The Making Of: Metal Gear Solid
Given the runaway success of Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation, it’s now easy to get lost amid the hyperbole and bravado from Kojima and his acolytes. But until MGS none of Kojima’s games, despite their high quality, had been real blockbusters, and he certainly wasn’t an established name in the West. For a humbler, more honest view, it’s worth examining Kojima’s interview with the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. Rather than overconfidence it reveals a sense of boyish fantasy: “I wanted to create the 3D version of [Metal Gear]. The original one had a bird’s-eye view, but I only wanted to play hide and seek; like hiding in the lockers, under the tables, seeing the enemy’s foot from there, and running away. That was the kind of tension I wanted to create. I couldn’t do that back then, but I thought that I could do it on PlayStation.”
Of course, discussion of MGS couldn’t be definitive without Jeremy Blaustein, who was responsible for recreating it in English, while retaining all the flair and complexity of the Japanese original. “I often wonder what kind of hopes Kojima had for Metal Gear Solid in the US. To what degree did he know he was creating a blockbuster?” asks Blaustein, when talking about the start of the project. “We met in his office and we walked through the R&D group. He was clearly excited by it. We talked a little bit about family; his wife has the same name as my wife, Chie. Then he took me back into his office, and he had on a table a big bunch of Lego that he’d built into tunnels and whatnot, and he told me that this was how he did level design. He actually built the Lego things and would take a little mini-camera and run it through the Lego tunnel and stuff, and this was how he was doing it. But you know, 3D was new to him. He’d never had to work on multiple heights and stuff like this in a three-dimensional sense.”
Alongside these mechanics was also a complex story, expertly translated and refined by Blaustein. We asked about any resources Konami provided, and the research he did: “I had three huge hard-cased ring binders from R&D. One of them was filled with original drawings by Yoji Shinkawa of the characters in various clothes and using various weapons. People underestimate how much original work I did. My first task was writing dialogue that was military styled, and this was before the internet, so I read books by Richard Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team Six and Red Cell. He’s got dozens of books and I read them all [for the natural-sounding] dialogue. This was not a case of translating words, it was writing, and I could have simply translated things and said ‘I don’t care how the English sounds’ – it would have been easier but it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Speaking of dialogue, Snake’s voice actor, David Hayter, was kind enough to answer our questions, including thoughts on the name Solid Snake: “I guess my first reaction to the name was, ‘Well, I’m not taking my pants off, if that’s what they’re saying.’ I’d been in Hollywood a few years by that time, and had been burned on the pants thing before. My second reaction was something like, ‘I really hope they pay me for this.’”
Blaustein was also there for recording sessions, and revealed that character roles weren’t pre-determined: “I don’t think that David had to be Snake; it could have turned out very differently, because it wasn’t like Kris Zimmerman [the voice director] had determined, by her own design, how the voices were going to sound. I also remember the reason we gave Mei Ling a Chinese accent was because we worried that, with several female parts, it would be difficult to tell them apart unless they had some characteristics,” he adds.
The degree of work Blaustein put into the project was unprecedented for a localisation, with the heavy demands he placed on himself eventually requiring a diazepam prescription. History speaks for itself, showing that MGS resonated so well with an English audience specifically because of Blaustein’s tireless work. Yet Kojima was dismissive of his efforts, arranging a different localiser for the sequel, and having everything retranslated and re-recorded for the GameCube update Twin Snakes. “If I could change anything,” says Blaustein reflectively, “I would make sure that I responded to Kojima’s issues to make sure he understood my reasons for making any minor changes. He simply doesn’t understand the nature of game translations and the need to make adjustments for cross-cultural reasons.”
We also ask if Blaustein kept those ring binders: “I did, but when I moved [to Japan] a couple of years ago I put them in storage. I have a definite memory of breaking them open and handing out sheets of artwork to some kids at a birthday party. I thought they would think it was cool. And they were just collecting dust. Part of me was thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe someone will want these some day,’ but another part of me was thinking…” At this point in the interview Blaustein’s daughter, Zoe, interrupts to say “mottainai”, which means a terrible or regrettable waste. Perhaps, but it’s also nice to think that in someone’s bedroom, somewhere, there’s original Shinkawa artwork on a wall.
After release, MGS had an influence on countless games, including Syphon Filter. What’s interesting, speaking with series creator Richard Ham, now at Splash Damage, is how many archetypes were paralleled by the two developers without their knowing: “We were very aware of MGS. I still remember the first E3, and our jaws just hit the floor. There was obviously no way we could compete in terms of presentation, but fortunately for us, stealth was only one part of Syphon Filter. But what was worse was there were so many coincidences. They had a helicopter boss fight, so did we. They had a ‘big dude with a chain gun’, so did we. We later changed that to a ‘big dude with a flame thrower’ because of MGS. They even had a Chinese female character, who gave guidance on the radio, and so did we! Theirs was Mei Ling, and ours was Mei Xing – again a total coincidence, but we changed her to Lian Xing in the end, to avoid comparisons.”