2020/08/05: exposure for light, exposure for shadow

playing: actually mostly ffxiv and castlevania 1, despite this post

also thinking about: msgv:tpp, 'art tutorials', visual composition theory

listening: total science volume 2 (1996); a lot of the grim reaper stage music in cv1

i wish.

Earlier last week, gamers playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain on the PS3 collectively got the multiplayer nuclear disarmament ending, a milestone that made me figure I might as well go ahead and turn the little "memegenescenev.txt" on my desktop into a proper blog post. I've been slowly playing through the game myself for the first time, you see, and having my little thoughts that I love to have every now and then as I play games.


Here it is!

It's always kind of interesting playing a huge blockbuster game several years after the fact, detached from the immediate hype cycle of the time. And what a cycle it was... I still vaguely remember the Joakim Mogren stuff being so effective it made gamers think that an italian surgeon planning a full head transplant by 2017 was yet another part of MGS5's marketing campaign. Then, on September 1st, 2015, the game came out, and I remember people talking about it non-stop for two weeks, after which - more or less total radio silence.

I don't really intend to make this a grandiose retrospective piece on MGSV, since there's probably dozens of them out there by now. I only mention that initial rollercoaster of reception because it's been popping into my mind every now and again in the quiet, patient moments of enforcing sleepytime across one of many Soviet military outposts here in virtual Afghanistan. I'm no die-hard MGS guy - this is the first one I've ever played myself, and I've only played around 12 hours of it. I've watched most of them, including this one, but I'm learning now that actually playing them is a very different experience.

i am a prototype for a much larger system.

I guess I'm not much of a stealth guy in general. I've beaten Deus Ex 1 (pictured), but that's mostly due to it being an excellent game rather than me enjoying stealth gameplay.

I've seen probably... three different playthroughs of the early parts of MGSV? So when I find myself on horseback on the way to Da Wialo Kallai, I feel like I've got everything under control. I park my horse outside the village perimeter, and start scanning all the soviet guys patrolling around before I go in. I'm listening to Troy Baker talking over himself twice - once on a tape, about the situation in Afghanistan, and once over radio, telling me either about the guys I'm scanning, or the plant I just crawled over. It's a lot to take in, but I've seen this mission play out before, so I'm fine. If the buildings of interest didn't already have big red USSR flags on them, I'd know where Kazuhira Miller is just from the footage I've seen.

Half an hour later, I'm writing similar messages in two discords I'm in. "hey is it possible to get better at mgsv or is it gonna be slapstick all the time". The mission where you extract Miller ends with a forced action/chase sequence, an introduction to the kind of "whatever" mgs-magic Parasite Unit. Right before that, though, during exfil with my asset in tow, I rounded the corner into a secret Soviet stash of pots and pans, making a comically loud noise and alerting the three guys in town that I missed on my initial tagging run. I completely fumble all my inputs on the reflex slo-mo, and by the time I even get to the part with the Parasites, I'm already at a healthy 5 or 6 shots taken. Ocelot says something to the effect of "Well... at least you're alive!" and we fly back to Mother Base.

I'm told by a friend that when you're carrying Kaz out and he asks you to say it for old time's sake, you can press a button and make Kiefer Sutherland grunt out a "kept you waiting, huh?". Every time I get into another cutscene with the man, I wonder if me missing that button prompt a dozen hours ago is at least part of his sour mood. Realistically it isn't, but framing it that way helps me digest the intensely venomous (;-)) tone of the cutscenes. Revolver Ocelot always has a facial expression like he'd rather be telling me over radio about Karakul sheep, and Kaz is always mad because all he wants out of life anymore is to kill the guys that killed his guys. He channels this anger into saying "...you're going to extract him?" when I'm out on the field. Maybe my opinion will change later, but right now the distant, radio-contact interactions I have with these two feel like a much better vibe with the gameplay than the in-person cutscenes.

blue moon...

There's sort of two baseline modes of "working" I've found in this game - sneaking around or aiming down a pistol sight to make some guy 53m away say good night. I'm really in love with how much of your screen gets obscured during these actions - the camera loves to gradually get bumped closer and closer until Snake is a good 30% of your screen, and aiming in first person means the bottom third of your vision is Snake's clenched fists and an iron sight. If you don't do a good job gathering information before your infiltration, there's a strong unease from this obscuring, probably stemming from my earlier pots-and-pans encounter. The x-ray skeletons that you get on your screen for tagging enemies aren't my favourite, but I concede them as necessary to the goal of me getting anything done without getting shot too much. A lot of areas are covered in dense shrubbery, which serves as an additional obscuring layer for both Snake and whatever is on screen as the space gets covered in depth-of-fielded billboard sprites of wild grass. In this limited-vision context, a lot of the cutscene camerawork fits in much better for me. It's still really erratic and shaky in a way I personally find really annoying, but the extreme close-ups start making more sense.

