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Metal Gear Solid 3 finds beauty in an endlessly long ladder climb

‘What a thrill’

What makes the Metal Gear Solid games so special to me is that Hideo Kojima knows that in darkness, there is light; in times of danger, there are moments of quiet. There’s no better example of how the series maintains balance than in Metal Gear Solid 3, whose most off-beat scene is as cathartic a moment as found in any emotional drama — even 14 years after its original November 2004 release.

After our hero Naked Snake picks off a legendary sniper named The End, he continues on his way to the top of the Krasnogorje mountains. There’s only one way to ascend the cliffs: He must climb. But there’s no fancy, hardcore, death-defying spelunking sequence ahead, thank god. Snake just has to climb a ladder.

And he climbs that ladder for almost three minutes.

Want even more Metal Gear Solid 3? Listen to this week’s episode of The Polygon Show (start at the 43-minute mark for MGS3), where we also talk about the new Xbox Adaptive controller, Minit, and Sushi Strikers. The Polygon Show is available via Art19, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else podcasts are sold.

To some, this sequence may seem like an absolute waste of time. A cynic may think it’s just Hideo Kojima thumbing his nose at us, pulling us out of an intense boss fight to be confined to a slow, dull area for what feels like forever. Why even bother including what amounts to an interactive loading screen as the game boots up the next area, where the real action is?

But Metal Gear Solid 3’s three-minute climb is more intermission than interruption. The ladder scene is the epitome of why Metal Gear Solid series is so much more engrossing than the other gun-toting spy games it may at first resemble. Metal Gear Solid has always been about mind games, but to stick us in a tube with nowhere to go but up — or all the way down — sequesters the battlefield inside of our own heads. Anxiety mounts as we consider what we’ve already seen, the bosses we’ve taken down, the levels we’ve crawled (or gunned wildly) through. Could the place on the other side of this infinite incline be even worse? Impossibly hard? Unbearable to the dedicated soldiers who stealth their way through everything?

The game is loathe to answer any of these questions, of course, but the way it calms us down is perfect. After 30-ish seconds of quiet, we hear “Snake Eater,” the Bond-like theme song that sets the tone for 1964-set Metal Gear Solid 3 and the sensitive, sensual operation it unspools. It’s an a capella version of the ballad, and it demands introspection — at which point we remember, this is all interactive cinema at its finest. No film would feature three minutes of ladder climbing, and no average game would, either; but Metal Gear Solid 3 is a perfect intersection between those two. “What a thrill,” indeed.