Thursday, March 15, 2018

Load Checkpoint: Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004) – Virtuous Mission

"Naked Snake" in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

“Light is but a farewell gift from the darkness to those on their way to die.” – The Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3
The release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater in 2004 was met with the same fevered anticipation that many franchises experience on their third entry: trepidation about the new material that’s needed to keep the series fresh, hope that missteps from the second installment might be addressed, and general excitement at the property's being back at all. By this point, whatever its perceived flaws, the Metal Gear series had established itself as one of the most singularly creative and expressive franchises in video-game history. Anyone with even a passing interest in the industry looked to Snake Eater’s release with wide-eyed curiosity. How could director and writer Hideo Kojima possibly follow up the expansive, mind-bending experience of Sons of Liberty?

Well, by not directly following it, as it turned out. Snake Eater is not a sequel, but a prequel, telling the story of the super-soldier who would come to be known as Big Boss (David Hayter), whose DNA is later used to clone “Les enfants terribles” (a.k.a. Solid Snake and his brothers Liquid and Solidus). In Snake Eater, the protagonist has not yet earned the formal title of Big Boss, instead adopting the moniker of “Naked Snake” during his 1964 covert-op “Virtuous Mission” into the rain forests of Soviet Russia. Kojima and his development team abandoned the existential technophobic nightmare of Sons of Liberty for a more grounded story focused on period immersion (down to a James Bond-inspired opening musical number), whose innovations were much more along gameplay lines than narrative ones. This made Snake Eater’s initial reception much more positive than that of its predecessor sometimes I think all it took was getting David Hayter back behind the microphone for another go but this may have worked to its detriment in the long term, especially when you compare it to the rest of the titles in the Metal Gear series.

Snake Eater takes the bones of Sons of Liberty’s gameplay systems and builds new flesh and blood overtop. The bright, confined spaces of the Big Shell setting, even when they spilled outdoors, felt restrictive and linear, but Snake Eater’s Tselinoyarsk jungles are expansive, shadowed, and open-ended. The change in time period necessitated a change in the protagonist’s arsenal, meaning no more Soliton radar, no advanced cloaking tech, and access only to limited (not to mention clunky) Soviet weaponry. These restrictions and challenges, combined with improved AI behaviours and responses, meant that players had to find wily new ways to avoid enemy detection and complete their objectives. The main tool the player is given to help with this is Snake Eater’s chief innovation, the survival system, which allows them to hunt wildlife for food, perform field surgery and first aid for specific injuries, and camouflage themselves using coloured fatigues and paint. A percentage is shown at the top right of the screen, indicating Naked Snake’s current level of “hiddenness”: 100% meaning he’s totally invisible to the enemy, with the percentage dropping as you move from cover, make noise, or fail to equip the correct camouflage. Naked Snake is so named because he is air-dropped into enemy territory with only the clothing on his back and a very limited array of Soviet-era gadgets, and has to scrounge for whatever weapons and supplies he needs to survive with no assistance from his CIA overseers. As you progress through the game, your mastery of the survival system becomes a deeply satisfying way to express Snake’s proficiency at field espionage, as well as his indomitable will. This is the man who, later in the timeline, will be considered one of the greatest soldiers of all time, after all, his DNA sought after for cloning purposes. It makes sense that he, through you, becomes excellent at this thankless and unpleasant job. (And yes, you can and often do eat actual snakes throughout the course of the game.)

Snake Eater is rightly praised today for its gameplay innovations, and the gratifying sense of tenacity you develop through the survival system. I don’t hear much about its storyline, though, and I think that’s telling. Kojima indulges in the hallmarks of the series established in the last two entries a gruff protagonist, a rogues’ gallery of colourful boss characters, a sultry female love interest, a Shakespearean antagonist, and an exploration of themes like nuclear anxiety and the meaning of loyalty  but fails to mine them for deeper meaning the way he did in Sons of Liberty. This makes Snake Eater a satisfying experience on a tactile level, executing on a functional Cold War spy thriller that does obeisance to the deeper implications of the genre without ever actually exploring them in a meaningful way. It’s not hard to understand why this title is considered by many to be the best in the series: it’s the most accessible by a country mile.

Though Kojima revels in the surface details of the period, tailoring his influences to match (nodding to The Manchurian Candidate, the style and staging of Sergio Leone, and psychedelic 1960s guitar), the crux of the story is mostly unmoored from its Cold War setting, focusing on a more timeless interplay between Naked Snake and his mentor, The Boss (Lori Alan). She defects to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the game and upends Snake’s mission to rescue a Soviet scientist named Sokolov (Brian Cummings) who wishes to flee his mother country after he is forced to design a nuclear weapons system called Shagohod  the precursor to the Metal Gear archetype. The Boss is described as the “mother of the Special Forces,” single-handedly winning World War II for the Allies, and her relationship with Snake is easily the most compelling element of the narrative. She calls him “Jack”  a strange and surely intentional reference to the protagonist of the previous game  and calls everything he knows and accepts about his role in this conflict into question, as she herself spirals into a morass of fatally deluded idealism.

