Tuesday, July 30, 2013
For those of you out of the loop, Twin Snakes is unpopular within the Metal Gear fandom to a fairly significant degree, a view I reflected at least twice in "Free Will and Defiance." A Facebook friend of mine recently asked what my beef was with it, and my responses included the usual complaints, but also some low-level talk of how The Twin Snakes messes with how I personally interpreted Metal Gear Solid. Here is the meat of that, transcribed below. I'm only posting this because I don't ever want to have to answer the same questions about Twin Snakes. It's not a bad game, it's just not Metal Gear Solid. Not really.
Monday, July 29, 2013
I honestly love damn near everything Bob Chipman has ever done (I even like the silly shit he's doing with the Overthinker show,) but I've got a lot to say in response to this one in the negative. Keep in mind this is not an attack on Bob, his show, his work overall as an excellent game and film critic. Again, I love the guy, (go buy his book about Super Mario Bros. 3 entitled Brick By Brick, it is seriously fantastic,) but again, gotta raise my voice on this one.
It's worth noting as the episode starts out that his title card uses the cover of Bioshock, the game that basically helped create the term "Ludonarrative Dissonance". It was a term first coined by Clint Hocking on his blog (read that here) while talking about Bioshock because the original Bioshock was so shit that it actually ended up resulting in the creation of one the first popular "academic"-style words in regards to problems of gaming narrative and design. And here we are.
4:46: "Ludonarrative is a made up word."
Every word is made up. Literally every single word, phrase, rule of grammar, languages themselves. And that is why James Joyce was great.
But before we go any deeper, yes, as Chipman says, it is a compound of the terms "Ludology" and "Narrative." (1) Chipman then goes on a small-scale rant about the creation of meaninglessly complex terminology as a ways of making the study of games sound big, smart, and important without having actual substance. I actually agree with this stance more or less. I try to avoid when at all possible the use of bullshit "high-level" language when writing things like this and if a fancy word like "postmodernism" comes into play I define it as best as I can for what you might call a "general" audience. That said we've already hit problems here because it's this kind of attitude that informs Chipman's opinion of LND, (and yes, we are using that shortening because I also agree that it's a pretty obnoxious term, especially to type,) which I will argue later on is of much greater importance than Bob is giving credit to.
5:46-6:14: "For example . . ."
And here's where he starts getting things wrong in an important way. The problem here is that LND is already becoming so generalized and overused as to become actually meaningless when it originally referred to a specific problem. That specific problem is not "Character is a badass, player sucks at game/does not take it seriously." And it is most certainly not the discussion everyone seems to be having about Bioshock: Infinite wherein they can't "take the story seriously" because of the gratuitous nature of the violence in that game.
The specific problem is when narrative themes contrast with, for lack of better terminology that isn't hopelessly up it's own ass, the themes of the ludonarrative, or rather, the themes that emerge from the systems and mechanics that make up the gameplay.
The classic example of this was already laid out in the original piece by Clint Hocking, which argued that there is a serious clash between the narrative themes of the original Bioshock, which is critical and skeptical of Randian Objectivism (2), and the emergent themes of the ludonarrative which require the player character at every turn to be self-interested to an extreme that actually suggests Randian Objectivism itself. (3)
Other examples that have become accepted outside of the original definition are when the systems and mechanics of the game outright contradict the tropes of the story in a game. To put it as simply as possible, that's "Why can't I use a Phoenix Down on Aeris?" (4)
Those examples are both a fair bit different than the ones Chipman chooses to use.
6:25: "So literally the setup and punchline of every other gaming webcomic?"
Yeah, if every other gaming webcomic were written by people as smart as James Clinton Howell, Tim Rogers, Brendan Keogh, or Bob Chipman. Without getting petty about it, they do not.
6:44: "Yeah, diversity, social justice . . . or anything else ACTUALLY important."
This is a logical fallacy for one, but I'm just going to state simply that it contradicts my personal experience with the field of games criticism and move on to the fact that fuck you LND is extremely important, but we can get to that in a minute.
6:54-7:11: ". . . always going to be a certain amount of dissonance . . . "
But what gets called into question here is the degree, as is often the case. I can make any game to some degree ludonarratively dissonant. I can make Silent Hill 2 ludonarratively dissonant by running around in circles all day and creating humor that bypasses the mood and ideas emergent in it's gameplay, but Silent Hill 2 doesn't do it for me. It's gameplay and it's narrative themes are consistent with each other throughout, as are most of the great games ever made.
You can make JRPGs hilarious by choosing to steal from people in a genre that's basically all about selfless sacrifice for greater good, but I can't change the fact that the system mechanics reinforce through gameplay the narrative concepts of deepening social bonds and character growth and development.
