The Metal Gear Diaries #42: War Has Changed

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 began Guns of the Patriots’ final act, taking out Psycho Mantis and leaving Meryl behind to approach the microwave corridor. Today, I have finished the game. Metal Gear is over! There is no more Metal Gear that will ever be, this was the finale to end all finales, and ever since 2008 people have been sad at the lack of new Metal Gear games.

Well, that’s clearly not true, but this is it. The final game I’ll do these diaries for, the end of my ridiculous quest, and I made it (mostly) alive. So join me, won’t you, as we recover from Solid Snake’s final hour, and complete Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Gut Reactions

Huh.

I have no idea what to think right now. This is the moment that we’ve been building towards for four games and (for those of you reading along), almost a year now. And I can’t tell whether I like it or not. My first reaction was anger, the ending seemed to be giving up on the themes the games had raised in order to somehow give the series a happy ending. The narrative leaps the ending takes with the state of the world specifically made me livid, even though they walk them back a couple scenes later.

But alongside moments of disappointment like that were others that were poignant, powerful, the series almost coming to the perfect bittersweet conclusion in beautiful echoes of the events that started the whole pointless affair.

It’s the least coherent ending of a Metal Gear Solid game, but that’s because it has to, in some way, be an ending to all Metal Gear Solid games. Each of those already formed a complete thematic picture, so trying to wrap them into one more final tale is already such a gargantuan task that it’s a miracle it got finished at all.

And in many respects, that’s the point of the whole thing. The game has continually been aware of its own hollowness, of the irresponsibility of its audience, chasing a catharsis that will never come. Maybe there was nothing else to do but wrap everything up with this crushing sense of inevitability, maybe we had to get to that point to realise how none of this mattered at all, how far we had strayed from the path.

After all, isn’t this why we’re here? This is good, isn’t it?

The Corridor

In lieu of the traditional series of boss fights and escape sequences, Guns of the Patriots attempts to achieve something far more singular with its climax, the microwave corridor. There’s no more enemies to fight, there’s nowhere else to go, you just have to not give up. Because if you don’t, everyone is going to die.

I’d heard about this moment before, obviously, so it wasn’t as powerful as it could have been, but it’s still this incredible moment of desperation, before the catharsis that’s been coming for a decade now. Raiden’s final battle, the last stand with Meryl and Johnny, Ray attacking the boat, Otacon crying in a corner, all playing out in split screen while you can do nothing but press a single button. The weight of years of plotlines, relationships, emotions, everything, all coming through in this single interaction. It’s a simple trick, and not one of the series more nuanced moments, but it’s definitely effective.

At this point, Guns of the Patriots is operating in full operatic mode. Why is Raiden there?! Who cares? This is the end, and at the end all sense of reality will fade away, reducing the series to its basest emotional and thematic elements. It’s not a sequence about logic, it’s not even a sequence about tension, despite being a will he/won’t he save the world sequence. It’s about the moment in and of itself, the pressing of the button, the torture mechanic recontextualised as this beautiful moment of sacrifice to save your friends.

It is only when everything is at its most dire, that you may walk through the door, and receive your reward.

FoxAlive

And what is the reward?

Well, it’s complicated.

For all intents and purposes, the microwave corridor is the last action in the game, there’s a fight after it with Liquid, but it’s such a strange dream-like affair that I consider it part of the game’s “ending.” And I don’t mean that as a knock against it.

So there you sit, in this computer graveyard, having finally made it to stop Liquid, and it’s time for Guns of the Patriots to finally confront the thematic debate that has been roaring for almost a decade now, to finally tackle The Patriots as an antagonist that can be defeated. And I have to tell you, the way it goes about that was the single most disappointing moment in the entirety of these four games, at least at first.

After the entire game had been building up to this moment, building up the way modern society and SOP are inextricably interlinked, and one cannot exist without the other, it suddenly drops that plot thread. Sunny develops a magical computer virus, like FoxDie but good, and removes Patriot control while keeping base functions like water, internet, and everything else.

I don’t think I can overstate just how angry I was at this in the moment, I’d invested so much in the game’s willingness to go there with The Patriots, to show ideologically how norms and values can’t just be defeated with a MacGuffin, and how systemic violence is such a self-sustaining and tragic thing. For a series so thematically intricate, so earnest about its politics to seemingly just shrug and give up without making a stance felt unforgivable.

Now, as the rest of the ending passed, and I sat and thought about it for a while, I don’t think it’s that bad. I don’t even think it’s a thematic betrayal, but I sure felt like it was in the moment. It’s definitely a disappointment, but a lot of that is on me. Guns of the Patriots is a sequel to Snake Eater, not the delayed sequel to Sons of Liberty, and its eventual conclusion positions it as that entirely, the way it deals with its conflicts lines up with that exactly. It’s definitely fair to say that the themes I’ve considered central to Guns of the Patriots are a few of many, and Metal Gear is such a multifaceted series that it’s basically impossible to betray the meaning of the series in one plot point.

