Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Kojima, 2004)

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a commentary on the ever-shifting state of the world's superpowers and on how the wars and grudges these countries hold against one another are ultimately meaningless when history is viewed as a whole. Widely regarded by fans as a return to form for the series, Hideo Kojima not only continues to expand on the mythos of the world he's created, but continues to explore his distinct storytelling style and unique take on the American action-military genre.

Snake Eater is the third game in the Metal Gear Solid series, though it takes place first in the series chronology as it serves as a prequel. Kojima takes us back to the height of the Cold War in 1964. The tale Kojima spins deals with everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis, power struggles between Kruschev and Brezhnev within the U.S.S.R., to discussions about then-current films and ramen noodles.

We meet Snake about to be sent off to the swampy jungles of the fictional Russian province of Tselinoyarsk to retrieve a defecting Russian scientist. Upon his retrieval this scientist explains how a certain faction of the Russian army was forcing him to work on a terrible weapon called 'The Shagohod'. It's obvious to us, the player, that this Shagohod is a precursor to the future 'Metal Gears' which we've so lovingly encountered in the previous two games of the series.

As is usual a twist happens in Snake's plans, as just as he's about to escape with the scientist, Snake's mentor shows up - only ever referred by her codename 'The Boss' - and takes the scientist with her, and says she's defecting to the Russian side and joining an elite group of fighters known as 'the Cobras'. She then proceeds to throw Snake off a bridge to what should be his death, with Snake only managing to grab a hold of the bandana the Boss was wearing - the bandana that becomes Snake's familiar signature headpiece.

For the player this sets up the mystery that drives the game - why is the Boss - Snake's mentor and hinted-at possible lover (and even mother) and number one soldier in the U.S. - defecting to the Russian side?

Snake manages to survive falling off the bridge and is rescued, taken home to heal up, and given his new mission - eliminate the Cobras, rescue the scientist, and kill the Boss. This third time through a Metal Gear game this is all somewhat familiar. Kojima enjoys this style of splitting the narrative. Just like in MGS2, first there's an initial sequence of gameplay that lasts no more than an hour, a first act if you will, which functions as a sort of extended prologue. This is then followed by a second act, where the real 'meat and potatoes' of the story occurs.

By this third outing it might be useful to talk more specifically about Kojima's style and his use of certain motifs which carry the story. One such element Kojima likes to employ is what I'll call the "ritual game save". In all three games whenever the player wants to save their progress in the game they have to go through a certain in-game routine. The player must essentially 'phone-in' to headquarters, speak to someone (always a female) to tell them he wants to save. This is always followed by some sort of conversation with the female, usually with a lot of flirting.

In the first game it was Mei Ling, a cute Chinese-American girl who always told Snake these useful proverbs that at first seem somewhat serious but by the end of the game got a little wacky (an example of Kojima toying with the player). These proverbs usually fit with the context of what was happening at the moment. So, for example, if there were a lot of enemy patrols in the vicinity she might give a proverb saying to the effect of "it's better to avoid confrontation and be sneaky rather than fight".

In Metal Gear Solid 2 in the opening 'Tanker' chapter the save is carried out by Snake's scientist buddy Otacon who attempts to emulate Mei Lings proverbs but doesn't quite get them right, functioning as a kind of subversion of Mei Ling's advice (watch here). In the second act these game saves are carried out through conversations between Raiden and communications officer/girlfriend Rose, where they discuss their relationship and what it means to be in a relationship (watch here).

In Snake Eater saving happens with the communications officer codenamed 'Para-medic'. This time instead of proverbs or relationships, Para-medic likes to talk about films and usually tries to relate those films to what Snake is encountering in the game. Here's one discussing Godzilla. Watching this clip clues you in to Kojima's fondness for self-referential jokes, like how Para-medic bets they'll still be making Godzilla movies in 2004. In another conversation Para-medic tells Snake about a new movie she's just seen called From Russia with Love. The Major in charge of the mission is apparently wild about the movie and, with the writers playing completely to the audience, the Major says "007 is the biggest thing to come out of England since the Mayflower. I wouldn't be surprised if they made 20 more of those movies!" The James Bond references are further explored during the opening title sequence, a brilliant send-up to all 007 movie openings.

It cannot be stressed enough that Kojima enjoys borrowing heavily from film. Just watch the opening scene, complete with an initial quote which sets up the theme of the game, the opening shot of the airplane flying through the clouds, and the starring credits fading in and out. It looks like something straight out of the Hunt for Red October. Also in this scene you'll notice Kojima subverting players expectations again. When we first see Snake here he's wearing a mask that makes him look like Raiden from the previous game. He even dons the same breathing apparatus that Raiden wore as he made his initial swim into the Big Shell.