The game’s many side characters offer fun and memorable diversions from this main thematic thread, though they rarely contribute to it in substantial ways, acting more like talking action set pieces than major players in the narrative. Cobra Unit, the strike team of enhanced soldiers who represent the game’s bosses, are extremely flamboyant but offer little in terms of human motivation or drama. The unit’s leader, Colonel Volgin (Neil Ross), is an imposing figure specializing in torture and brutality who uses the electricity coursing through his genetically-enhanced body to frighten and subdue his enemies, but quickly devolves into a monologuing moustache-twirler who explains every detail of his evil plot to overthrow Khrushchev to Snake for quite literally no reason. His underlings, especially The Fear (Michael Bell), The Pain (Greg Berger) and The Fury (Richard Doyle), are goofy caricatures whose supernatural ability to contort their bodies, control hornets, and survive open flames respectively have no grounding in realism and represent nothing more than empty spectacle. Two members of Cobra Unit stand out, however: the centenarian sniper The End (J. Grant Albrecht), who faces Snake in a tense long-range battle that can be finished by turning the game console off and waiting long enough for him to die of old age, and The Sorrow (David Thomas), whose control over the spirits of the dead inspires some interesting meta-commentary on video game violence and the PTSD common to Vietnam veterans. These bright spots of compelling subtext are few and far between, however, since they're pushed aside to make room for other characters like Eva (Suzetta Miñet), a buxom double agent and love interest; the aforementioned Sokolov, who is a clear stand-in for beloved Metal Gear sidekick character Otacon but makes for a poor substitute (despite expressing a similar guilt about creating deadly weapons and being a tool of powerful governments); and young Revolver Ocelot (Josh Keaton), who at this time is a cocky Russian commander with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for showmanship. These characters flit in and out of Snake Eater’s main storyline, interrupting each development between Snake and The Boss with a bombastic cutscene or a boss battle. (This is where Kojima’s sense of humour is allowed to emerge, although it makes its worst showing yet; the outdated time period is really no excuse for the sort of pervy, scatological duds that drop during these sequences. It’s easy to imagine that Kojima fancied he was doing a passable imitation of the ribaldry that James Bond is sometimes known for, but something is definitely lost in translation.)

"The Boss" in Metal Gear Solid 3.

The Boss is presented like a spiritual leader as much as a combat teacher; she’s a sensei, whose philosophies guide Snake’s every waking moment. When those philosophies begin to distort under the weight of her trauma  it’s revealed she’s been battered by radioactivity during her time in space and suffers a form of progressive dementia as a result  it shakes Snake to his core. Eva, trying to suss out where his loyalties lie, asks Snake if he loves The Boss or hates her, and Snake’s reply is a choked plea, “Does it have to be one or the other?” He claims to belong to her, that their relationship goes deeper than love, and that he cannot summon hatred for her in his heart, no matter her crimes. Eva, as the tool of a Cold War government, is desperate for clarity in the midst of this murky conflict, demanding that the world fit into the black-and-white paradigms she can understand. Snake and The Boss seem to be the only ones who can appreciate how impossible that is. The Boss’s abandonment of her patriotism is an expression of the larger theme of loyalty, which is perhaps the only resonant theme in the game. In the fog of her delusion, The Boss attempts to transcend the idea of loyalty, eschewing allegiance to flags and borders in favour of a devastating scheme intended to “make the world one again.” Her nihilistic twist on Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” perspective is an interesting take on how unprepared we were to race one another into the void of space, if a bit broad and silly when her apocalyptic plot is included, but this hardly matters. Snake’s fascination with her, his desperation to live up to her teachings and his panic when he realizes that to do so he has to destroy her, is the glue that keeps Snake Eater’s narrative from falling apart. Her matriarchal attachment to him (Oedipal or otherwise), as she slips further and further away from human connection, is the grounding that keeps the rest of the game’s supernatural elements from flying out of control. There have been few images as poignant in the Metal Gear series, and in video games as a whole, as the field of white flowers surrounding The Boss blossoming blood-red as she dies. Her own farewell gift to Snake  the freedom of his mind and soul  became a hallucinatory bit of imagery that haunted me for years.

Snake Eater was the first Metal Gear game I ever completed, only a couple of years after its release. I think this speaks volumes to how appealing it is on the surface (it attracted me, after all, a complete newcomer to Metal Gear at the time), and also to how shallow it is in comparison to its predecessors. There’s a reason it took me so long to even consider playing the rest of the series, and I think it’s that I didn’t understand that they are much more rich in character, drama, and thematic depth than Snake Eater is. I assumed I’d just get more of the same, and opted not to bother.

I don’t say this to denigrate Kojima or the development team; far from it. Topping his own massively successful creations, as well as the expectations of his rabid fanbase, could be considered Kojima’s own “Virtuous Mission,” an impossible task guided by noble intentions. It was a canny move for him to avoid comparisons to Sons of Liberty by attempting something tonally and narratively different, and in his explorations of a new era in historical warfare, he managed to tap into some interesting ideas. Though some of the digressions Snake Eater makes into bald-faced history lessons are tedious, they nonetheless reveal fascinating questions about Kojima’s relationship to the history and culture of the United States (or what his idea of that relationship is, anyway). He strayed from a story steeped in adoration of U.S. values like personal freedom and civil liberty to a story expressing bitter suspicion of those values: a Cold War tale about mistrust, sabotage, and betrayal. Is this simply Kojima reflecting the ideas of the media that influences him, mirroring our own Cold War fiction back at us? Or is it possible his own perspective was shifting? Until we explore the next entry 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots  it’s impossible to say.

– 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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