Metal Gear Solid and Post-Modernism

(Seriously, HUGE spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain inbound. If you haven’t completed Mission 46, turn back NOW.)

(Secondly, big thanks to George Weidman of Super Bunnyhop, whose series of critical examinations of Metal Gear helped solidify a lot of these ideas for me.)

I am Big Boss.

What is the Metal Gear Solid series about? Giant robots, right? Series creator Hideo Kojima has a reputation for a great many things, from his contradictory, labyrinthine plots about giant mechs and nanomachines, to his excessive, cinematographic style, to his obsessive attention to detail. For all the comparisons to Quentin Tarantino you’re likely to find out there, one thing is for certain: MGS could never be a film and still retain the essence of what makes it what it is.

At its very core, MGS is about two things: one, that it is, in fact, a game. The gamiest of games, even.

Two, that it always has and will continue to lie to you.

Part 1 — Metal Gear Solid: The Best is Yet to Come.
Video game players, huh?

Octacon: Snake. What was she fighting for? What am I fighting for? What are you fighting for?

Solid Snake: If we make it through this I’ll tell you.

The original Metal Gear Solid lies to you from the start. It lies to you during its opening monologue, with Colonel Roy Campbell telling retired operative Solid Snake to infiltrate the experimental weapons facilitiy Shadow Moses Island, rescue two hostages and defeat an entire rogue FOXHOUND unit alone. As you are probably aware, this is not entirely the case. Snake’s real mission, as dictated by none other than Secretary of Defense Jim Houseman, is to merely come into contact with everyone at the base, using the secret FOXDIE virus implanted in him to assassinate them (using nanomachines, probably). He does so, defeating and “killing” the likes of Decoy Octopus, Sniper Wolf, Vulcan Raven, Psycho Mantis and eventually his twin and fellow clone, Liquid Snake, clearing them out of the way so the United States Government can recover Metal Gear REX (using their double agent, Revolver Ocelot) and wash their hands of Snakes and Foxes.

Speaking of Liquid, he also lies to you. He poses as “Master Miller,” Snake’s former trainer whom Liquid (or Ocelot) murdered before the events of the game. Guiding you over Codec, Liquid subtly forces Snake in the right direction, doing what he never could and activating Metal Gear REX for him. Throughout the final hours of this game, Snake sort of devolves into a confused, paranoid wreck, a mercenary without a clear mission or any real idea of why he’s still fighting. Liquid asks Snake as much, pondering if he just “enjoys all the killing.”

This brings me to how MGS1 engages with its most important character: you, the player. Famously, Psycho Mantis all but obliterates the fourth wall, reading your memory card, vibrating your controller, pretending to turn off your television and eventually forcing you to plug your controller into port 2, removing his mind control and allowing you to actually fight him. In a series already adamant on having voiced characters explicitly refer to button prompts and save files, this embraces post-modernism fully and involves you as a direct participant in the narrative. When Liquid asks why Snake is still fighting, he’s asking you why you still care about stopping him. If everything was a lie, why still beat the game? Is it because the game is designed to be a game, and “beating” is it the only way to fully experience it as a piece of entertainment?

As a bit of a retcon, Hideo Kojima eventually assigned “themes” to all of his games, and the theme for MGS1 is “Genes.” The idea is everywhere, from Genome Soldiers, to Liquid’s insistence that he and Snake are destined to be what they are due to their shared inheritance of Big Boss’s genes. Interestingly, this theme also applies on a metatextual level as well. MGS1 is structured very similarly to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Kojima’s second game and the first to truly resemble what would follow. To put it another way: MGS1 inherited the genes of MG2, and it was enslaved by them. It inherited the genes of dozens of cheesy action films that take place in the near future (MGS1 was set in 2005 but released in 1998) with stoic badass heroes who overcome all the odds, get the girl and win the day.

Except that’s not at all what Solid Snake is. It’s what he appears to be at first, but starting at some point after the Psycho Mantis fight, when the player’s presence in the narrative is explicitly brought to the front, everything changes. When Ocelot tortures Snake, it’s up to the player, specifically the player, to endure (“there are no continues, my friend”). If you fail, Meryl dies (until MGS4), and it’s Otacon who rides off into the sunset with Snake after Liquid dies. Not after you, the player, defeat him, but after he finally succumbs to the FOXDIE virus. Nothing you did mattered, except for being there at all. Your presence as both observer and participant was the only choice you made, the only thing you did in the game, that had any real effect on its outcome. Solid Snake is a puppet, both in the sense that the U.S. Government is using him, and in the sense that you were controlling him all along.

It’s not over yet, Snake!

