Thursday, February 8, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) – Engulfed In Truth

Raiden, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001).

 “Our beloved monsters . . . enjoy yourselves.” – Colonel Campbell

By 1999, only a year after the release of Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima’s plans for its sequel were already fully formed. Titled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and developed for Sony’s Playstation 2 console, this sequel aimed to surpass its predecessor in every possible way, offering new gameplay mechanics and technical upgrades that would take advantage of the PS2’s upgraded power, and a narrative experience that would attempt no less than a deconstruction of the medium itself. Prior to its release in 2001, anticipation for this new chapter in the Metal Gear saga reached a fever pitch in both Japan and North America.

Initial reactions, however, were starkly divided. While it was praised for its technical achievements, many players were put off by the game’s lengthy and convoluted cutscenes, some of which were described as “incomprehensible.” Fans of the coherent (if complex) plot of Metal Gear Solid were baffled by the tangled, surreal structure of MGS2, which built up so many betrayals and reversals that it became difficult to separate fact from fiction within the text of the game itself. And most infamously, nearly everyone who had enjoyed the series so far were disappointed when, after an introductory chapter starring Solid Snake (David Hayter), the game’s protagonist viewpoint shifted to a new character, code-named Raiden (Quinton Flynn), whom you control for the remainder of the 12-to-15 hour experience. Many were strident in their criticism of this choice, to the point of refusing to play (and even boycotting) the game.

From a contemporary perspective, this reaction is not only understandable, but sympathetic. Cutscenes shown in the game’s advertising depicted Snake in scenarios that would later prove to be Raiden scenes, with no trace of Snake in sight. Fans felt robbed of an experience they expected to be able to enjoy with one of their favourite characters in gaming, which was compounded by the depiction of Raiden himself: a whining, inexperienced, naive young agent with none of Snake’s cool confidence or on-the-ground situational know-how. The audacity of this creative choice – like gaming’s version of Hitchcock murdering Marion Crane forty-five minutes into Psycho – was almost universally reviled and misunderstood at the time of release, but has since enjoyed a new appreciation from fans and critics who have had time to calm down and consider why Kojima may have done it.

The anti-war sentiment of Metal Gear Solid is doubled down in MGS2, and this extends even to the protagonist himself, who is ill-informed and ill-equipped for his mission, feeling more than anything like he’s simply out of his depth. The idea that someone like Raiden would or could be responsible for the fate of a country – or worse, the world – is a pretty sharp indictment of the way governments handle international relations and espionage. MGS2 reveals Kojima’s fascination with the American Dream, and the ways in which that ideology is undermined and supplanted by greed, personal ambition, and shadow tactics. Its scope in terms of plot, theme, character, and gameplay are head and shoulders above its comparatively straightforward predecessor, and represent a leap forward that even Kojima himself may not have believed possible, despite his lofty aspirations.

A guard at gunpoint in Metal Gear Solid 2.

The opening sequence of Metal Gear Solid 2 is a comfortable return to normalcy. Solid Snake is on a mission to infiltrate a military tanker on the Hudson River that is transporting a new Metal Gear prototype. In the two years that have passed since Shadow Moses, the technical data from Metal Gear Rex has been disseminated across the world via the black market. Snake and Otacon (Christopher Randolph), now members of an NGO called “Philanthropy,” have taken a vigilante approach to fulfilling their personal mission of ridding the world of Metal Gears. But their attempt to sabotage the delivery of this new amphibious prototype called Metal Gear Ray is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Revolver Ocelot (Pat Zimmerman), the shifty sharpshooter from Metal Gear Solid, who steals Ray and appears to kill Snake in the process. This sequence lasts for about an hour and features everything an MGS fan could ask for in terms of a “Metal Gear experience”: you play as Snake, you’re supported by Otacon via Codec, you can sneak and shoot your way through the varied, engaging indoor-outdoor environments of the tanker, and you’re presented with story scenes that introduce both compelling new characters like Olga Gurlukovich (Vanessa Marshall), whom you face in a non-lethal boss encounter, and old favourites like Ocelot. But by the end of this introductory chapter, that recognizable, comfortable “Metal Gear experience” is over – and something far more challenging takes its place.

