~ an essay on the game Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Game x Cinema
Metal Gear Solid (1998), first and foremost, is the brainchild of a cinephile. Hideo Kojima, the game’s director and primary writer, shares a foundational kinship to the realm of cinema, blending its genres, tropes and scenery into his games in innovative and intriguing ways. He based the core stealth gameplay of his initial installment in the Metal Gear series, Metal Gear (1987), upon the sneaking scenes in The Great Escape (1963). The series’ protagonist, Solid Snake — sometimes referred to as ‘Iroquois Pliskin’ — is named after Kurt Russell’s one-eyed badass Snake Plissken from Escape from New York (1981). Raised on the action and sci-fi cinema of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, all of his works reflect such cinematic influence. Through everything from direct references (The Deer Hunter bandana, 2001’s ‘Dave’ and ‘Hal’), to the design of the gameplay and its characters (James Bond-style lairs and villainy), to the style and flash of its intervening cinematic cutscenes, Metal Gear Solid’s DNA is sown inextricably, lovingly with that of the pantheon of cinema.
As Kojima details in his forward to the official strategy guide for the game, “incorporating the essence of movies into the game with no incongruity is what Metal Gear Solid is all about.” His dream for MGS involved the capture of the advanced hardware capabilities of the time (the PlayStation 1) with the mood, pacing and action of a film, in order to create a three-dimensional reality within the game world, full of vibrant characters and memorable moments, and most importantly — a story to tell.
While remaining a game, Metal Gear Solid can also give the player the film-like experience — the illusion and excitement as if the player is part of the movie. Metal Gear Solid is an example of work that we hope hints at the future of digital entertainment.
~ Hideo Kojima
As lone wolf special operator Solid Snake, the player experiences the momentous feeling of taking on the role of action hero. Every position within the game world, from first and third-person perspectives both, allows for shots genuinely akin to cinematography. Steel corridors and windy snowdrifts make for variable sandboxes of quietly stylish encounters between yourself and the enemy’s myriad threats. The look and feel of the game’s experience as “player-in-movie” fast catches up with the challenge of gameplay boiling down to a uniquely nonviolent battle of one-versus-all. The primary tenet of your supersoldier’s movement within this world involves stealth — or an avoidance of confrontation and the requisite violence against the enemies within the game.
Snake can try to fight every enemy, but one comes to find out such plans are inefficient and usually result in death. Snake’s plan A is to sneak by threats and not engage them directly; his primary objectives involve infiltration and information, and not assassination. Facing a small army of patrolling guards, camera-sensors and laser-fields, mines and claymores, the MGS player must be patient and observational, learn from his environment, and always be thinking of alternative routes and solutions. The player is tasked with interesting choices and optionality in how they attack the game’s maps of scenes and scenarios. When things go wrong, the enemies react relentlessly and intelligently, searching for Snake with intent to kill. Evasion and improvisation, attack or defense, invariable chaos and lucky breaks are all in play once in Snake’s shoes.
Certainly, MGS was designed with every detail of this kind of gameplay accounted for and assigned into an enjoyable place along this spectrum of challenge and cinema. In 1998, such marks heralded the game as one of the best games of all time, an instant classic; today, such gameplay still manages to be tense, ingenious, satisfyingly difficult for both its level design and its maddening control scheme.
Full of cinematic angles and action, tense moments of revelation and betrayal, inspiring, heroic showdowns and philosophically compelling monologues, Metal Gear Solid in full amounts to a solidly entertaining 12-hour film.
Both stealth action games like Splinter Cell, Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, and the Batman Arkham series as well as cinematic, narrative-focused games like Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, The Last of Us and countless others undoubtedly owe Metal Gear Solid a spiritual debt of gratitude for laying the groundwork.
Military-Industrial Complex x Anime
The premise for Metal Gear Solid‘s narrative, in an alternate universe 2005:
The Shadow Moses Incident was an armed revolt against the United States, initiated by FOXHOUND and the Next-Generation Special Forces on Shadow Moses Island, Alaska. Under the command of Liquid Snake, FOXHOUND and the NGSF formed the Sons of Big Boss, and captured a secret nuclear weapons facility on the island on February 28, 2005, the night before the signing of the START III Accord. Initially deployed to oversee a weapons testing exercise, FOXHOUND took DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker hostage, along with a soldier who refused to participate in the insurrection.
Snake arrives on Shadow Moses Island, off the coast of Alaska, as an agent of the U.S. military. A deep cover operative, a psychologically invulnerable infiltrator and killer, formerly CIA and now a nomadic mercenary, Snake is heralded as a legend for his history upon battlefields. Drawn out of retirement by his old beret-wearing Colonel, Roy Campbell, he’s being sent into another high stakes situation. His mission is to surreptitiously rectify this rogue base involving ‘next-generation special forces’ codenamed FOXHOUND turning terrorist revolutionaries and end their threat of deploying dangerously novel nuclear weaponry in the form of ‘Metal Gear’ right before the ratification of a nuclear disarmament treaty between the U.S. and Russia (START III).
