Say what you will about auteur theory, but some artists demand it. Take Hideo Kojima, whose 1998 masterpiece Metal Gear Solid is covered in its creator’s fingerprints. After a long, expository cutscene, and a Hollywood-style opening-credits sequence featuring mostly fake names, you sneak through a dank subterranean basement, punch the button to call an elevator, and then—get told to wait for it. Someone literally calls you up and tells you to hold your horses. So the first thing you really do in a massively anticipated, big-budget video game is kill time—crouching behind a forklift, fiddling with the first-person view, and so on. It’s the first of many indications that this won’t be a ceaseless sprint to the finish but instead a tightly metered aesthetic encounter, all under Kojima’s careful control. There’s an author, and his name is all over the place.
The game seems determined to invert every video game convention it comes across. As Solid Snake, you’re weak and underarmed, scampering quickly from confrontations; the game’s driving narrative, in which you are attempting to disarm a nuclear-powered bipedal robot, turns out to be a ruse, turning Snake into the unwitting puppet of the antagonist. Cutscenes stretch on for 30 minutes at a time as Kojima, mad with power, sends the camera spiraling around his characters, loading the plot up with monologues on anime and Chinese folklore and the nature of war. The “you” in these monologues shifts imperceptibly between Snake and the person playing the game. It’s famous, in particular, for a string of fourth-wall-breaking provocations, from winking references to other Kojima games to a structurally ambitious boss fight that begins with your opponent reading your memory card and making fun of other games you’ve played. The second combat actually starts, your TV seems to malfunction, as if the input suddenly changed to “Hideo” mode.
This all only works because of Kojima’s meticulous craftsmanship, which extends from the feel of Snake in the controller—nimble, mortal, lethal—to the polish of its menu designs. Actually playing Metal Gear Solid, 20 years and five official sequels later, it’s still as tight and strange and responsive as ever. Each of the game maps is viewed from the top down, and a radar in the upper-right corner converts everything into essential geometric shapes, with Snake a white dot and the guards transformed into moving cones of vision. You’ve got an arsenal of gadgets and weaponry—cardboard boxes, night-vision goggles, rocket launchers, a bottle of ketchup—to dodge or destroy these roving idiots as you wish. But, more than anything else, you just run and stop, run and stop. You wait behind boxes, hide behind bookshelves. You spend most of the game sneaking around like this, until finally one of those cones lands on your dot, and all of these systems invert, transforming instantly into a taut action game. Tensions mount, with near-escapes and last-minute fuck-ups, until finally:
The whole sequence is almost musical, forming a rousing climax to the game’s finely tuned “tactical espionage action,” as the case described it. To play Metal Gear Solid is to watch this death ritual again and again and again, capping off daring infiltrations gone awry and high-concept boss fights. Every note burns into your memory:
For all Kojima’s craftsmanship throughout the sprawling series, this sequence may be his most iconic creation. It begins with the death cry, Solid Snake’s “hyahhh” echoing throughout the airport hangar or underground bunker in which some masked goon finally stops him. Then the screen itself seems to erupt in sparks as a laser writes out “GAME OVER” in a fluorescent Blade Runner font. A tense orchestral figure provides an exclamation point to the action, and then you hear someone, normally your old war buddy Colonel Campbell, calling out into the darkness, “Snake? Snake!” Their howl echoes until you choose whether or not to “continue” or “exit,” but either way, the final sound effect is a metallic gun-shot that cracks out the moment you make your choice. It’s a five-part symphony in which the player performs the final note.
Metal Gear Solid’s game-over screen forms a sturdy outer shell for a game obsessed with blurring the line between itself and reality. Characters constantly address you as a player or “gamer”; Snake himself seems aware that he’s being watched, even controlled by someone outside of himself. Before being tortured, you’re warned, “There are no continues this time,” and it’s not a bluff; succumb to the electric shocks and you get shuttled back to the title screen. Hidden moments wink at the player, like when you shoot too many rats or spend too much time hanging out in the women’s restroom. Several of the game’s characters will make fun of you for playing on a mono television. Even its save-game system is unconventional, forcing you to call a separate character named Mei Ling on your in-game codec and literally request her help. There is no such Kaufmanesque playfulness on the game-over screen, though; it’s all style and functionality, almost seducing you into pressing “continue.”
The sequence—thanks in part to Colonel Campbell’s howl of “SNAAAKE”—has become an enduring meme, propagating even on an early, less centralized internet. The tense string figure is as instantly recognizable a video-game sound as Mario collecting a coin or Link solving a puzzle. But, of course, this only made it a new convention for Kojima to subvert in subsequent works. Each of the six major Metal Gear Solid games (including Peace Walker) included its own riff on the game-over screen:
They speak volumes about the games they interject. The cash-grab VR Missions game-over screen is an almost interrogative hiccup, as pointless and confused as the game itself, whereas Metal Gear Solid 2 featured two totally separate game-over sequences for its head-fuck mid-game switch-up. (When things go haywire toward the end of the game, the “Mission Failed” screen reads “Fission Mailed.”) In Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima’s most narratively ambitious work, you’re sent deep into a Soviet jungle, and the weirdly literal “Snake Is Dead” game-over screen will gradually shift to read “Time Paradox,” suggesting a consciousness of the game’s order in the broader canon. Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid 4 play to the game’s increasingly meta, labyrinthine awarenesses of themselves as games, showing era-appropriate dead-air broadcasts, and by the time of the woefully incomplete Metal Gear Solid V, the demands of an open-world action game required something terse and economical.
Metal Gear Solid’s game-over screen, then, is the best in the series—functional, stylish, and daring. It’s also extremely 1998. There’s something almost pubescent in the way it evokes at once the game’s 8-bit origins and Kojima’s skyscraping cinematic ambitions, the way the PlayStation itself opened up new galaxies of aesthetic possibilities that game designers struggled for years to grasp. Kojima walked into that polygonal possibility space and crafted his first masterpiece.
Played today, it’s probably even better than you remember it—smarter, tighter, more streamlined than you think of older games being. It’s also much, much darker. Few games ever made focus as longingly on death scenes, of characters bleeding out in the Alaskan snow, expressing their final regrets before fading into the dark. Snake attends these moments as a hardass operative, a dealer of death at home within war. He may be shockingly under-powered for a video-game protagonist, but he’s also fearless, thanks in part to the trigger-pull smoothness of the game-over screen. You slam “continue” with the same speedy resolve that he reloads a FA-MAS assault rifle. “If you ask me,” he grunts at one point, “there’s no happiness to be found in death. No peace either. I’m leaving here alive.”