This essay is not only full of spoilers, it’s written with the assumption that you’ve never played this game and never will.
THIS WOULDN’T BE A GOOD METAL GEAR SOLID 2 ESSAY IF THERE WASN’T TOO MUCH OF IT
The opening hour and a half of Metal Gear Solid 2 could almost convincingly pass as a great, conventional sequel. The basic plot is that Revolver Ocelot, having survived the events of what is now known as the Shadow Moses Incident, has started selling Metal Gear REX plans on the black market, and Snake and Otacon have teamed up to create Philanthropy, an anti-Metal Gear organisation officially recognised by the UN (“Recognised, but still fringe,” Snake observes). It’s a fundamentally dramatic setup where the events of the first game have spilled out into the larger world in a plausible way. Snake sneaks onto a ship that’s navigating down the Hudson River (by invisibly bungee-jumping off the Washington Bridge, which is even more awesome than it sounds) to investigate a tip that the Navy have built a knock-off called Metal Gear RAY, only for Ocelot and Gurlukovich (the Russian backing up Liquid in the last game) to rock up and steal RAY, with Ocelot turning on Gurlukovich at the last second. But there are a few really strange notes scattered around this symphony.
The first obviously immediately strange bit is when you see a shadow of Vulcan Raven, a member of FOXHOUND you killed in Metal Gear Solid, cast on the wall; you walk around the corner, and find a toy placed in front of a flashlight. It raises a lot of questions. Who would make a toy of a soldier in a top-secret military outfit? Why would it be on this boat? Who set it up in front of a flashlight, and why? The sheer unreality of this moment finally forces the question: why did the game designers put this here? It’s an uncanny choice. The most obviously strange bit is when Ocelot is suddenly possessed by the spirit of Liquid Snake, having had Liquid’s arm transplanted on his own after the Cyborg Ninja cut it off, at which point Liquid starts mocking Snake as an inferior copy of their father that will soon be irrelevant to the world (“You’re drowning in time!”). The most important bit, and the one that will float over most player’s heads the first time, is that when you save for the first time, Otacon will quote various sources and give you advice based on them in imitation of Mei Ling, who did the same thing in the first game. The thing is, he’s really bad at it, never fully grasping the meaning of the quotes he chooses and often reversing them – he quotes The Three Musketeers (“The book, not the candy bar.”) motto, “All for one and one for all”, but believes it means that taking on everyone alone will get you ganged up on. It takes something from the first game and deliberately creates an inferior copy of it by completely missing the point.
Hideo Kojima intended Metal Gear Solid to be the final entry in the Metal Gear series. The first two games, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, were released on the 3DO, with some critical and commercial success, and Kojima had high ambitions in taking the series to the powerful new PlayStation console, reassembling old cliches from Hollywood action movies he loved into a statement on free will, destiny, responsibility, war, nuclear weapons, pacifism, and Hollywood action movies. He viewed Metal Gear Solid as the summation of everything he was, could do, and believed in, and so he was quite offended when players delighted in the bloody action, identified strongly with Snake as a badass killing machine as opposed to haunted, emotionally broken anti-hero, and demanded a sequel so they could live out more violent power fantasies.
The Bad Fan was something that sprung up a lot in the discussions around Breaking Bad – people who were in it to see Walter White own everybody and get away with it – with a lot of digital ink spilled asking how the series ought to react to these Bad Fans. The conclusion ultimately satisfied nobody as it hemmed and hawed and let Walt get as much of what he wanted in the end as it could get away with. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, had his own Bad Fans, people who tuned in to a series about the decline of the American Dream to see guys get whacked; he dealt with them by passive-aggressively taking their money. Fans of The Shield, of course, love their series for not giving two shits what anybody thought of it. Hideo Kojima, in contemplating his own Bad Fans, chose a much stranger path: he asked himself how he could direct every element of a video game in order to convey to these Bad Fans that they ought to go fuck themselves. His first step was to advertise Metal Gear Solid 2 as starring Solid Snake.
DOESN’T HAVE A POINT OF VIEW, KNOWS NOT WHERE HE’S GOING TO
The first big twist of the game, and the one for which it has become most notorious, is at the ninety minute mark: the tanker goes down with Snake in it, and we jump to two years later. A project called the Big Shell has been set up to clean up the oil spill left behind by the tanker, and a special ops unit has gone rogue, kidnapped the US President on his tour of the facility, and threatened to unleash millions of tonnes of crude oil if their demands aren’t met, so one man from FOXHOUND, codenamed ‘Snake’, is sent in to stop them… except Snake will have his codename changed to ‘Raiden’ at the last second, and when he takes off his mask, he’s an androgynous pretty boy with long blonde hair. I’m gonna skip to the end here: the whole plot turns out to be an experiment by a superintelligent AI to see if it could manipulate a person with the careful distribution of information into doing anything it wanted, and it chose to put Raiden through the first experiment because he would be the easiest to manipulate.
