Lowering The Bar (Guest Article)

This article was written by Jack Wade, who contacted me by email. Since I’ve written a whole book studying the careful forethought given to MGS2’s polarizing writing and design choices I find it invigorating to see a good old fashioned trashing of the man behind the legend. Although Jack clearly hasn’t read my book, which accounts for many of the strange disparities he points out about MGS2’s development, he makes a compelling case for not accepting Kojima as some literary genius — especially in the vein of the usual fanbase, who all seem to have blinders on when discussing the series. He casts doubt on the purported complexity behind it all. Since first proposing the VR Theory and fleshing out the metanarrative analysis of the series, I’ve watched the community slowly absorb the positive ideas I put forward about Kojima, but reject the unflattering side of the analysis. They don’t debate it, they just reject things they don’t want to hear. Ironic, of course. I much prefer people like Jack Wade, willing to step up and make the discussion more interesting.

There is no such thing as a clean and simple discussion of the Metal Gear series and it is the fault of a singular entry within it. Metal Gear Solid 2 had some of the most jarring idiosyncrasies, not just in its own world, but among fans of the franchise. If Metal Gear just skipped over MGS2, tweaked MGS4 to match the changes, and then proceeded normally, it would be another unremarkable series with a very high bar set by its opening iteration that just gets worse over time much like Deus Ex or StarCraft.

But MGS2 stops any of that from being true and makes the franchise a standout among all other franchises, just for the wrong reasons. In spite of endless cutscenes, intrusive codec calls, bizarre plot twist at the eleventh hour, MGS2 was hailed as a great example of video games as art through storytelling with very weak, anecdotal explanations rationalizing the bizarreness as part of a greater narrative and glossing over both obvious and subtle counterevidence. Huge numbers of people thought it was brilliant because they didn’t understand it and that, to them, constituted greatness.

When I put myself in the shoes of those fans who hold MGS2 in the highest regard, I can’t help but bristle at the rationalizations I have to make in justifying what is just flat out nonsensical. Why would the Patriots mock Raiden as he’s fighting to preserve them, even if in simulation form? What is the “crucible of the White House” and how did it give rise to an AI system capable of controlling the passage of information across the internet? Why does the Patriot AI, with instant access to huge repositories of human knowledge, make basic errors in their analysis of genes? Why does the AI strawman Raiden so much? You would think a high end computer system wouldn’t make logical errors, but that’s what happens.

These are questions that are hard to answer in fullness by MGS2 devotees or they crack MGS2’s veneer of intelligence and Hideo Kojima’s inferred genius as a writer. For them, it’s not probable or often even possible for Kojima to have just done a poor job and made a lot of mistakes that just happen to look intentional. But before I can address that notion more completely, I need to describe the events surrounding MGS2.

Prior to MGS2, Metal Gear Solid was simply a popular, well produced game with a hidden, yet odd story behind its translation into English. The game’s greatness lay in its novelty; nothing like it had been made prior. But time was not kind to the Metal Gear Solid series. Other games often did what MGS games did but better. Splinter Cell had a superior camera that would later come to be used in MGS3: Subsistence. MGS: Peace Walker was made to meet a mobile game market demand dominated by Monster Hunter. MGS5 had an open world influenced by much more interactive open world games. No Metal Gear game had the straight positive and popular impact that Metal Gear Solid itself had. After MGS’ launch in 1998, Kojima was just a writer and director, nothing more and nothing less.

By contrast, the critical wake left by MGS2 pedestalized Kojima in such a massive way. He became the most prominent auteur in gaming, egged on by critics in both the gaming industry and among the fanbase. This, in spite of glaring problems with both the narrative of MGS2 and its delivery along with the sordid history of the English translation. That very history, as told by the translator herself, Agness Kaku, undermines a great deal of MGS2 right out the gate because it went through a filter that had no access to Kojima, the concept art or the dev kit. Along with technical limitations like fitting English speech in a Japanese text parser, it is impossible to say that what fans got was exactly what Kojima had in mind without knowing Japanese which very few of those fans do. Kind of ironic, really. The people that heap praise on a man that loves English-language films yet doesn’t speak English don’t know his native language either.

