Part V (MGS2: A Complete Breakdown)

PART IPART IIPART IIIPART IV - PART VPART VI – PART VII

[Updated Nov 1/2012: GameTrailers today declared that Metal Gear Solid 2‘s ending was the third worst in game history!  A special note has been added to the end of the article.]

In part five we analyze the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2, where many of the game’s themes converge and Hideo Kojima makes his voice heard clearly.  We’ll switch between story analysis and additional commentary, since there are so many aspects to discuss.

{NOTE: Please watch all video clips, as they include special editing and important additional information.  Watch in Full Screen mode for best viewing.}

Dissonance

The ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 couldn’t be more important to the series.  After all, this was supposed to be the end of the series itself — no sequels and no further explanations.  Kojima wanted this to be it.  If he hadn’t eventually caved in to demand and made “3”, we would have been stuck with this strange ending forever.  Which means that everything he really wanted to tell the players is said somewhere in here.

It begins with the defeat of Solidus, then includes a highly existential conversation with Solid Snake, and finally ends talking to Rose.  During this time, many questions remain, and nothing eventful happens.  But for the first time in the Metal Gear series Kojima shows us the streets of an major American city; who would have guessed they’d be empty?

Raiden is alone in front of the remains of Federal Hall, where the George Washington monument stands.  Solidus Snake, the ex-President who worked so tirelessly to liberate America from digitized tyranny, clings to his role model.  We’ve killed the only man who stood a chance at freeing America from total societal manipulation, and we did so after being told it was all part of the Patriot’s heinous scheme.  We are jerks.

However, it might not matter, because it might just be another computer simulation.  We certainly have enough evidence to prove that it can’t be real (for example) to the point where even Raiden questions everything.  As he stares at the highly symbolic destruction of the highly symbolic building, symbolically demolished by a symbolic Technodrome fortress full of dead tengu ninjas, paradoxical VR platforms, and magical witches, he experiences what psychologists refer to as “cognitive dissonance”.  That’s the uneasy feeling you get when your beliefs are conflicting with each other.  He won, but he lost.  He saved Olga’s child, but he assisted in the completion of the S3 Plan.  He has successfully finished his mission like Solid Snake, but he’s left questioning his very existence.

Of all the things he could possibly ask at this moment in time, his first question is, “Who am I really?”

If we stop to ask basic questions the first thing that makes no sense is that the streets are empty, of course.  Realistically, emergency vehicles, news helicopters, police cruisers, and hundreds of citizens should be there by the time the Arsenal finished its crash course through seven city blocks!  And yet, for fifty seconds after the lengthy battle with Solidus, not a single soul can be seen.  Raiden’s behavior is the second nonsensical thing.  He isn’t shown climbing down Federal Hall, but evidently he makes the suicidal decision to just stand out in the open for the whole world to see — bloody sword strapped to his back and all!  He stands across from the biggest crime scene in American history, with the (impossibly lucky) opportunity to flee without being seen (which you might expect a highly-trained stealth espionage agent to take advantage of!) but instead he puts himself on display in the middle of the road and doesn’t even care.

It’s funny: every time an enemy guard spots you they get an exclamation mark above their head and we suddenly run for our lives.  But when hundreds of ordinary people flood out into the street during a terrorist attack, nobody could care less… including Raiden.

Then again: all he really cares about is whether he’s in the Matrix or not.  These people aren’t real anyway.  When we finally do see them they just appear out of nowhere, and move in slow motion.  And I mean literally, as you can see:

Snake and Raiden are moving and talking in real time, but everybody else is moving around in slow motion.  Nobody is behaving realistically at all.  It all seems more like a dream than reality.

So, I’d say the following 6 things go against all logic:

  1. The city is quiet and empty
  2. People appear out of nowhere simultaneously, from all angles
  3. Nobody is panicked, huddled, or alarmed
  4. Raiden’s only concern is his own identity
  5. Solid Snake pops out of nowhere to casually discuss the nature of reality
  6. The surrounding crowd moves as if they were in slow motion

I also want to point out that Raiden didn’t ask whether it was real or not.  He simply asked himself who he really was out loud.  Kind of strange, then, why Snake starts talking about it at this particular moment.  I mean, if the two of them are standing there in real life and Snake knows it (after all, he hasn’t been going crazy) and if the slow motion people are nothing more than a misleading error on behalf of Kojima’s team, then isn’t it ridiculous for Snake to walk up and say this?  He goes on a big speech about the nature of reality, interpreting signals to the brain, and subjectiveness.  If they were really standing in the middle of Wall Street, maybe they should get out of sight of the police first?  You know, because Snake is a highly publicized and extremely wanted terrorist accused of sinking the oil tanker, and they’re both carrying around weapons in public?  Given the circumstances his actions are insane, and so is the conversation.

The ending could easily be compared to Vanilla Sky, released just one month after Metal Gear Solid 2, which bears a striking resemblance.

There’s often a “spirit guide” character in complex dreams, as the subconscious fabricates somebody to help us cope with the situation and lead us to the resolution we’re seeking.  In Vanilla Sky, that character is initially McCabe, Kurt Russell’s fatherly psychologist character, but the role eventually shifts to Edmund, or “Tech Support”, as you can see above.  In Metal Gear Solid 2, this spirit guide is Solid Snake.  He appears now, at the end, to put our mind at ease, just as we always expected him to.  Except unlike McCabe, Snake doesn’t try to convince us that we’re real.  He does the opposite, by reassuring us that “it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not”, saying “that’s never the point”.  This simple, fourth-wall breaking statement is the game’s self-destruct button: you’re meant to push it and let go of your own fanboyish devotion to the game’s fiction.  Don Quixote, Douglas Quaid, and David Aames agree.

