Monday, August 19, 2013

Metal Gear, MGSV, and Genre Response/Satire

Was thinking of not putting this out even though it was finished considering that significantly more than half of this blog thus far is Metal Gear. I promise it will stop, I really do.

Some disorganized thoughts on how genre response and genre satire play a role in the Metal Gear franchise.

It goes often forgotten because of how unique the games themselves are, but for Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4 especially, timely genre satire is a small element of the thematic framework.

Metal Gear, since the dawn of the franchise, has always been imagined more as a response to shooters, as opposed to a member of the mostly-western stealth genre. (1) The original game was, as the legend goes, originally a shooter that was saved by a whiff of Kojima's imagination.

While Metal Gear Solid was plainly based to some degree on the games that came before it, stealth gameplay in a limited environment stood in stark contrast to a shooter genre at the time defined by volume, expansive levels, and color. The cold Alaska setting of Metal Gear Solid also stands in stark contrast to the setting of the genre-defining Doom.

Metal Gear Solid 2 then wasn't a response to shooters as much as it was a satire of it's predecessor (which was already at least beginning to be a satire of itself,) though it's insistence on cutscenes served to distinguish it from then emerging in-gameplay storytelling techniques like set-piece events that were revolutionizing the shooter genre (see Half-Life.)

The legacy really continued however when Metal Gear Solid 3 upended the classical heroism and WWII imagery that dominated popular console shooters of the time (circa 2005), and replaced it with forests that recalled the Vietnam jungle, matched with a story that was dark and ambiguous on wether Snake's actions were indeed at all heroic and cast the notion of patriotism in a dark light.

Metal Gear Solid 4 then, at the beginning of the Modern Warfare era called out that entire sub-genre four years before Spec Ops: The Line, littering the battlefield with bodies, demonstrating the pointlessness of the proxy conflicts taking place, refusing to reward players for taking sides, and openly discussing the gamification of warfare.

Now it's looking like MGSV's target is the sandbox game, which is more popular than ever these days. What it'll do with those mechanics has yet to be seen, but I doubt that it will be uninteresting. The images of the barren Afghan desert lead me to suspect that it might be a commentary on the "emptiness" of the sandbox worlds players have immersed themselves in due to the popularity of titles like Grand Theft Auto IV, InFamous, Prototype, and WRPGs, Skyrim in particular. That's pure speculation, we'll see how this plays out.

                                               -Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

(1) To wit, the only whiff on influence that any other stealth game started to have on the franchise was when Subsistence updated the franchise to have the Splinter Cell camera, not only a wise design decision, but one that gelled with Metal Gear Solid 3's new focus on environmental immersion.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Free-Will and Defiance" Follow-Up #3: Character Arcs, Stealth Camo, and the Bandana

As I noted in the last follow-up piece, the items Snake is awarded when the game is completed with either Meryl or Otacon alive are indicative of their character arcs, but I didn't expand on that idea. This is more an extended footnote than anything else.

I can't really imagine a way that they have to do with the postmodernism of Metal Gear Solid, but it's noteworthy how the items that Meryl or Otacon give to Snake fit as nightcaps for their character arcs.

In Meryl's case, Meryl started wanting to emulate her Uncle, Colonel Campbell (actually her father), in the ways of war. Unsurprisingly, the events of the game taught her that "War is ugly, there's nothing glamorous about it." In learning that, if she's alive by the end of the game, she decides to give it up along with Snake to pursue their happily ever after together. (1) The bandana, which gives the player infinite ammo, is a symbol of that warfare. Snake decides they should keep it as "A reminder of how to live," implying as a reminder of what they both learned about their warrior lifestyles there on Shadow Moses. The bandana gains further depth as a symbol when we consider that it becomes the mark of Big Boss' dedication to warfare as his character arc emerges in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and in unforeseen ways in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

One of Otacon's most noted characteristics was his passivity: at various turns, he refuses to help Snake directly, but he assists Snake in his tasks in indirect ways. However, he mostly lives invisibly, just allowing his own life to wash over him, for events to control him rather than the other way around. In losing Wolf and discovering his complicity in the continuation of the nuclear arms race, he resolves to be an active participant in his life and to defy his family's "curse." The stealth camoflauge, a tool that made him practically invisible, was a symbol of that passivity, and he gives it to Snake.