Bioshock on the other hand? Bioshock has gameplay systems that make every waking moment of the game feel thematically contradictory to what the story is trying to say. Persona 3 has at least various scattershot moments of LND when you deepen the bonds of friendship and thus strengthen your Social Links by being a bad friend or by contradicting what little characterization the cutscenes and dialogue of the central plot give the silent main character.
7:58-8:08: ". . . or rather my problem is that almost invariably trying to somehow bend gameplay consistently to match up with the concurrent narrative ends up undermining player agency."
To date, every piece I've read on the topic has not argued that games should remove agency to create ludonarrative "consonance", if you will, but rather that the gameplay systems themselves should be rethought and redesigned to match the content of the story. In other words, stop trying to make faux-pacifistic games that are inherently about mass murder, and reconsider the content of the gameplay, because doing so will not only create consonant games but also result in fresh gameplay ideas. At least, that's my take on it/response to that statement.
8:28-8:48: "Plus, there's a lot of things that break immersion . . ."
Yeah, which is exactly why games that have less of that crap tend to succeed more as works of art. Here are three of the greatest games ever made that for significant portions of the gameplay have actually no heads-up display or user interface at all aside from very occasional text:Final Fantasy VII. Silent Hill 2. Ico.
Now here's a very short list of great artistic games that have very little interface most of the time, or interfaces that expand when the elements needed actually come into play: The Metal Gear Solid games.
11:47-11:57: "I'm not against it . . . than they are games."
Again, I find it worth noting that I've read literally nothing that suggests that that is the big idea at the center of the LND discussion.
12:05: "Make better games."
But how do we make better games Mr. Chipman? I would argue that for one, for games to be truly great works of art, which is something we both seem to be concerned with, the growth of the medium outside of escapism and "wish fulfillment," we need to make better games. Games that can be described as great.
I remember reading once when I was learning how to write music that one could spend their entire life studying the ins and outs of harmony. Just harmony. Even the specific harmony of a specific sub-genere, like Modal Jazz. Likewise, a life could be spent studying rhythm. Or Melody.
Ludonarrative Dissonance is not the only subject worth discussing when it comes to game design and narrative, but to want to ignore it at the birth of it's study less than a decade after an actual term has been coined for it is outright foolishness, even if we would also like to see, for example, study on the use of sound in games, of music in games, the pacing of gameplay, the incorporation of dialogue, or any other bewilderingly complex topic. These are all things we should be studying to "make better games".
But what makes games great? For one, engagement alone does not make a game great. (I am, for the record, not accusing you of saying that engagement alone makes games great.) That would simply boil down to "which game is more fun" which would make Resident Evil 4 or Spyro: Year of the Dragon basically the greatest game of all time in my book, because there's no way that any quality besides fun would be regarded as a more noble form of engagement.
Immersion? Certainly not. That would make the best Metroid games just as good as the best Silent Hill games, and I personally cannot stand for that.
It seems to be that the broad consensus on the definition of "art" is that it is a piece of work of some variety or the other that expresses an idea. I like that idea. It's broad, and it doesn't exclude some works for having less thematic depth than others, given that it does express an idea. Numbers don't express themes but "These Boots" does so "These Boots" is art even if it's one of the worst songs I've ever heard. I like that.
Thus to me, I'd argue that the definition of games that qualify as art would be "every game" because every game expresses ideas and themes to some degree, even if they are read in. Thus, Ludonarrative Dissonance is important to me because great works of art ought to be cohesive. A movie or a book would be openly lambasted for having the broad strokes of the narrative express criticism of fascism if it's characters frequently spoke in terms that were racist, homophobic and misogynistic. Thus, I think a game ought to be lambasted equally for having gameplay that expresses one idea and a story that expresses another. It's something we didn't do enough of in the past and something we can make up for now.
And likewise, I think we ought to more frequently canonize the great games where the ideas and tone at the center of the story are also expressed through it's gameplay, which is why we are still talking about Ico and Silent Hill 2 and Final Fantasy VII, because those games definitively do that. And to me, that's one of many, many reasons they are great.
(1) Ludology is a fairly recent terms that if I am to simplify basically means the study of the art/science of specifically game design, usually as divorced from their relationship with other traditional forms of narrative media.
(2) Objectivism: Now there's a bullshit academic-y sounding term.
(3) In the case of Bioshock: Infinite, the ludonarrative dissonance emerges from how insanely violent the game is while the narrative themes play the cards of compromise and moderation and rationality even if that means putting up with abhorrent persecution.