Solid Snake: Anyone going with me?
Roy Campbell: As usual, this is a one-man infiltration mission.
Snake: Weapons and equipment OSP (on-site procurement)?
Campbell: Yes. This is a top-secret black op. Don’t expect any official support.
Solid Snake is engaging in “One last job”; he is “Back in the saddle” for this one. And he is not just reentering a battlefield, he is resuming his role in the wider power struggles of the American military-industrial complex and the great geopolitical conflict of global nuclear proliferation. Top secret nuclear supply chains and experimental weaponry designed to win the next war dominate this complex realm; endless codes and acronyms provide the language for a world separate from not only civilian society, but from the remainder of the military itself. Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Delta Force, FOXHOUND, all U.S. special operators tasked with covert programs of foreign infiltration, assassination, coup d’etats. The military leadership in charge of directing their interventions, like Roy Campbell, are themselves full of secret agendas, information both withheld and incomplete. Defense contractors, weapons manufacturers, cybersecurity firms, ‘global policy think tanks’ — the industrial side of the complex — play their role within these decisions and conflicts through exchanges of resources, information, and capital with the U.S. government. All along the chain of command, even to the President himself, there are secrets within secrets regarding the political endgames of the machine’s overall maneuvering.
The sprawling U.S. hydra of foreign policy and military interventionism acts consistently with pathological self-interest — while at the same time, like a faceless, mindless behemoth, it is composed of so many different agendas, timetables, and opportunities that it is full of deception and corruption within its own ranks. Long-term missions drift in their purpose, black operations go without oversight, special operators go rogue. War crimes slip between the cracks of all the complexity, if they aren’t summoned as suddenly necessary to the primary objectives… Solid Snake has made his career performing as a tier 1 operator, an agent to this complex.
“In a war, all of humanity’s worst traits come out. It’s easy to forget what a sin is in the middle of a battlefield.”
~ Solid Snake
Despite the complexities, the core of all modern warfare comes down to the power of information and weaponry, and the commerce surrounding them both. Such is the case in MGS, when Liquid Snake — the British-American supersoldier leader of FOXHOUND — leads a revolution on Shadow Moses, co-opting the faux nuclear ‘disposal’ facility as a stronghold to unlock the power of the U.S. military’s latest nuclear superweapon. He demands $1 billion and the body of his old leader, Big Boss, in exchange for Metal Gear and the safety of the free world… In truth, however, Liquid’s revolution, and his potential commandeering of the ultimate weapon Metal Gear, threatens the complex itself, its flows of weaponry, capital, secrets.
MGS overarching cinema makes for a military techno-thriller, full of nanomachines, smart missiles and ‘railgun’ nukes, the expanding existential threat of global nuclear proliferation backdropping it all. Clearly, Kojima is deeply intrigued with the United States and its relationship to war — our history of industrialized hyper-militarization and CIA black ops, both real and fictionalized, throughout the 20th century — and its impacts upon the world.
Colonel Roy Campbell: Washington isn’t so stupid to use nukes to cover up a few secrets.
Solid Snake: I wonder about that…
But inside of these systems and regimes, Kojima also fixates upon the lone action hero, in Solid Snake, and the Daedalean villains set to oppose him on his individual journey toward justice, freedom, peace. Solid and Liquid, the protagonist and antagonist respectively, prototype the core conflict into philosophies of peace and war, blind obedience and awakened revolution, order and chaos. MGS’s story depicts how they — these soldiers in opposition, both pawns of the complex — make their way and choose their own methodologies of facing down the terrifying systems and war machines that birthed and shaped them. Solid seeks peace / Liquid seeks power.
Like in a shōnen anime, MGS is full of melodrama and monologues from adversaries encountered in a linear progression of power and understanding. Alongside the elements reflecting realistic military procedure and protocol, there are masked psychics, raven-controlling chaingunners, and hyper-athletic cyborg ninja for Snake to fight to the death, and to sincerely converse with along the way. Supernatural power levels elevate the entertainment value, and make it harder for the player to anticipate what will come next concerning what is possible in this world. Extraordinary origins from each of the game’s villain, all the way to Liquid Snake himself, make for satisfying narrative conclusions to every fight, as their underlying character and philosophical perspectives are revealed in the end via dramatic cutscene monologues.
Part cinematic action movie / part philosophical geopolitical thriller / part melodramatic anime, Kojima effectively synthesizes these genres, discourses, and characters to craft the storyline for his masterpiece of ‘tactical espionage action.’
“We’re going to launch that nuke and ride it all the way into history.”
~ Revolver Ocelot
“Do you remember Snake, the thrill of battle!”
