Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game which has drawn almost continuous discussion since its release in 2001, and for good reason: it’s been called the first postmodern video game, and even today it comes across as clever and provocative. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is because it’s a rearticulation and deconstruction of Hollywood action films; this is pretty blatant even without the numerous times its creator Hideo Kojima has gone on record and talked about his love of the medium. (As his Twitter proclaims, “70% of my body is made of movies.”) The interesting thing about this, though, is the extent to which MGS2 revolves around not just the trappings of the genre, but the fundamentally American ideology it espouses: namely, that of individualism and personal autonomy. Or, as Howard Suber puts it:
What American movies are selling is the Unstated State Religion of America: Individualism — the belief that the most important power in the world lies within each person.
Metal Gear Solid 2 takes this philosophy and runs with it, spinning a moral about the importance of the individual and arguing that it falls to each of us to forge our own legacy. At the same time, though, this glorification of an ideal sits uneasily against its harsh critique of America as a political power, and it’s this tension which coaxes out some of the game’s most interesting messages.
(Major major spoilers for all of MGS2 ahead, particularly endgame).
Individualism is an ideology which places an emphasis on the individual, their moral worth, and their wider significance. It is, as Emanuel Levy says, one of the sacred values of the western world, underpinning the systems of both democracy and capitalism. And it holds a particular importance in America, the nexus of modern western culture:
Individualism has always been a major cultural element of the American Way of Life. Notions of appropriate (and inappropriate) individualism are transmitted not only by the family, peer group, and school, but also by the mass media (film, television). The cultural media serve as a major source of information about a variety of roles, including the political role of a citizen.
Film is perhaps the most suitable vehicle for disseminating ideology, considering its popularity and accessibility. Hollywood’s ideals, indicative of how the United States sees itself, are simply variations on the American Dream and the country’s central mythology.
Trying to summarise the incredibly complicated plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 is a nigh-impossible task, but I’ll do my best: after a prologue section in which famed operative Solid Snake infiltrates a tanker and has it all go wrong, the game jumps forward two years and changes completely. You now play as Raiden, a rookie trying to rescue the US President from a terrorist group called the Sons of Liberty, supposedly led by Solid Snake; they’re holding the Big Shell, which is the environmental cleanup plant at the site of the tanker crash. Although the operation quickly becomes more complicated thanks to a bombing plot, he manages to move forward with his mission thanks to the help of a Navy SEAL named Iroquois Pliskin (later unmasked as the real Solid Snake). Finding the President cues a series of startling revelations, the most significant of which is that the entire American political system is a sham, controlled by a shadowy group called the Patriots. The Big Shell, too, is a fake: it’s revealed to be a tank called Arsenal Gear which houses an AI known as GW, a Patriot project to control digital information. It later transpires that the Colonel, Raiden’s commanding officer, is merely a product of this AI, and that the entire mission was intended as a simulation designed to mirror the events of the original Metal Gear Solid as closely as possible. The true purpose of this simulation is only explained right before the game’s final battle: it was an experiment to see the extent to which human behaviour could be simulated and controlled.
Colonel: So you see, you’re a perfect representative of the masses we need to protect. This is why we chose you. You accepted the fiction we’ve provided, obeyed our orders and did everything you were told to. The exercise is a resounding success. […] Your persona, experiences, triumphs and defeats are nothing but byproducts. The real objective was ensuring that we could generate and manipulate them. It’s taken a lot of time and money, but it was well worth it considering the results.
The Patriots insist that history is fundamentally a coherent tapestry, the contextualisation of events being shaped over time according to the will of the elite. The masses have been rendered docile and incapable of original thought, unquestioningly accepting “facts” fed to them from above. Yet the entire game and its key messages stand in opposition to this, as best encapsulated in Snake’s closing monologue:
Here the game tells us that even an individual – or, perhaps, especially an individual – can impact human history through connection and faith. Family and parenting is the most obvious example – it’s one of the game’s central themes, particularly in the final act – but both acts of creation and simple emotion are framed in a very similar light. The record of a human being’s existence is not written in the genetic material they leave behind, but the passions that helped them look beyond themselves:
Raiden: What am I supposed to believe in? What am I going to leave behind when I’m through?
Snake: We can tell other people about — having faith. What we had faith in. What we found important enough to fight for. It’s not whether you were right or wrong, but how much faith you were willing to have, that decides the future.
Raiden spends most of the plotline without any real or significant purpose, focusing simply on finishing the task he’s been given. Unlike Snake, who takes on the Big Shell because his desire for peace outweighs his desire to live uninterrupted, Raiden is just doing his job. And, disturbingly, he admits to liking what he does: he feels nothing when he kills, to the point where he needs to seek reassurance from Snake about it. In fact, the Colonel goes so far as to say he’s nothing more than a weapon – as evidenced by his designated codename, taken from a Japanese WWII fighter jet – and although Raiden denies this at the time, it takes him until the very end of the game to actually prove as much and surpass this conception of himself. (More on this later, though.)
