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!

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