The many paths to not getting it
Let me guess what you’re thinking: if what I’m saying is true, how do I account for the fact that practically nobody thinks MGS2 was a VR simulation except me? Why hasn’t the theory caught on, if it’s so solid? Well trust me, I find it amazing how stubbornly the gaming world has neglected it, but I suppose ignorance might be bliss to them after all. The game’s coolness was stripped away, the themes were shoved in our faces repeatedly, and the questions are thrown right into our laps, but even today this is the reaction people still admit to having:
And I agree, it’s pretty far-out there in terms of craziness. You have to be as over-analytical as Kojima if you wanted to sort it out for yourself, and even then you pretty much need to scan through interviews, see past Kojima’s own false answers, and read into the subtext of everything. He made it almost impossible to figure out naturally, and this makes the whole thing seem pretentious and unbalanced. I mean, it’s like making a poorly fitting puzzle with bad hints and then blaming other people for not figuring it out. That’s how it feels, anyway.
I’ve decided to take the matter of community reaction seriously, knowing that many of you might be on the fence for one reason or another. I’m going to break down the reactions players had. This should help explain why there hasn’t been more discussion of the VR theory or its postmodern, experimental nature. I’m not saying this as an excuse (I’ve been proposing the VR Theory to the MGS community for years,) but as an important phenomenon in the history of the series, which deserves to be understood.
Basically, there are are five types of people who played Metal Gear Solid 2. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the game with people, and I think it can be narrowed down to these.
The first is what I call the “average gamer”. He doesn’t consider himself a fan of the Metal Gear series, but he’s an experienced, hardcore player who goes into every new game with full confidence that he will win, feel good about himself, and understand everything easily. And why shouldn’t he? Games have been getting less skillful and more dumbed down over the years, but they’ve compensated for this by praising and rewarding him to make him feel like he’s a talented and clever person.
He doesn’t “play” games; he “beats” them. Because of this, he doesn’t bother to think about the deeper meaning of stuff; he just wants to have his ego stroked and his achievements unlocked.
His first reaction to any challenge is to quickly rise to the occasion and overcome it, whether it’s a boss fight or a complicated plot twist. He doesn’t like stories; they’re basically annoying to him unless it feeds his precious ego, so he wouldn’t reflect on “memes” if his life depended on it. Reflection would mean some level of sensitivity, or vulnerability–something other than pure competitive accomplishment. So, when the game robs him of a sense of real accomplishment and mocks him instead, like MGS2 does, he simply blames the game for not being designed properly. After all, he’s the average gamer: if he doesn’t like something, it must be wrong! He sets the standard. Games either conform to what he wants, or they fail. In his mind, Metal Gear Solid 2 gets points for having pretty graphics, virtually no glitches, and technical excellence, but all that meta-babble and preachy stuff is sort of confusing and awkward if he tries to dwell on it, so… he just doesn’t.
Metal Gear Fanboy
The second is the “Metal Gear fanboy” – somebody who has embedded the Metal Gear series into their very psyche. It’s part of their identity, and therefore he can’t afford to admit there is anything wrong with it, ever. As soon as he notices something worthy of criticism, he works to pre-emptively justify it, smooth it over, and even promote it as being clever and perfect. No matter how nonsensical, postmodern, or blatant the game’s subversive attitude gets, he’ll claim that it’s cool, makes total sense, and that other people just don’t “get it”.
The true message never gets through to them, however, because they’re trying to prop up something that wants to fall down. Fanboys can’t handle the VR Theory, because it treads too far into the dangerous territory of criticism. They don’t want to be thoughtful experts, they just want the freedom to enjoy something with all their heart and mind. Loyal to the bitter end, they tend to take everything related to the series personally. It’s ironic that their fervent, knee-jerk attempts to defend Kojima and the games usually end up insulting Kojima more than simply acknowledging the “flaws” which at least open the door to the better explanation of the VR Theory. They deny the possibility of hidden genius in favor of shallow, untenable guesses about how things work, not based on thematic consistency and evidence, but on whatever shuts up the critic they’re faced with at the moment.
Metal Gear Elitist
Thirdly we have the “Metal Gear elitist”. This guy isn’t a fanboy, he’s an authority. He’ll be the first one to acknowledge flaws and problems with the games, but this doesn’t mean he thinks deeply about them. He could give you a laundry list of mistakes, goofs, and shortcomings, but this is simply a part of his vast knowledge on the subject, not a topic for discussion. He’ll quote the whole game chapter and verse, connect all the dots, and give you a hundred pieces of trivia to boot, but he’ll still miss the point.
He considers himself the definitive expert, and because he’s the definitive expert, that means he can’t afford to think outside the box. He’s a surface-thinker, which means that all the important guesswork, interpretation, and subjectivity required to penetrate to the real heart of the game is too messy and uncertain for him to risk talking about. God forbid, what if he ended up being wrong about something? That would be embarrassing!
It’s much safer–much cleaner–to be an expert on things that are imperial and can be proven. He needs to speak authoritatively, or he won’t speak at all. He scoffs at uncertain theories and will even try to shut them down in order to spare people the confusion. If Kojima wanted him to know about the VR Theory or some hidden meta-story, he should have officially revealed it somewhere along the line!
I call the fourth type of player the “clueless kid”. He’s the kind of guy that wanders into MGS2 with no idea what to expect, really, because he hasn’t played the older games. He sees the arguments and the fuss, but he doesn’t get what it’s all about; he just enjoys it ignorantly. He’s impartial, which is good, and he’s open to whatever the game has to say, but his ignorance prevents him from connecting some very important dots. He doesn’t see any problems, so he doesn’t see the need for a solution.
Instead, he compares it to other games that don’t match the quality and content that MGS2 does. Clueless kids can be seen interrupting arguments about the game like a referee, breaking them up and suggesting that it’s just a nice action game, not to be taken so seriously. However, he’s so far removed from the actual matter, and so oblivious to the subtle experiment going on, that he actually insults the game by simplifying it down so much. The VR Theory is a hugely unnecessary and disruptive idea to him.
Lastly there’s the “hard-bitten sucker”. This includes everybody who believed in the game’s unprecedented levels of hype and decided to shell out the money to try it, only to find out that it was a bait-and-switch. These people didn’t have a connection to the previous games in the series either, and decided to jump aboard and give Metal Gear a chance this time around. Unfortunately, they feel fooled and were alienated from the series before they even had a chance to find out what the classic Metal Gear experience was all about. Sadly, they have no idea why the game was so misleading, but they usually still try to enjoy it for what it was worth.
Whatever they might love or hate about the game, they’re very unlikely to get make all the connections needed to form a theory. Although they might find the VR Theory redeeming, they usually abandon the game and avoid the community far too early to hear about it, especially considering the other types of players aren’t suggesting it.
The only way to really appreciate the game is to not be any of these things. You can’t approach the game like a typical gamer experience, or blindly stick up for it when it’s actively trying to piss you off. You can’t narrow it down to a list of official facts and be too afraid to get subjective, and you can’t be confused/offended by the dark underbelly of the game. It’s a controversial postmodern experiment, so understand it like it is one. Only a very specific kind of person can go through this experiment and come out with an appreciation for it, but if you can, there’s a lot to be impressed with.
Those questions I mentioned earlier, about Solid Snake not being part of the simulation, and the prudence of conducting the final S3 test in VR? We’ll discuss those in the next part, which is all about the game’s enigmatic ending.
(Part V breaks down the most revealing part of the whole game: the ending. In doing so we understand the true meaning of the whole messy experiment and hear Kojima’s message more clearly.)