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You and the beasts are no different... Scorched shadows born to the world. When a beast steps into the light... Unless the light is put out... The shadows cannot be erased. So long as there is light... There is shadow. To return everything to normal... The light must be extinguished.

Big Mama, Metal Gear Solid 4

We are beasts created by man. Unless the light is put out... The shadows cannot be erased. So long as there is light... Erasing shadows will do no good.

— Revovler Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid 4

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A son of liberty

The irony of Metal Gear Solid 2's reception is hard to comprehend, let alone explain. There are so many levels on which Kojima's brilliant plan stumbled over itself — so many good attempts gone wrong — that even those who manage to pierce the complex shroud of the plot are left oblivious to the delicious catastrophe that it reflects. Let me give you just one example. MGS2 is subtitled "Sons of Liberty", which is a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which group of British American colonists revolted against the government because they felt like they weren't being fairly represented. "No taxation without representation" was their slogan. Their rebellion served as a turning point which led to the success of the American Revolution. Simply put, their willingness to protest against authority — to Sons of Libertychallenge what they were being told — changed the course of world history. The subtitle is not a coincidence.

Indeed, MSG2 is about a villainous character whose sole ambition is to create a revolution on par with the Boston Tea Party, and break free from information control. His group of rebels calls themselves "Sons of Liberty" as an homage. Yet the main character, a protagonist who represents you the player, is somebody who refuses to challenge what he's told because he'd rather pretend he's a hero. He selectively ignores what he doesn't like rather than challenging it in order to protect his false sense of heroism. When confronted with an inconvienient question, he goes into denial. Kojima puts it in caustic terms, via his godlike GW entity:

Colonel/Rose: In denial, you simply resort to looking for another, more convenient "truth" in order to make yourself feel better. Leaving behind in an instant the so-called "truth" you once embraced. Should someone like that be able to decide what is "truth"? Should someone like you even have the right to decide? You've done nothing but abuse your freedom. You don't deserve to be free! We're not the ones smothering the world. You are.

If this seems too intensely hostile to be a commentary on the player, you have a point. After all, what can you do? As you recall, you are President Johnson. You have no choice but to comply, because the videogame only has one ending. Are you supposed to feel guilty for doing what the game forces you to? If you were given the option to rebel against the S3 Plan, you'd no doubt take it. But we aren't given the option, so how can we possibly prove that we "deserve to be free"?

The answer is to say, "You can take my freedom, but you can't take my mind." Break the illusion; wake up; see things for what they really are. Do what the original Sons of Liberty did, and challenge authority. Stop caring so much about the damn characters and instead look for the hidden messages. Stop asking stupid questions about the plot to Kojima. It's that simple. In a digital world — a virtual reality — the only freedom is freedom of the mind, and if you still obsess over the loose ends of the plot by the time the credits roll, you have failed. Seriously, you have. That's the true challenge of the game, and if you can't overcome that, you've never beaten Metal Gear Solid 2.

I would contend that you don't need to be a "post-modern lit major" (as GameSpy characterized those who enjoyed MGS2's story) to understand all of this "metababble", you just need to think of it from the creative perspective. Games are created from nothing. They're not real. People design them, and the choices behind those people's designs serve a purpose. That purpose may be to create fun, or may be to enlighten you with some psychological manipulation in a science fiction setting. It's provocative, but isn't that why we respect minds like Kojima's? Star Trek had an episode where the characters were trapped in a virtual reality; I guess the difference is that it wasn't you who was being fooled and betrayed, and in the end it all got explained. There was closure. MGS2 doesn't have that.

Whether Kojima really trusted that players were smart enough to figure this all out as well as overcome their petty desire for closure, or whether he simply didn't care, is anybody's guess. One thing we know for sure is that he never wanted to have to tie up those loose ends.


Zero and one hundred

If you're interested in how the fallout from MGS2 dictated the design of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, you can read my thoughts here. My ongoing analysis of how MGS2 influenced the design of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots can be found here. Instead of repeating myself here, I'm going to focus on a certain coded message that is hidden within the script of MGS4. It was put there, perhaps, as an attempt to pass down some wisdom to his team, who (he hoped) would be tasked with continuing the series from that point forward. Perhaps it was for his own sanity more than anything. Or perhaps he thought some fans would actually be clever enough to pick up on it. Whatever the reason, it's essentially a message about the creative process itself.

At the top of this page I've quoted two separate characters, giving separate speeches while in their final dying moments; both of them muttering in cryptic language about beasts, shadows, and light, as if we're suppoed to understand what they're babbling about. Is it just serious sounding jibberish? Despite the atrocious handling of the plot in general, I say it's still unlikely. Perhaps we're meant to connect it with the last words of Gray Fox from MGS1, in which he calls himself "an undying shadow in a world of light." That's sort of clever, isn't it? But it's still underwhelming. It doesn't have the existentialism or meta-commentary that we've come to expect from death scenes in Metal Gear.

As you ponder that, read Naomi Hunter's dying words, also given to Solid Snake:

Naomi: Snake... You have been given life so that you may fulfill your purpose. When all of this is over, you'll have no choice but to accept death. We are given life only so that we can atone for our sins. Your life was created for that very purpose. We all must atone for our own sins. We must not pass them on to the next generation. We must not leave them for the future. That is your true fate... One that even you cannot defy.