The narrative jumps two years into the future, when stalwart mission commander Colonel Campbell (Paul Eiding) is guiding fresh-faced recruit Raiden into the heart of an offshore facility called Big Shell, where a terrorist group called Dead Cell has taken the U.S. President hostage. Dead Cell, like the group led by Snake’s clone-brother Liquid (Cam Clarke) in the previous game, is a colourful cast of boss characters led by an equally enigmatic figure known as Solidus (John Cygan), whose plans for the President, and for the Metal Gear Ray prototype in his possession, are much more complex than they initially appear. Big Shell is a bleak, isolated industrial setting that at first seems bland and samey, but hides a wealth of unique gameplay scenarios in its outwardly homogeneous brushed-steel environments. Trained in hundreds of virtual reality infiltration and combat scenarios, Raiden is capable – at least in the academic sense – of applying some interesting new gameplay elements in the field, such as hiding bodies so they can’t be found by patrolling guards, distracting enemies by throwing objects or producing steam, and using environmental factors like weather and darkness to better hide from sight. The highly technical control scheme of Metal Gear Solid remains, but its clunky movement and dodgy hit detection are smoothed out by the Playstation 2’s dual analog sticks, making it possible to execute more carefully on tactical actions (such as shooting in first-person view) and move with greater precision (sometimes necessary when you’re forced to move slowly over a noisy surface to avoid attracting attention, or vault over a ledge to hang underneath a passing guard). The small yet ingenious design touches from the previous game cement themselves as series trademarks here: when using a directional microphone to listen in on enemy conversations, the dialogue subtitles will shrink or grow depending on how well you’re aiming the mic at the person speaking; if you aim at an enemy who has spotted you, it’s possible to shoot the radio out of their hand before they can successfully call for backup. Even Kojima’s penchant for goofy humour manifests itself in gameplay terms, putting Raiden in situations where he must navigate precarious outdoor structures without slipping on seagull droppings, or dodge the golden stream of a guard relieving himself from a higher ledge. The game’s attention to every conceivable detail of the player experience is truly remarkable, even from a modern perspective.

And as the gameplay ambitions of the series continue to expand, so too does its artistic scope. Kojima’s voice as an author begins to truly bloom in Metal Gear Solid 2, collecting and transmuting his influences from all across fiction. Boss characters like the Falstaff-ish Fatman (Barry Dennen), the unkillable Fortune (Maura Gale), or the blood-hungry Vamp (Phil Lamarr) share a literary heritage from Shakespeare to Stoker that, as in Metal Gear Solid, gives their flamboyant presentation an added layer of depth. Raiden, whose real name is Jack, is supported via Codec by his girlfriend, an analyst named Rose – and their romantic dialogue is just as pitch-perfectly insufferable as the tin-eared banter between those other two star-crossed lovers named Jack and Rose from Titanic. These nods to pop culture, vapid though they may seem, are revealed to be much more than just empty references by the end of the game, when the structure and reality of the experience begin to break apart in your hands. Mid-game revelations that the President is not what he seems, that the threat of Metal Gear Ray is secondary to a larger, even more inconceivable menace, and that Solidus is yet another clone of Big Boss – a hidden stepchild of the “Les enfants terribles” project – are merely precursors to the surreal, fourth-wall-breaking climax, which gathers all of Kojima’s influences and ideas into an explosively existential treatise on consciousness, free will, and the looming spectre of global digitization at the turn of the century.

