I played Metal Gear Solid 3 for the first time last week, and I was shocked to discover that the interactive cutscene I’ve heard so much about has secretly been an Immersive Sim this whole time. Snake Eater mashes the game design of Deus Ex with the omnipresent cutscenes of a JRPG. I still can’t say why they did that, and I’ll have to leave discussion of the story for another post. What I really want to get into are the systems – something I’ve never heard anyone delve into.
Snake Eater is focused on simulating the jungle with as much fidelity as possible. So: You can get honey from bee hives, which acts as food and an ointment for curing burns. If you shoot down a hive, the insects inside will attack you – but you can shoot them down near enemies, which will send them fleeing from the swarm. You can get rid of the bees by using bug spray, or by throwing a smoke grenade. The hive itself can be thrown to distract enemies.
This chain just keeps going. The food you got from the hive will eventually go rotten, which means you’ll be poisoned if you eat it – but if you throw it on the ground, you can get enemies to eat it, which will poison them. You can cure poison with serum, which you can get by capturing rabbits alive with tranquilizer darts. Captured animals will never go rotten like other food, and you can throw them to release them at any time. You’d only ever want to release rabbits as a distraction, but you can capture and release poisonous animals to make them attack the enemy.
Every single part of the game is been supported with a chain of intricate sub-systems like this, all linking up with other chains to form a massive simulated jungle. The value of these mechanics comes from the depth they give the world. Discovering these little hidden systems in the course of play makes the simulation feel limitless.
The trade-off is that a lot of these systems don’t actually provoke any interesting choices. Snake Eater constantly asks the player to make trivial decisions with no real impact. The three core, jungle survival systems all force the player to pause the game periodically and make a meaningless choice. Here’s some analysis, and how I’d fix the problem.
Snake Eater’s stealth revolves around the use of camouflage. Snake has a different colored jumpsuit for every occasion, and each one will hide you on a different type of terrain. The green Leaf camouflage will give a 95% stealth rating if you’re lying in long grass, but a dangerously exposed 30% on rusted metal, while the red square camo will do the opposite. A suit might hide you while you’re underwater, or while it’s raining. It’s like the Light Gem from Thief, if you could decide what conditions trigger the shadows.
The classic stealth decision is: “What path through this level will give me the greatest reward with the lowest risk of detection?” The camouflage adds a lovely extra layer to that decision: “Which parts of the level do I want to be safe, and which parts dangerous?” You decide how the level should be designed, then try to plot an optimal path through that level. It feels like the natural next step for stealth: from the black and white of line-of-sight, to the grey shades of Thief’s shadows, to colors.
In reality, Snake Eater’s stealth doesn’t end up surpassing Thief. The theory falls short because you can pause the game at any time and instantly change your camouflage. The choice of what path to take still has a lot of weight, but the choice of what camouflage to wear is rendered completely meaningless. There’s no penalty for changing, so there’s no reason why you wouldn’t always be wearing the best camouflage possible.
Changing camouflage should take a few seconds, and leave you naked and exposed in the mean-time. This forces you to make a decision before you enter the danger zone, and commit to that decision while you’re there. The time restriction also works into some other systems: unconcious guards wake up after a while, so taking the time to change camouflage can be risky even if you’re in a safe location.
Surprise: you can eat snakes in Snake Eater. Snake has a stamina bar that goes down over time, and you can only re-fill it by hunting and eating animals. The lower your stamina is, the slower your health will regenerate. If it gets below 50%, your hands will start to shake, making aiming difficult.
Unfortunately, there’s no reason why you’d ever go hungry. Every level is full of animals, and they’re all easy to catch. These critters are actually fulfilling the role of loot from Thief: they’re there to reward exploration and careful observation. The starvation system is just an excuse to fill the levels with interactive wildlife. It’s a benign simulationary tidbit that fills out the world without having any real impact on the core of the game.
The same goes for the wound system. Snake can suffer from broken bones, gunshot wounds, leeches, poison and more. Taking any of these wounds will stop your health regenerating past a certain point, and many of them have extra penalties: Leeches will drain your stamina, and a wounded hand will disrupt your aim. You can see that we have a pretty complex health system here: The free regeneration is slowed by stamina loss, and stopped entirely by wounds, which you must spend resources to heal.
The problem is that every type of wound is healed by a different resource, so you never choose to heal one wound over another. Worse, you always have enough resources to heal every wound. Just like the food and camouflage the wound system is only ever an exercise in pausing the game and performing the obvious, rote action.
The solution for the wound system is obvious: make everything rely on a single resource (Say, bandages), and limit that resource severely. As long as the player rarely has enough to heal all their wounds, the different effects of each wound should make the decision interesting. I’d also make healing wounds take a few seconds – makes that regeneration block more meaningful in the middle of a gunfight.
I don’t have a certain fix for the food system, but here’s a possibility: give the player a different bonus, depending on the last thing they ate. Eating snakes makes you crawl faster, while bears make you do more melee damage. Deciding what to eat is now about deciding your playstyle. The starvation system can be made more important just by restricting the amount of food the player can carry a bit more, and making sure some areas don’t have any edible animals. Players are still encouraged to catch all the animals they can just to see what bonuses each gives, but the limited inventory size forces them to choose which food they really want to keep.
I want to be clear that the central stealth mechanics of Snake Eater are often rock solid. Team Kojima aren’t idiots – they just prize simulation over all else. The bloat of the design has it’s own kind of Dwarf-Fortressian magic to it. Living rough, eating rats, prying out bullets with your knife – these are all cool things to do. Capturing that limitless feeling that comes with systemic complexity, and tying it together with genuinely interesting decisions – that’s the trick.