(4) A wizard did it. Shut up, Final Fantasy VII is great. In all honesty though, it's really the ONE big example, and unlike in most other cases, it's the story content that fails, not the gameplay. All I mean by that is that they went for the simple elegant impalement which is not a convincing "wow, nobody could ever possibly survive that" form of murder. Problem is, nothing really is in a JRPG. Otherwise, FFVII, VERY ludonarratively consonant game.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Free Will and Defiance:
Postmodern Narrative Techniques and Game Design in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid
“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate . . . to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live . . . The important thing is that you choose life . . . and then live! Don’t you think, Snake?”
Released on September 3, 1998, the original Metal Gear Solid is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Hailed at the time as a technical masterpiece, it still stands among the all-time classics, though it has not aged gracefully. In addition, Metal Gear Solid remains an example of a rare breed: the kind of videogame someone might play just to experience its story.
It was thus: the tale of Solid Snake, a man tasked with infiltrating a nuclear waste disposal site in Alaska that had been taken over by rogue members of the US black-ops unit FOXHOUND, and preventing a nuclear strike by the walking battle tank Metal Gear REX.
When considering its sequels, especially Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, cynics like to assess the original as “the good one from before Kojima went nuts”. This is at best an ignorant assessment, as Metal Gear Solid is a clear predecessor, both in thematic content and in storytelling techniques, to MGS2 and the eventual Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Primarily, Metal Gear Solid is about exercising free will to defy one's own history, and is a prime example of a postmodern video game.
“Postmodernism” is notoriously hard to define with any kind of specificity, but for its uses here, it refers specifically works of art that make an objective of engaging the fact that they are works of fiction, and to state it simply, have a reason for doing so. (I find this definition to specifically fit well with how James Clinton Howell uses it in his groundbreaking “Driving off the Road”, linked in the acknowledgements below.) Specifically, postmodern video games are ones that tend to engage the artifice of being a video game, confronting and criticizing typical tropes of video game design and narrative, as well as engage the player as an entity in a manner that is more complex than simply “breaking the fourth wall."
Instead of just being "meta" (1), Metal Gear Solid is postmodern because it at first presents Solid Snake as simply being your player character, and eventually separates these two entities, pointing out the differences between the player and Snake, treating the player as an independent entity who is integral to the structure of the work.
On its surface, Metal Gear Solid is about "Genes," and the primary thematic focus here is to cast in bright light characters that defy their genetic "fate" and vilify those who obey it. For this defiance to be possible, characters must be willing to acknowledge and confront the darkness in their past. But being a postmodern game, Kojima also weaves confronting the artifice of the video game into this thematic content. Under the surface, the game implies that for these characters to escape their fates, they must break free of the artifice of being in a videogame. For leading man Solid Snake, this means not only confronting the truth about horrible things that he has done in the past, but also for him to break his symbiotic relationship with the player.
Symbiosis and Contradictions
The early section of the game that takes place in the Tank Hangar building is defined by contradictions in the tropes it presents, contradictions that will come to the surface later.
Among the most common video game tropes is The Hero with No Past, represented in any countless number of ways. Megaman, for example, is a robot who was created exclusively with the purpose of destroying other robots. The latter three main, numbered Elder Scrolls titles, in an attempt to ease player immersion, make the only thing known about the characters past that they were arrested for a never-specified crime. JRPGs love to use the Amnesia trope. The idea is simply that by giving a character no inherent definition, players will define the character through themselves, and though this trope has been shown again and again to be hollow and useless, it persists.
That Snake emerges from the water at the beginning of the game, “from nowhere”, is a visual cue symbolizing the trope. Even if we watch all of the Briefing tapes from the main menu, all we know about Snake is that he’s a retired veteran whose own moralism allows him to be brought out of retirement (2) to prevent a nuclear attack, which aside from the implied maturity and skill level involved, puts him on about the same level as any other game protagonist. The game is setting up a fairly standard story of clandestine heroism. However, the game also references with fair regularity the legend of Snake's past that he refuses to glorify or even really discuss until later parts of the game. This contradiction defines Snake's character arc.
The game also sets up other contradicted tropes as the basis of the game, for example, Snake's support team.
- Col. Roy Campbell is supposed to be the main mission support, a trusted friend of Snake's, however his honesty comes into question almost immediately when the first major objective is completed, finding the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson (3).
- Nastasha Romanenko is an anti-nuke activist who can give you details on just exactly how useful your destructive weaponry is.
- Dr. Naomi Hunter, a genetic research scientist who worked for FOXHOUND, is responsible for much of the nanotechnology that keeps Snake alive in the freezing conditions of Alaska, but we later find out she is responsible for also giving Snake a virus that will at some point kill him. (4)
- Master Miller, an old friend of Snake who gives him survival advice, later turns out not to be Master Miller at all, but Liquid Snake, the antagonist, who has been manipulating Snake into doing his work.
