SPOILER WARNING: What makes video games both interesting and controversial as an art form is how much effort is required to get the full experience – normally, people talk about how you have to put in a level of time and skill to actually play and finish a game, but there’s also the fact you have to buy a console or decent computer to play it on, let alone the game itself. This is a two-decade old game on a long-obsolete console, so I’m going to be even more free with spoilers and character arcs than I normally am.
“Can I trust her?”
“More than you can trust me.”
Metal Gear Solid opens with one of the most cliche action movie setups you could come up with: a special forces unit called FOXHOUND has gone rogue and taken control of a nuclear disposal facility, threatening to launch a nuclear weapon if the government doesn’t accede to their demands. Solid Snake, former member of FOXHOUND, has been sent in as a one man army to rescue their two hostages and stop the terrorists from launching their nuke. His only help is a small team of experts – Colonel Campbell, Snake’s former CO; Dr Naomi Hunter, brilliant physician and geneticist; Mei Ling, genius teenage tech expert; Nastasha Romanenkov, weapons expert; finally, Snake’s former trainer, Master Miller, who provides pep talks and fighting advice. What makes the story interesting is how much of that premise is a bald-faced lie.
On this site, we’ve often talked about how something Can’t Be Two Things – that splitting your attention between two tasks, like a critique of America and an intense character study, will only make you half as good at either of them, and MGS both disproves and proves that adage. The game has an almost Tarantinoesque number of goals it’s trying to accomplish – it’s a character study, it’s a genre deconstruction, it’s an exploration of the destiny versus free will, it’s a tract against nuclear weapons, and it’s a procedural action drama about an expert solving one problem after another. From a plot standpoint, though, it really can be reduced to one thing: Snake does things to solve the problem that’s been laid out in front of him, and as a result learns things.
“Ugh, a madman is threatening the world with a nuclear weapon. I guess that’s what I should worry about now.”
That procedural element is something that makes this a good story, a good video game, and a story that’s best told via a video game. There are many contrasts you can make with Westworld – firstly, Metal Gear Solid has a single protagonist who we are with almost the entire way, and he always has one clear goal with multiple clear obstacles. Secondly, whereas Westworld puts all its twist energy into the end of season one, Metal Gear Solid speaks entirely in twists. Literally the first thing you and Snake see after the very first setpiece is a Russian gunship, which a small contradiction of that premise up there – what are American soldiers on an American civilian base doing with Russian military hardware? When writing a drama, you have to stop introducing new elements at some point because that just means more consequences you have to clean up; Metal Gear Solid applies that same discipline to a different storytelling logic. After the Cyborg Ninja* is thrown into the mix about an hour in (with the game being about ten to twelve hours long), I don’t think there’s a single new element introduced that isn’t either a logical extension or meaningful contradiction of that premise above e.g. when you rescue the first hostage, he reveals to you that this isn’t a nuclear disposal facility at all – it’s an illegal testing ground for the eponymous Metal Gear, a nuclear-equipped walking battle tank capable of launching a nuclear strike without being detected.
The immediate effect is a powerful sense of forward energy, and the overall affect is of someone exploring the world and learning more about it, creating a more complete picture in their head of how it works. I first played this game when I was about sixteen years old, and I think that was one of the major elements that attracted me to it. This is a story that, like The Simpsons or Futurama, takes pleasure in knowledge just for its own sake – wallflower has said he fell in love with Moby Dick when he got to the chapter on chowder, and I had a similar experience. Nastasha’s gameplay function is to teach you about the weapons and gadgets you pick up, so when she tells you about the purpose and history of, say, a SOCOM pistol, it’s kind of detailed but not that unexpected. It’s when you pick up a cardboard box and she lectures you on the history of cardboard boxes that I realised I was playing something beautiful (fun fact: cardboard was invented to absorb sweat in one’s hat). All of these things – the plot style, the mountains of useless but interesting info – are just expressions of the story’s worldview, which is that of a scientist: you create a hypothesis, you go out in the world, you get data, and you come back and reformulate.
“I don’t give a crap about you or your company.”
“Yes, that’s about what I’d expect from a grunt like you.”
What makes this a deconstruction of the action movie genre, a great action story in itself, and an all-time character study is that it applies this logic to genre tropes. As you might expect, Solid Snake is about 75% Snake Plissken when you first meet him. Like any good work of literature, Snake comes to us with a history; he’s already a legendary mercenary known for doing the impossible, and he’s been pulled out of his retirement in Alaska to save the day. He’s hypercompetent, but takes very little outside the mission parameters seriously – Snake’s not actively going to be a dick for no reason, but he’s not going to hide his indifference to something either. What becomes apparent as we get the chance to build up data is that there’s a lot more to Snake than that. Perhaps one definition of ‘humanising a character’ isn’t just giving you room to like or dislike them, it’s giving you the risk of being disliked for liking the character, because as Snake reveals his individual character, he reveals a lot of traits I personally admire.
At heart, Snake has a reasonable self-awareness that makes him charming to me – whenever someone tries to play up his status as a legend, he downplays it not out of self-loathing (at least not entirely, and I’ll get back to this) but out of that same practical, unsentimental mindset. Snake really doesn’t actually want to hurt anyone if it isn’t necessary – he has a strong live-and-let-live attitude that goes so far as to let the members of FOXHOUND he kills have their last words; the gruff Solid Snake choosing to bear witness to his enemy’s final words when he doesn’t have to is something I find deeply meaningful. And like all great stories, this attitude has lead Snake down a path he doesn’t entirely like.
