Bottom Line: A legend in its own mind.
Only three questions weigh on my mind as I sit down to finally judge MGS2 after all these years: (1) Have I interpreted it correctly, or have I been wrong all this time? (2) Has it succeeded in accomplishing what it risked so much for, or is it a failure by its own standards? (3) What remains when we take away the metafiction and disputed theories? Much has been said in this Complete Breakdown, but to me, these three questions determine the final verdict.
1. Hermeneutics (n.)
Hermeneutics (n.): The branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible.
Let’s be honest: it’s entirely possible that I’ve been wrong about MGS2. I’ve written the world’s deepest deconstruction of the game in order to convince you that there’s a grandiose subtext within the game waiting to be explored, but the truth is there is zero confirmation to back me up. On the contrary, the official story is against my theories. The database released alongside Metal Gear Solid 4 was the final nail in the coffin. You’re out on a limb if you’ve followed me this far, in a world where nothing is what it seems.
Personally, I take no satisfaction in imagining meaning where there is none. I’m not the type to stare at orange blotches on a canvas and ponder the universe. Either it’s got solid, intelligent ideas embedded in it, or it’s nonsense. Subjectivity isn’t a virtue.
If my theories are wrong — if Kojima would fully acknowledge and shoot down what I’ve written — I would lose most of my respect for the game. The interpretation is key, because there’s a world of difference between a masterful metafiction disguised as an incoherent mess, and an incoherent mess that tries and fails to be a masterful metafiction.
“Metafiction” is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that I am correct. But I’m also realistic enough to know that a lack of doubt is still considered faith, not fact. I have faith that MGS2’s story is a postmodern masterpiece, and my analysis of the game is more evangelism than journalism.
So the question is: Should I judge Metal Gear Solid 2 as if my faith were fact?
Find the meaning behind the words, then decide
When I consider that Kojima has explained some of the hidden meaning in the game over the years, but never acknowledged theories like mine, I wonder whether he’s really that good at hiding his secrets, or if I’ve been barking up the wrong tree like a conspiracy theorist connecting too many dots. He’s never even joked about hidden messages in “External Gazer”, for example, and while the Game Script includes notes from Kojima about foreshadowing and metaphors, there’s nothing that exciting; just a taste of something deeper going on.
The official answers don’t even make sense sometimes. He claims Raiden was designed to appeal to Japanese girls, as well as new players who were unfamiliar with the series — but the marketing of the game infamously hid Raiden from the public until after it was released! All they showed us was gruff old Solid Snake, now sporting a beard, longer hair, and a butt-hugging rubber outfit. The cover of the game was simply Solid Snake holding a pistol. If Kojima’s story was true — if he was willing to betray fan expectations in order pander to girls who hate playing as old men — his epic bait-and-switch strategy contradicts it.
Thankfully, Kojima’s flimsy bullshit is great for my theory, because it hinges on the concept of rejecting official “truth” and finding hidden meaning. The contradiction makes perfect sense to me, because I thrive on seeing through misdirection and bluffs. The themes of the game encourage me to do exactly that.
Ambiguity is a sexy thing in the world of fiction, and as I’ve said before fans love to solve puzzles, but ironically you need to hit people over the head with ambiguity before they’ll get the hint. Know what I mean? The main character needs to suddenly wake up at the end, or you need to call it something like “Metal Gear Solid 2: Raiden’s Dream“.* People need to know it’s officially a puzzle before they’ll bother solving it. Otherwise, they will assume you’re waiting to tie up the loose ends with your next installment, like every other series in the world. But no, Kojima purposely shrugged off our questions and played dumb, and thus doomed any discussion to fizzle out; the art of stoking the fire was not put into practice, and I can only marvel at how stubborn Kojima has proven himself, to keep making new games, retconning the plot, and accepting the criticism of his masterpiece without finally breaking and telling us all how wrong we’ve been. To be honest, it puts a lot of pressure on that branch you and I have faithfully perched on.
In my wildest imagination, fans who found out about my theories would create such a collective stir that Kojima himself would have to acknowledge it, one way or another. I wanted him to know that we figured it out, just like he must have wanted. But that didn’t even come close to happening. I failed to enlighten the Metal Gear community, and you can prove this by going into any gaming forum and seeing that most fans remain doubtful that any coherent subtext exists, regardless of the evidence you present. Real interpretation is left up to a handful of people in the margins. What a shame, for a game that is all about passing on memes.
* Even then, I’m sure people would miss the hint. They’d argue that it was a harmless reference to Raiden’s “dream” of becoming a special ops agent on par with Snake, or something equally dense.
Intron: An intron is any nucleotide sequence within a gene that is removed while the final mature gene is being generated. Exon: An exon is any nucleotide sequence encoded by a gene that remains present within the final mature gene after introns have been removed.
