Writing The Wrongs
Welcome back. I would like to introduce you to Tomokazu Fukushima. He was the co-writer of Metal Gear Solid 1, 2 and 3 and penned the first portable Metal Gear games on his own long before Portable Ops. So good was Fukushima’s Ghost Babel that it’s the highest rated Metal Gear. He left Konami after MGS3 finished up and critics have made reductive conclusions about his involvement in MGS based on what’s changed in his absence.
The strongest writing in the series had Fukushima as the co-writer alongside Kojima. When he left after Snake Eater, things got real stupid real fast. Metal Gear Solid 4 was a mess of epic proportions. Try 8 hours worth of cutscenes and mandatory codec calls of mess. And while MGS4 makes for hilarious supercuts, the sheer amount of cutscene explanations, wrapping up loose plot threads and cameos by basically everyone from every Solid game bloated MGS4 to such an absurd level that just playing the game for the gameplay’s sake is heavily intruded upon.
Peace Walker, the second game without Fukushima, is somewhat bereft of large plot dumps, owed to the portable nature of the game, but it still has its fair share of stupid through the introduction of Paz and the new Metal Gear. Why does this teenager that’s actually 25 strip down to her panties to pilot a giant metal gear she hijacked? How does the Peace Walker program actually cloak its nukes? Why is ZEKE in 1975 more advanced than REX in 2005? All good questions, expect no answers.
And last, MGS5. Excluding Ground Zeroes for its lack of content, The Phantom Pain was stripped of its stupid by Kojima overspending his time and budget. TPP is, even to more basic fans, mostly just bad writing in chapters one and two. Kazuhira Miller and Revolver Ocelot just talk at Venom Snake and he says almost nothing in reply. The background lore is done via audio logs, the laziest way to exposit in video games. Series references are thrown in without dramatic flair to make them amusing. Huge amounts of play time are wasted wandering around in the desert or waiting for Pequod to arrive SHORTLY at LZ. Genetically modified parasites either kill or zombify human beings who speak certain languages, but not if they’re children…
Jesus Christ, this is like the same plot as Resident Evil 5, but miracuously more brain dead. In RE5, Albert Wesker is a Saturday morning cartoon villain that wants to take over the world with a parasite that will kill basically everyone and it still makes more logical sense than MGS5 doing the same thing. Forget what I said about MGS5 not being that stupid because it’s just really stupid, but the bad writing and the sheer amount of filler somehow manages to hide it, probably because there’s just so little going on in the story.
There’s also the “metallic archaea” plot device. Good lord, the NANOMACHINES SON explanations really stretched disbelief in this series beyond all recognition. Metallic archaea blows that out of the water. Not only can these bacteria eat metal, but they can “instantly oxidize and melt any metal it is applied to” and “contain and consume radiation.” They can also make machines work better somehow? Also, the parasites from before can produce clouds of metallic archaea as well as make people invisible and highly regenerative through photosynthesis.
I’m pretty sure if Kojima had started his series with The Phantom Pain and people actually paid attention to what was going on, details like this would have sunk his career as a director and writer. This is just. Holy shit, this is just retarded. Like, I’ve met first year writing students who would think this is the literary equivalent of brain damage. This is just nonsense in a series defined by its nonsense. In this context, Metal Gear Survive being about guys trapped in a time warp with zombies isn’t that unexpected. The series jumped the shark years ago with Vamp. This is just what happens when you jump the shark and fall into a bottomless pit because all of this crap is there to justify the stakes being raised.
Nothing was this bad in MGS1, 2 or 3. Even MGS2’s attempts at meaning didn’t fall this flat. Would all of this have happened with Fukushima still co-writing? I’m almost certain it would not. Looking at Metal Gear Ghost Babel and Metal Gear Acid is a very, very strong indicator that Fukushima was responsible for most of the good sense that Metal Gear Solid had before his departure. The plots of the portable games Fukushima wrote read like decent spy thrillers. They can be taken seriously and it all seems to flow together smoothly.
Now with that out of the way, I want to offer my own personal critiques of Kojima’s writing ability. I’m not really interested in plot holes or retcons or anything large like that; there are plenty of people who have done much better jobs than I could at analyzing Kojima’s plot and narrative screw ups within MGS. Rather, I want to address the small things, details most people would have missed. I’m of the opinion that true genius sees the forest and the trees simultaneously because each tree is an important part of the whole. When they go missing, holes arise and the forest can stop being a forest.
