“Metal Gear Solid” is the third entry in Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear” series, but is so fully-formed, refreshingly cinematic, and brilliant, that even setting aside the many more practical reasons (the game is 3d as opposed to 2d, the game had a wide release on a popular console and in the west, its cinematic nature was inherently more appetising than the often frustrating gameplay of the first two games), it’s clear to see why it was (and continues to be) such an enormous success.
[Note: This review is generally spoiler-free. There’s a clearly marked-off section at the end for spoilers, that is easy to avoid. The bulk of the review touches on the narrative of the game, but avoids mentioning any twists or the like.]
The truly unique factors of the game that, to my mind, really set it apart from other releases of the time (and, in the case of the second point, many games since) are the polished cinematic presentation of the game, and the strong thematic focus. The first trait is showcased in numerous ways, not only in notable divergences from the first two games (such as the game being fully voiced, and being in 3d rather than 2d environments), but also through the fact the game is telling a story for the sake of that story. The writing isn’t just there to string together gameplay, as it is for so, so many games; it’s there for its own sake, for game director Hideo Kojima (and the many other talented people that worked on the game) to communicate a story and certain themes and questions. That dovetails into the second point, that the game has a strong and holistic focus on theme. From the characters, to the plot, to the dialogue, to the gameplay, there’s a unified focus on certain persistent themes, namely genes (and natural offshoots of that – nature vs nurture, the role of family, the root of one’s identity, free will vs determinism), but also, to a lesser extent, the contrast between virtual reality and actual reality, and the nature of soldiers (a theme the first two games also focused on, particularly the second).
The story follows Solid Snake, six years after his retirement following the end of “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, being pulled back into a mission by the United States Government (specifically his old commander, Roy Campbell) to infiltrate a nuclear weapons facility on fictional Alaskan coastal island Shadow Moses. The facility has been overtaken by FOXHOUND, which has morphed into a terrorist organisation, who demand a billion dollars and the remains of Big Boss. As the game progresses, Solid Snake deals with the members of FOXHOUND through boss battles and encounters, as well as unravelling the plots surrounding the incident. Prominent characters include the FOXHOUND leader Liquid Snake, the enigmatic Psycho Mantis, the awkward engineer Otacon, and Roy Campbell’s dynamic niece, Meryl.
As was the case with “Metal Gear” to “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, development of Solid Snake’s character is increased exponentially. The game digs further into his feelings on his nature of a soldier – “I’m just a guy who can only find meaning on the battlefield. There’s no winning or losing for a mercenary”, “It’s only when I’m cheating death on the battlefield that I feel truly alive”, “It’s easy to forget what a sin is in the middle of a battlefield”, “I’ve never fought for anyone but myself. I have no purpose in life. No ultimate goal” -, with many of Snake’s statements expressing a sense of self-loathing of his mercenary and soldier nature. Uncharacteristic for a supposed cold-hearted mercenary, Solid Snake showcases a clear deep respect and belief in the sanctity of life and love. He strongly asserts to Otacon that soldiers, like any other person, can find love, and that “at any time, any place, people can fall in love with each other”. Furthermore, he treats the death of a prominent boss character with utmost respect, going out of his way to provide what the character needs, offer emotional support as they pass on, and give them as dignified a death as possible – his actions speak louder than words, and showcase his firm belief in the sanctity of life, which is at odds with his many self-professed claims of being something of an unfeeling mercenary. This internal conflict and contradiction synthesises neatly with the game’s primary theme of genetics, as Kojima explores to what extent one’s genetics, their family, their physical make-up defines them and constrains their actions.
A common description of the themes of the series, referencing the games Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Metal Geat Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain goes, respectively, “gene, meme, scene, sense, peace, voice”, all words unified by being single-syllable, ending in “e”, and being primary concepts explored by the games in question. Kojima himself has given some level of official credence to the description, by naming multiplayer modes of multiplayer spin-off “Metal Gear Online” as “gene”, “meme”, and “scene”, corresponding to expansions with content from the first three games, in that order. “Metal Gear Solid” certainly is primarily concerned with genes, with genetics, with the question of what role genes have over one’s life and identity.
Solid Snake is, vocally at least, more ambivalent about the matter of genetics’ impact on identity throughout the early and middle stages of the game, only mentioning his personal views (themselves murkier until the ending, where he commits to a certain viewpoint) when dialogues get particularly active. Dr. Naomi Hunter firmly believes genes fundamentally have a huge impact on one’s identity, and there are many discussions and arguments between the two characters on the matter. Naomi is skeptical of Solid Snake’s belief in the sanctity of life, claiming “there’s a tendency towards murder written in your very genes”, but Solid Snake staunchly replies “I don’t know what the hell my genes look like, and I don’t care”. Solid Snake’s treatment of a certain boss character after they sustain a fatal wound backs up his statements about the sanctity of life, as his actions certainly mesh with his words.