Aside from how those characters fit into the postmodern framework of the game (2), it's also nice to note these small narrative details that give the game nuance.

As always, much thanks for reading.

                                              - Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013


(1) That Kojima one, decided to upend that happy ending in Metal Gear Solid 2, and two, how he justified/explained that and concluded Meryl's arc in Metal Gear Solid 4 were both inspired lunacy and gut-wrenching courage.

(2) I already assessed how Meryl fits in, but Otacon is a slightly bigger fish to fry and I'll get to him soon enough. (Yep! There's still more to come on this game!)

Friday, August 9, 2013

"Free Will and Defiance" Follow-Up #2: The Torture Minigame, Meryl, Emma, and Damselization


This was something I actually meant to put as an endnote in the original essay but somehow it didn't quite make it I guess, probably because I ended up having this much to say on the subject.

Why Being Able to Resist Torture and thus Save Meryl is Thematically Inconsistent

I argued that the torture minigame existed to separate the player and the player character. In a scenario where only Solid Snake had control of Solid Snake, as opposed to him and the player, the long-hardened veteran would be able to resist short sessions of electrocution. Training in such a thing comes with his field. The fact that Solid Snake can submit to the torture or die from it is reliant on the player's presence.

The outcome of this minigame affects the ending of the game. 

If you resist the torture, Meryl is alive when you find her at the end of the game and you are able to escape the base with her. She drives the jeep and the two escape the base together. Otacon stays behind to hack the base's security system and assist your progress forward, though doing so implies he will be killed in the nuclear strike being called on the base. Since said strike is later called off however, it is implied that he lives, an implication borne out in Metal Gear Solid 2

If you give in to the torture, however, Meryl is dead when you find her body. Otacon drives the jeep and Snake and Otacon escape the base together. (1)

This presents a thematic inconsistency. Even without the understanding of the player's involvement, Metal Gear Solid functions solidly as a deconstruction, subversion, or at the very least "dark" version of a western action movie. (2) 

For one, the game is fairly consistent on the idea that control of Snake is cooperation and not dominance, or at least that becomes clear later in the game. One of the major themes of Metal Gear Solid is that the player is not the player character, which it demonstrates in part by having the player act as an independent cog important to running the machine, demonstrated by the player using tools outside the game world to complete gameplay objectives and using their eyes to assist Snake in ways that Snake cannot assist himself. However, the game also separates the player by making the player significantly worse at controlling Snake during sections when Snake is doing something the player is not likely to have much experience in, i.e. when Snake aims the PSG1. 

Thus, the fact that the player can effectively resist torture, something that likely more than 90% of the audience for Metal Gear Solid would not have training in, is inconsistent if nothing else because it's one of the only cases where the game half-asses. The player's presence is crucial in allowing Snake to fail in the first place, but the player can also help Snake succeed.

Then again, countless other videogames have made sequences like the torture sequence in MGS1 where it is technically impossible to lose, so the fact that you could lose in the first place is still fairly radical.

How Kojima Uses Damselization As Part of The Postmodern Thematic Framework of Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2

In the Metal Gear franchise, characters perform certain narrative and thematic functions pertaining to their relationships to the tropes of the series itself. The series trend is to remix the tropes of the previous game to breathe new purpose into those tropes. (3)

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake remixed the formal elements of the original Metal Gear to become a pacifist discussion of the Cold War, and the characteristics of soldiers. 

Metal Gear Solid then remixed those narrative tropes and game design decisions to create postmodern commentary on the nature of the player-character relationship which tied into it's theme of denying a negative genetic heritage and living with agency thus, the idea that Snake must live with agency and break away from the player's control.