 

The Ending We Didn’t Get

Critics of this analysis might take this opportunity to point out that the World Trade Center attacks, which happened just two months prior to the game’s release, had an impact on the ending.  As we continue to study the strangeness of the ending, don’t let this stop you from examining it critically.  Regardless of the edits that happened, before or after the attacks, the final version of the game is exactly that: final.  And we have every reason to believe that it represents the vision, meaning, and mysteries that were in place before those events happened.

Nevertheless, let’s look at the argument.  If you’ve played Metal Gear Solid 2 you may remember the strange “fade-to-white” transition just before Arsenal Gear reaches Federal Hall.  There was supposed to be more here, originally.  The version of the script included in The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2 describes Arsenal Gear bulldozing its way through New York, passing by various landmarks along the way, including the New York Stock Exchange, which Solidus was supposed to vandalize with his swords.  Even the Statue of Liberty gets knocked around:

Arsenal knocks over the Statue of Liberty while roaring past Liberty Island
and dumps the statue on Ellis Island as it goes on its way. Reveal the fact on
a breaking newscast after the closing credits. Arsenal continues north,
landing on Battery Park (Castle Clinton), destroying the 28 battery cannons.
The cannons end their tenure without having fired a single shot in real
battle.

Clearly this would have been politically incorrect, given the 9/11 attacks.  Such images could easily have been called a celebration of terrorism, especially considering the “Grand Game Plan” — a loose proposal of the game presented to Konami executives and his own team before development starts.  Here’s what it says regarding “Absolute Evil” in the game:

The evil in MGS2 is the American government. However, this does not refer
to Americans in general, nor to any particular persons, but to the festering
discharge that has built-up within the democratic state of America over the
years. The intention is not to defame any race, state or ethnicity, but rather
to look at the‘monster’ that the country’s political structure has created. It
is an intangible entity yet at the same time a massive menace to the world, about
on the same level as the evil in The X-Files

The “evil” of MGS2 is the political structure and unspoken ideology that drives the American government?  Sounds like it’s pulled from a terrorist manifesto!  A realistic depiction of the mayhem might have hit too close to home.  Certainly, the ending we see in the older edition of the Game Script plays out quite differently…

Wall Street, in front of the Federal Hall. After the battle with Solidus
atop the blazing wreck of Arsenal Gear. The vehicle and its debris are still
smoking from its encounter with the building.

Helicopters clatter overhead, and fleets of emergency vehicles and
rubbernecks attend to the scene. The arrival of the media adds to the
cacophony. At the center of all this is the body of a former President
(Soldius), draped in the Stars and Stripes. Beside him is the bronze statue
of Washington, standing askew. Raiden looks on, spent.

Here, Raiden is physically spent from the fight, and the surroundings are filled with the chaos of a disaster scene.  That’s a much more realistic ending, which proves that Kojima isn’t stupid — he doesn’t actually think the streets would be empty.  When summarizing the Federal Hall fight earlier in the planning document, we see this:

Battle on Wall Street (Plant Chapter)

A battle that takes place on Wall Street (at Federal Hall) – Snake versus Ocelot (controlled by Liquid’s right arm), and Raiden versus Solidus. Surrounding them are spectators and police officers, including mounted police. All in real-time.

Not only was Snake supposed to fight Ocelot at the same time that Raiden fights Solidus, but they are “surrounded by spectators and police officers”.  Wow, that would have been neat, and much more believable!

So the question is, how much did 9/11 change the ending, and how much was it motivated by the VR Theory?  Should we actually ignore what we see in the game and pretend that it’s more like the script just because it would be better that way?  That would be stupid.  Studying the “Grand Game Plan”  proves that tons of big ideas were cut, altered, or merged for reasons we can only speculate on — and they changed before the terrorist attacks ever happened. Originally, Snake was supposed to plant C4’s on RAY, not just take pictures; players were also supposed to unlock a “Mantis Mode” where they wear a Psycho Mantis gas mask and gain the ability to read people’s minds, letting players hear the hidden thoughts of every character they meet in order to help understand the truth behind the story.  Rose was originally supposed to be a news anchor on the Big Shell, who got taken hostage and never meets Raiden.

You could look at the differences, look at the 9/11 attacks, and somehow argue that the implausible situation we see in the final version of the game should be ignored or mentally “corrected” because major edits were made in the two months before the game was released — I’ve actually seen this argued.  Or you could argue that the Grand Game Plan was an approximation to begin with, and so were early drafts of the script.  There are too many undeniably consistent themes to call the ending’s strangeness a simple matter of politically sensitive editing.  Themes mentioned in the Grand Game Plan such as “can one tell the truth even while inside a virtual reality” make more sense, as the unrealistic ending is better explained by this central theme.  Because while we don’t know what alterations were motivated by budget constraints, which by time constraints, which an unrelated change of heart, or which by the events of September 11th, we do know is that every disparity between the early version of the script and the final product has the effect of reinforcing the surrealism and strangeness of the ending — not the other way around.

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