of a pantry shelf with his gun. A few years later I spent a week or so frustratingly plugging away at Metal Gear Solid 3, trying to figure out how the goddamn game wanted me to play it without a radar. Turns out the answer was quite simple: it wanted me to stop worrying so much, and find my own solutions for each map.

As many bullet points as each game’s feature list has, though, excessive replays will leave you with the feeling that there’s a little something still missing from the equation. Here are a few little extras I really wish each game would have included.

#6: Backup on Codec

The gaggle of support characters Snake can ring up on his radio or codec was a huge part of the first three Metal Gear Solid games, and even the 8-bit Metal Gear 2 before that. They provided helpful hints and suggestions about gameplay elements when the player was stuck. They carried a lot of the weight of fleshing out the game worlds with backstory and character development. Sometimes they meta-gamed you, as in one especially memorable case in MGS1 that forced the player to, literally, think outside the box.

But in Metal Gear Solid 4, Otacon and Rose is all you get. Which isn’t to say anything against these two characters; Otacon has always been a personal favorite, and Rose is actually quite pleasant to talk to without the whole nattering girlfriend undercurrent. But two contacts? In the MGS game with the most gameplay features, the biggest cast and the most bloated plot?

There’s a wealth of options we’re missing out on here. We can’t call Campbell to get mission updates. We can’t call Meryl or Raiden to get detailed info about the environment and conflicts we’re sneaking through. We can’t call Drebin to hear how big his boner is over the semi-automatic recoilless carbine we just picked up. We can’t call Sunny to hear about all the fantastic Konami games she’s playing on her PlayStation Portable™.

As a result, a big part of the essential MGS experience is lost, and MGS4 is the poorer for it.

#5: Pause During Menus

The action in the first four Metal Gear Solid games paused while you went into your equipment menus, allowing you a few precious moments to think about the best load-out to clean up whatever problem you just caused for yourself by rolling into that patrolling terrorist’s line of sight. This was necessary because, as big a deal as Snake’s commanding officer makes about going in light, within ten minutes he ends up with an entire garage of weapons and gadgets strapped to his back.

Peace Walker is a multiplayer game, though, and it wouldn’t do for Player 1 to pause Player 2’s action because he’s swapping out his stun rod for his stun grenades. So in that game, instead of pausing the action, the menu screens only pause Snake. While you’re standing there rifling through your, er, rifles, all of the enemy soldiers still have their full range of movement. This has been the cause of more than one frustrating death.

A necessary evil in the world of multiplayer, to be sure, but Peace Walker applies this same limitation even if you’re playing by yourself. The feature isn’t used to create a more realistic or immersive experience, like it is in Ground Zeroes. In that game Snake can only carry a couple of items, and has a clear visual indication of what he’s doing in the game world while the player is dottering around the menu. In Peace Walker the player is carrying around a boatload of stuff, and Snake just stands stock still and upright while his player makes up his mind.

It’s usually not too much trouble to duck around a corner or into a shadow to get your equipment sorted… but the game gains nothing by forcing this restriction.

#4: Start with the HF Blade

Every Metal Gear Sold player who wanted Grey Fox’s sword had their prayers answered at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 when Snake presents Raiden with the High-Frequency Blade. Suddenly the player had much cooler melee options than punching or grabbing, and a use for that second control stick which mostly just sat there unloved throughout the game. The HF Blade had a very satisfying motion to it, giving Raiden new avenues of offense and defense to explore: he could use it to deflect bullets, he could do wide sweeps or quick stabs, and if he was feeling really fancy he could execute a Zelda-style circle slash. It gave definition to a character who, by design, had spent the whole game without an identify of his own. It felt like the kind of thing the whole game could have been based around.

Unfortunately, all those players who had their prayers answered had them rudely dashed again when the HF Blade was taken away from them after two scenes and a boss fight. But there was hope: it’s MGS tradition to offer new toys to play with on replays. Snake even mentions his magic bandana in the very scene he gifts Raiden his sword! Maybe the HF Blade will be in Raiden’s inventory next time we play, letting us slash our way through screens we had to carefully sneak through previously?

It was not to be. Though Raiden would get his due as Official Ninja Badass in a spin-off game over a decade later, the sword in MGS2 is forever relegated to being an endgame gimmick. This is a pretty serious grievance in a universe where Old Snake can start his mission with voodoo dolls and a solar-powered death laser.

#3: A Way to Skip the Backtracking

Twice during the course of his infiltration of Shadow Moses, Snake has to drop what he’s doing and backtrack to old areas for pretty silly reasons. First he has to abandon his bleeding comrade and return to an area at the very start of the game to find a sniper rifle. Later, he has to criss-cross a screen full of boring, empty catwalks in order to reach old areas so his magic key changes shape. I see what they were going for here. In the first case they needed an excuse to get Snake away from the area so the bad guys could kidnap his girlfriend. In the second, they had sixteen barrels of exposition and needed a way to pace it out over a few extra screen transitions.

On replays, though, all the backtracking accomplishes is forcing me to be very, very bored for a very, very long time right at the tail end of my playthrough.

The Gamecube remake of MGS1, The Twin Snakes, solves both of these problems in really handy ways. There’s still a sniper rifle way back in the armory, if you want one, but there’s a non-lethal rifle in a much closer room, for your convenience. And as for the cardkey, there are handy pipes of liquid nitrogen and hot steam right there in the hangar ready to fulfill all of your magic key needs.

It’s considered an MGS faux pas to say anything positive about The Twin Snakes, though, so for purposes of this article I’m forced to ignore it. Too bad, because otherwise I’d be inclined to give MGS1 perfect marks in this category.

#2: Camo Quick-Change

A big element of Metal Gear Solid 3 was surviving in a harsh, natural environment. In addition to his equipment load-out Snake had to worry about finding food, tending to injuries, mapping his surroundings, and using camouflage. There wasn’t an elegant way to handle all these new features in the standard L2/R2 menus, though, so for the first time an MGS game got a big, obtrusive subscreen to handle it all. The game called this the “Survival Viewer”, but we all knew it was really a “Pause Menu”, and mostly just tolerated it.

For an even mildly-skilled player, all the contents of the Survival Viewer were pretty easy to ignore. There’s tons of food littered around the game world, injuries are few and far between as long as you’re half-decent at stealth, and no single area is really large or confusing enough to require a map. Camo, though, remains important throughout the game, and it gets really obnoxious going into the menu every few minutes so Snake can play dress-up.

The end result: there are a few different strategies for using camo in MGS3, and none of them are close to the probably-intended “pick the best camo for the situation you’re in”. Some players only switch camo when the environment changes drastically. Others ignore the system entirely and rely on distance and line-of-sight shenanigans to remain unspotted. And others put on the tuxedo and zombie face paint and play the entire game like a karate conga line.

Point is, the ability to hot-swap between the two or three most useful camo options would have gone a long way to making the mechanic feel useful, rather than vestigial.

#1: A Boss Fight

Steam says I have 120 hours played in Ground Zeroes. That can’t be right. A counter must have glitched out somewhere, or maybe I accidentally left the game running in the background for a couple days. Or, well, maybe I really have sunk that much time into the game. For as little content as Ground Zeroes has, there’s a tantalizingly huge combination of ways each of the missions can be solved, and lord knows I’ve put in the time to explore them all. I shudder to think what my playtime is going to look like after a year of The Phantom Pain.

For all the fun to be had, though, Ground Zeroes is missing what is, for me, one of the defining elements of the MGS series: a boss fight. For a demo that is supposed to show the breadth of what the Fox Engine is capable of, that’s a pretty huge and glaring omission.

Maybe, with the incredible amount of freedom afforded to the player, there just isn’t room in the MGS5 games for a more narrowly-structured one-on-one combat experience? If that’s the case, it’s incredibly saddening. But if it’s not — and I have faith that it’s not — why not put a little taste of that in the prologue?

