The Metal Gear Diaries #23: The War Economy

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 got acquainted with the stealth systems of Guns of the Patriots, and were shocked at how much this was “Hideo Kojima makes a video game.” Today, we’re going to continue to do both of those things and make our way to the informants.

Sneaking Mission

Okay, now that I’ve gotten the MkII, and ducked down into the hideout, everything’s starting to click a little more. The map design changes in the menu when you enter bases, and everything starts to feel a little more traditional. Not too much more, though. There are areas off the path where items can be found, but everything funnels you down a straight line in a way that I’m still getting used to. The dissonance in Metal Gear’s evolution is all in my head though: this game plays great.

The addition of the Solid Eye clears up my main complaint, in that it identifies items and allows puts them in the UI. It’s all very Ghost Recon Advance Warfare, which is a game that I feel like has been completely forgotten, but aesthetically it’s the game that Guns of the Patriots is either similar too or deliberately riffing on. Ghost Recon, as a Tom Clancy game, takes an implicitly pro war angle, but superficially is also about the advancement of technology and the effects on the soldier that such progress brings. The glowing UI, the Picture in Picture communications, the sense that the UI is seen by the soldier themselves and not mere abstraction – these are all themes the two games share completely.

I wonder if this is intentional or merely incidental. Looking back, Guns of the Patriots design, its future-tech soldiers and Middle Eastern Insurgency all setup to be criticisms of the Call of Duty franchise and its acolytes, but the game was released just a few months after Call of Duty 4. Regardless, the similarities in design play to me as implicit criticisms of its pro-war peers, clearly stating to the player that if these fantasies were real, they would be as hellish as any other war.

Anyway, I’m just musing. I know eventually Guns of the Patriots moves away from its Middle Eastern setting, and I have to say that calling this area “Middle East” is gross and shitty, even if it is in the context of games at the time (and to this day) using Unnamed Middle Eastern Country™constantly as a setting.

Still, despite some of the critical tone of my reactions so far, Guns of the Patriots has made one hell of an impression.

Camouflage

I found a disguise in the locker, and then begun to walk around. No one suspected I could be an imposter, I wore the same clothes and held the same gun. I had to me on the same side.

These moments of disguise, where the enemies see you as peers and you are constantly aware of their designated position of adversary, are some of my favourite moments of humanisation in Metal Gear. Just taking the time to say that given different contexts, you would not be killing these men, you would be fighting alongside them, is so much more than other war games do.

Though obviously, Metal Gear has a leg up on humanisation by its nature as a stealth game. In most shooters both you and the enemies are in combat mode continually, you only see each other at the point of conflict. In a stealth game, when the enemies are unaware of your presence, you see them as vulnerable, the games design draws attention to the immorality and responsibility of your extreme power over them.

This is why so many Stealth Games, if not all of them, have a focus on non-lethal progression. The despicable nature of killing is made so more obvious when you, the player, are an unseen avatar of death sneaking through your enemies home. And here, Metal Gear makes that idea even more explicit by stating that neither side is your enemy, the soldiers warring here are doing so under contract, and you are bearing witness to a sad and futile situation.

Probably Racist Gun Wizard

Well, I met Drebin, the probably racist gun wizard! I knew two things about Drebin going in: he sells you guns, and he has a monkey. Why does he have a monkey? That, we can never know. But why does he sell guns? The answer there is more interesting.

In the context of the world that Guns of the Patriots has set up, Drebin is a bad guy. He directly profits off the war economy, engaging with this awful system that sacrifices human lives at the altar of perpetual profit-generating conflict. Yet his introductory scene gives him the time to express his own motivations, which gets us into difficult grey areas far earlier than I expected to in the game.

Drebin decries the state of the world, he is fully aware of the consistent tragedy and exploitation going on around him, but whilst Snake is an old man railing against the way of things, Drebin accepts them. He may play both sides to survive, but is he any less complicit in the system than Snake, a soldier on this battlefield? Drebin was born into war too, it’s all he knows, and it’s the status quo for now, such a status quo can’t be toppled immediately, he just has to find a way to survive within it.

Plus, while his motivations are self-interest and survival, the way he talks about his role in this conflict certainly allows him to be seen as a positive agent. Or, at least an agent of neutrality in a world where the power dynamics are so clearly weighted. The power rests with the PMCs, and ultimately with The Patriots, carrying weapons that their victims cannot pick up and fire back. Through selling to everybody, Drebin levels the playing field in a way.

But even Drebin isn’t so naive to think that entirely, he’s aware that the strict enforcement of control on ID weapons and nanomachines directly leads to a black market, almost as if its intentional. As if it gives the companies somebody to fight against.

Drebin is the avatar of Guns of the Patriots newfound cynicism. Metal Gear has been many things on this journey, but it has never been so cynical, but the world changing around it has brought it to this place. Drebin’s worldview borders on nihilism, he sees that the world is broken and awful, but it can’t be changed, so why pretend? Why live to fight for a better future when you can survive today? After all, Big Boss tried and look what happened to him. Better to just accept the way that things are.

Otacon convinces you that you need Drebin, that to fight against this system, you have to accept the realities of it, and if you’re complicit in its horrors regardless, you may as well use them to your advantage. There’s no point standing on principle when there’s progress to be made.

War Economy

Otacon’s explanation for the war economy is confusing in literal terms but it makes sense in metaphoric terms. This entire situation is inspired by the Iraq War and the conflicts in Afghanistan, and all the characters know they’re involved in proxy wars that have nothing to do with them as soldiers and everything to do with the whims and wants of those more powerful than them.

Guns of the Patriots focus on PMCs and economy makes its setup just as explicitly a critique of capitalism as it is a critique of war; it portrays a system where human beings are routinely dehumanised and turned into resources for others, for the generation of greater profit. The more human lives are spent, the bloodier the conflict, the higher the war price and the greater return on investment. “The war economy” is a dumb phrase that I’ve seen lots of fun poked at over the years, but like everything Metal Gear, It’s only dumb because it’s so on the nose and earnest about the statement that it’s making.

“What should we call the economy that sustains itself by prolonged warfare, Hideo?”
“Why, the War Economy, of course! What else?”

*

I was talking to Matt the other day – the other day being 14th July 2015, for whenever this article goes up in the far future – about just how many articles I’d do for Guns of the Patriots, because it is the longest and most expansive of the Metal Gear games – though Sons of Liberty may in fact be more dense. I said I’d probably end up doing three per act, because that sounded about right to me. Now, here we are, at the end of article three, still very clearly in the opening sections of act one.

It’s going to be a long road.

Next: a soldier poops.