CHAPTER 3: REBIRTH
A. Never Be Game Over
The player’s rebirth starts at the very beginning of TPP. It is symbolized by the avatar’s awakening and gradual improvement of motor functions, and how the player possesses him: “don’t take too long getting used to your new self”, Ocelot says at the end of the prologue. It is therefore through the avatar that the player is born again and learns to do everything again, as a newborn does: you open your eyes, look around, recognize yourself in the mirror, crawl, toddle, walk, run… And as soon as you stand up, you learn to kill (again)31. The underlying theme of TPP’s prologue is evolution, but it is not shown in a positive light. It even becomes the tool of an absurd and cruel game, at the end of the game, when you have to go through the hospital sequence all over again, as if to show that no evolution took place, or that it was not successful in any way: once again, you are running to keep yourself in the same place. In biology, this process is called “Red Queen hypothesis” and draws its name from Through the Looking Glass, in which the Red Queen says to Alice: “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”.
This paradox illustrates what is commonly called, ever since Darwin, the evolutionary arms race. The effort of an organism to be the fittest can never stop, because its environment reacts constantly. In other words: even if a species is evolving, its extinction always remains a probability. The FOB mode is an exceptional testing laboratory for this theory, among the population which Kojima takes an interest in: the Homo Ludens. Our interconnected bases are less a network than an ecosystem. That means the arms race is no more confined to the little universe of our personal fantasy. The basic principle of FOB is that, in order to progress, you need to attack other players and thus provoke their evolution – or, on the contrary, suffer their attacks and adapt yourself to them. This gigantic primordial soup is a summary of the Red Queen hypothesis or, as Kojima seems to describe it, evolution by revenge.
It is like looking in a mirror. Our evolution, as players, our perpetual rebirth in each of those avatars we control: where does it lead? Our relentless acts of virtual violence: what are they turning us into? Do we leave our identities behind as we enter the “gap in the door”, as our minds go through the screen to dwell in that pixelated avatar? “Are you sure the only you is you?” And just what kind of new identity do we impose on this avatar, without asking for his consent? Perhaps the identity of all previous avatars, all the phantoms haunting us32. As in MGS2, the player’s responsibility is a key issue in TPP33. Like our human opponents in FOBs, Venom suffers the consequences of our whims and fantasies. It will even be fatal to him: the fact that we kill him ourselves, in the very first episode of the saga on MSX2, shows how trivial it is, for our avatars, to think they can escape our curse by breaking the mirror and, symbolically, the screen (or throwing away our dog-tags). Before he definitely leaves the player behind, Venom has already tried to escape his influence: most cutscenes, like so many peaceful oases for him, show an independent Venom, acting outside our control, seizing the opportunity to be himself: a character who dares to be inconsistent with our fantasy. Think of mission 18, in which our avatar suddenly decides on the fate of the child soldiers, ignoring our potential protest. Yet, more often than not, this generous side of Venom’s nature makes him the laughing stock on the other side of the screen. How many times have players expressed their disappointment that they cannot kill children in this game?
It is worth repeating to realize the full extent of it: in order to live their fantasy out, in the name of what they call “mature” fiction, Homo Ludens are capable of being disappointed that they cannot assassinate children. These are only words, of course, but you know what Kojima says about words in this game. In this context, how could anyone blame Venom for leaving us to our sad fate?
Big Boss himself has left, even sooner. He escaped our control to accomplish his own destiny (and perhaps, at the same time, to take revenge on us, for the enthusiastic part we played in his downfall). No wonder, really, that he leaves us while we are running on the spot, like hamsters on spinning wheels. He has more important things to do, like preparing for his next evolution. He goes so far as stealing our (virtual) identity, as if to show he has the power to decide which one will be the next: after all, chronologically, we will soon be reborn in another proxy, Solid Snake, and we will take part in the ultimate proxy duel, the one which ends the very first Metal Gear. When we face ourselves off like that, are we Venom or Solid? In Big Boss’s words, do we remember who we are? Do our virtual identities really matter? “Even if a pawn becomes king, it is still just a playing piece”, as James Johnson puts it in MGS2.
However, Kojima must eventually accept his complete lack of control concerning the way players perceive his legacy: the “Sons of Liberty” can very well escape whatever fate he has in store for them. In TPP, Kojima’s thoughts on this matter can be found in a series of tapes, quite appropriately labeled “The children escape”. As in MGS4 and its famous sequence about FPS-addicted kids – but not so obviously – the author fears for the future of players and expresses disappointment in their behavior.
“These kids were born in a war zone and forced to grow up as war fighters. If they’re left alone, war is how they’ll die. But I thought we showed them there are other reasons to live. (…) I never expected even the kids to betray us.” (The Children Escape )
Kaz protects Eli throughout Ocelot’s interrogation: like parents with different opinions, the two men cannot agree on which method to follow to tame the rebel teenager. Miller sticks to his guns because of the pain he experienced himself when he grew from child to soldier: “We have a responsibility to see that those kids make it”34. Eli has his own opinion about it: “They wanted to go back to the battlefield. Don’t rob them of their freedom”. Ocelot seems to agree: “They want to be on the battlefield. It’s time you give up this fantasy”. Indeed, who does Kojima think he is, forbidding us to waste our lives on video games? Who does he think he is, trying to close the doors to a virtual heaven (or hell35) he has opened himself? We will keep being reborn in each of our gaming avatars, for as long as we want. As Ocelot puts it, that is our reality “and if there is any other, [we] don’t want to know it”. The only thing Kojima can do, time and again, is to warn us through his relentless metaphors. The causes and consequences of the second outbreak on Mother Base are meant to send us back to our weakness, as players and consumers: the fact that we are staying of our own free will inside a parasitic environment which tries to control our minds. As Code Talker says, our “free will is what makes us human” but it can be “subtly” contaminated and controlled or, at the very least, steered in a particular direction (that is also what Emma says in MGS2).
Beyond these pessimistic thoughts, this endless process of reincarnation (from zero to one, then a hundred), Kojima also wants to discuss the possibility of a true rebirth for the player, away from this stagnating virtual world. According to him, the answer is the infamous “blank space”, which appalled so many people, at least among those who consider it an excuse for TPP’s so-called “cut content”. Quite selfishly, and not without irony, they think it is an invitation to leave something of themselves in the game – whereas it is the complete opposite: the only way forward is to take something from the game and transfer it to our side of the screen. It is demonstrated, albeit a bit naively, in a Japanese commercial for TPP which shows a young man being nobly inspired by the words and deeds of Venom. There it is, Kojima’s glimmer of hope for his “children”, and it has barely changed since MGS2. The light may have been dimmed, as the title of mission 43 suggests, but it still bears the spark of the diamonds that we are – those precious stones whose meaning, according to Miller36, is loyalty (“the eternal bond”) and, by extension, identity. For that reason, diamonds share the symbolic significance of the Bethlehem star flowers and The Boss herself: “staying loyal to something”, refusing to be subjected to the whims of the times.
32 “A phantom of our former selves”, as Kaz describes Diamond Dogs.
33 In the fourth part of Huey’s interrogation, Ocelot asks a question which could also be asked to the player, not unlike Rose’s lectures in MGS2: “Who are you really? You’re not the victim, and you’re not the silent majority. You’re a perpetrator and a petty hypocrite. The real world doesn’t make you suffer. It’s the other way around.”
35 “This is just a detour in his journey to hell”, says Ocelot to Venom (“Doublethink” tape). It sounds like a very pessimistic statement regarding our future, as players.