Metal Gear Solid 2 then remixed and "frustrated" those elements to comment on (and, for lack of a better term, deny) it's own nature as a sequel to Metal Gear Solid, tying into it's commentary on how the information age was changing how ideas are communicated. The central postmodern theme idea there was that not only is the player not the player character (demonstrated in greater extremis than in Metal Gear Solid) but also that the player character could not act as a replacement for the former player protagonist whose role he was assuming.

In these games, there exists the series trope of the woman on base who assists the protagonist, and each of these characters is eventually damselized in some way as soon as they are actually on screen. 

Holly is said to be an undercover CIA agent and intrepid reporter, but Snake's first interaction with her is rescuing her from captivity, and she later relies entirely on Snake's assistance to escape Zanzibar at the end of the game. Gustava is a champion ice skater who is bilingual, intended to be Kio Marv's translator, and although she is never damselized, she is killed. 

Meryl, who fills the role on her own, is a trained soldier (though one with no combat experience) who assists Snake in various capacities throughout the game, but who is mind-controled, shot, captured, and possibly killed as soon as she is actually given an on-screen presence. 

Yet again, Emma's contributions to Raiden's efforts prove essential to his victory, but onscreen her legs are weighed down by drugs and she is eventually also killed.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is often said to be a deconstruction of the first game, but going by basically what the game says about itself, it is more simply a repeat of the same ideas, explained in a different way: the same narrative and design mechanics used to deconstruct the idea of a sequel, and thus further reinforce the themes of the original game: In the same way that Solid Snake is not Big Boss, Raiden is not Solid Snake. And the player is neither Raiden nor Solid Snake. And Metal Gear Solid 2 is not a re-iteration of Metal Gear Solid which is not a re-iteration of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

To further restate this point, the sequel restates some of the events of the original Metal Gear Solid in the extreme. Among the most extreme of these examples was the reinterpretation of Meryl's narrative purpose into Emma Emmerich's.

Meryl, in Metal Gear Solid, would be unfair to describe as a Damsel in Distress as her sole narrative purpose. She is a trained operative who throughout the story operates with a fair amount of agency, though she does so mostly offscreen. (4) The same is partially true of Emma Emmerich, whose contributions to the efforts of Raiden to stop Arsenal Gear end up being crucial to winning the day. However, that these characters are damselized, especially during gameplay, is crucial to the postmodern thematic framework of these games.

In Emma's case, I believe the fact that she is damselized is self-commentary on the game's form. The nature by which she is damselized even is self-aware: she is drugged. 

The same is true of Meryl. Meryl, an even less feminine character (5), is damselized not by forces that relate to her own weakness, but forces that would overpower any person: mind control and a gunshot wound. 

In both cases, their inabilities to act independently is not an inherent characteristic of their femininity, as would be the thematic implication of damselization in most other titles. 

Instead, their damselizations are a result of their presence in the game world, an extension on the nature of her fulifiling the requirements of a trope: As long as Snake or Raiden is in a Metal Gear game, they will have to kill. Thus the logic would be that as long as Meryl or Emma is in a Metal Gear game, they will be damselized regardless of whatever other strong characterization they have.

Thus . . . 

I can only speculate, but based on that analysis, I believe that Kojima's original intention in Metal Gear Solid was for Meryl to always die, implying that the co-habitation of the player and Snake cannot make the player a hero who can save a damsel in distress, in the same way that this is implied by the postmodern elements of MGS2

I find this theory further reinforced by my own subjective opinion that the ending where Meryl dies is actually the superior ending. On a regular Storytelling 101 level, it's more thematically consistent: Leading this kind of life has lead Snake to murder his own father, kill his best friend, only to watch him die again, and let him lose one of the only people he truly ever loved. In retiring, he refuses to let that happen to him again. 

We also learn that Meryl was in fact Colonel Campbell's own daughter, which provides sufficient explanation for why Campbell would lie to Snake so consistently about the particulars of the mission despite their long personal friendship.