- Mei Ling is an engineer who designed Snake’s sneaking suit and soliton radar system, whose primary role is saving the game to the player’s memory card. Even she contradicts her gameplay role of "historian", someone who records the player's progress, by offering advice to Snake that might alter the outcome of the mission.
Atmosphere and Design
Traditional game design is based around a symbiosis between the player and the character they control, creating immersion in the game world. To enhance this immersion, game worlds are often filled with small graphical details, like how the grass blows in the wind in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, or how Bethesda used visual storytelling in general in Fallout 3. Games that tend to aim for immersion and atmosphere above other qualities, such as early Silent Hill titles and Ico, tend to have minimalistic Heads-Up Displays, reducing out everything that is not “the game.” Metal Gear Solid, though the graphical look doesn’t impress much these days, is very much in this class (camera aside, see below), with cracked cement walls and infamously not having a single research desk look exactly the same at Kojima’s insistence. Your life bar only comes into question if you get hurt, and the game only shows you your items and weapons if you have them equipped. Accessing your items and weapons opens up a menu that actually temporarily pauses the game.
However, this immersion is contradicted by the fact that the player must constantly acknowledge themself as an independent entity, using tools that only they, but not Snake, have access to.
The only truly omnipresent element of Metal Gear Solid’s HUD is the radar (5). The radar shows Snake as a dot in the center of the screen, with wireforms representing the physical structures in the game world. The most important feature of the radar is that it also displays the presence of enemies, and their immediate field of vision, represented by a white cone. Without this, Snake and the player would be left to constantly stalking low to the ground and clinging to walls, checking the area before feeling comfortable to advance. (In fact, this is how the much more traditionally designed Metal Gear Solid 3 is meant to be played.) However, with the benefit of it, combined with the games limited use of enemy sound detection as well as not having any way of detecting Snake outside of the cone, we can move quickly across the floors of the Shadow Moses facilities without being detected. (6) We also first use the radar to detect the presence of the DARPA Chief as well as Hal Emmerich, aka Otacon.
The camera also plays an interesting role in how Snake and the player move as a symbiotic entity throughout the game. In most cases, it gives us a distant overhead view, which gives us a good view of the dangers in Snake’s surroundings, but is not traditionally intimate or immersive, a reminder among many to come that the player is not Snake. In addition, there are various times when the camera will reposition itself to show us something important. When the game first starts, you can cling to the first wall while a guard does a mostly vertical patrol, and in addition to the radar showing their field of vision, the camera repositions to being in front of Snake, showing us what is around the corner. There are also two instances in the game, (upon first entering the first floor basements of both main buildings) that the camera shifts over a wall to show us the DARPA Chief and Otacon, giving the player access to information Snake has absolutely no access to himself.
There are other less organized, but notable examples throughout.
- Mission support will always treat Snake as a character in the story, but when they want to reference something in the game, they will immediately reference the radar, or most often, the “action button.”
- We complete an objective by failing it when we unknowingly kill the DARPA Chief and President Baker, which also happens near the end of the game when we use the key cards to activate a nuclear warhead instead of deactivate it.
- In a small way, the boss fight with Ocelot is marked by this kind of contradiction. We don't defeat him so much as he defeats himself by picking a weapon that requires manual reloading, giving us ample time to find him and shoot him.
- When we get back to the Tank Hanger, Meryl opens a door for us, and says that we are "right where I can see ya", but never is she where we can see her, or even her distinctive "funny way of walking" (7).
“It Should Be on the Back of the CD Case”
Immediately after the cutscene with Baker, we contact Meryl, the woman who helped Snake escape the DARPA chief’s cell, and Campbell’s daughter, using information available on the back of the box for the game that only the player has access to. Various points throughout the game thus far have winked at the player without acknowledging them directly, requiring the player to use the resources available to them, (but again, not Solid Snake,) within the confines of the game, such as the radar and the camera. This is the first case where the player must use information outside of the game world to complete a gameplay objective, something that occurs again in the Psycho Mantis fight.
Lying to Ourselves
Paired with the contradictions are thematically appropriate examples of denial, as the game refuses to yet openly acknowledge its own contradictions. The first major set of cutscenes with the DARPA Chief exposes that the Metal Gear project, thought “scrapped,” was continuing development. The discussion with President Baker reveals the denial involved in stockpiling nuclear waste. Both times Campbell tells us he knows nothing. Snake continues to trust him as a CO. We continue to play. We are lying to ourselves.
This first section of the game is about hiding the past, lying about it. The rest is about revealing it.
