Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty | A Hideo Kojima PlayStation 2 game review

Words by: Alex Crumb

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Feb 15, 2012 12:00:00 PM

"Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is simply the illusion of control via the illusion of simulation."

mgs2_raiden-resized-600.jpgBefore there was cleverness in videogames, there was cruelty. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game made by Hideo Kojima, a man that doesn't like you. He doesn't you, he doesn't like his fans, he doesn't like making Metal Gear games over and over. He tried to quit a bunch of times, but then Japanese people rioted. He probably wanted to just produce games instead of directing, throw some good ideas at hungry developers so they could make things like Zone of the Enders (* * out of 4) or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (* * * out of 4). He's an abstract and an "ideas man." He's too resentful to expect the player to understand his message when he speaks his mind within the context of a game. Kojima likes messing with people, offering a co-worker a handful of M&M's, and then laughing at them when they bit down on what were actually painted pebbles that he'd stayed up after lights-out to prepare. His is a character with no motivation -- he just does.

Whereas modern games actually plan on you discovering their gimmicks and secrets, probably at a designed-upon moment wherein you realize that this game is oh-so intelligent with its outlandish design, MGS2 is more of a drifter who is wise in his esoterica, burning down the Starbucks in every town he passes through. This game does not like chocolate chip cookies. This game is punk rock disguised as a Michael Bay movie. It's about an individual's overwrought sense of consumerist entitlement as much as it's about nuclear war -- and this is a videogame from 2001 that we're talking about. People have called it post-modern, but I think that's too broad of a definition. The original Metal Gear Solid on PS1 was already post-modern, which would make MGS2 a self-deconstruction, given its pronounced and purposeful similarity to its predecessor. It comes from a legacy and it knows it's famous. The original Metal Gear Solid made people sit up straight in their chairs in awe that a game could be about conspiracies and nuclear proliferation and real fuckin' guns firing real fuckin' bullets, all while still undoubtedly being a videogame in the same way that The Legend of Zelda was a videogame.

Kojima himself really did design a vast majority of MGS (source: The Game's Ending Credits), programming the enemy pathing, scripting boss patterns, and still writing and direction the abundant story. It was his. He had made this videogame and people played it, and they loved it madly. He had made so many people into videogame fans. Then he wondered if that was a good thing. Maybe he wondered if he'd been too clever, maybe he wondered if he hadn't been clever enough, but in the end, somebody had done a bad thing with MGS, simulating a one-man army sneaking into an Alaskan military base to thwart terrorists that were threatening innocents with a weapon as expansive and complex as nukes. The content was too serious for a media format like a videogame. It broke the fourth wall and established the player-character as an actual person, putting who was in control -- the player, the designer, or the character -- into question. Control and character would become major themes in MGS2. The videogame was becoming a squirmy art-form right before his eyes, and the battle-lines hadn't been drawn yet. Kojima wondered if people actually understood what they were interfacing with. He wondered if they could grasp the gravitas of such intricate, murderous role-playing.

The game was a success. It, along with Final Fantasy VII, helped establish the PS1's front-line. So how does an ego-maniacal idiot-savant like Kojima follow that up? How does he follow up Psycho Mantis? How does he follow up Revolver Ocelot's torture machine? How does he follow up Decoy Octopus, a boss hidden so deftly in his game that not everybody realized they fought and killed him during the first twenty minutes? How does one top that act? By doing the most punk rock thing imaginable. By nose-diving into his sophomore slump on purpose. By knowing his audience's expectations and doing almost the exact opposite. He knew he had one of the biggest audiences imaginable and that most everybody that would be buying MGS2 would have played, owned, or maybe even beaten MGS, and they were expecting big things for the sequel on the powerhouse PS2. Seriously, in 2000, a lot of people looked at the Dreamcast, and then looked at the preview build of MGS2, and instantly, a choir of angels descended from heaven to administer them God-sanctioned laser-eye surgery. It was no contest. Whatever was under the PS2's hood was lookin' pretty, pretty, pretty good, and all those kids suddenly recalled the rumors they'd heard from their friends with PS1's about how chocolate pudding-fantastic MGS was, which was that game with the robot ninja and nikita missiles that you could steer yourself.

PlayStation 2 it was. Sorry, Dreamcast. And the world waited with baited breath for the next generation.

Then 9/11 happened. It shouldn't be underestimated how much the real-life terrorist attacks soured people's feelings towards MGS2, a game about, hey, would ya know it, terrorists in New York. Or even worse, we were sure there were terrorists in the game, but we weren't sure what the game was actually about. It was murky as hell on purpose, all to make a statement about informational deception. MGS2 is not a cheerful game. It purposefully begins wholesome and familiar enough, barely informing you on how to operate old, familiar, Solid Snake, and it's business as usual, but it slowly drills down into the misery of modern American culture and how the government has been lying to us for decades. Yes, it's as jarring and hackneyed as that sentence. It had a labyrinthine plot laced with gray-shaded philosophical babble. Kojima always intended for the game to insult the player and nobody was in any mood to face an ironic videogame in October, 2001, especially when they were expecting Real American Hero Solid Snake to be kickin' bitches and slappin' robots.

Ah, yes, the Raiden twist. You are Raiden when you play MGS2, even during the parts where you control Snake during the initial Tanker-sequence that begins the game. You are Raiden. All of us are Raiden. Everybody that played MGS was Raiden and everybody that plays videogames is Raiden, at least as far as Kojima is concerned. And Raiden is not a very cool guy.

