Metal Gear Solid's postmodern legacy: part 2
Part two of my exploration of Metal Gear Solid‘s postmodern legacy. This part will continue to refer to Sons of Liberty but I’ll also delve into the mind of one of my favourite characters of the series, ‘Psycho Mantis’.
You can find part one HERE.
Without further ado…ONWARDS!
Fredric Jameson suggests that Postmodernism is an inescapable and schizophrenic condition imposed on us by late-capitalist society and in this respect, we could argue that ‘The Patriots’ – essentially a complex system of computer information – is an allegory for the postmodern condition. If their plan for information regulation succeeds then they become inescapable because they would control everything needed to escape their manipulations. The ‘schizophrenic’ part of Jameson’s quote is a little more complicated however, as he defines the word as “the fragmentation of time into a series of presents.” Contrary to novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five or Iain Banks’ Transition whereby the protagonists actually relive their pasts due to varying forms of time-travel (thus their pasts become their presents), ‘The Patriots’ cause ‘Raiden’ and ‘Snake’ simply to confront aspects of their pasts. As I have already mentioned, the Big Shell incident is meant to represent the Shadow Moses incident, suggesting that ‘Raiden’ is living the past by simulating the heroics of ‘Snake’ years earlier. This is not the only example however, as ‘Otacon’ is confronted with his estranged half-sister and must not only deal with the mission, but also with his guilt of sleeping with her mother (his step-mother) as their father drowned in their nearby pool. Similarly, ‘Raiden’ is confronted with the jarring revelation that ‘Solidus’ raised him as a son and that all his knowledge of killing comes from him. It is these examples of the past confronting the characters in Sons of Liberty that suggests a close link between Jameson’s definition of Postmodernism and ‘The Patriots’ complicated conspiracy plots.
When discussing Postmodern conspiracy fiction, Hantke states that “it is a narrative…about revealing a manipulated and pre-fabricated version of the truth as the simulacrum that it is”. This can easily be applied to the final stages of Sons of Liberty, as ‘Ocelot’ reveals to ‘Raiden’ and ‘Snake’ that The Big Shell Incident was just a vague simulation designed to test ‘Raiden’ and act as a disguise for the construction of the “floating fortress” ‘Arsenal Gear’ – a huge underwater base capable of firing a devastating hydrogen-fuelled bomb. As ‘Arsenal Gear’ is powered up and The Big Shell Facility gets destroyed as a result, this is the point where the game’s narrative takes the most surreal turn.
Waugh suggests that Postmodernism should “problematise reality” and the plot points following The Big Shell’s destruction certainly cause problems to ‘Raiden’s’ reality as he finds himself running naked through areas of ‘Arsenal Gear’ that share their names with body parts (he finds himself running up and down a long corridor simply labeled ‘colon’) and gets strange messages from his superior like “I need scissors” and “I was watering my hydrangeas”. It has been suggested that “[t]he destruction of the ‘Big Shell’ reflects the destruction of the illusion we’ve been running around in”, implying that the game’s finale is so surreal because the foundation of the illusion (the Big Shell) has been destroyed. Of course, this is definitely worth considering; ‘Ocelot’ admits that the Big Shell was merely a front, a simulation designed to cover the real goal of ‘GW’ and ‘The Patriots’, something to manipulate ‘Raiden’ into doing what he is told. Once ‘Arsenal Gear’ is up and running though, there is no more need for illusion, and so all the events following do not need to be manipulated. The fact that they are the most surreal events of the game seems irrelevant if you consider the fact that they are actually the only real and authentic events that ‘Raiden’ comes across, no matter how much like a dream or nightmare they are. This is an interesting fictional example of Baudrillard’s theory that reality itself is hyperrealist: the actual reality of Sons of Liberty seems less real than it’s manipulated and pre-fabricated ‘reality’, the simulated reality of the Big Shell.
It is not only ‘Raiden’ who finds the reality of the game hard to discern however, as the reader is constantly made aware of the fictionality of the game, something that Hideo Kojima is famous for, especially within the Metal Gear Solid series. The events following the destruction of the Big Shell not only become more surreal for ‘Raiden’ but also for the player too, as you constantly get bombarded with messages from the ‘Colonel’ that break down the boundaries between the game’s reality and the reality which the player inhabits, playing Sons of Liberty. Waugh suggests that Postmodern literature should “unsettle the reader’s sense of reality” and Hideo Kojima does this to great effect with the ‘Colonel’s’ explicit acknowledgements that Sons of Liberty is merely a game:
Colonel: “Turn the console off right now. You’ve been playing too long. You don’t want to strain your eyes do you?”
This direct address to the player is the first instance in Sons of Liberty of the game explicitly acknowledging it’s own unreality. Of course, Kojima’s inclusion of fantastical and supernatural elements throughout the game are “intended to challenge the player’s sense of reality” but it is not until ‘GW’ – disguised as the ‘Colonel’ – begins to go crazy and send ‘Raiden’ absurd messages acknowledging it’s own fictionality that the player actually starts to question the sense of the narrative.
