The Metal Gear Diaries #30: The First Boss Fight

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 met Naomi, who explained the details of Liquid’s plan, and had a good ol’ think about how much death terrifies us. This time, we’re probably going to have a Boss Fight…

Fox Die

After some tests, Naomi figures out the truth behind Snakes condition: he was made this way. The Les Enfants Terribles project wanted soldiers, bred for the purpose of war and war alone, and they didn’t want them to fall into enemy hands. So Snake and his brothers were stripped of their ability to reproduce, and their ability to survive longer than they would be needed. He should be dead already, but his sheer force of will is keeping him alive.

It’s a heartbreaking scene, for Snake, our hero, to be presented with the finality and inevitability of his death, at the hands of those who created him. His heroism is his continued fighting against what he was born to be, and finally he has been presented with an obstacle too large. Ultimately, no matter what he does, he will always be a soldier, a tool of the state, his life is not his own.

And as sad as it is, for that to be the steps that Metal Gear Solid takes, here at the conclusion of Solid Snake’s arc, it does make complete sense. The series is consistently showing characters trapped by their nature as tools to those more powerful, and with its endings (of Metal Gear Solidand Sons of LibertySnake Eater is specifically an inversion of this idea) passes on its optimistic and universal moral by showing these figures trapped by the immense weight of circumstance still fighting for what they believe in. So for this final chapter, raising the stakes to tackle the most final and crushing of circumstances is the only way the series could have gone.

I knew about Snake’s condition coming from his nature as a military clone, though it was still wrenching to see it play out in front of me. What I didn’t know, however, was that the FoxDie still in Snake’s body has mutated to the point where it’s about to become airborne, and start indiscriminately attacking anyone close to him. Snake may have only months to live, but he has even less time until he becomes a walking biological weapon.

Which presents him with a choice: does he choose death? End it just a couple months earlier and sacrifice himself to save everyone he loves? Or does he keep trying til the bitter end in order to find a way to cure the virus? Neither of those questions can be answered, they’re just going to sit there and fester in the back of his mind until the time comes where he will have no other option but to make a choice.

But for now, he’s got a mission to complete, and that matters above all else. These are just the conflicts that will have to be confronted by the end of the game, as Metal Gear makes its final (lol) thematic statement.

Sidenote: this is what makes these posts interesting, but also less useful as true Critical Analyses of the games. They are documents of the moment to moment, cataloguing the headspaces that I move between. They are scattered and without a true coherent argument, but that’s because I experience the game in progress, before its coherent argument has been formed. Right now,Guns of the Patriots is juggling a bunch of ideas, and more than any game before it – even Sons of Liberty – is raising the stakes of its impossible binaries. The Patriots or Outer Heaven? The Mission or Snake’s Life?

It’s gotten to the point where I am actively scared about Guns of the Partiots’ ending, because whilst I know it’s meant to wrap everything up with a bow, I don’t see how that can be done at this point in a satisfactory manner. Metal Gear is ultimately everything to everyone; it’s a thematically dense anti-capitalist and anti-war melodrama, it’s a nonsense video game anime, it’s a tightly designed stealth game. And whilst the ending of every game prior would have been satisfying as the final place for the series to rest, none of those games had imbued themselves with the sense of finality that Guns of the Patriots has. The ending of Guns of the Patriots doesn’t have to just be a great ending, it has to be an all-encompassing full stop on one of the broadest and most indulgent series’ ever made in anything ever.

I trust the series, it hasn’t steered me wrong yet (at least in this sense, there’s a fuckton of gross elements woven throughout), but I’m as nervous as I am excited about Metal Gear reaching a definite end.

Laughing Octopus

Here we have it, Guns of the Patriot’s first Boss Fight! (Jesus, this is the 10th Guns of the Patriotspost already and we’re on the first boss fight now? I’m never going to be free. The next three acts all better be two screens long).

Metal Gear Solid is a series for which Boss Fights are incredibly important. In the first game, the Bosses were the main supporting characters, existing as shadows of Snake’s personality. This has been a repeated theme throughout Metal Gear, the thin line between antagonists and protagonists in the context of all being soldiers on a battlefield out of their control. And this theme has most definitely not gone away, but its intersection with encounter design has changed dramatically.

Dead Cell were less important in and of themselves than FOXHOUND, tools of The Patriots brought in for their similarity to the prior group. Cobra Unit as a whole were important through their proximity to The Boss, because the entirety of Snake Eater hinged on Snake and The Boss’ relationship in an intimate and singular way. But with Laughing Octopus, the first member of Beauty and the Beast, things feel a tad hollow, and in a less purposeful way than the hollow nature of Sons of Liberty’s Boss Fights (and literally everything else).

Laughing Octopus exists as a character to invoke seemingly two reactions: 1. “Hey, remember Metal Gear?” and 2. “WAR IS BAD AND GIRLS ARE HOT.” The way the Beauty and Beast dichotomy is presented is every bit as shitty as I feared from Drebin’s earlier exposition, more trite gimmick than fully realised character. In “beast” form, she laughs with anger, launching herself at Snake, and when defeated she sheds her shell, shaking and crying during her “beauty” form.

I’m not okay with the increased fetishisation of feminine fragility in order to re-iterate the same anti-war point that has been made with every other element of this entire series. On some level, it feels like the end result of the need to keep going deeper, to keep raising the stakes, making each game more than that which proceeded it. To achieve the same impact a second time, when everybody knows the punch that’s coming, the only option is to hit harder and harder.