So we’re off to a rollicking good start where the die-hard fans with high-end analyses already have to go through someone else’s language barrier, but that’s just the start. The political and philosophical commentary of MGS2, as well as the meta-narrative against the player trying to be an action hero vicariously, are novel for a video game. That much is true. What isn’t true is the assertions fans have made. When you read explanations as to why critics believe MGS2 is sublime, they tend to explain that MGS2 does certain things and presume Kojima’s intent behind them as justification for why those things exist. There’s often a long string of interpretations being passed off as the truth rather than what it is, an interpretation by someone that is already impressed and under a confirmation bias. Because Kojima is such a great master, it’s nigh impossible to understand everything that he meant so the person doubting his ability is obviously wrong. That’s the auteur defense.

But forget the artsy-fartsy, authororial expression BS for a couple minutes and consider this. Part of MGS2’s “artistic” appeal was that it threw jabs at the player. Now, if the purpose of MGS2 was to make a negative comment about fandom and fan response to sequels, what about the people who just bought MGS2 because of the marketing and the popularity? MGS2 outsold MGS1 and not everyone that played MGS1 bought 2. There were millions of people that played MGS2 alone and were not fans of the series. Further, how many people would be the “hardcore” fans that were incredibly invested in MGS to the point that their fanaticism would be worth possibly sinking the franchise over?

This is one of those things where the analytical fans miss the mark and grossly overestimate their own importance. So Kojima made an entire game directed at them, a minority of fans, simply to make a vague statement about the nature of sequels and fandom, alienating millions of people and betraying their trust, losing his company and his personal projects a great deal of reputation for perceived dishonesty?

Yeah, no. It’s ultimately a narcissistic assessment that this JAPANESE game developer who doesn’t speak ENGLISH was interested in the musings of western kids who wanted to be Solid Snake and really liked a video game. I think what happened at the time is nobody knew what the hell the game was supposed to be, but the critics didn’t want to look stupid or be mean so they rationalized MGS2 to be a highly intellectual thinkpiece.

Well then what was MGS2?

The research I’ve done to compile this essay taught me one thing in particular. The simplest and best way to explain MGS is to ask the question: what movie was Kojima watching at the time? During MGS2’s development, it was the Matrix. Surreality, artificial intelligence messing with people, wide scale attempts at controlling humanity, breaks in the Matrix, Raiden having a redpill moment with the dogtags, it’s all there. These superficial details also happen to be about as much substantive analysis as most pro-MGS2 videos, but I’ll be happy to give some more evidence.

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Agness Kaku, the English translator for MGS2.

“I ask her, does she feel Kojima should work on something closer to home?”

“Yeah, something he can actually understand. I know that sounds really, really harsh, but I was really disturbed that a lot of the… Some of the earlier scene stuff I got, literally had references to Hollywood blockbusters, in the margins saying: ‘Like in this movie!’ But none of them were rare films, I mean it wasn’t talking about Dr Strangelove, it was all just kind of bone-headed, you know, Bruckheimer kind-of…”

And of course, you can see the references to Terminator 2 at the start of MGS2, Snake’s box art in MG1 is Kyle Reese, his codec picture is Mel Gibson in MG2. The list goes on. The man loves throwing in movies into his games, a pattern that turned into name-dropping in MGS3 with Para-medic listing her favorite movies in addition to Snake running off a water outlet like in The Fugitive. Kojima really likes movies and sticks them into his games. So really, what’s more likely: the long, convoluted explanation that requires everything you say to be true because it looks to fit what you believe or Kojima having tried to jam another movie into Metal Gear and doing it clumsily in MGS2?

And this leads into the concept I’ve heard which can be summarized as “playing with the nature of sequels.” Supposedly, MGS2 is a game designed to challenge the notion of what a sequel is meant to be. It was an attempt to buck expectations; you weren’t playing as Solid Snake, things didn’t make sense and you weren’t supposed to know what was going on, however, Ocelot expressed the attempt at creating a “simulation of Shadow Moses” as scripted by the Patriots. It’s the same, but different.

To give Ocelot’s statement context, Metal Gear 1, 2, Solid and Solid 2 are iterations of the same narrative beats with certain variations to suit the overall plot. Let me put it in list form.

  • Snake infiltrates a fortified compound with the objective to take out a Metal Gear.
  • Snake backtracks. A lot.
  • Snake meets up with a girl with information on the present danger.
  • Snake rescues a hostage engineer.
  • Snake fights a bunch of weirdos.
  • Snake gets captured.
  • Snake blows up Metal Gear.
  • Snake fights another Snake.