Below is a reproduction of a conversation the two characters have that ties deeply into the theme.
NAOMI: Snake, violence…it’s in your genes. They make you predisposed towards violence.
SNAKE: You really do like talking about genes, Naomi…why did you get into genetic research anyway?
NAOMI: I never knew who my parents were, or even what they looked like…I guess I got into genetics because I wanted to figure out why I am, the way I am… I thought if I could thoroughly understand DNA, I could get back my identity… we know that by analyzing a person’s genetic information, we can retrieve the blank spots in that person’s memory.
SNAKE: Memory is stored in DNA?
NAOMI: We are not sure…but we know that a person’s genetic fate is determined by the sequence of the four bases in DNA.
SNAKE: So, what about my fate? You know my DNA sequence, don’t you?
NAOMI: Your fate…mm…I am sorry, I…have no idea.
SNAKE: Of course not – you are a scientist, not a fortune teller. Fate is determined by our actions.
Kojima here is framing the philosophical debate of free will and determinism – the conflict between the idea that humans have the capacity to freely and autonomously make decisions, and the idea that all decisions and events stem from causes “external to the will”, preceding factors robbing human agents of the ability to make any choice truly independently – through the game’s theme of genetics, specifically through Solid Snake and Naomi’s differing viewpoints they express through their dialogue. Solid Snake may get the zinger of a closing line, but his actions betray his convictions, to an extent. When questioned by various characters, he fails to give a meaningful, desirable, or truly satisfactory answer as to why he’s even enacting the mission he didn’t sign up for, that shapes the plot of the game. He states “It’s only when I’m cheating death on the battlefield that I feel truly alive”, a viewpoint somewhat at odds with other personal beliefs he expresses, yet one perfectly in-tune with someone he shares his genes with.
Meryl, early in the game (before getting to know him better), tells him “You [Solid Snake specifically] can’t stop loving war”. Snake continues to express similar statements about his identity as a soldier – “I’m just a guy who can only find meaning on the battlefield. There’s no winning or losing for a mercenary”, “I’ve never fought for anyone but myself. I have no purpose in life. No goal” -, as explored in “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, and very much in-line with views expressed by one he shares his genes with. The questions the game asks about genetics are made clear through such dialogues, but as for the answers, the thematic resolution, that is so tied up in spoiler territory that I will only address it in the marked-off spoiler section at the bottom of this page.
The secondary theme of virtual reality vs actual reality is nowhere near as omnipresent as the primary genetics theme, but it does persist throughout the game nonetheless. Solid Snake is skeptical as to the efficacy of virtual reality simulations, when compared to live training, let alone actual fieldwork. Campbell refers to the growing trend of agents trained in virtual reality simulation as “simulated soldiers”, but Solid Snake scornfully calls them “soldiers of the video game generation”. When Meryl finds herself paralysed in an actual combat situation, Solid Snake is not surprised. He confirms for her that “it’s not like shooting targets in training”, and the two argue for a while on the nature of training and fieldwork. This concern isn’t relegated just to the issue of soldiers; Otacon and Solid Snake later discuss how virtual reality has affected the development of advanced weaponry. Upon learning of such knowledge, Solid Snake remarks “so they developed a new type of nuclear weapon in a V.R. testing lab, huh”, clearly displeased with how the artificial technology has enabled further development of large-scale weaponry.
This theme, along with the others, is bolstered by the usage of actual live-action interludes to complement certain dialogues significantly pertaining to the central concerns of the game. The use of such real-world footage is jarring, I believe intentionally, to emphasise the gravity, relevance, and seriousness of the issues being explored – it pulls the player somewhat out of the game, and back into the real world, where these are actual issues, affecting real people.
These live-action clips aren’t the only times the game goes, metatextual – far from it! The game is deeply metatextual, postmodern, and referential. There are many influence of other texts, such as John Carpenter’s “Escape from” movies (the protagonist design and name, the plot and premise), the “James Bond” film and book series (the stealth and espionage story and gameplay), Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Solid Snake and Otacon’s first names, certain technological elements), various westerns such as “Django” (Revolver Ocelot), the film “The Fury” (Psycho Mantis’ powers), the film series “Planet of the Apes” (Kojima himself stating how the films handled their anti-war themes influenced him), and a myriad of others. But it’s how the game references itself that’s really interesting. For example, when important characters make their first importance appearances in the game, they’re subtitled with credits in much the same way the opening credits sequence of a film would.