His backstory, when revealed late in the game, is tragic not in the badass way Snake’s is, but in a sad and kind of pointless way; he was a child soldier who massacred a lot of people in the kinds of wars developed countries just kind of ignore, and as an adult he’s happy to push it completely out of his mind. Even outside of that, Raiden is an uncharismatic dork; his English voice actor, Quinton Flynn, gives him a nasal whine and a naive enthusiasm, and Raiden often finds himself completely out of his depth in a way that’s less badass and more flailing. The AI chose to put him through a facsimile of the Shadow Moses incident because he’s self-loathing enough to want to take up the identity of Solid Snake and emotionally weak enough not to question the opportunity too much when it arises.
MAN, HE REALLY HATES WAYNE ROGERS
The game is famous as a satire of the very idea of sequels; it shows strong influence from John Carpenter’s Escape From LA in how it satirises the previous entry by hitting the same beats but with a greater level of absurdity. I think Kojima really had it both ways with what he was doing; he mocked Bad Fans by bringing in exactly what they wanted, a cheap recreation of the experience they’d already had, but he also went to the effort of reversing one or another element from the original to make it a genuinely pleasurable experience. The original game was set over the course of a single night in the snow, so the sequel is set during a bright, sunny day. This principle is best shown in the boss fights; in the original, you fight Vulcan Raven, a big muscular Inuit guy who slowly stalks you around a warehouse full of boxes, and you take him down by laying explosives and shooting rockets up his ass. In the sequel, you fight Fatman, a fat guy who speeds around you on roller skates planting explosives that you then have to disarm.
The television show M*A*S*H had one creative stroke of genius that it kept doing over and over to consistently great results – whenever they had to replace a character, they always went to the effort of making the replacement the exact opposite of the previous character in some way. Henry Blake was a pushover who had been drafted into the Korean War, and Sherman Potter had been an Army doctor his whole life; Frank Burns was a completely incompetent, utterly tasteless buffoon, and Charles Emerson Winchester III was actually better than Hawkeye and was a proud member of the upper crust, with a sophisticated sensibility. I would call this a second principle of creativity: when forced to repeat something, keep one part exactly the same and reverse everything else. This is something I have applied myself to storytelling already, in that when ripping something off, I often disguise my blatant plagiarism by taking only the thing I want and flipping over everything else.
That’s not the only interesting thing the game does with structure. I said before that the final twist is that Raiden is being manipulated by AIs, and this is merely the bottom of a long line of twists. Beloved commentor and occasional Solute contributor ZoeZ remarked once that she hated when people defended bad writing with “it’s supposed to subvert your expectations,” to which she would reply with, “Yes, it subverted my expectation of being entertained.” It’s a wonderful line to make me feel slightly embarrassed to say that Metal Gear Solid 2 plays with the very nature of storytelling by pushing down on the concept until it completely breaks. It works on the same principles as the first game by giving the audience a series of facts and revealing some of them are lies, except this time literally everything is a lie. The game actually goes to the point of hiding twists under other, more obvious twists – one of the funniest jokes in anything I’ve ever seen is the fact that Raiden meets a Navy SEAL named Iroquois Pliskin who looks exactly like Solid Snake, has the same voice actor, the same gruff professionalism, clearly broke in from the bottom like Raiden instead of coming in via helicopter like all the other SEALs, and uses every military motto aside from the actual motto of the US Navy SEALs, and never completely twigs on to the fact that this man is Snake until he’s told.