Metal Gear Solid is an inherently creepy game. A lot of the camera angles invoke horror films, a lot of the game’s background noise is downright chill-inducing. It’s a desolate and thoughtul game that challenges the player’s notions of heroism, while also allowing them to fight a giant, nuclear robot with a rocket launcher. The genes of the entire action genre have been subverted. Tell me: does Solid Snake feel like a hero? Do you?

The Best is Yet to Come.


Part 2 — Metal Gear Solid 2: Fission Mailed.
Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same..

Snake: I know you didn’t have much in terms of choices this time, but everything you felt, thought about during this mission is yours, and what you decide to do with them is your choice.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty lies to you. It lies to you before it even begins. It lies to you before it was even released. It lies to you on the box art, it lies to you in its trailers and its promotional material and its very existence as a sequel.

The game’s first chapter, the Tanker Chapter, is everything most MGS1 players would have wanted in a sequel. Solid Snake has a reason to fight (to prove the existence of and eradicate the use of Metal Gear), an ally (Otacon), and a mission of his own choosing. After infiltrating the eponymous Tanker, Snake discovers a new Metal Gear, which is almost immediately stolen by Liquid Ocelot (more on him later). The Tanker is destroyed and Snake is lost, presumed dead.

What am I supposed to believe in? What am I going to leave behind when I’m through?

Then the game actually begins, and Snake isn’t here anymore. Instead, it’s Raiden, a character designed to be the literal antithesis of cool stoic hero Solid Snake in nearly every way. Raiden whines; Raiden boasts about how he can handle himself because he played a simulation of Snake’s missions; Raiden sucks. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, why he’s doing it or who he even is. To put it simply, Raiden is the “player” from MGS1. He knows what he wants, and what he wants is a bigger, better sequel to the first game that he loved so much. And that’s what Hideo Kojima gives him. A by the numbers, step-by-step recreation of the Shadow Moses Incident. This is literally what the plot of the game is revealed to be about: the entire Big Shell incident exists as a simulation to replicate Solid Snake, orchestrated by the shadowy AI pretending to be Colonel Campbell.

After making his way through the Big Shell, Raiden is captured and tortured by Ocelot (in a scene purposefully reminiscent of MGS1) and stripped of his gear. That’s when the game loses its goddamned mind. The ground lights up as you walk over it. The walls start bleeding computer code. The Codec calls start berating you for playing a game in the first place. The Arsenal Gear section of this game exists as possibly the most purely post-modernist video game section in recorded history. Everything that happens is so explicitly part of a video game that it’s almost staggering, and is still amazingly effective nearly 15 years later.

After reaching Solid Snake, Raiden gets his gear back before he and Snake go on a rampage, destroying dozens of Arsenal Tengu soldiers and looking all the world like big goddamn heroes. This is notable not only because holy shit is it fun, but because it’s probably the only time in the entire series where Snake actually resembles the legends that surround him. He’s basically unstoppable. This all begs the question: in a game where literally every character has lied to you from the start (including Snake himself for a long sequence), how does the player know if any of this is real?

Anyone you know?

After the game’s final boss (that this game makes a swordfight with the President of the United States on top of Federal Hall a basic plot point only adds to its legacy of insanity), Snake and Raiden meet on the streets of New York, and talk about what the point of it all was. “Don’t obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide,” Snake (Kojima) tells Raiden (the player), and the message is simple: focus on the subtext, not the narrative. The theme of this game is “memes,” and in the scholarly sense. The AIs pretending to be Campbell and Rose are memetic; they exist as a composite of everyone’s memories of what happened before. Raiden, and his quest to become a new Solid Snake, is memetic.

Most importantly, the entire human race is memetic, according to Kojima. We, and by extension this game we have just played, can only exist in the context it exists in. It can only exist as a sequel to Metal Gear Solid, with all the baggage and hype and expectation that comes with it. It can only exist in the culture it exists in, and the culture it exists in is one obsessed with ideas of sequels and continuity and meaning. We give it our own meaning; we choose our own names, our own reasons to fight. When Raiden throws away the dog tags the player customizes at the start of the Plant Chapter, he rejects being the same sort of puppet Snake was in MGS1. If not for MGS4’s existence as fan service, he would have disappeared from the series entirely.

That’s where this game shines unlike any maybe in history, and that’s where it proves that Metal Gear Solid could only ever be a game.

By keeping the past alive.


Part 3 — Metal Gear Solid 3: A Patriot Who Saved the World.

The Boss: Is there such thing as an absolute timeless enemy? There is no such thing and never has been. And the reason is that our enemies are human beings like us. They can only be our enemies in relative terms.

