Requiem and Rebirth – Metal Gear Solid V as a new beginning

B. Language and identity

Identity is key to MGSV, and it is defined by language. Kojima seems to have borrowed this concept from one of his closest friends, Japanese writer Project Itoh. It is only fitting: after all, Itoh’s novels themselves are the extension of Kojima’s thoughts. Harmony is the spiritual sequel to MGS4, in which the war economy has been replaced by a life economy, no less dangerous for our species. Genocidal Organ is an espionage novel inspired by all the fantasies of this genre, and above all by Metal Gear, to the extent that it seems difficult to enjoy it without some knowledge of the series (that is to say, a strong taste for organic robots and existential crises of special forces). The story could almost pick up right after MGS4. Yet it brings new and original themes, as well as a darker atmosphere. And that is probably where Kojima drew inspiration for the first chapter of MGSV. Or rather, Genocidal Organ contaminated Kojima. It is not hard to imagine him coming back from this book with the feeling of having written it, or the powerful need to pay homage to such genius, once more (he dedicated Peace Walker to Itoh, who passed away in 2009). So in a way, TPP is partly the posthumous work of Project Itoh. After all, he was considered as the main heir of Kojima’s memes. The decision to end the saga on a “blank space” certainly has something to do with this young fan’s accomplishments: he managed to use MGS as a springboard to “write his own history”, as Big Boss would say.

Links between MGSV and Genocidal Organ are abundant, but their most obvious common ground is their view on language. As a source of both cultural richness and the worst abominations, language makes and breaks relationships between human beings. It defines us6 but can obliterate us just as easily. It is a weapon of mass destruction, the most fearsome one in the world if a malicious person were to find its trigger. And that is exactly what Skull Face does in MGSV, as well as his mentor John Paul in Genocidal Organ. Both of them find a way to weaponize language, which they want to use in order to control the self-destruction of a specific part of the world. Their motivations are opposed (one considers western values harmful, the other wants to protect them) but their method is the same: purification by annihilation. Both men are also driven by a strong desire for revenge which comes from some oppression they experienced.

Indeed, in Itoh’s work as well as Kojima’s, language is mostly about oppression, lies and control. In TPP, some of Kojima’s opinions related to this are quite sharp. Maybe those were the statements which he thought were too taboo, at some point? If so, then no one, not even the people directly addressed, paid much attention to it. What we are talking about here is, of course, the open criticism of the domination of the English language, and the values it carries. The epitaph of chapter 1 is clear: it describes a real threat, as MGS1 did. Code Talker’s opinion is similar: “English has become a leash that people gladly wear around their necks”7. Or take this consideration by Miller: “English is well established in countries all across the continent. It’s rooted in Africa like a weed… Or maybe ‘parasite’ is the better word”8. These few statements may seem very harsh. But, by extension, they are aimed at every language which has, at some point, dominated and erased other forms of dialects (and cultures). There is no use bringing up the old records on Kojima’s anglophobia and anti-Americanism (which were never proved). The current statistics on the use of English throughout the world are simply a way to support TPP’s message efficiently. And if Kojima has his sights set on the English language, it may just be because Itoh did, too: with his “grammar of genocide”, he does not spare either the lingua franca of our times, nor the main country where it is spoken9. Moreover, as shown through the historical events and locations in the game, mistrust is not exclusively directed towards English, nor Russian or Dutch, nor any other language which comes from our vocal cords. Indeed – and that is the cause of considerable disappointment from players who were expecting a down-to-earth treatment of ethnic issues in this game – Kojima seems to use the “Race” theme as a means to explore less our collective belonging to a tribe (linguistic, ethnic, cultural) than our personal loyalty to an ideal.

