Bacchants With Guns

December 25, 2007 at 3:55 pm (Video Games)

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

(Again, I refer to the original Playstation game as Metal Gear Solid, its Playstation 2 sequel as Sons of Liberty, the remake of Metal Gear Solid as Twin Snakes, and the third entry as Snake Eater) The first part is here.

Ever wonder why people go to war? Why they separate themselves from society and subject themselves to its awful rigor? Rick Veitch explores the topic but obfuscates its implications under a weighty satire in Army @ Love. Perhaps the answer is better found in the ancient Dionysian rituals. Or maybe in virtual reality, where one can be anything at all.

Even someone with a gun in bloodlust murdering many people. Virtual Reality, and it’s inchoate cousin, video games, are inextricably linked to warfare through the separation of the self from a huge physical environment.

If war is a reality for a person, as it is for almsot any other country besides the U.S., this comparison could seem overly harsh and only from a protected environment (i.e. bourgeoise, I guess one could say). While it might be terrible to make the comparison elsewhere, here Kojima uses it in his postmodern meditation on what constitutes an experience, in a larger sense reality. I feel I can use the facile comparison somewhat easily, if you read the rest of this essay.

So let me start my essay with another question, one this video game seems to ask even more: ever wonder why people play video games? Kojima offers us not a character stricken from retirement, but one just entering his career in Sons of Liberty with the character Raiden, someone jumping headlong into fantasy, into the rigors of war (because, as its successor attests, this is far from a realistic game), instead of someone reluctantly jumping back into it. The question of who would submit themselves to combat is on Kojima’s code here, as explored through the character of Raiden.

The whiny, bleached blond, pale protagonist was greeted with almost unanimous disapproval. People stubbornly apologized for his inclusion in the game when reviewing it, pointing to the game’s stellar gameplay and control as justifications. The game was also bloated with cinematic scenes. I don’t play video games to watch a movie, some opined. Here is my defense, my exaltation, of all these seemingly disagreeable qualities.

Raiden begins his game (after an introduction through Snake’s eyes) just as Snake does in Metal Gear Solid (Remember, Twin Snakes has not been released yet), by emerging onto a base fully clad in diving gear, but then he removes his mask. His high pitched voice is not Snake’s, and his suit isn’t nearly as cool, either. It’s just a skin tight black thing, unlike the full gear with which Snake was equipped. Oh well, he controls just like Snake, and the graphics are better. You can even reliably dispose enemies with a tranquilizer gun, instead of killing them or sneaking past.

The game even tabulates the amount of people you killed at the end, encouraging a “perfect” run through of the game in ways Metal Gear Solid did not. Very few still made the decision to run throught eh game perfectly. If the game falters anywhere, it’s here for offering a material reward (an en-of-the-game congratulations) instead of an actual change of the experience (i.e. a different ending that acknowledges your accomplishment).

Besides that, the game then continues just like Metal Gear Solid, with a mysterious patron aiding our hero, a collection of bosses culled from a Castlevania NES cartridge but developed with actual characterization. The game even finishes with an incredible battle against multiple Metal Gears.

But then it doesn’t. Raiden, excuse me, we battle the leader of the Patriots, and corruption is revealed to be permanent, an irreversible process. We cannot save this world from the Patriots and the clutch of their temporal tendrils on our government: We are lost. The events we have played through up until this point is just a fantasy, an inconsequential event, and our actions in the game have changed very little in the world around. Perhaps taking a potshot at events, Snake is shown at his most philanthropic here, attempting to curb environmental damage, when in fact the world is at stake, and nothing can reverse its inevitable decline.

This ending to a video game, when one is supposed to be rewarding for all the movements of the thumb and finger disappointed (or baffled) a lot of people. I can’t see it ending any other way after Metal Gear Solid’s very optimistic ending.

So there is no happy ending to this game. Come to think of it, there wasn’t a happy beginning, either. It began with us playing as Snake as he went on a routine mission and found a battalion of Metal Gears on a simple reconnaissance mission. This, of course, has nothing to do with Raiden, who doesn’t meet Snake the philanthropist (or, I should say, Plissken: The tanker on which the game occurs is a place of shifty identities), but it mirrors the events of the game structurally; Hero uncovers a conspiracy, continues to attempt to achieve objectives but is distracted by something greater. And all Snake does is take pictures in order to tell other people, instead of actually destroying the dormant nuclear battle tanks. Saving the world is evinced as a fantasy during the game in other ways, too.