For a moment I half-form some thought about the connection between this limited vision and the eyepatch Venom Snake wears, but that's not really an interesting or genuine angle I could write about. Instead I think about the weird dizziness-induced tunnel vision I get from overexerting myself trying to act against quarantine sedentation.

i know it's impossible to see, but there's a guy by the leftmost tree here, and another on the left side of the fallen-down trunk.

i know it's impossible to see, but there's a guy by the leftmost tree here, and another on the left side of the fallen-down trunk.
image source: Brent0331

There is a camouflage system in MGSV, though it seems optional/not encouraged especially with how early you can develop the sneaking suit. The soldiers you fight, though, do wear drab uniforms that make them blend in pretty well when they're not moving, especially at night time. I still get tripped up by this sometimes, but with the addition of the intel team, not having a clear idea of how many enemies are in a given base is becoming less and less of a problem.

I get why the mechanics of camouflage are what they are in stealth games, but I prefer the way they emerge in multiplayer games. I think back to Battlefield Bad Company 2, where the recon class had ghillie suits that were convincing enough to trick people if you were being smart. I'd always run around with the VSS because it had the shortest barrel of any of the recon's weapons (also because it was basically the vz.61 Škorpion of sniper rifles in that game). The point of camouflage in multiplayer isn't necessarily to become invisible, it's to give yourself an extra second or two to aim before the other guy realises what's going on. Same with sniper decoy sprays back in TF2. I think back on how effective someone spraying pixelated hentai on the balcony in 2fort actually was, and the porn mags in MGS suddenly seem much more realistic.

expose for the shadow

The day and night cycle in this game looks fantastic. Time of day and lighting considerations are a big part of the gameplay, so I suppose it looking so nice helps me stay aware of it. A little while ago, I read a twitter thread by Devin Korwin about exposure and grouping values in painting. Every time I get to pick whether I want it to be 0600 or 1800, every time I'm momentarily blinded by stepping into direct sunlight out of a guardhouse, the phrase "expose for the light or expose for the shadow" rolls through my brain.

Originally I was sketching out the ideas of this part of the post as a rough script of a comic about this game, but I realised it was going to end up very wordy, and I was already thinking of blogging as a hobby, so...

Now that I've unlocked the sneaking suit, Venom Snake is always the darkest part of any shot I find myself looking at - day or night, clear skies or sandstorm. This pleases me purely from a "things fitting into other things" type of visual composition impulse. It's nothing supremely clever, but it feels nice. As I scroll through the 100 or so screenshots I've taken so far, there he is, identifiable at a glance, always slightly off-center, hunched over. I really want to crack his back. My favourite time of day in this game is dusk and dawn, when the sun is rolling down the rocky landscape, shifting it through pleasing shapes of midtones and shadows. Now that I'm a couple missions in, the Soviet army has handed out NVGs to some of the people stationed here (by the way, it is really funny seeing a guy wearing just a telnyashka and a giant, red-goggled helmet), so always deploying at 1800 isn't always the obvious choice it was at first.

I'm appreciating the difference between stealth in the shadow and stealth in the light. The former feels like what I've defined in my mind as "classic" stealth. There's searchlights that I have to avoid, a bunch of guys patrolling around with more or less conal line of sight, and as long as I'm being quiet, I can pretty much stand right next to them. When they're not patrolling, soldiers tend to flock around campfires and have weirdly loud conversations reminding me of the singular time I got too eager to fulton a guy and instead sliced his throat open (both of these are on the same button, for some reason). It's very much a stealth based around the actions of other guys. By comparison, stealth in the light feels so much more about the space that the guys are in. In the daytime, it's much easier to get a lay of the land without spending too much time gathering intel. It's much easier to see which doorways aren't blocked off, and which dead-ends are actually side routes. As I'm working more in the daytime, I'm noticing more points of entry than I ever would in the blue-grey dim of night. I find myself needing this increased spatial awareness, since the guys I'm sneaking around now have far better vision as well. I'm getting much more familiar with exactly how tall a cement block needs to be before I can hide it, and exactly which roads have deep, overgrown ditches next to them.

expose for the light

For some reason, my idea of stealth games being played well involves never, ever getting caught - in some cases not even interrupting enemies' regular routines. There's a couple reasons for it. For one, I think I'm too impressionable by speedrun gameplay. There's probably also the fact that I haven't played many primarily stealth games myself, so my primary exposure to stealth mechanics is an instant-failure sneaking level that gets put into whatever game I'm playing at the time1. Deus Ex 1, the only 'real' stealth game I've played in recent memory, doesn't really penalise you for messing up, but "ghosting" through at least the first third of the game is heavily encouraged, at least narratively.

