Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Metal Gear Villains #2: FOXHOUND Pt 2

Kept you waiting, huh?

If you’re unfamiliar with this blog series on the villains and bosses of the Metal Gear Solid series, check out this introduction.
You can also check out my words on the other villains of Shadow Moses. .


In Part 2 of our look at the members of FOXHOUND, we find a lot of villains poorly dressed for the Alaskan climate!

Vulcan Raven

"The raven on my head thirsts for his blood."

Vulcan Raven leans into the animal motifs more than any villain in Metal Gear Solid. When Snake first meets him in the snowy canyon, he emerges from the M1 tank’s hatch sans shirt to taunt Snake: “This is ravens’ territory. Snakes don’t belong in Alaska.” Of course, Raven means that not only does his bird namesake find habitat in Alaska, but that he’s an Alaskan native himself. His portrayal probably relies on racist assumptions that exotify Native American spiritualism and the concept of “spirit animals.” He’s also a shaman, and like Psycho Mantis, is a kind of predictor, but Raven’s predictions and abilities are more spiritual in nature. Vulcan Raven’s deep, booming voice and slow rhythm of his speech further characterize his animal metaphors as cryptic and sublime. Warning Liquid and Ocelot not to underestimate Snake, Raven tells them “In the language of the Sioux people, ‘Sioux’ means ‘Snake;’ it is known as an animal to be feared.” This awkward, passive, long-winded phrasing needlessly mystifies Raven’s character and his culture (not to mention that this line leans into viewing Native Americans as monolithic).

The first fight with Vulcan Raven in the tank is the first of three silly and ridiculous battles in which Snake, a one-man army, fights giant weaponized machines. Snake runs around the tank (almost comically) chucking grenades in the open hatch. His victory should be impossible, but Raven’s tank is only meant to test Snake! Raven notes that “in battle, it is as if he [Snake] is possessed by a demon.” Raven may be the first character in the game to acknowledge Snake’s moral ambiguity as well as his “magic” that Psycho Mantis proves to be the player. This interpretation, then, has Raven equate the player’s control of Snake to demonic possession, further developing the player as a corrupting force over Snake and necessitating the gradual separation between the two.

Before Snake’s second fight with Vulcan Raven in the underground warehouse, Raven spiritually reads that “blood from the East flows within [Snake’s] veins” (which the canon hints at but is unclear about where this heritage comes from). He compares how their lineages both include ancestors from Mongolia, claiming that “Inuit and Japanese are cousins to each other.” When Snake downplays their shared ancestry with a quip, Raven concludes that “[i]ndeed, ravens and snakes are not the best of friends.” Raven calls into question the relationship between war and ethnicity, but it’s hard to determine the game’s position. Metal Gear Solid might champion an erasure of cultural distinctions between different peoples (a view often expressed in the West within white liberalism) by characterizing Raven’s distinction between “raven” and “snake” as his fatal flaw as a villain. But the game might point to a more nuanced understanding. Raven reflects on the basic fact that, if you look back far enough, many different peoples come from the same origins. But the present distinction between “raven” and “snake” remains, and the first fight between the two characters starts when Snake encroaches on “Raven’s territory.” The game perhaps hints at a necessary dual-resistance to the similarities and differences of our genes. The game might imply a need on one hand to remember what human beings share as a species and a need to respect differences to prevent conflict. This idea goes hand in hand with Metal Gear Solid 3’s primarily neutral portrayal of capitalism and communism during the Cold War. Metal Gear deserves a much closer analysis of how these ideas manifest within the series and how they can or cannot be reconciled with the series’ noted pacifism. I will say, however, that in my experiences of Metal Gear Solid 1-4, the series is almost radio silent about racism.

Raven compares their upcoming battle with the Ear Pull contest of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, in which two opponents pull each other’s ears in the bitter cold to test spiritual and physical strength. This comparison offends Snake--the stakes in this battle are between life and death, not pride and humiliation. “Violence isn’t a sport!” says Snake. Replace “sport” with “game,” and you’ve got yourself a more characteristically unsubtle form of Metal Gear commentary about videogame violence. But Metal Gear Solid came out in 1998, and other parts of this blog series so far have shown that this game has far more than surface-level metatextual finger-wagging like, say, Hotline Miami, a game that came out in 2012.

After judging Snake to be a true warrior, he uses the raven marking on his forehead to curse Snake with the “mark of death.” Besides showing off Raven’s supernatural powers, it’s unclear what this curse is actually meant to do. Is Snake marked for death at the hands of Raven--a curse that Snake defies? Or is Snake marked for a future of bloodshed and murder, as Raven predicts after the battle:

Snake! In the natural world there is no such thing as boundless slaughter. There is always an end to it. But you are different [...] The path you walk on has no end. Each step you take is paved with the corpses of your enemies. Their souls will haunt you forever… you shall have no peace...“   
At the end of the game, Snake seems to defy this prediction, with plans to live a new life with a new purpose. But the series as a whole seems to confirm Raven’s prediction, as he returns to the battlefield time and again until he’s old and withering. Of course, Raven’s prediction is not merely about Snake as a clone born to be the perfect soldier, but about Snake as a videogame protagonist. In the real world, violence causes death, a permanent end. But Snake has infinite lives in a videogame that players can reload and experience an infinite number of times, massacring virtual bodies again and again to their hearts’ content. But videogame players may fail to acknowledge that engaging with combat mechanics they can comfortably enjoy takes a traumatic toll on Snake, who views those enemies as a part of his real world.

