Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Metal Gear Villains: An Introduction

Metal Gear is a beautiful goddamn mess.

I replayed most of the series (Metal Gear Solid 1-4) this winter break in preparation to play The Phantom Pain once I get a PS4 in the summer. I also wanted playing the games to accompany my reading of Jackson Tyler’s excellent, fun Metal Gear Diaries over on Abnormal Mapping. And I’m planning on replaying Revengeance before Heather Alexandra’s upcoming book comes out. Metal Gear is a series I’ve loved since I played MGS4 four years ago (a confusing entry to start with, sure--but I did love it!), but I wanted to remind myself of why. I also played the games in a strange order: 4 first, followed by 2, 3, Peace Walker, and Revengeance. I had never played the first game, a sin to many, especially for experiencing Sons of Liberty without the essential knowledge of the first game’s framework.

Not only did I replay Metal Gear to rectify those sins, but I also I wanted to see how it evolves its narrrative, aesthetics, and gameplay over the course of a decade. And playing the games one after the other and seeing those changes--changes in both technology to make the games and narrative tactics to address political shifts over the decade--has given me a strange sense of history that continues to develop in me as I age and work through my degree. Metal Gear helped me realize that I’m as much a subject of historical changes and circumstances as the series is. I’ve been alive for nearly 20 years, long enough for tons of cultural, political, and technological shifts to occur all around me, such as the rise of an Internet culture, economic crises, the War on Terror, radical social movements, and reactionary social movements. It’s not that I wasn’t a subject of history before and that I am now. It’s the shock that I was always interpellated in ongoing social and historical transformations. These changes were occurring while I was in diapers, while I was practicing penmanship in second grade, and are continuing as I type this post. Elementary and high school education seem designed to make students feel distant to history and cultural processes, but the Metal Gear saga is intentionally designed to foster this kind of self-awareness in its audience. Metal Gear is a series about legacy. It consistently asks us how we’re going to live in the present and what we’re going to pass on to future generations.

But of course, Metal Gear will challenge its audience to reflect on their relationship to technology and culture and, in the same breath, say “Look at this Hot Babe--press R1 to see titty.” Metal Gear is a series of contradictions--a series that constantly flits between brilliance and stupidity. It’s a series so dense and convoluted that it’s hard to know where to start talking about it. It’s a series about what it means to be a Soldier. It’s a series that sacrifices subtlety for sincerity when delivering its anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist critiques. It’s also a series about bisexual vampires and photosynthetic snipers and anime robots and homoerotic fistfights on top of those anime robots. It questions whether love can bloom on the battlefield in the most ridiculous, ill-conceived, and often sexist ways. It’s a series about videogames--its sequels are about videogame sequels. It tackles player entitlement and videogame power fantasy way earlier and often more elegantly than many of its more recent peers. Nuclear war, cultural indoctrination, and mass exploitation and murder threaten the Metal Gear universe at the whims of the characters’ melodramatic interpersonal conflicts and identity crises. It’s a series with horrendous representations of gender, race, and sexuality, a series with awkward moment-to-moment dialogue, a series with incredibly disorienting pacing. Most design decisions from the camera to the level design to the shooting mechanics seem to work towards a singular, cohesive vision for each individual game. But the series’ canon is constantly rewritten, and our understanding of characters, plot points, and even entire games are constantly called into question and reconfigured.

The Cobra Unit - (

There are so many approaches one can take to Metal Gear and so many aspects of the games one could focus on--to praise it or to tear it down. But in this blog series, I want to focus on Kojima’s villains; they’re an interesting and essential part of the series for many reasons. MGS boss fights are some of the most renowned in videogame history. The villains are noteworthy because:

  1. The boss fights are interesting pieces of game design. Encounters are often like puzzles (some better than others). As a whole, they require a variety of tactics from the player, and individually, tend to offer multiple approaches to “solve the puzzle.” And of course, some are famous for their fourth-wall breaking techniques, which are always more than mere gimmicks as some players might argue.
  2. They’re the epitome of capital-R Romance in the games. The villains’ supernatural abilities and over-the-top, campy appearances establish them as other-worldly. Their “magical” affect contrasts to the very real threats of nuclear proliferation, information control, and political disenfranchisement wrapped in a narrative that references real events, real people, and real concepts in its strange alternate history. The fantastical elements of the bosses remind the player that this is an entertaining fantasy (a meaningful function in itself), but they also highlight the dehumanization of war that turns its subjects into literal monsters. The characters’ obvious animal names and motifs further play into this idea.
  3. Metal Gear’s narrative uses the bosses to question our very conceptions of heroism and villainy. Most of its villains are treated as victims of war and humanized as much as Solid Snake and his support team (with some gross, complicating elements, especially in Guns of the Patriots). Furthermore, Metal Gear often uses its villains to interrogate the ethics of the protagonist’s actions, calling into question how different the series’ heroes and villains really are. Metal Gear’s complex, nuanced depiction of ethics and human motives place certain characters in heroic roles in one game and villainous roles in another. The series shows that people’s morals or means to follow such morals are not always fixed, but subject to context and circumstance often beyond any one person’s control. The boss fights often act as cathartic violence that frees the villains from the burdens of the battlefield. The villains more often end up as tragic figures who have done terrible things rather than vessels of pure evil.
  4. The villains are sometimes connected to the games’ main themes as stylized by Kojima--GENE, MEME, SCENE, and SENSE--each word corresponding to the theme of each game in order from the first to the fourth.

For a while, I struggled to figure out how to structure this set of posts. As I mentioned before, Metal Gear has a habit of radically transforming our understanding of events that take place in the series timeline, including the characters’ motives during those events. Sequels even undermine themes presented in the previous games. For example (spoilers for MGS1), at the end of the first game, Snake and Meryl set out to enjoy a life free from genetic determination that would have Snake tied to war, violence, and the player’s control forever. But a few years later, after establishing possibilities for its characters to defy their genes, Metal Gear Solid 2 releases, with Snake back on the battlefield, clearly no longer together with Meryl, again living the life that’s been dictated by his genes. Kojima’s recurring reluctance to make Metal Gear sequels might explain the frequent retcons. (He's not gonna have to worry about that anymore!) But it seems clear that each game has its own thematic vision, so I’ve decided to focus on the villains as they’re presented in each individual game rather than the series as a whole. The one conspicuous exception to this approach, however, is Ocelot, my favorite Metal Gear boy. He’s the only villain in almost every game (bar Peace Walker and Revengeance), and our understanding of him as a character goes through such complex, interesting transformations. I’d like to unravel them in a single post dedicated to Ocelot after I play The Phantom Pain.


So I think an understanding of the games’ villains can lead us to an understanding of Metal Gear--the good and the bad. This is probably going to be a long and strange journey, as tackling Metal Gear tends to be (just look at Jackson’s Diaries that I mentioned). I’m about to return to school, so I’ll have little time to form these posts in quick succession. I’m aiming to release at least one entry per month. You can expect the post on Metal Gear Solid 1 pretty soon.

Thanks for reading, and look out for the next piece where we examine the lanky psychics, thirsty snipers, and shirtless twins (and more) of Shadow Moses.


The Villains of:

Metal Gear Solid - FOXHOUND Pt 1
                             FOXHOUND Pt 2  

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