Metal Gear Solid 2: Kicking over the tattered remains of the fourth wall

I’ve said before that the writers of the Metal Gear games 1 Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names. are not at all shy about having the characters comment on the game mechanics. It’s not unusual for characters in games to refer to the controls during tutorial sections, of course, and only a few games try to disguise this as something that could plausibly occur in the gameworld. And the occasional sly nod to the fictionality of the setting is a long-standing tradition in games, going back at least to the first Scott Adams adventure, which included a room described as “in the ROM of a TRS-80. I think I made a wrong turn!” But the Metal Gear games really revel in ignoring the line between content and architecture.

In MGS1, the high point of this tendency was the encounter with Psycho Mantis, who demonstrated his psychic powers with feats such as peeking at the console’s memory card and commenting on what other games had saves there. These references to non-diegetic elements were something of a hint for the non-diegetic key to beating him: Psycho Mantis could react instantly to the player’s movements, but only if the controller was plugged into socket 1. Hot-swap it and you had him flummoxed. Unfortunately, playing on a PC, I missed most of this.

In MGS2, the self-reference really starts when “Colonel Campbell” goes Shodan. At a certain point in the game, Raiden and Snake succeed in uploading a virus to the computer system. It doesn’t have the effect they wanted (the code may have been tampered with by the Patriots), but apparently Campbell is an AI running on the same system, and he starts behaving oddly, repeatedly calling Raiden to gabble nonsense at him in a sometimes synthetic-sounding voice, including bits of dialogue from the previous games, as well as this choice exchange:

Campbell: Your role — that is, mission — is to infiltrate the structure and disarm the terrorists —
Raiden: My role? Why do you keep saying that.
Campbell: Why not? This is a type of role-playing game.

And, shortly afterward, this:

Campbell: Raiden, turn the game console off right now!
Raiden: What did you say?
Campbell: The mission is a failure! Cut the power right now!
Raiden: What’s wrong with you?
Campbell: Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual.
Rose (replacing Campbell): You’ll ruin your eyes playing so close to the TV.
Raiden: What are you talking about!?

The effect here is a frisson. There’s that uncanny sense that something has happened that really isn’t supposed to happen, and that you can’t rely on the comfortable rules you’re used to. I’ve seen things like this in literature — heck, it’s practically the definition of postmodernism. But, as always, interactivity enhances the sense of danger.

(Speaking of postmodern literature, the game has a minor character named Peter Stillman. This is the name of a few characters in Paul Auster’s identity-bending New York Trilogy. I don’t think this is accidental. At the very least, the writers are playing similar tricks by reusing the name Snake. Raiden, remember, was also using the code-name Snake in the beginning.)

Not long after this scene is another choice bit of fourth wall demolition. In the middle of a big fight scene, you suddenly hear the familiar “game over” chord, and the game goes to the “Mission Failed” screen. Except it’s not quite right; among other things, it says “Fission Mailed” instead, and the screenshot in the upper left corner, showing your moment of death? It’s still moving. The fight isn’t over. It’s just a trick to distract you for a moment, to fool you into thinking you’ve already lost so that you’ll stop fighting. I’ve seen fake deaths like this in a few adventure games, but I don’t recall seeing it in an action game before. The effect isn’t a frisson this time: the fakeout aspect makes it more like a joke. At least, I chuckled when I realized what had happened.

I haven’t finished the game yet, so there’s probably more of this foolishness to come.

1 Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima, for what it’s worth. I keep talking about them without mentioning their names.

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