Metal Gear Musings: Part 2

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest and worst things to ever happen to gaming: the Metal Gear Solid series. The series (and its MSX predecessors) have baffled and delighted gamers for decades, serving up an inimitable mix of social commentary, action movie escapades and bizarre medium games. Long time fan of the series Zigg is playing through every game fresh and looking back on them from a modern perspective. Warning – spoilers ahoy!

This week: I NEED SCISSORS Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2/Xbox/PC, 2001)

In its own way, Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of the bravest video games ever made. That might seem like an odd thing to say about a title which still remains one of the most anticipated games ever, which cost millions of dollars to make, and was backed by a colossal marketing campaign. To this day it’s still hard to think of a similar storm of hype which surrounded the buildup to MGS2, the frantic poring over every trailer and screenshot, the repeated claims of how revolutionary and unprecedented an experience it would be. And it absolutely, definitely is that, though not in the ways that anyone expected. MGS2 is brave because it used all of that hype, all of that budget, and produced a game which dared to ask the question ‘should I really exist?’.

Even though it’s more than 15 years old at this point, understanding MGS2 can still be difficult, since it attempts to operate on so many different levels. On the surface, it’s a major story shake-up for the franchise, introducing the concept of the Illuminati-style conspiracy cult ‘The Patriots’, who would come to dominate subsequent entries in the series. There’s also the arrival of a brand new protagonist in Raiden, and the return of an old enemy as Liquid Snake possess Revolver Ocelot through his surgically grafted right arm. Yes, really. Below the main story though, MGS2 is a commentary on the use and abuse of information in a society overflowing with it, and how truth is often a point of view rather than the absolute we take it for. And beyond even thatMGS2 muses on the nature and necessity of video game sequels and franchises, aiming to deconstruct the relationship between the game and the player. There’s an awful lot to take in, so let’s try and approach each of these disparate targets one at a time.

Story-wise, this was where Metal Gear finally jumped off of the slippery slope from ‘fantastical but still slightly grounded military thriller’ to ‘insane conspiracy theory nightmare labyrinth’. The introduction of The Patriots irrevocably moved the series towards the more overtly fantastical end of the scale, and the questions surrounding the mysterious sect would become the focal point for the franchise up until its very latest instalments. There are arguments to be made either way for how this affected the storytelling of the series, but it’s difficult to deny their presence here gives the entire game a memorably smoky, uncertain feel. MGS2 is perhaps the most obfuscating and mysterious of all the games – it frequently leaves major plot points dangling (How is Liquid back? Is Vamp actually supernatural? etc) and pretty much every character in the game is double-crossing someone or another, something which ties into the game’s recurring theme of identity and deception.

Furthermore, this is also the Metal Gear game with the most ambiguous villains and questionable heroes. Solidus and Dead Cell may be terrorists with highly dubious methods, but they’re also freedom fighters against an oppressive government that rules from the shadows. Likewise, Raiden may nominally be the hero, but he’s absolutely an agent of the aforementioned regime, carrying out its orders and furthering its agenda. The story’s authority figures are either nonexistent (The Colonel) or complicit (President Johnson) and even the ultimate objective of the mission turns out to be completely pointless, as revealed in the post-credits stinger. While subverting the seemingly honourable intentions of your mission control is a series tradition that dates all the way back to the original Metal Gear, it was never more obvious and prominent than in this game.

It’s really once you start digging past the surface level story that MGS2 begins to show off its thematic richness. Kojima later declared that while MGS1 was all about ‘genes’, this game was all about ‘memes’. No, not the pictures of cats with text on them, but rather the reproduction and evolution of information in society. The core of The Patriots’ goal is their aim to control the people of the world through the selective filtering of information, letting them see and hear only what The Patriots want them to see and hear. In 2001 this was an unbelievably heady concept, but needless to say, in 2018, the era of ‘fake news’ and viral social media, the entire idea seems terrifyingly prescient. Whereas MGS1‘s focus on nuclear power and proliferation dates it, MGS2‘s messages about propaganda and  the deliberate creation of memes give it immediacy and relevance, even if they are dressed up in absurdist conspiracy theory.

To elaborate, the whole of MGS2 is built around how restricting and controlling the messages available to certain parties can force them to act in a certain way, to coax a certain response that can be exploited. The Patriots stage Fortune’s immortality (until they don’t, but let’s not get into that) to encourage her to go rogue with her unit, and Ocelot even notes how she was “too busy hamming it up as the tragic heroine” to see what was actually happening. Even Solidus himself, supposedly the big bad of the game, is just a pawn playing out a role, serving as a necessary endpoint for The Patriots’ scheme. It’s telling that in his final speech, he doesn’t choose to rant about power or domination, but instead talks of how his aim was freedom, a new birth of liberty. Solidus’s greatest desire is to leave a mark on history, a legacy to be remembered by, a genuine achievement rather than his Patriot-manipulated life and service. The tragedy inherent in the character is not only that he fails, but that he never actually had a chance to begin with, his ‘rebellion’ just another pre-planned cog in the machine.

