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Konami/Reid McCarter

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Breaking down Snake’s motivations in Metal Gear Solid

A new book excerpt digs into the history behind the original PlayStation blockbuster

[Ed. note: Out today at, Okay, Hero is a book analyzing the Metal Gear Solid series. Written by Reid McCarter and Edward Smith — known for their game criticism at Bullet Points Monthly — the text breaks the franchise down in a series of essays covering six of its key games. Below, we have one of those essays in an excerpt focusing on the original Metal Gear Solid.]

The Metal Gear Solid guard exists in a state of constant perplexity. Confronted with a cardboard box, or the sound of knuckles rapping against a wall, his invariable response is an out-loud, incredulous “huh?”, the punctuation of which manifests physically above his head, comically exaggerating his bafflement in a turquoise Got Milk?-billboard-size font. The 200 square feet of warehouse that the guard endlessly, circuitously patrols represents his entire universe. The guard’s earth is chipped concrete. His suns are poorly maintained, dully luminescent strip lights. And the blinking LED on the front of the elevator on the other side of the room is but a distant star, hinting perhaps at other worlds, lived in by other guards, on floors below and above. Confused, angry, and enisled, when the Metal Gear Solid guard sleeps, as we often catch him doing, he dreams of unbendable single-ply paper, and human hands made of teddy bear stuffing. He wishes for little but the straightforward life.

The cause of all the guard’s complaint — the reason he feels perpetually and aggravatingly uncertain — is, quite appropriately, given the time in which he lives, both opaque and obvious all around, but yet still unknown to him. In Hideo Kojima’s imagined 2005 Shadow Moses Island, the White House Situation Room, America, Russia, as a matter of fact the entire world’s implied military and media systems, are not what they appear. In this world, even your own DNA can betray you, eliciting a fatal heart attack should you just so happen to possess the right (as in wrong) intangible and unknowable combination of alleles. In this world, the incomplex moral fables that once gave societies meaning — the big Enlightenment projects, Capitalism and Marxism, left and right wing, the East versus the West — are mostly dead. They remain only in spectral or zombified forms, the military industrial complex, for example, being a less tangible remnant of the unified, American, post-war future that never ended up happening — as established and then restated through Metal Gear Solid’s recurrent breaking of the fourth wall (a device/idiom to which the game, during an early sequence when players have to literally destroy a wall, makes a knowing, meta-metatextual reference), this is a postmodern world where information is subjective, facts contradict each other, ideologies are diffuse, and the plain truth is as hard to find as, say, an elite secret agent hidden inside a cardboard box; a world where above everybody’s heads there perpetually hangs a gigantic, incredulous question mark.

cover artwork for Okay, Hero, with a skeletal horselike creature on it
Okay, Hero’s cover art and logo come from Sishir Bommakanti, with design by Dan Solberg.
Bullet Points Monthly

Modern national legends, of the type which predominated both American and Russian politics throughout the previous century, particularly in the Us Versus Them eras of the Second World and Cold Wars, are embalmed in Shadow Moses Island’s various tombal buildings. A storage facility for the US’s deteriorating, unused ‘60s nukes — here, plutonium cultivated in anticipation of a showdown between political, military systems that never occured, comes to quietly, painstakingly deplete. Otherwise, the island is populated by living, breathing oxymorons, people whose very existences undermine popular knowledge, or at least what constitutes popular knowledge in the world of Metal Gear Solid. Gray Fox, who is supposed to be dead, is actually alive, held together by a robotic metal suit. Kenneth Baker, the archetype of the aspirational, American self-made man, turns out to be a crook; conversely, the Middle Eastern terrorist Sniper Wolf, whose ethnicity and vocation, in modern America, would betray her as a hate figure, is a sympathetic and soulful warrior-poet. And then we have Hal Emmerich, the pacifistic young scientist whose research, unbeknownst to him, is being used to make WMDs; and Decoy Octopus, a former member of an American special forces unit called FOXHOUND, whose ability to mimic the appearance, voice, and even blood type of any other person belies the very concept of an authentic, consistent human being. There are plastic key cards that can change shape, guards who can turn invisible, and the very walls and floors of Shadow Moses are lined with laser traps and pitfalls. Things aren’t ever as they seem.

This is a world where reasonable assumptions about anybody or anything are eventually all rendered moot, owing to increasingly complex information and technology. It represents the end of knowledge, the type of postmodern, perpetually self-reconfiguring society described in 1979 by French historian Michel Foucault, whereby new versions of understanding — new discourses — simply transpose old, without any of them ever being proven objectively true or false. In Foucaultian postmodernity, all truth is relative; disembedded from traditional, face-to-face means of communication, individuals are free to credibly distribute their versions of knowledge to anyone and everyone, creating a world where, if enough people share and are convinced of a discourse, that discourse is assimilated into everybody’s reality. Here, the once-loyal members of FOXHOUND have gone rogue: soldiers without a war, their actions have become singular and apolitical, and they’ve turned on their countrymen. Similarly, the once-hardline communist Revolver Ocelot is now a mercenary, one who’s secretly in bed with the highest echelons of the US government, which in turn is represented by Colonel Roy Campbell (who isn’t actually a colonel) and a Secretary of Defense and a president who are in fact the masterminds behind FOXHOUND’s terrorist plot. Actuality no longer exists and “facts” consume each other. The supposedly renegade terrorists are being run by the American national interest, which is being run by the president, who is being run by Ocelot, one of the terrorists. And so on.