When Vulcan Raven says that Snake and Liquid are “from another world [...] that [he] does not wish to know,” he means that he does not want to know a world where one’s existence is determined by someone else’s will. Snake and Liquid live because the government wanted to create the perfect soldiers, tools for their agendas and operations, just as Snake lives as a tool for the player’s entertainment. Raven talks of death as “returning to the natural world that which is not needed.” His death by consumption of his ravens is seen as transcendent, a “return to Mother Earth” in both body and spirit, but it’s a death that would be denied to Snake and Liquid as long as they are controlled by outside parties, their genetic fates, and the player. It’s a death most explicitly denied to Gray Fox, as the government sustains his tortured life just to create the Genome Army. In fact, Raven foreshadows Gray Fox’s heroic sacrifice that would grant him his long-overdue rest. When he tells Snake about the role of ravens as scavengers in the circle of life, he says “[ravens] even attack wounded foxes.” Of course, an understanding of Raven’s death as “natural” is complicated by the fact that he dies because the narrative no longer needs him, a death contrived entirely by an outside force.

Sniper Wolf

"Okay, hero. Set me free."

Sniper Wolf appears at the point when Meryl decides that she does not make a good soldier. Her genetic fate as passed on by her “father” may suggest that a career on a battlefield is her path, but she finds herself increasingly frustrated as a rookie and a liability to Snake’s mission. Sniper Wolf shoots her down without killing her to draw out her true prey: Snake. Of course, with so few women presented as soldiers in the media, it’s easy to guess that the game swaps a genetic fate for a gendered one--that Meryl’s status as the child of a soldier means nothing, yet her gender precludes her from being a good soldier. She wants to be Snake but can only be a love interest and a damsel. Yet right after Meryl is shot down, and Snake finds a sniper rifle to retaliate, you meet Sniper Wolf. One of the first things she tells Snake is that two-thirds of the world’s greatest assassins are women. Later, during the second fight with Wolf in the Snowfield, she says that women are naturally better soldiers. She explicitly contradicts everything the narrative implies about gender with Meryl’s character. She’s the great misandrist villain, an accomplished sniper who complains about the men who “never finish what [they] start.” The game implies that her extraordinary patience, which allows her to wait for weeks to line up the perfect shot (provided she stocks up on diazepam), is attributed to her gender. But of course, the game concludes that Wolf’s belief is its own form of “genetic” determinism, so the narrative punishes her. Snake inevitably defeats and kills Wolf with her own tactics--sniping from afar while popping the diazepam. Snake disproves her view that women make better soldiers by defeating her with the very tactics she has developed for much of her life.

Metal Gear Solid could have easily decided to dismantle the widespread and materially damaging view that men naturally make better soldiers, but instead, the game sees misandry as the Real Threat. Sniper Wolf’s character may suggest that Meryl’s deficiency as a soldier has nothing to do with her gender, but the portrayals of both Wolf and Meryl simply recycle other gross assumptions about women--that their roles are either lover, damsel, or dead. For a series founded on a theme of resisting biological and ideological fates, Metal Gear too often assigns such fates to women that blatantly reaffirm the status quo. It’s a baffling, stupid quality of the series that severely undermines its effectiveness as a revolutionary text.

Furthermore, Sniper Wolf’s version of Metal Gear boss eroticism is her tendency to become obsessed with her targets before she kills them. She calls Snake her “special prey” as she caresses and scratches his face. After she rests her hand on Snake’s polygonal abs and calls him “handsome” in the torture room, Revolver Ocelot whistles and tells Snake that she often falls in love her with prey. Her “love letter” to Snake is a bullet in his heart. Wolf is a black widow, a vintage trope that represents fear of an aggressive feminine sexuality that the game characterizes as deadly--a fear that women afforded sexual agency will turn men’s horniness against them. Thus, Wolf’s character design aims to titillate. Wolf is a tall blonde woman with an unzipped jumper in most scenes (even her first appearance out in the cold), revealing her blurry polygonal cleavage. She looks like a low-poly version of EVA of MGS3, whose character recycles a similar understanding of women’s sexual agency as predatory. The camera focuses on shots of her chest in the torture room and follows her ass out the door. It’s a shame the game pulls this stuff because decontextualized from how the narrative’s gender politics, Sniper Wolf is a great character and one of the best villains in the game.  

Then there’s Otacon’s nonsensical love for Sniper Wolf. Otacon tells Snake that when the terrorists took over Shadow Moses, Wolf prevented the soldiers from shooting all the wolf-dogs around the facility. Wolf lets Otacon feed her dogs while he’s being held prisoner. Her mercy and dedication to her “family” wins over Otacon, to which Snake dismisses as Stockholm Syndrome. Otacon’s love is just a nerdboy obsession, but it’s unclear if that portrayal was intentional or not. Otacon concludes Wolf “must be a good person” and implores Snake not to hurt her, and while Wolf’s acts of mercy humanize her character, Otacon fails to understand the moral complexity of Wolf. He can’t understand that Wolf, an elite operative involved in a terrorist plot, could both protect the innocent and viciously attack Snake. Then of course, neither can Snake. While Otacon can only see Wolf’s acts of kindness, Snake can only see her acts of violence. The fight in the Snowfield complicates both of the male characters’ understandings of her. Otacon tries to intervene in the fight, but Wolf tells him to stay out of her way. And after the fight, Snake learns Wolf’s backstory and that she spared Meryl because she doesn’t kill for sport. Her death initiates the Otacon Fridge Saga throughout the series, in which women Otacon love die to develop his character. At Wolf’s death, Snake returns her handkerchief that helped him escape the torture room because he “[doesn’t] have any more tears to shed.” Such a tragic death is commonplace for Snake, but Otacon’s whole perspective is shaken up. He yells after Snake, desperately asking him what she was fighting for, what Snake is fighting for, and what he himself is fighting for. Otacon resolves to search for a new purpose, one that doesn’t compromise his morals as Wolf’s were in Liquid’s revolt.

