I can think of no better fit for an immersive VR experience than Metal Gear Solid, a video game series that is so often about simulations, distinguishing truth from falsehood, and literal virtual reality. Now, thanks to an inspired modder who’s a dear fan of the games, you can experience the first three main areas of 1998’s Metal Gear Solid (and a few other fun surprises) in VR yourself.
The “Metal Gear Solid mod,” created by modder Holydh, marries the style and aesthetics of the first MGS adventure with the highly technical, very realistic-feeling physics and advanced virtual body simulation of popular VR game Boneworks. While right now Holydh’s mod only recreates the game’s first three areas, it’s a very potent proof of concept for how cool it’d be to experience Metal Gear Solid in real VR.
It’s a good fit, too. Games have never quite been the same since Metal Gear Solid hit the original PlayStation in 1998. While its groundbreaking stealth gameplay evolved out of two previous 2D entries for the MSX 2 computer, Metal Gear Solid broadened the series’ storytelling and themes just as much. What appeared to be a standard Hollywood-inspired spy thriller gave way to a winding narrative about truth, deception, genetics, advanced technology, and government conspiracies.
As it happens, VR is both a staple of its world and gameplay, with Metal Gear Solid and its many sequels allowing players to train in simulated “VR” environments that echo what you experience in the main games. These maps offer a concentrated experience of Metal Gear Solid’s stealthy gameplay loop, challenging you with time trials set in stylized visual representations of what it might look like “inside” a computer. VR is also often referred to in the actual narratives, where it’s the subject of debate concerning its effects on a person’s sense of reality.
Metal Gear’s celebrated director, Hideo Kojima, has also been known to frequently toy with player expectations. When promoting Metal Gear Solid V, he went so far as to hire an actor to play a fake game developer who provided bizarre interviews representing a fictitious game studio. MGSV, by the way, then proceeded to make you question the very concept of “identity.” If there’s a series that aims to make you question reality, it’s Metal Gear Solid.
Enter Holydh’s “Metal Gear Solid Mod” for Boneworks, a VR game known for its pretty sophisticated physics and a very Portal-esque narrative vibe woven throughout its campaign and overall presentation. Like Metal Gear Solid, Boneworks also plays with themes of virtual reality and experiments being run by manipulators beyond your immediate understanding, so while the VR title offers a rich physical palette of game mechanics to romp around Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses Island, it’s thematically resonant in that Boneworks’ own narrative also gives way to suspicion about what’s happening in the environment around you.
After playing with this mod until very late in the evening last night, I will tell you that I still have chills from what I experienced. It felt surreal to move around the opening maps of Metal Gear Solid with my own body in first-person, complete with the original graphical presentation mostly intact. The environments of the first MGS are burned into my brain from playing it countless times as a young person. But the obvious novelty of sneaking around vents and corners, getting into gun battles with genome soldiers, and staring up at the towering Metal Gear Rex (it’s parked in the mod’s “museum” area) was always underscored in my mind by literal quotes from the games themselves about reality and simulated environments, and where society might go once this technology is sophisticated enough to fool us.
I’ll just let a quote from the character Eva in 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots underscore everything here:
Nowadays, anyone with a computer can get combat training. The FPS games these children love are distributed for free by these companies. Of course, it’s all just virtual training. It’s so easy for them to get absorbed by these war games. And before they know it, they’re in the PMCs holding real guns. These kids end up fighting in proxy wars that have nothing to do with their own lives. They think it’s cool to fight like this. They think that combat is life. They don’t need a reason to fight. After all, for them it’s only a game.
Speaking with Kotaku, Holydh described the experience of making a VR mod based on a series that is so often concerned with technology manipulating our sense of reality as “awesome and frightening at the same time.” Holydh’s first exposure to Kojima’s stealth series was through 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, which still remains his favorite entry. “I play games kinda like I read books,” he said, “to just immerse myself in an atmosphere. And VR is just incredible for that.”