But that’s enough with the tortured metaphor. I’ve listed what is the most glaring thematic or tonal flaw from each of the main games that to me, demonstrate Kojima’s complete lack of interest in anything beyond superficial details that he knows about and thinks sound cool. These following points illustrate why I believe he’s a man bereft of intrigue or thoughtfulness. Like I said, if you can’t get the small things right, you’re gonna have a hard time with the big things. MGS1 is excepted here because it’s actually well thought out, thank you based Fukushima.
Sons of Liberty
George Sears, Solidus Snake, idolizes George Washington for the most superficial reasons. Washington was the just rebel who lead a fledgling country’s military against a juggernaut of an empire and won. The Patriots are a stand-in for the British and Solidus wishes to be Washington. It’s a very simplistic parallel that ultimately shows Kojima to have no interest in the United States for anything other than its military hardware and role in the post-war era.
I’ve heard it said that a good writer can make a mundane concept interesting and a bad writer can make an interesting concept mundane. I believe this extends to the smallest elements of lore as well. Take Solidus’ weapons of choice, his high frequency blades. They are named “Democrat” and “Republican.” When I found this out, I really understood Hideo Kojima. Those parties didn’t exist in Washington’s time. Rather, there were Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Washington taking neither side until late in his life. One of his most difficult tasks as President was suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion which was the most prominent state’s rights clashes of its time. Washington quashed it, but expressed his belief in the rights of the rebels to express their frustration, just not by violence. Ultimately, Washington became a Federalist in order to hold a still fragile union together.
Now, in the context of Metal Gear Solid, there is a line of continuity extending from this decision to the Patriots. The Patriot AI network is the ultimate Federalist; power concentrated at its greatest in the hands of the ruling few. History repeats itself and Solidus is putting himself in the boots of a young Washington fighting tyranny. His swords should be named Federalist and Anti-federalist. While he is committed to bringing down the Patriots, he must also hold the nation together, but the comparison still works. Solidus is using a daisho set. There is a big sword and a little sword. The big sword should be the libertarian rebel doing the heavy lifting.
Had the blades been named as such rather than the parties which are just symptoms of the same problem in the real world, I would have said MGS2 at least got that part right and there was some depth lurking in the mess. But, as confirmed by both translators for MGS and MGS2, Kojima doesn’t do depth.
MGS3 has a particular moment that I don’t believe truly qualifies within this framework, but I’m bringing it here because it is the the thing which first made me question Kojima’s writing ability with something substantive. My caveats are these:
-The unsung hero Fukushima wrote codec dialogue and this might be him, not Kojima.
-This irritates me personally because of my long-serving military grandfather.
In a conversation with The Boss, Naked Snake, a man who served in the United States Army, says this:
“I follow the orders of the President and the top brass. I’m ready to die for them if necessary.”
I don’t know of any servicemen who would willingly die for his commanding officers out of principle. The Oath of Enlistment into the United States Armed Services swears a man into service to the Constitution, not any of his commanders although it does obligate obedience to orders from superiors.
What this reads as is a clearly Japanese man taking Japanese culture and applying it to an American. From what I know, Japanese culture is one of deference with clearly developed hierarchies that are ingrained with that deference. Address an older man with the suffix “-chan” and you may as well have called him a Jap. And given the military history of Japan in the Pacific with suicide attacks against American positions and complete fealty to the Emperor, Snake’s line is perfectly matched to a Japanese soldier from about two decades prior to Snake Eater’s time. It’s trivial in many ways, but gains salience courtesy of Agness Kaku expressing similar beliefs.
“I think it’s a bad form of playfulness to play at being another country’s soldiers. It’s inauthentic, and ultimately makes a fool of you, I think.”
He had his team do the research to uncover the ground effect vehicles, those floating platforms, all the flora and fauna to populate Tselinoyarsk as well as the Davy Crockett, but why would he not get more information about American soldiers from the time?