~ Cyborg Ninja / “Gray Fox” / Frank Jaeger
“Every single mind I peer into is filled with the same singular obsession: the selfish and atavistic desire to pass on one’s seed. Every single thing on this planet exists to mindlessly pass on their DNA… it is why war exists. But you, you are different. You are like me. We have no past, no future. We live in the moment. That is our only purpose. Humans weren’t designed to bring each other happiness. From the moment we are thrown into this world, we are fated to bring each other pain and misery…”
~ Psycho Mantis
“I have watched the stupidity of mankind through the scope of my rifle. I joined this group of revolutionaries to take my revenge on the world. But I have shamed my people… in the name of vengeance, I sold my body and my soul. Now I am nothing more than a pawn. … I finally understand. I wasn’t waiting to kill people. I was waiting for someone to kill me. A man like you. You’re a hero. … Please, set me free.”
~ Sniper Wolf
“Unlike in war, in the natural world there is no endless death. There is always an end to the killing.”
~ Vulcan Raven
“We are losing our place in a world that no longer needs us. … Why do you continue to follow orders while your superiors betray you? I’ll tell you why … you enjoy killing. I saw your face when you did it. You have a killer inside. It’s okay, you don’t have to deny it. It’s what we were created for!”
~ Liquid Snake
Ethos of a Soldier x Actions as a Pawn
In one of Solid Snake’s first lines in the game, he describes himself as a “pawn.” As you progress through the game’s events, challenges, and twists, more of his personality and perspective are revealed. This cynical view of his role, however, permeates his whole person. And there is truth to it.
“After you’ve been through as many wars as I have, it’s impossible to trust anyone.”
~ Solid Snake
“You’ve lost your warrior pride and have become a pawn, Snake!”
~ Liquid Snake
Solid Snake always works alone. He has no family and no friends — “No past, no future,” as Psycho Mantis proclaims to be a similarity between them. It stands to reason these absences make him more effective as a military operator. The paragon soldier, his sole focus is on the mission and not the lives in play, most especially his own — and what his death might mean to any other. His relative fearlessness of death in this way makes him ‘a demon upon the battlefield’ as Vulcan Raven describes.
“The real me is no match for the legend.”
~ Solid Snake
He lives in the moment, and seems to enjoy the little things in his work. He flirts and jests with every one of his handlers on the codec. He has no regrets that he waxes on to anyone else; he does not dwell on the past, even if it has irrevocably shaped him into the ghost of a man we see today.
“You know a lot about science, but do you know how good a cigarette tastes in the morning?”
~ Snake to Naomi Hunter
“No matter how far technology advances, you’ll never be able to penetrate the human heart.”
~ Snake to Mei Ling
“I did have one friend, Frank Jaeger. Gray Fox. / But you tried to kill each other didn’t you?” / That was nothing personal. Just two professionals on opposite sides… We were just doing our jobs. / Men and their games. Just like animals. / It’s true. We are.”
~ Snake and Naomi
The truth is that Snake is a pawn. He is being duped by his commanders, instantly disavowed and betrayed by his country at every wayward turn in the game. He is an asset to his state, not a person. Only his adversaries, namely Liquid, tell him the truth. Highly effective as an agent of his state’s will, he has no real control over anything beyond how he will infiltrate the next room. Purely efficacious in the moment-to-moment micro decisions of the soldier, the macro-meaning of his mission is actively obfuscated, his mind misdirected to near-term problems by his ‘handlers.’ In truth, he never has a good grasp on what it is he is actually fighting for.
“A strong man doesn’t need to read the future. He makes his own.”
“Snake, we’re not tools of the government… Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at… But at least, I always fought for what I believed in…”
~ Gray Fox’s final words
One of MGS’s core messages might be to dispel the myth of a “super”soldier, for in imagining such a being, we assume there is absolute volition in their course as ‘heroes’ choosing to do the right thing. Snake, Gray Fox, and even Liquid all show themselves to be pawns. They are not in control of their fates, or the endgame of the mission. They are beholden to forces outside of their individuality — to systems and nations, to their instincts and their genes.
Solid Snake’s life or death battles with each of his FOXHOUND adversaries, former special forces partners and fellow soldiers in the complex and upon the battlefield, along with his encounters with the young Meryl Silverburgh, a soldier on the base refusing to participate in the revolution, change him. As protagonist and stand-in for the player, Snake’s relative blank slate ideology and one-dimensionality — as solo soldier fighting ‘the good fight’ — allow for the player to experience all of the other rich characters and philosophies within MGS, from his rivals in FOXHOUND and from his commanders, take them in, and judge for themselves, just like Snake appears to be doing. Snake’s budding potential romance with Meryl enlightens his inner persona and alters his perspective most of all.
