Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Kojima, 2001): The Mega Analysis

Upon the release of Hideo Kojima's 'Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots' earlier this year, critics heaped praise onto this final chapter of the Metal Gear saga. The review at Gamespot, my preferred site for reviews, begins with this:

"Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the most technically stunning video game ever made. It's also a fine example of storytelling prowess within its medium, combining gameplay and narrative so slickly and beautifully that it's impossible to extricate one from the other. It's likely you will emerge awestruck from your first play-through, wishing the experience would continue yet nonetheless satisfied with its conclusion. It's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing MGS4 because every part of its design seemingly fulfills its vision, without compromise. There is no halfway."

I am not here to talk about this game. I'm here to talk about 'Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty'. I haven't played the fourth title yet, but what that review says about the fourth title I would apply to the second. I'm going to go ahead and say that for me, this was the best videogame narrative I've ever experienced. By the time the final credits rolled I was so blown away that I had trouble sleeping that night, trying to make sense of what I had just experienced.

Speaking to a good friend a few days later, I said that it's almost a shame that MGS2 is a videogame, in that it requires you to play it to experience it, that you can't just sit back and be a passive observer. But that's also the beauty of it, because the game begins to toy with you right off the bat, leading you down further and further rabbit holes, which eventually start to break the fourth wall, leading up to a point where you, the player, are the one being played.

It's difficult to talk specifically about MGS2 without giving too much away. It's told in two chapters. The first chapter begins with you, back as Solid Snake, investigating a tanker leaving New York harbor in the middle of the night. It's been two years since the Shadow Moses incident, the name given to what happened in the first game. Snake now works with Otacon, the scientist and inventor of the original Metal Gear, for a group named 'Philanthropy', with the goal to rid the world of all Metal Gears, which have now become widely available since Ocelot, one of the main baddies from the first game, made off with the test data after the Shadow Moses incident and sold it on the black market. Otacon has learned (under mysterious circumstances) that a new version of Metal Gear is being transported on this vessel and Snake is being sent to investigate. Snake makes his way onboard, and let's just say things don't go as planned, resulting in the tanker sinking just off the coast of Manhattan.

Then the real story begins. In chapter 2 you start off as Snake, or at least you think you're Snake, being given a briefing in a scene eerily reminiscent of the original Metal Gear Solid. You're reminded about an oil tanker that sunk off the coast of Manhattan two years ago, and how the government came in and created 'The Big Shell' - an offshore platform built to clean up the mess. Just like with the original MGS, you're told that the President was touring the facility when terrorists took over the platform and are demanding a ransom, otherwise they'll kill the President and blow the Big Shell, resulting in an even greater environmental disaster. Then, in a bizarre twist, you're told that the leader of the terrorists is Solid Snake himself! And then it's revealed that you, the player, are not Snake, but Raiden, an effeminate whiny-voiced soldier who's had extensive training in virtual reality scenarios but who's now on his first real world mission.

This completely throws you off as the player, for you know what happened two years ago with the tanker, you just played that part, and now you're not only told an alternate history of those events, but you're told that Snake was responsible (which he wasn't)! And on top of that you're not playing as Snake, the hero, but as some other guy! What's going on here??

Things get weirder. Colonel Campbell, who, just like in the original MGS commands the operation, informs you that he had to get a replacement communications officer due to some unforeseen circumstances. For the replacement he's picked... Rose, your girlfriend? Raiden is baffled by this, as are we. Over the course of the game Raiden will have many conversations with Rose via Codec, a sort of video-chat player Kojima uses as his primary narrative device. These talks with Rose are often lengthy discussions on the meaning of relationships, the importance of communication, and the importance of trust. I've never witnessed such conversations in a videogame, and even most television and movies don't go into such painstaking detail of how conversations in relationships can play out. Plus she refers to Raiden by his real name, Jack. So we've got Jack and Rose, a la a movie about a sinking ship, I don't think this is just coincidence. Watch an example of these conversations here.

More bizarre things happen. As the story progresses you run into a man who looks and talks exactly like Solid Snake (voiced by the same actor), but who goes by the ridiculous name Iriquois Pliskin. You meet another Cyborg-Ninja, just like in the original game, who gives you a gift from some group called the 'La Li Lu Le Lo'. As the game goes on the rug is continually pulled out from under the player. Twists within twists. Eventually the game itself (or is it Kojima?) starts to toy with you, implementing fake game over screens ('Fission Mailed' instead of 'Mission Failed') and other bizarre happenings that break the fourth wall.

And then comes the finale, where the game becomes so bizarre and ridiculous I didn't know what to think. I was reminded of the infamous boat ride scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where you begin to think the director is either crazy or he's just having his way with you. I thought, "Has Kojima just lost it at this point? Is he just messing with me knowing that I'm too far involved not to continue?" Things got so strange near the end that I called out to my girlfriend in the other room to come witness what I was seeing to make sure I wasn't crazy. I thought that perhaps Kojima was some alien genius whose brain functioned at a higher level because I have no idea how he thought this stuff up, wrote it, and executed it so brilliantly. It's like some bizarre combination of the intricate and meticulous plots of Umberto Eco, mixed with the surrealness of David Lynch, and topped off with a dash of eccentric Japanese anime flair.

I can't describe the ending without ruining the story, but it ends with a whole treatise on the nature of self and truth, the importance of faith and free-will, and how our past is linked to our future as a species. In attempting to understand everything I stumbled across this site (it's one huge spoiler, you've been warned) which is devoted entirely to a discussion of the finale. I found this part was a good summation of the first two MGS games:

"The first Metal Gear Solid deals with the question, 'How much of a human being is defined by the genes?'. Naturally, the theme for the second is its complimentary part, 'How much of a human being is defined by information?'"

Update: This last Christmas day my dad gave me a catalog from MIT press to look at to see if there were any books I might be interested in. I ran into this book, which appears to deal with what I think Kojima was trying to say. Also, I've read that Goedel, Escher, Bach is another good place to start.

That's it for my look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I'll leave you with the closing credits to the game, set against shots of New York City and Federal Hall (where the game ends) with a great accompanying jazzy piece of music that fits perfectly. Stick around for the end to hear Snake's final monologue (and click on Part 41 if you dare to listen to the final Codec call, a Metal Gear tradition, major spoilers!).

P.S - Did I forget to mention there's a part where Raiden runs around naked? You can watch a short X-Play retrospective of this memorable incident.

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