Like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a brilliant, extremely well-executed, triumph of a video game. That’s about where a lot of the similarities end, as Snake Eater was clearly envisioned as something of a reaction against Sons of Liberty, no doubt partially due to the mixed reaction Sons of Liberty received.
[Note: This review has a clearly marked-off section for spoilers. The next few paragraphs are spoiler-free, then there’s a big obvious section where the spoilers begin. Most of the review is in that spoiler section.]
Snake Eater ditches much of the metatextuality and philosophical focus of its predecessor, and delivers a much more conventional, character-based story. It still has that strong thematic focus that typifies Kojima’s entries in the series (gene, meme, scene, etc.), but where Sons of Liberty felt like a story created singularly to best deliver its thematic message, Snake Eater feels like a perfectly enjoyable, standalone story in its own right. Its thematic and philosophical concerns are very much present, and embedded holistically throughout nearly every facet of the game, but it’s a game where I feel someone could play the whole thing, never really think about the theme or message, and enjoy the hell out of it anyway. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or bad thing (I myself personally preferred the postmodern antics of Sons of Liberty), but it’s easier to understand and situate a lot about the game when one keeps in mind that a lot of its design philosophies are a reaction against those of Sons of Liberty.
In terms of my interpretations of the series’ themes, Metal Gear Solid was about gene, genetics, its thesis being that people aren’t defined by their physical genetics, and can overcome the fate genetics and family can set out for them. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was about meme, memetics, its thesis being that people should take every situation and relationship on its own terms and act accordingly, rather than just following the conventional behaviors cultural memes would suggest one act in a certain context. Both were concerned about what’s passed down to future generations, physical characteristics (genes), cultural characteristics (memes).
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is about scene, the setting in which interactions occur, the impact that the scene has upon how interactions are interpreted and reacted to. Its thesis is that nearly every human interaction is based in transient constructs, interactions and relationships are shaped by transitive concepts that change with the “scene”, and that perhaps the only interactions that can transcend these culturally relativist constructs are moments of common humanity. In other words, the game is about cultural relativism – good and evil, ally or enemy, and so on, aren’t absolute, positivist, set-in-stone concepts, but instead social constructs. They rely on the “scene”, the setting, the time and place in which interactions and events occur. In the 20th century, the U.S.A and the Soviet Union were enemies in a cold war that had no clear end in sight. In the 21st century…they are not. Americans may have perceived Russians as evil for a time, but this was not an absolute, eternal concept, it was like nearly all human thought in that it was based in transient perceptions inherent to the scene.
The game is impressive in how it deals with this thematic material because, like Sons of Liberty, it embeds it all throughout the gameplay and design of the game – it’s not just in “story material” delivered it cutscenes, in the way many games mishandle their deeper meanings by relegating them entirely to non-interactive cutscenes (thus making an awkward divide between “gameplay” and “story”, as if it can’t all be achieved together holistically). However, to explain just how the game succeeds in this regard, requires going into spoiler territory, so I’ll save that for the spoiler section a while below.
Special attention is paid to the visual direction of this game in a way that wasn’t present for the previous entries in the series. The game is legitimately visually cinematic, and I remain shocked at how robust and impressive a lighting system the developers managed to implement onto a 2004 PS2 game. The direction of the cutscenes is notably improved from the previous games (the cutscenes of this game featured motion capture under the on-set direction of Kojima, and it shows), with a lot more attention paid to the staging, framing, editing, and “camera” position. For example, there’s a notable use of a dutch angle in the penultimate cutscene of the game, and there’s a very stylish editing move used in the cutscene before that (I’ll embed images of this example in the spoiler section).
The heightened cinematic nature of the game ties in well with how the game models itself after 1960s spy films, particularly James Bond films. The plot of the game is very clearly influenced by such films, with its labyrinthine double crosses and twists and turns, although the ending of the game subverts and drifts away from that structure. The camp and cheesiness of the game draws from the conventions of the spy thriller genre as it existed at that time. Naked Snake’s commanding officer, a Britishman called “Major Zero”, has the character quirk of being obsessed about James Bond. The game has a cold open mission, the “Virtuous Mission”, which closes on a title sequence (embedded below – note that there are some minor visual spoilers for the first hour or so of the game, nothing that wouldn’t be spoiled on the packaging, but still) that’s a clear homage to the stylish James Bond opening credits sequences.
The choice of genre, spy thriller, for the game isn’t just some superficial, surface-level decision. It ties directly in with the theme of the game. Spy thrillers are full of examples of how human interactions are ultimately steeped in transient, culturally relativist constructs. The many double crosses, double and triple agents, shocking twists and recontextualisations, they aren’t just fun and exciting parts of the plot, they’re also examples and articulations of the “scene” theme of the game, and set up the thesis statement of the game; that concepts and relationships people may take for granted as absolute or eternal are often (if not always) actually based in transient concepts inherent to the climate in which they take place.