Snake is a cool guy. He prevented nuclear holocaust. He has a gruff voice and is named after a Kurt Russell character. He smokes. Smoking is "a move" that you can do when playing as Solid Snake. Raiden is none of those things. Raiden is an ignorant and androgynous bitch-whipped sucker. He limps through a a kabuki-theater plot surrounded by characters that act with as much enthusiasm as an underpaid babysitter wielding a Power Rangers action figure in one hand and a AT&T family-plan smartphone in the other.

And it's all on purpose. This is exactly what Kojima meant to happen. He saw his fanbase's desire to play as the iconic hero Snake and he saw an opportunity to twist it into a medium-defining moment. This is second-person storytelling. Remember earlier when I was talking about who was really in control, the player, the designer, or the character? No other storytelling form can do this.

It's simple. People use videogames as escapism, to simulate being a person greater and braver than ourselves. So what did Kojima do? He made a game where you get to play as a character trying to inhabit that role, but can't! You get to do it briefly, dabbling in the story's intrigue. You get to observe Solid Snake do his thang on occasion. But no, that stuff's going on outside of your control. When you take control of Raiden, you are talked through how things work by a patient military man, explaining your mission. How to walk. How to push a button. How to call your girlfriend on the phone. This is all after you've infiltrated an US Marines' tanker not twenty minutes earlier. As Raiden, you are relegated to the back seat to make you learn that you are still playing a game. When you're playing a game, you don't have the control you think you do. It's a harsh lesson. You, as Raiden, have to run through a plot of what is an admitted, deliberate simulation of the original Metal Gear Solid, which, in and of itself, was already a simulation of a Real American Hero stopping a terrorist attack.

The illusion of control via the illusion of simulation. Only a videogame can do that.

It attacks you for wanting to be guided through a simulation that you really have no control over, or even understand the reason for. And why, of all things, would you want to simulate this? What kind of sick psycho are you, choosing a narrow, digital, murder simulation? The story in MGS2 is a sad one. It's about us growing up, losing control, thinking we're doing good things, but we're puppets. We have no idea who to trust or who to depend on.

Kojima's stance on a sequel to MGS was: "Oh, what, you want another MGS game? Fuck you, you don't want another MGS game, and I'm gonna show you why. Because you, player, are a tool. A tool for me to manipulate. Defy me if you dare."

You (Raiden) trust your support characters blindly. You (Raiden) have your girlfriend leaning on your shoulder, giving vapid advice. You (Raiden) are a slave to a machine more complex than you could ever realize. You (Raiden) only become interesting when you become unlikable. Early on, Raiden encounters a man that looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake. Solid Snake is supposedly dead. This man before you resembling Solid Snake even admits it. Colonel Campbell, the voice in Raiden's ear, tells you not to trust this man that looks like Solid Snake. But you, player, know better. You've already identified with Snake. You trust Snake above all else. Immediately, you're put at unease, because you want to trust Campbell, but you know you should trust Snake.

That's when you first start to lose control of what you're doing. When Raiden comments that what's going on around him is a lot like The Shadow Moses incident of the first game, the supporting voices in his ear tell him not to worry about that, that, "This isn't a simulation, Raiden. It's real life," that's Kojima telling the player to be unsatisfied by this bullshit. The fact that the plot weaves Snake's presence, unaccounted variables that your supporting CO can't account for, is brilliant. Remember how Raiden is a doofy character with terrible dialog at first, and only the unaccounted variable characters like Snake, Olga, and Otacon, have decently-written parts and speak like actual people? That's because they exist outside of videogame conventions. They are free people, while Raiden (You) is just playing a part, doing as you're told. When it's revealed that Campbell was just an AI voice in your ear all along, and he tells you to stop playing the game, but you refuse, because fuck you, Old Man, that's you rising to Kojima's challenge to not obey authority, especially not a faceless game-designer. Once you've done this, you're ready to play the real game -- that game would exist elsewhere someday, and if Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (* * * * out of 4) had turned out to be terrible, then MGS2's joke wouldn't have worked, because with MGS3, Kojima proved that he could make a damn-fine game if he needed to.

It's the most important troll-job in videogame history. Kojima proved that he'd rather spend years of his life and millions of somebody else's dollars to tell a passive-aggressive joke about the state of a niche sector of the entertainment industry than let you play a cohesive videogame sequel to one of the most-revered games of all time. He designed a game that was deliberately as close to its predecessor as possible, but also deliberately not as good -- all to satisfy his own ego. It makes statements about sequels (they're shit), technological advancement (it's dangerous), entitlement (you aren't), and really new, interesting ideas (we're out of them, and we have been for a while).

MGS2 was a step towards the craziness that would eventually manifest in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which is a towering monument to digital arts and crafts. The only problem with MGS2 is that it's not a very good game to actually play. Its design was clunky when it was released and it's aged horribly ten years later. The radar system is broken, there's no camera control, aiming is like digging yourself out of a snowbank with a bread knife, and the hand-to-hand combat is straight out of the 90's. It's important to note that that is not part of Kojima's joke. Rarely is a game so flawlessly built that it's actually about something, and still is fun to play.

-- Alex Crumb (originally published 11/14/12)
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