Metal Gear Solid 1: Analysis and review

There are throughout the history of any given medium certain works which are touted as masterpieces, and held up as examples of the strengths and potentials of the medium as a whole.  Film has the likes of Citizen Kane, radio has War of the Worlds, literature has too many to count.  Whether or not the examples which flitter about in the public consciousness actually are of any value is of course a matter of taste, but taste can still be informed by any number of criteria and as such, discussion is often in order.

With that in mind, I will begin my examination of what has long been touted as an example of the artistic potential of video games: the Metal Gear Solid series.

Upon first inspection, the core plot of the first game is comprised of very clumsy and obvious tropes of the sort found in any action movie.  Terrorists have commandeered an island used for the disposal of nuclear weapons, kidnapped a pair of important washington types, and threatened to launch a nuclear weapon unless their demands are met.  To get a good grasp of just how cliche the general outline is, see here.

Past this initial Raison d’être the game provides for the player, however, there are various layers of interest.  There are two principle underlying themes in MGS1.  The first is a strong anti-war (and particularly anti-nuclear) sentiment.  The second is the fundamental struggle of human beings with their background and circumstances.  These are very broad themes, and in the interest of fairness I must express that they have been handled much better in other works.  Some of this doubtlessly stems from the nature of the medium, but either way the result is the same.

I will divide my analysis into two groups: didactic themes and existential significance.

Didactic themes

As MGS1 tries to balance the communication of its themes with its core responsibilities as a game, it takes a while before we get to anything which can be spoken about intellectually.  The first scene of interest occurs after rescuing ArmsTech president Kenneth Baker.

Skip straight to 4:03 if you wish to get to the exact point of interest

For reasons unknown the author of the video felt the need to omit a rather significant portion of explanation between 4:14-4:18.  Essentially, Baker in this scene presents the following.

* The fall of the Soviet Union led to a massive surplus of nuclear technology and nuclear scientists

* Nuclear Weapons disposal programs are inadequate.  The issue of MUF is touched on.

Of course neither of these things are actually in the video above, but they are in the scene.  I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Baker also makes it clear that he pushed for the development of a new and highly destabalizing nuclear weapon, using his political connections and company money.  In this sense he is presented as something of an instigator.  Since this game is often talked about as if it speaks significantly to the world we live in, I must make a note here.  This strikes me as enabling a rather pernicious misunderstanding.  There is much to say about the Military Industrial Complex, none of it good.  However, the presentation of financial power as a motive force for social evil tends to be foolish.  In this case it is particularly so.  The ability of companies to lobby the state for access to power conceals a number of facts simultaneously.  First, this ability would be lacking if the state did not exist.  Second, the fact that companies engage this ability is revealing, because it shows that they will gladly trade their supposedly all-powerful money for the ability to utilize the coercive powers of the state.  Since the national budget is the product of extortion, receiving funding from the national budget is benefiting from theft.  However this theft is enabled not by money, but by force.  Hence force is the final arbiter in society, and what leads to misallocation of resources; not money.

Returning to an analysis of core themes, I present this scene.  It continues with much of what was previously described, and it also introduces new subtleties.

We now have a new character, a scientist.  Once again I apologize as half the portion of interest is missing from this scene.  7:24 on is of particular interest, however.  It presents us with a number of premises and even arguments, which I will present and respond to.

The first argument is that science has thrived on war.  While this is superficially true, it is misleading.  Science is a process, and as such it can be engaged in under any number of pretenses.  One must be careful not to conflate the scientific method with any given social instantiation of the scientific method.  This is a fallacy which is quite common and popular.  You will find it in a number of applications.  Popular junk philosophy approaches it with a characteristically hollow and ridiculous affectation.  In more educated circles you will see it brought out by professional scientists who advocate state funding of scientific research and initiatives.  They will attempt to cite historical precedent by bringing up the various royal societies of science in europe.  In doing so they neglect much, both historical and analytical, but this is not the place for a discussion of that scope.