The main mission, Ground Zeroes itself, isn’t the place for a boss fight. It’s pure infiltration and extraction, and stopping things partway to force a gimmick fight would have felt very weird. But the two Extra Ops missions are non-canonical sillyfests, and would have been just perfect. Instead they tease a Psycho Mantis rematch which never materializes, and makes Raiden fire rockets at helicopters for ten minutes.

Alright, that’s enough bitching. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at my favorite character from the MGS saga, relive some of his most memorable moments, and look forward to his triumphant return in The Phantom Pain. Thanks for reading.


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Four: Do you want to hear the quetzal call again?

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Metal Gear Solid games always have large casts of colorful characters. You have the player character, his radio support, a squad of elite soldiers for boss fights, a scientist or two what needs rescuing, an NPC helper buddy who usually needs babysitting, a character or two of ambiguous allegiance with mysterious hidden agendas, the big bad, the real big bad behind who you thought was the big bad, a shadowy figure from the US government who is only mentioned in passing, and then a sprinkling of cameos and references to characters elsewhere in the series.

With such a huge population of folks and only so much spotlight to go around, you’d think there’d be no room for characters who don’t pull their weight in the story. You’d think that. Alas, you’d be wrong.

#6: Johnny

Strictly speaking, Johnny isn’t a new character. In the first two Metal Gear Solid games he’s a generic soldier with unforunate stomach problems who has bad luck with the ladies, and in Metal Gear Solid 3 he’s that guy’s grandfather. As a fun little easter egg, the character is fine. He offers a sorely-needed humanizing element to the generic soldiers Snake spends so much time teabagging and/or shoving into lockers. We all wanted him back in Metal Gear Solid 4, but… just not like this.

We first meet Johnny as part of Rat Patrol 01, Meryl Silverburgh’s PMC oversight unit. This already stretches disbelief rather thin. I’ll buy one of the Shadow Moses terrorists falling in with the Gurlukovich mercenaries, considering the tenuous connection through Ocelot and the fact that he’s presented as a silly offscreen cameo in MGS2. But Meryl’s group is an official arm of the US military. Didn’t anyone do a background check? Doesn’t Meryl recognize him?

Anyway, the character is played for laughs for a couple of acts, which I originally took as just another example of MGS4 overdoing itself a bit. But no, in the final act it turns out we’re supposed to take the character totally seriously, as he’s one of the three soldiers hand-picked to be launched into the heart of Liquid’s base. Even more ridiculous, we discover that Meryl takes him seriously, and I honestly thought she had more sense than that.

Don’t get me wrong, combining a massive violent shootout with a romantic marriage proposal between a woman who insists she has no interest in men and a dude whose only defining trait for ten years has been “he poops himself” is hilarious and wonderful. But it’s such a stark, comedic contrast to the overly-serious tone of the rest of the endgame that all I can do is roll my eyes at it.

#5: Major Raikov

Lots of MGS fans spent the years between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 hating Raiden, the anime prettyboy who replaced Solid Snake as the player character. So when MGS3 begins and Naked Snake has a Raiden mask in his inventory, everyone just thought it was one of Kojima’s little meta-pokes at his own canon. If that’s all it had been, we could have just chuckled at it and gone on with our lives, but no. It turns out there happens to be an enemy officer who looks exactly like Raiden, and you just happen to have your face in his inventory, and using said mask to disguise yourself as said officer is an actual gameplay objective.

Well, okay, now that there’s a lampshade on it we have to stand up and take note. Is there an in-universe reason why this Russian officer just happens to look exactly like an albino Liberian assassin who won’t be born for another twenty years? Did the Russians have their own version of Les Enfants Terribles ten years before the Americans thought of it? Who decided an American CIA agent needed a mask of this officer on what was supposed to be a two-hour extraction mission?

There’s a lot of fun stuff you can do with the Raikov disguise, once you have it. But man, the game has to do some pretty crazy gymnastics to justify what otherwise is just a quick visual gag. I’ll admit it’s ultimately worth it, though, to hear The Boss call Raiden a fairy.

#4: “Mr. X”

Metal Gear 2 has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. So, of course, Metal Gear Solid also has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. And since MGS2 was written as a subversive version of MGS1 it, too, has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden, only this time it doesn’t turn out to be Grey Fox. Whoa!

This time, the player’s shadowy benefactor turns out to be Olga Gurlukovich, the leader of the Russian mercenary group patrolling the Big Shell. And I’m certainly not arguing that Olga is at all unnecessary, or that her agenda of secretly helping Raiden from behind the scenes is a worthless plot element. Just the contrary! Olga’s plot is one of the high points of the series, and her reasons for aiding Raiden ring particularly true amongst a cast where everyone is backstabbing everyone else.

What I don’t get, though, is why she needed to literally dress like Grey Fox to accomplish her role in the story. Yes, the Patriots were attempting to re-create Shadow Moses as closely as possible, but that didn’t translate literally in most other parts of the exercise, so why just this one thing? The real reason is because Kojima wanted us to have a “wait, Grey Fox is back!?” moment, and a scene where Ocelot almost loses his arm again, and a reason for Raiden to use a sword in the final act. But it still feels flimsy, and cheapens the role of an otherwise great character.

#3: Nastasha Romanenko

In a game about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons, Nastasha Romanenko’s job is to repeatedly inform Snake about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons. Campbell initially informs Snake that Nastasha can provide him information on the weapons and hardware he comes across in his mission, but nine times out of ten she instead serves up dire and possibly dubious factoids about nuclear stockpiles around the globe. These conversations are never useful in the context of Snake’s exploits in Shadow Moses. In fact, it’s entirely possible to complete Metal Gear Solid without ever adding her to your codec screen.

Nastasha does serve a quasi-important role in the plot, at least inadvertantly. Much of the back half of the story involves a game of Spot the Spy, where Snake has reason to suspect there’s a spy amongst his support team. In that sense Nastasha is a bit of a red herring, a warm body in Snake’s phone book for the real traitor to hide behind. Maybe some players spent a good portion of the game suspecting her…?

Still, it’s a pretty flimsy justification. Nastasha herself is so unimportant that she’s the only living character from the first two MGS games not to come back for Metal Gear Solid 4. Heck, even a few of the dead ones miraculously made an apperance!

#2: Cécile

In Peace Walker, Snake doesn’t have a support team, per se. Instead, characters will chime in on the radio at various points in the mission to offer advice or encouragement. Cassette tapes that unlock between missions offer a bit of background and development, but Cécile’s tapes come across like… well, like a birdwatcher with a bad French accent taking up space in a Cold War story.

As far as I can tell, Cécile serves three minor purposes in the plot of Peace Walker: 1) to mimic bird calls for one mission where Snake has to identify the song of a particular jungle bird, 2) to dwell a little too much on how Dr. Strangelove likes the ladies, and 3) to provide a “girl time” entry in Paz’s diary. Other than that, it seems incredibly forced that a birdwatcher from Paris would want to hang out with a scruffy military organization after escaping with her life from a mad scientist.

Actually, there is one more thing. In one really bizarre conversation, Kaz Miller points out that Cécile’s full name sounds a bit like “Kojima is God” in Japanese. That’s probably just a coincidence. After all, just how self-absorbed would you have to be to invent a character for the sole purpose of a juvenile power trip?

#1: Hideo Kojima


I probably have to come clean at this point: I really am a huge fan of the MGS games. I tease them because I love them, but also because as great as the games are, they’re far from perfect. It’s just more fun to complain than to praise. Tomorrow, let’s complain about some features missing from these otherwise highly detailed and feature-rich games! Thanks for reading.