I mentioned in the beginning that most fans of the series considered Snake Eater to be a return to form. What I meant by that is that fans were disappointed with MGS2 because they wanted to play as the hero, Snake, but instead had to play whiny voiced hero-in-training Raiden. I, for one, enjoyed playing as Raiden. I believe those fans who found themselves disappointed with the previous game missed the point that Kojima didn't want us to play as the hero, but instead wanted us to experience the narrative from the perspective of an outsider observing the hero.

When the player initially sees Snake in this opening scene looking like Raiden the initial thought is "Oh no, am I playing as Raiden again?" The answer is of course, no, Kojima is just having his way with you.

This method of making the player aware that the game is playing with them is endemic of Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid series. From the British Film Institute's 100 Videogames Screen Guide:

What is most interesting about Metal Gear Solid, however, is that for all its filmic intentions, it is a game that is supremely confident with its game-ness. At various points, characters draw attention to their presence in a videogame, or even to the paraphernalia of videogame hardware and interface. Where intuition might tell us that rendering the interface transparent or even invisible might be the most effective means of creating immersion or presence in the narrative and world of the game, Kojima and his team brazenly remind the player of the constructedness of this experience. This is postmodern media in playable form.

Whereas the theme of the original Metal Gear Solid was genetics, or 'gene', and the that of its sequel being a discussion on the nature of information, or 'meme', Snake Eater's theme is 'scene' - the climate in which events occur and the impact it has upon them. From the Metal Gear Wiki: "Scene deals heavily with Relativism, the idea that concepts such as right and wrong or allies and enemies are not absolute or eternal; but instead are personal and transitive, shaped by our cultures and the times we live in." Unlike past games I was aware of what the theme was going into this game. Funny enough I didn't really catch any major strands of the theme until near the end of the game when the Boss gives her big speech. This speech is typical of Kojima's style in that he wants the player to understand his intention so he tends to lay it down rather heavily when he does.

In this speech the Boss describes a realization she had while on one of the first manned missions into space. Having witnessed the Earth from so high she realized that national boundaries are just a figment of our beliefs, and over the course of time those nation states that define those boundaries slowly change their relationships with those other powers. Examining history as a whole those relationships that define the current political 'scene' are rendered meaningless, as today's enemy is tomorrow's ally, as she makes the point when speaking about Russia (and 'prophesizing' that one day the Cold War will be over when we're fighting a new enemy). From the Wiki: "The Boss is a victim of circumstance. Her "scene" - Cold War Era America - forces her to, ultimately, give her life. Snake is forced to kill his former mentor due to a "scene" he not only has no control over, but has no knowledge of." By realizing she's only playing a part in this Cold War 'scene' she realizes the meaninglessness of defining things in absolutes, in terms of right vs. wrong. She realizes that her actions as a solider are rendered pointless, leading her to accept that the wars she fights are ultimately futile.

The Metal Gear series has always been about the futility of war, each game examining that futility through a different lens. The original game was about how we pass on our culture through our genes. The second game examining how we define our culture through its accumulated knowledge. Now this third game deals with how we define our culture through our relationships with one another and the meaninglessness of defining those relationships as right or wrong.

A few final notes. I should point out how well the game pulls off being a prequel. Whereas other more well known prequels deliver a sense of inevitability - we already know Anakin will turn into Darth Vader for example - Snake Eater managed to completely surprise me. It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through that I began to realize that I was witnessing the birth of a major character, arguably the most important character in the entire series, and I hadn't seen it coming at all, yet when it finally came together it happened so naturally that I was pleasantly surprised with how well it was pulled off.

I also have to give a nod to Harry Gregson-Williams' score. The Metal Gear series has always had amazing music, but Gregson-Williams manages to outdo himself in this game. From the bluesy take on the Metal Gear theme titled 'Old Metal Gear', to the previously mentioned over-the-top opening song performed by Cynthia Harrell, Gregson-Williams delivers a dramatic and exciting score. Adding an infusion of some Spanish guitar into the stirring Metal Gear Solid theme gives us one of the most memorable music pieces to ever come out of videogaming.

That's it for my look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Now that I've completed these three games I can finally play the game that got me interested in starting this series in the first place, the fourth and final part of the series, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Until then, happy gaming.

1 comment:

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