All of that was expected, and not even a surprise to me, I knew this kind of bullshit would continue to rear its head within Guns of the Patriots, and as the series moves further forward. What I found most disappointing about Laughing Octopus was not the nature of her character, but the fact that she does not even get to speak for herself.

The function of her character is a clear callback to Metal Gear Solid, a soldier wrecked by war whose defeat is rewarded with an explanation of her backstory. There, there the explanation would be delivered through overwrought but empathetic monologues, in which a once objectified enemy, previously defined purely through their combat relationship to the player, was crucially humanised and allowed to exit the game with dignity. Here, she dies because I kill her twice, once as a supermech that attacks me, and once as a catsuit wearing broken woman who slowly walks my way. And after I gun her down in cold blood, Drebin contacts me on the codec to give me the oh-so-tragic backstory.

This completely changes the effect of the cruelty her character suffers from humanisation to increased objectification, as Laughing Octopus is more concept than character, as well as making it more blunt that she exists purely to re-iterate thematic points about Snake with no agency of her own. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Snake is perhaps the cruellest and most evil warmongers to ever exist, a pure being of war unlike all others. (FYI: these are totally the phrases the game uses to describe its own situations)

There are three more BnB members to take out, maybe one of them will start turning my perception of this unit around? (I severely doubt it tho.)

Oh, I Guess I’ll Talk About The Fight

Also, you fight the boss! That happens too, it’s not just an hour long cutscene.

Guns of the Patriots has brought about an incredible shift in the design of the moment to moment play, core concepts of the series entirely thrown out for the “No Place To Hide!” action game that they’ve been making these last two acts. I’ve mentioned multiple times how Guns of the Patriots feels like a response to western design trends, a game that knows it has to move away from the core values it created to more currently accepted western ones in order to be well received, but isn’t going to make that shift without consistently commenting on it.

And that’s worked incredibly well so far, the game having been – for the most part –  a series of well designed ‘rooms,’ with a single third person shooter setpiece, which is a dark horse in the running for the most bizarre moment in any Metal Game. But the games that Guns of the Patriotsis imitating in its superficial design don’t really have boss fights, the genres of military shooter or stealth game had moved far past holding these ideas as central by 2008. So how does this effectGuns of the Patriots’ need to include these pre-determined moments and sequences as a Metal Gear game, as the Metal Gear game?

The answer, at least in this case, is fairly well. The fight against Laughing Octopus is this tightly contained and really scary encounter, in which the technology you’ve come to rely on is turned against you. Laughing Octopus can jump through the walls out of nowhere, can transform into inanimate objects, and hilariously can also turn into the MkII and pretend to be Otacon. It’s a very pure expression of the series’ relationship to the fourth wall, simultaneously using breaking it as a device for horror and comedy, without any real separation between the two.

And it brings a smile to my face, because it’s in the middle of a parade of the series’ most disappointing elements. Metal Gear is gross and Metal Gear is cool at the same time, this consistent expression of a particular thing which brings interest and value just as much as it veers into fucked up territory. I worry that the balance is beginning to shift in Guns of the Patriots, given what I’ve heard about later games, but it’s a journey I’ll keep taking myself.

If there’s one criticism I have of the Laughing Octopus fight, it’s the same criticism of many Metal Gear boss fights; she has too much health. The End has really been the only boss in the entire series who’s been defined by the battle of attrition, designed around concepts of waiting and tracking and taking your time. But Laughing Octopus is a weird mixture of a puzzle boss (see: The Fury) and a boss of repetition and escalation (see: Vamp). Once I’ve worked out Laughing Octopus’ pattern, figured out the tricks to overcome her hallucinations and strange effects, I then just have to be good enough at running back and forth, shooting and dodging to take her down.

This form of Boss Fight design is basically the Nintendo style of three, in which the same basic task is performed with increasing levels of complexity and subversion, creating a satisfying arc within a single fight. But Metal Gear doesn’t have the restraint that a Mario game does, these bosses take far more than three hits to take down, and this robs the player of any substantial reward for their creativity, instead I’m just relieved that the fight is finally over.

It’s a shame, because I really like Metal Gear boss fights in concept, but I love so few of them in execution, despite the series being damn near built around them in the first two games. It’s moved away from them in this one, but Sons of Liberty stopped having anything other than Boss Fights at a point so maybe we’re almost there?

I sure hope not.

*

Next time, we’re heading off in search of Naomi! We have to find her and then reach the end of Act Two, hopefully. I feel like this act has been twice as long as the first, which probably isn’t true, but it’s certainly contained more plot. Our encounter with Naomi is essentially the exposition dump for the premise of the game, despite it being the third or fourth large exposition dump we’ve been presented with.

I just read that last sentence back and… do I even like Metal Gear? Have I been writing about Metal Gear for far too long? Do I make it out of this series alive? People do realise that ever since I wrote the second article I’ve been actively talking to Matt and saying “hey, I don’t want to write about Metal Gear anymore, I need to stop,” right?

Is this just the inevitable curse of anyone involved with Metal Gear ever, Snake, Kojima and myself all trapped unable to leave a never ending quest which every fibre of their being is telling them is wrong?

Yes, probably. I’ll see you next time.