It becomes clear in time that part of Snake’s attitude comes from him trying to keep people at a distance because he’s afraid of getting hurt and he’s afraid of them getting hurt; when he tells Meryl, a soldier he befriends, that “Other people just complicate my life,” she accurately notes how lonely he must be, to which he doesn’t respond. Another discussion we keep having is about backstory, from The Shield and David Mamet’s total rejection of the concept to Mad Men‘s more effective use of it. Metal Gear Solid goes even further; when Snake’s actions lead to Meryl getting hurt and himself locked up and tortured, he opens up to Naomi about his past as a way to take his mind off the guilt and pain. It’s a case of a single action generating multiple emotions in me; I’m moved that Snake feels the need to open up, the fact that he had to kill his mentor even when he discovered at the last second he was his father is sad as well as explaining a lot, and it’s impressive that Snake can simply acknowledge the situation for what it is**.
“And you were able to kill him, knowing that?”
[…] “That’s patricide!”
Tying into all of this is the discussion of genetic destiny. One of the major twists is that Liquid Snake, the leader of FOXHOUND, is actually the twin brother of Solid Snake, and that they’re both clones of Snake’s mentor, Big Boss, as part of an experiment to see if they could create great soldiers simply by cloning the greatest soldier alive. Naomi gives Snake several lectures on genetic destiny – she firmly believes that our genes determine what will happen to us, that Snake is such a good soldier because he was hardwired with the traits of a good soldier, and Liquid’s philosophy is driven by the same idea; he pulled the whole escapade because he believes he’s genetically destined to be a soldier, that there are many men like him, that the world doesn’t value soldiers, and he plans to use the money and military might from his scheme to create Big Boss’ dream: a nation of soldiers who sell their services to the highest bidder.
Snake is skeptical of all this, but ultimately the game comes down in the middle of them: everyone is born with so much potential, and it’s up to the individual to decide what they do with what they have. It’s really a smaller part of Snake’s overall Recognition; all that charming self-awareness is an awareness of his flaws and of his unhappiness, but he stops short of actually acting on his needs, leaving him perpetually unfulfilled – if you like, he’s Unenlightened Ownage, simply owning whatever’s pointed in front of him without any thought of where it’s taking him. Whether or not his genes are actually telling him to Be A Soldier, Snake’s experience leaves him knowing that he wants to be a soldier, and he wants to help people and forge connections to them, and he can find ways to do both at the same time.
Snake is paralleled with several of the people he meets; paralleling characters is a pretty common literary technique, but that scientific view of the world means what we’re seeing is Snake personally collecting data from the people around him that factors into his final decision***. Liquid obviously shares skills with Snake while choosing to take them in a completely different direction; Hal ‘Otacon’ Emmerich, an engineer Snake ropes into helping him, applies his emotions in a different context. Otacon is a giant nerd who got into engineering because he liked anime about giant robots; he’s horrified to discover he was tricked into building a Metal Gear and muses on how long scientists have been manipulated into serving war, reflecting a late-game twist when Snake discovers his whole mission was actually a cover to get him to kill everyone involved (including the hostages) to cover up the government’s involvement in Metal Gear. But the story also parallels their loneliness, one as a socially awkward nerd and one as a soldier who intentionally cuts himself off from the world, and the friendship they strike up emerges from what each learns from the other.
“Life isn’t all about loss, y’know.”
I’ve often been surprised when revisiting old favourites and seeing the story of my life playing out in them before it actually happened. Here, I was surprised to find a thought process I’ve spent years developing all laid out ready to go. My approach to criticism has become studying the action of the story, writing down the principle I think the characters or story are operating under, and then adjusting the principle as more data comes in – for example, very early on in The Terror, I noticed the characters were motivated by either pragmatism or honour, so I wrote that down and kept track of where each character’s motivation took them. Metal Gear Solid‘s mixture of strong, procedural plotting and abstract philosophy is apparently the kind of thing I’m so drawn to that I went to the effort of learning how to recreate it wherever I go. I think that, if The Shield reduces abstract ideas like authoritarianism and the Enlightenment to concrete, practical ideas, reveals seemingly concrete ideas to have little-to-no basis in realitytaking hard concrete statements, breaking them down into individual components, and filtering both the whole and the parts through different contexts. It’s an attitude that keeps what works and throws out what doesn’t.
Part of enjoying the Metal Gear franchise means being able to accept whatever absurdity is thrown your way. ==>!
The story even builds on this dramatically: Naomi is revealed to be a spy for the rogue unit, having joined up with them beforehand as part of a revenge plot against Snake for having killed her brother in the past. But in telling his backstory, Snake inadvertently humanised himself in her eyes, and she couldn’t bring herself to kill him. ==>!
Snake’s relationship to his story is one of the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Most characters are like Spike Spiegel, sharing the same worldview as their author and simply lacking authorial power. Don Draper is about fifty-fifty, having the same sense of introspection as the story around him but directing it towards problem-solving rather than people for their own sake. Tony Soprano at first glance doesn’t seem to fit in his story’s voice, but over time it becomes clear that he’s repressing both his morality and his more abstract symbolism-based thinking for pragmatism. Snake is interesting because neither his voice nor his skillsets match up to his story; he’s terse, practical, and shortsighted in a story that’s filled with schemes, monologues, and symbolic thinking. Perhaps it’s best thought of as the relationship between game designer and player: the crew create the kind of world Snake can play in. ==>!