These are essentially the checkboxes of MG through MGS2. The people change, the narrative arc changes and the themes change. MG1 is a general purpose 80s action movie. MG2 is Tom Clancy styled Cold War angst. MGS1 is Escape From New York. MGS2 is The Matrix, but bad.

Because this trend was kept, but The Matrix elements slanted it, there came an inflated sense of MGS2’s literary value and Kojima’s ability with it. As I said above, treating MGS2 as The Matrix with MGS patterns makes a lot more sense than assuming there was a meta-narrative running through it. The Patriots are scripting an experience for Raiden and the player to contend with. That’s what the Matrix did to humanity (with the sequels giving a stupid reason for that action, just like MGS4 would) and it’s interesting because Neo breaks it. Raiden doesn’t; he just goes along with it, almost certainly for the sake of drama.

Well, what about the premonition that was the Patriots attempting to control the flow of information and internet censorship? Normally, I would say, “Deus Ex did it better. Deus Ex did it so much better that you can literally talk to the ECHELON programs designed by the government to spy on people and they know exactly who you are.” Normally, I would say that, but research has revealed that Digimon Tamers touched the surveillance state as well. Here’s a quote about it:

“D-Reaper is the main baddie during Digimon Tamers, a security program created by the United States Department of Defense in the late 1970s. With the rise of the Digital World, the government wanted a means to control its growth. Their solution came in the form of the D-Reaper program, which would eradicate all the Digimon once their world expanded beyond a certain number. Pretty much a digital nuclear weapon. Once awoken, the software actually accomplished what it set out to do, destroying most of the Digital World. Far from satisfied, the D-Reaper set out to annihilate Earth as it was deemed too destructive to be worth saving. The anime ties the program to real life events, like the rumored ECHELON security program.”

To boot, Tamers premiered months before MGS2. So MGS2 is not the lone light shining in darkness that predicted the USA PATRIOT ACT, mass surveillance and internet censorship. I haven’t seen Digimon Tamers, but I get the feeling it would be less patronizing to the children it was aiming at than the Patriots were in talking down to Raiden and the player, explaining genetics that they were just flat out wrong about. The surveillance state and computer oriented control schemes were not novel concepts at the time.

Let’s keep going into the more superficial notions. Raiden is a prettyboy, Solid Snake wannabe that is supposed to be a stand-in for the player LARPing as Snake. Kojima is using Raiden to take a jab at players, telling them, “you’re not Snake. You’re some nerd playing a video game” and Raiden is a squeaky voiced kid compared to the growling machismo of Solid Snake.

Couple of issues. If you’re familiar with Raiden’s voice actor, Quinton Flynn, you know he voiced Prince Kael’thas in Warcraft 3. If you didn’t know that, I highly suggest you go give that character a listen on youtube. Quinton Flynn gives a very masculine, mature performance. That same performance, if applied to Raiden, completely changes how Raiden reads in MGS2. Likewise, the Japanese version of Raiden sounds like an average man giving an average male performance. Raiden and Snake work in tandem with Raiden as the obvious junior partner cuz he’s younger and less experienced.

As well, Raiden was made to try and expand the demographics to include young women and older girls. Raiden’s a bishonen, an androgynous male popular among young Japanese women. He looked fruity and then he got mocked in MGS3 and refit to look more masculine in MGS4 and Revengeance. And Revengeance itself is a continuation of that whole “Jack the Ripper” thing Solidus mentions. Because of that whole child soldiering thing, it’s possible that Raiden spent more of his life in war than did Snake, nullifying one of those major points that puts Raiden in a losing contention with Snake over combat experience.

I could go on for a while longer, but do you get the point? Do you get how the ad hoc rationalizations by fans for the supposed genius of MGS2 are so flimsy and frail that just a simple clarification or contextualization breaks them apart? The fans who really wanted to believe in the depth of MGS2 created a narrative out of a hodgepodge of odd details that confirm what they already believe to be true. It’s ascientific and fallacious as hell, but the longer someone has spent believing it to be true, the harder a time they’ll have being broken from it. Can you imagine being wrong about something you have firmly believed in for maybe a third or half your life? It’s why defectors from North Korea and Cuba despise communism with a terrible passion.

All I’ve done here is provide the context behind the small details that are posited to fit the meta-narrative MGS2 is stated to have. And given how I’m not creating content, but creating context, well hey, I guess I’m the Patriots now. Please insert Disc 2 to see my critique of Kojima.

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