In contrast, Solidus Snake (MGS2’s final boss, if not its major antagonist) takes a view which also centralises the primacy of the individual and the importance of legacy. A former president of the US and agent of the Patriots, he grew tired of being a puppet and moved against his masters. He’s so committed to the crucially American values of freedom and individualism that his group, the Sons of Liberty, takes its name from the historical organisation behind the Boston Tea Party. While Solidus has been stripped of the ability to reproduce due to his nature as a clone, he still feels the desire to contribute to the human race – to leave a positive and enduring record of himself behind. And, devoid of the ability to contribute through reproduction, he turns to orchestrating a revolution.
Even the Patriots themselves, whose ideology is supposed to directly oppose the philosophies espoused by both Snakes, cannot help but subscribe to the cult of the individual. The Patriot AI-consciousness which Raiden encounters immediately before the final fight with Solidus destroys the idea of “self”, calling it out as a borrowed persona which exists solely as a false source of strength. It also takes apart the very idea of individualism which the game leans on:
Rose: Everyone grows up being told the same thing.
Colonel: Be nice to other people.
Rose: But beat out the competition!
Colonel: “You’re special.” “Believe in yourself and you will succeed.”
Rose: But it’s obvious from the start that only a few can succeed…
Colonel: You exercise your right to “freedom” and this is the result.
At the same time as it disdains individualism, though, it cannot escape the game’s fundamental ideological paradigm. Ultimately, the scorn it heaps upon this idea is revealed to simply be a mask for its greatest fear:
Rose: Should someone like you even have the right to decide?
Colonel: You’ve done nothing but abuse your freedom.
Rose: You don’t deserve to be free!
Colonel: We’re not the ones smothering the world. You are.
Rose: The individual is supposed to be weak. But far from powerless — a single person has the potential to ruin the world.
A single individual, acting with purpose, can completely change history simply by leaving a legacy behind. The most powerful thing we can do, MGS2 tells us, is to believe in something larger than ourselves and work wholeheartedly towards that end.
Raiden’s win condition isn’t, as the AI-Colonel would have it, completing his mission or managing to survive the Big Shell; they very clearly aren’t his victories, but those of something larger than him. Throughout the game, he’s very deliberately set up as being synonymous with the player – he’s (ostensibly) learnt everything he knows about combat from glorified video games, for one – up until the final cutscene, when he seizes his own agency and finds something worth fighting for. Ultimately, he succeeds through means which are completely outside the parameters of both the gameplay and its central mission. By becoming an individual and reclaiming his mind he manages to break free not only from the game’s rules and ludic contract, but of the shadows looming over him: the player, the Patriots, and the legacy of Solid Snake. Whether it’s in the form of throwing away his dog tags, choosing to reforge his identity, or having faith in the relationship he’s built with Rose as they agree to do better by each other, Raiden’s character development hits when he becomes more than just the cipher through which we see the game world. He makes decisions the player has no control over as he shuts them out and becomes his own person, concluding with his very last line during his conversation with Rose: “this is for your ears – only”. (Which, I should add, gets me every single time. It’s such a perfect ending.)
The paradox of Metal Gear Solid 2 is that while it’s staunchly anti-America, I would argue that it’s hardly anti-American. The difference may seem to be nothing more than semantics, but it’s far more than just splitting hairs. While MGS2 critiques America’s politics and presence on the world stage, ultimately the game celebrates the American through its focus on individualism. It suggests that there’s a disconnect between America as a world player and the unique ideals which forged it: Kojima seems to imply that not only have the country and its leaders have drifted from their purpose, but that something fundamental – the American Dream – has been lost in the process.
I’d like to conclude with a little more on MGS2’s incredibly clever ending, which is provocative in the way it offers a total lack of closure outside of Raiden’s reclamation of himself. To quote a brilliant piece (be careful with the link, it has MGS4 spoilers beyond the “Zero and one hundred” heading):
Are you supposed to feel guilty for doing what the game forces you to? If you were given the option to rebel against the S3 Plan, you’d no doubt take it. But we aren’t given the option, so how can we possibly prove that we “deserve to be free”?
The answer is to say, “You can take my freedom, but you can’t take my mind.” Break the illusion; wake up; see things for what they really are. Do what the original Sons of Liberty did, and challenge authority. Stop caring so much about the damn characters and instead look for the hidden messages. Stop asking stupid questions about the plot to Kojima. It’s that simple. In a digital world — a virtual reality — the only freedom is freedom of the mind, and if you still obsess over the loose ends of the plot by the time the credits roll, you have failed. Seriously, you have. That’s the true challenge of the game, and if you can’t overcome that, you’ve never beaten Metal Gear Solid 2.
Yes, we never really get any clear answers about who the Patriots are. We still have no idea if Ocelot’s loyalties truly reside with them. Most significantly, neither Raiden nor the player has any sense of what is and isn’t real. And that’s the entire point: we don’t need to know any of these things. Who cares? Raiden sure doesn’t. Do as the game suggests and believe in something bigger than the plot or the characters – come away having actually learnt from it, or at least with food for thought. Since we can no longer have faith in our countries, Kojima tells us, we need to find something else real to believe in. After all, nobody else should make that choice for us.