And Thus, Why That's Still Not Exactly Okay

Don't think I'm letting Kojima off free here: There is much more to be said on the problematic presentations of female characters in the series, but even within this framework which goes arguably sufficient lengths to show that the damselization of female characters is a consequence of their presence in the game world, regardless of how feminine they might be, and regardless of how clever that is in-of itself as a commentary on the patriarchal nature of most videogames, there are still various, deeply problematic aspects to these characters.

For one, and I just want to make a quick note of this: Kojima is a fair bit better about not making female characters sex objects than many of his peers. His female characters have strong characterization, well-developed backstories, and, as aforementioned, often act with a fair amount of agency at least before they are damselized in service of the game's postmodern themes.

However, he does still overexploit the sexuality of his female characters. (At least in my humble, cisgendered, heterosexual white male opinion.) There are various instances when the series will plainly use cinematography just to show the player how hot the girls are without it really serving any real narrative or thematic purpose.

That's small beans though. The real problem is that in using female characters this way, Metal Gear contributes to the masculo-centrism of video games as a whole by using female characters as both a means to advance the story (as a central purpose), and by using static female characters to advance the character arcs of dynamic male characters.

In the relevant examples here: Meryl may have fairly strong characterization and may act with a fair amount of agency prior to her damselization, but she exists in Metal Gear Solid to be Snake's love interest, and to represent a gameplay objective which the player may or may not complete. The fact that the game is self-aware on why she becomes a damselized character is poor justification for said damselization when then the game has so many other roads with which to expound on it's postmodern themes (such as the many, many ones that I explained in the original "Free Will and Defiance",) that do not reinforce the sexist and misogynistic implications of longstanding sexist tropes like the Damsel in Distress.

Likewise with Emma: She may have strong characterization and backstory, but in the moments of her being onscreen, what becomes far more important is the fact that she's Hal's sister. The fact that she has strong presence within both the "plot" and the "story" (6) is good writing, but the problem is that since she is damselized and killed so soon after we meet her, she barely gets a chance to have an arc. What I said about the postmodern aspects of her damselization still applies here: the game has so many other ways that it demonstrates it's postmodern themes, as Howell showed.

Thus, though the damselizations in these two games are both cleverly executed and filled with thematic purpose, they are still at least problematic since at the end of the day the story is still using the Damsel in Distress to reinforce the themes of the game, thus objectifying the female characters. 

While I can appreciate how this reinforces the postmodern ideas of the series by becoming a commentary on the sexism in video games, again, there are plenty of other ways to do that that do not reinforce the sexist tropes the way that Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2 do.

There remains much else still to be said about Postmodernism in Metal Gear Solid as well as the problematic nature of female characters throughout the series, but I hope this spoke to how those things specifically intersect here.

Thanks for reading, as always!

                                             -Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013


(1) The items that each character gives to Snake is thematically linked to their development arc, something that I intend to address when I write my follow-up regarding how Otacon fits into the postmodern picture. (Short version: he's a representation of the player within the game world.)

(2) Side note: Though Kojima is clearly influenced by western action film, these influences also come indirectly through what were likely his influences in native Japanese cinema, Kurosawa to name an incredibly likely example. 

Another note: Kojima probably has a better understanding of Sergio Leone than any other Japanese game director. His understanding of the mechanics of David Lynch films are challenged only by the outright emulation of those mechanics that Team Silent puts on display in service of horror, which is artistry in it's own right.

(3) Note: I am, again, borrowing this way of viewing the series wholesale from the work of James Clinton Howell. I take zero credit for the idea of remixing formal elements.

(4) In fact, in one of the two instances where she operates with agency onscreen, she is doing so with the assistance of Psycho Mantis. This "offscreen agency" is part of the reason why Metal Gear's presentation of female characters is consistently problematic throughout the series. However, this post will not be me attempting to categorize the sexism of the series, but mostly to account for the use of the Damsel in Distress as part of the series Postmodern framework.

(5) The game even cis-centrically and hetero-centrically implies that she had psychotherapy to "destroy her interest in men."

(6) As based on FilmCritHULK's terminology where plot essentially amounts to the "what's happening" whereas story describes the emotional character content attached to that.