Raiden in action, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

Kojima places Illuminati-esque conspiracy theory at the centre of the story, inventing a cabal of shadowy figures called “The Patriots” who control the world’s major governments, as a way to tap into the anxieties surrounding the proliferation of the internet. The Patriots are apparent technophobes, using the AI they developed for the massive Metal Gear called “Arsenal Gear” to control the flow of digital information across the globe and therefore maintain a monopoly on truth itself, since the freedom of information represented by an open internet is a direct threat to their ability to control global events. (It’s stated that during the lead-up to Y2K, the Patriots disseminated controlled information via computer recovery programs that were given to the public.) The cultural anxieties about technology that are common to Japanese fiction sprang from post-WWII nuclear terror in Metal Gear Solid, and are translated into a modern context through the internet here. All of this higher-level commentary is expressed through the tangible experience of Raiden, who is forcibly torn away from the grounded nature of his mission (literally stripped naked of his clothing and gear) and from his connection to you as the player. The Colonel is revealed to be an AI himself, his digitized face slipping away to expose a grinning skull, like a technological version of They Live. In an almost Lynchian style of surrealist presentation, Kojima starts to unravel the game’s reality, triggering Game Over screens even though the game still continues in the background, replacing the radar with a compressed video of a woman on a beach, and assaulting you with Codec calls in which the Colonel is transformed from the dependable mission commander you’ve relied upon into a babbling, incoherent malfunction, reminiscent of HAL 9000, who demands that you “turn the game console off right now.” Raiden’s past as a child soldier, bred for battle and trained for espionage through VR simulation, is presented as shorthand for the larger internal conflict experienced by him and Solidus between reality and virtual fiction; it becomes clear that their entire lives have been carefully controlled simulations designed by The Patriots in an effort to mirror the events of Shadow Moses and engineer an army of super-soldiers, each as powerful and capable as Solid Snake. Raiden speaks of being subjected to “image training” in his youth, forced like Alex in A Clockwork Orange to absorb the disturbing imagery of Hollywood action films in order to reinforce the feedback loop of war influencing art influencing war. To my mind, this is nothing less than a meta-commentary on action gaming in general, which could easily be interpreted as an industry designed to breed the “ultimate gamer” whose reflexes and skills would translate from a virtual setting to real-life combat scenarios. Alarmist, perhaps, but confronted with the way the game forcefully breaks the fourth wall, it’s hard not to make these kinds of connections between the purpose of the characters and the agency of the real-life person controlling them. 

When the credits roll on Metal Gear Solid 2, it’s easy to feel unmoored, suffused with confusing emotion and adrift in a sea of disturbing ideas. The previous game’s personal soul-searching is extended to a full-on existential crisis of self, where perspective, identity, and reality are deconstructed. Kojima presents America as primordial digital life, with the White House as its Petri dish, engulfed in so many versions of the “truth” that it’s impossible to discern fact from fiction. It goes without saying that this feels especially relevant in 2018, and through that modern lens, Kojima’s interest in the corruption of the American Dream – and the hope for freedom and civil liberty that keeps the dream alive – is nothing if not prescient. The scrappy idealism that balances the story’s pessimistic angst is represented by the character of “Plissken” – Solid Snake in disguise, named for the John Carpenter antihero who originally inspired the character – who works with Otacon to combat the threat of Arsenal Gear and The Patriots, functioning as living embodiments of the value of freedom and agency. Kojima's presenting this character from an outside perspective is an incredibly powerful way to enhance his mystique and his appeal, especially given how frequently irritating it is to play as Raiden, who is designed both literally and figuratively to follow the same path as Snake. With Plissken’s help, Raiden reaches the same self-actualization that Snake did in Metal Gear Solid: when you have no self, you can manufacture one – one that you get to choose.

From a series perspective, Metal Gear Solid 2 positions ”Les enfants terribles” as the true crux of this story, which at its heart is the search for purpose, meaning, and legacy for this bizarre group of fatherless, infertile clones. What Solidus refers to as “the endless loop; your own double helix” is the prison of identity that, with this game, had come to define the Metal Gear canon, making the next entry, 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, an appropriate time to return to the roots of the story with a Cold War-era prequel starring none other than Big Boss himself.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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