We’re once again honored to have Mad Jackyl present us with a great article about the Metal Gear series — this time about how the recurring ninja character serves the plot of the games. The article is below the jump, so read on and please enjoy!
The Ninja As A Deus Ex Machina Phenomena
By Mad Jackyl, author of Digital Foxdie and Raiden’s Dual Role, MGS2’s “Special” Options Analysis, and Deconstructing Shadow Moses, as well as fansite “Metal Gear Confidential”. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the saga that constitutes the Metal Gear series, there are a stunning array of bizarre characters, all with unique backgrounds, functions and significance to the storyline. Some characters last through just one entry in the series’ story arc while others spring up perennially. Some have more relevance to the overarching storyline while many more are reduced to talking heads or to provide weaker dynamics to the plot. There are your major players, of course: the Snakes, Big Bosses, Ocelots and the like that serve as the mainstays in the series, just as there are your minor players: the Master Millers, Roy Campbells (arguably) and Mei Lings. These examples are by no means a definitive list of characters minor and major and certainly arguments could be made for one characters’ inclusion in the previous grouping or vice-versa. In most of the games in the series, the player is joined in their mission by a colorful cast of characters with varying expertise. There are scientists, military advisors, radio operators, former comrades, data specialists and dogs of war from an innumerable array of ethnic backgrounds and geopolitical climates. In a world of bizarre characters serving as spies, turncoats, double and even-triple-crossers, there are dozens of antagonists and just as many protagonists; sometimes these characters cannot be easily lumped into one category or the other. This essay will detail one such character which has been all of these at one time or another and sometimes all at the same time. As the title of this article suggests, I am of course talking about a mainstay character of the series: the ninja.
The reasons for choosing this dubious figure are due to the complexities in shifting allegiances and changing roles throughout the series and a want to illustrate the dynamics of such an integral role in order to provide a (hopefully) refreshing or enlightening insight on this classic character.
Origins of the Ninja
The ‘role’ of the ninja stands out as an irregular even among a host of various irregulars. The designation of the ninja as playing a ‘role’ is meant to illustrate the ever-changing functionality as a supportive character-type than as a non-static or non-changing individual; a literary device in essence, more than anything. The ‘idea’ of the Ninja is just as important, if not more so, than the person assuming the role and that is what this analysis attempts to bring more attention to.
Starting with the genesis of the character, we can go all to the way back to the first iteration of this idea in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. In 1992, on the MSX2 home computer system, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was released to a Japanese-only audience. As the title suggests, this game is a direct sequel to 1987’s Metal Gear and centers around the Solid Snake we’ve all come to know and love today. In one of his first encounters in this mission, Snake faces Black Colour (in later releases, Black Ninja), who is described as a “Space Ninja” whom Snake must defeat in battle. As Black Ninja is dying, it is revealed that his true identity is that of Kyle Schneider, former ally and resistance member during the Outer Heaven incident several years prior. The “former ally returns under unusual circumstances” scenario exhibited here would become a series mainstay in several sequels in the future. Although an early prototypical example of what would follow later in the series, the dual persona of Kyle Schneider/Black Ninja established two characteristics integral to the ninja’s persona: one, that the person assuming the role would be someone with whom Snake had shared past and often very personal experiences with, and secondly, that the character would die or otherwise sacrifice themselves for Snake by the mission’s end. This first iteration of the ninja role in this game, though it establishes some precedents, is still in what could be considered an immature or incomplete form here compared to later, similar roles. With that being said, Metal Gear 2 can still be regarded ultimately as the original inspiration for any antecedents seen in later titles.
Eight years would pass between the release of Metal Gear 2 and its groundbreaking sequel Metal Gear Solid, released in the winter of 1998. As the world of home consoles entered the 32-bit era, game designer Hideo Kojima saw an opportunity to revamp the Metal Gear series using 3D technology made possible by the polygon-rendering power of the Sony PlayStation. Having had a decently successful outing in Japan with Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Kojima realized he could re-imagine the Metal Gear 2 formula in 3D in order to bring it to a wider audience. Borrowing heavily at times from elements which made its MSX2 predecessor a success in Japan, Kojima added a brand new setting and storyline into the mix, as well as new, exciting characters while retaining many familiar faces and names from the previous entry.