Like many villains throughout the series, Sniper Wolf was born on the battlefield. She is a Kurd who grew up with the sounds of war as her lullabies. Wolf describes her early life full of displacement and violence, while world governments ignored her people’s suffering. Big Boss eventually saved her, and she became a sniper. From the distanced perspective of her scope, she saw the horror and futility of war, the worst of mankind. She joined Liquid to take her revenge on the world and its governments for perpetuating this meaningless violence but in doing so becomes a monster herself. Sniper Wolf is swallowed up in Big Boss’s vision: a world where soldiers have a place in society, uncontrolled by the arbitrary wills of governments. She reveres Big Boss so much that she refers to him as Saladin, the famous Kurdish Muslim sultan of the Crusades. Her explanations humanize not only herself but also Big Boss, who in the MSX games is mostly a cartoon villain. Clearly Big Boss rescues victims of war with the intention of saving them from the system, but his form of resistance produces more violence that, instead of healing victims of war from their pasts, subsumes them in a cycle of terror. Metal Gear Solid establishes a series staple theme of the difficulty and complexity of resisting the system, revealing that not all alternatives are necessarily good ones.

As Sniper Wolf lies bleeding and dying, she says she has shamed her people for joining Liquid in the name of vengeance. She has lost her honor and purpose, now merely a dog instead of the noble “Wolf” she once was. But Snake is more forgiving of Wolf. He refers to mercenaries like them as “dogs of war,” but he tells Wolf that she’s “different--untamed, solitary” and concludes that she deserves her noble namesake. Losing her sense of reality, Wolf asks Snake if he is Saladin, not only calling attention to Snake’s physical resemblance to his father but also his charisma. But Snake is different from Big Boss; he’s the “hero” Sniper Wolf has been waiting for--the hero to kill her. Snake can save the victims of war in a way that Big Boss never could. Snake provides the villains a cathartic final fight in which they come to peace with their pasts before dying, finally free from the battlefield. But Metal Gear Solid does not simply mean that victims of war should be put out of their misery. In a broader sense, Snake is the hero Wolf’s been waiting for as long as he can follow his own path and escape destiny, liberating himself and others before they’ve been shackled to the battlefield as the members of FOXHOUND have. For FOXHOUND, the only alternative to the battlefield is death because they never engage with their past in order to meaningfully move on in their lives. War becomes a part of them, as Sniper Wolf reaches for her rifle and calls it a part of her. She dies embracing the gun, content with Snake giving her a final rest. “Everyone’s here now,” Wolf says, finally at peace. It’s the most powerful death of the game and Metal Gear Solid’s most explicit complication of villainy and heroism.

Liquid Snake

"Snake! Did you like my sunglasses?"
The Big Bad of Shadow Moses is my least favorite villain in the game because his motivations to threaten the world with perpetual war boil down to “daddy didn’t notice me.” Regardless, he’s as fun and campy as the rest of the villains, if not more so for his over-the-top arrogance and famously sneering “Brotherrrrr” at Snake all the time.

Liquid Snake’s disguise as Master Miller works because “Miller’s” character seems sketchy from the start of the mission. His “support” for Snake provides nothing more than bland truisms about survival and confidence. At least Mei Ling’s proverbs were interesting and poetic. A neat bit of foreshadowing is that the only piece of advice that Miller gives that actually helps the player is during the Gray Fox fight. He tells Snake to unequip his weapon, a requirement for the fight against the only villain not a part of FOXHOUND. And Miller’s intense suspicion of Naomi Hunter is suspicious itself, considering how detached he seems from the rest of the characters before he voices his concerns to Snake. As a side note, one of the series’ only mentions of racism occurs in Liquid/Miller’s discovery of Naomi’s lie. She claims her grandfather was Japanese and part of the FBI in New York investigating the mafia. But Liquid/Miller figures out that the chief of the FBI during the time was incredibly racist, and there were no Asian investigators at the time. Not only that, but investigations of the mafia started in Chicago, not New York. It’s an effective distraction that allows Liquid to funnel Snake into finally activating REX.

Of course, Miller is not really Miller--he’s Liquid. And Liquid Snake is, naturally, Solid Snake’s evil twin and another clone of Big Boss. He’s the least sympathetic of the villains because he embodies the ridiculous genetic deterministic ideology the game rails against. He resents Solid Snake for having Big Boss’s dominant genes, while he’s stuck with his recessive genes. (I’m not a science person, but I’m 99% sure that “recessive” genes are by no means considered “inferior.” I think someone should tell Liquid this.) Liquid believes that the only reason for his existence was to enable the creation of Solid Snake, the perfect soldier and the “favorite” of Big Boss. Liquid comes to believe that he is “garbage since the day [he was] born” and that Snake stole his “birthright,” not only for having Big Boss’s dominant genes but also for killing Big Boss, robbing Liquid of revenge on his father. But at the end of the game, Revolver Ocelot reveals in his conversation with the President that Liquid held the dominant genes of Big Boss. His genes never really matter and don’t determine Snake’s victory of Liquid. The idea of his genetic fate controls Liquid’s life and decisions, including his willingness to throw the world into chaos to fulfill Big Boss’s dream and surpass his origins. Liquid is just a bratty kid who fails to realize how his motivations boil down to the same “petty revenge” he acknowledges in Naomi Hunter.  