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Three: Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Innovative gameplay ideas are one of the mainstays of the Metal Gear Solid series. When detractors poo-poo Kojima’s narrative style by saying he just wants to make movies, it’s pretty easy to shut them down by pointing to any number of creative gameplay sequences such as Psycho Mantis or The Sorrow. Or by pointing to game mechanics which open up opportunities for interactive storytelling, like stamina bars or the Metal Gear Mk. 2.

When you pitch enough things at the wall, though, a few of them aren’t going to stick. Each game has a few stinkers that I dread just about every time I replay the games. These are their stories.

#6: Intel Operative Rescue

Including the Side Ops from Ground Zeroes in these lists does seem a bit disingenuous, but considering you can clear the main story mission in under ten minutes by adopting a fun-loving devil-may-care attitude to gunning down marines it’d be kind of slim pickings otherwise. In truth the Side Ops make up quite a lot of the game’s meat and potatoes, each offering slight twists on your mission objectives in the great big sandbox of Camp Omega. They’re a big part of the game, is my point, and dismissing them because they don’t “count” is short-sighted.

The Intel Operative Rescue mission, however, is a shining example of the worst gameplay the Fox Engine has to offer. Instead of being a variation on the scout-and-sneak gameplay of the main mission, it instead boils everything down to a linear rail shooter. A series tradition, to be sure, but a kind of bland and frustrating one. I don’t play these games so my guy can mow down everything in sight with infinite machinegun. I like for that option to be available as a way to mess around on replays, but it’s just not what Metal Gear Solid is good at.

I admit I’ve been biased against rail shooter segments in ever since the original game had me shoot through Liquid’s invincibility frames for five straight minutes. These segments simply aren’t engaging to me; they are the lowest possible form of action gameplay. That being said…

#5: Motorcycle Chase

…the rail shooter segments are very rarely the worst parts of the game. That I picked them as the worst example of bad gameplay from Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid 3 speaks to the high quality of the rest of those two games.

The motorcycle chase scene at the end of MGS3 is a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping escape sequence… the first time you play the game. As early as the first replay you see the scene for what it really is: an incredibly long, barely interactive cinematic. It’s broken up by a short sniping segment and one of the most exciting boss fights in the series, sure, but once you have enough MGS3 experience it just becomes a chore you have to do to make the game let you win.

There is a silver lining, though: by equipping the Cold War camo you earn by stamina killing Colonel Volgin, the motorcycle soldiers won’t shoot at Snake as long as he’s facing them. Instead they just drive along saying “Damn it!” over and over. This turns the scene into a weird parody of itself, a kind of Scooby Doo chase. Once that stops being funny, it at least gives you a chance to put the controller down and take a bathroom break.

#4: Oil Fence Sniping

Sniping scenes in video games have to be done very, very well, if they’re going to work at all. Done well, they can be very tense and exciting, like the battle of wits against The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Done badly, they turn into arduous experiences like the battle of suck against Crying Wolf in Metal Gear Solid 4. Somewhere in between is Metal Gear Solid 2‘s oil fence sequence, which is neither tense nor arduous. It’s just kind of… there.

Raiden’s NPC helper buddy moves automatically along a long, dangerous path with no cover. His job is to stay behind and clear her a path by taking out enemy soldiers, mines, and flying robot machineguns along her route. The solution is to put on the thermal goggles, pop some pentazamin and shoot anything that lights up bright white.

Resource management isn’t an issue, since the ammo box near Raiden’s position magically grows back every few seconds. Messing up is unlikely, since the targets are so obvious and your NPC helper has enough health to survive several encounters. Plus, Solid Snake is hanging out in another vantage point and will fire on anything you don’t, just in case you absolutely can’t be arsed.

The gameplay isn’t challenging or engaging, but it sure is long. There are a couple of neat easter eggs to discover along the way concerning Raiden’s silly hair and an enemy soldier who poops himself, but that’s about it. And in the end a vampire jumps out of the ocean and kills your NPC friend anyway, just to make sure you don’t even accomplish anything.

#3: The Infinite Staircase

Without the intention to spark off a discussion about how Metal Gear Solid games are “supposed” to be played, I offer this statement: MGS3 was the first game in the series that you could approach as an action game and really succeed. It has large environments that offered better movement and positioning options than MGS2’s angular corridors, a robust hand-to-hand combat system with a close-range insta-kill option, and a health bar that regenerated once things cooled down and you found a toilet to hide in for a few minutes. In the first two games any run-and-gun gameplay was essentially a punishingly long Game Over screen, giving you time to reflect on your poor life choices before throwing you back so you could play through the section properly.

Unfortunately this didn’t stop MGS1 from having a bunch of run-and-gun scenes anyway, and that game doesn’t even have the benefit of an aim button that lets you score headshots. Over and over again Snake finds himself in scenes where the best possible course of action is to equip his rations and spray FAMAS bullets everywhere until the encounter music goes away.

One such scene stands out as being particularly bad, though: the staircase leading to the top of the communications tower. After triggering a forced alert that any player with good sense could have avoided, Snake has to climb more flights of stairs than there are atoms in the universe. From what I can tell this sequence only exists because everything in MGS1 is culled wholesale from Metal Gear 2, which had a similar stair-climbing sequence, complete with an endless supply of soldiers firing from all direction. Except that was a 2D top-down pixel game that offered a decent range of movement and a clear view of your playing area, while MGS1 limits your movement to “forward” or “die and try again”, and soldiers can fire at you from outside your field of vision.

So what can you do? Equip the rations, hold the d-pad, maybe throw a stun grenade now and again. Close your eyes and count to one hundred, it’ll all be over soon. If you’re a very good boy we’ll reward you with a cool boss fight before locking you in your next spray-and-pray setpiece.

#2: Vehicle Battles

If the Metal Gear Solid games have one clear and shining high point, I’d say it’s the boss encounters. They’re almost always wicked fun and highly inventive, requiring the player to think outside the box and use techniques or equipment in surprising ways. Often the bosses have weird quirks or gimmicks the player can exploit, winning the fight with a bit of lateral thinking. The best of these gimmicks develop the boss’s personality through gameplay in a great example of storytelling in ways only an interactive medium can accomplish.

Peace Walker didn’t have any of those. Instead, it has Snake facing off against tanks and helicopters every few missions. These vehicle battles make use of Peace Walker‘s RPG elements, by which I mean the only viable strategy is to equip an RPG and fire rockets until you win. I also mean you can earn better weapons with higher damage stats by grinding old missions for cash. Eventually your numbers are big enough to win the fight in twelve shots instead of fifty, and you can move on with the game.

The first time I faced off against an armored vehicle in Peace Walker I approached it as a typical MGS boss fight. I failed over and over while looking for the trick. The most powerful weapon I had found at that point in the game barely scratched the boss’s overbloated health meter, and there didn’t seem to be any attack patterns to learn or weaknesses to exploit. Clearly I was missing something… but what?

It turns out these missions had been designed with Peace Walker‘s multiplayer gameplay in mind, and taking them on in single player without grinding for better weapons is an act of futility. The solution really is to just stand back and whittle the boss down over the course of a long battle of attrition. Sure, you can replay the level later on when you’re better equipped and extract the same bit of satisfaction you get from killing a blue slime with Erdrick’s Sword. That’s just not much help to you on your first pass, when the stubborn tank is blocking off your route to the next level.

#1: Trailing the Whistling Rebel

You might have noticed a running theme in these infuriating gameplay sequences: Ground Zeroes aside, they’re all things you have to complete in a very specific way in order to finish the game. Their real sin isn’t that they’re boring (though they are) or that they’re frustrating (though they can be)… it’s that they’re devoid of the freedom and alternate solutions the MGS series is known for. These are games that are meant to be replayed again and again, trying new strategies each time. This wonderful freedom allows you to evade guards or carefully tranq them, to bring The End down with cigarette spray, to pick where to land your extraction chopper.

Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4 has not even one whiff of that kind of freedom. You start out by tailing a man walking through the streets of an occupied European village after curfew, and… that’s it. That’s your life for the next hour or so. You have to stay far enough behind him that he can’t spot you if he turns around suddenly, and there are a couple places where you need to take out PMC troops to clear his path, but outside of that it’s just a matter of walking behind the NPC and listen to him whistle a jaunty little tune with twelve notes.

At one point the rebel ducks into an alley and changes into a PMC disguise, so there’s a slight uptick in the action as the game shifts from “follow the only guy who isn’t a soldier” to “figure out which soldier you need to follow”. But even that little bump of excitement flattens out when a support character chimes in on a codec with, “There’s something strange about that soldier. Do you hear whistling?” Why yes, yes I do! I hear it over and over, forever! It haunts my dreams!

There are no shortcuts and no way to speed things up. Even if you memorize the path and know exactly where to go, the door at the end won’t open unless the rebel has walked his entire route. Ignoring the rebel and going off to explore the town isn’t any fun either, as there’s nothing of note to do or see outside of the critical path. And your reward for finally making it to the end? A goddamn rail shooter. Joy.

And there you have it: six gameplay sequences which the series would just plain be better off without. Say, aren’t there a few characters who fit that same bill…? Thanks for reading!


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Two: She Has a Cute Behind

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

The internet is abuzz these days with the topic of how women are portrayed in video games. Folks at one extreme argue that showing so much as half a boob in a game is proof that all developers are misogynist by nature, and folks at the other extreme feel the best way to deal with folks at the first end is to tweet out a death threat along with a screenshot from Google Maps. So what does Metal Gear Solid add to the conversation?

The games do a pretty good job at having strong, complex, and even flawed female characters. They also tend to be pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to sexual exploitation, as Raiden’s tight, chilly buttocks can attest. The series is still rife with situations that will make you cringe, though. Let’s look at a few!

#6: Nothing! Nothing at all!

There are three major female characters in Metal Gear Solid 3, and all three belong on a Top Ten list somewhere. I’m fine with EVA’s rampant cleavage; the plot wouldn’t be an authentic Cold War era spy story without the seductive double agent. She’s a capable spy who is spinning a lot of plates, and repeatedly aids Snake’s mission in ways more engaging than just handing him his next keycard. Sexy is just a part of her character, rather than the defining element.

The Boss, meanwhile, is presented every bit as Snake’s physical equal, and is in a very real way the most important character in the MGS canon. I’m fine with her opening her shirt to reveal her snake-shaped cesarean scar, since the offending breasts aren’t presented sexually, and the game has earned a bit of heavy-handed symbolism at that point. The scene is handled exactly the way it would have been if The Boss had been a man, and I think that’s important. (We’ll handwave why this hypothetical man has a cesarean scar. This is MGS, I’m sure there’s some convoluted explanation.)

Para-Medic might be the most troubling, considering she has what I’m fairly sure are fetishes for monster movies and weird food. If you didn’t want a mental image of a someone getting straddled while wearing a Godzilla costume and laying on a bed of instant noodles, you shouldn’t have read this paragraph. But that scene isn’t in the actual game, so I think we’re safe.

If any of these characters are a bad example of how to write women in video games, I have no idea what a good example looks like. I’m giving MGS3 a free pass.

#5: “All right, keys!”

There’s been a lot of controversy about Ground Zeroes‘s so-called “rape tapes”. It’s true, one of the collectable tapes you find in Camp Omega has some incredibly disturbing audio of the two POWs you’re supposed to rescue being physically and sexually abused. And it’s true that the violence can get pretty excessive, particularly the subsequent surgical bomb removal and its aftermath. This is rough, unsettling stuff. I found the tape difficult to listen to, and I’m a fan of the Saw movies.

What I think the controversy fails to address, though, is that the tape is neither cheap nor gratuitous. No, we didn’t need an audio log of a young woman being raped and tortured to establish how bad the villains are, but neither is it off the table, considering the subject matter. As with so much of Ground Zeroes we won’t really know where it’s all going until The Phantom Pain is out… and by then everyone will have moved on to whether it’s okay for Quiet to run around in a bra and torn leggings.

I do have to pick something from Ground Zeroes for this list, though, and since there aren’t any other interactions with women in the whole game, I’m defaulting to Kazuhira Miller’s godawful Meryl impression from the Déjà-Vu mission, which is way more offensive to my sensibilities than seeing Paz’s guts.

#4: Meryl’s Undies, Etc.

You spend a lot of time in the original Metal Gear Solid thinking about Meryl Silverburgh’s butt. I don’t mean that in a “yo bro, check out dat booty” sense, I mean there is a legitimate gameplay reason you have to notice Meryl’s butt and how it differs from the other butts in Shadow Moses. This is one of those quirky outside-the-box gameplay elements MGS1 was so fond of, and simply being able to animate two otherwise identical soldier models to walk in distinct ways was a marvel of technology at the time. That’s not what this entry is about.

No, this entry is about one of MGS’s fine and upstanding traditions: using boobs and butts as easter eggs.

There are lots of ways to get the game to acknowledge that you’re thinking too much about Meryl’s fun bits. If you go into first person mode and stare at her chest, you can get her to blush. If you perform a particular sequence of actions near her prison cell early in the game, you can see her exercising in her underwear. Later on, if you’re fast enough, you can literally catch her with her pants down.

It’s worth noting that MGS1 has lots of non-boob-and-butt related things to discover. The game is very responsive to observant players who are willing to experiment. But that doesn’t change the notion that Meryl’s butt is a kind of reward — positive reinforcement for poking the game world. It’s all in good fun, and it might actually be in-character when you consider what a caveman Snake is, but still: play well enough, and you get to see panties. That’s a pretty low bar to set.

#3: Rose

There’s a section of Metal Gear Solid 2 where Raiden has to escort a barely legal young woman through an obstacle course. You can knock her unconscious, lay on top of her, call her brother to brag about it, and the game acknowledges you’re doing this. That’s pretty horrible already, but still not as bad as Rose.

Imagine every sitcom wife you’ve ever seen, and all the associated tropes. All the nagging and scolding, all the long-suffering humorlessness, every instance of “she’s right even when she’s clearly wrong”. Now, transplant that character into a video game about guns and explosions. MGS2’s story is all about subverting expectations, but even so, Raiden’s girlfriend Rose was too much genre cross-pollination to handle. Never mind being a cringeworthy portrayal of women. Rose is just a bad character, period. As codec support, she’s not fun to talk with the way Mei Ling and Para-Medic are. As a girlfriend, she’s the mean girl the plucky heroine of a romantic comedy needs to convince the leading man not to marry. She’s utterly ineffective at conveying… whatever it is her constant whining interruptions are supposed to convey.

The key word really is “constant”. Every time Raiden does something Rose doesn’t approve of, the player gets a codec beep to make sure he hears about it. Disarming bombs in the women’s bathroom? “Pervert!” Holding a young girl’s hand because her legs don’t work and she can’t move otherwise? “Is it because she’s prettier than me?” Capturing an enemy uniform to infiltrate the most tightly-secured location in the plant? “Jack, do you remember the day we met?” At one point Raiden gets yelled at because his bedroom is too clean.

There’s a plot twist later on when we learn that Rose may or may not be an artificial intelligence designed to make Raiden believe he’s talking to Rose. That it does such a good job, though, merely indicates that the real Rose is actually that bad. She’s one-dimensional in a series filled with complicated characters, and we know it’s not the product of lazy writing. Someone worked really hard to make her this much of a blatant stereotype.