The increased storage capacity and graphical processing power allowed for a much deeper storyline and richer character development than what the MSX2 allowed for. Metal Gear Solid was a resounding success due to its presentation style and is often credited as one of the first truly cinematic experiences in video games. The strength of its story could largely be attributed to the gestation period between Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid and the fact that many gameplay elements, characters and events had been integral to the plot of the previous game. The similarities ring as being strikingly similar when compared to one another: a battle with a Hind-D gunship, a chase up a long stairwell of a communications tower, a battle inside an elevator, being captured by the enemy and the subsequent escape from a holding cell, a battle with the eponymous Metal Gear weapon in a deep underground bunker, as well as a heinous double-cross and eventual death of a close friend and ally. Both games have so many similarities, as you see, that it is only natural that we should also see the return of a ninja character.
Deus Ex Machina
If you have taken any classical literature courses or have familiarized yourself with any of the canonical Greek tragedies, you are no doubt familiar with the term deus ex machina, as it so often comes up in relation to these great classical works. Deux ex machina translates quite literally as “God out of the machine” and was historically used by many ancient playwrights to signify a god or gods will as it manifests or exerts its control over human subjects and storylines. Often, in ancient Greek tragedies such as those written by Euripides, a deus ex machina was literally an actor playing or representing a god or gods that was lowered to the stage via a rope and pulley system hoisted from a mechane, or machine such as a crane. Though usually not as obviously overplayed today as this example, modern fiction still uses the deus ex, though often less heavy-handed and often more symbolic than literal. Today’s continued usage of this literary device has extended the meaning to more creative uses to much of the same effect. Modern fiction has extended the phrase to refer to any sudden and unexpected resolution to a seemingly intractable or otherwise impossible to solved problem in a storyline. This includes the use of any improbable device, event or even – as this essay will attempt to show – any character which furthers a plot employing an agenda that is externally derived rather than developed internally and naturally from within the story arc.
It is this sort of an explanation that shows us the nature and role of the cybernetic Ninja character and how it relates the most to the storyline it becomes entangled in. The genesis and reasons for reinstatement of a ninja character have already been covered when you take into the account the similarities of the ‘MSX2-PS1’ transfer of ideas. For as good of an supporting cast member as it was, this still only partially explains the reasons as to “why” it was included again. Take now into account the inherent abilities of such a role: being quick, ultra-powerful and boasting the distinct advantage of having stealth camouflage, this makes for a person of astounding ubiquity for a secondary character. Due to these qualities alone, it becomes a unique vehicle in which to propel the plot should it be floundering or lackluster at any point in time. The ninja thus becomes a script writer’s wet dream: a character that can, with imagined plausibility, be inserted anywhere at any time to do anything the script might require! The result: an omnipotent God-like character. Or – barring a lack of immortality, a demigod, at least.
The pretenses under which the plot allows for the cyborg ninja’s return are certainly questionable, however, some credence is automatically assumed due to the nature of his abilities (stealth, lethality, speed). None of these amazing attributes can account for how the cyborg ninja ended up on Shadow Moses Island in the first place, however. These things are usually not considered about the nature of such an intentionally mysterious character, so the thought of ‘who’ and ‘why’ this character seems to be helping you are of a more primary concern, after all. Does it really matter as to ‘how’ such a being as this ninja came to this remote Alaskan archipelago when it is coming at you in a whirlwind of chokuto blade slashes and acrobatic kicks? As mentioned before, due to the character’s nature, an assumption must be made by the player, thus dismissing the lack of its mere mentioning in the storyline. Conversationally, you could argue the fact that the mere existence of a cybernetic ninja with a super-powered exoskeleton takes precedent over the fact of how it got here. It’s never fully explained in any case: if Snake must reach the island via a one-man swimmer delivery vehicle launched from a submarine torpedo port (self-propulsion is off limits here, remember), that rules out an amphibious approach for the most part. Again, remembering that radar picked up two F-16s scrambled from Galena AFB (and summarily dispatched by Liquid Snake), this rules out the next likely candidate – air transport. So how does a deranged cyborg with an agenda of its own get on to this nearly impregnable and inhospitable region of the world unaided? The answer must be simple: for the sake of the plot, it just does. It’s simply written in that way in order to affect the main plot. This is the nature of a deus ex machina; they are accepted at face value and need little in the way of explanations. To elaborate further using the Shadow Moses Island backdrop, the first confrontation with Ocelot ends with a classical deus ex intervention in the truest sense. As Revolver Ocelot comes to bear down on Snake with his pistol ready to fire, the ninja descends from above, as if divinely sent, just in time to separate Ocelot’s hand at the wrist. In the confusion of the ensuing scene that includes a face to face encounter with a stealth-clad cyborg just before C4 explosions rip the place apart and President Baker mysteriously dies before you, there is little time to ask yourself the following question: was that ninja sealed in behind the concrete walls with Ocelot and Baker the whole time or did he somehow conveniently make his way in only after Snake blows a hole through the side of the room? From this point forward (with one glaring exception), this cybernetic guardian angel of sorts steers you away from certain doom in several tough spots. Having the latent ability to be anywhere at any time, the player is shadowed through their mission by this omniscient helper who remains out of reach and (mostly) out of touch for much of the mission. It’s almost as if Kojima inserted himself as a character in order to instruct the player along their way.