Much of Metal Gear Solid's thematic framework is actually built on the idea that most players were not at all familiar with the series (and didn't read the supplemental materials explaining the backstory), which in many or arguably most cases was true. The original Metal Gear was not at all a huge splash on the NES or the MSX (though its importance was well-acknowledged decades after), and the true sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake wasn't officially released in the US until 2006 with the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. (8)
For players unfamiliar with the canon (i.e. most players), the moment when the Cyborg Ninja was revealed to be Gray Fox was probably accompanied by a lot of head-scratching and utterances of "What the fuck is a Gray Fox?" It creates, even if small, a slight feeling of alienation and disassociation in the player, a gap between themselves and Snake which will be eventually widened into a great and deep chasm.
As mentioned, this part of the game becomes about discovering character's past. In this particular scene, we discover that Otacon's family has a "cursed" history in relationship with nuclear weapons (His grandfather was involved in the Manhattan project and his father was born on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima). In the game's first true discussion of its central theme, Otacon chooses to help Snake destroy Metal Gear REX, to defy his family's history.
Psycho Mantis, Game Design, and Narrative Structure
As aforementioned, I regard the Gray Fox reveal as the first real step in the separation process, but it more formally begins when the player encounters Psycho Mantis.
The Psycho Mantis boss fight is one of the more fondly remembered sequences in the game, and for good reason. In the late 90's, before Bioshock and before Spec Ops: The Line (9) it wasn't just "cool" that a boss read your memory card and told you what (Konami) games you had been playing and made your controller vibrate, it was terrifying.
But many people mistakenly leave it at that. To fully explain the significance of this moment, we should take a quick look at the game design of Metal Gear Solid. Boiled down, the design is reduced to this.
- Sneak past enemy guards, do not be seen.
- If caught, escape from the guards. You cannot kill all the guards, they will simply keep coming.
- If you cannot escape from the guards, you will die. (10)
Throughout the game so far, FOXHOUND has been completely aware of Snake's presence, (allowing him to progress so he can assist them in activating the stealth nuclear device, as we will later learn) but unlike your mission support, they have been unaware of the presence of the player. When Psycho Mantis comes along and reads your mind, suddenly the presence of the player is acknowledged in game, not just in screwing with the interface during the Mantis fight, but by changing the pacing of the entire rest of the game.
The first half of the game has a fair amount of sneaking interspersed with its boss fights and cutscenes, but after Psycho Mantis becomes aware of the player's presence, the game becomes a complete gauntlet: You exit the Commander's office, running through a cave filled with dogs that don't like Snake very much, followed by the first Sniper Wolf fight, followed by the torture sequence, then the communications tower, etc. The game becomes a nonstop line of major conflicts. This pattern of set-piece after set-piece just keep going until the game's ending, wherein you escape Shadow Moses and Liquid dies as a result of the FOXDIE virus. This is completely within the "rules" of the game's design that the player has to escape to survive. (It also shows a more passionate dedication to pacifism than the design of later titles, though all of the games are pacifist in theme.)
The implication here is that the game, having seen the player, is acting much like the game when enemy guards see Snake: throwing every conceivable challenge at us until we either escape or fall dead, meaning that the game's design and narrative are a symbiotic form.
After Psycho Mantis has seen the player, the game twists and turns and pulls apart Snake and the player by providing challenges that Snake may be ready for, but the player is not, emphasizing the differences between Snake and the player and widening the distance between them.
For example, almost immediately after the Psycho Mantis fight is the first encounter with Sniper Wolf. Not only do you not have the sniper rifle when you first fight her, but when you use it if you don't take the pentazemin, the gun shakes wildly in your hands, replicating the likely handling of a sniper rifle by someone who has never wielded such a weapon.
In the torture sequence, you have 3 options: resisting the torture by mashing the circle button (11), giving in by pressing the start button, or failure (years before “Fission Mailed,” if you died at this point, you also could not continue, you had to load an earlier save, which meant at the very least re-watching or skipping cutscenes.) This is a contradiction now brought to the surface, again so that the game can separate the Snake and the player. Snake, a highly trained clandestine operative, would in all likelihood be able to resist torture, but the player may or may not be able to. (12)
Players may have missed it the first time around since first-person view isn't very useful in this title, but back at the Psycho Mantis fight, you can activate first-person view and see through his eyes. (They even added the orange tint of the gas mask.) The game pulls this again both times you encounter Sniper Wolf, seeing through her scope.
This separation peaks in the climactic fight against Liquid piloting the Metal Gear REX after Gray Fox shows up to help Snake out. Mash that square button all you like, Snake will not fire that rocket.