Many of the new gameplay systems introduced in this game (most notably the camouflage system, where the player can equip Naked Snake in different clothes, face-paints, and masks to make him blend more appropriately into different environments) also tie into the “scene” theme, in that they’re based around manipulating Naked Snake’s presented identity so as to make him fit into whatever time and place he’s currently in. The player equipping Naked Snake in a Soviet uniform, and then strolling into a Soviet base considerably less bothered by soldiers as he would be in his more usual forest fatigues get-up, isn’t just a fun demonstration of gameplay systems, it’s also an illustration of the interconnections between identity and context, and how human interactions are largely based in transient, changeable constructs rather than absolute, eternal ones. This sort of holistic union of the many aspects of the game (theme to genre to story structure to gameplay, and so on) is what elevates the game into something more artful and literary than many of its peers, and is a huge part of why Kojima and his fellow developers are so lauded.
I have many, many more thoughts on the game, but they all regard spoiler material, so I’ll conclude the shorter, non-spoiler section of the review here. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is an absolute triumph, combining the many disparate aspects of its medium – cutscenes, stealth gameplay systems, action gameplay systems, music, reactive narrative moments, and so on – into a cohesive whole, all under an extremely unified thematic focus. It’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s philosophically thoughtful and fascinating. I give it five snakes (what else!), and a Patriot.
[Note: The majority of this review is in a clearly-marked off spoiler section. I’ll add a load of paragraph breaks here, to prevent accidentally seeing the spoiler section – you’ll have to intentionally scroll down a fair while to see it!]
[Beginning of the spoiler section of the review.]
Like the setting of the game (thirty-one years before the very first game in the series, Metal Gear, and a whopping forty-five years before the bulk of its immediate predecessor, Metal Gear 2: Sons of Liberty), the theme at first seems like an odd, even awkward choice. Why set a sequel nearly half a century before its predecessor? Why, after making two games about what characteristics are passed down to new generations, make a game about cultural relativism? Upon further thought however, both the setting and the theme of the game make a whole lot of sense.
In plot terms, Sons of Liberty ends on revelations about a conspiratorial secret society called the Patriots, leaving many mysterious questions about them up in the air. In thematic terms, Sons of Liberty ends on statements about how human behaviour can be manipulated through the presentation, distortion, and curation of context. Does it not make sense, then, for the next game in the series to, in plot terms, go back decades to explain the nature and founding of the enigmatic organisation “the Patriots”, and in thematic terms, explore the nature and meaning of what context actually is, and how it’s determined? It’s no coincidence that Sons of Liberty ends on a warning about how misinformation can be exploited by such an conspiratorial organisation, and Snake Eater literally revolves around trying to cut through a swath of misinformation and prove America’s innocence (owing to Volgin’s actions in the Virtuous Mission, and culminating in the terrible situation where the only agreeable political situation for America is for Naked Snake to kill a reviled Boss, an event which ironically contributes to the refounding of said conspiratorial organisation).
I mentioned in the non-spoiler section of the review how the game draws faithfully from James Bond films in visual terms. However, the game draws unfaithfully and subversively from such films in terms of its sexual politics. Naked Snake would appear to be the Bond figure, and in many ways he is, but in sexual terms he is the one conquered, used, and even emasculated. He never enforces his sexual desires or moral judgements on sexuality the way James Bond does, he actually has healthy relationships with women (a mother-son relationship with the Boss, a friend relationship with Para-Medic, and a romantic-sexual relationship with EVA that’s unhealthy elements come more from her than him). EVA is the real sex symbol superspy, not just visually, but in terms of how she flirts with Naked Snake while he seems disinterested in her advances, ultimately sexually conquers him, then doesn’t even stay the night. In fact, she turns out to be a Chinese-aligned spy that used him. It’s a great twist not just in terms of being legitimately surprising, but also in it’s subversive throw-up of the sexual conventions we expect from the genre the game is emulating.
The relationship between Naked Snake and the Boss is the centrepiece of the game. The game’s opening chapter (a la the Tanker chapter of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty), the Virtuous Mission, wastes no time in setting up their relationship, and the theme of the game while it’s at it. Voice actors David Hayter (semi-reprising his role as “Snake”) and Lori Alan do compelling work in their scenes together. The Boss’ supposed defection not only contributes to the plot (setting up the events of the “Snake Eater” chapter, the vast majority of the game), and the theme (illustrating “scene” in terms of nation and political allegiance), but their character drama as well. Naked Snake is seemingly betrayed by his mother figure, the one person in the game he clearly loves (maternally of course). He bitterly remarks “It’s been five years, seventy-two days, and eighteen hours” when they first talk to each other in the Virtuous Mission, then sadly questions “Why’d you disappear on me?”. The climax of the game, where the “scene” forces Naked Snake to kill the Boss in order to prevent hostilities between America and the Soviet Union escalating, is absolutely devastating.