In another instance, Snake is captured, interrogated and tortured. Locked up in the interim between visits to the torture chamber, the incompetent guard charged with keeping an eye on Snake’s cell predictably offers several opportunities for escape. However, if none of the opportunities presented are taken, Snake is not left to languish for long; sure enough, the ninja pays a visit and – blade in hand – deftly disables the locking mechanism on the door. It’s just too bad he doesn’t show up in time to prevent Snake’s torture at the hand(s) of Ocelot. Maybe he figured that Snake must at least earn it.
Undoubtedly, the ninja’s shining moment comes in the end as it appears unexpectedly again, this time to help Snake. As Liquid appears poised to commit fratricidal revenge from the cockpit of Rex, the ninja appears again as if from nowhere to intervene. Revealing its true identity as that of Snake’s former comrade Frank Jaeger, he is able to buy Snake time, though he himself falls victim under the crushing tread of Rex. Thus, one legend must give up immortality so that another legend may live – truly a Greek notion there. This is the moment wherein this type of altruistic action sets the precedent for future characters assuming the ‘ninja’ role: that of sacrificial lamb. Another all too convenient curiosity that gets included in the act that are without prior antecedent at this point is that just when Jaeger comes to Snake’s aid, he is suddenly in possession of an arm cannon, which he uses to destroy Rex’s radome. Again, seemingly no explanation is needed for a character that has already performed a multitude of improbable acts so far. Part of the mystique of such a character is that they are simply so good that they can do nearly as they please without coming under intense scrutiny due to the internal assumptions already made in the mind of the viewer.
The Return of the Ninja, Again
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty took the ninja character to the next level by consciously manipulating these prior assumptions made on the part of the player. In order to expose the faulty nature of memetic conditioning that can allow for ‘toxic’ memes to color the perceptions of our reality, Kojima and company attempted to use our own preconceived notions of what we already know about ninja characters and Metal Gear storylines: they are mysterious (male) guardians who, for the most part, help the mission along due to their alliance with the player or main character. There was also more than a fair amount of information given in the pre-release trailers to suggest the “new” cyborg ninja was a character we were already familiar with. Add a familiar line of dialogue here, a striking resemblance to Frank Jaeger’s ninja form there and the implications to be made were obvious. Primarily, it established that: (A) this character was an ally, but has an agenda or personal reasons for being involved; (B) undoubtedly a male ally at that and (C) Snake and this person were already familiar with one another [Gray Fox was seemingly the most readily acceptable answer throughout fan communities at the time]. To further compound the problem of relying on assumptions obtained a priori, it probably only helped to strengthen the assumption that this character was indeed Gray Fox by the fact that Solidus Snake also looked like “the spitting image of Big Boss.” To many fans at this time, these two very similar-looking characters had them doubting their own assumptions about what they thought they knew thus far about the series. Thus far, both Big Boss and Gray Fox were known to have been considered deceased at different times in the past, only to reappear in later titles. Many speculators followed far-fetched scenarios in which both of these characters could return using the most incidental evidence to support their claims; to some, Kojima seemed to be following the fan speculation and in subtle ways responding to it by incorporating many of these hopes and expectations on the fans’ part by including certain characters with either familiar dialogue or scenarios in released footage. Many more seemed to be unsure of which way to turn, seeming lost in the mixed messages propagated by the Kojima team. In an interview with Electronic Gaming Monthly after the E3 event which took place months before release in which EGM asked for hints or clues to the storyline, Kojima stated it in his usual taciturn way:
“I created the E3 trailer to give everyone an opportunity to imagine what the final game will be like. All rumors could be correct. All rumors could be wrong. One thing is for sure: I think I’ll be able to fool and betray all of you in a pleasant way.”
From the outset, the fans were manipulated in such a way that no one could say with any certainty what kind of trick Kojima would have in store for them or if this was just a game in which giving false negatives to the public was a strategy undertaken to ensure the game’s storyline remained spoiler-free before release. No one could have expected the extent of his ‘betrayal’, though.
