Metal Gear Solid's postmodern legacy: part 1
“What was that noise?”
I love the Metal Gear Solid series. Despite it’s overindulgence of cutscenes and increasingly nonsensical plots, I love the series to death. I tell you this so that you know my next statement is going to be horrendously biased. As a videogame series, Metal Gear Solid is one of the most important pieces of evidence we have to prove that our beloved industry can hold up against some of the more “intellectual” mediums (I’m looking at you, literature!).
I present to you part one of my exploration into the postmodern legacy of Kojima’s masterpiece. Expect name-dropping galore and hopefully ideas on the series that many of you will have never considered before, all combining to further prove that videogames can be as academically relevant as literature or film.
Videogames lend themselves very well to postmodern theory. A train of thought that embraces notions about simulation, hyperreality, self-reference, intertextuality and parody is always going to be useful when explaining any contemporary visual medium, but the added interactivity of videogames seems to be incredibly well-suited to playing with the Postmodern questions of reality and identity first explored by the likes of Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson.
A series that constantly confronted, challenged and distorted traditional narrative conventions, Metal Gear Solid’s four games are famous for their increasingly convoluted plots and intricate conspiracies within larger conspiracy narratives. Although all four of the games have a lot of postmodern aspects, special attention must be paid to the second game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, as it is widely considered the most postmodern of the series as well as one of the most postmodern videogames of all time. A good place to start this analysis would be to explore the use of genre within the game, if we consider Mepham’s explanation that “Postmodernist Literature…can…use low art forms (thriller, detective story, fantasy and so on), [and] can imitate or make fun of past traditions (pastiche, parody).” We can see that Sons of Liberty mixes the genres of what Mepham considers low art forms; the game has the primary genre of a detective or spy-thriller that constantly throws in aspects of horror, fantasy and science fiction with the likes of ‘Fortune’, ‘Vamp’ and the idea of ‘Ocelot’ being possessed by the transplanted arm of ‘Liquid’. The game, however, never really seems to take itself seriously with whatever genre it jumps to; the scene in which ‘Raiden’ first meets ‘Vamp’ seems quite consciously tongue-in-cheek, despite the apparent serious tone. It is such an absurd shift from the realism of the game that has preceded it, that it is difficult to take the scene quite so seriously even as ‘Vamp’ mutilates an entire squad of Navy Seals.
The effect is made even more bizarre when ‘Raiden’ hysterically questions the disguised ‘Snake’ about the incident and he nonchalantly replies: “that blood-sucking freak…? That was Vamp.” Apart from that brief reply, there is no real explanation to the player or ‘Raiden’ about who – or what – ‘Vamp’ is, even though he is surviving headshots and running on water much later in the game. Zimbaldi believes that ‘Vamp’ is “an attempt on the part of Kojima to interweave [a] genre-bending event into the story, and leaves the player/viewer quite perplexed”, which begins the game’s spiral into postmodernism; ‘Vamp’ is only the start of Kojima’s attempts to perplex the player with absurd and fantastical elements in an otherwise serious videogame.
Son’s of Liberty’s disregard for genre stability has been mentioned by Tim Rogers, stating that it “rips open the spy-thriller genre and puts it back together from the inside out.” All the conventions of the spy-thriller genre can be found in the game (infiltration, conspiracy, terrorism) but Son’s of Liberty delivers it in a way that is unfamiliar and causes the player to question the reality represented. As the game progresses and ‘Raiden’ begins to uncover more about the mission that he is undertaking, his understanding of events seems to reduce – along with the player’s – due to the increasingly unreal occurrences that are unveiled.
The most significant revelation that is uncovered is the enormous twist at the end of the game whereby ‘The Colonel’ is realised to be part of an artificial intelligence that has been manipulating ‘Raiden’ throughout his mission. The AI – known as ‘GW’ – reveals that almost everything that ‘Raiden’ encountered was staged and that he and his antagonist, ‘Solidus’ were just “pawns in a game”. The acknowledgement of ‘Raiden’ as a videogame character is obvious in this sentence, but within the narrative of Son’s of Liberty, this revelation has a significant effect on the protagonist.
Hantke, when referring to conspiracy and detective fiction, said that “Postmodernism is at it’s most paranoid when it turns the anthropological gaze inwards”, and I think that ‘Raiden’s’ reaction to the game’s climactic twist is a great example of this; throughout the game, ‘Raiden’ does not seem to question his reality too much despite the supernatural things he encounters, but once he becomes a part of the conspiracy himself, he “begins to question his very existence.” The climax of the game sees ‘Raiden’ confused and upset, unsure of what is real and what is not: “it was all an illusion…everything I’ve done so far?” Like the works of such writers as Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, Son’s Of Liberty “explores the alienation that results from seeing through the spectacle” as the player begins to see ‘Raiden’ lose control of his emotions and push everyone away as he questions whether his fiancé, ‘Rose’, is real (she is physically real but just an actress planted by GW to manipulate ‘Raiden’) and whether his legendary hero ‘Snake’ is real. For the Postmodern detective, “disillusionment or demystification are always close at hand” because he “must uncover as many myths about himself as about his investigation.” Despite ‘Snake’s’ reassurances that “what you think you see, is only as real as your brain tells you it is”, ‘Raiden’ still ends up alienated from humanity and himself in the fourth game of the series, as he becomes an almost invincible cyborg-ninja that is just looking for a way to die. Like many postmodern detectives, ‘Raiden’ cannot handle the truth of his reality and ends up severing all ties to his previous life. There is evidence to suggest, however, that all throughout Son’s of Liberty – not just the climax – “Raiden doesn’t know what’s real or not.”