Liquid, for all his cartoonish villainy, is a shrewd revolutionary willing to pit the superpowers of the world against each other to leverage more control over the global political climate. He wants to combine the forces of the Genome Army with Sergei Gurlukovich’s Spetznaz army to turn Shadow Moses into a new Outer Heaven. His demands to the world’s governments include handing over a recurring MacGuffin in the series--the DNA of Big Boss--as well as one million dollars to save the Genome Soldiers. The Genome Soldiers are digital progenitors of Big Boss and his “soldier genes” through technology developed through the experiments on Gray Fox and soldiers of the Gulf War. But according to Liquid, the soldiers (as well as Liquid and Snake) suffer from a disease due to genetic similitude for which Big Boss’s DNA will reveal the magic cure. Liquid teaches Snake about “Asymmetry Theory” (which I Googled and is probably fictional) which holds that nature favors genetic diversity and kills off species with too much symmetry. (Speaking of fictional Metal Gear concepts with ridiculous names, nothing beats the process that created Liquid and Snake--the Super Baby Method. Big thumbs up to the writers on that one.)

Asymmetry Theory is the game’s way of homogenizing videogame players. Players inherit the cultural “genes” of the 80’s action hero as embodied by Big Boss, but they can’t properly replicate his achievements nor can they sustain a society with the values accrued from such media objects. The Genome Army are a complete failure, and their link to videogame players is one of the game’s heaviest indictments of uncritical gamers. Snake, Liquid, the soldiers--all these characters need to choose their own paths to survive in this world. It’s an incredibly individualistic message, but Liquid’s own reasons for wanting to cure the Genome soldiers complicates the game’s relationship between individualism and collectivism, just as Psycho Mantis’ death does .

Liquid claims he wants to cure his “family” because his genes tell him to, invoking a real selfish gene theory. He warps his “altruistic feelings” for the Genome Soldiers by arguing that aligning his interests with those who share his genes only means to further replicate and pass on those genes. Liquid’s view turns communal goals into individual goals, denying any sentiment in favor for mere biological motives. Everything for Liquid boils down to a goal of passing on one’s genes, an ultimately arbitrary motive devoid of meaning or consideration of others, not to mention an impossible goal for Liquid considering he and Snake are sterile. Liquid represents the Worst Game Player, one with a crippling sense of entitlement and desire to repeat the same violent narratives without an understanding of material consequences.

But of course, Liquid turns the tables on Snake and the player, famously accusing both of “enjoy[ing] all the killing.” It’s the game’s most direct and inelegant criticism of the player, but one probably necessary for those who don’t understand how Metal Gear creates and tears down its own artifice. Liquid claims it’s the reason why Snake and the player are here, sneaking and killing through the facility. He implies that the two could hardly care about the fate of the world or its people; they just want some shooty fun. He suggests that’s why Snake and the player carry on with their orders blindly, even though the game heavily foreshadows betrayals and complications at every corner.

After Snake activates REX, Liquid inexplicably loses his shirt, and before their fist fight on top of Metal Gear REX, so does Snake. Besides being a ridiculous way to dramatize their final encounter, their toplessness highlights the “symmetry” of Snake and Liquid’s low-res bodies. The natures of both Snake’s mission and Liquid’s plan are laid bare just as they are. But for being genetically the same (which is retconned in Guns of the Patriots), Snake and Liquid are shaped into completely distinct people by circumstance. Snake’s deadpan gruffness and American accent contrast sharply with Liquid’s campy overconfidence and British accent. A lack of knowledge defines Snake’s character for most of the game, while Liquid holds all the cards and influence over Snake, the Pentagon, and Gurlukovich. As the two characters’ physical similarities are emphasized, their abstract differences represent the stakes of the fight. Though Liquid’s plans are foiled by the destruction of REX, the fight determines whose ideology will hold out. At this point, we can assume that Snake resolves to forge his own path after the betrayal of the government and his support team, and his free will defeats Liquid’s genetic determinism. But not at the end of this fight.

Liquid has a nasty habit of surviving certain death. He lives through the explosions of both the Hind D and Metal Gear REX, a fall from the top of REX, and a jeep crash. He dies neither from Snake’s punch nor his bullet; he dies from Snake’s virus. FOXDIE kills Liquid just as he aims at Snake and Meryl outside the tunnel. FOXDIE operates on no consistent logic. It kills Decoy Octopus and the ArmsTech President. Its non-effect on Psycho Mantis and Sniper Wolf are waved away by Mantis’ mask and Wolf’s diazepam addiction. And Ocelot has a vaccine as a double-agent of the President. But Liquid doesn’t fall to FOXDIE for a very long time after contact with Snake. As Austin Howe says, this conveniently robs the player of personal victory over Liquid. This narrative convenience allows the player and Snake to have a dramatic battle with Liquid but also externally punish Liquid for his deterministic ideology. Since Liquid decides his fate is controlled by his genes, then such a fate comes true! He doesn’t escape his genetic destiny of FOXDIE. But FOXDIE spares Snake, according to Naomi, as long as he has the will to live. As long as Snake resists fate and lives for his own purposes, for the willful benefit of others, his genes don’t matter. Magical virus be damned.

Metal Gear Solid jumps through a lot of nonsense narrative hoops like FOXDIE to deliver its thematic messages, but its earnestness and clever synthesis of postmodern tension between audience and text with larger political significance make the first entry and the rest of the series remarkable. And of course the nonsense is entertaining.


