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.

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