20 Years of PlayStation, Video Games

Metal Gear Solid 2: A postmodern deconstruction of 21st century culture.

MGS 2 pic 3.

What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context.”

Over the next few months I’ll be looking back at some of PlayStation’s most significant titles as the console celebrates its twentieth anniversary in the UK this year (by year in this case I count from September 2015 to September 2016).

On this occasion I’ve selected a game that was both ahead of its time and simultaneously very much a product of its time; a project the likes of which simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s gaming industry, and not in the way you might imagine.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released in late 2001/ early 2002 (depending on whether you were living in America or Europe respectively) around the time the PlayStation2 was starting to really hit its stride. You could justifiably argue this was one of the titles that helped kick start the console’s mainstream popularity – indeed it was widely regarded as the PS2’s first ‘essential’ game; the first to receive truly widespread critical acclaim.

It’s almost impossible now to capture the sense of anticipation that surrounded this game pre-release. To claim it was the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster released during the peak summer months is no overstatement. For many gamers it was even more than that: think almost as big as the hype and expectation that is currently greeting The Force Awakens and you’d be pretty close. While there have certainly been bigger and better games since, I don’t recall this kind of attention ever greeting another video game in history.

This was a time before publishers generally marketed their games as if they were a big deal. Today we see major game studios scrambling every year to make their generic first-person shooters or action-adventure games seem relevant, and it’s not at all surprising to see cinematic game trailers appearing in your local movie theatre before the film. This wasn’t the case with video games before Metal Gear Solid 2.

Creator Hideo Kojima knew exactly how BIG his new game was. He turned this enormous hype against those responsible for it; using the marketing campaign and then the content of the game itself to dupe the series’ own fans in a way that remains unprecedented to this day.

In a move that took a definite amount of balls (which may have seemed almost career suicide to a director-designer less confident and capable than he), Kojima switched out the protagonist fans knew and loved from previous games – chain-smoking mercenary Solid Snake – for an unknown and less aesthetically pleasing rookie with a whiny voice and shoulder-length blonde hair.

No one saw it coming. Not only because the marketing campaign gave no glimpses or made any mention of this new character – named ‘Raiden’ – whom you were to spend three quarters of the game controlling, but also because that same marketing had made it appear as if you were instead going to play the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 2 in control of the aforementioned Solid Snake, the same way you did in the original MGS three years earlier. As it soon turned out, all of the game’s promotional material had been taken exclusively from its prologue tanker level, which made up barely an hour of the overall playing experience.

This wasn’t just a case of withholding plot information – it was dangerously close to deliberately misleading consumers, and some of the anger directed towards Kojima afterwards was from the very same fans who had been eagerly preparing to sing his praises…

Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2... but in the end, that was kind of the point.
The character of Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2… but in the end, that was kind of the point.

Most of the hype surrounding this game was due predominantly to the impact of the first Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 for the PlayStation. At the time it was labeled the ‘greatest video game ever made’ – which held true as the closest thing to an objective opinion the industry has ever had (I was never quite on that bandwagon, but I could see where they were coming from). In this sense it was almost like the Citizen Kane of video games; a somewhat appropriate comparison seeing as the game gave off extremely cinematic vibes.

This was, after all, a time when the video game industry was obsessed with trying (and largely failing) to emulate films. Metal Gear Solid was the first game to do that convincingly, and this sequel even more so. The trajectory on which it sent the industry is polarising for many; as it seems a lot of players today generally still judge game quality on how ‘cinematic’ they are.

In some ways this is concerning. Yes it has given us some visually beautiful and well acted games, but it also prevents many more original titles from getting noticed – and often it is those more original titles that capture the true essence of what video games can achieve. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a fabulous recent example of a game that told its story primarily through gameplay mechanics rather than exposition-heavy cut scenes – something which the MGS series has traditionally been infamous for.

But that present concern does not stop me from reflecting on the sentimental attachment I have to this particular cinematic game; and acknowledging just how well it turned out as a self-contained, narrative-driven experience.

The success of MGS (itself the third part in a previously Japanese-exclusive Metal Gear series dating back to 1987 on the lesser known MSX2) made the mainstream world really take notice of Hideo Kojima’s talents. For this sequel he was able to hire Hollywood composer Harry Greyson-Williams to help give Sons of Liberty an even more important, cinematic feel – and it shows from the game’s impressive opening sequence. To this day the soundtrack for this game remains one of the PlayStation’s most memorable, and it was certainly among my favourites growing up. It gave MGS2 a sense of gravitas that very few other games had.