I’ve decided to suspend this blog series for the time being. My semester is heading into full swing next week, and I don’t want to be bogged down with a project of this scope. During the semester, I’d like to move on to smaller games to write about. Don’t fear though; Metal Gear Villains will return eventually!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Metal Gear Villains #1: FOXHOUND Pt 1

Kept you waiting, huh?

If you’re unfamiliar with this blog series on the villains and bosses of the Metal Gear Solid series, check out this introduction.

In this post, I’m going to be looking at the villains of the first game--the members of the rogue Special Forces unit FOXHOUND that leads the Genome Army in a revolt against the U.S. government on Shadow Moses Island. Note that this post uses the content from the original Metal Gear Solid re-released on the PS3 and not The Twin Snakes. Obviously, spoilers follow.

The Shadow Moses Incident

Before the Shadow Moses Incident, veteran Solid Snake retired to Alaska to hang out with and mush dogs all day to recover from the trauma of fighting at Outer Heaven and Zanzibarland--in other words, the events from Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. With FOXHOUND threatening the world with nuclear war, Snake is brought out of retirement for a solo sneaking mission to save the day. Snake’s objectives include finding and rescuing the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker as well as stopping the terrorists from launching a nuke.

Little does Snake know about the government’s top-secret development of Metal Gear, nor does he know that he’s been injected with a virus called FOXDIE (a ridiculous narrative convenience) meant to kill FOXHOUND and Baker when he makes contact with them. In Metal Gear Solid’s critique of nuclear deterrence, American foreign policy, and its complication of war heroism, the true nature of Snake’s mission is hidden from Snake and the player for the majority of the game. And both the terrorists and the U.S. government play the undiscerning Snake and the player to their own advantages. Because the terrorists do not discover the PAL key codes that would activate Metal Gear REX from Donald Anderson and Kenneth Baker, they trick Snake into activating the bipedal nuclear weapon for them. For the majority of the game, Snake believes that the terrorists are capable of launching the nuke and that he must use the codes to deactivate REX. But Master Miller, Snake’s old mentor and part of his support team, turns out to be Liquid in disguise, who leads Snake to accomplish exactly what he and the player want to prevent. Meanwhile, the government’s true mission is to acquire Metal Gear REX for their own purposes. Because Snake ends up destroying REX, Secretary of Defense Jim Houseman decides the bomb the facility, destroying any evidence of and witnesses to what really happened (a pretty ineffectual method of cover-up if you ask me). No, the U.S. government is by no means represented positively in Metal Gear Solid.

As Snake and the player mindlessly follow the instructions given to them, they become the tools and unwitting agents of parties with agendas not their own. Nearly every character lies to Snake. The artifice of a straightforward “good guys vs. bad guys” military operation comes crashing down when Snake learns that Naomi Hunter injected him with FOXDIE and altered the Pentagon’s plan for the virus by programming it to kill Snake as well, that Colonel Campbell has been withholding key information about the mission for the entire game, and of course, that Miller is really Snake’s evil twin.

Behind the conspiracies for world domination lies a story about “genes”--how genes might determine the fate of its inheritors and how people might resist such genetic determination. Nearly every character struggles with his or her genetic fate. Snake’s genes, as a clone of legendary soldier Big Boss (and in another sense, as a videogame protagonist), would have him stuck in a cycle of violence on the battlefield and under the control of a videogame player. Meryl joins the army to be closer to her deceased father but finds out that she doesn’t exactly make a good soldier. (In fact, in an alternate ending we learn that Roy Campbell is her real father.) Otacon continues his family’s history of developing nuclear weapons, but he resolves to resist that history after he learns that his work has been appropriated and that nuclear deterrence is a sham. And Naomi Hunter gets into genetic research out of an obsession to discover “who she is,” since the parents she never knew died in war. For a more comprehensive analysis of Metal Gear Solid’s methods of communicating this theme and disassociating Snake from the player, read Austin C. Howe’s essay Free Will and Defiance. Some of his interpretations will inform my readings of the game’s villains.   

Metal Gear Solid 1 perhaps presents us with the most material for this blog series. The first game in the saga includes at least one monologue per boss fight, and nearly all of the villains are given the chance to reveal their motivations and backstories to Snake and the player.

Decoy Octopus


Decoy Octopus is the exception to the typical form of Metal Gear villains--he’s no loquacious ideologue. He’s the villain we know the least about because he never speaks to Snake as himself and dies minutes after meeting him. We learn much later from Vulcan Raven that the man we thought was Donald Anderson was really Decoy Octopus in disguise. Snake unwittingly kills him with FOXDIE after he sets Snake on his journey to activate Metal Gear REX with the card keys. That he’s a master of disguise is Octopus’ only character trait; in fact, he’s so dedicated to deceiving Snake that he drains the blood of Donald Anderson (after Revolver Ocelot “accidentally” kills him in interrogation) and infuses it into his own body.   

Decoy Octopus ultimately has no identity because he’s too busy assuming those of others for Liquid’s efforts. He dies without fighting Snake in a cathartic episode that reveals and reconciles his true story, a privilege afforded to the other members of FOXHOUND. He dies, not as himself, but as a facsimile of Donald Anderson. The implicit criticism here is that war robs people of their identities, purposes, and intentions. Other villains in the game claim that they have no name and that neither does Snake. The game suggests that soldiers like Snake lose their individuality once the state or other party imposes its will onto their actions.

