I was sitting on crushed 1980s-style beige remainder carpet with a giant PlayStation on the floor and I watched Solid Snake watch an invisible ninja cut people apart in gory-for-the-time detail. A few minutes later, Cyborg Ninja defeated, I listened to a nerdy scientist named Otacon wail in despair about how his work on a defensive tool, Metal Gear REX, had been altered into a mobile nuclear weapons profile. He used to think that he could use science to help mankind. It didn’t work out.
Sons of Liberty gave us Raiden, a soldier trained to be a replica of Solid Snake through the extreme use of simulator technology. It takes most of the game to find out that he isn’t some constructed warrior, but a former child soldier whose mind has been wiped by a sentient network. Again, technology fails at its original goal: Raiden tells Snake over and over the simulation technology is the future, that it delivers on its promises, that it has helped curb the traumatic disciplinary processes that turn Foucault’s docile bodies into soldiers, but in the end we find that it wasn’t possible, that the claims of “progress” were false, and that there’s a brutal secret history to the entire process.
Snake Eater, Peace Walker and Guns of the Patriots all broadly follow on this theme. War envelops technology, and despite the best intentions that you might have, war is going to change them. It is a massive beast, under no control, and chasing the ability to control it is the work of naive idealists or absolute villains. Otacon really believes that he can work for the weapons industry and be good; Revolver Ocelot really believes that he can control the entire War Economy without being consumed by it.
For all of its baroqueness, the Metal Gear universe has a deceptively simple message: There is a machine bigger than any single human, and trying to conquer it or shape it to your own individual will is almost impossible. The Fallout games have the oft-quoted mantra that war never changes. The Metal Gear games present us with an augmented, nihilistic version of the phrase: War is always changing, and you can never catch up.
I started with Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation, and I faithfully follow along with every iteration. I bought a PS3 just so I could play the fourth game in the main series (albeit a few years after launch), and my decision to save up and buy a launch Playstation 4 was partially justified based on the fact that I knew a Metal Gear of some form or fashion was on the horizon.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes launched to a frenzy of well-deserved critical pieces. I don’t mean “well-deserved” in the sense that it is an incredibly compelling game that is deeply rewarding to longform thought, but that it ignited a firestorm of anger for a narrative choice that Lucy O’Brien so rightly calls “unearned” in her “What’s Wrong With Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes’ Ending?” The plot point in question is best summed up this way: Paz, a young woman who is also a double agent, is extracted from a Guantanamo Bay-esque military camp by Big Boss. After a series of scenes, including a stomach-turning one where Boss and a medic remove a bomb that has been sewn into Paz’s stomach, Paz wakes up, struggles against her rescuers, and opens the door of the helicopter the team is traveling in. “There’s another…in my…” she says before throwing herself from the helicopter and detonating, crashing the helicopter. This is where O’Brien begins her analysis, asking how a game might “‘earn’ an ending where a girl gets a bomb shoved up either her A: vagina or B: anus.” Her answer? It is really, really god damn hard, and as Jeremy Parish has also pointed out, the game ends up “lacking the narrative chops necessary to justify its bleak tone.”
Alongside this scene, we have cassette tapes that act as audio logs of the horror that Paz went through while alive (which Javy Gwaltney has suggested might be a kind of “anti-collectable”), all of which are either difficult to listen to or outright unbearable in their treatment of the characters who are being tortured and assaulted in between static fades that signify cuts in long periods of torture.
With this horrific, literally horrific, set of events presented to us in Ground Zeroes, what do we do? One path is to understand how sexual assault has been handled and mishandled as a topic in the Metal Gear Solid series before this. Offhand, I immediately think of Meryl’s allusion to torture “and things even worse than that” in Metal Gear Solid. Another path is to attempt to understand why Hideo Kojima, the longtime directorial lead of the franchise, would make this kind of narrative choice.
If the keystone of the Metal Gear Solid games is that war always shifts and changes, making solutions obsolete, and nullifying plans, then does this fit that framework? The bomb in Paz’s body tries to sting the audience into a realization that all of their work, the stealth crawling, the reading of enemy movement patterns, was for nothing. Just like Raiden at the end of Sons of Liberty or Naked Snake at the end of Snake Eater, we realize that another actor (in those games The Patriots and The Boss, respectively, and in this game Skull Face’s XOF) have been controlling the terms the whole time.
We can read all of this as Kojima’s ruminations on the designer’s role. “War” becomes a field of play where those in power determine what the actors can do. Skull Face forces Big Boss to jump through lots of hoops to find Paz, and then uses her body in the most brutal way possible to eliminate any chance of success. Hideo Kojima forces the player to jump through an immense number of hoops to finish the mission, and uses directorial power to take it away at the very last minute.
War is always changing because the terms of control, of what is possible, are always shifting; there is no way for the characters in the game universe to ever use their technological means to win, to end war, because it exists only for itself.
Metal Gear Solid is always changing because the means of design, of what is technologically and narratively possible, is always shifting. There is no way for the players in the game to ever use the controls and tools of the game to win, for to truly complete the game asserts the finitude of Hideo Kojima, because Hideo Kojima has desires that constantly raise the stakes and take the game universe to places that it has never gone before.
If we take this speculative reading to be true, then, we have a problem that seems much worse than the current critical discussion around Hideo Kojima’s sexism. If war is the stand in for the designer in the Metal Gear Solid series, and war necessitates the perpetration of sexual violence against women in that universe, then there’s nothing casual about it. Instead, it signifies that Hideo Kojima has nowhere left to go. Design/war has to change, to stay new, to always be one step ahead of the player/protagonist, and so the real question is not “how did Kojima land here?” but rather “can Kojima think his way out of this?” In the drive for new narrative elements, Kojima has written himself into a creative corner. What we’re seeing isn’t just the product of a sexist world view, but instead a designer who, in his attempt to invent, to push, to surprise his audience, ends up going to a powerfully regressive and brutally violent place.
Cameron Kunzelman thinks about Gamma World at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.