Part 10: Big Boss Returns
PART 11: Shadow Moses is Dead and Buried
After ten years, Kojima takes us back to Shadow Moses Island with Metal Gear Solid 4, doing what few games have ever done: showing the effect of time on a beloved setting.
Most videogames are so unrealistic that they can hardly portray a setting believably the first time, much less revisit it years later and imagine what’s happened since. But Kojima and team did exactly that, to the delight of many fans. Any kind of homage to the original Solid game makes sense considering its legendary popularity, but the question is why this time Shadow Moses is dead and buried.
In our excellent guest article, Deconstructing Shadow Moses, author Mad Jackyl analyses exactly this with research and imagination. Climate change, rising sea levels, and other factors have combined to reshape the island in a big way. But it's not just a cosmetic change. “Indeed, a certain sense of sadness has been ascribed by many at this point in the game,” he writes. “No longer is Shadow Moses a memory at this point, but a metamorphosis has changed it into some new manifestation of itself, perhaps one not quite expected. It is at this part that the point being strived for has reached its intended poignancy and maturity. Just like Snake in MGS4, we are made all the more aware of just how much time has passed since then and are forced to face our mortality in the same way by recognizing how much older we are now.” This is along the lines of what Kojima has said before.
The passage of time, looking back, and the theme of getting older are all prominent and deliberate. A lot of work was put into recreating Shadow Moses in a way that seemed honest and unflattering, just as Old Snake is rapidly aging due to the cloning factor. This kind of “realism” makes the game world feel more believable to players, but it also imparts a message reminding us about how we all get older. Metal Gear has always had messages for players to dwell on, and so it only makes sense for the so-called "final game of the MGS Saga” to include a recurring theme that reinforces aging. Going back to a once-vibrant and exciting location from the past is a great opportunity to illustrate this theme.
Blatant fanservice is clearly an important factor too. Kojima could have taken us back to Grozny Grad or Zanzibar Land to make a point about getting older, but he didn’t because Shadow Moses Island has a special place in our hearts and minds, being the highlight of Solid Snake's (and Kojima's) career. So perhaps Kojima felt that it deserved a farewell ride. It’s about ending things once and for all, not just in story, but in satisfying the fans. If the nuclear storage facility were still as awesome as it used to be, people wouldn’t want to let it go. Here we even get the chance to fulfill the ceaseless (and idiotic) demand to be able to ride an actual Metal Gear ourselves.
Lastly, let's not forget the word “nostalgia”. The design of the game is supposed to spark specific memories, with sound bites from the old game literally playing over the speakers at key places and certain items being placed in the same spots as the original. Before playing the area we’re actually treated to an emulation of the old PSX game, just in case we may have forgotten (or never played it). Again and again, our nostalgia is triggered, while at the same time we’re faced with how things have changed. It’s bittersweet, but it’s the way of the world. Snake has changed, war has changed, and so has everything else. It’s time to simultaneously remember, and prepare to let go.
The Hidden Reasons
Now while the above-mentioned reasons are all legitimate, and important to be able to understand the appearance of Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid 4, it doesn’t account for a single glaring fact: Act 4 sucks.
Truth is, the so-called nostalgia feels more like mourning. It’s a depressing place. Why is that? Is it really so sad to just get older by ten years? If this is about how Kojima and everyone else has gotten older, shouldn't it be a celebration of "survival" and — for Kojima especially — success? He's the head of his own production company, a widely-recognized leader of his industry, and in good health! If this is all part of the theme of getting older, as Kojima has said before, you would expect it to be happier than ever. But instead, it's drained and melancholy.
Why couldn’t it go for a more upbeat kind of nostalgia? The kind which rekindles the old spark of life and transports fans back to one of their favourite moments? That's what the little emulated version of the heliport from MGS1 begins to do, raising our hopes of experiencing something just as cool... but the truth is a big letdown. Snake says “I was having that dream again.” That’s what the awesome Shadow Moses is now: an old dream.