#2: The Beauty & Beast Corps

There’s nothing wrong with an all-female military unit in an MGS game. In fact, there’s something refreshingly progressive about being able to choke out generic balaclava-clad ladies for a change. But the execution of the Beauty & Beast Corps is so badly botched that it doesn’t matter whether the original idea is good. It is so painfully obvious that the characters themselves are simply the product of Hideo Kojima wanting to do mo-cap sessions with supermodels, and nobody having enough clout to tell him otherwise.

After defeating one of the B&Bs you are treated to a very long cutscene where her robot armor falls off, leaving her in a skintight bodysuit that leaves very little to the imagination. Just to make sure you see every square inch of their high-definition boobs and butts, several minutes of cutscene follow where the boss writhes about as the close-up camera pans around all her curves. Then a second boss fight begins, but the boss no longer has any attacks or poses any threat; she simply walks slowly and seductively towards Snake, tittering suggestively, and will attempt to latch onto him if she gets close enough. For most sane players the nonsense ends here. Finishing off the Zero Suit form of the boss takes little effort and is accomplished in short order.

If you drag the fight out, though, eventually the background fades away and Snake is left alone with the beauty in a featureless white room. At this point Kojima passes on his personal fantasy to the player, as Snake can pull out the in-game camera and stage his own personal photo shoot. As Snake snaps away the beauty will continue to pose, thrusting and smiling and giving naughty looks. When you get tired of that, bust out your iPod and play her some J-pop, and she’ll dance for you.

I have nothing against a little cheesecake, nor against breaking the fourth wall. But when these things are combined so gratuitously and plastered on my screen for minutes at a stretch, it ruins my experience. The pacing of the game is destroyed, along with any hope of caring about who the beauties are as characters.

#1: Date with Paz

How does it get worse than shameless, exploitative, fourth-wall breaking T&A? How about shameless, exploitative, fourth-wall breaking jailbait T&A?

Date with Paz is one of those squick-y anime dating sims shoehorned into the MGS engine. It involves the 40-something-year-old Big Boss and the 16*-year-old Paz sharing some, er, quality time together on the beach. To clear the mission you have to use the game’s built-in squad communication feature to say encouraging things and make little hearts appear over her head. She likes phrases such as “Get inside!” and “Box time!” Once you’ve gotten enough hearts, pull out your Love Box (which is a real item in the game) and invite her to join you. The box immediately starts a-rockin’ and you even get an achievement!

If you use communications Paz disapproves of, she’ll emit a broken heart icon instead. (My favorite example: “We’re pulling out!” “Do you not like being with me?”) Do this enough times and you’ll fail the mission. Of course, if that’s your goal, a faster method is to stand next to Paz and use the CQC button, which for this mission is helpfully replaced with a “grope Paz’s breasts” button. Then she’ll slap you to the ground, call you a creep and storm off indignantly.

If your only desire in life is to see the teenaged Paz in her underwear, S Rank the mission and then play it again. If you S Rank the mission twice, the rest of the Mother Base ladies strip down as well if you bring them up in the staff menu model viewer. Amanda’s unmentionables even have MSF branding, which means Mother Base’s manufacturing facilities are hard at work churning out women’s underwear in addition to lime soda and spicy curry.

* Yes, yes, I know she’s not really that young. But Snake doesn’t, and that makes it worse.

Socially offensive characters aren’t the only missteps the Metal Gear Solid games make, though. Sometimes the gameplay screws the pooch as well! We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Thanks for reading.


A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day One: Like One of My Japanese Animes

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

If there’s one thing critics of the Metal Gear Solid series love to poke fun at, it’s the incredibly long-winded story sequences. The gameplay-to-cutscene ratio can get pretty ridiculous at times, and while fans of the series don’t see this as a weak point, each game tends to have a few moments even the most Kojima-addled of us find tough to swallow. Personally, I’m not bothered by the length of the cutscenes so much as how mind-numbingly pointless some of them can be.

Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most pointless scenes in the series — cutscenes whose utter lack of connection to the story is matched only by how much of your clock time they eat up.

#6: Agent’s Recording

It’s hard to say how important Skull Face’s backstory is going to end up being to the plot of The Phantom Pain. MGS games can be pretty hit-or-miss with details like that. For every heartfelt deathbed confessional there’s a tedious, eye-rolling sob story. Is Skullface a Sniper Wolf or a Crying Wolf? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure: it’s certainly not important to the events of Ground Zeroes, even though Skull Face spends seven and a half minutes droning on and on about it.

Was the intent to give Skull Face an aura of mystery, as though his haunting visage in all the MGS5 trailers weren’t enough? Was it to offer a humanizing counterpoint, an origin point for his unsettingly evil behavior in Ground Zeroes? The tape fails on either account, since it’s so devoid of actual details that could help develop his character. We only really know two things about him by the end: he likes torturing people, and he likes the sound of his own voice.

As with so many aspects of MGS5, I’m putting this one in the Jury’s Still Out Bucket. Skull Face might end up being a deep and enduring character, but if so, it won’t be any thanks to his hidden backstory tape in Ground Zeroes.

#5: Major Zero Changes His Name Back

Metal Gear Solid 3 is no stranger to lengthy radio conversations. For the third game running, there are hours and hours of recorded dialogue for players to discover, exploring the personalities and relationships of Snake’s support team. I think it’s to the each game’s credit that some of the series’s most popular characters are only ever visually represented by a tiny greenish portrait. Whether it’s Mei Ling sharing a Chinese proverb or Sigint indulging in some good old gun porn, it’s a great feeling to know these characters so well only on the strength of their dialogue.

Things stumble a bit, though, when these endearing character moments are dropped directly into the game’s critical path. It’s one thing for MGS3’s Major Zero to digress into a tangent about James Bond in an optional message on the way back from the save menu. It’s something else to interrupt a description of Snake’s crucial mission objectives to explain why — in excruciating detail — he changed his callsign to “Major Tom” and then decided to change it back again.

The Major Tom digression is just a silly joke, and the explanation is just a flimsy in-universe justification. That’s fine and dandy, but not when it’s presented right in the middle of important mission information the player would do well not to skip.

#4: “Just like one of my Japanese animes!”

Even before becoming a series tradition, the expository infodump was one of the most famous aspects of the first Metal Gear Solid. At a time when dialogue-intensive JRPGs were at the peak of their popularity, when cutscenes were viewed as a technological marvel, and when even passably-decent voice acting was considered a miracle, the switchbacks and intrigues of MGS1’s plot were solid gold. In retrospect, there are lots of scenes that seem quaint, and even a little embarrassing. But one in particular stands out as being particularly unnecessary.

Okay, it’s immediately evident why we’d need to pay attention to Metal Gear’s lead engineer. And it makes sense they’d want to preface that meeting with a memorable boss fight. And sure, considering who that boss ends up being, Snake’s emotional codec freak-out is perfectly understandable. And once the engineer is secured, a bit of soul-searching on his part is to be expected. And even though that’s already like six cutscenes in a row already, okay, I’m even willing to accept our new engineer friend being an anime dork as a bit of integral character development.

But was it really necessary to cut to footage of an actual giant robot anime, right in the middle of what is already one of the longest non-interactive sections of the game? I feel like we could have gotten the gist of Otacon’s character without having the point driven home that deeply. Again, this is the kind of tangent that belongs in an optional codec call, not spliced in the middle of a cutscene filled with actual story development.

#3: Stillman’s Big Reveal

Otacon has an even more pointlessly embarrassing character moment in Metal Gear Solid 2, but he faces stiff competition from lots of other ancillary characters in terms of sheer time-wasting. The stated themes of MGS2 are the way thoughts and behaviors can be manipulated by diverting the flow of information, and many of the game’s conversations have a subversive bend in that direction. This is a game where every character has some big tragic secret they’re hiding, no matter how hard that square peg had to be pounded.

