The Metal Gear Diaries #36: OTACOOOOOOON

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 watched some really awesome moments of fanservice, and got angry at how awful and gross the Bosses in this game are. This time, somebody wants a word with us.

The Children

There’s something about the way that EVA refers to her army as “the children” that only just clicked into place until now. They’re clearly not children, they’re adults, but they’ve been referred to by the script as children. I assumed that was just EVA’s language, but now I think it means that this was genuinely written to be a team of Child Soldiers, and they changed it after recording the dialogue.

I know that child soldiers feature, in some way, in The Phantom Pain after being alluded to since the first Metal Gear Solid, so it makes sense that they’d be intended to show up in Guns of the Patriots also. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong and off base, I’m just musing as I play, but with the BB unit and this, I can feel what I knew was coming, slide of the series into more and more morally dark territory, and it’s definitely uncomfortable.

That’s not to say it wasn’t morally dark at the start, the series is explicitly about the horrors of war in a way few games even attempt to be, but I need to sort through my conflicted feelings on it. There are some times that I’m okay with it, because through the silliness of the genre setting it’s able to convey a genuinely affecting message, and there are sometimes which it’s purposeless and indulgent.

Which is okay, as the series moves in this direction I shouldn’t feel the need to classify it as Problematic Or Not. I can take each element as it comes, acknowledge every flaw and take value from the elements that provide it. I’m not here to defend Metal Gear to anybody, I’ve tore into it plenty in these posts so far.

Anyway, Snake and EVA just climed down into a manhole, and I got given an instruction to save, so I’m going to bet I don’t have anything left in this act but the final cutscene.

Fuck.

I was right, I guess. But what an ending. Just when I was souring on all the things Metal Gear does badly, it comes right in with all the things it does best. The end of Act Three is a powerhouse, the moment where three acts of tension explode in one single, heartbreaking second. Metal Gear is slow and deliberate in its pacing, it packs so much information into every scene, but when that all results in the intensity building to one single climax, then the payoff is massive. That groundwork is done for a reason.

I don’t even know where to begin. So much happened, and yet so little. The cutscene was mostly empty space, tension being ratcheted to its highest point, and then horrible consequences being played out in front of my eyes. But before the main event, Snake and Liquid had their first real confrontation, after making eyes at each other in Act One. Liquid talks about his creation at the hands of The Patriots, and his desire to be free of their control, and addresses the hypocrisy in his actions. He wants to be free of The Patriots, but his desire for revenge and power is greater than any philosophical disagreement. If Big Boss and Zero were Patriots, then fuck it he’ll be a Patriot too. If he was always part of this system from birth, then why try to fight it any longer?

I’m glad they gave Liquid a proper motivation here, and tied it into his learning of the truth about Big Boss and Zero. Before he knew this, when we last saw him, he was off in search of the (assumed) twelve members of The Patriots. At that point, none of the Sons of Big Boss would even think of controlling the world, they were all searching for some way to be free from their assigned role in the world.

But by the end of this cutscene, Liquid doesn’t just want control, he has it. Liquid has won. He’s killed Big Boss, he’s taken control of the SoP, and he’s on his way to kill Zero. After three games of getting there in the nick of time, of bittersweet victories, we finally see what a loss looks like, and it does not look good.

The sinking feeling in the stomach that this cutscene is able to invoke is kind of unparalleled by anything in games. It’s a gut punch which is incredibly hard to construct effectively in writing, the total loss, you know, the Red Wedding. I feel like so many shows these days are built around this singular moment, delivered over and over again ad infinitum, attempting to recapture that feeling of powerlessness that the audience takes a perverse enjoyment in, with inevitably diminishing effects. But Metal Gear was not a series which indulged in these moments – the ending of Snake Eater is crushing, but in a completely different way.

And so, when it hits here, it hits hard.

Defeat

What’s great about this scene is that it understands how these kinds of moments are constructed filmically, and so the writing and direction all work together to really emphasise that gut punch effect. It understands that the moment of the gut punch isn’t the release, it comes long before. The moment isn’t when Liquid starts to fire his guns, it isn’t even when he reveals that he has control of the system. It’s the second that Meryl says “freeze.”