These credits showcase the metatextual nature of the game, they further add to the cinematic experience Kojima wished the game to be, and they’re a fun bit of self-referential camp in line with the humour of the series. There are many other significant metatextual moments in the game. At one point, Naomi Hunter tells Solid Snake to put the controller – the actual game controller, in a moment of breaking the fourth wall and addressing both Solid Snake and the player – against his arm, as it would stimulate his implanted nanomachines to provide a pleasant situation. We actual players have no such nanomachines, but the vibration of the controller is still pleasant, and we’re linked to Solid Snake and the virtual reality of the game in that way. It’s relevant that the fight preceding that moment is legitimately physically exerting for the player, as they must mash a button very quickly and hard as part of the sequence. Another metatextual moment was when the player was intended to actually check the physical box of the game to find a relevant codec code (somewhat dated now, as many people play the game digitally).
The most significant and memorable, markedly postmodern moment of the game, is the boss fight with Psycho Mantis. Mantis taunts Solid Snake with individualised statements reacting directly to the player, such as character judgements based on the amount of times the player saved, the other games they’ve played on that system, and how proficient they’ve been in combat sequences throughout the game. Mantis demonstrates his player by instructing the player to place the game controller on the floor, then “controlling it with his mind”, by the game aggressively stimulating the rumble vibration feature, making the controller physically jerk around on the floor. To defeat Mantis, the player can combat his mind-reading capabilities by changing the port the game controller is plugged into, thus clouding Mantis’ mind. The boss battle has been lauded for its extremely creative and innovative nature, and remains a very memorable and iconic scene of the series for this.
A less effective example of the game’s metatextual nature is the ending, or rather, the title cards that follow. After the ending of the game’s story, text appears on-screen, relating to the topic of nuclear weapons. There’s little clarification on whether the facts are talking about the game-world, which the player has been immersed in for a very significant amount of time at that point, or the real world. The live-action sequences connected into the story and dialogue of the game, but the credit text is perhaps too disconnected, making explicit points without tying them more firmly into the story.
In terms of gameplay, the game isn’t too dated. The lack of adjustable camera perspective is a real pain to get used to, but having 3d environments at all is an enormous modern comfort compared to the first two games. The stealth components of the gameplay are very satisfying, and the pacing of what items are available to the player as they progress is executed well. Some gameplay, like the Psycho Mantis boss fight, is absolutely exceptional, but there are a few moments the gameplay was notably grating. One such example was near the end of the game, where the player climbs up a significant height (i.e. it takes a while for the player to get to the top), only for a key item to be shot out of their hand. The player must then walk all the way back down. They retrieve the item, then return to the top. They then learn they must trek along many different parts of the game world to cause certain effects to the item. They trek across to a cold section of the map, then back to the relevant section, then up again. Then down again, across the map to a hot section, back to the relevant section, and up again. It was an extremely frustrating, overlong sequence. Thankfully, there are not many such moments.
While I have plenty more to say about the game, I’ve said all I feel I can without going into spoiler territory, so this concludes the non-spoiler section of the review. While elements of the game haven’t aged well, and there are a few frustrating design decisions here and there, overall the game is a tremendously inspired, cohesive, and intelligent work, showcasing a clearly enormous amount of skill and passion by Hideo Kojima and the rest of the game’s developers. It’s strong, holistic thematic focus sets it in a league of its own, that most games today still don’t even come close to approaching. I give it four boxes, and a packet of ketchup.
[End of the non-spoiler section of the review.]
I’ll add a load of paragraph breaks here, to prevent accidentally seeing the spoiler section – you’ll have to intentionally scroll down to see it!
[Beginning of the spoiler section of the review.]
It’s not until late-game stages that the game’s thesis statement about genetics becomes clear. It’s suggested in some earlier scenes, such as Meryl coming to a self-actualising moment about how genes and family define (or rather, don’t define) her identity, stating “I thought that if I became a soldier, I could understand him [her deceased father] better….Now I understand. The truth is, I was just afraid of looking at myself, afraid of having to make my own decisions in life”, as well as in Psycho Mantis recognising Solid Snake’s unique, key perspective in saying “You…you are different. You’re the same as us. We have no past, no future. We live in the moment”, after his speech deriding inherent genetic desires; “each mind I peered into was stuffed with the same single object of obsession, that selfish and atavistic desire to pass on one’s seed. It was enough to make me sick. Every living thing on this planet exists to mindlessly pass on their DNA. We’re designed that way. And that’s why there is war”.