Raiden’s first mission on the Big Shell is to poke around the place disposing of C4 bombs. Enter Peter Stillman, the cynical explosives expert with a bum leg who taught the villainous Fatman everything he knows. Stillman supports Raiden with gear and instruction through the ordeal, but it becomes clear something isn’t quite right. Then the incredibly obvious shoe drops: it turns out the student has surpassed the teacher, and Fatman was two steps ahead of Stillman the whole time. Whoops! Now Stillman has to engage in the requisit noble sacrifice, giving Raiden an opening to take Fatman down for good.

But this being MGS2, there must be a dumber plot twist hiding behind the big one. And here it is: turns out Stillman doesn’t have a bum leg after all; he can walk just fine. He tells everyone he lost a leg when Fatman blew up a church because he feels guilty that Fatman blew up a church. Well, regardless of whether or not that makes sense, Stillman pours his heart out about his secret shame in a very long and very boring codec transmission that nobody cares about. And then he dies and all the other characters forget about him, so it matters even less.

#2: Drebin’s Bedtime Stories

I adore Drebin. It was a gutsy move introducing an important new character into a cast already bloated with every bit player and cameo from three previous titles, but Drebin is both likeable and memorable. His moral ambiguity comes across as passably heroic in a world where human lives are a commodity. His smooth demeanor and helpful gameplay interactions make the whole SOP subplot a bit easier to swallow — a necessary function, given that without that ridiculous subplot the rest of Metal Gear Solid 4‘s story would fall apart. You’ll be subconsciously doing his little hand gesture sendoff every time he exits the screen. His pet monkey wears a tinfoil diaper. For all Drebin’s positive qualities, though, he’s not much of a storyteller.

Boss fights in MGS4 are already fairly long by design, and each one caps off with a cutscene where the boss wiggles her butt in your face for two minutes and then a second, stupider boss fight where she tries to hug you to death. And just when you thought it was time to move on, Drebin calls up and makes you listen to his atrocious B&B Corps fanfiction. It turns out all the militaristic robot women hellbent on killing Snake are actually tragic anti-heroines who have suffered atrocities that have left them psychologically traumatized, but didn’t actually mar their flawless porcelain skin. The first time he does this you’ll raise an eyebrow. The second time he does this you’ll realize, good god, he’s gonna do this every single time, isn’t he?

In MGS1 each villain had a deathbed monologue that developed them as characters, because such humanizing moments helped expand the moral grey area the plot wanted to play with later on. In MGS3 the individual bosses were less important than the overarching plot, so their backstories were relegated to optional radio conversations with Sigint as an afterthought. The B&B Corps in MGS4 aren’t interesting characters, though, and their stories are all the same: “War came to this poor girl’s town, and she had nightmares that an animal was killing everyone, and it turns out she was the animal all along, but then Snake came along and set her free and gosh, ain’t that just swell.”

The worst part? You can’t even call Drebin’s codec on your own time to indulge in a little gun porn. He’s probably sore because I downvoted all his fanfics.

#1: The EVA Tapes

The structure of Peace Walker is mission-based, rather than objective-based, which means it had to shift gears a bit from MGS’s standard narrative flow. Instead of filing the little character moments into radio conversations that would eat into what are supposed to be bite-sized action scenes, each character instead has a set of tapes that unlock as you advance in the plot. You listen to these during the in-between moments while you’re faffing about on Mother Base. There are only a few characters, and only a couple tapes unlock at a time, so alternating between story missions, Mother Base chores and backstory feels pretty natural.

Except for EVA, Snake’s love interest from MGS3 who doesn’t have an in-person appearance in Peace Walker. I suppose it’s nice to know she’s still around, given the offscreen turbulence that has occured between the rest of the MGS3 cast in the last decade or so… but all her tapes unlock at once and it takes a solid hour to listen to them all. That’s an unacceptable amount of time for a character whose backstory we already know and who has no bearing on the events of the game we’re currently playing.

It gets worse. The actual content of the tapes — all seven of them — convey information the player already knows. “Snake, remember at the end of MGS3, when I talked at great length about how America pooped all over The Boss and then kicked her into a ditch? Well it turns out the poop was exceptionally frothy, there was enough of it to fill a dump truck, and the ditch was really the Grand Canyon filled with broken glass and termites. Oh, and they did it twice.”

MGS3 has one of the most emotional video game stories I’ve experienced, and EVA telling The Boss’s story was the perfect capstone to it. During Peace Walker I felt like it was tugging too much at a string best left alone, but in the end it handled The Boss’s “reappearance” in a pretty satisfying and respectful way. Peace Walker is one of the few MGS games with an uplifting ending — the first ending, that is, not the sooper-sekrit bonus ending. The depressing subject matter of the EVA tapes took away from that, and their content was entirely redundant to boot. Hopefully Snake recorded over them with some Bee Gees or whatever.

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how the MGS games tackle everybody’s favorite hot button issue: good ol’ well-intentioned misogyny. (Spoiler: not very tactfully, as it happens!) Thanks for reading.


Analyzing the Smash Roster — Super Smash Bros. (N64)

What are the criteria for a character’s inclusion in the Super Smash Bros. series? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but in the decade and a half since the first game’s release it’s been a lot of fun to speculate. The topic itself isn’t inherently exciting — the answer is probably something close to “the characters most popular with our current target market” — but it tangentially touches a lot of side-topics which are quite interesting indeed. Things like, what makes a popular video game character in the first place? And what keeps them there? How are those characters defined and categorized in our communal consciousness? What is each character’s role in how games are played and perceived? Are these even important questions to ask?

The Smash series has a lot of characters to pick from. Sixty-two at the time of this writing, with more on the way as DLC for Smash 4. Way too many to look at coherently in one article. So for now I’d like to stick to the original Super Smash Bros., released for N64 in 1999 to a different generation of gamers.

The Original 8

Originally, there were only eight fighters in Smash:

Defining the criteria for this cast is easy, but not trivially so. At first glance you might say it’s something like “the eight most popular Nintendo characters at the time”, but that is incomplete. For one thing, it’s hard to argue that Fox, only two years removed from what is still considered his best game, was more popular than the fourth most popular Mario character, or the tenth most popular Pokémon. If that were all there was to it, Smash 64 would have been four Mario characters, five Pokémon, and Link.

And it clearly wasn’t “the most popular Nintendo 64 characters”. Donkey Kong 64 was still ten months out. The next Metroid game wasn’t even destined to beat the next Smash game to market.

How about “the most iconic Nintendo characters”? That’s closer, but still fuzzy. Characters like Pit and Little Mac are absolutely iconic of a particular era of Nintendo history; what caused them to be left behind? What about Marth, the main hero from the first game in Nintendo’s only tactical RPG series? Yoshi is iconic for sure, but he got his start as a sidekick and then earned his starring roles only after a period of time. Couldn’t the same be said for Wario, who made the transition from quirky villain to lovable anti-hero? And then we have Samus, who is undoubtedly iconic and did make the cut, but who hadn’t had a starring role in five years and whose series looked to be on the decline. When selecting between icons, neither past success nor future success looked to be a good indicator.

So we can’t boil the criteria down to a single, decisive trait. What we can do is look at those traits all these characters have in common. Only then does a pattern emerge. The original eight were:

  • first-party Nintendo characters
  • with prominent roles
  • as good guys
  • in at least two titles
  • that are available in all three major markets
  • and who aren’t joined by anyone else from their own game series.

Adding up all these traits gives us a much better final roster than going with “most popular”. It gives us a nice cross-section of Nintendo history, representative of characters both old and new, from a wide variety of genres and visual styles. It has a nice “makes sense” quality, the kind of thing which only looks effortless. It’s really hard to make a case that any other character deserves one of these eight spots. I had never played a Pokémon game when Smash 64 came out, and had no particular affection for Pikachu, but I immediately recognized why he was there and knew he deserved his spot.