If it weren’t for the enduring stigma surrounding Metal Gear Solid 2 as the “black sheep” in the multi-billion dollar 25-year-old series, or for the perception that it was a near-fatal stumble in Kojima’s otherwise shining career, I wouldn’t even bother writing about it. That may surprise you. But as much as I enjoy the game’s themes on a personal level, that’s not the reason I sit down and write dozens of pages for you to skim.
I write about Metal Gear Solid 2 because it has become the key to understanding Kojima’s entire career, if I’m right. And I care about Kojima’s career because he is the most interesting person in videogame industry. And I care about the videogame industry because it has become a threat to the traditional media conglomerates, who’ve got a stranglehold on social consciousness.* Therefore, anything that affects the videogame industry takes on special significance to me, because I want the good guys to win. It just so happens that Metal Gear Solid 2 is at the heart of it all.
Control of social consciousness by the mass media, government spying on the Internet, individual censorship, false flag operations conducted by corrupted elements of U.S. military-industrial complex, psychological liberation through digital activism… Sound familiar? It’s either today’s news headlines, or a recap of the main themes of MGS2, created before the 9/11 attacks and subsequent “Patriot Act”! Amazing, isn’t it? It’s so relevant that it seems prophetic today. I mean, without exaggeration, MGS2 had the right stuff to become this generation’s 1984.
So what happened? What is Metal Gear Solid 2‘s real legacy, today? Is it an intron, or an exon? Did it pass on its memes, or was it weeded out by “survival of the fittest”? Not counting me and you, who in the gaming world or anywhere even cares about this stuff? I know, I know, it’s stupid for anyone to “care” about a videogame that’s over 10 years old, but MGS2 wasn’t just a videogame, it was a cultural event. It was in the news, before the news devolved into 24-hour news cycles and ubiquitous goddamn hashtags. It was special.
Today, who really calls it a classic? Who has it on their short list of great, memorable experiences? Where is the payoff for all the genius and risk-taking?
* The fact that games are a threat to traditional media is why they’re constantly being marginalized by the mainstream. And this marginalization explains why we have so many pathetic editorials by game journalists and industry spokespeople who try to find ways to “legitimize” gaming in the eyes of the media and make it more “inclusive”, “mainstream”, and “accepted”. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that it’s a war, and videogames and the new media are winning big time. Calling videogames artistically illegitimate, childish, etc. is the only weapon of the old media, besides lobbying for games to be classified as dangerous killing simulators.
Building the future and keeping the past alive
are one and the same thing
Think of it this way: We live in an age where everybody trusts the Internet to collect, filter, and vomit out knowledge and trivia for us on a continual basis; armies of anonymous fact-finders debunk myths in record time, often as events are still happening, as demonstrated by the “Augmented Reality Games” conducted by Valve over the years. Nothing cool slips by the Internet. In fact, our beloved social media is designed to aggregate every interesting factoid in the world and distill them into bite-sized blurbs which are dropped into our “feeds” so that we don’t even have to get off our virtual asses and click on a website. That’s the world we live in today, not the one MGS2 was born into.
In this world, deception and error are nothing to worry about. The Internet systematically handles that too. Like nuclear deterrence, the Internet’s finest watchdogs threaten to blow away anyone who lies to the public, shattering their reputation and staining their existence. Corporations have been brought to their knees by their epic campaigns for justice. It has become a new form of entertainment in itself: we can all chime in and retweet their shame! At no point do we need to switch on our own brains, and think outside the narrative being presented to us. We’ve outsourced our intelligence to those who can do things better, faster, and cheaper.
So what does this have to do with Metal Gear Solid 2?
The full extent of MGS2’s failure to pass on its memes can only be appreciated today, after the last embers of disappointment have faded from the collective consciousness; after the heated opinions have cooled off and crystallized into permanent perceptions. There was once a bias, but today we have forgiven and forgotten Kojima’s sins. It is only today, after the HD Collection gave the game one last chance to blow people’s minds, that we can be sure its deeper ambitions are indeed nothing more than introns. The greatest knowledge distribution machine in the history of mankind has rejected the memes of Metal Gear Solid 2. It has truly failed its mission.
3. Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual.
Without a grand subtext, and without a lofty legacy to match its lofty ambitions, what we’re left with in hindsight is the unadorned meat and bones of the game. There’s no longer a hidden genius to account for all the questionable design choices, nor is there a double-meaning to the otherwise nonsensical story. But perhaps it’s a great game anyway, if we look at what we get.