Enter into this opprobrium Solid Snake. Dispatched to Shadow Moses to single-handedly eliminate the FOXHOUND terrorists, Snake is subjected to several other peoples’ versions of “information,” their discourses, which are all successively exposed as false. The Colonel’s orders — to rescue Baker and Donald Anderson, the supposed chief of DARPA — are part of a cover-up, in order to have Snake infect them both with a lethal, latent virus called Foxdie; emphasising an all-round absence of reliable narrators in Metal Gear Solid, the Colonel’s misinformation is itself predicated on misinformation, since “Donald Anderson” is actually Decoy Octopus in one of his genetic disguises. The advice, medical treatment, and sexual advances delivered by Dr. Naomi Hunter hide her other, more complex agenda: to assassinate Snake on behalf of her inscrutable benefactor. Similarly, Master Miller, Snake’s mentor, is in fact the terrorist leader Liquid Snake, providing the agent with “intelligence” only so he may remain alive long enough to unwittingly activate the eponymous Metal Gear superweapon on the terrorists’ behalf; late in the game, Snake realises that rather than having defeated them squarely in battle, Liquid had ordered the other FOXHOUND commandos to effectively sacrifice themselves to Snake, so that he could assist in bringing their plot to fruition without realising.

Several minor pieces of information are also subject to doubt. Snake is told that in order to activate Metal Gear, he’ll need three card keys — in reality, he only needs one. Baker says that Meryl’s Codec frequency can be found on “the back of the CD case.” In Snake’s possession — in the player’s in-game inventory, at that time — is an item called the MO Disc which is a CD placed clearly, provocatively, inside of a case. However, what Baker is referring to is the back of the box of Metal Gear Solid itself, beneath the promotional blurb on which there is a screenshot of Snake in Codec conversation with Meryl, where you can clearly see her frequency. Another postmodern flourish, which would later come to typify Kojima’s (increasingly opaque, often blunt and frustrating) style, this puzzle also illustrates Foucault’s idea of interpretative discourse, whereby knowledge, as expressed through words, is subjective, and truth is hard to discern and to verify. What Baker tells Snake is the literal truth — Meryl’s frequency is on the back of the CD case — but our experiences, as players of videogames and users of videogame inventory systems, combined with our acquired language (because we’re probably more used to calling this “CD case” the “box” or the “game box”) leave us in a confusion, sifting through the in-game item menu, perhaps trying to find a button to flip the MO Disc item over somehow. As opposed to the idea of the unifying, instructive ideologies of the 20th century, the truth we’re provided here is incomplete and comprehensible only via the language of one individual. We do not simply receive and then act upon it. We subject it to our own considerative process, and only after that is complete are we able to verify and use the truth as actual knowledge.

The other effect of this being: like the rest of his ostensible comrades, for the brief period between checking the back of the box and dialling Meryl’s frequency in-game, we know something that Snake doesn’t. The Metal Gear Solid CD case doesn’t exist to Snake. Like Ocelot, under orders from the president, Psycho Mantis, who can read people’s minds, and Naomi, agent of an omniscient shadow government, we have access to a means of gaining information and truth that Snake does not — in this moment, because he cannot access knowledge (Snake exists only in the game world, and so cannot physically handle and read the Metal Gear Solid CD case) and therefore cannot begin to interpret it either, he is powerless, whereas we, who can do both, acquire the power to move events forward. In this world, it becomes the people with knowledge, the ones who have access to and the means to interpret it, who also have the power: emphasising his strength over his cloned brother, before their final confrontation Liquid goads Snake with “You’re the only one who doesn’t know!” And so Metal Gear Solid (both for Snake and us as an audience, because despite being privy to Meryl’s Codec frequency we spend the majority of the game trying to keep up with and untangle its ever-twisting plot) is an effort not just to stop the FOXHOUND terrorists, but to discern what’s actually happening here; to interpret and affirm out of conflicting truths some kind of genuine knowledge.

Which contextualises why Solid Snake, throughout Metal Gear Solid, asks more questions than an annoying five-year-old nephew. If I quote directly from his conversation with the DARPA chief, just for an example, our protagonist begins to sound like a West Coast surfer bro, intoning even statements of fact with an affected, interrogative upward inflection:




“Second-floor basement?”

“Metal Gear?”

“Psycho Mantis?”

“Card keys?”

“Black project?”