Guns of the Patriots
Quick question: why does Big Boss show up at the end of MGS4 to salute The Boss’ grave again? That scene had meaning to it at the end of MGS3 because Naked Snake finally understood what loyalty meant and his breach of loyalty cost him his best friend as well as his loyalty to his country.
This really cheapens the impact of that scene in MGS3 because it reduces the whole thing to an act. In a different series, I would say it’s a cheap callback, but MGS is different. MGS is a series that HAS to make references to events in the previous games. The gags have become long running so they would be missed by fans who have become acclimated. And yet, they are still gags. A Metal Gear game just isn’t the same without an Emmerich pissing themselves, although in MGS3, you had to make do with Sokolov who was a friend of Emmerich. Does that count?
Regardless, this kind of signage only works with humor. Johnny shitting himself, an engineer pissing themselves, Ocelot being a big goof, weirdo bosses that make no sense. I suppose women getting killed for dramatic purposes doesn’t fit that mould, but pretty much all of them are there to make Otacon cry so that’s something. It’s a shame that mega-racist Miller isn’t canon though. That was the best part of MGS5.
So when MGS4 has Big Boss show up to milk the scene for all its worth, I can’t help but think Kojima didn’t understand the emotional significance of that moment. Given that Snake Eater had some basic Shinkawa stuff for the box art, but Subsistence had the salute, I can’t help but feel Kojima was interested exclusively in the visuals and the callback he could make.
The Che Guevara discussion in Peace Walker strikes me as particularly ignorant of history. After I googled why in the hell Big Boss and Kaz are talking up Che Guevara as a mythical figure, I came across the answer.
Kojima watched a movie about it.
Welp, job’s done everyone. Pack it up and go home. Of course he shaped his opinion with a movie. And this is one of those things where it goes beyond being ignorant of the American culture you have a fascination with and just showing ignorance in general. Che Guevara, outside of his face on T-shirts, is a touchy subject. I personally don’t care for him or communists in general and the sycophantic reverence for him by Big Boss and Kaz brought up another one of these points I’ve raised so far.
If you’re writing fiction based in reality, you should probably do some decent research.
You can ignore the standby conservative arguments against Che Guevara regarding his status as a killer, homophobe, racist. Those don’t matter. As an economic minister of Cuba, Che Guevara tried to reward overtime and hard work by Cuban laborers with “work certificates”. They didn’t buy anything. You couldn’t redeem them for a box of cigars or a big bushel of bananas. No, the government just gave you a worthless piece of paper saying “good job” for working hard.
Let’s recap: the guy who started a political revolution which killed a bunch of people to change an economic system to benefit the poor ended up paying the poor with certificates.
That particular criticism and the more common ones made never get addressed by either Big Boss or Kaz and yet they can’t stop fellating beret Jesus and his aesthetic. Remember, Kaz himself is smart enough to basically see into the future regarding the end of the Cold War and the rise of private military companies in 1975. Guevara was dead in ’67. You would think Kaz’s fascination with El Che would have lead him to any of these critical details and sullied that perception, but you would most definitely be wrong.
The counterpoint that Kaz and Boss are talking principally about the marketable points in Guevara’s image as being similar to Big Boss’ kinda falls flat when it becomes obvious that Big Boss basically turns into Che Guevara as an international revolutionary and warmonger. It becomes an admission of bad character by the same parallel since we all know what Big Boss becomes. When you follow that string of logic back to the source once you know the outcome, you’ve got two middle-aged, world weary men who speak with the same naive reverence as an early 20’s college student wearing the Che T-shirt and yelling “Fuck Trump.”
But having two guys discuss the merits of good actions and bad results is kinda hard. Kojima’s not quite up to snuff for a thoughtful back and forth between men of different upbringings, beliefs or experiences. Even in MGS1, there’s hardly any contention between characters, mostly just gruff agreement by Snake about how awful the government behaves. It’s kind of insulting really. I went to a youtube video of this very discussion in Peace Walker and found the actual arguments in the comments. The fans are doing the job the game creator should have done and that’s certainly not a good sign. Certainly, Peace Walker wouldn’t inspire the same degree of passion that MGS2 did, but the patterns have a tendency to repeat themselves.