The genome soldiers – soldiers who underwent gene therapy to try and give them characteristics of Big Boss, the archetypal legendary ideal soldier – persist as the common enemies throughout the game. I found the suggestion that, in the world of Metal Gear, the Gulf War syndrome was due to genetic experiments uncomfortable, and not in an intended way. It felt like co-opting a real issue to strengthen the game’s plot, but didn’t shore up with the overall verisimilitude of the game, which took inspiration from aspects of reality, but didn’t try to clunkily ascribe some of the game’s sillier, or less realistic, aspects to serious real-world issues. The exploration of nuclear weaponry worked much better, as Metal Gear REX is clearly a heightened, fictional story device that Kojima uses for multiple reasons, such as illustrating his thoughts on issues surrounding nuclear weaponry.
Fate is a key term used in relation to the game’s exploration of genetics – Psycho Mantis states that “humans weren’t designed to bring each other happiness. From the moment we’re thrown into this world, we’re fated to bring each other nothing but pain and misery”, and the question of whether one is chained to their fate because of their genetic heritage forms the conceptual bedrock of the game. The ending of the game is where Kojima makes his views on the matter explicitly clear. Protagonist Solid Snake and antagonist Liquid Snake are revealed to be clones of Big Boss. Liquid Snake operated his entire life under the apparent “fact” that he inherited the inferior recessive genes, while Solid Snake inherited the superior dominant genes (it’s best not to think too hard about the actual realities of genetic science here, as the game’s presentation of them doesn’t shore up neatly with how they work in the real world). While Solid and Liquid remain unaware of this revelation, the player learns that it was actually the other way around – Liquid had the superior genes, Solid the inferior, and Solid’s triumph over Liquid thus shows that one is not bound by the chains of their genetic “fate”, that people can be active agents in their life and overcome their heritage, that self-actualisation and willpower are more important than one’s genetics.
This thematic thesis statement is further developed by Naomi Hunter’s monologues over the ending, reproduced below.
Each person is born with their fate written into their own genetic code. It’s unchangeable, immutable… but that’s not all there is to life. I finally realised that. I told you before the reason that I was interested in genes and DNA. Because I wanted to know who I was, where I came from. I thought that if I analysed my DNA, I could find out who I was, who my parents were. And I thought that if I knew that, then I’d know what path I should take in life.
But I was wrong. I didn’t find anything. I didn’t learn anything. Just like with the Genome Soldiers… you can input all the genetic information, but that doesn’t make them into the strongest soldiers.
The most we can say about DNA is that it governs a person’s potential strengths… potential destiny. You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate, to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live. All life is tethered to the future.
Loving each other, teaching each new generation; then the world can change. I finally realised it. The true meaning of life. Thank you, Snake
You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate, to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live. Snake, whether you’ve been programmed or not isn’t important. The important thing is that you choose life… and then live!
Most video games that go so far as to have intentional themes propose them as question statements rather than thesis statements, or “messages”. In my reviews for Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided I talk about how those games present their themes just as questions, with the former offering the player a chance to assert their own thesis statement at the ending. Eric Fenstermaker, a writer at Obsidian Entertainment, has said “I think it’s often best, in an RPG in particular, to look at themes as questions rather than as moral suggestions. In a novel, you might have a theme about injustice, for example, and the author’s ultimate incarnation of the theme might boil down to ‘Everyone has a moral obligation to fight injustice, whether they are victimized by it or not.’ But in an interactive, branching medium, it’s better to ask, ‘Are we obligated to fight injustice even when we are not personally involved?’ And then you give the player the tools to make his or her own decision”, and that does seem to be the prevailing opinion among video game writers creating games with that level of literary focus. Kojima, at least in this specific game, presents his themes in a way more similar to novels and films, eventually offering a set thesis statement on the central concern of the text. I don’t think either approach is
Kojima, at least in this specific game, presents his themes in a way more similar to novels and films, eventually offering a set thesis statement on the central concern of the text. I don’t think either approach is necessarily better or worse, although I agree with Fenstermaker in that RPGs tend to work better with the questioning approach, and I’d suggest more cinematic, linear (in terms of story, not gameplay) experiences like “Metal Gear Solid” work just as well with the moral suggestion approach.
I don’t think “Metal Gear Solid” is a perfect game – it’s unfortunately dated, has many clunky moments, and is sometimes muddled in terms of character – but it’s still a brilliant, extraordinarily ambitious, medium-pushing one. I was extremely impressed by it, especially in terms of its cinematic presentation when the context of its year of release is taken into account, and its strong, holistic exploration of themes. Again, I give it four boxes, and a packet of ketchup.