Kojima is worried about the process of losing one’s identity (one’s loyalty to oneself) through any form of oppression, and not just the vocal kind. Oppression vs. expression: he knows what he is talking about. In his work, there is no doubt he often felt the pressure of (the business) language on his (artistic) identity. Through his experience in the job, he knows that dormant “parasites” inhabit every one of us and allow us to express ourselves. They can easily be reprogrammed to our disadvantage, reduce us to zombies serving an interest which eludes us. All this, under the spell of some unjust, arbitrary driver who has a different ideal than us, and the means to carry it out. The process of our infection goes forward without us knowing, without us having to fundamentally change the way we express ourselves; on the contrary, our usual form of expression triggers the infection and causes our loss. Our identity is just not compatible anymore – is no longer in symbiosis with – the objectives of the parasitic business which rules us. In this context, if we stick to what defines us, we are condemning ourselves. Struggling against the infection process is, at best, temporarily useful, and at worst, counterproductive: involuntarily, most efforts from the Diamond Dogs to thwart Skull Face’s plans end up spreading the parasites faster. One could even say that Kaz and his men become, without realizing it, the main accomplices to the crimes they are trying to prevent (they will eventually understand it, but too late).

The only option is to accept being inoculated with an antivirus which neutralizes the parasites, in exchange for our fertility: the typical metaphor for creativity. Only then can we regain our expression, but it will become sterile, deprived of any legacy to the future generations. The worst part is that this auto-sterilization is only a temporary solution, as shown in mission 43: the antivirus can mutate and put us in greater misery, with ever more crushing responsibilities – until we turn our weapons against our own friends, our audience. As long as the parasites inhabit us, they are a threat to our free will, our freedom of expression and so, our identity (loyalty). Nothing will change that, not even the death of the culprit, the man who has modified our form of expression for his personal interests. The deed is done. Identity is forever poisoned, stolen. As we are reminded when Big Boss flees with the player’s passport, it is a part of us that Kojima and Metal Gear steal when they run away.

In the author’s mind, where going from zero to one, then a hundred, is seen as a failure, it is no wonder that two plus two equals five. Through his game designer career, during which he had to be loyal both to his parent company, to his audience and to himself, Kojima certainly has had a solid experience of George Orwell’s “doublethink”: juggling with several objectives which cancel each other out, trying to merge together different and conflicting realities. What did he learn from it about his own identity? Certainly, first of all, that it is important to remain loyal to oneself in the heart of turmoil. Not unlike Ocelot, who “is living a lie” because he does not tolerate any other reality than the one he built for himself10, knowing full well that this reality is not absolute because it is not shared by everyone. On the contrary, “Shalashaska” has a different identity for each person who knows him. But he chooses his own reality, and dismisses all the other ones, calling them phantoms (it is all the more absurd than he later tells Huey, while torturing him, that truth is “objective”).

Venom also tries to remain loyal to himself, even as the angel and the devil keep competing for his attention. Despite the extreme conditions of his oppression (after all, he is literally “conditioned”), he never quite becomes Big Boss. But he never reverts to this former self either. His tragedy is to stay in-between, lost in the limbo of his double identity. He is both forgotten and worshipped, the medic and the murderer, the puppeteer and the puppet. He is not Walter White nor Heisenberg: he is forever stuck in a specific part of the transformation. He has become the sum of many avatars, which he sees every time his eyes meet his own reflection. No doubt Kojima, at this decisive stage of his life, experiences similar feelings. And the player should, too. The only place where Venom can truly be himself is in the ACC, a haven of peace where, ironically, he prepares for war. A symbolic location, the last place where he was himself, when he sacrificed himself. “ACC”, the Aerial Command Center, may also stand for Anterior Cingulate Cortex, a part of the brain which handles cognitive functions: emotion and compassion, as well as decision making, reward anticipation, impulse control, sensation of pain11… Like Winston’s secret room in 1984, the ACC is where Venom is more likely to be himself but it is also, paradoxically, his identity’s grave.

