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Smoke & Mirrors
A Game Without Substance


Smoke and mirrors: A distortion of the truth. A planned illusion; a trick.


Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty has been bought and played by millions of people all across the world. At the time of its release, it was the single most anticipated videogame in history. It’s the successor to what is now called the greatest PS1 game of all time. It has undoubtedly left its mark in the gaming world through its powerful presentation, gameplay, and narrative – but what is the true legacy of Metal Gear Solid 2?

For many people – especially critics – MGS2 was both a disaster and a success. While the gameplay and visuals both improved dramatically, the story and characters seemed to take an unwelcome turn for the bizarre. Many were left scratching their heads at the strange direction the game took, and deemed the whole thing an experiment gone wrong. At the same time, many accepted everything without questioning the game – they contented themselves with the basic explanations for what was going on. There’s a large fan base that understands the plot, and looks no further. In some circles the game earned the title of “post-modern novelty”, for breaking the “fourth wall” and defying traditional storytelling. Overall, however, the legacy of the game is more of a sad joke than anything else.

It’s been four years since Sons of Liberty first shocked the gaming world, but the game’s reputation remains somewhat weak and tainted. The distaste for Raiden and the “convoluted plot” can still be found in new articles and forums all over the internet. It’s a shame that more people didn’t open up to the possibility that the game was hiding something important. From my first time playing it, I knew that the game was much more than a sci-fi thriller with some social commentary. There was a burning question that needed to be answered: why did Kojima make the game the way he did? Why take the risk? There were many lies in the past games, but the lie was never the game itself.

It’s reasonable to say that Kojima planned to break the proverbial mold, releasing the genre from the uncreative rut it had settled into. It’s also reasonable to say that he simply thought people would enjoy the new, wackier Metal Gear style. After all, if people liked a shaman and a psychic, maybe they’d like a witch and a vampire too; maybe they’d like being tricked into playing as an ignorant pretty-boy instead of their favorite character; maybe they’d like to fight a fat jerk on rollerblades, or lead a scared girl around by the hand. And who knows, maybe he thought we’d like slipping on bird poop too. Maybe he thought we’d like spraying bombs in the lady’s bathroom, or running around butt-naked in the cold while being told to “turn off the game”. Maybe… but somehow I doubt it. From the beginning, there was conscious effort to sabotage the game’s own coolness, and there had to be a worthy explanation.

Not what I'd call a "cool" mission.

By starting with the simple fact that Raiden represents the average Metal Gear player (in Kojima's eyes) I was able to learn a lot about the creative direction of the game. Raiden begins his mission to the sound of Colonel Campbell debriefing him, thinking he is a Foxhound commando named “Snake”. We’re told that a group of terrorists have overtaken a civilian facility, and that we’ve been sent to diffuse the intense situation. We wear a cool mask. Soon enough, though, our codename is changed, and we’re asked to input our own personal information, as if it’s some sort of Role Playing Game. Take note that this exact same information appears on Raiden’s dog tags at the end of the game. Kojima meant for us to identify with Raiden from beginning to end, whether we liked it or not.

Eventually the mask comes off, we’re told that Foxhound no longer exists, and we become increasingly aware of a conspiracy to manipulate us. The further we progress, the more we find that our mission is nothing more than a planned illusion. When we are faced with this, we aren’t able to change our circumstances. Our only option is to complete our “role”. Just look at the conversation with President Johnson in the script (found in the Document of Metal Gear Solid 2,) and notice the additional notes made by Kojima:

[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.

Here a very clear connection is made between events that occur in the game, and the predicted experience of the player. This is very important. President Johnson resigns his rebellious ambitions after realizing the futility of his efforts; he gives Raiden the M.O. disk, tells him to give it to Emma, and orders him to stop Arsenal. He does this knowing that it’s nothing more than another trick; another part of the S3 Plan. The metaphor is that the player will later learn that his entire mission was an orchestrated simulation, yet continue to complete his role and kill Solidus atop Federal Hall. Not only is this interesting by itself, but it also proves that the game is designed to extract specific emotions and reactions from the player.