Metal Gear Solid 3 lies to you. Snake Eater was the first Metal Gear game I ever played. Luckily for me, it’s the most accessable, self-contained, and outwardly warm and inviting game in the entire series. Set in 1964, MGS3 is the origin story for Naked Snake, aka Big Boss, the villain of the first two Metal Gear games and the driving force behind the actions of Liquid Snake in MGS1. He’s an inherently more interesting and likable person than Solid Snake (for good reason, since Solid Snake is a puppet, you remember). He’s funny, weird, and for the most part, very enthusiastic about who he is and what he’s fighting for. He’s a solider, fighting for an America in the middle of the Cold War. He’s an idealist, and he believes in his mission. His mission is to defeat his former mentor “The Boss” after her defection to the Soviet Union resulted in the use of an American nuclear weapon on a Russian military base. To absolve the US of responsibility, he must defeat the woman who taught him everything he knows. After fighting through her entire World War II unit, an insane Russian colonel, a young Ocelot, and scores upon scores of hapless soldiers, he does, in one of the best final boss fights of all time.

After which point, the game reverses everything you thought you knew and pulls the rug out from under you entirely. The Boss never defected at all. Her mission was both to secure a MacGuffin called The Philosopher’s Legacy and to die at Snake’s hands to ensure the US gets out unscathed. She carried out her mission, despite her own personal misgivings, and she died for it.  Learning this shatters Snake and his sense of patriotism, opening the door for his eventual heel turn.

No, not that name. You’re not a snake, and I’m not an ocelot. We’re men with names.

What makes all this post-modern is harder to describe with a simple synopsis. Firstly, Snake Eater is immediately charming not only because it’s a period piece, but because it’s an explicitly pop cultural one. Major Zero, Snake’s commanding officer, loves the Bond films, stating that “they’ll make 20 more of them someday!” Not surprisingly, the entire game looks and feels like a parody of a Connery-era Bond movie, from the theme song, to EVA’s sexualization, to Volgin’s hammy overacting and scene-chewing (Volgin rules).

More than that however, the game has a warmth to it. The cutscenes, so long an obstacle for so many players, are playful and kinetic like never before. The five core characters (Snake, EVA, Ocelot, The Boss and Volgin), bounce off one another in a seemingly never-ending cycle of betrayal and suspicion and Cold War intrigue. The boss fights, long the bedrock of innovative gameplay, are at a series highpoint. The sniper battle with the End, which, in typical Kojima style, can be avoided entirely by either sniping the character at an earlier point in the game or even just waiting two weeks (in real time) for him to die of old age, is another of the best in history. The Fury is essentially Major Tom from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” come back to Earth to seek furious vengeance. The Sorrow takes the player to some sort of purgatory, where he is confronted with the spirits of everyone Snake has killed to this point in the game. Every solider, every boss, every animal. So, of course, if you’ve played non-lethally, it’s short and very easy. Often it isn’t. At the end, the player finds the Sorrow’s skeleton (he was the Boss’s lover and Ocelot’s father, and she killed him to stay true to her mission), and is forced to use a fake death pill to resuscitate himself.

I see you, Snake!

Where the first two games were focused both on what it meant to be a 3D Metal Gear and what it meant to be a sequel to a 3D Metal Gear, MGS3 is focused more on itself. The theme of this game is apparently “scene,” which can be taken multiple ways. The scenes that the game inhabits are much livelier and more exciting than before, but in a narrative sense the scenes of the game are all that matter. The Boss herself bases her entire philosophy as a soldier around the idea that absolute enemies don’t exist, that today’s friend or mentor or lover could be tomorrow’s foe, and that the idea of nations or missions or causes are secondary to the self. That she chooses to die at Snake’s hands instead of fighting for her own beliefs is evidence of her contradictory nature as a character, and it’s that contradiction that shatters Snake’s belief system.

Interestingly, the player himself has less of an impact on the narrative in this game, because the player himself is Snake. No longer is the player controlling Snake or Raiden like a puppet. This is best evidenced by how many cutscenes (hidden or not) take place from Snake’s point of view. There’s a bigger idea of Snake’s disillusionment with the United States being a precursor to the ideas presented by Big Boss in Metal Gear 1 and 2, but that’s probably better off being handled in a Metal Gear Solid 4 post, which unfortunately I won’t be doing here since I’ve never beaten it. Suffice to say that MGSIV lies to you at the start when it tries to explain who Liquid Ocelot is.

They’ll tell you where to go.


Part 4 — Metal Gear Solid V: The Man Who Sold the World.

Big Boss: Where we are, today? We built it. This story, this legend? It’s ours. We can change the world- and with it, the future.