After players were treated to a more classical “Metal Gear experience” with the Tanker chapter, players were simply confused when the next chapter opened with them in control of an unexpected deviation in the formula: an unknown protagonist known as Raiden. Where was Snake? Like myself, I’m sure many people felt uncertain with the character and how this would tie in with the story thus far. It served as an excellent metaphor; with an all new playable character in an all new setting, the player was forced to question everything they thought they knew, just as Kojima may have intended. Who was Raiden, where had he come from and why was he involved? There were no assumptions to be made, just as when picking up a new game that’s never been played before. There was also the matter of Solid Snake being initially set up to be a terrorist in the eyes of Raiden. Perhaps this is why the character was not playable this time around? The hits just kept coming. Solidus Snake, who clearly resembled Big Boss seemed to be posing as Solid Snake, J.G. Plisken, who looked and sounded like the real Snake was another unknown variable and the addition of another Ninja only obfuscated what was really going on.
Kojima played up the identity of the mysterious ninja, “Mr. X”, in spectacular fashion using allusions to the Frank Jaeger identity from the previous game in an obvious attempt to correlate player’s previous experiences with this new one. The effect was something akin to déjà vu. While radically altering the ‘Metal Gear’ formula, Kojima still stuck rather closely to the “Ninja/Deus Ex” formula. The criteria, we find, are all met: Olga Gurlukovich shares a mutual past experience with Solid Snake aboard the U.S.S. Discovery and, even though forced through manipulation, is an ally with an agenda of her own (protection of her child) and possesses incredible abilities due to the powered exoskeleton. Like in previous titles, Olga/Mr. X acts as a conduit through which information is fed to the player about hazards and critical developments concerning the mission. The biggest deviation and perhaps the most brilliant twist is that of the sex of the character. This simple tweaking of the formula was all it took to shift any suspicion of the ninja’s true identity from that of Olga. With this deliberate diversionary tactic in use, it becomes much easier for Gurlukovich to play both roles. Becoming the ‘ninja’ also gives her access to all the privileges granted to that position – namely, the ability to be anywhere at nearly any time so long as it does not conflict with the duties of her other personality. Plausibility is thus given to why Gurlukovich can do the things she does and is able to remain relatively free from scrutiny as a result. As “Mr. X”, she is able to bypass the security of the door which bars all but those who have retinal recognition from gaining entry to the conference room where Richard Ames and the rest of the hostages are kept in Strut 2. This is never really addressed after she is revealed to have been playing the role of the ninja,; how she manages to circumvent such security measures in order to protect Raiden from Ocelot and his troops is practically a non-issue in the mind of the player. Possibly, since Raiden is also able to bypass this security measure, this gives less cause for Olga to come under suspicion as being the mysterious Ninja later on. True to form given the criteria laid out for “Ninja” characters in the series, Olga also fulfills the role of sacrificial lamb when she shows up at the end only to be mercilessly killed by Solidus Snake.
Raiden as Ninja Plot Device
Metal Gear Solid 3 does away with the allusion to the ninja character, perhaps because Kojima did not truly intend to address the concerns that would arise after the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 2. This makes more sense when promotional trailers for Metal Gear Solid 4 included a ninja once again, as MGS4 takes place after the events of MGS2. Again, we have a character who has a shared past with Solid Snake, this time played by Raiden.
Like all Ninja characters in the “Solid” series, Raiden is an extremely powerful and adept fighter with an agenda who is compelled to help Snake. Apart from rescuing Sunny from the Patriots and finding the corpse of Big Boss for Paradise Lost prior to the events depicted in MGS4, Raiden also saves Snake numerous times. He relays information about Big Mama’s location after defending Snake and company from an onslaught of Gekko and later reappears on Shadow Moses Island (once again, no one can say for sure how except there must be a secret transport method known only by cyber ninjas in place) helping to defeat Vamp and prevent Snake from a crushing death when Outer Haven threatens to steamroll everything in its path. Further on, as Snake forges deeper into Outer Haven in an effort to destroy the AI console housed within, he is cornered by a unit of FROGS. This event seems to serve two functions: one, to create plot tension just before Snake encounters the AI console and secondly, as a pretense to include one final action by our deus ex machinae, perhaps to show to the player that he is indeed still alive since we last saw him about to be ground to a pulp by Outer Haven. Though limbless and barely able to fight, Raiden soldiers on, urging Snake to go ahead without him. Raiden turns to confront the FROGS alone in an act of altruistic self-sacrifice yet again. Ultimately, Raiden lives however and therefore doesn’t fully live up to being a true sacrifice, though the intention is the still the same.