The Metal Gear Diaries #10: Raiden v America

The setup for these posts is simple: I've never played a Metal Gear Solid game before, and I want to change that. I'm going to be writing my on-going reactions to the games as I go, and sharing them with the world. The Metal Gear Diaries are somewhere between a full critical essay and twitter gut responses, and will form an honest document of my shock, frustration and surprise at the events of, say it with me now, "Metal Gear?!" They will be packed with spoilers for all Metal Gear games!

Last time, we witnessed the baffling saga of one Emma Emmerich, and Olga knocked us clean out. But today? Today we have completed the game. The game is done! The credits rolled, then a post-credits scene played, then a stinger played, and then I sat there for about 20 minutes loudly going “hmmmmmmm.”

I have no idea what I’m going to say, I feel like everything I’ve written about the game beforehand has been rendered irrelevant. The world just exploded all around me and I fell into some kind of serene coma. But here we go, ready as we’ll ever be, it’s time to talk about the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty

Gut Reactions

I formally apologise for suggesting that the ending of Sons of Liberty wasn’t going to be a seventeen car pileup of everybody lying to you. Whilst the story throughout the rest of the game is certainly more simple, and less just a series of exposition dumps, they sure went hard on that ending didn’t they? There were at least six layers of world-changing reveals, one after the other, and in the end nothing really got resolved at all.

As a structured series of scenes playing out, I think the ending is a little weaker than Metal Gear Solid, but that’s primarily because of the loose ends that still hang over everything as the credits roll. The reveals happen, but due to the sheer weight of the implications of each of them, there’s nothing to do but let them be for now, and come back in seven years to see everything get wrapped up.

I have a bunch of questions about where things are going, and the things that I do know about Guns of The Patriots only make me more confused. It’s like I’ve seen the entirety of that game’s final act, but with the sound muted. I know the who, I know the what, I know the situations and the scenes, but I have no idea of the motivations, the plans and what any of it is trying to say.

Which makes it all the more complicated to talk about the right now. Sons of Liberty exists in this place where it cannot stand alone, a game about both its predecessors and its follow ups, rather than a game that has any identity of its own. And that makes sense, given everything the game is about, but now that I’m sitting here ready to tie the bow on my time with it, I don’t quite what value the conclusions I end up drawing will have considering it’s just one part of a work so clearly in progress.

And that’s my general feeling on the ending: a kind of sedated confusion at the whole thing. I liked it, I certainly liked it, but it’s been swirling around my head ever since I’ve finished it, and I’m still trying to work out what the hell it even is. It’s an ending full of contradictions and unresolved conflicts (not just plot wise, but thematically too), designed to make you walk away in many ways, unsatisfied.

But that dissatisfaction is intentional, it does not come to this place by accident, it leaves you there and lets you sit and think about what just happened.

Anyway, that’s enough of me talking around specifics, those are my general impressions and feeling on the ending, but I’m not going to leave you without some more detailed reactions and analysis! *Deep Breath* Here we go!

Jack The Ripper

“He doesn’t exist”
--Revolver Ocelot on Raiden

YOU DON’T SAY, OCELOT. I felt, for just a moment, vindicated because it’s been so clear to me all along that Raiden doesn’t really exist.

And it turns out that’s totally true, but also totally not true. Sons of Liberty ends with a far more complex interrogation of the idea of the self, presenting Jack as a man of multiple identities and histories, a man for whom all truths of his past are equally real and equally a part of him, be they events that happened or fictions dreamed up by an A.I. program with the recesses of his brain.

The main reveal of Raiden’s character is his nature as a child soldier who fought for Solidus in the eighties, and not only was he a soldier, he was a deadly one. He killed more men than any others in his unit of child soldiers. Hence, Jack The Ripper. Like Snake, he is a child of war, but in completely opposite ways. He was not bred for war as Snake was, he grew up surrounded by it through tragic circumstance. He is a Son of Big Boss, but he is not Big Boss’ son.