(Also hilarious: a game that goes out of its way to explain how every weapon, set, and character works takes it for granted that you know why Snake would go by Plisken)
That twist disguises the fact that absolutely nothing the player is told is true, and often the first explanation you’re given for anything isn’t true either. You’re told going in that the Big Shell, the facility that Dead Cell take over, is a decontamination facility to clean up the oil spill, but actually it’s a secret R&D facility for Metal Gear, but actually it is itself a giant Metal Gear, the all-new Arsenal Gear! Often, people are surprised at how wrong Raiden’s conception of his world is (Snake often makes fun of how poorly briefed he is). Reality itself has no grounding; my first theory, formed about fifteen minutes into Raiden’s section of the game the very first time I played, was that this was all a VR simulation Raiden had gotten too invested in that started going horribly wrong. All stories, no matter how good or bad, will develop their own language if left to run long enough. The Stargate TV franchise built up an intricate web of exposition that trains the viewer to eventually spot solutions before the characters do; The Simpsons has images and symbols that keep gaining meaning, snowball-like, as the series progresses. Metal Gear Solid shows what happens when you use the same storytelling trick so much it becomes one of your default tools, your default method of communication.
KEEP A COOL HEAD AND ALWAYS CARRY A LIGHTBULB
This is a game about memes. Not stupid jokes or pictures with Impact Font splashed over them, but the concept as defined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Metal Gear Solid 1 was about the extent to which genes influence our decisions, and this game is about how ideas are selected and passed down from one generation to another. In a monologue famous for being dense and hard to follow but seeming fairly straightforward to your humble author, the superintelligent AIs lay out how ideas are created, and then either grow as more people spread them or wither and die. In the game, there’s a conspiracy going back centuries controlling which ideas get spread via mass media, but the rise of the internet has lead to a lot of what the AIs call ‘junk data’, useless information that clogs up humanity and refuses to die. The AIs were developed by the conspiracy to sort this junk data, to prune out unacceptable ideas and encourage good ones (the AIs themselves get poetic about it, describing themselves as the very will of America come to life, which I think is part of the cause for confusion because reading between the lines they’re just computer programs with the different procedures and techniques developed over centuries that got complex enough to become consciousness).
(The game is set in 2009, so congrats to The Solute for surviving the AIs’ filter)
When Raiden objects to this as an attack on free will, the AIs brutally mock him as a perfectly poor example of what humanity can do with free will. He was presented with a shoddy wish fulfillment fantasy that could fall apart with the slightest glance and chose to go along with it – even when he could see the holes – because it made him feel like a badass and a hero. As their final proof, they tell him to kill Solidus Snake (long story short, he’s Solid Snake’s other brother, who raised the child army Raiden was in and also killed his parents why not), so that he may slay his father and truly become Solid Snake. Just for kicks, they taunt him with images of his girlfriend, acting like she’s being held prisoner by them when he’s not even 100% certain she was ever real at this point. The message is clear: abandoning all sense of identity for escapist fantasy is bad. That is not how the game ends. Hideo Kojima is no David Chase, content to wag his finger at the audience and take their blood money; Kojima has a vision of how his audience can avoid becoming mindless sheep and he’ll even lay it out in a way that they’ll listen. As Raiden tries to wrap his head around everything that’s happened, Snake, the badass awesome hero dude we’ve spent all game trying to be, appears, lays a hand on Raiden’s shoulder, and tells him to carefully pick and choose his values based on his own sense of right and wrong, to discard and take up ideas as he sees fit, and to pass those ideas onto the next generation when he has the opportunity.
I first played Metal Gear Solid 2 at the age of sixteen, drawn to the series after reading about the famously trippy ending of its second entry and the playful deconstructionist approach it had to genre in general. I thought it was the coolest goddamned thing anyone had ever done. The strange tone it takes, simultaneously winking and ironic and breathlessly sincere, often switching from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds, is the kind of thing I’ve always gotten a kick out of. How could I not love a game where there’s a Romanian wizard with super-strength, super-speed, an ability to walk on water, a penchant for drinking blood that he picked up when he had to survive drinking his family’s blood in a collapsed church as a child, who is codenamed Vamp because he’s bisexual? How could I not love a game where Snake pulls Otacon out of the trauma of his stepsister getting killed with a super-secret handshake and a hug, and it’s the purest moment of joy in the whole story? This story takes the dumbest comic-book ideas possible, photocopies of photocopies of genre tropes, and builds a single coherent work out of them that weaves together a character study and a worldbuilding exercise and a lecture on a sociological phenomenon and a manifesto, and does the work to make sure that not only are all these different elements as good as they can be, they don’t contradict each other. Snake is, at once, a representation of Raiden’s low self esteem and everything he wishes he was, a study of a man who found peace and aims to pass that peace onto the world at large, a source of information on the political machinations in his world and on soldiering in general, a mouthpiece for Kojima’s ideas on an ideal world, and a mouthpiece for Kojima’s frustration with his Bad Fans.
