Part 1: Analysis
A serpent falls from the sky, and where he lands, the story begins. So it is with Metal Gear, the first in a long line of tactical espionage action games by famed Japanese designer Hideo Kojima. Much has been made of the Metal Gear franchise, from its innovative gameplay, to its verbosity, to its affection for 1980s action movies, but there has never been a true literary analysis of the games and their ties to the greatest epic poems in any language.
You see, that first moment in the first game, when Solid Snake falls from a plane and lands in Outer Heaven, mirrors the descent of another snake, the great serpent, father of lies, prince of darkness, and son of the morning–Lucifer, the Great Satan. It’s not that Solid Snake represents the devil per se, there are certainly more devilish characters that appear throughout the series, but there are a great many similarities between the two falls. Both snakes are cast out of the sky by a Father, and they land in a place outside of Heaven. For Lucifer, it is Hell, for Snake, it is Outer Heaven, where death and torture lurk around every corner, just like in Hell.
This is but one example of the many connections between Hell and the journeys of Solid Snake; there are echoes in Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialist play No Exit, and and other classics. Kojima’s massive series is thick with allusion, metaphor, depth, and complexity. Breaking it down, and drawing these connections, is no simple task.
In part one of this special two-part Pixeltheque article, I will examine many of the elements that make Metal Gear Metal Gear, looking at some of the characters, settings, and plot elements that make these games so interesting and important. In part two, I will break down the Grand Hell Theory of Metal Gear, using evidence from the six games in the main series to argue that Snake, Otacon, and the souls of the rest of the cast are trapped in Hell, forced to suffer for eternity by reliving the same traumas on different battlefields, over and over again.
For the purposes of this analysis, I will be dealing primarily with the entry in the series that most people consider the pennacle, Metal Gear Solid. The third game in the series, MGS is the game that its predecessors were striving to be, and all subsequent games were responses to. There will be spoilers galore, but it will also be very interesting!
Metal Gear Solid is the story of a former special operations soldier, an infiltration expert known only by his callsign, “Solid Snake,” who is brought out of retirement for one important mission. Snake’s former unit, FOXHOUND, has gone rogue. They have taken over an Alaskan military base with the intention of launching a nuclear weapon if the United States does not comply with their demands. Snake’s job is to enter the base, rescue the hostages, defeat FOXHOUND (now called terrorists by the US government) and prevent a nuclear attack. But as Snake creeps deeper into Shadow Moses, he learns many dark secrets, and uncovers the true purpose of his mission. It turns out that Shadow Moses Island is hiding the new weapon prototype Metal Gear Rex, a giant walking battle tank, like the mecha from Battletech or Xenogears. Snake has tangled with Metal Gear in the past, so he sets out to destroy the tank.
But that’s not why he has been sent to Shadow Moses. Solid Snake, like the leader of the terrorists, Liquid Snake, is a clone, created from the DNA of the legendary mercenary Big Boss –Solid Snake’s former commanding officer. Snake is a carrier of the virus FoxDie. By coming into proximity of the members of FOXHOUND, Snake can pass on the virus and kill all the terrorists. That way, the government can step in at the end, clean up, and reclaim Metal Gear undamaged. But that’s not how it works out. While Liquid pilots Metal Gear, Snake destroys the tank, and after a high-speed jeep crash during his escape, Snake witnesses Liquid perish from the effects of FoxDie. Then, after a farewell from Snake’s commanding officer Colonel Roy Campbell, Solid Snake rides off into the sunset on a snowmobile.
Who joins Snake on the snowmobile is up to the player. There is a scene about halfway through Metal Gear Solid when one of Liquid’s henchmen, Revolver Ocelot, tortures Solid Snake. If Snake resists the torture, he is joined by his comrade, the rookie female soldier Meryl, in the final sequence. This is considered the happy ending, where Snake escapes Shadow Moses Island with a new love interest. If Snake submits, Meryl dies, and Snake is joined by the techie Hal “Otacon” Emmerich. There is a lot of sadness in Metal Gear Solid. Two of the hostages that Snake is sent to protect die right in front of him. Otacon falls in love with one of the terrorists, but she dies too. Snake reunites with his old comrade Grey Fox, but Fox dies saving Snake’s life. Meryl’s death is another twist of the knife, one last bit of suffering Snake has to cope with. As if he hasn’t suffered enough.
It’s a beautiful action adventure story–much better compared to First Blood, Die Hard, and Terminator than Contra or Doom. Those games are great, but the story of Metal Gear Solid really hooks you in, and makes you root for Snake. He’s more than just some pixels with a gun. Not only is he a tough-as-nails action hero, but it’s clear from the things he says (and more importantly, the things he does) that it isn’t easy for Snake to punch out his brother on a burning battle tank, shoot down a Hind D with a stinger missile, or rappel down the side of a tower while under heavy fire. The fact that Snake’s challenges are so difficult makes the player understand the insurmountable odds Snake faces, so the player roots for him because the player is along for the ride.
But let’s be honest. The most distinguished aspect of the Metal Gear series is its stealth mechanics, which pioneered a whole genre. In an era where Jump and Shoot were the only commands in action games, the original Metal Gear utilized key cards, security cameras, guards who fell asleep, camouflage, and other cool features. Metal Gear Solid may be one of the most responsive games of all time. Hiding under tables, peeking around a corner, sneaking up behind a guard and knocking him out years before Hitman came on the scene. Both the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid were incredible leaps forward in showing what kinds of games there could be, and what kinds of games could be fun.
In the next installment of this special pixelthèque event, I will look deeper at the characters and situations that occur and reoccur in the Metal Gear series, and what allusions these repetitions make to classical literature. Stay tuned!