The death of Decoy Octopus suggests that playing a role that’s not your own negates your potential to meaningfully transform yourself or atone for your sins. Decoy Octopus may have had Donald Anderson’s blood in his veins, but FOXDIE wasn’t fooled. Octopus could not resist his genetic fate just by donning a masterful disguise. The game even makes sure to tell us later that Donald Anderson was never a target of FOXDIE because he was a friend of the Secretary of Defense. Just as Octopus plays the roles of others, the player plays the role of Solid Snake; furthermore, many videogame players of the industry’s target (male) audience want to be Solid Snake. Much of Metal Gear Solid’s audience wants to be the manly war hero who can take down a tank by himself, get the girl, and save the world, regardless of whose agenda they might fulfill in the process and what psychological toll participating in combat might have. Metal Gear Solid, as Howe details, continues to remind players that they are not Snake and cannot be Snake. Through Decoy Octopus, the game criticizes its audience for not wanting to be their own persons, a theme the series revisits time and again. Metal Gear consistently tells its audience to “live” at the end of its games, but more importantly, it says to live as yourself and to live outside the text. The fantasy of Solid Snake is something you neither should want nor can have. The game reminds you that only by living as yourself can you be free to control your destiny and leave a legacy of your own, unlike Octopus who dies an early imposter’s death.

Psycho Mantis

"That's right this is no trick! It's true power!"

Psycho Mantis is the first manifestation of “magic” that Snake and the player are aware of in the game. He’s considered one of the most powerful psychics in the world. He can see into the future, read people’s minds, and manipulate objects with telekinesis. He has brainwashed the Genome soldiers to cooperate with Liquid’s revolt. After being unable to read the minds of the Anderson and Baker thanks to their “psychic insulation,” he comes up with the plan to trick Snake into activating REX.

When Snake first encounters Mantis, he seems to take control of Meryl, who fires a thousand rounds at Snake as she boards the elevator, a haunting contrast to minutes earlier when her hands shake as she points her gun. He appears after the elevator door shuts, suspended in midair in his Very Evil trenchcoat to say, “Good girl, just like that” and disappear in a flash.

The next time you encounter Mantis, he uses his creepy, non-diegetic organ tune to take control of Meryl once again. Under hypnosis, Meryl attacks Snake, pointing a gun at him while imploring him to make love to her. Psycho Mantis flashes in and out of view behind Meryl as she approaches, and finally, her voice changes to Mantis’ as she mocks Snake: “What, you don’t like girls?” It’s a strange pre-fight cutscene for a lot of reasons. Of course, it damsels Meryl so that Snake can rescue her from shooting herself under Mantis’ control. It also suggests that Mantis is reading the developing romantic feelings between Snake and Meryl. He initially perverts this sexual tension by amplifying Meryl’s thirst to nonsense degrees (which apparently shouldn’t be possible since Meryl said she had “psychotherapy to destroy [her] interest in men,” which is fucked up and not really acknowledged by the game as such???) Mantis’ seemingly homophobic remark could be read straight (hah) as a way to taunt Snake, but it can also be read as an expression of Mantis’ jealousy of the two or as Mantis’ honest psychic interpretation of Snake’s sexuality. According to Gaby of Girl from the Machine, most Metal Gear villains can easily be read as queer, and Snake has some “ambiguous relationships” with men himself. But as Gaby details, queerness is mostly relegated to vague subtext or manifestations of villainy. This instance with Mantis can be read in a number of ways, but I wanted to note it because many boss encounters in Metal Gear Solid feature some form of eroticism, some played up more than others. These expressions of or references to sexuality might connect the fights to catharsis, emphasize the material bodies of enemies about to destroy each other, or simply mean to titillate or mock the player. But the varied tone of the eroticism presented in each boss makes the intentions harder to pin down--it’s perhaps a mix of all these possibilities. Sexuality in Metal Gear deserves much closer analysis and attention as in Gaby’s piece, but I will continue to reference it in this blog series when relevant.

Psycho Mantis is most famous for reading the player’s save data and memory card data, moving the controller “by the power of [his] will alone” (i.e. vibration), and requiring use of the second controller port to beat him. He told me on my playthrough that I’m a very poor warrior and that I’m careful to avoid traps based on my performance in the game. He also told me that  I’m very meticulous because I save the game all the time. It’s a goofy, fun moment that was unprecedented (and probably freaky) in 1998. But Austin Howe notes that it’s more than just a fourth-wall-breaking gimmick; it’s the moment when the game recognizes the player distinct from Snake. You could say that the entire sequence from entering the commander’s office up until the end of the boss fight is primarily a direct encounter between Mantis and you, the player, rather than between Mantis and Snake. The boss fight itself is rather unspectacular. You recognize Mantis’ attack patterns as he flings furniture and paintings around the room and sometimes throws balls of energy at you. After you change the controller port or slot to 2, Snake doesn’t really do anything different than when he attempts to beat Mantis on controller port 1.  

In the diegesis, Snake is a “normal” soldier compared to the bosses with their supernatural abilities. Snake may be an excellent warrior, but the fight with Psycho Mantis proves that he actually has his own “magic” to match the psychokinetic power of Mantis: the player. No normal soldier, no matter how skilled, should be able to take down a tank single-handedly using only grenades. Nor should the soldier be able to take someone on with the powers that Mantis has, and he can’t! Not without the player’s help. Snake beats the incredible odds because he’s controlled by someone with a top-down view of the action, someone who can freeze time in the game to heal Snake’s wounds and switch his weapons, someone who isn’t a predictable AI, someone who can reload the game when Snake dies. And if the villains’ “magic” affords them their monstrous power to wreak havoc on the battlefield, is it the player that turns Snake into a monster too?