So far, MGSV has been really good at taking all of this stealth baggage off of my hands. "Perfect stealth" is on the scoreboard as a potential bonus, but I find it really hard to actually go for, especially with my current gear. I don't really want to, anyway - I don't actively seek it out, but I'm finding that my absolute favourite gameplay moments tend to be right as I notice the spaghetti falling out my pockets, and the frantic moments right after as I try to grab it before it hits the ground. Having AI that is robust enough to feel like an intelligent opponent is one thing, but having it be so robust as to help the player enjoy the comedy of the engine is a whole other thing. If I could give a little computer medal to the guy that decided to climb a ladder above 3 of his squadmates just as the tranquiliser dart kicked in, I would do so immediately2.

1: A recent and very strong exception to these levels being bad is Mission 14 in Ace Combat 7. It gets a pass because you have to maneuver a jet fighter through a canyon to fly under enemy radar, all while dodging searchlights. It feels impossibly cool to pull off successfully.

2: In fact, nothing really should prevent me from giving him a medal, seeing as he works on Mother Base - under some name like Bastard Tiger or Titanium Hog now - but all I can really do with the guy is run into him at full speed or choke him out until he starts telling me to go harder, which I suppose is a good time for him, but I'd prefer a more formal reward.

mommy gf base

Oh SHIT! Blew past 25k just like that! I've been locked in on BORDERLANDS! Level 27 and theres probably 1,000 levels. Bout to go back in!!

-- Ice-T, Oct 25, 2009.

I'm finding that my enjoyment of the game is largely improved by hindsight gained from others. I think, had I played this game at the same time as everyone else, I would've probably been swept up in the seemingly common excitement and burnout swoop. I understand this is kind of the modus operandi AAA marketing works. The vast majority of open world games out there are sold by promising the world (;-)), teasing landmasses that are X km2 in size, hundreds of sidequests and so on. I feel like the trend is turning at least a little bit, but by 2015 it was certainly like that. Looking up things for this post, I found a series of funny, borderline conspiratorial map analyses trying to determine how Big MGSV was before it came out.

I can't really fault this kind of thinking too much, since I do like exploring big maps myself, and used to get really excited about GTA map comparisons back when I was like 15. Still, it's an inevitably disappointing way of looking at this medium. Games can't really be infinitely large, and the ones that try to usually end up being progressively weaker towards the end. Whatever we cook up in our brains at the promise of 1000 levels will invariably be much cooler to ourselves than what an AAA studio's tired workforce could produce as deadlines came closer and closer.

Maybe I'm coming across as too harsh on the story of MGSV in here. I haven't really been disliking it per se (aside from the gaze in about half the cutscenes that Quiet is in making me very uncomfortable, despite thinking that she is a cool character), but I haven't been getting too much from it either, aside as a sort of added texture of probably unintentional homoeroticism that makes me care about the characters more, and as added context for fanwork by people smarter than me, like the gorgeous Yellowcake by millionfish.

the explanation for 'shalashaska' is one of the funniest things in mgs

I've been re-evaluating my personal feelings on spoilers within the last couple of years, and I feel like coming into MGSV with a clear understanding of the scope of the game has been largely beneficial. If it was a very story-heavy game, I'd probably have a different perspective on that, but it isn't, so I don't. Knowing the game has two maps, a really solid sandbox, and a sparsely cutscened story that kind of peters out towards the end is helping me focus on and enjoy the strong parts of the game much more. I'm not really worried about whether the vague set-ups of the early game ever 'pay off'. I'm fine with the fact that most of them don't. Knowing the big 'twist' just helps me put together a more thematically appropriate playlist for Pequod's helicopter.

I've got a little list of things I'm looking forward to. The boys at R&D have a non-lethal rocket launcher somewhere further up the research tree, which I'll probably get just out of pure curiosity. I think D-Dog is supposed to grow up soon, and I'm really looking forward to taking the guy out for a spin. I know they eventually let Quiet out of her stupid little pigpen/80s jam radio station too.

Until then, it's just my rifle, my pony, and me.