From this confusion of the nature of science the scene flows quite naturally to the ever more patently ridiculous claim that “The greatest weapons of mass destruction were created by scientists who just wanted to be famous”.  Of course, all of this business is presented in response to an accusation of irresponsibility.  “Scientists must take responsibility for their actions”, the scientist says.  At first inspection this seems like a fair statement; until you realize it removes responsibility from the shoulders of everyone else.

Let me paint a picture for you, dear reader.  You are a stone-age man, and every day you and the band of gibbering lunatics you rely on called pre-agricultural society have to run out after animals which are much larger, stronger, and pointier than you, and beat them to death with rocks.  This is no trivial task.  It requires precise coordination on the part of all rock-weilders involved.  People die in the process.  If too many get hurt or killed, hunting becomes impossible and you and everyone else in your society could starve.

One day, an idea comes into your dim little head.  If animals are good at killing because of their pointy parts, perhaps pointy things are simply useful for killing!  So you set about inventing the pointed stick, and over a matter of months you have refined your invention into something modern folk might recognize as a spear.  You have even documented the theory behind your creation in the form of cave paintings.  A sort of “how-to” guide, presented in what for your time amounts to clear and precise, highly operationalized language.

So you’re happy, your tribe is happy, everyone eats consistently and enjoys the increased lifespan and general standard of living that comes from having food and being able to procure it without getting trampled or gored.  200,000 years later, your invention is responsible for perhaps 10 billion murders.

So are you to be held responsible for these?  After all, your ideas and your invention enabled them to happen.  Does this speak to your character?  Murder is a great evil.  For 10 billion of them to have a common ancestor in some singular action would seem to suggest that the action in question is pretty terrible, no?

Although intuitively it might seem like there is a justification for this position, a cursory examination of it reveals it to be absurd.  The sort of Oppenheimerian angst on display in this scene is gratuitous and self serving.  If we accept the premise that human beings are responsible for their actions, then we must accept that all of the murders committed with spears (or atomic weapons) are the responsibility of the men who utilized the weapons and ordered their use; not the men who created them.  Anything else effectively turns the scientist into a God, a being who negates the freedom of other beings, only worse in certain aspects.  Since the actions of others when provided with new technology come to form the new situation for the scientist, the arrogance of this overblown instinct for responsibility couples with a sort of grandiose sense of being a victim of circumstance.  Concurrently, the scientist becomes in his own mind both all powerful and completely powerless, in a clumsy, contradictory and excessively melodramatic fashion.

Even if we accept that it is possible for responsibility to exist to both parties without contradiction, we thusly hypostasize some element or atom of responsibility which is inaccessible to the actor in each given instance of murder.  Hence their responsibility becomes incomplete, and our initial premise arrives at contradiction again.  This is a form of bad faith which is as old as the human race itself.  It can be seen in the tragedy of the greeks remarkably well.  After all, let there be no doubt that the theme on display here is one of tragedy.  Nonetheless it does not deserve the dignity bestowed to it.

Onwards to another point of interest.  Outside of the cutscenes, there are also various Codec (radio) conversations which are used to communicate plot.  This is used periodically for what amounts to infodump.  There are two primary characters of interest in terms of the underlying themes of the game.  These are Nastasha Romanenko, who presents the larger portion of the anti-nuclear message, and Naomi Hunter, who exists largely to initiate conversations about genetic determinism.  While the game presents much detail through these two characters, in the form of various political, social, and military observations, I feel I have exhausted my examination of all arguments which can be analyzed without the use of existential tools.  Given that, I will now move on to the second portion of my analysis.

Existential significance

Even now, I am somewhat unsure where to begin.  Originally I had intended to make statements about the nature of eastern philosophy and culture, but I feel that to be unnecessary now.  Bad faith is everywhere, east and west, popular culture and counterculture.  Besides which, such an investigation would effectively be into Kojima rather than the game.  It would also be a fair bit pretentious to attempt to reverse engineer him by examining his background, if not outright and thoroughly dishonest.