In his post-fight monologue, Mantis laments that he couldn’t read the future, to which Snake replies, “The strong man doesn’t need to read the future; he makes his own.” It’s an ironic statement considering Snake certainly isn’t making his future; he’s making Liquid’s and U.S. government’s futures by blindly following orders. Mantis says that in all the thousands of minds he has read over the years, he’s found the “selfish and atavistic desire to pass on one’s seed.” He continues that “every living thing on this planet exists to mindlessly pass on their DNA. We’re designed that way. And that’s why there is war.” It’s a glaringly heteronormative thing to say “we’re designed that way,” and there’s plenty of room for a queer reading as to why Psycho Mantis is so disgusted by his claim and and why he tells Snake that “we’re different.” But he also discusses his past trouble with genes. The mind he first read was his father’s--a mind full of hatred for a son whose birth brought the death of his mother. Mantis thought his father would kill him, and in a frenzied panic, he set his village ablaze either to “bury [his] past” as Snake suggests or as an accident. Mantis’ refusal to accept his past turned him into a monster bent on killing as many people as possible, not really caring about Liquid’s goals for world domination. His father’s judgment determined his life just as Big Boss’s judgment of Liquid determined his (which we’ll get to later). But Mantis is a murderer with no ideology. He’s less like Liquid and more like a videogame player who indulges in some violent power fantasy without thinking critically about it. When Mantis says “We are truly the same, you and I,” he addresses both Snake (for killing his father just as he did) and the player (for going on killing sprees in virtual worlds without a defined purpose--perhaps to escape from a past?).

Mantis’ “we have no past, no future” rhetoric is not just a criticism of the player, but also a criticism of war. Trapped on the battlefield, these characters’ lives become determined by The Powers That Be, whether that be the state or some rogue ideologue like Liquid. When Mantis says that Snake is even worse than he is, he might mean that Snake and the player continue with their mission without even being aware that they’re being played, a reality Mantis has accepted long ago and died for.

Psycho Mantis also reflects Snake’s solitude and isolation. Mantis reveals that he wears a mask to block out other people’s intrusive thoughts that find their way into his mind. His final request is to have his mask put back on, to be “left alone in [his] own world.” He turns all his rage and frustration inward and retreats. Snake, just like Mantis, lives for himself; he expresses that his only interest is survival. But Mantis tells Snake that Meryl has a large place for him in her heart, affirming those developing romantic feelings. But Mantis doesn’t know if their futures lie together--that depends on how Snake changes from here. Mantis dies alone but reveals the alternative: Snake’s potential to live for someone besides himself. With Psycho Mantis’ lesson, we get the second half of Metal Gear Solid’s thesis, alongside the first half learned from Decoy Octopus. Metal Gear Solid’s call to action is to live as yourself, for others. Not the other way around. And that might be the main thematic message of the entire series, not just the first game.

Psycho Mantis dies after opening a hidden passageway that eventually leads to Metal Gear REX’s underground maintenance base. His last words claim that it’s the first time he has used his powers to help someone and that it feels nice. Of course, Mantis’ final words are put into question when we learn that Mantis was the mastermind behind getting Snake to activate REX. Was he simply pushing Snake towards fulfilling Liquid’s plans, or did he foresee a future where Solid triumphs over Liquid? I like to think the latter.

Gray Fox

"A cornered fox is more dangerous than a jackal!"

I didn’t necessarily have to include Gray Fox in this series because it is clear from when we first meet him that he is not acting under Liquid’s orders. He’s not a part of FOXHOUND, but he used to be. He has his own boss battle and becomes one of the most important characters to the game’s plot and themes, however. Fox is, as he says, “neither enemy nor friend,” but is the roaming ghost of Shadow Moses.

Gray Fox is Solid Snake’s old war buddy, who helped him out in Metal Gear but defected to Big Boss before Metal Gear 2. Snake had crippled him in Zanzibarland, where he should have died, but the government recovered his body and revived him. They fitted a prototype exoskeleton onto his body as he went through extensive gene therapy. The government’s experiments gave Gray Fox his enhanced abilities as a cyborg ninja, but the drugs and experiments deteriorated his mind. His memories are fragmented and his mental faculties unstable. When Snake encounters Gray Fox, he often has to flee after episodes of intense pain and spasms caused by damage from the experiments. He’s one of the government’s “dirty little secrets” that helped them create the Genome Army.

Two years before the events of the game, Gray Fox killed Dr. Clark, the scientist who “made” him, which Naomi covered up as a lab accident (with details about this event retconned in Guns of the Patriots). He enters Shadow Moses looking for a fight to the death with Snake, and he first appears after Snake’s fight with Revolver Ocelot. He cuts Ocelot’s arm off with his blade--an act that eventually leads to Ocelot grafting Liquid’s arm to his body, a silly and hilarious and great piece of Metal Gear plot nonsense. He then acts as anonymous informant to Snake via Codec under the alias “Deepthroat.”

During Snake’s multi-phase boss fight against Fox, Fox tells Snake things like “Make me feel it. Make me feel alive again” and “I’ve been waiting for this pain” and later “Hurt me more!” The two characters put away their weapons to heighten the physicality of their fight. The obvious homoerotic S&M undercurrent in the battle is played straight, probably meant to emphasize Fox’s “craziness” and post-traumatic stress. These lines also hint at his longing for the life he felt in Zanzibarland as opposed to his continued existence as a husk. As a child soldier, participating in war is all Fox knows; he takes great pleasure in fighting a warrior that matches his skill, a pleasure that becomes almost sexual. In this instance, the game frames its critique of war by linking a perverse joy of combat and death with queer kink. Metal Gear Solid plays on assumptions that homosexual BDSM is “other” and weird and perverse and establishes that bloodlust in war (and videogames) is similarly wicked. This exploitative, damaging commentary repeats itself in other encounters with villains throughout the series, and such techniques unfortunately become expected of a series whose gender and sexual politics are consistently in the toilet.