From that moment, due to the work done in the earlier, longer scenes to set up both Liquid’s capabilities with the System, and the ineffectiveness of the military against such a foe. It underlines the good few minutes of just cars and helicopters and guns getting ready to fire with this incredibly sense of dread and inevitability. There is no way this is going to end well, and not a single one of these people knows it (well, except Snake).

This all sounds obvious, but as someone who has watched some bad movies in their life, it’s definitely not. This is a scene I would point to as a counter example to the folks who say that Kojima is bad at writing, because this kind of functional genre writing is a talent that I think it unfortunately derided. It takes skill to arrange the pieces in place, to feed the audience information at the right times in order to infuse what is really just a scene of soldiers raising their guns for three minutes with a tension that holds for the full time.

Compare this to a game praised for being an enjoyable action blockbuster, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, in which every scene is a maximum of ten or so lines. The writing is technically better, character is established faster, there is a real propulsion and pace to every moment. But when there’s no room for anything to breathe, there’s no space to construct affecting moments. It can only establish tone – when people are shouting and the music is loud, that’s when the game is supposed to be exciting. When people are quiet and the music is sad, that’s when the game is supposed to be sad.

It’s skilful genre writing that makes this scene feel awful when the villain is literally doing an air gun dance for two minutes. The reveal of his ultimate plan is accompanied by him pointing finger guns in the air, as he delivers the wham line and the camera zooms in! It’s the dumbest, best thing, and because the game plays it completely straight, it still works as a villain’s terrifying reveal of their plan.

So when Meryl and Akiba (now Johnny – we’ll talk about that another time) are the only survivors, and EVA throws herself into the fire to save her long lost love, despite the sheer incredulity of that situation, I’m still left with a tear in my eye. I feel something as David Hayer, in the stupidest voice imaginable, yells “OTACOOOOOOON” and a tiny invisible robot jumps aboard a slow-moving boat of evil.

And then EVA dies. Her death is a really powerful moment, used not to highlight the tragedy of any single death, but of the mortality of all these characters. Snake and Liquid both have to die. For the era of The Patriots to be over, the whole system has to go away, and he’s culpable within it. He is Big Boss’ shadow, SoP is Zero’s shadow, and all must disappear if there is to be a clean slate, if by the end of this journey people can start anew.

Guns of the Patriots is a game aware of the sadness of mortality. All the Metal Gear games before this have ended with a rallying cry to the audience, an order to live! And so, at the end, the main characters are all old, are all dying, and coming to the end of their time just as we are with the series. Life has to have an ending, as unfair as it feels. EVA says her final lines, and we realise just how much we don’t want Snake to die, the man who’s fought non-stop to finally live a life free from this.

As Drebin rescues Snake (again), and takes him back to the Nomad, we see one final shot of the carnage around us, soldiers lying dead on the bridge, the boats burning in the water.

And we know, that even if it means the death of our hero, even if it means the end of this series, that it has to end. This has gone far enough.

Act Three

Act Three is probably my favourite act so far. It contains about twenty minutes of total gameplay, but come the hell on, that’s not why we’re here. It completely re-contextualises the plot of this game, changing the focus on something on something far more intimate, a family tragedy with world-spanning implications. With EVA, Act Three takes the strongest moment yet to look back on what had come before, and as she dies makes it clear that this adventure is more final than we knew.

It’s an exemplary bit of stake-raising, when we came into this chapter we had all the pieces in play but we were yet to understand what the thrust of the plot would be. And even now, I don’t know how we’re coming back from this, but I know what we have to do: stop liquid from launching a nuke. Why is it always nukes?

Plus, as a setting, this smoky city is stunning. It’s atmospheric and beautiful, allowing for some hilariously ham-fisted religious imagery, and giving Liquid’s victory one heck of a stage. And Young Snake in a trenchcoat, walking through the streets with his hands in his pockets is honestly one of the greatest images I don’t even care.

This game is pretty great, bring on Act Four.

*

It feels like we’re both about to hit the end, and also couldn’t be further from it. Despite feeling like I know the end of this game, I don’t have any idea what the next Act is. First off, Big Boss is dead as fucking dead, and I could swear that I heard you fight him at the end of this game? Maybe I got him confused with Liquid? Maybe it’s Zero? They keep talking about Zero like he’s alive but he’s not showed up yet so I dunno! I’m scared! Help meeeee!!

Next time, we’re going to start Act Four, and all these answers will be revealed. And more! Like, Will Sunny Burn The Eggs?!??!?!?!