Up until this point, the player – like ‘Raiden’ – would have likely taken all the ‘unreal’ aspects of the game in their stride, but once confronted with the acknowledgement that they are simply playing a game, once ‘GW’ draws them into the narrative by telling them to turn the console off, they begin to question the boundaries between the game’s reality and their own. The purpose of Sons of Liberty is to “challenge us (the player) to look beyond what we’re shown and see things for what they really are”; the absurd boss characters, the convoluted plot and nonsensical twists, the surreal climax are all just part of a game, and no matter how engaging the characterisation or plot is, Sons of Liberty will only ever be a game. Hideo Kojima knows this, and by confronting the player directly and advising him to “turn the console off right now”, he is echoing a question posed by Klinkowitz: “If the world is absurd, if what passes for reality is distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it?” Kojima has acknowledged that the reality of the game is not real and reinforces it with the plot twist that reveals that ‘Raiden’s’ mission was “all an illusion” anyway, and by doing this he justifies all the supernatural and absurd elements of the game; in regards to Klinkowitz’ quote, we could argue that it does not matter that there are immortal vampires and psychic witches fighting Navy Seals, because the game’s reality is not real.
This is not, however, Kojima’s first example of self-acknowledgement in a videogame; the original Metal Gear Solid featured a highly unique boss battle against ‘Psycho Mantis’. A twisted and highly scarred figure of a man, ‘Mantis’ wears an unsettling gas mask in order to keep out the errant thoughts of others. Yes, ‘Mantis’ is a psychic who has gone insane due to his supernatural abilities, but as Brendan Main puts it “[t]he genius of Mantis as a villain is that he gets to rise above the cadre of Metal Gear Solid’s half-vampires and nano-soldiers to see the story for what it is”. Contrary to the slight tugging of ‘GW’s’ reference to Sons of Liberty as a videogame, ‘Mantis’ goes all the way, constantly addressing the player. One such example is when ‘Mantis’ reads ‘Snake’s’ mind but is in fact reading the player’s current memory card. What we get as a result is a particularly unsettling dialogue whereby ‘Mantis’ mocks you directly for liking certain games, until he quickly focuses his mockery on the fact that you have not saved the game regularly enough or, indeed, too much.
By doing this, ‘Mantis’ breaks down the barrier between objective player and subjective character, even to the point where he dictates the player physically during the battle; the only way to actually defeat ‘Mantis’ in the game is to plug your controller into controller port two; “you have to play along with his meta-textual charade, forcing you up out of your sofa to fiddle with plugs…the very stuff we don’t want to be thinking about when playing a game.” Virilio has argued Postmodernism’s need for an interrogation of ‘mental space’ and that with this interrogation, we may finally “close the gap between physics and metaphysics.” This quote is exemplified perfectly by the jibes and tricks of ‘Psycho Mantis’ in Metal Gear Solid; up until meeting him, the game follows quite close to realism, but once ‘Mantis’ is encountered, the narrative is controlled solely by him and taken somewhere between the game itself and the player’s own reality. As the player is subjected to ‘Mantis’s’ meta- textual trickery, they are “not dealing with [the game] as a cohesive tale, but as a whirring disc in a machine.” The player himself becomes a character – not in the sense that they were “being” ‘Snake’ – a cameo role that is needed in order to continue the game’s narrative; ‘Snake’ cannot switch controller ports, only the player can, and so must involve themselves personally in the game. The best way to sum up ‘Psycho Mantis’ is to acknowledge that he “shows himself to be…a puppet who can see the strings”, he knows he is in a game, knows there is some higher power controlling ‘Snake’, and looks to derail the immersive qualities of Metal Gear Solid and get the player to acknowledge it as a fictional game even whilst they are playing it.
Whilst this is only a brief look into the Postmodern legacy of the Metal Gear Solid series, having used a variety of literary and cultural critics alongside specialised videogame critics, we can see that Hideo Kojima’s groundbreaking series has the potential to stand up with novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five or A Scanner Darkly as a fine example of a Postmodern text. Furthermore, Metal Gear Solid – especially Sons of Liberty – showcases the distinctly postmodern techniques of meta-textuality, self-reference and playfulness in new and unique ways that force the player to actively involve themselves in the reality and narrative of the game, something that is not easily done in novels and films. It is for these reasons that the Metal Gear Solid series is a perfect example of why videogames should be considered academically relevant.
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Connor, Steven, Postmodern Culture: an introduction to theories of the contemporary, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
Gibson, Andrew, Towards a Theory of Postmodern Narrative, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996).
Hantke, Steffen, Conspiracy and paranoia in contemporary American fiction: The works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy, (New York: P. Lang, 1994).
Jameson, Fredric, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in The Anti-Aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture, (Washington: Bay Press, 1983).
Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980).
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Zimbaldi, Chris, ‘Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as Postmodern Tragedy’.