Raiden is the perhaps the ultimate example of this – everything he thinks he knows about his life is a lie, a manufactured Truman Show-esque staging that was designed to push him towards the single goal of becoming a new Solid Snake. All of his training is in VR, his unit was disbanded years ago, his commanding officer doesn’t exist, and his girlfriend is a sleeper agent. The Patriots even note that he was selected specifically because he was willing to ignore reality where other test subjects wouldn’t. And it’s here, finally, that we reach MGS2′s deepest and most brilliant layer – the game as a bitter, postmodern commentary on the nature of video games, video game fans, and sequels. MGS2 is the first time (of many) that Kojima said he wanted to finish the series and move on to pastures new, and it shows within the game itself.

Essentially, MGS2 was Kojima’s attempt to deconstruct both the fawning fanbase who saw MGS as the ultimate action movie, and the very concept of the video game sequel. By taking the players away from designated hero and franchise icon Solid Snake, and placing them in the shoes of total rookie Raiden, Kojima was trying to make a very specific point about the nature of MGS and the people who fell in love with it. Raiden is shamelessly a bargain basement version of Snake, always one step behind him, kept permanently in the dark, and bossed about by forces unseen without any sense of agency. He’s never carried out a field mission but boasts pridefully of his accomplishments in virtual reality training, something which the game subtly and then increasingly explicitly links to the popular VR Missions expansion pack for the original game. People who complained Raiden was a whiny, weak replacement for Snake were missing the point – that’s an entirely deliberate decision, and one which again is subverted increasingly more as the story plays out. Notably, this is one of only two Metal Gear games that asks the player to input their name at the beginning (the other is MGSV, which pulls off a similar narrative trick). The implication that Raiden, with his hero-worship of Snake and his delusional fantasy life, is a proxy for the player is inescapable.

That idea of the player as proxy extends to the story, which is essentially a tired retread of MGS1, entirely and deliberately so. Fans who clamoured for more freaky boss battles and mysterious conspiracies had both delivered in spades, and again the similarities start off slight but gradually increase in explicitness as the game carries on. There are two hostages to be rescued (Anderson & Baker/Ames and Johnson), a motley crew of ex-government agents to battle (FOXHOUND/Dead Cell), a nuclear launch to avert, a cyborg ninja who gives you tips over the codec, a nerdy computer genius to be rescued….the list goes on. By the time the story reaches Arsenal Gear the game abandons all pretence and drops Raiden into an exact replica of the torture room from MGS1. It’s as close as possible to an explicit ‘fuck you’ to the player. You wanted more Metal Gear? Here, we’ll repackage it for you and serve it up again, and you’ll eat it up! It’s worth pointing out that this is also the justification for the setup in-story as well, further blurring the already hazy line between commentary and meta-commentary

Speaking of meta-commentary, probably the most famous sequence in the game follows the torture room, in which The Colonel is revealed to be an AI and goes completely insane, shattering the fourth wall into tiny bits. Raiden, stripped naked and entirely bereft of any sort of agency, is forced to endure a stream-of-consciousness level of nonsense, including exhortations to turn off his game console and the infamous ‘Fission Mailed’ sequence where the game fakes a game over screen. The game openly mocks the player, with the Colonel even commenting that “this is a type of role-playing game” and berating the player for not having anything better to do with their time. Before long you’re fighting ninjas with a sword while Snake talks about how he has infinite ammo because he turned on a cheat code. The last quarter of the game is basically an extended surreal trip that’s about as far as possible from the hardbitten military fiction you’d have expected from an MGS game. At one point the radar is even replaced with a gravure video clip. While Metal Gear was always famous for medium games, they were never more involved or pointed than in this instalment.

While the climax of the game does not go down the path of playing with the fourth wall to such a blatant extent, it’s ambiguous enough that for many years fans theorised that it was simply another level of the simulation. The Patriots claim to Raiden that they are the collective consciousness of the United States of America, a living meme that cannot die as long as America lives. Whether it was intended to be literal or metaphorical barely matters, as the clear implication is that The Patriots are an enemy as unknowable and untouchable as fate itself. In the end, Raiden is forced to kill Solidus and the Patriots achieve all of their objectives and get away scot-free. The bad guys unashamedly win, with no caveats or consequences, because Raiden, and by extension the player, has no choice but go through with what they/the game asks them to do. In the game’s final scene, Raiden pulls out his dog tags, complete with the player’s name that they entered at the beginning on them, and throws them away, commenting that the name is not anybody he’s ever heard of. The symbolism is clear – only by casting aside the player can Raiden become his own character and have his own agency, rather than continuing to be a puppet.

It’s heady stuff, and I’d be lying if I said MGS2 was an unabashed success. The game surrounding these ideas has aged poorly, and often feels clunky and badly paced. It’s not a huge amount of fun to actually play. But in so many ways MGS2 is something much more important than a well-playing video game – it’s an interesting, incredibly unique experience, philosophical and provocative in ways that other games are only just beginning to catch up with. Other games in the series are more polished, more fondly remembered or higher rated, but they never quite got as ambitious and sophisticated ever again. Even in a series full of unique gems, there’s really something a bit special about this one.

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