But it’s actually because Snake is Metal Gear Solid’s hero that he speaks like this. As well as defeating FOXHOUND and Metal Gear Rex, in order to become the master of his own world, he has to confront the misinformative system that allows those things to exist in the first place. A convenience of Kojima’s dialogue, used as feed lines to help introduce his game’s varying and immense quantity of exposition, Snake’s questions are also what denominate him as the progressive, evolutionary, and free-willed hero of his own time, an individual who both refutes the modern dynamic of passively receiving information and embraces the postmodern, eudaimonic goal: to forge from conflicting and parti pris truths your own unique identity. The child of two quasi-fathers — Big Boss, the legendary soldier from whom he discovers he is cloned, and Gray Fox, his friend, mentor, and idol — by the end of Metal Gear Solid, Snake has rejected both of their imposed identities. Unlike Liquid, who attempts to continue Big Boss’s legacy by establishing the mercenary nation called Outer Heaven, and Fox, who exists on reality’s periphery, declaring he “has no name” and is “neither truly alive nor truly dead,” Snake, at the game’s end, tells Meryl he is going to find “a new way to live.” In this, Naomi encourages him over the Codec: “Loving each other, teaching each other, that’s how we can change the world,” she proclaims.

And so, Snake finally embodies another, latter, and more optimistic postmodern ideal, tended by the literary theorist and philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, and conveniently summarised here by the University of Auckland’s Michael Peters: “Educational theory should seek to critique and dethrone existing metanarratives ... at the same time it must respect the culturally specific formations of plural forms of oppression at the intersection of class, race, and gender as they make up a set of fragmented social bonds.”

Big Boss, the “greatest soldier who ever lived,” embodies the metanarratives of the 20th century. Owing to his near-mythical exploits during the Cold War, he has become a popular social hero, whose persona ideologues (like Liquid, like FOXHOUND) use to rally behind. is absence, and the death of the unifying, common morality that it represents, hangs heavy over Metal Gear Solid, reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s post-nuclear-age lament: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Gray Fox is Big Boss’s figurative opposite, a fugacious sort of half-person whose split loyalties (he guides Snake through an electrified booby trap, then, five minutes later, challenges him to a fight to the death) and physical translucence represent a rejection not just of traditional identities but all identities. Lyotard believed that postmodernity — as classified by a society’s access to more information; its increased ability to communicate — could empower women, the poor, and ethnic minorities, any of those peoples left disenfranchised by the 20th-century’s Enlightenment. To be subsumed by the postmodern, to allow oneself to be overwhelmed with information, to the point of conceding to the sea of discourses those high ideals of identity, knowledge, and concomitance, like Fox does, is to fail to substantiate one key element of the postmodernist vision: a world wherein the death of simple and comforting metanarratives also fertilises the growth of new ways of thinking; where, freed from old politicians’ games, society can engage with different, hitherto under-attended aspects of itself, and lend identity to peoples previously denied it. It is this fuller vision of the postmodern that Snake ultimately becomes. He doesn’t join the postmodern game, nor does he reject it outright. Armed with information, he succeeds in enfranchising a new personal modality.

A 20th-century elder statesman in the 21st century, Big Boss’s ideological dream fails. Gray Fox, whose self-selected nomme de guerre “Deepthroat” references his challenging of ruling political classes, is killed — and since he is unable to form out of his conflicting identities (is he Gray Fox? Deepthroat? Frank Yager?) a cogent, new, and communicable identity, a knowledge set, the game’s postmodern world leaves him behind. Fox does not wield contradictory information into a new form of self; rather, in his closing monologue, he resigns himself to being an “undying shadow in the world of lights,” a misfit and sectarian, who is helpless to create anything solid from the new, illuminating discourses.

Snake, however — Solid Snake — is the more hopeful combination of these two men and their respective sensibilities. In Metal Gear Solid’s closing scene, after being subjected to The Colonel, Naomi, Ocelot, and Liquid; Fox, Baker, and Anderson; the Secretary of Defense Jim Houseman and, ultimately, the very leaders of America and Russia, and all of their contradictory discourses; Snake is resolved to live a “new way of life,” in which he will “teach and love.” The restrictive and prescriptivist narratives of old, embodied not just in Big Boss and Liquid, but his own genetics, Snake transcends them all — after surviving the FOXDIE virus, and with encouragement from Naomi, he determines to ignore whatever is coded into his DNA, and whatever existence may try to force upon him, and to just live. Simultaneously, he leaves Shadow Moses equipped with an increased and richer understanding of his world. Acutely aware of the shady and divergent forces that govern his society, Snake nevertheless establishes his identity by declaring that he has his own name, which is David, and is prepared, even enthusiastic, to enter into reality. Suitably, Metal Gear Solid’s final image is one of peace. As David watches a family of caribou grazing upon a snowfield beneath the Alaskan sunrise, he appears to be, finally, at one with his world. With the knowledge of Big Boss, Gray Fox, and dozens of other contemporary influencers assimilated, he is born again and re-Christened, the citizen nonpareil of his own postmodern future.