Instead, I will point the reader to Supergokuizard’s character analysis of Solid Snake.  It can be found at the very end of this article.  For the sake of convenience, scroll down until you arrive at gold text.

This is a sound general outline of the role of the protagonist throughout the series.  In the interest of avoiding redundancy, I will attempt to focus this section of my analysis into two parts.  The first consists of an examination of some of the more esoteric consequences of the game, both structurally and narratively.  The second consists of elaboration on concepts presented in the article linked to above.

The narrative structure of video games is unique, because they combine elements of traditional film and text with a massive blank slate.  When Roger Ebert says that games are not art, he is correct.  At least, the game aspect of games cannot be art.  It presents the player with the same state of affairs as the world does, and the world is not art.  After all, what is the meaning of a mountain or a cloud?  It has none.  Neither symbolically nor existentially.  A game is a blank slate, and as such it allows the player to impose their own values upon it.  However, the narrative aspect of games allows for symbolism.  At the fringes between the two different structures, a fundamental confusion is enabled.  This is where bad faith enters into gaming.

The game structure enables a sense of agency on the part of the player, which is transferred to the character being controlled.  The narrative structure, however, allows a sense of innate meaning to enter into the work as a whole.  Thus no matter what the player does with their freedom, a sense of authenticity hangs over it.  The complexities of this circumstance merit a dissertation and cannot be satisfactorily elaborated upon within the context of this article.  Instead I will simply discuss the issue as it pertains to the game in question.

Since the blending of these elements is a very delicate and tricky thing, the result is often that the authorial voice seems to infringe upon the freedom of the player.  The author in this context is somewhat similar to God.  His voice is thusly the voice of God.  As is the tradition with God, people want him to exist in order to justify their own existence, but they also want to remain free.  As a result his omnipotence must be made non-threatening.

MGS1 accomplishes this task in the following ways.  First of all, I have stated previously that codec conversations often amount to infodump.  The reason for this is that it allows the game to present messages as if they belong to the characters in the world in question.  Hence it removes the imposing presence of the author within the text.  When Nastasha speaks of the evils of nuclear proliferation, these are her values and not those of the writer of the game.  When Naomi speaks of family ancestry, this is because she considers it important.

Of course this is all essentially an authorial trick.  These characters are the authorial voice.  However, since the narrative is structured in this way it enables the gamer to treat the universe as a self-contained entity, as one would the world.  (It also enables the gamer to treat it as a story, in the sort of existential sense I am describing.  It is the ability of the player to perceive a game in both capacities that allows them to overemphasize the significance of a game, by means of cycling between the two approaches to it at will.  But this is a digression.)

I must admit that I am having some trouble piecing together the significance of the narrative proper.  This is because of a general phenomenon wherein the limitations of circumstance are referenced more boldly than the truth of human agency.  Facticity is a strange concept.  To what extent is the world prior to the point we have to deal with it?  Ultimately the question doesn’t matter, because agency is still in existence.  The ground on which human beings make themselves can come up to their necks, and they are still technically free.  Thus a story like this can come across as affirming the freedom of the spirit despite ostensibly being about the limitations of existing as a human being.

A more competent story that uses the same tactic is Gattaca.  Even the tagline drives the point home.  The comparison between MGS1 and Gattaca has been made before, but I would ask the reader to perform a simple task.  Here is what is perhaps the most important scene in Gattaca, in terms of the message of human agency.  Now here is the equivalent in MGS1.  Compare and contrast.

Both works have themes related to genetic determinacy, and both ultimately reject the concept.  However, one does so organically and consistently.  The other uses a narrator to convey the message in a very direct “here is the message” capacity.  In the course of her rambling, obvious discourse, she posits that she has found the true meaning of life.  Then the characters reiterate this bogus concept of authenticity and ride off into the sunset.

The entire thing is heavy-handed and absurd, and seems to miss the point.  I suppose that is to be expected and is perhaps forgivable, because the point is rather hard to get to and even harder to deal with.  Nonetheless, the issue remains; I am still not completely sure whether MGS1 is consistently in good faith.  For the sake of convenience I will simply assume that it is.