As aforementioned, ‘Raiden’ does not question the bizarre events that he encounters until he himself becomes a part of the conspiracy, but that is not to say that he does not discuss them with his superior – the ‘GW’ AI disguised as ‘Colonel Campbell’. Following his first encounter with ‘Vamp’, ‘Raiden’ explains to ‘Snake’ that he feels “like a legendary mercenary’” despite this only being his first mission. When pressed for details, ‘Raiden’ explains that he’s gone through the highest levels of virtual reality training, “the kind that’s indistinguishable from the real thing”. Unfortunately for ‘Raiden’, his training did not take into account a seemingly supernatural vampire, and so what ‘Raiden’ has experienced in his training is not actually real; he constantly finds himself in situations and battles that he is mentally and physically ill-prepared for and it is often only with the help of ‘Snake’ (an actual legendary mercenary) that ‘Raiden’ can succeed. If ‘Raiden’ believed that his virtual reality training was “indistinguishable from the real thing”, what is it then that he thinks of the real thing? After observing a whole squad of Navy Seals get destroyed by both ‘Vamp’ and the apparently psychic ‘Fortune’, ‘Raiden’ panics and calls ‘Colonel Campbell’ for some answers. ‘Raiden’ explains to his superior that “it’s like being in a nightmare you can’t wake up from” and that he keeps thinking that he’ll wake up. This exchange ties nicely into Rogers’ assertion that “a dream is…grounded in reality…all they need us from waking up is a sense of the real….Dreams mix the real and the unreal.”
For ‘Raiden’, this idea works the opposite way, his reality is grounded in something akin to a dream, causing him to feel like he will soon wake up, but because it is reality (as everybody tells him) he will not wake up. The reason that ‘Raiden’ gets so scared about these bizarre encounters with supernatural characters throughout the game is because his reality is built up from experience and expectations gained through his VR training. His reality has been built upon the experience of simulations that, although he believed them to be “indistinguishable from the real thing”, actually turn out to be something more real than reality itself. This suggests that ‘Raiden’ has no grasp of what true reality actually is, and as a result, for ‘Raiden’ it is (as Baudrillard says) “reality itself…that is hyperrealist.” Like many characters of Postmodern fiction such as ‘Robert Arctor’ (A Scanner Darkly), ‘Oedipa Maas’ (The Crying of Lot 49) and ‘Billy Pilgrim’ (Slaughterhouse-Five), “Raiden is a symbol of identity crisis” within an increasingly complex and uncertain world, one in which he eventually finds himself alienated and detached from as a result of his inability to distinguish the real and the unreal.
This notion of hyperreality can not only be applied to ‘Raiden’ and his identity crisis, but also to the climactic plot twist at the end. John Storey states that the hyperreal is when “the distinction between simulation and the ‘real’ supposedly implodes; reality and simulation are experienced as without difference.” This can be readily applied to ‘Ocelot’s’ revelation that The Big Shell Incident was merely a cover-up, a vague re-enactment of the Shadow Moses Incident designed to test ‘Raiden’s’ willingness to blindly follow orders. The purpose of this is to gauge the effectiveness of information manipulation, ‘GW’ and ‘The Patriots’’ overall goal, as the AI informs ‘Raiden’:
GW: “You’re a perfect representative of the masses we need to protect…. You accepted the fiction we provided, obeyed our orders and did everything you were told to.”
‘The Patriots’ plan to regulate all forms of information, deciding the best knowledge to pass on and effectively removing anything that will not further humanity as a species:
Raiden: “You want to control human thought? Human Behaviour?”
GW: “Of course. Anything can be quantified nowadays.”
‘GW’ and ‘The Patriots’ believe that by allowing ‘junk data’ (rumour, gossip, misinterpretation, slander) to remain then social progress and the rate of evolution will be hindered. Gibson has stated that “[v]isual culture…has long been insistently displacing the spaces, dimensions and the regularities of what we think we see”; our consumer society is constantly bombarding us with contrasting information and images in the form of adverts, news, and television programmes so it is difficult to discern what the truths behind these images actually are. It is with this already established uncertainty towards information that ‘The Patriots’ plan to manipulate humanity. In Sons of Liberty, the status of knowledge is in crisis due to what Lyotard referred to as the “incredulity towards meta-narratives”, and what Porphyrios suggested as the “undermining of tradition, of history, of culture.”
‘The Patriots’ seek to control and manipulate the ‘stories’ that dictate people’s lives; the narratives of tradition, history and culture will all be regulated by the AI system in order to further the species, and of course ‘Raiden’ witnesses this seeming disregard for the meta-narrative of science (the ‘supernatural’ characters of ‘Vamp’ and ‘Fortune’) and also of Western political discourse with the revelation that ‘Solidus’ is in fact the fictional Ex-President of the United States, ‘George Sears’.
In this way, Sons of Liberty exemplifies what Waugh believes to be central to the postmodern condition; a recognition of how “the grand narratives of Western history…have broken down”; ‘The Patriots’ recognise that in order for humanity to evolve to it’s full potential, the narratives that dictate people’s lives must be broken down, put back together and offered to society in what they deem to be the best possible way. According to Connor, “our contemporary social system has lost it’s capacity to know it’s own past”, and if that is indeed the case, then the identical social system in Sons of Liberty is going to be particularly vulnerable to ‘The Patriots’’ manipulations of history. Events that were already hazy due to a saturation of information from various sources becomes easier to disguise, contradict and perhaps even remove entirely by the AI.
Part Two of Metal Gear Solid’s postmodern legacy will bring this essay to its climactic conclusion. I promise you it’s not as convoluted as Metal Gear Solid 4’s ending. (A complete list of sources will also be included at the end of part 2)