Evolution: When you take away all the meta layers, Metal Gear Solid 2 remains a hugely anticipated sequel to a legendary stealth action game, featuring improved graphics, artificial intelligence, and game mechanics. Enemies hunt you down with flashlights and peek into vents you may have crawled into; they carry riot shields and move in formation, giving commands and operating as a team; they spot your shadow and become suspicious. There are more weapons to fight with as well as more options for how to get around, such as rolling, hanging from ledges, and two separate movements speeds: stalk and run. Add the ability to aim in first person view, and you have a fine evolution of a good formula.
Levels: Levels are designed to be dense, interesting, and interactive. Fire extinguishers and steam pipes blast their contents out when you shoot them, light bulbs are fragile, and so are magazines, bottles, watermelons, and more. The world is fun to mess around with, and creates a sense of immersion you don’t find in most games. Guards can be held up at gunpoint and threatened into giving up their supplies. You can shoot the radios on their belts so they can’t call for backup, target specific limbs, and drag unconscious or dead bodies out of people’s view. There’s more than one solution to almost every stealth puzzles you’ll face, which means playing intelligently is still important. Unless you shoot everyone in the head with the tranquilizer gun at a range where they can’t see you, which you will inevitably do, because it’s the most efficient method. This detracts from the need to actually “sneak”, use your full arsenal of gadgets, and care about the guard’s patrolling patterns. (Shooting a silenced weapon from across the room until everyone is unconscious so you can run around willy-nilly doesn’t count as sneaking, sorry.) Holding up guards is also exceedingly easy to pull off, allowing you to choke, shoot, or mess with them without much resistance or danger.
Camera: First person shooting was still in its infancy on consoles when MGS2 was released, which is perhaps why it refused to conform to newer Western innovations. The camera is stuck at a top-down angle most of the time, or is otherwise angled at the preference of the game, not the player. This actually helps indicate where to go, because the camera angle is a kind of a hint system in itself. But it can be frustrating to be so restricted in your view, since toggling between first person view and back is disorienting and sudden. The Soliton Radar doesn’t do justice to the complex areas you’ll be sneaking through either, so you may find yourself struggling to simply know your surroundings. You can press up against corners to see things from a new perspective, but this can be frustrating in areas where your character should logically have a perfect vantage point to track enemy movements or plan your course of action! More often than not, you’ll be caught by a guard who’s hiding just outside the bottom edge of the screen. Not exactly fair, fun, or logical.
Scenarios: As I said in the Part I of this series (named “Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday”) there were many bad design choices in MGS2 if Kojima wanted to please fans. Mission objectives are underwhelming by almost any action game standard, at least in the first two acts of the game. Taking photos of a machine does not fulfill anyone’s fantasies, and neither does spraying little bombs with water; not to mention fighting a boss who can’t even be hurt, or leading a dainty little girl around by the hand. Remember that officially, there are no clever reasons for putting us through such unflattering experiences: we’re just supposed to enjoy them without a trace of irony. For anyone who remembers the original, this is impossible.
Special mention must be made of the part requiring us to run around naked while being told to turn off the game. It shows a sense of humor, but it also becomes extremely irritating if you’re playing on a higher difficulty. Hearing the CODEC ring infinitely — with pure jibberish to listen to if you answer — is a maddening experience, and it seems intentionally so. I love a good challenge, but this is more of a psychological endurance test.
What are we supposed to be feeling during these missions, anyway? Did anyone stop to question the absurd fight against Fatman the rollerblading bomber? We went from fighting FOXHOUND — the most awesome special forces unit in the history of entertainment — to this group of clowns. It’s a serious step down, and so is the protagonist we’re forced to tolerate.
Characters: Raiden would have been annoying as a sidekick, much less the main protagonist. He’s cocky, ignorant, and shallow, and shows none of the battle-hardened charisma of Snake. A lot of this is thanks to the performance by his voice actor, Quinton Flynn, but the bottom line is that he was never going to be on par with Solid Snake anyway.
Again and again, you’ll find that the characters in MGS2 are more amusing than cool. You can argue that characters don’t need to be “cool” in order to fulfill their role within the game, but the reality is that Kojima and his staff could have accomplished everything they (supposedly) wanted to do without resorting to such wacky bosses. Then again, the majority of action games don’t even try to be original or flesh out the enemy faction. They’re just obstacles for you to blow away with big guns, monsters, stereotypical thugs, etc. Perhaps a bunch of eccentric freaks is better than a bunch of one-dimensional goons?
Pacing: Notorious for its cutscenes and CODEC interruptions, MGS2 can’t seem to let us really dig deep and enjoy the experience. Worse yet, these cutscenes are so confusing that they may as well not exist. Pacing is ultimately up to the player because we can choose to waste five hours collecting dog tags and doing pull ups if we want, but presumably the player is attempting to make forward progress, and in this case you had better be ready for watching people talk.