What also added to this sense was the fact that the game took itself so seriously. A risk considering some of its characters and plot elements; one that could have fallen flat if the whole thing was not executed well. Fortunately it was, and while the jury is still out for a lot of people on whether Hideo Kojima is actually a good writer, one can’t help but appreciate the immaculate level of polish he puts on all of his games. MGS2 was a shining example of that polish.

The game’s story, for all its Hollywood production values, may appear unnecessarily convoluted in places. You could argue the overall experience is unbalanced, with most of its narrative exposition and main themes coming in the final third. Indeed, this rather crippled the pacing of the gameplay towards the climactic final boss fight. That’s without taking into account another crucial point: unless you’re already invested in the MGS universe, most of this game is unlikely to make the least bit of sense.

After all, your adversaries include an immortal vampire who runs on water, a woman who can’t be hit by bullets, and a literal ‘fat man’ on skates who is also an ingenious bomb expert. An anonymous Russian ninja occasionally pops up to help you out of rough spots. The leader of the game’s villainous group wears a full body armoured suit with two tentacles attached, which he uses to suffocate people and out of which he can even shoot missiles.

His right-hand man – Revolver Ocelot, who was a major character in the first game as well – is at times subject to mind control from the inhibited consciousness that exists in his forearm. This, an arm which previously belonged to the now deceased main villain from the original MGS and has since been surgically grafted onto Ocelot – who had lost his own arm in the first game when it was cut off by a different ninja, though one that bore a striking resemblance to the ninja appearing in this sequel.

So you see how this game might be a little hard to follow for the uninitiated? Hell, even for long term fans it takes a bit of effort to keep track.

Without doubt it was mostly those familiar with the first game who Kojima had in mind while making Sons of Liberty. One can’t help but experience a strong feeling of nostalgia while playing as Snake on the tanker, and there is a similar (but at the same time unmistakably separate) sense of deja vu in playing through Raiden’s espionage mission. Well of course, you might say, this is a sequel after all!

Yes, it was as much a sequel as sequels can get, and in certain ways it felt almost like a lazy one. In fact it’s the very definition of a fan-pleasing experience from beginning to end of the opening tanker chapter; at which point Kojima stops pandering and proceeds to give fans the proverbial middle finger instead.

The game drastically changes in both tone and pacing with Raiden’s appearance. Here you find yourself forced to play as a rookie, not only within the context of the plot but as a player too; having to go through the same basic setup that you’ve already been through in the original MGS with Snake.

Your Colonel unnecessarily tells you basic controls. In baby steps you’re taken through the opening sequence alongside Raiden as if you, like him, are new to this kind of thing – despite the fact that you’ve just played the prologue level as a veteran in control of Solid Snake, picking up where the first game left off. You’re taken from that to literally starting afresh, and the experience was almost as jarring as having the Snake character yanked from your fingertips.

Suddenly it’s almost like you’re playing a version of the first game over again – though one that doesn’t feel quite as authentic. On the surface, most of Raiden’s campaign seems an unoriginal retread of a path you already walked in Metal Gear Solid; the deja vu you feel in this case is not the same nice nostalgic feeling present in the previous tanker chapter, but a rather more unsettling one.

This game’s main villains, Dead Cell, are uncannily similar in their eccentric curiosity to the Foxhound group from the first game. There’s also the return of a mysterious ninja; in both games an ambiguous individual with ties to neither side. And your Colonel? Just so happens to (seemingly) be the very same one who helped guide Solid Snake through Shadow Moses in that first title.

The whole thing felt like too much of an echo back to Metal Gear Solid – close to a simple copy and paste in certain respects. It is only in the plot’s final third that this all brilliantly unravels; when it is revealed that ‘recreating Shadow Moses’ was precisely the intention of a shady organisation that had been manipulating both sides all along to further their own plans for society.

You find out that your Colonel, whose orders you’ve been following on the mission to which Raiden is assigned, is actually an A.I. (or something…) operating on behalf of the Patriots; a group of individuals who control the United States from the shadows, from whom even the President receives orders. The game’s main villain – at least, you’ve been led to believe he’s the villain up to this point – proposes to break the Patriots’ rule over the country and set everyone free from their control (hence becoming the Sons of Liberty of the game’s title).

Your real mission is to eliminate him before this plan comes to fruition – though you only find this out toward the game’s conclusion, up until which point you had been fed a convenient and rather typical espionage cover story regarding hostages, ransom demands and nuclear bombs.

At the same time, it is revealed that the Patriots set up the conditions for the entire operation from the beginning – indirectly giving Solidus (your adversary) the means by which his plan could progress to its later stages – as part of a test to see if a typical rookie operative could be moulded into a legendary mercenary, similar to Solid Snake but this time created on their own terms, if placed in the right environment. This operation is codenamed the ‘S3 plan’, which stands for ‘Solid Snake Simulation’.