The criteria were loose enough to catch necessary edge cases like Pikachu and Yoshi, but tight enough to give the game a very structured feel. There weren’t just eight characters, there were eight stages, and everyone had their own home turf. Everyone had a unique icon, an instantly-recognizable emblem from their games that sat underneath their health indicator. Everyone had their own unique victory music which played when they came out on top in a fight. Rather than the hodgepodge the series would eventually become, Smash 64 is cleanly and equally divided among the Original 8.

I think this is key to understanding the role of Smash 64 as a part of its own series and in the video game landscape as a whole. It was originally a quirky cross-over game, not a vast and all-inclusive celebration of all things Nintendo. This is noticeable in the game’s cartoony art, where all the characters are drawn in a style distinct from the games they came from. Pikachu is a little too big, Samus a little too small. Mario and Link have weird noodle appendages. Nothing was quite cutesy enough for Yoshi or Kirby. In other words, Smash 64 is its own little world, and the fighters are all just visitors here. A round table with eight places set.

The fighters in Smash were there to serve the game itself. It was not yet true that Smash was there to serve Nintendo and its community.

The Original X

Why stick with 8? It’s a nice number for a fighting game roster, sure. Enough characters to offer some variety, but not so many that you’re overwhelmed with options and styles. The original Street Fighter II had 8 fighters to pick from. It makes for a nice, clean 4×2 selection grid.

But let’s say sticking with 8 wasn’t necessary, or desirable. Keeping the original criteria in tact, what other characters might have made the cut? Or, phrased another way, which characters from future Smash titles might have gotten in earlier, had the roster been larger and the original criteria adhered to?

My research wasn’t exhaustive, but I found four obvious candidates that don’t break any of the criteria:

This roster looks a little weird, though. It no longer has that “makes sense” quality, even though we’re still in the bounds of our criteria. Pit and Little Mac are both well-known for their NES appearances, but their sequels weren’t nearly as enduring. (How many of you even knew Kid Icarus had a Game Boy sequel?) Wario gets in under the same technicalities as Yoshi, but he somehow just doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe his design is just too reliant on Mario’s to work? Or maybe most players continued to see him as a villain, despite having two adventures of his own? Captain Falcon came from a much-loved series, but the series is loved for its speedy gameplay and not its characters. Maybe that sets him apart from Fox, who also spent all his time sitting in a ship?

Expanding the roster out to twelve, it starts to become clear just how arbitrary the original criteria are. You start leaving room for the type of questions that plagued the roster reveals of Melee and Brawl. You know, the “Why X and not Y?” questions. Surely Marth is a better pick than Mac, never mind that nobody outside of Japan knows who he is. Should we really be including Pit, who hasn’t had a game in eight years, when loosening our “one character per series” requirement would open the door for Peach, or Diddy Kong, or any number of Pokémon? Wario’s kind of a good guy, but also kind of a bad guy, so why not go full bad guy and add Bowser?

Are we sure we can’t sneak in a character from Excitebike or Pilotwings? Or Tetris?

In the end, the 8-fighter limit is, itself, part of the criteria. It’s what causes that “makes sense” quality the roster ended up having, by not getting too messy with the edge cases. The answer to any number of “Why not X?” questions was: “Because there were only so many spots.”

The most ardent Wario fans in the world, if being honest with themselves, will be able to see why their guy lost out to a blockbuster like Yoshi. In later years, it was a much harder pill to swallow because left-out characters were being measured against the likes of Meta Knight and Dark Pit.

Secret Characters

Of course, Smash 64 really did end up with twelve characters. It began the series’s proud tradition of locking up some of its fighters behind gameplay challenges, and is one of the earliest trend-setters of the kind of unlockable content that became so pervasive in the industry, for better or worse. But who to include?

We could have ended up with something like the roster above, which sticks to the rules but starts introducing uncomfortable questions. That’s not the direction Smash 64 went. Instead, it very purposely bent the criteria just enough to sneak in a couple more edge cases:

First off, Captain Falcon immediately made the cut, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike Wario Land and Kid Icarus, the F-Zero series was modern and popular. He’s a good example of what the top of Nintendo’s B-List looks like.

The other three secret characters each break one of the criteria, but in an enlightening way. Each of them feels like a character that would have been in the Original 8, if there were no criteria to follow. And the ways in which the criteria were bent offer some insight into how the roster would grow over the years, as it ballooned up from 8 to 62.

Luigi is the most obvious choice, the clear counterpart to his big brother. Mario’s level in the 1-player mode includes Luigi as a CPU partner, and unlocking him is as easy as playing the bonus practice with the Original 8, something every player is likely to do within two hours of turning the game on. Any game with unlockables needs one as easy as this to get the player comfortable with the idea. And having one fighter be similar, but not exactly identical to, the “main” character is a fighting game tradition dating back to Ryu and Ken.

Jigglypuff and Ness are the most interesting choices, though. They each represent fan favorites, characters that made some fraction of the player base really happy. What these two characters possess, though, is a whimsical design that speaks to players who don’t know who they are yet. Appealing to fandoms and creating new ones both became important aspects of roster selection in future Smash titles.

I can go a little deeper into this idea, because I’m representative of both sides of that coin. I was a huge fan of EarthBound when Smash 64 came out, and was over the moon when I got the game and found out he was in it. His inclusion was so left-field unlikely that it seemed like a miracle to me. They even got his victory fanfare exactly right! My favorite part of the Sound Stone ditty. I used it as my Windows 98 startup sound for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I had never heard of Jigglypuff and was initially a little put off that they’d include such a nobody. But actually playing the game turned me around on the character in a big way. She has a cute design that’s hard to dislike, adorable sound effects, and a fun gameplay style that really clicked with me. What I came to realize is there were players out there who felt about Jigglypuff the way I felt about Ness, and vice-versa.

Secret characters are a good place for a fighting game to get a little crazy with movesets, and Smash 64 was already pretty crazy. These characters are a little more unconventional in how they move and what they can do. Ness lacks a traditional recovery, requiring both planning and accuracy to keep himself on the stage compared to the third jumps of the Original 8. Captain Falcon has both a powerful but non-variable wind-up as well as a mid-air grab. Jigglypuff has a one-hit kill that only works at point blank range. These are characters a player might not want to try until they’ve already mastered the basics.

So the game needed secret characters, and the selection process for vetting them made some pretty interesting choices. All of these ideas informed how the series would grow over time.

Smash 64’s Legacy

I think they got Smash 64’s roster as close to exactly right as they were ever likely to get it. They split the difference between making the game feel like the sum of all its component parts, while still pandering to important sub-fandoms in the greater Nintendo community. Every character was fun to play as, and nobody was so weird or quirky that fans of the character couldn’t reasonably use them. The roster definitely didn’t happen by accident; it only looks like they made all the obvious choices.

Most importantly, remember that there were no guarantees in 1999 that there would ever be a Smash Bros. 2. There clearly had to be room to grow outwards, and the secret characters showed fans some tantalizing ways that growth could happen. The roster had to be strong enough that players in 2015 could look back at the one and only Smash Bros. game and know they got it right. We don’t live in that world, but I still think it’s safe to look back from 2015 and say that.

Smash 64 has the best roster in the series. There are no dud characters, no shameless clones, and no obscure head-scratchers. It doesn’t feel bloated or overcrowded. It feels like they hit all the high notes without leaving anybody out.

And it gave Metroid fans reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, Nintendo hadn’t forgotten about them after all.*

*(My apologies to EarthBound fans, who actually were forgotten, and would remain so indefinitely.)