In the Metal Gear games, DNA and genes take on a mythical importance that they don’t have in real life, containing the keys for your very way of being. It’s full of biological essentialism that I don’t subscribe to for a second, but it’s exaggerated in such a ridiculous anime way that I’ll go along with it because it uses those elements to make thematically interesting points. Raiden is defined by being something which he is not – he is not a soldier, but he is moulded into one. He is not Solid Snake, but he is moulded into him.

As a reveal, it also completely changes the audience perspective on Raiden as a character. Before, his incompetence, his distance, his attitude to killing, have all been linked to his reliance on VR. Raiden isn’t a real soldier, he doesn’t know the realities of combat, and until this point the game has positioned that as the fatal flaw in Raiden’s character, the key element of his incompatibility in the role of Solid Snake. But now, his reliance on VR, his references to killing as a ‘game,’ are presented as coping mechanisms. Solidus even raised him on 80s action movies, in order to better form him into a soldier. Distancing himself – from both the realities of war and the realities of everything else – is what allows Raiden to function.

Which is what makes him such a perfect fit for the S3 program: he doesn’t exist. He runs away from every element of himself that he doesn’t like, he runs away from his past, he runs away from his future, he is incapable of doing something else. He has no identity of his own because he defines himself in opposition to things and through a lack of personality.

But we’re slightly getting ahead of ourselves with that. Christ, this ending is too dense, why did I take on this writing series noooooooooooo

Turn Off The Game Console

This is where everything starts to melt down, the moment when I start to realise the sheer level of what-the-fuck that I’m walking into. When Campbell starts yelling at me – not Raiden, me – to turn off the game console because the mission is a failure, everything begins to get extremely strange. It’s deeply unsettling, and for a moment I get scared to carry on. This technique is so usually the domain of horror games, because it makes you question reality in a very real way.

The artifice of a game, its UI, its controls, its framework, is taken as fundamental and unchanging. It is not a part of the game world, it is the permanent means of communication with the game world. If it is revealed as fallible, then every single piece of information that you’ve received along the way is tainted. It taps into a very base human fear, the fear that we may not (and in fact, definitely do not) know everything. The fear that we do not matter. The fear that this isn’t about me.

It’s an explosive and scary catharsis of the game’s metatextual themes up to this point, where the game’s casual and often playful contempt for the player turns into an active desire to taunt and torture the player, to make them question every assumption they have made along the way.

But this isn’t the ending, it’s only the setup for the ending, the unstable last gasp of a system about to lose all its power. Because the flipside is also true, when Raiden – when I – understand that the game can lie to me, then the balance of power shifts away from the game. The game – GW’s – bizarre fourth wall breaking acts are ones of desperation, last ditch attempts to hold up a façade that keeps them in control.

As a piece of meta commentary, it reminds me a striking amount of The Stanley Parable, specifically in its portrayal of conflict between artist and audience. If Sons of Liberty so far had focused its criticism on telling the player that this isn’t about them, it is here where the tables are turned, and the artist is forced to accept the same thing. GW fills the role of narrator, the artist with a story to tell, a story that now cannot be told because their audience refuses to listen. For a game that I’ve heard described as an ungrateful middle finger to its audience, it’s incredibly aware of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between an artist and their audience, and the responsibilities of honest engagement on both ends.

Importantly, the game continues past this point, and even though the power of the artifice is lost, and both artist and audience know the events to be revealed for a hollow show, the game must still reach its climax. Sons of Liberty is not about revealing the lies inherently built into videogames as a form, it is about navigating the relationship with your art. Becoming aware of the artifice of a game does not immediately tear it down; our connections with games are not built on pretending that they are reality.

It is through accepting their unreality of our art that we are only able to examine and engage with the art’s message on any substantial level, and it is through accepting the unreality of his mission that Raiden is able to understand what is really going on.