The game also likes to rob the player of accomplishment by not having the bosses you fight die as a result of an action by you the player. Revolver Ocelot, for example, is never actually defeated or killed. Gray Fox, The Cyborg Ninja does not die when you fight him either. Sniper Wolf actually dies as a result of a gunshot that Snake performs by himself in a cutscene. Vulcan Raven is eaten by his namesake as he shuffles off the mortal coil in a cutscene as well. Liquid Snake dies, again in cutscene, as the result of the FOXDIE virus. Psycho Mantis is the only boss that dies directly as a result of player action. He's also the only boss that you defeat by acknowledging the artifice of the video game and acting as a person rather than a player. You take action as a player to defeat him, but the major contributing factor has nothing to do with you actually controlling Snake.
Defiance V. Dying Words
For Otacon, redemption comes as he resolves to help Snake destroy Metal Gear REX, to break ties with, and destroy the symbol of his family "curse". The same will come for Snake as he resolves to "find a new purpose in life", after decades of following the same path of war that defined the life of his father Big Boss, and his brother. Meryl starts the game wanting to get close to her Uncle, Col. Campbell, ending it hoping to lead a normal life with Snake.
However, in most cases, Kojima condemns the members of FOXHOUND death for refusing to acknowledge their pasts, confront them, or defy them. (Thus, the infamous death speeches.) (13)
Psycho Mantis' own violent acts reflect the hatred his father felt for him for the death of his mother in childbirth, and his inability to forgive his father or himself ultimately lead him down the path to his death at Snake's hand. Sniper Wolf's inability to leave the battlefield meant that she would ultimately die there. Vulcan Raven only defies this mold so that he can be a shaman capable of reading Snake's supposed future, warning him that, like in the past he's beginning to confront, there will only ever be war for him. Unless.
Like Psycho Mantis, Grey Fox's inability to leave the battlefield was a reflection of his own sense of guilt for having killed Naomi's parents along with however many other horrible things he may have done on the battlefield. His dying words were as much imploring Snake to take a different path as a desperate attempt to justify of his own.
This ties in to how the game separates the player and Snake. If Snake continues to participate in these missions where he will have to accept at least some degree of control from the player, he will always have to kill, and he will always have to live with that shame. But if he breaks away, he has a chance to live his life in peace.
If he fails, he will end up like his brother. Liquid is unique among the cast. Whereas others refuse to confront their past, he relishes in the possibility that he may not just be like Big Boss, but surpass his father. He is, as a result, the game’s greatest villain: a man who looks to all of the awful things that made him the man he is, and revels in it simply because he believes that is who he is supposed to be.
"We're not tools of the government, or anyone else."
“You Enjoy All the Killing”
After the fight against Liquid piloting Metal Gear REX, Snake wakes up on top of the mech to find Liquid, still alive, and the cutscene is shot from a first-person perspective. When the game is viewed as we see it, Liquid is addressing Snake, but he is also definitely addressing the player. At first he simply details the vision of world-wide war he wants. Snake tells him:
SNAKE: But as long as there are people there will always be war.
LIQUID: But the problem . . . is balance. Father knew what type of balance was best.
SNAKE: Is that the only reason?
LIQUID [at this point he turns to face the camera]: Isn’t it reason enough for warriors such as us?
Thus with that turn towards the camera he is also addressing the player as “warrior” in addition to Snake. Snake insists that he doesn’t want “that kind of world,” which might also be the response of the millions of humanistic people that have played this game, but Liquid laughs and says “You lie. So why are you here then?” and continues before concluding “Fine, I’ll tell you then. [There’s an emphasis on “you”] You enjoy all the killing.”
Implicit in the anti-nuke, pacifist thematic framework of Metal Gear Solid is a criticism of the player’s role in the symbiotic relationship of themselves and the killers they control. Players play violent video games as a power fantasy. Video games are all about control. Control over the characters, control over those characters’ actions, even control over the actions of the enemies, such as when a player employs certain strategies to affect enemy AI. Stealth games in particular offer arguably the highest level of that control of any violent video game, allowing the players to use high-level environment interaction to eliminate threats without ever being detected, in ways whose brutality are only amplified by the intimacy of the violence compared to the large-scale mass murder of say, a first person shooter. (14)
Metal Gear Solid slowly begins to deny this control to the player, as elements of the series’ canon are re-introduced to the bewilderment of many or possibly most players, and gameplay tasks rope the player along on backtracks and into deadly traps. What begins as a sneaking mission where Snake is undetected eventually turns into a series of events where FOXHOUND constantly has his and the player’s number. This happens while the game also begins to contextually lean more heavily on its pacifism in the tone and content of the cutscenes. The purpose of this is fairly straightforward: violence isn’t fun, and it’s never good.
