~ an essay on Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004).
“Scholars tell us that the first spy in history was the snake in the Book of Genesis.”
In MGS3 — the 5th game released in the Metal Gear series but the 1st chronologically within the saga — you take control of CIA operative code-named “Naked Snake.” It is 1964, the Cold War is fully engaged, and you are being sent into the unmarked jungles of the Soviet Union in pursuit of a potentially game-changing weapon currently under development by the Russians. Your first ‘virtuous’ mission of the game is to find and extradite the Soviet scientist Sokolov, a rocket designer-turned-weapons producer. He previously defected but was forcibly returned to this covert work in the Soviet Union upon this mysterious weapon by the U.S. government, his life a chip secretly traded in order to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Metal Gear fictional chronology:
- 1964 — Snake Eater
- 1970 — Portable Ops
- 1974 — Peace Walker
- 1975 — Ground Zeroes
- 1984 — The Phantom Pain
- 1995 — Metal Gear
- 1999 — Solid Snake
- 2005 — Metal Gear Solid (The Twin Snakes)
- 2007/09 — Sons of Liberty
- 2014 — Guns of the Patriots
- 2018 — Rising: Revengeance
Sound familiar? To the veteran Metal Gear spy-soldier-operator, it is very much so. However, this weapon is not Metal Gear and this Snake is not ‘Solid’ just yet. They are both precursors. The weapon is the Shagohod, the sister to Metal Gear. And Naked Snake is the man fated to become Big Boss, the legend, the genetic father of Solid Snake, and the driving heart of the entire Metal Gear saga. Along these fronts, of principal plot device and character, creator-director-writer Hideo Kojima crafts a masterful origin story with Snake Eater.
Most notably, in the best isometric ‘tactical espionage action’ gameplay thus far in the series, he presents a new dynamic within the mission work of your slithering Snake: snake-eating. Literally. In moving from the urban and metallic complexes of the previous MGS games, Naked Snake enters the harsh wilderness of the jungle, solo amidst small armies of patrolling killers, and freed from all gear, fully OSP (on-site procurement) as before, but now you also battle some of mankind’s oldest foes — exhaustion, hunger, illness.
In introducing the survivalist mechanics of a fatigue bar constantly depleting, needing its refill from a steady diet of strange mushrooms, the occasional pack of insta-noodles pilfered from enemy encampments, and most importantly, a robust menu of poisonous serpents crawling in the long grasses of your local Russian jungle locale that you must stab and kill before they bite and poison you — MGS3 creates a tinge of hyperrealism inside of the high-stakes and quite brilliant yet campy anime-esque melodrama that the saga is known for. Once more, Snake — hardened CIA superspy, trained by the best, prepared for the worst — is infiltrating complexes, facing down death squads in the cold rain, marching into the villainous lairs of The Cobras — the original pre-FOXHOUND legendarily freakish squadron of special operatives — to complete his mission. But now, in order to conquer this dangerous environment, he (you) must adapt and truly become a beast of the jungle. A hunter. This game, then in 2004 or now, lets you truly embody such a role.
“I’d bet if I kissed you, you’d taste like a wild beast.”
~ Eva to Snake
And what is that mission, truly (metaphorically)? (alongside the necessary diet undergirding its hunting procession through the jungles):
*in the epic voice of Cynthia Harrell*
What a thrill
With darkness and silence through the night
What a thrill
I’m searching and I’ll melt into you
What a fear in my heart
But you’re so supreme!
I give my life
Not for honor, but for you (snake eater)
In my time there’ll be no one else
Crime, it’s the way I fly to you (snake eater)
I’m still in a dream, snake eater
Someday you go through the rain
Someday you feed on a tree frog
It’s ordeal, the trial to survive
For the day we see new light
I give my life
Not for honor, but for you (snake eater)
In my time there’ll be no one else
Crime, it’s the way I fly to you (snake eater)
I’m still in a dream, snake eater
~ Snake Eater, by Cynthia Harrell
What is a ‘snake-eater’? A nickname for military special forces whose task it is to survive as much as hunt, for their long deployments within wilderness necessitate grim survivalism. On the battlefield, such “on-site procurement” includes sources of food. And what better beast to make a meal out of than a snake, an especially stealthy and potentially deadly foe stalking within your constant environment. Eating snakes to subsist for long ranges within the jungle is very much killing two birds with one blade. The snake, one of humanity’s most ardent killers since time immemorial, a tempting, mythic two-timer, the symbolic manifestation of the duality of good and evil. A ‘snake-eater’ then, can be said to be one tough son of a bitch…
“The key is to make yourself one with nature.”