Unlike Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which made its thesis statement in a much more cerebral, metatextual way, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater tells it in an extremely emotionally charged, dramatic way. I loved how the game would often abandon any science-fiction-esque attempt at explanations, and just present interesting symbolic and allegorical elements at face value. The boss’ have ludicrous superpowers, but there’s no attempt at justifying them in-universe, they’re just there, and they’re a lot of fun, and fit into the genre of the game. Similarly, the visual symbolism following the Boss’ death – the flowers turning red, her scar turning into a literal snake and slithering away – is presented at face value, and is all the stronger for it. I much prefer her scar turning into a snake and slithering off into nature, rather than having any clunky exposition about death, the ultimate return to nature, bringing the eternal soldier the Boss freedom and peace.
Another great “show, don’t tell” moment of the game was the famous ladder sequence. After a lengthy boss battle – albeit one I subverted by saving the game and waiting a week, causing the elderly boss to die of old age, in a brilliant example of the game’s reactivity and adaptivity – Naked Snake must climb an extremely long ladder, totalling around two-three minutes of actual time. During the climb, the game’s theme song starts playing a capella. It’s a great moment where I enjoyed the music, but also reflected on what had come immediately before, and what would be coming next. It was almost like the intermission of a movie, and was a great, quirky touch.
The follow-up to the Boss’ death, that she was actually a triple agent and will be summarily reviled as a terrible traitor in death as a way of preserving the delicate political balance, was a real gut-punch emotionally, and a great way to kickstart Naked Snake’s disillusionment in politics and the way governments treat soldiers, that will eventually lead to him saying things such as this, from Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake:
The dramatic irony of knowing that Naked Snake, or “Big Boss” rather, eventually becomes a villain figure, was handled with a defter hand than I expected. The game dealt with it more through suggestion; it was more concerned about telling a strong standalone story than tying into other entries in the series. A glorious view of the Earth from outer space may have awakened the Boss’ awareness of “scene”, but it was a terrible look at the careless, transient nature of politics, in how his mother figure was treated in death, that awakened Big Boss’ awareness of “scene”.
The Boss’ death was devastating enough for Naked Snake, but was somewhat emotionally offset by the following confrontation with Revolver Ocelot, which ended in the two men recognising common humanity and their common natures as soldier-agents. It ends on a heartening note, with the two men setting aside violence and sharing a moment of common humanity, exchanging their real names – “John”, and “Adamska”. At this point in the game, I thought the thesis statement was going to be that yes, fundamentally nearly every human arena is steeped in inherently transient and changeable social constructs dependant on the “scene”, the geographical/political/social/cultural/chronological setting…but that not everything is subjective and transient, that moments of common humanity such as that could transcend them.
However, the actual conclusion of the game left me less sure of that more hopeful amendment to the thesis. The way the “scene” affects the Boss in death is emotionally devastating, and the game ends on a much more cynical, miserable note. Ending on Big Boss showing his respect and emotions for the Boss, regardless of the “scene”, in a tearful salute perhaps ties into the point of the Adamska scene though, again showing that “true” emotional connection (as vague and difficult to find as that is) can transcend any “scene”. Like real life, there’s no easy answers here.
The masterstroke of the last hour or so of the game (EVA’s revelations) is that it recontextualises the entire game, and the entire game was about recontextualisation, about the transient nature of “scenes”. It’s the moment where the game’s thoughts on context, cultural relativism, politics, and human interaction all coalesces, and crystallise the thesis of the game best. The cutscene showing such revalations also features the stylish editing move that I mentioned in the non-spoiler section of the review above, I was referring to how, when Naked Snake starts the shocking tape from EVA, the “camera” pans from him looking shocked on the couch, to him lying dejected on the floor (then transitioning that into the demonstration of what EVA is talking about, when she stood over him and contemplated killing him as part of her mission), all as one “cut”, one move of the camera. It’s very smooth, and feels like a stylish, cinematic way to illustrate the passing of time and Naked Snake’s emotions in the scene.
Like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater uses multiple unique aspects of the medium of video games to tell its creative, entertaining, philosophically thoughtful story. It succeeds on every level. It is a tremendously fun and reactive gameplay experience, it is a thrilling Bond-esque spy adventure and character drama, it is a fascinating exploration of the nature and meaning of context in human interactions. Again, I give it five snakes (what else!), and a Patriot.