The Phantom Pain
Last and certainly least, MGS5. Having given thought to my original point regarding the unfinished chapter three and how ridiculously contrived it is to explain Liquid’s hate for Big Boss, I came to realize something. How is it that a master storyteller like Kojima with over 25 years in the video game industry, 80 million dollars from Big Daddy Konami, 4-5 years of dev time and new, high powered consoles couldn’t budget his storytelling with his time enough to even finish the game?
There comes a point when the excuses simply don’t cut it. People made a big deal about how MGS2 had so much depth through “you just don’t get it” explanations, but even the hardest of the hardcore had to throw up their hands in defeat at MGS5 not even being done and what was done wasn’t even particularly compelling. How does a guy we’re supposed to believe is really talented fuck up that bad? Even what’s completed is so insubstantive. The game is just there to tie Big Boss’ story into Solid Snake’s story in Metal Gear 1, the game not many people know about. But since MGS5 isn’t even about Big Boss, what the hell’s even the point?
Is it about the other characters? Ocelot doesn’t do anything until Shadow Moses. Miller doesn’t do anything important until he gets dead before Shadow Moses. Major Zero turns into a potato on life support. Huey gets practice drowning after Kaz throws him off Mother Base. It’s all just a mess, but what could you expect? Kojima was left to his own devices and he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. It’s a good thing MGS5 was the end of the series because it was just so contemptible, even by the standards of the core fans.
It gets very hard to rationalize the idea that Kojima is a particularly good writer when he hasn’t been able to make a work of greatness even though other entertainment greats have done it consistently. Chris Avellone of Planescape: Torment fame went on to write Knights of the Old Republic 2, Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas, all great stories with compelling dialogue.
Or, we could look at the world of film. John Carpenter is a brilliant writer, director and even musician. Escape From New York is a tense thriller. Escape From L.A. is a hilarious rehash that knows it shouldn’t be taken seriously. They Live is a terrifying allegory for mass delusion. Why can these men consistently bottle lightning, but Kojima only got it once? Should you rationalize this as the fault of others like Konami demanding that he actually finish MGS5? Is it because the fans intimidated him into permanent safe mode? Did gaming trends pressure him into making something he wasn’t comfortable making? Why would you need to excuse genius for 14 years straight?
I suppose if I can’t persuade you with all of this, there’s very little hope that I can persuade you period, but I’ll give it one more shot. Do you remember MGS4’s ending where Big Boss shows up to explain everything up to that point? It wasn’t really the best, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the original ending Kojima wanted wherein Snake and Otacon turn themselves into the government and are executed as criminals. The staff revolted until it was changed.
But suppose another staffer convinced the staff of a third option. Suppose the ending had Snake returning to Alaska to live out the last few days of his life, assured that no one else would come to bother him. Snake cleans his guns because it brings him peace, he looks at old unit photos and at the end, he narrates a letter he’s writing to Otacon. In it, he thanks Otacon for helping him throughout the years, says it would have been impossible to stop Liquid and the Patriots without him and that he’s so very grateful to have a friend that never betrayed him and he didn’t have to kill. Snake concludes by apologizing that his death ends their friendship and asks for forgiveness in being able to offer only cold comfort. After that, show The Boss’s grave and a white flower being dropped in memorial.
When you break the MGS series down to its most common, running theme, it’s the sacrifice of a soldier’s honor, loyalty and valor and their ensuing destruction in the face of an all powerful state. MGS1, 2 and 3 introduce the soldiers and set them up for destruction and 4, Peace Walker and 5 show those soldiers as they are falling. MGS4 almost gets it right, but it has Big Boss show up and tell Snake this instead of letting it be shown. A better writer, a better director would have showed subtlety and capitalized on the work of a talented group of people, but a world where Metal Gear is a standout series on the unassailable strength of its writing alone is one we will never know.
Editor’s Final Thoughts: Dear readers, there are many things in this excellent piece by Jack Wade that demand consideration, if not response. Although I have accepted my own theories as truth over the decades, they do remain theories and not facts. Do you agree with his assessment of Kojima and the role of his writer Fukushima? We have to admit that there is something absurd about defending a bunch of disappointing games as being subversive postmodern works of art, when there is a much simpler explanation. But when it comes to Kojima, is it absurd or inevitable? Has he lucked into a generous interpretation all these years by people like myself? Is he an ordinary Japanese hack writer? Don’t be afraid to revisit these questions.