~ The Boss to Snake
The snake-eating trek of Naked Snake becomes that of a long and arduous hunt, not just for the Russian scientist and the weapon he is making for the Soviets somewhere on a base within this jungle, but for the life and the truth of your mentor and surrogate mother in ‘The Boss.’ Strangely, she has defected to the Soviet Union, seemingly betraying her own country in the United States. The Boss, deemed the ‘mother of American special forces’, is a hero from World War II, a ‘legend’ upon the battlefield, and the person that Naked Snake respects most in the world. A betrayer? Impossible. Earth-shattering. Perspective-shifting upon the whole conflict of the Cold War… Tasked by your country with hunting and killing your own mother, Snake is asked the question unto himself: who am I fighting for?
“Why’d you defect? / I didn’t. I’m loyal to the end. To my purpose.”
~ Snake and Boss
A tangled web of double agents and triple-crosses like the tales in the games before it, the story of Snake Eater at its heart presents the continuation of a cycle of hunters and killers, mentors and apprentices, existentially-imperative trusts and betrayals between comrades and countries. Snake is sent to kill Boss not only because she has betrayed U.S. interests to its principal geopolitical enemy — but more so because he is the only one who can. Carrying forward the theme of pawnhood for the soldier — even the tier-1 special operator charged with dehumanizing themselves into the perfect weapon upon their country’s chosen battlefields, hot or cold — Snake and Boss are locked in an endless loop of death, where the hunter must eventually become the hunted.
In using them like tools, the weapons of their war games, their governments squeeze them of their utility to steal from and assassinate their enemies while simultaneously training the next generation, the heir apparent, who is learning the necessary skills to displace or kill them in the end, once their usefulness has reached its limit. The personnel with the most vital, on-the-ground intel, with all of the blood on their hands, and the pain within their hearts — the aged pawns near the other end of the board — are always sacrificed, cannibalized and superseded by their own young. A perfect self-correcting system for institutions such as the CIA and the KGB — mired in constant illegal activity and war criminalia — to engage in in order to secure their objectives while sealing away all evidence of their actions in the world.
“A soldier is a political tool, nothing more. He has no enemies and no friends. Only the mission. You follow the orders you are given. That’s what a soldier is. … The only thing we can believe in with absolute certainty is the mission, Jack.”
~ The Boss to Snake
The arc of Snake Eater, just like Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2, portrays the symbolic action of the ‘ouroboros’ — the snake eating its own tail. In each of these stories within the struggle of the global military-industrial complex, spanning from World War II to the Cold War to the information warfare of the 21st century, our heroes hunt their predecessors, Snake on Snake, soldier against soldier, spy versus spy. All of them deceived, betrayed and disposed of in the end, even in the wake of their successes, their actions birth the next conflict inside of the conclusion of their latest battle. The complex machine keeps churning, greased with the blood of hero and villain both, while the faceless men (or A.I. programs) in The Philosophers, The Patriots, the shadowy leaders within the U.S. government, special interest groups within international commerce, the global military-industrial complex, etc. keeps on with their regimes of murderous control over the worldwide flows of politics, information and weaponry. The self-eating snake of the ouroboros is the fitting signifier of the endless cycle of violence that Snake, in all of his iterations from 1964 and onward, must tragically deal in.
However, with this climactic mission, we bear witness to the change it necessitates within its hero. Like a snake shedding its skin, transforming to its next form, Naked Snake — in his encounters with Eva, Ocelot, Volgin, The Cobras, and most definitely with his hunting of his mentor, The Boss — becomes something else, someone forever changed.
