I finally got around to trying the game a few weeks ago. I watched the well-paced, well-animated, well-orchestrated, well-acted cutscene that plays when the game first loads. I noted the pretty title screen. I went through the game customization options, bonus material I had yet to unlock, and mission briefing. I hadn't even started playing yet, and already I was impressed. I'm normally not one for long cutscenes, but I devoted the time to watch through, what, half an hour of expository "security camera footage"? I give credit to the developers for breaking the briefing into a series of shorter, individual videos that each cover a different subject, allowing the player to navigate through the videos at their own pace. I knew I was gonna watch through all of them before getting to the actual game, but that tiny offering of freedom and control meant a great deal to me. I detest cutscenes that bring any and all gameplay to a screeching halt because it's suddenly storytime, children, especially when it's just people standing around talking for far longer than necessary; MGS managed to make three people huddled around a bed for minutes on end feel legitimately interesting, and that's a feat.
Sometime later that evening, when I finally got to the gameplay, I was overcome by a sensation I haven't experienced since I was a child: the feeling of being completely and utterly useless at video games. There are entire genres of games at which I'm not very good, and there are extraordinarily difficult games with which I struggle; I was so bad at MGS that I didn't even survive long enough to struggle. Within 60 seconds of gaining control of Solid Snake, I had tripped the alarm and been gunned down by a trio of soldiers. I tried again; this time I made it into the elevator, pressed the buttons on my controller madly to try to somehow activate the elevator, determined I probably had to kill all the guards first before the elevator would let me use it, and died stupidly because hand-to-hand combat only works when one of the combatants is not standing 20 feet away with a gun in hand. I tried one more time, attempting to utilize this "stealth" thing the instruction manual kept talking about. I don't remember all the particulars, but I'm pretty sure this attempt involved taking a guard by surprise by running right past him and getting shot in the back instead.
I returned to the menu screen, swallowed my pride, and bumped the difficulty down from Normal to Easy. This time I discovered you could hide in the water. Even if I tripped the alarm again, I could retreat into the water until things calmed down. This was a great plan that would've worked remarkably had I not gotten shot to death in a crawling position I couldn't figure out how to stand up from.
This was absurd. I'd spent at least 15 minutes playing the game, and I hadn't even figured out how to get out of the first room, let alone come close to it. I rounded up the last few morsels of pride that I'd overlooked before, swallowed them, and bumped the difficulty down from Easy to...Very Easy.
And proceeded to die again.
WHAT. THE. HECK. I had read the instruction manual from cover to cover. I'd been practicing the first room for 20 minutes now. I very nearly shut the game off right there to go back to something I could play, like Level 3 of Battletoads. One last try, I told myself. This time I decided to avoid the level altogether. I just walked around in the water for a couple minutes. Maybe the guards would all go take a lunch break or something. Or maybe I'd come across a bunch of cool items that totally weren't there before. I'm not sure whether I picked it up or had it all along, but I discovered a gun in my inventory: an M-9 sleep-dart launcher, which still didn't solve all my problems, but was far better than trying to swat away bullets with my fists.
Now I had a chance. Subterfuge went out the window as I started running around corners with my weapon drawn, which is the only way I really know how to play. I'm a huge fan of No One Lives Forever, a first-person spy game that emphasizes stealth but lets you rampage through most areas like a regular FPS if the guards see you; MGS confused me, because I simply died the moment I was spotted. The third-person overhead perspective and cumbersome manner of leaning against walls to see around corners made it difficult to do anything but run blindly into guards. I'm used to sniping people at a distance or waiting and watching and moving a little bit at a time, but I could only do that by switching to first-person mode, and by the time that happened, I was already being shot at. Also, years of playing games with ample visibility and generally unhelpful radars and minimaps led me to ignore the little graphic in the corner of the screen that displayed the positions of all the enemies and their fields of view.
I was spotted by the first guard, but he didn't have time to radio for help before receiving a generous serving of sleeping darts. Remembering my NOLF training and recalling something from the instruction manual about moving bodies, I stood over the zonked-out guard to drag him into a dark corner somewhere. At the time, I didn't realize you had to had to hold the A button to drag guards; I kept lifting him and dropping him like a buttered bean bag. I soon gave up and ran across the room to find more guards to send to slumberland. I tripped the alarm, I got hit a few times, but I did at last make it into the elevator.
And I still had no idea how to make it work.
The rest of the game proceeded in this fashion, with me making an utter mess of things, failing miserably, and then suddenly discovering something I'd overlooked that made the situation winnable. I am normally very resourceful in my video games, using everything at my disposal to my advantage, but Metal Gear Solid was unlike anything I'd ever played. I was too busy getting a feel for the moves that veterans of the series take for granted to think about "tactics" and "self-preservation." We won't even go into details about the battle where I tried to take down a tank with sleeping darts.
Things did get better as I continued playing, though. By the end of the game, I was executing lunging rolls to knock over my enemies (which worked great against Liquid Snake until I threw myself off the platform repeatedly), disposing of corpses by dropping them (and occasionally myself with them) into bottomless pits, and detonating chaff grenades to temporarily disable turrets (sometimes even before getting shot to death by them!). It certainly wasn't the most elegant or skillful playthrough in history, but my confidence in my own gaming ability had been restored. Someday, perhaps if I'm feeling ambitious, I'll step up my game and challenge myself to Easy Mode.