At the time I thought it was a way of testing fan loyalty. Would pretty graphics and a convoluted plot be enough to make the game popular? If we are told that we’re just pawns in a game, would players still imbue themselves with a false sense of heroism?

Raiden: We’re not just pawns in some simulation game you know!

Rose: Yes, you are. You’re nothing but mere weapons.

This is a cynic’s way of demonstrating, first hand, the superficiality of today. Millions of people bought the game simply because it looked nice, and they wanted to get their hands on that big ol’ Solid Snake. It tested to see if we would blindly follow orders, like Raiden, without a purpose or a goal. We came to sneak around and kill people in a dramatic espionage scenario; even if that means contributing to a conspiracy to control the world.

The smoke and mirrors of Sons of Liberty made many people frustrated. They refuse to think about the bad parts of the story so that they won’t have to deal with the fact that they have been deceived. This is exactly the kind of behavior Raiden is accused of:

[Raiden has just been bombarded with accusations, and is struggling to defend himself.]

Rose: But you turn your back on everything you don't like. You do whatever you like, see only the things you like, and for yourself alone.

Colonel: Yes -- Rose can attest to that.

Rose: You refused to see me for what I was. I lied to you, but I wanted to be caught.  You pretended to be understanding, to be a gentleman... You never made a conscious attempt to reach out to me... The only time you did was when I gave you no choice but to do so...

Raiden: I was just trying not to...

Rose: What? "Trying not to hurt me?" Dear, the one you were trying not to hurt was yourself! Avoiding the truth under the guise of "kindness" is all that you did!  It occurred to you to do nothing but look out for yourself. Even if you claim that it was for my sake, that feeling was nowhere to be seen. In the end, everything was for your sake... I was never part of the picture.

This conversation doesn’t mean much on its own. Are we supposed to feel guilty for not reaching out to a videogame character? For refusing to see her for what she was? Of course not. However, it means a lot when you realize that Rose represents MGS2 itself. Just think about it: she’s beautiful, glamorous, and intelligent, but ultimately a deception; she’s cobbled together from our own hopes and expectations; she begins as our friend, but ultimately proves to be a test of our competence; she nags us with issues we don’t want to think about in the middle of our mission; she dares us to see her for what she really is, while keeping just enough of a false front to give us the option of going into denial. The list goes on. There are times when we wonder if she’s real at all; everything we initially thought we knew about her turned out to be a lie; she changed her style to appeal to us, but only so she could get close to us and accomplish her objective. The similarities are no accident.

Meet your girlfriend, MGS2.

Following this, the “Colonel” says:

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.

[Switches to Emma Emmerich’s voice.]

Emma: Didn't I tell you that GW was still incomplete? But not anymore, thanks to you.

Colonel: Your persona, experiences, triumphs and defeats are nothing but byproducts. The real objective was ensuring that we could generate and manipulate them. It's taken a lot of time and money, but it was well worth it considering the results. I think that's enough talk. It's time for the final exercise. Raiden, take Solidus down.

The real objective was to ensure that they could generate and manipulate people’s thoughts. By doing this with Raiden (ie. the player,) they have proven that the S3 Plan (ie. MGS2) was a “resounding success”. The S3 Plan is complete, and all that is left is for you to kill Solidus. This will prove that, like President Johnson, you can be counted on to complete your pre-planned role, even when you know that it is what the Patriots want. There is no satisfaction in this; no substance. Whatever your reasons for beating Solidus – whether it be saving Olga’s baby, to survive, to save Rose, etc. – those reasons were given to you by the Patriots. The emotions and ambitions are real, but they’re generated and contained within the S3 Plan. That is what makes the S3 Plan a success. To blend the real and the illusion, creating a sincere hoax, like smoke and mirrors. This is why we must ask ourselves, “What we are left with when the smoke clears?”

All that remains is the mirror…


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PART TWO: Memes From Mirrors, Substance From Smoke

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