With the capitalist v. communist Cold War conflict backdropping it all, Snake’s cold-hearted hunt of his bleeding-heart master alongside all her wacky comrades, his slow engagement of a sexy, forbidden romance with fellow spy EVA, his repeated showdowns with an upstart melodramatic dweeb in yung Ocelot, and all of the action set-pieces and foregrounding, weighty musical production — Snake Eater is undoubtedly the most ardently dramatic film-esque experience in the saga yet. Undoubtedly, Kojima and his team felt most inspired by Bond films in their generation of the game’s aesthetic. In it, he crafts perhaps the simplest tale, definitely the most action packed, and thusly, the most satisfying on its own; understanding the character relationships and the complex weaving of events tied to real world conflicts, past and future, are all right in front of you, and not partly concealed within the lore of other plots (like practically every other game in the series). Snake Eater is, in fact, the prime informer of such future lore, as it unfolds the true origin of Metal Gear’s most crucial player in Big Boss.
Naked Snake resembles the Solid Snake we know and love from MGS1 — he is a cold and unfeeling killer, expertly skilled in espionage, and trained into a godlike discipline, more than willing to do exactly as he is told by his commanders no matter to his own thoughts, politically or emotionally. Though unlike Solid, he is currently still the CIA company man, residing firmly within the gears of the machine and not yet jaded and living alone with all his ghosts in the wilderness… However, in his pivotal snake-eating mission in the Soviet jungle — like Solid’s game-changing arc on Shadow Moses — Naked Snake, or John, ultimately unearths his heart and fuses it to his mission going forward. His romance with Eva, a true bout with love being ‘birthed on the battlefield’, contributes to such development. Though it is certainly his culminating conflict with his mentor in The Boss — and his final revelation of her true purpose, and her inner heart — in which he both inherits the title of “Boss” and carries her spirit onward.
Marked by the stark individualism of the Western man, Snake can be said to be the paragon of the Western-liberalist x capitalist ethic: the lone wolf of singular character who marks his own path, without the help of others or with any regard to their judgments. Though there are flaws in such prototyping — to begin with, Snake seems decidedly amoral (nihilistic?) and he is hardly in control of his path — as a character, I think most Americans would superficially call him a “heroic badass” who carries some of our most renowned attributes. ~ “autonomy, mature self-responsibility, and uniqueness.”
Compare him, the solo operator blazing a path of bones in his wake through the harsh Soviet jungle, to the Cobra Unit — a legendary team of operatives assembled by The Boss in 1942 to combat the Axis Powers in WWII. Known as “the Sons of The Boss”, this strange collection of disparate personalities and talents carries with them the Russian, or more ‘communistic’, ethic of comradeship ~ or collectivism. They fight as one, like a family, and their concerns for each other even come to transcend the mission, their country. Where Snake trusts himself alone, his ability — the certainty of the mission — as The Boss taught him, The Cobras, and The Boss in her secret heart, fight and live for a vision that goes beyond themselves.
Naked Snake, under the grip of the CIA and U.S. imperial designs, battles to preserve an economic structure (global capitalism) and world order (military-backed, soft-powered U.S. hegemony) currently taking hold in the 1960s. Under The Boss, The Cobras battle for a new world, and an ideology (communism), that is truly yet to be. Alone in his battles against this group — The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury, and The Sorrow (each representing a different emotional consequence of war, each a harrowing in-game boss fight that never disappoints in their variable challenge) — Naked Snake, the consummate battle-hardened and unforgiving individualist, learns the value of comradeship. In killing them as they nearly do him in and end his mission, he necessitates the gathering of his own future squadron of allies, of a self-made family to share in the spoils of conquest with. This is the seed of FOXHOUND and of Outer Heaven, and of the manifestation of The Boss’ dream within his own future actions in his singular mission as Big Boss.
One aspect of MGS3 that I was disappointed with midway through my experience was the lack of existential ramblings and philosophically compelling backstory dumps from our rogues’ gallery of fallen sub-bosses. Most of the Cobras die without much to say in the way of their lives and their regrets; their legacies are as appendages of The Boss, and as intriguing fights for Snake to encounter and solve. The End, the old, bearded sniper — who like a Disney princess has become one with nature and uses snakes, insects and birds as spotters for his deadly art — has the most memorable death sequence of any. Such self-delivered epilogues as mid-mission melodramas for Snake and the player to experience, delivered best in MGS1, has definitely been one of my favorite things about the games.
