What's more cunning than Metal Gear Solid boss fights that broke the fourth wall, more intricate than the labyrinthine plot twists that bound the series to obscurity, and maybe more sincere altogether? Try Hideo Kojima's frantic Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner.
In the PlayStation 2 era, Kojima envisioned mecha up to four stories tall spiraling through space and grappling like swordsmen. In the first Zone of the Enders you played Leo Stenbuck, an unwitting pilot of the super-powered Orbital Frame named Jehuty. Judging from his appearances in ZOE 2, no mecha deserves having a kid like Stenbuck lodged in its chest. Luckily, you don't need to know their history to admire the languorous arc of a vintage space opera.
In Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner robots clash, revelations are had and lives are saved; and these things become known as in a distant dream. The experience is dizzying, discomforting and strangely affecting.
Not so unusual for stories featuring Japanese giant robots, then, but what is unusual is the way this has everything to do with you and how you come to feel about the game. Most giant robots, in games from MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat to Steel Battalion to Supreme Commander, have been tanks with legs, cumbersome war machines symbolising simply weight.
But Jehuty is lithe and moves like lightning, a gleaming shard untouched by gravity. A streak of inspiration. Far from behaving like a proper military machine, Jehuty jets up to an enemy, grabs it by the shoulders and hurls it like a frisbee into the nearest cliffside. Jehuty would feel quite at home in Street Fighter IV - if not for being, crucially, a giant robot of near-omnipotence.
The opening of ZOE 2 drives the point home. You find yourself piloting not Jehuty, but a Laborious Extra-Orbital Vehicle (LEV) that inches across the ground like a beetle in the desert. You nudge the analog stick forward and are immediately frustrated. The atmosphere feels like tar, as close an approximation of pain as a videogame can convey. Impatient, you try to lift the vehicle by firing its jump jets. The piece of junk quickly falls back to the dirt with a clang.
The LEVs are the sewer rats and Goombas of Zone of the Enders, lumps bound to the ground that exist mainly to be flown past. And you are unwittingly guiding this LEV to your future marriage with Jehuty. This extended introduction lingers for the remainder of the game, as you never quite lose touch of how weightless you become in the Orbital Frame.
As soon as you enter Jehuty the game ensnares you in a tortuous martial and political drama less important for its plot points than for its atmosphere of "many things all happening at once". People with names like Taper and Nohman reference organisations named BAHRAM and the Space Force, places named Aumann and Callisto, machines named Nephtis and Anubis. (Your own name is Dingo Egret, undoubtedly something culled from the MGS reject pile.)
All these entities intersect and collide seemingly at random throughout the game. Many things happen. Because of the way the script is written (in clipped and oblique sentences) and voiced (in a universally dull monotone), it is nearly impossible to follow. Sound like a Kojima you know?
But the script, all histrionics and quick turns and sudden violence, is central to how the game makes its mark. It is true that there are "too many" cut-scenes, and that they frequently interrupt the action, often wresting control from you not 10 seconds into the next set piece. The game comes perilously close to being a movie with gameplay interludes.
Your moments of control liberate you from such narrative bramble. And yet they echo distinctly that melodrama. Jehuty floats weightless in 3D space, and is beset on literally all sides by attackers. You are never more than dimly aware of the locations of enemies; the screen merely indicates that there is action and that Jehuty is caught directly in the centre. Your HUD warns you of incoming fire, but it's practically impossible to focus on the indicator in the midst of combat. You flit back and forth, numbly, hoping to avoid enemy shots and stumble upon your next target.
You hold on to the game's autolock feature for dear life. It points you toward your nearest opponent, spinning Jehuty left and right and all the way around - and making you completely disorientated. You are pulled in all directions. All you can do is follow these points of interest, smile, nod and mash the attack button. In other words, you have little to no idea what is going on, but it certainly seems important enough to involve you. Star Fox this isn't.
You forget about those rampant cut-scenes once you control Jehuty, because the action is confusing and relentless. More accurately, you forget that they were so canned and interminable, but do remember the important things they showed you - that very many things are happening at once, that Jehuty is the only way these things can be resolved, and that you are physically inseparable from Jehuty.
Dingo is literally kept alive by the mecha, which stands in for his damaged heart and lungs. He effectively is the machine, and each mission is fundamentally a fight for his life. Fail and you're kicked to a black Continue screen, severed from Jehuty. You hear one of the characters wondering aloud what has happened, as if speaking to a blacked-out Dingo.
"The minute you get off Jehuty, it will stop providing energy," your captor says wanly in an early scene. You asked for an extra life and this is what you got? Years before BioShock exposed player choice as an illusion and portrayed gaming as an act of enslavement to the machine, ZOE 2 sketched this story about a Dingo Egret who was forced to control a robotic puppet simply to be able to continue existing in its world. It just felt less profound because, frankly, it wasn't written very well.
The fact is, though, that it takes a great deal of work simply to continue playing ZOE 2. It's a hardcore game that will have you replaying sections perhaps a dozen times in order to guide a helpless LEV by the hand through waves of enemy units in a space station, or blow up five sections of a train before a timer runs out. And this work makes the game seem like an affair worth fighting for.
It's about an hour in that the game's defining piece falls into place. Your machine begins to develop a voice. The mecha is overseen by an artificial intelligence named ADA. She's the girl in your ear that has been telling you how to move and attack effectively.
Then one day, noticing a new threat, ADA subtly suggests using one of the power-ups you recently obtained. Soon, Dingo and ADA are hashing out tactics in the middle of each boss encounter. One boss can only be beaten by using pieces of the environment to disable her shield; and ADA tells you this, encourages you, even. You didn't see it coming, but you and ADA have formed an intimate pact. The two of you are trapped in this ferocious game. How will you make it through together?
You realise that ADA has been guiding you from the beginning, pointing you repeatedly in the right direction. That autolock? It was her, watching out for you. But midway into the game, you find that ADA harbors fond memories of another man. You feel a pang of jealousy. It's at this point that the rambling cut-scenes finally make sense. Each minute that you can't steer Jehuty, you are away from ADA. You become determined twice over to master the machine, to face down the game.
Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner ends, appropriately, with Dingo and Jehuty parting ways. Some arcane plot turn likely explains how Dingo avoids going into cardiac arrest. I missed it because I was marvelling over what the game had done. Genuine poignancy emerged from the digital muck. After all its empty talk and schizophrenic battles and wanton tear-jerking, it turned out this frightful machine keeping you in its thrall actually did have a heart.