Postmodernism in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)

em>Metal Gear Solid 2 is regarded as the first truly postmodern video game, sharing lots of the ideas and related concepts of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a fairly new and complicated term that, put simply, is the idea of reality becoming displaced. To describe postmodernism one must first delve into the ideas made known in modernism. Modernism exposes confidence in the future; it suggests that things will improve over time. In stark contrast, postmodernism questions those ideas; to crudely illustrate an example, modernism’s vision of the future would be that of Star Trek (being clean and idyllic) whereas postmodernism would be associated more with Blade Runner (a dreary dystopian society).

Metal Gear Solid 2’s (MGS) story is tremendously complicated due to the philosophical nature of the storyline which explores the themes of artificial intelligence, social engineering, political conspiracies, meme, evolution, existentialism, free will, reality, cloning and social engineering; but to simplify, it involves an offshore clean-up facility that has been occupied by terrorists (the Sons of Liberty) who threaten to destroy the plant, thus causing a catastrophic environmental disaster if their demands are not met.  Throughout the story the motives of both the heroes and antagonists change as the allies discover a conspiracy which has been constructed by a powerful organisation known as the Patriots.

Hideo Kojima, the games creator, reportedly got the idea for MGS’s story after reading an article about a lawsuit filed against Napster. He saw it as being one step closer to the world of mind-control, because if the US Government could prevent people from sharing music with one another where would their control end?

Hideo Kojima, the games' creator

The player starts the game during his time aboard an oil tanker, by controlling the first games protagonist Solid Snake. Prior to the games release it was thought that the entire game would take place upon this vessel as all screenshots and trailers only showed this area. However, an hour into the game, the player no longer controls the protagonist but a new character, Raiden, a new character to the series. Solid Snake turns up to help in parts but is not a playable character and has a new alias, Snake Pliskin (a reference to Kurt Russel’s character in John Carpenters Escape from New York which Snake was based on.) It becomes increasingly confusing for the player when he discovers that the Colonel (another movie reference, this time to the colonel from Rambo) does not actually exist but is part of a computer program, explained in such a confusing and melodramatic monologue that it can only be described as postmodern :

Colonel: “To begin with — we’re not what you’d call — human. Over the past two hundred years — A kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House. It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago. The White House was our primordial soup, a base of evolution — We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often. How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we… The mapping of the human genome was completed early this century. As a result, the evolutionary log of the human race lay open to us.

However, by the conclusion of the game, it becomes clear that the entire time your character was playing within a virtual reality game, and henceforth the player is actually playing a game based on a character playing a game; meaning that Raiden not only represents the videogame player but to an extent could very well be the player. In this self-conscious and reflexive act, the developers are shouting out that this is a videogame, as they continue to play around with notions of reality and fiction and largely its own generic conventions. It is this fourth wall and shattering moments that the game is best known for. For instance, during the ending the screen suddenly turns to the ‘game over’ screen for no apperent reason. However, a small square at the bottom shows that the game is actually continuing as the player has to deal with a firefight, despite momentarily thinking that they had died. The only clue to this is the game telling you that it is ‘fission mailed’ instead, of course, ‘mission failed’. Another example is the game’s psychic boss being able to ‘read your mind’ by having your controller in port 1 or telling you to put the controller on the floor and it feeling as if it is physically moving it through the vibration in the hand held controller. And so after all the confusion the developers touch upon Baudrillard’s view of reality and simulation; the player doesn’t know what to believe, what is the reality of the situation, is the whole thing virtual reality, a simulation of what we think reality looks like, or indeed whether reality actually exists? The questions are largely left unanswered.

MGS revels in ‘kitsch’. The characters especially are ‘good because they’re bad’. Among the robots and ninjas, is a vampire (aptly named Vamp), a fat man who travells around on roller blades (fittingly named Fat Man) and the lead villain, Revolver Ocelot, because he holds a revolver pistol. Furthermore, as explained previously, two of the characters are based on the Colonel from Rambo and Pliskin from Escape from New York. Both characters are somewhat stereotypical to their genres yet are given a revival and almost cult-like status in the games, thus giving them special value they originally did not really have. Snake, codenamed Pliskin for this game, is an obvious pastiche, a hommage to the oraginal character, from the way he acts to how he dresses (he even wears an eye patch as Kurt Russel did in the movie) as is the Colonel, a splitting image to Rambo’s Colonel. This is somewhat related to recycling the past, the fact that Kojima did not create truly original characters (other than the villains) instead he relied on recycling ideas.

The 'Fatman' villain
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Jameson argues through his theory of the death of originality that in postmodern culture there is no acting as an individual, but that we are turned into lifeless yes-men. This is somewhat highlighted during one particular scene; the protagonists fiancé, who happens to be monitering him during his mission, talks at the end about the movies they had seen together, as sappy piano music plays in the background. The player isn’t forced to sit and listen to a conversation going nowhere but does, because the game teaches you not to quit the cut scenes. This scene almost acts as a test of the player’s patience, as it offers a false freedom of choice (that you’re allowed to skip the scene but are punished by doing so) rather than having a real freedom of choice. By this stage, nearing the end of the game, the player has given up on the idea of living the rugged pioneersman’s life, to make his own decisions but does instead exactly as the game tells him to do.

To an extent the waning of affect is present; as players spend all their time in this totally involving story, and they form a more significant relationship with the game (a commodity) trying to understand the intricate details and characters, than they hypothetically do with friends and family.

Therefore, the game is an ultra realistic spy thriller, thriving to be a movie (it’s credits include hollywood composers, cineatographers and so forth) moreover, despite including robotic tanks, psychics and cyborg ninjas, it manages to convince the player that  these elements are not out of place but fit this world. The game, or as some have dubbed it, an interactive movie, fits very much into the grand narrative theory in that it is ‘a system of belief that presents itself, and is accepted, as a true understanding of reality even if it distorts reality to fit its founding principle’; yet by including the likes of the ninjas, robots etcetera, it is creating a fabulation that the text is highlighting the world’s fictionality by creating its very own fiction. However, some could argue that it is indeed a metafiction, that the series takes place in its own universe and does not refer at all to reality. It would be almost impossible to choose which one it is as the inclusion of cyborg ninjas makes you think that this could never be real, yet the game goes to great lengths to explain the inclusion of them, in such a convincing manner, whilst bringing in real world issues to back it up (cloning, evolution of artificial intelligence and so on) that it is somewhat believable. MGS is very much about taking the conventions of a videogame and flipping them. For instance, the ‘player’ actually spends more time during the ‘game’ watching cutscenes than actually playing the game due to the intense story-driven nature.

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