Yes, the conventionality of it all – from the game’s plot outline to its blatant comparisons with the original, via a ‘rookie’ in the form of Raiden – had been a setup; not only from the perspective of the game’s characters but for the benefit of the player. We’re the real test subjects for the S3 plan – how successfully the game manages to pull the wool over our eyes and keep up the illusion is the litmus test that shows its effectiveness.

This sequel played on and caught you up in your own expectations. Raiden is informed towards the end of the game that his Colonel, a man he had never met in person, was, in part, a projection of images cobbled together from his own subconscious expectations. In a way this is true for the player as well; the Colonel sounds exactly like the one we knew from the previous game because our expectations from that game told us this is what a Colonel should sound like. It becomes blatantly apparent that the two characters are different entities, so Kojima had no other reason to re-use the same likeness than to make this point – at the same time putting us in the same state of unease as Raiden; the only difference being that the player senses this unease from the beginning. But it’s something you put to the back of your mind, at least until the in-game characters become aware of their situation later.

In the end you realise we, as players, were duped as much as the fictional characters in this game. The prologue tanker level was everything fans wanted and had asked for, picking up where the first game left off with two of its most popular characters in a brand new, visually pleasing scenario. You strap yourself in and get ready to enjoy an indulgent sequel experience that will leave you feeling your expectations have been met.

Hideo Kojima shows here that he was fully aware of what those expectations were, and teases you with the intention of meeting them for all of an hour’s playing time before pulling you out of the illusion.

Then, you’re in his game. A game that repeats much of what you saw first time round, but in a way that isn’t quite as authentic. Suddenly you’re back to roaming claustrophobic corridors and learning guard routine patterns. At times it feels almost like a parody of what came before, while also forcing you to play as a less accomplished character than your previous protagonist… but whom you play as anyway because that’s the game you’ve been given, and even though things are not exactly how you’d like them to be, this is still Metal Gear Solid after all.

So everything’s not quite as you’d like or imagine it to be – but this version is crafted to show you just how willing you and every other player is to accept what you are given. It’s a copy, albeit not an exact one. Merely a recreated scenario; one that becomes almost dream-like right before the end, at which point you ‘wake up’. Seriously, the ending cut-scene to this game feels so tonally contrasting to what came immediately before it that it feels like stepping back into reality from what had become a nightmare.

Before fighting the final boss, the Patriots’ blatantly reveal their intention for you to succeed in your mission by killing your adversary. While Raiden protests at this, saying “I’m through doing what I’m told” and even claiming “we’re not puppets in some game, you know”, the game nonetheless throws you into the fight; a fight to the death which you willingly comply with because it’s the scenario that presents itself.

You aren’t going to turn the game off now if only for wanting to see how it ends. While playing through the final sneaking section leading up to this point, the malfunctioning Colonel A.I. dared you, the player, to “turn the game console off right now”, or suggested “you shouldn’t sit so close to the TV”, or commented “you’ve been playing the game for an awfully long time… don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

These comments showed the game’s awareness of its own place within its medium, playing on concerns that players may be facing outside of its universe… are you sitting too close to the TV? Are there better things you could be doing with your time? The answer to both is, probably, yes.

Through it all you keep playing anyway, because “this is a game after all. It’s a game, just like usual” (to use another of the quirky Colonel’s quips) – as if you needed reassuring that, despite its self-awareness, you were still just playing a game to have fun. Of course, this kind of experience was far from typical.

When people claim this is a ‘postmodern’ game they aren’t simply saying it has certain postmodern threads or thematic elements. The entire experience is, in a sense, a reflection of the original, which itself was heralded as a masterpiece of modern gaming. It was postmodern in the purest sense of the term – coming after the modern, it offered context by which we could judge what came before.

This concept of ‘creating context’ is taken even further in a revealing conversation with your Colonel after the plot’s main points have been divulged. It becomes apparent that he is more than just an ‘A.I.’ during this final reveal. He first explains ‘their’ true origins:

“To begin with, we’re not what you’d call… human.

Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House.

It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.

We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often.

How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”

Now, to grasp what’s going on here you need to understand we’re no longer really talking in tangible terms. What this is referring to is not any single character or being, but to human culture itself – the culture around which modern society has been circling for quite some time. A culture in which following certain rules and holding objective beliefs is rewarded; indeed, the idea is that we need those things, organised in a structure, to survive as a species.

MGS2 was released just after the turn of the Millennium; a time when the world was in the midst of transitioning to a more ‘digitised’ age. With this new flow of digital information came a unique challenge to the cultural pattern referred to above, and it is this challenge that ‘the Patriots’ are responding to during the course of this game. Their answer is an advanced A.I. that will control the flow of information so it doesn’t overwhelm humanity. The ‘Colonel’ goes on to explain this:

“In the current digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness, never fading, always accessible.

