The Metal Gear Diaries #28: Retcons of Liberty

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 caught up on Campbell’s love life, and felt sad for how much we dehumanised the AI on the battlefield. This time, we’re going to move ever closer to Liquid’s base!

Artillery

Guns of the Patriots’ level design is far more willing to depict literal battlefields. The AI soldiers fight each other, which changes the dynamic, but usually there are places to hide and sneak and remain hidden. But as we get into the meat of Act Two, we’re presented with a large open space, with the PMCs on one side, the Rebels on the other, and no cover in between. Just shells and bullets raining down constantly.

For as much as Metal Gear talks about the effects of the battlefield, until now it hasn’t attempted to portray one, to attempt to communicate its dynamics to the player and allow them a view into the effects such an environment can have. I die repeatedly, trying to cross from one side to the other, but I’m simply one man. Eventually I have no choice but to take the high road, and turn the artillery shells against my enemy, raining their own shells upon them from the sky.

When I arrive at the other side, I can hear nothing but silence.

A Man And A Van (And A Monkey)

Drebin’s here! I think I like Drebin, because he knows he’s ridiculous. He’s not a perfect character, clearly created by a team that understands precisely jack about how to portray blackness outside of a set of gross and harmful stereotypes, but his viewpoints are incredibly interesting with how they fit into what the game’s been doing.

In many ways, it’s strange to have this brand new, unrelated character take up so much screen time in a game dedicated to continuing and concluding plotlines and the arcs of characters which begun as long as two decades ago. But talking to Drebin is like talking to the id of the Metal Gear universe, for good and for ill. He’ll make these on point and detatched monologues about trying to survive under The Patriots, and then he’ll do jive hands at his pet monkey who just wants a smoke.

And so Snake and Drebin talk for a good ten, fifteen minutes about the state of the world, because when Metal Gear does exposition, it doesn’t do it by half. The main purpose of this scene is to fill us in on the technicalities of The Patriots control, because the game’s been deliberately vague with that since the start. The Patriots have 3 AIs, one of which is the SOP system, one of which I assume is G.W. (or an equivalent of), and one of which I don’t know. The Master AI must be whatever the hell it was that I talked to at the end of Sons of Liberty, the ideals of America made sentient.

What I loved about this clarification, this exposition dump on the conspiracy of The Patriots, is how it served to deflate the idea of them as all powerful beings who control the way that things are. Systems are not held in place by the hands of their masterminds, they are self-sustaining engines propelled by the status quo. Like Drebin says, the truth is much less complicated than people think.

As a portrayal of systemic inequality, it’s remarkably nuanced. It may be the monologue behind the truth of these cartoonish powers that represent Metal Gear’s America, but it’s also an astute and self aware argument that speaks to the truth of the proliferation of oppression. And it’s delivered by a racist stereotype Gun Wizard.

That moment is Metal Gear writ small, the dissonance between the smart and stupid, the progressive forward thinking and stunningly ignorant worldview. It contains everything that people love and everything that people despise. I may be heading into Ground Zeroes later, but from what has come here and before, I’m not surprised Kojima put the awful things that are in that game in. Because the awfulness has existed alongside the excellence the entire time, and to pretend it wasn’t there in the first place serves only to separate Metal Gear into “problematic” and “unproblematic” years, with a clear transition point between the two.

But there isn’t one. Metal Gear never changes.

Beauty And The Beast

Speaking of! The Beauty and The Beast unit sound like they could be fucking atrocious. They’ve been traumatised by war and turned into beasts, but underneath their shell, they’re still hot babes! (One: no. Two: Who says hot babes anymore? Did anyone ever say hot babes?)

I’m intrigued, because they sound like they’re heading back to the Metal Gear boss formula that has served the series so well: characters with motivations which examine the tragedy of war and the various ways it breaks people down. But by linking their hotness to this idea of a pure being that exists underneath the trauma, it becomes incredibly fetishistic in a way I am not at all comfortable with.

It could go the opposite way, the stories of these women could be moving and poignant, revealing greater humanity to the audience and making them question the morality of war and where the blame for it lies. But with every game, Metal Gear pushes deeper into the sheer level of how fucked up war is, and there’s only so many times you can make the anti-war message stick when the releases indulge themselves with greater and greater levels of depravity.

But I haven’t met them yet, so I’m not going to write them off immediately. I’m definitely interested in how they’re connected to Shadow Moses, being given the code names and powers of four of the Bosses that I fought back in The Twin Snakes, what may as well be seven years ago.

Also, I’ve been playing this game for a while already, and I haven’t yet had my first Boss Fight. What’s happened to your pacing, Metal Gear? Is this game just as long as all the other games put together? How much more do I have ahead of me?!

Raiden Comes Closer

Huh.

I’ve just had the Codec conversation with Raiden, in which he reveals that Jack is Dead, and only Raiden remains. I knew a reveal of this type was coming, because Cyborg Ninja Raiden is the way that Raiden is portrayed in games culture generally, but it’s sad to see it happen now that I know the context.

And what that context is, is a complete and total retcon of everything that I loved about the ending of Sons of Liberty. After the events of Big Shell, after he accepted his past as part of himself, Jack became violent and alcoholic, and eventually disappeared altogether. The memories that he had kept repressed were too strong for him to deal with, and it has lead to his downfall.

Which feels like a Star Trek III level spit in the face of the prior work. Sons of Liberty had such an intimate ending, something so strong and poignant due to its smallness, and Jack had learned that it was only through accepting himself, and accepting the truth of the world, could he begin to live a compassionate and empathetic life. So often do games present the narrative of someone saving the world to great personal loss – something Guns of the Patriots is clearly doing – butSons of Liberty put forward the alternate option: You don’t have to save the world, you just have to save yourself. The tragedy of legendary heroism, which is core to the arc of Solid Snake, was put in direct contrast with the importance of mundane heroism, and treated both with equal respect.

I find the idea that Jack’s acceptance of himself and his past is directly what leads to his character falling apart directly contradictory to everything that Metal Gear has been thematically about, and I hope there’s more to it than that. But as it stands, I’m grumpy about this shift in direction, because Raiden’s happy ending in Sons of Liberty meant so much to me that to dismantle it without purpose makes me mad. So hopefully I will uncover the purpose as I get further into the story.

What I did like about this reveal, however, was that it finally gave Rose a chance to speak for herself. Until now she’s only really existed in direct relation to men, to Jack, to Roy and then to Snake, her own motivation and desires have been given little consideration. But her point about not wanting Raiden to know she’s with the mission finally gives her character a moment to talk for herself. She’s been through too much and doesn’t want to open old wounds again: she’s moved on.

And Snake respects that wish, it isn’t questioned or dismissed, which made me smile. Sometimes Metal Gear surprises me when it doesn’t fall down its usual holes of grossness and makes the right decision.

Even though my reaction to this reveal is to be bummed out about how it colours the themes of my favourite Metal Gear ending, the real revelation here is that Raiden’s recovered the corpse of Big Boss for “her,” the leader of a private faction not associated with Liquid. I can only assume that “her” is going to end up being EVA, because she’s still alive at last count and is the only character who hasn’t showed up or been referenced.

I’m ready to meet Raiden. To finally see him in the flesh. This prolonged introduction through Codec entries has done a great job of building anticipation, but it’s time for Act Two to kick into gear and throw down its reveals.

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A lot happened in such a short space of time! Will we make it out of Act Two next time? Are things going to, as they say, kick off? Well when we find out, we shall find out together.

Next: we finally reach one Naomi Hunter…