Given this assumption, I will begin by touching on issues I believe to be of importance which were raised by supergokuizard’s character analysis.

1. At the beginning of the game, Snake fights because he is told to and because he enjoys it.

This is true.  However, I believe the etiology of this behavior is more important to Snake as a character.  Normally such an investigation would present us with difficulties.  However, in the narrative we have a convenience: Psycho Mantis.  As a person with psychic abilities, he has direct epistemic access to the minds of not just Snake, but indeed every character in the game.  Hence he is a reliable character witness and can serve to elucidate concepts which we otherwise would only have been able to guess at.

The issue of a psychic itself produces difficulties.  Mantis appears at one point to control Meryl.  If this were possible, it would have dramatic implications on any traditional conception of free will.  Given this, I will adopt the minimal possible position which allows for an existential analysis; a compatabilistic account of free will, perhaps such as Bergson’s.  Once again I am afraid a sufficient treatment of this subject is outside the scope of this article.  If later examination reveals that even a compatabilistic account of free will is insufficient to justify the existence of a psychic, then I will be forced to write off MGS1 as an example of bad faith.  Worse yet, one which co-opts themes of human agency.

Returning from that digression, I present you with this video.

The writer to which I am responding holds the key line in this scene to be “A strong man doesn’t need to read the future.  He makes his own”.  While this is important, and I will concede that it appears to have all the significance he has ascribed to it, I believe there are two lines of greater importance.  The first pertains to human nature.  The second, to Snake’s character; perhaps to the character of soldiers in general.  At bare minimum, the second appears to apply to all members of Fox-Hound.

…and each mind that I peered into was stuffed with the same single object of obsession.  That selfish and atavistic desire to pass on one’s seed.

The scene of interest is between 1:23-1:52.  Mantis elaborates on this sentiment quite a bit.  This particular series of statements cannot be interpreted as part of the authorial voice if we wish to interpret the story as philosophically consistent.  While we can accept that the minds he has read have an interest in reproduction, concepts like design are anathema.  His reduction of war is perhaps less problematic, although it appears to lack justification.  Once again this is simply an issue of what we can permit as facticity without compromising a sense of human agency.  Presumably, if there are strictly positive attributes of cognition then these can be modeled in a fully deterministic capacity without compromising the element of consciousness which is negation at the heart of being.

The second statement begins at 1:52.

You’re the same as us.  We have no past, no future.  We live in the moment.  That’s our only purpose.

If taken at face value, this is nothing short of absurd.  Certainly the concept of having no past.  It belies the notion of responsibility, as the person of now ceases to be the result of the actions and decisions of the person of before.  This is impossible, so we cannot accept these statements to mean that.

Instead, I believe the appropriate interpretation rests on a different structure of consciousness unrelated to the temporal ekstasis.  When Mantis says “we”, he refers to the other members of Special Forces unit Fox-Hound.  Hence we must presume that whatever phenomenon he is discussing is common to some task, action, or thought process on the part of those referenced.  I believe the most reasonable interpretation is that consciousness of fighting is, here, presented as something which crowds out other forms of awareness.  In much the same way a person cannot be aware of their friendship with Pierre and of Pierre at the same time, they cannot be aware of their reason for battle and the battle at the same time.  Hence when Snake, or indeed any of the soldiers on display in the plot, engage in violence, they avoid having to address issues of the meaning of their lives and actions.

Therefore Mantis is here speaking of a form of bad faith.  As career soldiers, Fox-Hound have spent their lives in combat.  Introspection has not been forthcoming under such conditions.

I had thought that there was more I had intended to discuss, but for the life of me I cannot remember what it would have been.  This is what happens when people steal books.  If you have a friend in the greater Littleton/Denver area who mysteriously acquired a new iPod and a dog-eared copy of Being and Nothingness roughly two weeks ago, please let them know that I want it back.  It is for the sake of science.


~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on September 11, 2009.

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