During a Codec moment, Raiden reveals that he sleeps in an empty room without posters. Unlike Snake, whom reality forced from retirement, Raiden lives for this mission, the times of combat, the times of fantasy.He was even a child soldier, who was trained heavily through virtual reality. There’s a really horrific scene where millions of these supposed child soldiers are shown in their virtual reality training, and all of these holograms of Snake (the philanthropist’s image has been stolen by the evil, power full conservative!) are doing calisthenics, heavy breathing oozing from the screen intensely.

Raiden’s reality is distressing, but it’s far from authentic. Instead of the actual consequence of killing someone, he’s rewarded by those who’ve trained him. He’s playing a game to get more rewards instead of changing reality to stop the suffering of others. It makes sense that a lot of people don’t like him: he’s playing for material reward much more than actually changing the world. Like the person holding the controller.

Snake’s reality is still distressing, but it’s distressingly real. Maybe that’s why fan reaction to Raiden was so harsh. Snake was the badass philanthropist, and Raiden was LITERALLY a man without a name and a past, and he’s playing the video game on the tanker not to change the world, but to get through the experience. He isn’t just a character who shares the audience’s supposed POV, being a reference character, he actually IS a video game player! A bacchant with a gun!

Playing from this POV necessitates the copious movie sequences. We can’t really play as someone playing through a video game without even distancing ourselves further from the action, so we actively experience passivity. It is for this same reason that we are finally given the first person perspective here (Technological limitations have nothing to do with it, of course!). We are given more control in the world, but actually matter in less of it. Raiden just spends too much time experiencing things instead of acting on them.

The rest of the game corroborates this lens by which to view the game. The leader of the Patriots even reveals that he’s being trained, indoctrinated, on this mission, and then the camera shows us a field of Snakes running in place, falling to the ground in unison and rising adroitly. Raiden is just playing through a combat simulator, but Raiden has the character of Snake in his life, someone who has experienced the video game world already. His help invariably leads Raiden to these revelations, and Raiden does not merely battle Metal Gear, but the mastermind behind the video game’s actions. We do not defeat a symptom of corruption, but the head of it. And the corruption will never end. Kojima reveals the ending of Metal Gear Solid as abjectly optimistic with Sons of Liberty, ending the playful dialogue between the two: Metal Gear Solid was a fantasy intersected by reality, and Sons of Liberty is reality intersected by fantasy. Metal Gear Solid is a dream becoming real, and Sons of Liberty has characters ensconced in fantasy the entire time.

Of course Raiden doesn’t get the girl in the end. What self respecting gamer would?

***

I must admit, when playing The Twin Snakes, I was a little surprised when the protagonist emerged from under the water, and Raiden was not the playable character. It would have been perfect to have the video game player play through a simulation of an already made video game, but, alas, reality must intervene, and the two games cannot meld together beautifully without infringing on the memories which so dutifully inform every other aspect of The Twin Snakes. The Twin Snakes is the reality of Metal Gear Solid become a dream through the same lens through which we view Sons of Liberty, and paints the intrusion of reality onto fantasy as cyclical: Metal Gear Solid disarmed reality by enshrining fantasy, Sons of Liberty denigrated fantasy by inspecting fantasy more closely, and Twin Snakes deified the reality of Metal Gear Solid into fantasy.

It all brings to mind something akin to the process of memory, the process of dreaming, but even then, its conclusions are hazy. Maybe because all I’m doing right now is remembering them.

Next: Snake Eater, and What does it all mean?

***

I am obliged, nay, I want to point out that this is not the only writing on Sons of Liberty, and a lot of similar conclusions are reached in this post, a nifty keen assembling of words itself. I conceived this piece without its influence, but in between conception and reification I found the writing, and its arguments helped articulate my own.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Readers, « Psychopomp & Circumstance said,

    […] and game mechanics instead of in appraisal of the game’s storytelling and mechanics here, here, and here. I may revisit this game someday in a similar thematic post later, because it does have […]

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