Metal Gear Solid 2: Pomo as All Get-Out

An essay on Metal Gear Solid 2 by James Clinton Howell has come to my attention. It’s an interesting read, but if you don’t like reading, here’s an executive summary: Many parts of MGS2 — particular characters, situations, boss battles, and so forth — are close imitations of scenes in MGS1, but altered in ways that subvert them. The hero Snake is wrenched from the player’s control and replaced with a mere Snake wannabe. Scenes from MGS1 that provided a catharsis or a sense of accomplishment are replaced with superficially similar scenes that deny these things, and confrontations that the player anticipates either never occur or are made irrelevant. Even the real climax of the game takes place offscreen while Raiden is left to fill his “role” in what he already knows to be a phony battle. All this is deliberate: the overall theme of the work concerns “the futility of culturally remembered solutions to formally similar problems”, including the player’s memory of MGS1. Not only do Hideo Kojima’s detractors miss this, but most of his defenders do as well when they fail to read the work at anything other than a literal level.

Howell makes a compelling case, and it all makes me think it would have been a good idea to replay MGS1 before starting MGS2. 1 By now, I’ve reinstalled MGS1 and played the opening for comparison’s sake. I’m struck by how the plot hinges on both sides believing that genetics, rather than training, is the key to making a superior soldier — an idea repudiated by the epilogue, in which we learn that the victorious Solid Snake is really the genetically weaker twin. It’s striking because the plot of MGS2 hinges on characters having the opposite idea: that a random nobody can become like Solid Snake by duplicating Solid Snake’s experiences. My memories of the first game are so distant by now that I caught only two clear echoes of scenes in the first game: Raiden’s aquatic approach to the plant at the beginning of his chapter, and the part where he’s captured and interrogated. But even if it were fresh in my mind, I doubt I’d have read the connections the way Howell does. It comes down to how much faith you have in the author. As another essay on the game says: “[T]here’s an all-important question. A negative answer could prove me both wrong and stupid. That question is this: Did Kojima intend to make the game this way?” Howell trusts the author almost completely, and is willing to believe that formal elements of the game are at the service of the author trying to make a point. Me, I’m a little more cynical about how big-budget game development works. If something happens that disrupts the expected experience, I don’t assume that it was done on purpose. If there are formal similarities, I tend to believe it’s because the designers didn’t want to stray too far from what worked last time, just like most videogame sequels. But even worse: my trust in the game was already pretty much gone before I even started playing. Its reputation preceded it. Even as I picked it up, I was waiting for it to fall apart in my hands.

One thing combines with Howell’s essay to restore my faith in the author somewhat: Peter Stillman, the sly reference to Paul Auster’s postmodern-noir New York Trilogy. (Wikipedia claims that there were once plans to include other character names from Auster. Putting highbrow literary allusions in a videogame may seem odd, but in fact it’s just Japanese.) When I first encountered Stillman, I wondered what the deal was, and thought that it might be connected to Auster’s reuse of names for different characters, as well as multiple names for the same character, as part of a general confusion of identity. For example, in the first story of the trilogy, City of Glass, Peter Stillman hires a detective to watch his father, also named Peter Stillman, and whenever the name is mentioned, there’s some ambiguity about which Peter Stillman is meant. Metaphorically, they can be seen as aspects of the same person. When the detective sees Peter Stillman Sr. for the first time, he actually sees two men who could be him and isn’t sure which one to follow — and has an eerie inking that either choice would turn out to be correct. Also, the detective isn’t really a detective, but rather an author of detective fiction brought into the situation by mistake, and the detective he’s mistaken for is named Paul Auster, just like the real author of the work of detective fiction he’s in. And so on. Similarly, when we first see Raiden, he’s addressed as Snake by Solid Snake’s former commanding officer and wearing a face-concealing mask, creating real confusion about who it is you’re controlling. Later, we’re told that the leader of the enemy is Solid Snake, but then find the real Solid Snake, using a pseudonym, fighting against him. But ultimately the game doesn’t do a lot with characters taking each others’ names, even though it does do a lot with characters taking on each others’ roles — a fact that actually enters the plot when the S3 project is explained.

But now, I think the Auster influence has less to do with identity confusion and more to do with the metafictional stuff, the blurring of layers. All three of the stories in the New York Trilogy are, in different ways, about fictional characters becoming aware of the stories they’re in. This is more or less what happens over the course of MGS2. Raiden never acknowledges his literal fictionality, even when Colonel Campbell throws it in his face, but he does know by the end that he’s been playing a scripted role. The player, though, gets a bigger dose of confrontation with fictionality: when the Colonel says to turn off the console, he’s not talking to Raiden, he’s talking to you. The “Fission Mailed” screen isn’t even part of gameworld, but it seems to be created by the virus infecting the Arsenal Gear mainframe all the same. The implication is that the S3 program extends outside the fiction. Raiden isn’t the one being manipulated into following a script: it’s you. If you play the game to completion, you have been successfully controlled — if not by some mysterious AI, then at least by the the author.

Anyway, at this point I’m thinking that MGS2 has one of those stories that’s more enjoyable to think about after the fact than it is to actually experience as a story. City of Glass struck me the same way.

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1. By now, I’ve reinstalled MGS1 and played the opening for comparison’s sake. I’m struck by how the plot hinges on both sides believing that genetics, rather than training, is the key to making a superior soldier — an idea repudiated by the epilogue, in which we learn that the victorious Solid Snake is really the genetically weaker twin. It’s striking because the plot of MGS2 hinges on characters having the opposite idea: that a random nobody can become like Solid Snake by duplicating Solid Snake’s experiences.

3 Comments so far

  1. josh g. on 6 Aug 2007

    Interesting. I had seen a reference to that essay but skipped it – it looked like too much reading on a game I hadn’t played, plus it’s complete spoilers. But I went and gave it a quick read now, and it’s interesting (and not as long as it looked). I haven’t played either MGS game, but if I spot them for cheap somewhere I might have to add them to my own Stack.

  2. paul on 9 Aug 2007

    You’re right that trust is an important element in art appreciation – in order to spend my time looking for meaning, I have to believe that the author had the capability to put it there. Therefore, it’s much easier to find depth in canonically great art, – just as it’s easier to find the last bonus coin, say, if you know you have collected “5 out of 6 bonus coins” – because you know there’s something left to find. If you think you might be wasting your time – for instance, if you’ve collected “5 bonus coins” but you don’t know if there’s a sixth – your search is likely to be a lot more cursory.

    Of course, it’s always good for a laugh to use your lit-crit tools to perversely claim there is more going on than there is. I could probably enjoy writing the essay “Purposive Without Purpose: Kant’s Theory of Aesthetics as Explicated by the Chronicles of Riddick.” I’m not sure if more than that is going on in James Clinton Howell’s essay; I guess I don’t know enough about Metal Gear Solid to know whether I can its creators.

  3. Matthew Weise on 14 Jul 2010

    I think one can discuss the complexities of MGS2 without being as pretentious as Howell or as scatterbrained a Rogers. In fact, I find the above few paragraphs more insightful than both Howell and Rogers put together. Perhaps it is just a summary of what they say, but its coherent in a way that both Howell and Rogers fail to be. If those writers had the ability to summarize their own thoughts in such a fashion they would be a lot more interesting.

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