Plus, with Drebin and Otacon’s conversation later, this plot development gets placed in a far clearer context, one that sits with me a lot better. This isn’t a happy ending at all, this is just wiping the slate clean. The War Economy is gone, the system may be gone, but the people who lived within it are still the same. The Evil Ideology has not magically been replaced with the Good Ideology (that would be a thematic betrayal!), instead the human race as a whole has a chance to fight to get things back on track, and to decide what that track even may be.

It fits in with Guns of the Patriots’ transition in this final act to pure opera, leaving behind any semblance of logical A to B in its plot points. Sunny isn’t Snake, who was essentially carrying out The Patriots’ will with his unthinking devotion to the mission, Sunny isn’t Otacon, who is too focused on atoning for his own sins and working through his trauma to take a step back and solve the puzzle. Instead, Sunny is both of them, she is their child, she is what they have passed on to the world.

These broken people, trapped in their traumas and unable to escape, are able to pass on the right values and kindness to give the next generation the tools to make things better. Which in many ways was always the ending of the saga, Sons of Liberty ending on that exact thematic note, but without making that subtext so blatantly text.

And now that it’s been a few days, and I sit writing this reaction, I’m okay with it. I like that, as a conclusion, as an argument made by the text. It may have felt like a slap in the face in the moment, but this is the ending to Metal Gear, this is as final as final can be. Imagine having to write yourself out of that corner?

The Patriots were written before as this all powerful other, an almost god-like collective of ideas controlling the world from behind the scenes. They were never meant to be defeated, they were never meant to be taken out, they were a device to analyse the different responses to the cruelties of American Society, which is why this game focuses on Solid, Liquid and Big Boss, and is so disinterested in The Patriots themselves.

So in the end, FoxAlive isn’t so bad. It’s a clumsy and awkward Deus Ex Machina, but manages to tie up the series’ main conflict while remaining true to the themes that have propelled the series.

The Twin Snakes

I skipped it in the last section while dealing with the wider implications and stakes that were going on, but also Liquid and Snake have a fight in the middle.

The fight between Liquid and Solid is stunning. It’s not even a fight for any reason, and it begins with Otacon setting Snake down and running off to a helicopter, and then revealing that Snake’s on top of a massive Pillar on Arsenal Gear???? This is not a game operating within a coherent reality at this moment, and it’s content to draw attention to how much that is the case.

The fight happens and it happens here purely because it has to. It’s got nothing to do with saving the world, it’s Snake v Liquid, the closest thing Metal Gear has to a Good v Evil, in their final confrontation. It even saves this moment for the Metal Gear theme to play. (okay, the Metal Gear B theme, they cut out the main theme because of copyright issues, which is tragic and I am not okay with it, that would be like recasting David Hayter and you’d never do that!)

It cycles the UI cycles through the years, moving the soundtrack from game to game, and it’s this moment of pure indulgence but oh so needed. There are no real plot reveals, no sudden motivational twists, and everything goes exactly as expected. It’s a celebration far more than a catharsis. It’s simply this time to reflect on the series’ progression, Guns of the Patriots explicitly confirming in its formal elements that it is, first and foremost, a game about Metal Gear.

Liquid dies by his hand, in his arms. Snake is a hero, he’s completed his mission. He’s overcome so much, and he’s saved the world.

All he has to do now is die.

Happy Families

Which almost brings us to the single worst plot point in the game, as we get joyous sequences of victory, all underscored by the inevitability that our hero won’t be able to share in them.

First, Meryl and Johnny hook up and get married – which is a fine way to end Meryl’s arc, to me. She spent that first game as Snake’s love interest, as a rookie who realised she wasn’t cut out for this, by getting shot and propelling Snake’s emotional arc. And here, she’s not only proven his assessment of her wrong as someone who will never make it, she defines herself without using Snake as a model, as opposed to Otacon/Raiden, characters who have essentially rebuilt their personality in Snake’s image.

So, for her to come to this point where she can both be this badass soldier lady and an emotionally capable woman in love cements her as perhaps the single most well adjusted and heroic character in all of Metal Gear. I’m not saying this to defend the super sexist way this sudden turn of “falls in love with literal barrel shitting idiot” is written, but more to say that perhaps inadvertently, Meryl’s arc positions her as this powerful and competent character in a way that few others get to be.

Plus, it’s nice to see her and her dad finally reconcile. I can’t lie, that was a sweet moment.

The other joyous sequence is somewhat less tolerable. Raiden sits in a bed, his arms re-attached, and Rose reveals to him that she’s been pretending to be Roy Campbell’s wife to protect their child from the Patriots!!! It’s this awful moment, as all of what made Raiden’s arc in this game so powerful, his complete and utter rejection of the catharsis of Sons of Liberty is suddenly reinstated.