Metal Gear Solid V lies to you from the start. From before the start, even. At the end of 2014’s tech demo/prologue Ground Zeroes, Big Boss sees his Mother Base, the headquarters of his paramilitary haven for mercenaries, his solider-nation, go up in flames. He is attacked and betrayed, and after a helicopter crash, he finds himself in a coma. Nine years later he wakes up, and The Phantom Pain begins. It begins with a cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” mind you. After dozens of hours of emergent, free-flowing gameplay, Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs (this is the most David Bowie game of all time), defeat the forces of XOF, led by a histrionic psychopath known only as Skull Face. They defeat a giant Metal Gear and stop the vocal parasite infection. But that’s not the ending. You could be forgiven for thinking such, but there are nearly 20 more missions to go.

We are Diamond Dogs

Mission 46, or “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World,” is a re-playing of the prologue mission (not the one from Ground Zeroes but the one in the hospital at the beginning of The Phantom Pain) that ends by revealing that Ishmael, the friendly patient who helped you escape, is the actual Big Boss, and that the player character is the medic character from the end of Ground Zeroes, given surgery to resemble Big Boss and used as a body double to draw attention away from the real Big Boss as he puts some grand plan into motion. This reveal itself is a little dumb, and raises some confusing questions about the rest of the series. This game, Kojima’s last (for real this time) is supposed to bridge the gap between MGS3 and the original games. It’s supposed to take Big Boss from the world’s greatest hero to its greatest villain. But Big Boss isn’t here. He left. He rejected your control. So is the player character (Venom Snake from here on out), the Big Boss that dies in MG1? Is he the Big Boss who shows up at the end of MGS4? It seems like the former is hinted at, but it’s hardly definitive.

What was that thing Snake said at the end of MGS2 about subtext? Well, the subtext here is what makes this work. It’s what makes it resonate with the other games and bring them full circle in a way no one else could have ever conceived. Some people on the internet have been complaining (as is their wont) that the Medic is too blank a character for this twist to have any meaning, that it should have been Gray Fox or even a young Solid Snake (???) in his place. That misses the point. In this case, the player character being the player is not subtext. It is literal. The game starts with a character creator, ostensibly to be used as Venom Snake’s new face as he hides from the people trying to kill him. This face is not discarded, and it’s not the player’s online avatar. It’s the medic’s true face, and it is yours to customize. It’s the face that shows up whenever you zoom in on Snake’s reflection in your helicopter. His name is your name, his birthday is your birthday. He is you. And you are Big Boss.

Kept you waiting, huh?

What makes this even more audacious is how brazenly Kojima has been spoiling this twist for us for the entirety of this game’s marketing campaign. During the game’s prologue mission, Ishmael acts so much like the Big Boss we know that it’s almost comical. “You’re pretty good,” he says to the player during a shooting sequence. If he dies, it’s a “Time Paradox.” If you die, it’s simply “Mission Failed.” He talks about healing yourself in the field when “enemies aren’t looking,” just like we did every time we entered the survival viewer in MGS3 to heal burns and remove arrows. He’s the one who recognizes Colonel Volgin’s weakness and he’s the one who saves you, more often than not.

Before it was officially known as Metal Gear Solid V, The Phantom Pain was a mysterious horror game created by a “Moby Dick Studios,” and headed by a man named Joakim Mogren. While the internet fairly quickly deduced that “Joakim Mogren” was a stand-in for “Hideo Kojima” and that this was a Metal Gear game, it’s not until now that we fully understand the post-modernist resonance of this fakeout. Moby Dick Studios. Ishmael. Ahab. Pequod. These are all names familiar to Phantom Pain players. And which MGSV character does “Joakim Mogren” resemble? Ishmael.

A common thread in most MGSV reviews has been how it is easily the “least authored” Metal Gear game. Kojima’s infamous penchant for over-long cutscenes and intrusive Codec calls is all but gone, and all that’s left is the player and how they decide to tackle the game. Speaking of which, this is easily the biggest and least linear game in the series. The player is free to engage with it practically any way they choose to. Mother Base is customizable, almost completely. You can research whatever you want in whatever order you want. The missions don’t punish you for going in guns blazing. Despite some evidence of his signature flair, Hideo Kojima isn’t here. He’s off with Big Boss, planning the real Outer Heaven and figuring out what to do now after his split with Konami. Hideo Kojima is Big Boss.

No, not quite. We are both Big Boss. In a complete inversion of MGS2, Hideo practically bends over backwards to thank the player, to include them, instead of rejecting their expectations. This journey is yours and mine as much as it is his. I am the author here. I am the one choosing to play this video game. I can stop whenever I want. But I enjoy it too much. I am the soldier with no affiliation to any government. Outer Heaven exists, because I have made it. If I choose to play Metal Gear 1, I will destroy it. Even though every mission ends with “created and directed by Hideo Kojima,” every mission begins with “starring Venom Snake.”

I’m already a demon

I am Big Boss. You are, too. The Man Who Sold the World.

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