(This article has been updated on May 31, 2011 for your enjoyment)
PART 2: War is Routine
Old Snake: War has changed. It’s no longer about nations, ideologies, or ethnicity. It’s an endless series of proxy battles fought by mercenaries and machines. War – and its consumption of life – has become a well-oiled machine.
When the first game trailers were being shown, it was a shock for many to see that the setting of Metal Gear Solid 4 was the Middle East, and more shocking yet to hear the commentary of Snake about war being “routine”. What could such a thing mean? It wasn’t the same stylish, “cool” Metal Gear world we had seen before: it was desolation and massacre for no good reason. For literally the first time ever, there was no enemy stronghold to infiltrate, no big scary dude with a Metal Gear threatening the world. Indeed, we were sneaking into an actual battlefield, a neutral agent passing through somebody else’s pointless war. Why would Kojima break his successful formula for something as bleak and complex as that?
In the long-established tradition of gamers, though, this shocking question was ignored and forgotten about. No matter how hard Kojima tries to get people to use their brain, they always end up mindlessly “accepting” what he gives them, as if it was an act of generosity.
Well I’m here to provide some commentary. The obvious reason for including the “war is routine” theme to MGS4 is, I believe, as a commentary on the United States’ so-called “War on Terror”. Kojima skewers the rise of Private Military Companies such as Blackwater, who have no ideologies, and to whom war is truly routine, by picturing a future where the whole world is in constant battle for nothing at all, dominated by a handful of neutral proxy armies. It’s a sad picture, where constant slaughter happens without a second thought, and even emotions are controlled on an individual level. Considering the strong morality of past games, this is especially stark.
The PMC phenomenon, we are told, was triggered by the “Manhattan Incident”; this is referring to the Big Shell incident of MGS2, but also to the real-life September 11th attacks, which triggered the War on Terror and fueled the need for military outsourcing. This makes sense, feels contemporary, and is under-appreciated by fans of the series, I think.
And let’s not forget that a world of war is what “Outer Heaven” was all about in the first place. Clever of him to finally depict this nightmarish scenario, so as to give greater meaning to the original missions of the series. The difference, of course, is that there is no madman with a super-weapon who has created this world, but rather a network of systems. This is discussed throughout the game, and is a great excuse for traveling the world.
So, with all of these great reasons for including the “war is routine” theme, why question whether there’s a greater meaning to it?
The Hidden Reasons
Hideo Kojima suspected that many players were mostly interested in the combat aspect of the series as early as MGS1, as evidence by Liquid Snake’s accusation that Solid was really continuing his mission because he “enjoyed all the killing.” And in MGS2 he went as far as to compare the average player with Raiden, who is nothing more than a VR rookie who wants to be Solid Snake. But it was only after the backlash towards MGS2 that he decided to give people more of what they wanted without trying to make them feel bad about it while he did it.
He did this using more guns, CQC fighting, less story, and an online mode where people could kill each other as much as they wanted without a cause. Obviously Kojima himself didn’t like to promote these kinds of things, but it goes to show how seriously he took the theme of compliance with the “times”.
He, like The Boss, sacrificed himself for the sake of what was needed; or in other words, he gave in to popular demand to save the series. Looking at the routine war of MGS4, and especially of MGO, it’s clear how he feels about this phenomenon. Tons of weaponry, advanced online mode, gun vendors and deep weapon customization — these aren’t the things Metal Gear was supposed to be about. But times change, as Old Snake explains.
Kojima deserves credit for not trying to pretend that there was a great meaning to the conflicts of MGS4, because it means he stayed true to himself on some level. If he had tried to make another “Shadow Moses” type of mission, it just wouldn’t have felt true.
This kind of meta-commentary is one of Kojima’s signatures, and there’s no better example it in MGS4 than Old Snake himself, who serves as the key to the whole question of why the game was designed the way it was.