The message of the game resonated with me too, in ways I couldn’t fully articulate or grasp at sweet sixteen. One of the major things that drew me to the game was the infamous act three turn, when Raiden descends into the bowels of Arsenal Gear (literally – the locations are named after parts of the human digestive system). The iconic image is Raiden running nude through an army of supersoldiers, constantly receiving bizarre messages from his commanding officer that alternate between breaking the fourth wall (most iconic message in this vein: “Turn the game console off right now!”) and total word salad (most iconic message in this vein: “I need scissors! 61!”). What’s happening on a literal level is actually quite straightforward – one of the AIs has been posing as Colonel Campbell this entire time, and the virus Snake secretly uploaded without Raiden’s knowledge fucked it right up. What’s more important, what I intuitively grasped that all those other
stupid fucks more conventionally-minded players did not is that an emotion that has been actively repressed all game has finally exploded out everywhere like a tantrum in the grocery store.
At the time, I had a strong interest in postmodernism, an ethos known for being vapid, empty bullshit, and a lot of it is, especially now that what was once novel and exciting has become the default tool of every two-bit hack. Metal Gear Solid 2 pulls one of the central emotions of it out: that there is something flimsy and threadbare about the world, that the ideas that hold it up are fragile and prone to collapse at almost any moment, and that this makes existence utterly terrifying. What if, the day after you bought your first car, they banned petrol-based vehicles in favour of electric cars? What if everyone has been lying to you about how biology works? What if everyone just up and decided they hate semicolons for no good reason? The franchise’s twist-based storytelling plays off this attitude, and pushes it to an apocalyptic breakdown of reality itself. In retrospect, it’s an idea I regarded with equal parts fear and glee. On the one hand, it’s the terror of complete powerlessness. On the other, aside from the smug joy in confirmation that everything you were feeling has been proved correct, it’s proof that my mind can survive even a total breakdown of reality. Fiction can act as practice mode for life. We can put ourselves through a simulation of something frightening or traumatic – grief, social embarrassment, loss of identity – and make an approximation of what to do the first (or next) time it comes around.
And on the third, mutant hand, it set me up to seriously consider the point Kojima finishes on. If it’s true that reality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, that ideas can come and go almost at random, and that I’m driven to live in the world anyway, then of course my view of the world – which ideas I hold onto, what my sense of right and wrong are, what objects and people and institutions and words mean – is a choice I have to get up and make every day. When I thought over the details of this story – how part of what I loved about it was that every character had their own ridiculously detailed backstory that factored into their choices and their ideologies – I decided that what I value is individualism. I like people who fight, even in small ways, to retain their individual identity. I like communities that encourage individual expression. I don’t like it when people shut down individual expression, especially individual expression that doesn’t actually harm anyone (I like to think I’ve gotten less naive about the reality of the line between ‘personal expression’ and ‘harming someone’). Most of all, I like developing my worldview. I like looking at the world and deciding for myself what it means. I like breaking my reality, putting myself through Raiden’s Big Shell experience over and over, seeking out ideas that upend my view of reality and leave me angry, frightened, or humiliated. I like expanding my worldview, discarding old ideas and meanings for new ones.
MY TRANSFORMATION INTO METAL GEAR SOLID CHARACTER ENDS
As you might guess by the fact that I am no longer sixteen, this was not the end of my story. Beloved Soluter Conor Malcolm Crockford linked this article last week, and one of its fundamental precepts seems to be that we only learn things from fiction – that once we’ve internalised an idea we’ve picked up from a movie or book or short story, we’ll spend the rest of our lives acting it out, as if the stories of real human beings finish at the end credits of a movie and the rest is a sad, pointless rollout of the inevitable. If there’s any small proof about the limits of what fiction can do – especially fiction that aims to lecture its audience – it’s that after having this moving, profound experience playing Metal Gear Solid 2, I went against almost everything I laid out above. When I was twenty, I was drawn into that online community of young leftists that don’t call themselves anything except maybe ‘good people’ but are often referred to by detractors as SJWs (I keep trying to call them the New Tens Counterculture, but honestly I’ve come to accept that such a clinical, dispassionate term will never catch on until they fade into history). To be fair to my younger self, I was initially drawn to the community out of compassion for women and minorities, a curiosity for a bunch of strange new ideas, and the humility to work through the ‘fuck white men and the horse they rode in on’ rhetoric on the surface of those ideas. With time, I formed relationships that evolved into a support network, and the typical things happened – friendship, camaraderie through difficult times that often felt as if it were us up against all the evils of the world, and confessions (amongst other things, it was in that community I found the strength to admit I was bisexual).