Solid Snake Simulation

And what is really going on? Well, first, a short series of encounters where you fight alongside Solid Snake, now clad in full sneaking suit gear (even though his soldier getup was far better) with his Infinite Ammo bandana. Because even though this game is a merciless commentary on the relationship between artist and audience, it’s still the most fanservice thing. And it’s an excellent moment, the climax of the game in terms of a sense of play, at least. It’s awkward and clunky – Sons Of Liberty is not designed for cathartic bursts of action – but the spirit of the moment is still able to come through.

After that, the real intense pile up begins, because once you fight the swarm of Metal Gear Rays, it’s a good fourty to fifty minutes of cutscene before the final boss fight can go down, and layers upon layers are peeled back. But I can break it down to the three most important ones, I think:

  1. Solidus reveals Arsenal Gear was never the real objective, and this entire operation has been to find the information hidden within G.W. – a list of names of The Patriots.
  2. Ocelot reveals himself as a member of (associate of? I don’t think he’s one of the twelve) The Patriots, rendering Solidus’ plan useless and framing the entire plot as the real Solid Snake Simulation, not Raiden’s VR training.
  3. Liquid Snake reveals himself from inside Ocelot’s consciousness, and takes over (permenantly?), and goes off in Metal Gear Ray to kill the Patriots.

All of this happens in what is essentially a single unbroken scene, save for the odd cut to archive-footage or live action, and there is no break between reveals to establish a new status quo. Each new truth is eliminated before it can be accepted, leaving you completely disorientated at the events unplaying before you. It’s key that Raiden spends this entire scene in handcuffs, silent, not a participant but a witness to events he cannot at this stage begin to understand.

The framing of the Big Shell incident as a deliberate in-universe recreation of Shadow Moses surprised me, because I expected that element to remain subtextual, but in hindsight I should have always expected such an explanation. The game’s meta elements have all consisted of revealing the artifice inherent in the form, and this is just a that idea writ large. Neither Raiden nor I are playing the game because we want to, the game (well, the artist) wants something from us. The Patriots want Raiden to make it to the end, and leave them with the data they need to perfect the S3 simulation and mass-produce a series of super soldiers.

As a reveal, it also shifts Sons of Liberty from a game about games to a game about sequels, specifically. All along it’s been commenting on the idea of sequels, the idea of fan entitlement and expectation, and what it means to come to art wanting something specific from it. But with this reveal, the balance shifts, and the game stops for ten minutes to point out how ludicrous the conceits we accept in continued narratives are. Did you really think that all these elements – Dead Cell, The Ninja, Solidus – were here because that’s just ‘how things are?’ Did you think the world arranged itself into a near-exact recreation of that last game you played by accident? Don’t be so conceited.

It’s especially great because of how inconsequential a reveal it ends up being (surprise: S3 doesn’t really stand for Solid Snake Simulation), because Sons of Liberty doesn’t want to just be a game about games, it’s a game about war, about the internet, about America, about identity and about life. It’s the middle of a series of moments that are meant to enforce to Raiden, and the player, how little control they truly have.

Invoking this persistent subversion of accepted conventions and form in game design definitely raises lots of conversation, but it’s not Sons of Liberty’s primary goal in the slightest. It’s a tool, a stepping stone of player empathy, putting you in the shoes of someone realising that the world they knew is not theirs. I almost feel bad for the weight I’ve put in these posts on the way Sons of Liberty toys with the player, because they’re nothing but the cherry on top. They are not the meat of the themes that Sons of Liberty is conveying, because they are not the meat of the themes that Metal Gear has ever been conveying. They’re just, and always have been, the cherry on top.

Snakes

I love the triple reveal of Solidus’ objective, Liquid’s objective, and finally Snake’s objective (the last reveal in the game, when Snake stands with you on a New York street as the people simply pass you by): they all have identical goals. So much of Snake’s characterisation in Sons of Liberty – from the Tanker incident to the discussion about terrorism – has been placing him as not that different from his brothers, the supposed villains of this series. And not in a rug pulling, we’re not so different you and I sense, but in a sense that is intended to make the audience question what heroism means, especially in the context of war.

