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FROM NOTHING
WHY IT'S OKAY TO QUESTION EVERYTHING
(ESPECIALLY METAL GEAR GAMES)


The memories you have and the role you were assigned are burdens you have to carry. It doesn't matter if they were real or not. That's never the point. ... There's no such thing in the world as absolute reality. Most of what they call real is actually fiction. What you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is. ... Listen, don't obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide.

— Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty


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Implosion

Game worlds are not real; games are a backwardly designed hypothesis of how to interest, motivate and effectively guide an individual using nothing more than digital input and output; games can provide only the illusion of true freedom, as well as the illusion of a coherent setting. There is no rebellion, and there is nothing behind that inaccessible door. Take away the illusions, and there remains only a willing test subject and a hopeful designer. Hoping that you will experience something.

What does Metal Gear Solid 2 hope for?

Most of the time, works of art try to challenge and inspire us to question something about ourselves or our world. Question your government, your religion, your parents, or your cozy little life, but please, don't question the artist! "Look over there!" it says, pointing to a tragic situation—the more attention you pay to a work of art, the more it redirects your attention to something else. That's the beauty of art. That's why art is one of the most powerful tools in the world for reform; it turns our attention to something meaningful and raises questions. Only postmodern art, in all of its high-minded pretentiousness, invites you to turn your skepticism on the art itself. "Are you really swallowing all of this?" it asks. "Can't you think for yourself?" That's a tough thing to enjoy.

More than anything, it should be evident that MGS2 wanted players to question what they were being shown. Not only is there a prominent theme of layered deception (as opposed to the regular straightforward variety) revealed with practically every character in the game, but the game itself deceived players by betraying their expectations, as we know. Then, just to make sure people don't miss the point, we are explicitly told:

Colonel: Ha, ha, ha...exactly right. So you see, you're a perfect representative of the masses we need to protect. This is why we chose you. You accepted the fiction we've provided, obeyed our orders and did everything you were told to. The exercise is a resounding success. ... Your persona, experiences, triumphs and defeats are nothing but byproducts. The real objective was ensuring that we could generate and manipulate them.

This is meta-commentary. GW and the S3 Plan, revealed to be a digitally-controlled method of generating and manipulating a person's experiences, is a lot like GLaDOS and the Aperture Science experiment. They both reveal their own agenda, thinly disguising it for the player to see, symbolizing it in the form of a malevolent, godlike personality who, despite being unable to directly control you, nevertheless gives you no choice but to comply. Once you know the trick behind game design this makes perfect sense for a final villain. A game creator naturally feels like a manipulative godlike entity, because in his own virtual realm, that's exactly what he is. Praising and rewarding players every time they manage to complete a task, gently correcting their every misstep, how can a designer not feel like an omniscient god, tasked with babysitting and patronizing us? Characters like GW and GLaDOS are simply manifestations of the common relationship between game and player. Accept this, and suddenly it becomes easy to step back from the (truly irrelevant) "facts" of the story and see the underlying ideas, which are actually quite simple and harmless, if not amusing.

Unlike Portal, however, manipulation is taken seriously by Sons of Liberty. Greater questions of digital control, censorship, false flag operations, government-sponsored terrorism, mass-media credibility, and personal identity are all tied into this brilliant game's themes. Many real-world questions are raised. But for a postmodern game like MGS2, it's not enough to simply tell you these things. You need to feel the sting for yourself.

 

President Johnson is You

Consider the fact that almost every Metal Gear game (along with plenty of other titles) follows a pattern of the main character being deliberately baited by the villain to reach a certain point, followed by a sudden revelation that "You have gone too far!" And then there's a big fight, and maybe a chase scene. It's only once the villain "really" tries to stop us that we finally have the chance to "break free" and accomplish something that feels meaningful! By now this is an old cliche; or if you're partial to it, tried and true. But Metal Gear Solid 2 is a rare exception, because it takes away even the illusory satisfaction of a "final act of defiance". Look at what happens immediately after the above quote from GW about generating and manipulating experiences:

Raiden: Think again! I'm through doing what I'm told!

Colonel: Oh really? Aren't you forgetting something?

[Olga begins to speak.]

Olga: If you die, my child dies.

Colonel: The termination of vital signals from your nanomachines means the death of Olga's child. Not to mention the death of Rose. She's wired the same way.

Raiden: Rose — does she actually exist?