Though it is understandable to cut this from Snake Eater — both to not rehash previous experiences, and because many might think it not very good writing in the first place or counter to the realism they wanted to capture — their lacking got me thinking about what my own life’s epilogue might be. If I had to deliver such a thing from my own dying breaths before my stoic killer watching the light leave my eyes after engaging in honorable battle, what would be its overly dramatic, heartfelt and truth-filled contents? … 🤔
Then, in the finale of the game, in a promised and monumental final battle against The Boss in a beauteous field of windswept white flowers, she delivers to Snake perhaps the best, most emotionally compelling monologue in the whole Metal Gear saga:
The Boss: “In 1960 I saw a vision of the ideal future from space. Three years earlier the Soviet Union had succeeded in launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite in history, into orbit. This came as a huge shock to the United States. In response, America threw everything it had into its own manned space flight project, the Mercury project. Even as the Soviets seemed poised to send their first man into space America was still experimenting with chimpanzees in rockets. The government wanted human data. So they secretly decided to send a human being into space. I was the one they chose. At the time they didn’t have the technology to block out cosmic rays and whoever they sent up would inevitably be exposed to heavy radiation. That’s why they chose me. After all, I had already been irradiated once. Of course, you won’t find any of this in the history books. I could see the planet as it appeared from space. That’s when it finally hit me. Space exploration is nothing but another game in the power struggle between the US and USSR. Politics, economics, the arms race — they’re all just arenas for meaningless competition. I’m sure you can see that. But the Earth itself has no boundaries. No East, No West, No Cold War. And the irony of it is, the United States and the Soviet Union are spending billions on their space programs and the missile race only to arrive at the same conclusion. In the 21st century everyone will be able to see that we are all just inhabitants of a little celestial body called Earth. A world without communism and capitalism… that is the world I wanted to see. But reality continued to betray me.“
“I raised you, and loved you, I’ve given you weapons, taught you techniques, endowed you with knowledge. There’s nothing more for me to give you. All that’s left for you to take is my life.“
“One must die and one must live. No victory, no defeat. The survivor will carry on the fight. It is our destiny… The one who survives will inherit the title of Boss. And the one who inherits the title of Boss will face an existence of endless battle. I’ll give you ten minutes. In ten minutes, MiGs will come and bomb the hell out of this place. If you can beat me in less than ten minutes, you’ll be able to escape in time.“
[loads her Patriot]
“Jack, let’s make this the greatest ten minutes of our lives!“
In this Cold War, the Western capitalists of the United States and the European coalition of Allied forces surrounding them battle against the Eastern communists of the Soviet Union, and the burgeoning awakenings of socialism and communism in South America and southeastern Asia (soon to be stamped out or invaded by rogue CIA operations…) Each leading nation carries its systemic ideology as its foremost weapon in the coming conflicts. Sacred and inviolate, it is the dueling locus of the whole war, more than any prominent leadership personnel and even more than the nations themselves. The Cold War is ‘cold’ because of the advancements of nuclear weaponry and because of its prime battlefield being principally that of these disparate sociopolitical ideologies. The fight turns existential, due to each nation seeing themselves as inextricably linked to their respective ideology, and a game of slow, nuclearly tense chess plays out.
All of it can be seen as an ascended philosophical outgrowth of the armed devastation of WWII — no longer fighting against fascism, against fast and explosive annihilation, the world’s nations order themselves along the lines of liberality vs. communality in a steady, step-by-step fight for power and influence into their respective camps. With Snake and Major Tom under the U.S., and Boss and Volgin under the Soviets, each nation sends their shooters into the wilderness of their designated opposition. The CIA and the KGB — each ideology’s designated, disavowable killers — enter the metaphorical and literal jungles of the global zones where these battles for social and economic control are being waged. In a war of public influence, where open conflict means potential apocalypse, intelligence-gathering and covert operation naturally becomes paramount.
“I saw the universe as the intelligence community sees it. People are changed by their environment and the times. The world of difference is all about position and perspective.”
The Boss, previously as the top agent of Western interests and now as the double-dealing, then triple-crossing defector toward the Soviets, seeks to end the conflict altogether. She manipulates Volgin, a rogue Soviet commander who is out for his own pathological power, just as Eva does as an agent of the People’s Republic of China, in order to gain access to the assets and resources needed to begin her own vision’s consummation. No east or west, no capitalism or communism — something else, something to transcend such endless warring and create a better, more peaceful world. Ultimately, The Boss’ mission, the one that she physically (in giving him The Philosophers’ Legacy) and spiritually (in her indestructible emotional bond with him) transfers to Snake at the end of Snake Eater, is that of a unified world.