Sound familar? It's not the same as Big Mama or Revolver Ocelot's speeches, but it does bear a striking resemblence to Kojima's words in this interview — the same interview in which he explains that he intended to leave MGS2's mysteries as mysteries:

Kojima: So ultimately we ended up making "4". When work started on it, though, I began to wonder if my message of what we should pass on to future generations had truly gotten through, both to players and my team. After all, I've been conscious of the fact that this really is going to be my final Metal Gear, which means the team is going to have to continue the series themselves after I step away.

However, it hit me that maybe there are some things you can't pass on. A person's will, thoughts, and emotions aren't encoded into their genes, and they aren't a part of memes either. If you group together those remaining factors, you're left with a person's sense, and that's the theme of the game this time around.

You know what I'm about to suggest. Hideo Kojima, realizing it was impossible to shift the responsibility of giving closure to the stupid questions surrounding Metal Gear Solid 2's plot to his team, feels like he must "atone for his sins" by creating Metal Gear Solid 4 and tying up those loose ends. He can't leave those problems for "future generations", ie. his team, and so Old Snake is brought back as a plot device to kill the questions once and for all. It doesn't matter how terrible the answers are, or how blatantly he "retcons" the series, he needs to get the job done. He must atone!

The coded message is something altogether more impersonal than that, however. What Big Mama and Ocelot are really talking about needs to be matched up with the infamous "zero becomes one hundred" speech given by Big Boss, in his final moments.

Big Boss: Everything has its beginning... But doesn't start at "one." It starts long before that... In chaos. The world is born... From zero. The moment zero becomes one is the moment the world springs to life. One becomes two... Two becomes 10... 10 becomes 100. Taking it all back to one solves nothing. So long as zero remains... One... Will eventually grow to 100 again. And so... Our goal... Was to erase Zero.

Big Boss says that as long as zero remains, one will eventually grow to one hundred again. Notice how similar that sounds to the "so long as there is light, erasing shadows will do no good" talk from Big Mama and Ocelot? Both involve destroying a problem at its source, although the source itself remains vague. If you want to believe that they're strictly speaking about The Patriots and their "System", you are free to do so; but if you want to really understand the message, you'll once again have to break the illusion and stop obsessing over the details of the plot.

Fictional worlds begin from nothing — in the chaotic realm of concepts and ideas. In the concept phase of writing, literally anything is possible. There are no restrictions, because there are no "facts". Nothing established can get in the way of your imagination. However, the instant you establish the first fact publicly, whether it involves the setting, characters or events, you simultaneously raise a thousand questions and restrict a thousand possibilities. Zero becomes one. Chaos becomes order. Every fiction author knows that this is how it works, and it rarely becomes a problem, partially because good writers know how to thrive within the limits of previously established material, but mostly because they enjoy taking their time while creating closure. With enough time, energy and sequels, you can give closure to even the most troublesome loose ends in a plausible way. Unfortunately for Kojima, he only gave himself one game with which to solve some of the most problematic loose ends imaginable! An immortal character who can walk on water and run up walls, the world's biggest shadow government, and the fate of a dozen bizarre characters who have no good reason to collide together.


Turn the light off

In order to properly give closure to the loose ends of MGS2 without simply admitting that it was all a computer simulation inside Raiden's head, you would need to expand the world of Metal Gear in many ways. But that's not what Kojima wanted. Remember that, to him, these questions were never worth answering to begin with! They were entirely irrelevant, even in MGS2, and in fact we were challenged to ignore them. That's why Big Mama and Ocelot's speeches about light and shadow are metaphors for answering questions.

Every time you shine a light on something, you cast a shadow. For example: if you tell the audience that a character was born in Germany, but is now living in China, you have only revealed two facts. What you've neglected to reveal is how that character travelled there. The author doesn't have to ask the question: it's simply there, waiting to be answered. Whatever you don't "shine a light on", or reveal information about, remains a "shadow", or mystery. If you tell the audience that the character flew to China on a plane, you still haven't answered when, or why. It goes on and on, forever. The inevitable, preposterous swelling of questions and answers is what Kojima is referring to when he says that "one will will eventually grow to one hundred".

Of course, if the audience doesn't care about such stupid questions, then you don't have to worry about it to begin with. Can't you see how tiresome and ironic the backlash of MGS2 would be to a "Son of Liberty" like Kojima? Can't you see why he would want to "extinguish the light" of the Metal Gear series and bring it all "back to nothing", because that's where it came from? I'm sure you can. Perhaps you can also see why the ultimate threat of MGS4 is represented by a faceless, pervasive "System" which robs everything of meaning and creates conflict for no reason. Even the bad guys want the System destroyed. Everybody wants freedom, because Kojima wants freedom more than anything. The true evil of the world is perfunctoriness. Routine. Obligation. Unthinking obedience leading to unthinking conflict. The sole objective of the main character is to cancel the cycle of mindless, swelling vanity. If ever there was a metaphor for how Kojima felt about the relentless questions being asked of him, this is it.

Turn off the light. All the shadows go away.


Final thought

Whether you see him as a misunderstood genius deserving of our collective sympathy and praise, or simply a naïve writer who failed to manage the curiosity of his fanbase while trying to create postmodern art, his story is the story of the Metal Gear series. And we, the players, have had a hand in shaping that story.

We still, have a hand in shaping that story.

What you'll do with that is up to you. I'm going to be here, continuing to break the illusion and asking the questions that need to be asked. I hope you'll indulge me. Thank you for reading.




Related links:

The Legacy of MGS2

The VR Theory

The (Philosopher's) Legacy of MGS3

The Long, Dark Path to MGS4

Kojima vs. MGS4

MGS4: Sold Out

Beauty, Beast and MGS4

Are Videogames Art?


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