When Liquid says “You enjoy all the killing,” though Snake rebuts him, when viewed as a statement towards the player, it is simply matter of fact: the game industry then, as today, was and is based mostly around selling masculine power fantasies to young men seeking them out. However, quite reasonably, the game also lays blame on Snake for not acting in his own free will not to fight, and shows sympathy towards the players being drawn to the violence. Snake must break away from the player to find a life of peace, and for the player to find peace, they must break away from their desire to be Snake, a man whose sole occupation in life has been to kill.
Conclusion: Free Will and Defiance
Hideo Kojima’s marketing for the Metal Gear Solid series is noted for its infamous subversiveness: MGS2 was originally marketed as being about Snake in NYC, MGS3 trailers joked that Raiden might be the hero again (after infamous backlash from many fans), and MGS4 trailers made it look like an FPS early on as well. The subversion is such that no one really knows anything about the game until right before it comes out.
Kojima later made it part of the marketing of his games to reveal a central them or motif of the game before the game releases, always as a single word. For this game, that word was “gene,” whereas MGS2 was about “memes,” (in the Dawkinsian sense,) MGS3 was about “scene,” and MGS4 had “sense.”
This sense of subversion carries on into those words, in that each of the games is about the defiance of each of those things.
MGS2 featured a protagonist who was triumphant for defying what history taught to him by learning about Shadow Moses, and a villain whose plans for an America independent of the Patriots were based on reliving the “cultural memory” of the Founding Fathers war for independence against the British.
MGS4 was about the defiance of “sense”, which Howell interprets as meaning “the habits and routines that inform a person’s behavior,” and how those habits and routines lead to destructive “cancer[s] and addiction[s].” For the characters that choose to defy their “sense”, they find redemption, and for characters who continue to maintain old habits, relive cultural memories, and obey their genetic roots, there is only death. (15)
MGS3 conversely is about characters that did not defy their place in history, in “the scene,” leading to the death of countless heroes, betrayals among people who had created intimate relationships, and an emotional downward spiral that turned Naked Snake into the “villain” Big Boss. It is also, not coincidentally, not a postmodern video game, but fits into that interpretation of the series in that is the only one of the main series on console that is truly a tragedy, whereas the other titles are postmodern tales of triumph, each in their own way.
Metal Gear Solid is about the heroes who find ways to defy their “genes” and live to find salvation, and the villains who obey them and die early deaths, leaving a path of destruction. The design of the game, it’s interaction with the fourth wall, and the structure of its game design also implies that defying the past also means breaking away from the player, who has and will again lead Snake down the path of violence.
In essence, there is a way in which those themes are repetitions of each other, different ways of explaining how one, in the moment, must always be practicing free will and making conscious decisions instead of always going on what feels right, what we usually do, what we might have done before, what people we know might have done, what the zeitgeist says you should do. To live only in obedience to what has come before and what is expected of us is living death.
“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate . . . to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live . . . The important thing is that you choose life . . . and then live! Don’t you think, Snake?”
Austin C. Howe, Maryland, USA, 2013
Metal Gear Solid is one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the titles that defined my childhood. For my most recent playthrough I did to help me write this piece, I played the download version from PSN on my PS3. The only reason I didn't play it on the original discs is that my copy of Disc 1 broke the last time I played the physical copy, pulling it out of the PS1 to switch discs before entering the Blast Furnace, just as my family arrived in North Carolina for a vacation. (We had one of the portable screen things. I also have Twin Snakes. Let's not talk about that.)
Indeed, I played it so often in my formative years, and have played it and its equally fantastic sequels so many times total that the series has been a major influence on not just my taste in games but my political and philosophical interests. In short: Metal Gear Solid is one of the games that made me who I am, and I am eternally grateful that it has been in my life.
I am also thankful for the various people who brought this game into my life, and who made this essay possible.
To my parents, who bought that old PS1, and replaced it when I wore it out the first time and who have paid for most of the games I've ever played, despite their skepticism.
To that second PS1, whose last year was lived in my room, so I could play old games deep into the night without causing a stir in the house. It finally gave out after almost a decade of faithful service while I was alternating playthroughs of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Chrono Cross, two of the finest titles ever released for the console. I still have it. I can't bring myself to get it recycled.
To Chaz Monroe Atkinson, my closest friend for half my life now, a brother, and another lover of the series.
To Julio Peredo, my Borderlands buddy, and another great friend, whose skepticism of Hideo Kojima's unquestionable and blinding brilliance only fueled my love of the series and helped lead me down this path.
To Oreo (he prefers not to share his real name on the internet,) who sat and patiently listened while I tried to work out this madness in words.