Don’t panic, I’m just switching webhosts. Stuff is going to be weird and/or broken for a while. For that matter, I’ve got archives stretching back to 2009, so the really old stuff might be weird/broken forever. I’ll do the best I can to get everything back up and running!

Thanks for reading!


Multiclassing in D&D 5e

I love the idea of multiclass characters in Dungeons & Dragons, but I hate how it’s usually implemented.

I’m a student of AD&D Second Edition, and the dual- and multi-class rules in that game were very strict. The idea was that a dual- or multi-classed character was a rare and powerful breed. It involved a major alteration to your character concept; a Fighter/Thief was meant to be played much differently than a Fighter or a Thief. In addition, not every class could be multi’d; a Paladin was a Paladin for life… unless he strayed from his path and became a Fighter.

Third edition changed the multiclass rules in such a way as to open up more character variety. Now any race could be any class, and what’s more, you could take as many class levels in however many classes you liked. The added character options were cool in theory, but they often led to silly decisions like “I’ll be a L10 Wizard/L1 Fighter, because I mostly want to be a Wizard but I want a few extra HPs and weapon proficiencies.” The addition of prestige classe and splatbook material made this even sillier, with bizarre “optimized” builds where a player might spread his EXPs across seven different classes.

As far as I can tell this practice of “dipping into” another class for a level or two in order to gain some mechanical bonus was retained and even encouraged in fourth edition. Gone was the idea that your character’s class represented his adventuring career path. Instead of being part of who your character was, class levels were treated like dots on character creation screen.

Fifth edition seems to be trying to curtail the practice of “dipping in” in two ways. First, it places hard restrictions on ability scores for multiclass characters. If you want to dip into Wizard to score a few free attack cantrips, you first have to build your Intelligence to 13. (Or plan ahead by putting a 13 into Int at character creation.) The justification for this is that your character’s first class level is the culmination of all his training and experience up to this point in his life, and that picking up a second class requires a sense of natural aptitude so as to be able to pick up the concepts of the new class quickly.

The second way it downplays the practice is the way each class gains its class features. Most classes don’t get all their core features together until L3, which is three levels you aren’t spending in your main class. Further, most classes don’t get ability score improvements until L4, so if you multiclass too early or too often your ability scores are going to be lagging behind. Thus, multiclassing makes sense for a player who has a unique character concept in mind, and not so much for someone who wants to justify a patchwork 4/3/2/1/1 build.

(A third thing it does is to offer lots of watered-down versions of class features as feats. So if you’re just looking to dip in for a specific feature, you’re usually better off taking the related feat and not missing out on a level in your main class.)

Upon reflecting on the rules, though, and reading some arguments both for and against the new multiclassing system, I’ve decided they still aren’t strict enough. A player who spreads class levels more than two ways, to my mind, is metagaming at an unacceptable level. At the point you’re deciding whether your Druid/Thief needs a level of Fighter to round things out, you have left the realm of character concept behind and are starting to fiddle too much with the numbers. In addition, some classes, as described in the Player’s Handbook, are just more difficult to multiclass into than others.

With that in mind, I’ve sketched together these rules for players who want to multiclass. The goal is this: a character’s second class should be a skillset used to augment and flesh out the character’s first. A character should not have three classes. As a result, it’s easier to pick up classes with features that can be reasonably learned and practiced, and more difficult for those with stronger thematic concerns.

In this article I’ve ordered the 5e classes by how difficult they are to multiclass into.

Tier One: Easy, but…


As far as I’m concerned, the only requirement for becoming a Warlock is forming a pact with some supernatural creature. Such creatures are in are in no short supply. A player who expresses interest in multiclassing into Warlock would be shortly contacted by such a being. That being said, such entities are often manipulative or malevolent, or at the very least have ulterior motives for giving away a fraction of their power. A multiclassed Warlock may quickly find himself at odds with his patron, or be faced with difficult moral quandaries they otherwise would not have faced.

Tier Two: Easy

Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric

It was a happy accident that the four easiest classes ended up being the D&D staples! But it makes sense. These classes are comprised mostly of skills which can be learned and practiced. In the D&D world anyone can pick up a sword and become reasonably competent with it, or noodle around with some low-level arcane magic. And having picked up the basics, the remaining 19 class levels are really just about honing your skills.

Anyone looking to multiclass into Fighter, Rogue or Wizard would need to state their intention at the beginning of a session, and then spend a considerable amount of energy during that session working towards their stated goal. Suffice it to say, this could really only be done during a roleplay session and not during a dungeon hack. (Even during a roleplay session, they would likely have to ignore the main plot in favor of their training.) At the end of the session, if they’d been sufficiently diligent and pass a few checks, they get enough EXP to go up one level in the new class.

Clerics would work the same way, except they would be restricted to gods whose temples or followers the player can immediately access, and they would have to be sincere in their desire to follow that god. A multiclassed Cleric who works against his god’s interests would lose those class levels until he shaped up.

Tier Three: Difficult

Bard, Monk, Paladin

Like the core four, these classes represent characters with skill, knowledge and training that can theoretically be picked up by anyone. They aren’t quite as broadly defined as the core four, though; being a Bard or a Monk implies a certain kind of outlook on the world that not everyone possesses. Being a Paladin implies no such thing; it’s a flat-out demand. What’s more, music schools and monastaries are in shorter supply than with the core four, and differences in opinion between teacher and student could end up being major roadblocks.

Picking up one of these classes would involve finding an NPC of the class who is capable and eager to teach, and that there are no major personality conflicts between that NPC and his student. The player would then be required to touch base with his teacher in order to train up to L2 and L3, at which point they pick their archetype and can advance as normal.

I would probably also require the player to continue this training uninterrupted until that point. If your Fighter decides to train with a stoic knight to gain levels in Paladin, said knight is going to question your devotion if you say, “Thanks for the first class level! I’ll be back after I get my next ability score advancement from Fighter!” I wouldn’t revoke the new class levels, but I would probably rule that the player had effectively abandoned his training after a bit of dabbling, and not allow them to advance in their second class without a serious show of dedication.

Tier Four: Effectively Impossible

Barbarian, Druid, Paladin, Ranger

These classes represent not just skills and ideals, but entire lifestyles. The skills in these classes are not things you learn to do, but rather are manifestations of how your character grew up and how that shapes his view of the world. The Barbarian’s ability to channel his inner rage is not a thing that can be learned; nor is a Ranger’s connection to nature, or a Druid’s ability to wild shape.

That said, if the player really latches onto something that exists in the game world as inspiration, I may allow that player to abandon their old class in favor of one of these. You wouldn’t lose your old class levels, but you wouldn’t be able to advance them anymore after switching. This represents a profound shift in the character’s goals and priorities; the abandoning of the old life for the new.

The reason Paladin is in both of these categories is because I could really see it going either way. It depends a lot on what the Paladin’s oaths are and how the character approaches the transition.

Tier Five: Actually Impossible


The Sorcerer really blurs the line between race and class. Whether or not you’re a Sorcerer is a function of your birth; you either have it or you don’t. A character with six levels of Wizard does not suddenly wake up and realize, oh yeah, turns out I had magic blood all along!

The flip side of that is, I could see treating the first level of Sorcerer as an offshoot of race or background. That is, a character who woke to sorcerous power early in life but decided (for whatever reason) to not persue it. As a result, this is probably the only time I would allow multiclassing right at character creation. A player could take one level of Sorcerer to start, then say, “…but he denied his magic heritage and trained as a Rogue instead.” That character would start the game as a L1/1 Sorcerer/Rogue, and wouldn’t gain any EXP the first session he’s played. Thereafter he always has the option to take more levels of Sorcerer as he decides to develop his powers.

I don’t think any of the players in my current campaign have designs on multiclassing anytime soon, but hopefully if that changes they don’t find these rules too restrictive. If they do I’ll… I dunno… feed them to a roc, or something.