Rose: Of course I do, Jack! You have to beLIEve me!

Raiden: Damn...

Raiden now realizes that there's is no way to win. There is no choice but to comply, just as the player has no choice, since the game only has one ending. The only real choice is to stop playing. That's what makes the fight with Solidus "the final exercise". You've already been told that it's all part of the S3 Plan — will you still follow orders and fulfill your role?

You may have doubts that they're talking about you here, or that Kojima is cynical enough to be mocking the player. If so, then check out this excerpt from the Document of Metal Gear Solid 2's "Game Script", featuring original notes made by Hideo Kojima himself:

[Johnson has just been shot by Ocelot, but prevents Raiden from chasing after him]

Johnson: Forget him... He...did us a favor... Without freedom, there is no difference between submission and rebellion. My only real choice is to put an end to this charade. Let me at least have the freedom to end it myself...

[Kojima’s Note:] Realizing that the terrorist plot was being used to the advantage of the Patriots’ S3 Plan, the President has lost all hope. He completes his pre-planned role in the S3 Plan by acting out his own demise before Raiden. This development acts as a metaphor to foreshadow developments in the player’s relationships later in the game.

Let's make sure we understand this perfectly. This development — the loss of hope Johnson feels upon realizing that everything he has done has been in vain and been exploited by the enemy — is actually a clever metaphor. That metaphor is to foreshadow the same development that will happen to the player, later in the game, when we realize that we have no choice but to comply. In other words, President Johnson's suicidal submission is, symbolically, what's supposed to happen to you once you realize that you don't have the freedom to rebel either. That is what Kojima himself says. Now step back before your mind gets blown, because for as awesome as this is, we don't want to miss the point do we? As Solid Snake says soon after, the fiction doesn't matter. Think of it as nothing more than a game, and stop trying to ask irrelevant questions. Break the illusion and start again, without obsessing over "facts", and then you'll be forced to pay attention to what actually matters, which is of course the memes.

An artistic message like this is more dearly felt when the audience is prevented from enjoying it the way they'd like to. For artists like Kojima, who think that the only true art is postmodern art, imploding a game in order to force the player to abandon the illusion they've been presented is a good thing. It's risky and guaranteed to piss off a large number of people, but the hope is that it will challenge and inspire you to question your world, just as good art so often does. The fact that it also sacrificed the most anticipated sequel in videogame history is... well... just kind of worth it. Bravo, Kojima.

 

Leaving mysteries as mysteries

Unfortuantely, fans feel entitled to answers.

Despite the fact that the game deliberately downplayed its own coherence, people weren't satisfied. I know I'm repeating myself here, but Kojima never intended to answer the mysteries of MGS2. Here is the quote from the official Kojima Productions website:

Q: The theme of MGS4 is "sense". What exactly does that mean?

A: Once again I'd intended for MGS3 to wrap up the series, but so many people wanted to know what happened after "2". Things like the identity of the Patriots and so forth. I had planned on leaving those mysteries as mysteries, but people weren't convinced that the series was wrapped up. [link]

Metal Gear Solid 2 wasn't wacky or postmodern enough to stop people from trying to figure out the plot, and thanks in particular to its enticing ending it seemed to fans that all questions would be answered in due time. A sequel would be made, and we'd finally know why Vamp was immortal, or who the Patriots really were, or how Raiden could be part of a special unit that didn't even exist. Telling fans that you're done with the series isn't going to satisfy them; and it didn't.

I've discussed this problem at length in my article Kojima vs. MGS4, so if you haven't read it I suggest you do it before continuing. If you have read it, you know already how badly Kojima wanted to avoid tying up those loose ends, and how the only reason he accepted the job was thanks to death threats and constant pressure. Imagine yourself being forced to conjur up some entirely pointless explanations for entirely pointless questions, which you deliberately left unanswered in order to try making a point about not obsessing over pointless fiction plots! To have your masterpiece of postmodern commentary counted as nothing more than a disappointing and incomplete story, requiring closure. If you were nothing more than a shrewd business man this may sound fine. But if you poured yourself into making a meaningful work of art, wagering your own reputation as a designer on being able to destroy exactly that type of closed-minded thinking, it is heartbreaking indeed. It means you failed, and your audience failed too. It means you may as well give up on trying to make art. It means you should just give people what they want. It means Metal Gear Solid 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4.

 

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