Snake says to Raiden: “Murder is never good, no matter what,” and yet just like his fellow Sons of Big Boss, he is using deadly means to advance a cause for which he believes is right. Why is it that we believe Snake a hero, and Solidus a villain? Is it because we play as Snake, and we take the journey with him? Well, says Sons of Liberty, let’s think about that, let’s take Snake away from you, and play a completely different character taking a near identical journey. Let’s view Snake from the outside and attempt to reconcile all the facts about him that we know.

All of these characters are fighting for a world where the Patriots are no longer in control. Solidus doesn’t even want Arsenal gear, he has no use for a giant killing machine, for there are only twelve lives that he truly cares about.

It’s an amazingly nuanced portrayal of the nature of villainy, heroism, and structural violence. The game is clear that nothing a single villain could ever do compares to the violent and perpetual control that The Patriots have. And it’s clear that nothing a single hero could ever do compares to the possibility of people working together for a common goal.

But in a world where we’re Raiden, where these wars are fought on mythic planes, where these systems cannot be broken, what does any of this mean for us?

The Patriots, And Their America

And so we come to the true ending of Sons of Liberty, where focus shifts from the grand epic of Snake’s war with the Patriots, to a more intimate conclusion, Raiden v Solidus Snake. Wait, sorry, that’s not what I mean at all, I mean Raiden v America.

After Arsenal Gear crashes into New York City, you receive a call from the Colonel, which shouldn’t be possible, because GW has been destroyed. It’s at this point that the game’s most amazing reveal of subtext becoming text happens, in my opinion: you’re talking to the very concept of America, which over time has formed its own consciousness. It’s a moment given no explanation – it happened because it happened, what more do you want? – and I assume it’s one of the big sticking points for those poor misguided folk who thought Metal Gear was a grounded military franchise.

But I love it, and they form the perfect villain for this final act. The Patriots are American Hypocrisy made literal, ensuring the continuation of a culture that prides itself on freedom by exerting more and more control. And when they finally get their chance to explain their motivation, they do so surprisingly effectively, to the point where it actually shook me a little in my previously steadfast interpretation of Sons of Liberty’s morality.

Their motivation centres on a key – and prescient – criticism of a culture that evolves digitally. The permanence of digital information means the amount of truth In the world is multiplying rapidly, and it will never go away. In their worst case scenario, everyone will fall into small subcultures, each with their own unchanging truths, and culture will begin to stagnate. One only needs to take a cursory glance at the way communities form on twitter for evidence of this idea, a site that wasn’t close to existing when Sons of Liberty was released.

Raiden, and my main response to that is obvious: what gives The Patriots the right to decide which information is worthy of permanence? There are boundless cultural problems that come with changing our methods of information storage and communication, but culture will adapt because it always does. Losing the old method of cultural growth is not necessarily a bad thing, and (in my eyes, at least), technology that allows greater possibilities of communication is always a good thing. That’s the Star Trek optimism in me talking.

And the Patriots respond with a damning indictment of Raiden’s character, of his selfishness, of the individualism of him and his fellow Americans. The lies of a meritocracy, the evil of feeding children the idea that hard work will bring them their dream when such an idea is so clearly false and preposterous. How can a person so selfish as that be allowed to decide anything for themselves?

It happened almost without me noticing in this conversation, but this is the most adept and fascinating ideological query of the game. I’ve said in these posts before how Sons of Liberty is a rejection of individualism and a proponent of collectivism, all the arcs in the game revolve around people finding something greater than themselves to fight towards. And whilst I believe it still totally is that, suddenly it frames the protagonist as a representation of individualism, and its villain as a representation of collectivism. The Patriots are people fighting for something bigger than themselves, and are willing to sacrifice the autonomy of others to achieve it – how is that fundamentally different from what Snake is fighting for?