Metal Gear Solid 1 includes the most horror tropes in the series. Its setting is a cold, dark, and sterile weapons facility under a night sky. The game’s camera purposefully obscures enemies and other threats off-screen. Snake’s footsteps echo as he crosses the catwalks, the Alaskan wind whistles outside, and industrial crashes ring out throughout the facility. The game opens with chilling Gaelic opera, and foreboding organ riffs punctuate the soundtrack. The game’s ambient sound design and the dull bluish-gray hues of its architecture contribute to the creepiest atmosphere of the series. And Gray Fox is the apex of Metal Gear Solid’s horror. He bloodies a hallway in his search for Snake, ripping Genome soldiers to shreds. The corpse-ridden hallway is an intensely harrowing image for videogames of 1998. Fox’s stealth camouflage even makes the guards mistake him for a real ghost.

But the guards are hardly wrong. Gray Fox haunts the battlefield, a dead soldier denied rest. Stuck in his constructed body and sustained by drugs and nanomachines, Fox kills people with little rhyme or reason as he waits for a warrior strong enough to finish him. Gray Fox is also haunted himself--haunted by his guilty actions on the battlefield. He murdered Naomi Hunter’s parents in the Rhodesian Civil War. He was young at the time, and he couldn’t bear to kill her too. So he decided to take Naomi with him and raise her as his own. Naomi thinks of him as a brother, and she eventually reveals her entire motivation in this operation is to avenge Gray Fox by altering FOXDIE to kill Snake and stick it to the government. Fox requests that Snake tells Naomi the truth about who killed her parents, but at the end of the game, Snake instead tells Naomi that Fox said “to forget about him and to go on with [her] own life.” I don’t believe that Snake should have disrespected Fox’s final request and withheld the truth from Naomi, but the game would rather see Naomi forge her own path than obsess about where and who she came from.


One of my favorite moments in the game is when Otacon witnesses Snake and Fox’s bizarre exchange before their fight and says, cowering in the corner in a puddle of his own pee, “What’s with these guys? It’s like one of my Japanese animes.” Besides providing some comic relief, Otacon’s line reveals the horror of fantasy. In fact, watching anime gets Otacon interested in developing Metal Gear in the first place. But Otacon’s indulgence in his fantasy of building cool anime robots leads to him to unwittingly develop a weapon of mass destruction--a weapon with material consequences for his real world. Likewise, a videogame player might like to embody the likes of Snake or Fox, a fantasy super soldier and war hero or a cyborg ninja with cool armor and stylish acrobatic skills. But Metal Gear Solid wants its audience to realize that no one should want to live out this fantasy, given its prices. No one should want to suffer the trauma of war, to become tools of other people, to be robbed of agency, life, and even death by parties who view their subjects as commodities or lab rats (perhaps not far from how major publishers in the games industry view their audience).

Gray Fox’s dying words address this reality directly: “We’re not tools for the government or anyone else. Fighting was the only thing [...] I was good at, but… at least I always fought for what I believed in.” Gray Fox’s final words partly inspire Snake and Otacon to form Philanthropy, the anti-Metal Gear organization, before the events of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Gray Fox dies a hero, sacrificing his life to destroy Metal Gear REX’s radome, allowing Snake to finish off the mech with Stinger missiles. Before Gray Fox dies, he orders Snake to fire a missile at Metal Gear’s open hatch, his broken body just feet away. The game switches to the first-person perspective of Snake aiming the Stinger. When the player hits the fire button, Snake refuses to obey the command. “I can’t. I won’t do it,” he repeats in his head. He won’t kill his friend during his final monologue, for god’s sake! It’s the game’s most explicit severance between the player and the independent character of Snake. You may not care about Gray Fox and see the opportunity to defeat Liquid once and for all, but Snake, a character who has previously been portrayed as a cold, detached anti-hero, actually cares enough about his friend to override your control.

Before Fox is crushed by REX, he says that “[a]fter Zanzibar, I was taken from the battle… neither truly alive nor truly dead… an undying shadow in a world of lights…
His rhetoric of “shadows” and “lights” is reprised by Big Mama’s final words to Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4. She tells Snake: “You and the beasts are no different--scorched shadows born into this world. When a beast steps into the light, unless the light is put out, the shadow cannot be erased.” The shadows are the soldiers and victims of war unable to face their pasts or leave the battlefield; they are Snake and the bosses. The lights are the forces who create those shadows and turn them against each other; they are the state, the Patriots, competing ideologies. Metal Gear Solid 1 mostly teaches the player about the shadows, while the rest of series reveals the faces of the lights--the Patriots and their transformations over half a century.


Well this endeavor has exceeded the scope I had planned. Over 4,000 words into writing about Metal Gear Solid 1, and I’ve only covered half the villains! So I’ve decided to split the post in two. You’ll see the next part of the series, on Vulcan Raven, Sniper Wolf, and Liquid Snake hopefully in a few days. I’ll likely have to do the same with my writing on Metal Gear Solid 2, but I’m not sure yet about 3 or 4. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Continue to FOXHOUND Pt 2.