The way Guns of the Patriots uses Raiden is central to the way it comments on Metal Gear as a series of games – Raiden continues to be the stand in for the player, given their chance to stop with Sons of Liberty, which is on one level entirely about freeing the player from wanting any more Metal Gear games. But they continue, they reject that freedom, and so Raiden becomes this husk of what he was, desperately chasing his need to be Solid Snake despite the fact he could so easily choose a better life, a choice Snake does not have available to him.

And all of a sudden, for no reason whatsoever, Guns of the Patriots just undoes all of that. It’s not game-ruining at all, because it does make sense in that it’s trying to create this moment of unlikely elation off the back of Snake’s suicidal sacrifice. The player gets to go home, Snake does not.

It’s understandable as a choice, but it’s definitely a shame. It’s this real moment of Metal Gear pulling its punches in a way it never really does. Even FoxAlive was different, that was a ridiculous and earnest Deus Ex Machina, a twist that the game cared about and had a purpose. This twist has none of that earnestness, it just kind of happens because Raiden has to get back with Rose, I guess. It feels like the game itself doesn’t care.

And in a way, it doesn’t. Because Snake pulls the trigger, the sun rises on a new future, and the credits roll. But Guns of the Patriots isn’t done with those ideas yet. It’s barely begun.

Death of the Author

“It’s not time for you to go just yet.”

Big Boss’ voice is soft and gentle, a tired old man who’s fought a tired old war, who hasn’t got any fight left in him.

This is perhaps the most discussed sequence in Guns of the Patriots’ ending, Big Boss returning from the dead to save Solid Snake from certain doom. I remember at the time hearing that it was this big moment of cowardice, that video game franchise characters simply don’t get that finality, and stepping away from that brink is a monumentally bad decision.

Having now seen the ending, I can’t think of anything farther from the truth. This final scene brings the game into crystallisation, this epilogue to the entire series that feels like the inevitable and final conclusion of the entire Metal Gear saga.

Big Boss drops a bunch of reveals and twists – mostly that he’s still alive and that Ocelot chose to become Liquid to bring him out of Patriot control. He monologues for a long while about norms and the systemic nature of Metal Gear’s villainy, and how for the world to move on they have to take responsibility for their sins and do their best to undo them. Which means Zero needs to die, and so does he. In sacrificing himself, he saves his final son, setting Snake free of a war that was never his.

All of this is great, the ending of the series being the ultimate Villain’s ultimate but pointless redemption as they realise the sheer magnitude of what they have done and end their life with a miniature act of kindness. But it’s also whatever, it’s not what this scene is about to me, it’s not why this ending is so powerful.

If Solid Snake is the character, and Raiden is the player, then Big Boss is the author. Raiden’s been a representation of the audience, dragged across the coals for their inability to stop needing to play new Metal Gear games, but it’s only now we see it from the other perspective, from someone who can’t stop making them. For all the valid critique of Kojima positioning himself as an auteur who takes all the credit, this ending showcases the flipside where he must take all the responsibility, too.

In a very real way, this scene feels like Kojima having a conversation with his own creation. This barely involves me anymore, Raiden’s in a hospital with his wife, the player is already free. Instead, the ending here isn’t for them, it’s this incredibly personal epilogue where the author looks at the work that they’ve made and asks: what was this all for? I lost the why along the way.

Metal Gear’s always had this self-reflexive quality, if you Find/Replace “Soldier” with “Artist” and “Nations” with “Companies” it works strikingly well as this desperate angry narrative about the intersection of art and industry. No more is this evident than in this final moment, in this game that only exists because the audience will pay, and Konami wants to get paid. After all, it’s been well documented that Kojima’s not wanted to make any more Metal Gear since Sons of Liberty, and every single game before was to be his final entry.

But still, more are made, and the series is moving further and further away from its original identity. After all, this game began with a direct response to western shooter trends, the gunplay is far more accessible than games before, and core concepts such as OSP are missing entirely. The first Metal Gear Solid was a game about slowly gaining knowledge and mastery over a space, and through that knowledge gaining empowerment and uncovering a mystery. Now, Snake travels from room to room with no real backtracking or continuity of space, weapons available at the touch of the button.

So why does it still exist? What could possibly be left to say that wouldn’t merely dilute what was already there? And here at the end, why should the character sacrifice himself for something that isn’t his responsibility? No, the buck stops with me.

Stories have to end. They can’t spiral out of control, just tropes and elements repeating to make money or satisfy an audience, otherwise they lose all meaning. And Metal Gear is a beautifully optimistic story, so for Snake to die would be heinous. He deserves to see his new world, to give up smoking, to live the last of his life with his best friends. So there’s only one way to make this final. There’s only one way that this can end, there’s only one person who should take the fall.

This is good, isn’t it?

*

Animal House Epilogue:

Hideo Kojima would go on to release three more Metal Games after this.

In the year 2016, he is finally free.