Above all, through the theme of identity, Kojima tackles one of the most essential issues in MGS: cultural transmission. “Beware of shortcuts”, he seems to say. A lingua franca, for instance, as a cultural bridge between two tribes, is positive for commerce and trade. But it is a less genuine interface than the slow assimilation of someone else’s language. Eventually, only the effort of learning each other’s language allows two people to communicate while keeping their specificities – and understanding these specificities. Video games are the lingua franca through which Kojima communicates with the player. But this interface is also a shortcut, flawed and inefficient: “if only we shared a common tongue”, mourns the author through Quiet’s voice. Of course, this sentence does not refer to any vocal language12. Quiet and Venom share a perfect understanding of English. No, this “common language” is the one Kojima feels he never found, in order to communicate with the player. Quiet’s disappearance is the “little death” of the memes Kojima conveyed through Metal Gear. In MGSV, they cleverly take the form of an impossible romance13. They are also personified by a young woman who, although she literally keeps exposing herself down to the bones, remains misunderstood. The instinct of Diamond Dogs is to put her in jail and treat her as an aberration, a potentially dangerous stranger who breaks away from their military conventions. It is possible for the player to eliminate her as soon as he meets her, so that he does not have to bother with her… Or, he can turn her into a powerful ally, who will remain a mystery anyway, despite all scientific explanations. Eventually, she escapes, at the very last moment, because she realizes she is not compatible with Venom, the player’s avatar, for whom she sacrifices herself when he is lost and mortally wounded in a proverbial desert.

TPP is the abrupt ending to a large program of cultural transmission in which we have lived for many years. These memes have been part of our daily life and will remain in our hearts, long after they disappear. You can run after Kojima, follow his footsteps in the sand: you will only find the tomb of his units of cultural transmission. A secret memorial in the form of a small tape, lost in the middle of the desert. A message in a bottle, or rather on an analog medium not all that different from the digital medium TPP is printed on14. As to the future… Konami may, of course, try to replicate Kojima’s memes. But it will probably be in a very artificial and clumsy way, like asking the player to play the same mission seven times in a row to achieve an illusory and illogical reunion with Quiet, the exterior shell of the memes. Like language, identity is alive in Kojima’s world, and it must spread to other hosts to subsist. It is up to us to decide how we receive this transmission: as an appealing but dangerous pathogen, or as a complex but salutary legacy. It is up to us to examine our own identity. “You can choose. Your life, your future.”15

Our future is not in Kojima’s hands. But he shows us how to turn our languages – or multiple identities as Diamond Dogs – into a tool of cooperation rather than oppression. The basic principles of this concept were laid out in P.T.: the Silent Hills “playable teaser” invited players to cooperate in various languages to solve convoluted puzzles. We were led to view the unknown as potentially life-saving, the only way for everyone to move forward. No wonder that this particular concept of cooperation was transferred to Kojima’s other social experiment: the nuclear disarmament in TPP. In late 2015, some people, realizing that the power struggle would lead nowhere, tried to convince other players to disarm their nuclear warheads through private messages on the PlayStation network16. Language was sometimes an issue and forced some to try their luck in another tongue. But the popularity of this method was short-lived and may not have been sufficient in any case.
Who knows… Had the disarmament cutscene not been datamined, maybe we would have had the necessary motivation to carry on this great effort of multilingual cooperation, one way or another. P.T. has already shown that, in the long and dark corridor of our increasingly connected video game adventures, our fellow players, the “Homo Ludens”, may be the only shining light of hope.

6 As heard in “The White Mamba [2]”, Eli’s identity is discovered because of the language he speaks. It is only when he starts to speak English that Miller can guess where he comes from.
7 Skull Face’s Objective [3]
8 The White Mamba [2]
9 Kojima merely told The Guardian that he wished to “question the US dominance of the world”, without showing any sign of irritability over the issue. In the game, his opinion is so discreet that most players ignored it completely and easily.
10 “That’s our reality here, whether it’s real or not. If there’s another truth, I don’t want to know it.” (“The Moniker Shalashaska” tape)
11 The ACC is described as a “critical cortical area for pain sensation”.
12 “No, that was no language at all”, Quiet says.
13 A break-up which ends on an expression of “gratitude” (whether it is mutual or not, that is our choice).
14 “A tombstone chiseled into the code of a machine. That is all I’ll leave to mark my existence.” (“Secret recording of Zero visiting Snake”)
15 This quote does not come from MGS2, but from a radio broadcast in P.T.
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