It was with time that I started to smell bullshit. I realise “I was the only one keeping it real, maaaan” is a cliche, especially for leftists, but I really did feel as if I was in it because I genuinely wanted to find some kind of fundamental moral truth at any cost (again, including my dignity) and that not only did not everyone share this commitment, it felt like everyone was putting their pettiest, most superficial desires above everything. At first it was a lot of little things, like the pointless hair-splitting fights, such as who precisely fits under the queer umbrella, and occasionally these fights were massive site-wide skirmishes that lasted for a few days. I brushed these off as something the community would grow out of once definitions of terms were more solidly set. Then, one day, a massive outing of sexual predators occurred, exactly like the one that started in Hollywood in 2018; I wasn’t offended by the bewilderment of, say, Louis CK fans, because I had gone through exactly the same thing a few years earlier, hurt and surprised that someone I admired could be so awful, though in my case it was married to the shock that someone who said all the right words could be so grossly hypocritical.
I looked at the people around me, and saw people who blamed everyone but themselves. I saw people who took no responsibility for creating and propagating the language these people used to commit awful deeds, instead digging into their perception of themselves as good people who did nothing wrong and continuing on the exact same way they always did. I saw nobody doing what I was doing, alone and silently: going over all the details, trying to find whatever turned these people into the monsters they were and if I shared any of that with them. What I did in terms of, like, actually doing shit was nothing. As far as anyone knew, I was just continuing on as normal, just like everyone else. I was sacrificing my individuality – my moral code, my perception of events – for both a broad collective stability, and for the love of my seemingly entirely unaffected friends. That was a turning point; afterwards, I couldn’t help but see the static cycle of outrage, rationalisation, and return to status quo a little more degraded, not too dissimilar to the overall arc of The Sopranos.
(I don’t know how melodramatic this looks from the outside, but it does shock me looking back how this was the most important thing in the world to me at one point)
I can point to The Simpsons and say with clarity that it taught me the psychology and language of angry mob justice; Metal Gear Solid 2 came into my life late enough that I don’t know if it taught me something new about individuality or simply awakened something that was always there and gave it specific words and faces and ideas. I suppose it doesn’t matter at this point. What does matter is that, if fiction is so powerful and the ideas we take from are apocalyptically important, why didn’t I act on beliefs I sincerely held, that were so fervently pushed on me, that I put tremendous thought into? Do we have to see the negative before the positive is hammered into our brains? Was I simply weaker than most other people? More passive? More humble? Do most young adults find themselves coming short when it comes to acting on their beliefs in some way, and I was simply acting out a pattern as old as human beings? Should I be happy the damage from my personal failure was as limited as it was? Regardless of all this, my experience has given me a degree of skepticism when it comes to fiction’s ability to pass on messages, positive or negative. I don’t know how common my experience is, but I know the number of weak humans is higher than zero, and I know an idea is only as strong as the person wielding it.
LIBYA IS A LAND OF CONTRASTS, THANK YOU
I can’t imagine any regular Soluter enjoying Metal Gear Solid 2 to the extent I do. It came into my life right when I needed it, and it’s such a delicate balancing act that it’s astounding that anyone liked it. Reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with most players not even understanding it and most of those who came within spitting distance of getting it dismissing it as pretentious bilge. Supporters have quietly but firmly kept a light burning for it, but in all honesty it’s something that depends so strongly on the moment it was released – on your expectations of a conventional Metal Gear Solid sequel, on the marketing buzz that built up to it, on you simply not knowing that a guy named Raiden rocking up ninety minutes in – that I see it fading into history. Already, new generations of gamers are being surprised by many of the exact same twists and morals coming back in new games, though not with the density of MGS2. The fact that I loved it was the result of a staggering balancing act in itself; I had to find Raiden sympathetic, and I had to find the game’s abuse of him hilarious, and I had to be delighted by the fact that it told a certain segment of the population to get fucked, and I had to think action movies are awesome, and I had to be willing to avoid spoilers past the second act reveal, and I had to be not just okay with preachy monologues but enthusiastic about them. In a lot of ways, this is a story for teenagers, looking for someone to explain things to them in terms they understand. It feels arrogant of me to expect people to mold themselves into the mindset I had just to enjoy a video game ‘properly’. It’s enough for me that I had that experience, and that I can factor that experience into my life moving forward.