To James Clinton Howell, whose definitive essays on Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4 first opened my eyes to an entirely different way of viewing games, storytelling within games, and the interactions between mechanics and themes. You can read those essays, "Driving off the Road" and "Monstrous Births" here: http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/index/original.html (This essay was actually conceptualized as a sort of companion piece to those two.)
To Film Critic Hulk: in general just an inspiration who was also crucial in helping me see theme in every piece of an artistic work. His piece on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was especially helpful. You can follow him on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/FilmCritHULK His blog is here: http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/ and that piece specifically is here: http://badassdigest.com/2012/03/04/film-crit-hulk-smash-hulk-vs-the-genius-of-mulholland-drive/ Someday we'll learn your secret identity. Someday.
To Brendan Keogh, whose interest in this piece was a major inspiration to get it finished, and who also gave me pointers on how to structure this monster just because he's a cool dude like that. He posts regularly at http://critdamage.blogspot.com/ and wrote an excellent book about Spec Ops: The Line entitled Killing is Harmless, which you can buy here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16162864-killing-is-harmless. You can also follow him on twitter @BRKeogh: https://twitter.com/BRKeogh
And finally, to my brother, David Greyson Howe, who first brought the game, along with many other games and many other joys into my life. I miss you a little less every day, Grey, but I'll always miss you.
(1) “Meta” is mostly just in the case of works that break the fourth wall for humorous purposes.
(2) A note that Brendon Keogh made on that sentence when helping me put this together: Snake “coming out of retirement” is a metaphor for the re-emergence of the series 7 years later on a new system. I buy that, seeing as it’s become one of the series major gags: “This is Snake, kept you waiting, huh?”
(3) The DARPA Chief himself is another contradiction against typical game narrative form. The objective is to save him. Then it turns out Donald Anderson was already dead, and we were talking to Decoy Octopus.
(4) Canon note: As of our understanding in the original. In Metal Gear Solid 4 it is never totally resolved whether the virus or his rapid aging will kill him first.
(5) I’ve mostly chosen to disregard the fact that the radar is not at all present at higher difficulty levels, mostly because the game regards it as so important its referenced countless times in the script. Even without the radar, there are still elements like the camera that point out a symbiotic but also contradictory player-character relationship.
(6) Metal Gear Solid 2 added a feature wherein when you were outside of an enemy’s clear field of vision, they would get curious if someone was actually there, there vision cone would turn yellow, and they would slowly move toward you. MGS3 enhanced this further by adding camouflage mechanics manipulating the enemy field of vision based on your camo index, as well as adding more robust sound detection. In previous titles, enemies would only hear you when you moved across splish-splashy puddles or loud grating.
(7) Meryl is a problematic character to say the least, but discussing sexism in this series is another topic for another time that I promise I will eventually address.
(8) Fanboy note: I cannot tell you how unbelievably excited I was when I heard Subsistence was not only going to feature the corrected camera the original Snake Eater so desperately needed, but official versions of the MSX titles. I had read about those games for years on TheSnakeSoup and was absolutely desperate to play them. (Keep in mind Subsistence came out when I was 12 and had no idea that emulation even existed.)
(9) For the record, the former is terrible, the latter is excellent.
(10) Later games obviously modified this to a degree, and were straightforwardly more fun, especially 3 and 4, as a result. This is specifically how the original is designed. This aspect of the game's design is also something that Twin Snakes fucked up among countless others.
(11) One of the best quick-time events ever, topped, in my opinion, only by the microwave hallway in MGS4.
(12) MGS3, the most straightforward game in the series, was all about immersing the player in the character and it's atmosphere, such to the degree that it made its CIA agent resist the torture without question, and even did the part of the sequence where Snake has the bag over his head in first person to communicate that, which to me makes it obvious enough that this wasn't a plot hole in the original or the sequel, but a conscious choice.
(13) I find it worth noting that in most cases, these speeches are not, the treatises on morality and philosophy they've been slandered to be, rather, they are simply recounting the pasts of those who currently dying. If you happen to think its heavy-handed moralizing, you're only just getting the point of it all. If you wanna get on Kojima's case for that, fine, but stop mischaracterizing his work.
(14) Perhaps I must reveal my bias here: Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first game I ever bought with my own money, and I played it absolutely non-stop. To me, nothing is more horrifically violent in video games than shooting someone in the head in that game with a silenced SOCOM. The blood pouring from the head, the shriek suppressed by the gurgles, and the disgusting stain left on the wall afterward. Obviously Kojima was hamming it up a bit because the PS2 meant he could, but it left a serious mark.
(15) I would add that it also works to interpret it as how characters make decisions based on what “makes sense” in the world around them, which plays into a fairly common theme in the series that what is right isn’t always obvious or simple.