The fact that Old Snake has one foot in the grave goes a long way to explaining all sorts of depressing things in MGS4, from the intro music to the constant insults being thrown his way by his friends, to the fact that a little girl tells him he’s not allowed to smoke anymore; but it doesn’t have to be that way. Videogames will never be bound by actual rules of life, no matter how realistic they try to seem, and there’s no particular reason why Old Snake needs to be so moody either. But since we already know it’s Kojima who’s the moody one, this seems unavoidable. Once we realize the amount of personal meta-story being injected into the game, Shadow Moses’ bleakness – and even its crappiness – starts to make more sense.
Shadow Moses is dead, but not because it's been unpowered for many years; it’s buried, but not in the sense of being covered with piles of snow. It’s dead in the sense of being publicly hanged, and buried under a ton of corny, ham-fisted sequences. As the director and writer, Kojima totally had the power to revive Shadow Moses to its former glory, if not surpass it! He had the power to do the same for Snake too. Advanced aging? Give me a break, we’re talking about a series where people are revived from the dead like it’s nothing. We’re talking about a series where a man control swarms of bees with his mind! It would have been easy to come up with some far-fetched excuse for Snake to be young, and we all would have been more than willing to accept it. But no, it’s made this way on purpose, and that purpose is to express sadness with the series. The great Shadow Moses, reduced to this. It’s a recurring theme, even before MGS4.
As early as Metal Gear Solid 2, Hideo Kojima felt threatened by the popularity of Shadow Moses. You should recall that the entire Big Shell chapter of the game was designed to parody the events of MGS1. The story of a VR rookie who believes he’s Solid Snake, unknowingly recreating the events of Shadow Moses, was a way of both confronting and deconstructing the popular demand to have a sequel which was “like the last one”. To spite the idiotic fans, Kojima gives us a game which is “like the last one” in a way we never would have wanted. He wants us to let go of it. Why can’t we let Kojima make whatever he wants to make? The murder of Shadow Moses in MGS4 is a final attempt to free himself from his obligations to his fans; a story which I explain at some length in the From Nothing article and elsewhere.
Story wise, there could have been FROG soldiers patrolling the heliport and tank hanger instead of being empty or otherwise littered with Scarabs. We know the FROGS are on the island during the Crying Wolf fight, and it sure as hell would have been more interesting than the admittedly annoying spam of Dwarf Gekkos. It could have been a strategically satisfying place to sneak around, with new tricks and twists to discover. It could have been so many things.
“But Mr. Wolfe,” you say obnoxiously, “aren’t you forgetting that it was Sean Eyestone, and not Hideo Kojima, who was responsible for designing that area? You’re pointing fingers at the wrong guy!” Oh you sad little fool. Regardless of who designed the area or wrote a part of the script, the fact is that Kojima has the final say on what’s accepted into the finished product, and thus takes the blame. Plus, giving somebody with no significant experience like Sean Eyestone (who’s not much more than Ryan Payton 2.0) the task of designing one of the most important areas of a game which has as much to prove as Metal Gear Solid 4 is just begging for problems. It’s practically sabotage. By listening to the podcasts about Act 4, it’s clear that Sean Eyestone was uncomfortable with the task. Aki and Ken are constantly trying to pity and comfort the guy as avoids recounting that punishing period of his life. If Kojima really cared about making Shadow Moses cool, he would have done it himself or given it to somebody experienced, not thrown some newbie to the slaughter and said “good enough”.
Alas, many would rather go into denial than face the fact that Shadow Moses sucks at all. Just as so many fanboys did with MGS2, they try to rationalize every point of contention and convince themselves that they love it – they tell themselves they're the ones who somehow really “get it” – while brain-using people who notice the drop in quality are treated like blasphemers and heretics. Worse still are those who notice the drop in quality, but are too stupid to ask themselves whether there’s more to it than meets the eye. They refuse to consider that a badass and totally hard-boner series like Metal Gear could contain some pussy meta-commentary about “WAH I DON’T WANT TO MAKE BEST-SELLING VIDEOGAMES ANYMORE, PLEASE LET ME STOP” and then their little minds turn off again. Unfortunately, the evidence just keeps piling up against them.