The nuts and bolts of this mod itself are made with original code, but Holydh describes the work as building off of the efforts of passionate modders and digital archaeologists who’ve combed through the original game to bring these environments to life like never before. That work goes back for more than a decade, Holydh said. “I’m like the little guy on the giant’s shoulder. … I met [fellow Metal Gear Solid modder Vapor_Cephalopod] and got into the actual creation of my mod a bit more than a year ago. But I began working seriously on it only at the end of last year.” He added that the mod has become an “awesome hobby” that he works on nearly every day.
The choice to recreate spaces from Metal Gear Solid is a little spooky considering that the game’s immediate sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, reveals that the events of the first game were sampled and simulated to help train its main character. MGS2 protagonist Raiden states that he more or less “played” through the events of MGS as a part of his VR combat training. MGS2 referring to the actual game that you may have played yourself as a possible simulation is just one of its many fourth-wall-breaking moments. Playing this VR recreation of Shadow Moses Island, then, feels oddly like something that is said to exist in the fiction of the series itself.
Walking around in Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses in VR feels profoundly connected to the revelations of Metal Gear Solid 2, and that wasn’t lost on Holydh. The mod is mostly a passion project for him that’s allowing him and others to jump into one of gaming’s most widely celebrated environments, but he thinks about the “meta” of his work often. In a sense his VR mod is like a glue that binds the first game to the second.
“I think about it from time to time,” he said. “I’m kind of closing the loop.”
For all the cerebral trips that this mod inspires, it’s still not a complete game. You need Boneworks itself, and you’ll have to go through a bit of a mod installation labyrinth to get everything running. This is why, aside from adding more playable areas, Holydh is hoping to repackage his mod as a standalone experience. As the project currently stands, however, a bit of patience will be necessary to get everything working.
Once it’s all sorted, you spawn into the very room where Solid Snake battled Psycho Mantis. Here you can choose between warping to the start of the classic campaign or entering a “museum” displaying various recreated assets from the game, including Metal Gear Rex and many character models and items. There’s even a recreation of the game’s opening submarine area, which normally is only ever visible through a cutscene. Being able to get up close and personal with such classic characters and environments is a joy.
Once you’ve taken a tour, selecting “Campaign” triggers the room’s secret door, which in the main game led you to the showdown with Sniper Wolf. Here it warps you to the opening level of the game, where Snake first touched down on Shadow Moses.
For now, the only playable areas are the opening crate/elevator area, the outdoor helipad, and the dual-level interior tank hangar. You can use the elevators, find guns and ammo around the maps, sneak past cameras and guards, and engage in gun battles with a SOCOM pistol, suppressed for sneaking or unmuzzled for full volume and chaos.
Wonky enemy AI, as well as the trickiness of navigating certain spaces (I will likely have nightmares now of falling to my death from ladders connected to Metal Gear Rex), keep the Boneworks “Metal Gear Solid mod” from feeling like a full game. There’s some fun discovery to the environments though. It’s been tricky to get every time, but you can wack enemies over the head to knock them out, or possibly even sort of strangle them? I’m not certain about that last. Between the loving attention to detail and the narrative resonance this fun experience has with the real games, it feels like an authentic Metal Gear experience.
Here I am, standing in spaces that aren’t real, though my brain feels as though they have some kind of reality to them. How can I not think of Snake’s comment to Raiden that VR can toy with your sense of reality? How can I not think of the countless times the Metal Gear games have questioned why I find simulated gun battles, violence, and death fun? Is it because I enjoy all the killing? Is that why?
While this mod certainly doesn’t have the answer to those questions, it does lead me down the rabbit holes of riddles and meta perspectives for which Metal Gear Solid is well-loved. The main series’ last entry came seven years ago, and its future is uncertain at best. I’d given up hope that I could once more experience those classic brain teasers the series loves to pull, but this VR mod got me there in a way that I don’t think a newer, official game actually could. For all the talk of “metaverses” and ways that we’re trying to imbue meaning to digital worlds and items, the Boneworks “Metal Gear Solid mod” shows that such a thing is possible, if not a little terrifying.