“I knew you wouldn’t shoot. / Why? / Your eyes. / A rookie’s eyes? / No, beautiful, compassionate eyes…”
~ Snake and Meryl Silverburgh
“I was a fan of FOXHOUND. None of that gene therapy. Y’all were the real deal. Heroes.” / We weren’t heroes. There are no heroes. All the heroes I know are either dead or in prison. I’m just a man who’s good at what he does: killing people. … I’ve never fought for anyone but myself. I have no greater purpose or goal. … On the battlefield, you never think about what’s next.”
~ Meryl and Snake
At heart, every character within Metal Gear Solid’s world of military powers and black operations is absolutely obsessed with DNA. Intellectually, unconsciously, megalomaniacally, in trying to understand it, steal it, or in simply hating it — there is a recurring throughline of DNA and its tremendous power. Big bad guy Liquid Snake, Solid’s secret twin brother, the ‘recessive’ son of Big Boss versus Solid’s ‘dominant’ genehood, believes fate itself lies within a Man’s DNA. As if cursed, Liquid perhaps blames his own pathology on ‘the selfish gene’ innate to all human beings — which drives us to reproduce our genes at all costs. No matter to the sacrifices of life outside of our own or the altruism a person might show to his fellow man, there is always the ulterior, self-interested motive of passing on your blood to the next generation. Under such a worldview, of absolute fidelity to unconscious drives borne of our genes, there can be no heroes and no villains. For there can be no free will.
However, as these ‘twin snakes’, Solid and Liquid’s opposing paths reflect the dual expression of good and evil within a single Man; for despite their identical DNA composition as clones of Big Boss — i.e. they could be the same man — their choices reflect them against one another. They are each other’s shadows — each a mirror of what they might have become given different circumstances and choices upon the battlefields fate cast them into.
Liquid Snake’s revolution against the U.S. government is even defensible, in the context of the behemoth he defies. Through his campaign on Shadow Moses, he wants his men – all former pawns of the military – to be respected, to no longer just be viewed as tools to be used and disposed of for the sake of self-serving wars and hypocritical political policies. Big Boss’s body he needs in order to synthesize a cure from his blood for an unknown illness afflicting these next-gen special forces ‘Genome Soldiers‘ under his command, as well as himself. Despite his threatening and murderous means, ultimately Liquid is fighting against an unchecked machine of potential killing power in the U.S. military. And he is fighting to save the only family he has ever known.
“Genes exist to pass down our hopes and dreams to our children. … I’ve finally realized it, the true meaning of life. Thank you Snake.”
~ Naomi Hunter
Otacon: Have you ever… loved someone?
Solid Snake: That’s what you came to ask?
Otacon: No, I was wondering if even soldiers fall in love.
Solid Snake: What are you trying to say?
Otacon: I want to ask you: Do you think love can bloom even on a battlefield?
Solid Snake: … Yeah. I do. I think at any time, any place, people can fall in love with each other…
Solid Snake’s stance on revolution and on the power of fighting for family’s sake remain unclear. The two concepts are intertwined, and as we understand it, Solid has never known family. He has always fought for himself. To him, war is a moment-to-moment conflict of survival, and has never been an endeavor to build something from out of. He defies Liquid’s rhetoric at every turn, in speaking of revolution against the state and of their individual genetic fates as born killers. But perhaps this is directly because he can relate to such underlying truths and simply repressed the urges to understand or follow them to their ends. Liquid’s worldview presents these twin snakes as biologically bound to kill and to kill to further themselves; both on the path for years as pawns in wars they didn’t personally support, they diverge now as one builds an army to follow him against his chosen foes, and the other tries to clear the slate and escape into an unpeopled wilderness. Liquid, like Gray Fox, is finally fighting for what he believes in – whereas Solid yearns for an end to his fighting once and for all.
At the end, Solid Snake, or Dave, and his development of love toward Meryl upon the battlefield of Shadow Moses Island presents the hope in such genetic pawnhood. Even if Snake is simply being captured, finally, by his genes’ inner yearning to love for the sake of the reproduction of his DNA into a new generation, then at least it is his way out. It is his instincts — the only thing he’s ever trusted anyway as a lone soldier — pushing him toward some kind of life of happiness, away from the violence of the battlefield. Snake and Meryl’s escape from the island together, at the dawn of spring and with new lives on their horizon, provides a final, powerful counterpoint to the dark theorizations of Liquid and FOXHOUND’s gallery of rogues. So much more than just Death, Love can bloom on a battlefield; human beings are designed to offer each other happiness. And even a man with no past can grasp at a future. ~
“Until today, I’ve lived only for myself. Survival is the only thing I cared about. I only felt truly alive when I was staring death in the face. I don’t know, maybe it’s written into my genes. … [But] maybe it’s time I live for someone else. Someone like you. Maybe that’s the real way to live.”
~ Snake to Meryl