The heart of her mission, that Naked Snake engraves into his soul, which governs his future actions under the title of Big Boss, is that of a new world order under a system that is yet to be, to be generated by the will of someone like him. Snake, a man with the character, strength and overall capability to grasp the vision that Boss dreamt of; Big Boss, an individualist at heart yet now wielding an understanding of the profound need for a unified collective of other soldiers at his back, as a surrounding family to carry out his will in the world, ultimately cohered around a vision of the future that they can only build together.
We know, in the end, such a vision falls short. In the future of the saga, through The Patriots, the evolution of The Philosophers, The Boss’ dream becomes fractured and the organization goes wayward in its fulfillment of the vision; striking out on his own, Big Boss eventually builds Outer Heaven as a sovereign nation of former operators no longer to be exploited by world governments. Its own mission ends up being one of ideological isolation and megalomania, engendering a nigh solipsistic privatized militarism, operating as a free agent mercenary squadron, fighting only for themselves. In the ouroboric cycle, Solid Snake and Raiden end up facing off against these respective organizations as they threaten the future of the world, battling against Big Boss and The Patriots, respectively, as the adversaries of the 21st century — a century that The Boss naively believed would be beyond such conflicts. And though they evolve into the biological and digital realms, the psyops, the cycles of violence, the endless warfare perpetrated by organizations such as the CIA continue undaunted.
A new ideology — undergirded by neoliberal capitalism crossed with forever-war imperialism, with the alternative socioeconomic vision of communism all but vanquished in its shadows — permeates the new world order from the 1970s onward. With the United States as its hegemonic, cultural overlord, this “System” becomes the transcendent force of historical progression (or lack thereof) into the 21st century, ultimately unchallenged by Big Boss’ outside army before his fall and stewarded by The Patriots from the shadows into modernity.
The Boss’ legacy, her dream, her final mission in the transformation of Snake himself into the man known as Big Boss, is yet another failed 20th century vision of a possible future. Another broken dream. Though it is one that may endure in the player’s hearts.
Rest in power, Boss. ~
“Snake, listen to me. She didn’t betray the United States. No, far from it. She was a hero who died for her country. She carried out her mission knowing full well what was going to happen. Self-sacrifice… because that was her duty.“
“The Boss’ defection was a ruse set up by the US government. It was all a big drama staged by Washington so they could get their hands on the Philosopher’s Legacy, and the Boss was the star of the show. They planned it so that they could get the Legacy that Colonel Volgin inherited and destroy the Shagohod at the same time. Only a legendary hero like The Boss could have earned Volgin’s trust. Finding out where the Philosopher’s Legacy was hidden was to be her greatest mission. Everything was going according to plan… but then something happened that no one could have predicted. Colonel Volgin fired an American-made nuclear warhead at Sokolov’s research facility. Khrushchev demanded that the US government provide proof that it wasn’t involved. They couldn’t just abort the operation to steal the Legacy, so the operation itself was greatly expanded and revised. The authorities in Washington knew that in order to prove its innocence they’d have to get rid of The Boss and that one of their own would have to do the job. The public couldn’t be allowed to find out about it, not ever. This, they concluded, would be the best way to keep the whole thing under wraps. The Boss wouldn’t be allowed to come back home alive. And she wouldn’t be allowed to kill herself. Her life would be ended by her most beloved disciple… that was the way the government wanted it. That was the mission she was given. And she had no choice but to carry it out… her death at your hands was a duty she had to fulfill. Out of duty, she turned her back on her own comrades. A lesser woman would have been crushed by such a burden. The taint of disgrace will follow her to her grave. Future generations will revile her: In America, as a despicable traitor with no sense of honor; and in Russia, as a monster who unleashed a nuclear catastrophe. She will go down in official history as a war criminal, and no one will ever understand her… that was her final mission. And like a true soldier, she saw it through the end. But I think she wanted you, of all people to know the truth. She wanted to live on in your memory. Not as a soldier, but as a woman. But… she was forbidden to tell you herself. And that’s why she told me. Snake, history will never know what she did. No one will ever learn the truth. Her story, her debriefing… will endure only in your heart. Everything she did, she did for her country. She sacrificed her life and her honor for her native land. She was a real hero. She was a true patriot.“
~ Eva to Snake, on Boss