The S3 plan does not stand for Solid Snake Simulation. What it does stand for is ‘Selection for Societal Sanity’

You seem to think our plan is one of censorship?”

Raiden: “Are you trying to say it’s not?!”

Colonel: “What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context…

The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths; everyone withdraws into their small, gaited community, afraid of a larger forum.

They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.

The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh; no one is invalidated, but no one is right.

Not even natural selection can take place here; the world is being engulfed in ‘truth’.

And this is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Bear in mind this was before the rise of social media. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist, but MGS2 foresaw their emergence with alarming insightfulness. Are they not guilty of promoting the very things described in the above dialogue?

Selectively rewarding convenient half-truths… everyone afraid of a larger forum, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into society at large… no one is invalidated, but no one is right… the world being engulfed in ‘truth’.

Let’s be honest: this is social media in a nutshell. Social media itself is representative of the Internet in a nutshell.

You’ve probably complained about it yourself. Look at how social media trends develop; observe how they eventually die out; see how someone will ‘share a link’ of a tragedy in the Middle East and, with their social justice fingertips at the ready, point out to everyone that it doesn’t get the same coverage as a similar tragedy in Europe… and point out how much of an injustice this is.

To some the flow of ‘trivial’ information over the Internet represents freedom. Others ridicule and scoff at it, indirectly revealing that they think it should be controlled; advocating the kind of ‘S3 plan’ the Patriots had in mind.

I admit I’ve fallen on both sides in the past. I know that for all the amazing bits of useful information to be found online, there is much more ‘rubbish’ one has to wade through. That ‘useless’ information (one of the biggest enemies of productivity if nothing else) is precisely the kind that the A.I. in this game was proposing to filter out.

Isn’t the main problem with a lot of online information that it often appears on our news feeds without appropriate contextualisation? Isn’t the problem then exasperated by everyone reacting to it without bothering to look into that context?

Maybe the Patriots were right after all. Many of us crave the context they proposed to create. But there will always be a side of us that misunderstands context for control over that same information. Or perhaps, from another point of view: there’s a side of us that prefers reacting to things free from context – because context can affect our ingrained sense of ‘truth’ in a way that could make us revaluate what we believe or how we live. And to do that is uncomfortable.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty ends with Raiden completing his mission, but having gone through an identity crisis in the process, he finishes with a question; “who am I really?” A question Kojima was posing to the player as much as the protagonist.

The game doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, finishing in open-ended fashion that encourages you to find truth for yourself. Snake gives you this gem in conclusion to the game’s events: “what you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is.”

It’s worth pointing out that Hideo Kojima originally envisaged the Metal Gear series ending with Sons of Liberty. If you’re wondering why he had the balls to try pulling this off, it is quite simply because he wasn’t relying – as so many major studios and developers are – on milking this thing any further as a franchise. Which made its status as a ‘blockbuster’ game even more unique.

Indeed Kojima was convinced later to make more games in the series, and the sequels that followed MGS2 included considerably more fan service than we see here – not to mention an overarching plot that pretty much retconned the final twenty minutes of MGS2. Kojima made those other games for the fans, whereas here he wasn’t particularly concerned with pleasing anyone. For that reason I consider both the original MGS and this sequel to be the truest portrayals of his vision we’ve seen.

With MGS2 he was encouraging players to really think about what they were doing; what had led them to play this game; how they consume what they see online and in the media; even how they were living their lives and what the future might hold. Here we had the video game equivalent of a major Hollywood movie franchise (the biggest name of its time) tackling convoluted themes such as freedom of choice and the subjectivity of truth, without having given its audience any indication beforehand that it was going to do such a thing. Many were not so much left unsatisfied as left flat-out baffled by the experience.

This remains one of the most complicated game plots of all time. In my eyes it represents a masterpiece – not strictly a ‘gaming’ masterpiece, but certainly in how it sets up and tells its story, as well as how it manipulated players before and after release. That’s a bit of a controversial opinion in some circles, with many considering this game not even the best in its series. But I think it’s a game everyone should experience, even if you go away feeling slightly exasperated by it.

Furthermore, if you’re ever going to start playing the MGS series, do yourself a favour and start with the original before moving on to this one. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) is a prequel and, although arguably a better game overall, its story went some way to changing how you looked at everything that came before. The first two games should be taken as separate entities before they’re later considered in the context of the series as a whole.

Even today I still frequently go back to MGS2 to re-live a game that is as simple in its gameplay as it is complex in its storytelling. It features one of the most unique plots and some of the most challenging themes ever included in a video game, and it’s undoubtedly one of my personal favourites.