There’s something to be said for simply letting the player discover the world and figure things out as they go. The original Metal Gear Solid chopped up gameplay on a regular basis too, but most players expected a lot more action and freedom from the sequel, since it was already a complaint in the first one. You end up learning a bunch of techniques that you can only use in a precious few scenarios, and as the game progresses further, the early fundamentals actually become less useful, not more.
The truth is, Metal Gear Solid 2 is far too arrogant for its own good. Even as a social experiment, it made the wrong assumptions. Over and over I’ve said that MGS fans are stupid fanboys who can’t think for themselves, and that Kojima was brilliantly exposing the error of their ways with MGS2’s postmodern narrative, but that isn’t even true. I don’t actually believe that. I just think that’s just what Kojima told himself, and I’ve been trying to explain things from his perspective.
The reality is that the original Metal Gear Solid‘s themes were so ahead of their time by gaming standards and so derivative by pop culture standards that they were destined to be pushed to the backburner by both groups. Just think about what you need to do to understand the story in the first place, without the meditations on nuclear deterrence and the politics of genetic engineering. It has to be one of the most prohibitive artistic mediums you could imagine. You literally have to complete a wide array of quirky challenges, each of which feature questionable controls, every time you want to find a certain spot in the story. How many intellectuals are going to put themselves through that, when all they want to do is analyze the story? When you want to study a great piece of literature, you’re free to browse to page 173 and dwell on every passage at your leisure. Putting constant pressure on the audience is a perfect way to tap into their fight or flight instincts, but it’s a godawful way to prompt deep philosophical reflection.
Who was Kojima really trying to impress with MGS1? And therefore, who was he really trying to punish in MGS2? Didn’t he understand the paradox he’d created for himself? Teenagers who want to fantasize about snapping a bad guy’s neck in the middle of a blizzard, or stuffy professors and Roger Ebert? There’s not much of an overlap in that Venn diagram.
If the theory I’ve presented here is correct, Kojima is a self-pitying and overreacting egotist who likes to project his own artistic failings onto Western society. America is indeed stupid, but it’s the job of artists to work around that. The themes of MGS2 are powerful and highly relevant, but they’re wasted. They may as well be in Latin and spoken in reverse. Dumb it down for the masses and work on attracting a cult following to disseminate your messages — don’t engineer the world’s greatest prank in order to prove that you’re smarter than everyone, you crazy man!
I’m sure my postmodern interpretation of the game is correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s successful at what it tries to do. This is why I’m so fascinated by the exact reasons for its rise and fall, as well as the relationship between Kojima and his fans over the years.
The Titanic, Kamikaze Style
Did Kojima really need to piss off everybody in order to prove his points? Did he need to sacrifice a perfectly good fictional universe in order to feel like he could walk away and leave it to his team? Because from where I’m standing, he didn’t prove his points, and he didn’t manage to walk away and leave it to his team. Me and you can enjoy the irony of it all, but isn’t the real measure of MGS2’s success its ability to inspire future generations with its wisdom?
Perhaps the best way to sum up Metal Gear Solid 2 is with an analogy. It’s like the Titanic, except instead of accidentally hitting the iceburg and sinking, it was a secret suicide mission designed to hit the iceburg so hard that it would destroy both at the same time. A kamikaze attack that was horribly miscalculated. It was designed to be a glamorous and spectacular wonder of the world — which it was — for the sole purpose of getting as many people on board as possible before it crashed and sunk in the middle of the ocean. It would all be worth it, if only he could break that damned iceburg in the process.
The proverbial iceburg barely got scratched, but you have to give it credit for trying.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty must be given a +2.2, despite being a polarizing, misunderstood title that squandered almost all of its enormous potential. It remains a highly polished action game with a boldly eccentric heart. It is, perhaps, the most exquisitely tragic piece of postmodern media ever to be created. Those who can appreciate even a fraction of its metafiction and layered experimentation ought to be inspired by its devilish aims, while those who cannot will surely be more or less amused by its barrage of inexplicable pretenses.
Poor acting on the behalf of Quinton Flynn hinders the game on a fundamental level, considering how essential the relationship between players and the main character is supposed to be. First person shooting and awkward camera controls muddle the real fun of Metal Gear sneaking missions, and provides an easy alternative to even attempting to plan strategically.
* The Substance edition of the game receives a +2.9 for providing such a vast amount of fun content both for those who can decipher the metafiction and those who simply want to play more. It is truly on the verge of entering the Boss League of games, but the low-key presentation of the Snake Tales prevents even the enlightened Sons of Liberty fans from becoming interested; thus squandering its second perfect opportunity to accomplish its devious goals.
(Rating as of September 12th, 2013)