All these ideological questions are being thrown at me, and I’m running over the morality of all my stances in my head considering the new information ahead of me, when it’s time to fight the final boss. Sons of Liberty interrupts this moment of culmination, this peak of uncertainty in an ending defined by increasingly worldview shattering reveals, to force you to fight a pointless final Boss Fight, all because The Patriots want you to.

Ultimately, no matter how much Raiden wants to defy them, in the system and situation he has been placed in, he has no other choice but to kill Solidus. He can reject the ideas of The Patriots, but he cannot find an alternative, or a way out of their control.

The Moral Of The Story

Which is where that question comes in again: what does that mean for us?

Sons of Liberty ends not with the resolution of any question, but the deliberate unresolution of every single plot-thread, and for good reason. After everything falls into such disarray, Sons of Liberty ends in a surprisingly serene place. The Patriots are still at large, Liquid/Ocelot is unaccounted for, Raiden might not even exist, but people still have to go to work on time. Life goes on.

And that this is the form of Sons of Liberty’s true catharsis warms my heart, it might be my favourite thing about the game. All the uncertainty of the cutscenes that precede it instantly make sense in this one moment of calm. It’s not a game that even wanted to debate whether one ideology was greater than the other, it’s not a game that wanted to debate whether the artist had more control over the meaning of the text than the author, it’s not a game that wanted to debate… anything. Because in the end, after all this time, in one moment: Sons of Liberty is about you.

It’s spent so long shitting on you, holding you in contempt, asking you to consider your own worth in both artistic and societal terms, and even questioned the agency you have in your own actions. But now it’s over, and nothing that the game has done has taken away your power, your strength and your ability to just be you.

The conclusion isn’t defeating The Patriots, it’s accepting them and rejecting them all at once, and doing what you can. Sons of Liberty’s ending is incredibly powerful to me, because it is an ending that doesn’t give structural inequality a face in The Patriots in order to defeat it in an act of wish fulfilment. Instead, its parting message is far more real, and is one of the importance of holding onto your humanity and living the best life you can in an unfair world you can’t control. It’s ultimately an ending of the power of information; realising the truth about The Patriots control can’t change the world, but knowledge of their existence is power over them in and of itself.

And that’s what proves The Patriots wrong. Their greatest fear is that too much information would lead not to just their demise, but the demise of human culture and society as we know it. But Sons of Liberty has so much more faith in humanity than that. It says that ignorance is never better than knowledge, no matter how much easier it may seem. It says that the possibilities of digital information far outweigh any cultural difficulties we’ll have to confront. It says that Raiden may never be able to know what is and isn’t real in his past, but now that he knows the truth of things, he can choose the future that he believes in.

Raiden cannot defeat the Patriots, nor can he defy them. But with what he’s learned, he can deny them, and if others can too, then The Patriots will lose their power. Without a public that buys into their myths, they’ll just be twelve dead men with ideas rejected and thrown away by a culture that has outgrown them.

*

And that’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. What a fantastic game.

I didn’t expect it to be so intimate, in the end. It felt both larger and smaller than The Twin Snakes, a story that aimed so much higher and wider in what it was about, but wanted to connect on a far more personal level. In the day since finishing and writing this piece, the ending has gone from "huh" to "one of my favourite moments in a videogame ever" just by letting it sit with me for a while. I love this series.

Next time, we’re going to begin Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the game I know the least about, so the next few posts will be all about shock and discovery, and my posts with 4 will be all about the divide between my expectation and reality. I can’t possibly imagine I’ll write a post this long again! This is only for very special occasions, I like the broken-up serialised nature of them. But hey, the ending of Sons of Liberty is incredibly dense – I barely touched on half of the damn thing and I’ve almost written 4,500 words.

Next: it’s time to finally meet the greatest soldier in history, Big Boss…