What Does Liquid Snake Want?

In the early days of the landmark franchise, a character mired in the past articulates a familiar vision for the future.
April 7, 2017, 10:00pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Your vision is fading in and out, but you can always hear him walking toward you. You've just destroyed the giant, walking tank with your quick wits and tactical missile shots. In most games, you would have watched an explosion and then experienced a cutscene, but this one delivers an ending after the expected ending. This is Metal Gear Solid, you're playing as Solid Snake, and your brother Liquid Snake starts to monologue about the way the world should be.

It's always worth listening to how people think the world should be. An argument about the future is always a critique of the present. After all, if we wanted the future to be exactly like our current time period, why would we bother demanding anything at all? We could just coast on the waves of sameness.

Liquid Snake is a character who has dedicated his entire life to demanding a future that he thinks was denied to him. It's a future that's built for warriors. He monologues to us: "When [Big Boss] was young, during the Cold War, the world needed men like us. We were valued then. We were desired. […] We're losing our place in a world that no longer needs us, that now spurns our very existence."

For Liquid, at the end of the 20th century, there is no longer a world for people who would rule the world through combat. Men with guns can do nothing against the flux of investment capital or the denial of loans to governments through global austerity measures. Similarly, no one human can direct the tides of arms sales or weapons development.

What we come to understand here in the last few minutes of Metal Gear Solid is that the terrorism, seizure of nuclear arms, and attempted nuclear attack are all the last gasps of a weapon that has grown obsolete. The old ideas about how the world should work, secret operative against secret operative, have shifted into a system of open warfare in the economic and legal worlds. There is simply no room for Liquid Snake and his merry band of supersoldiers.

Over the next few games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, we are led in many different directions with these ideas. In Metal Gear Solid 2, the introduction and application of meme theory to game design and warfare concepts suggests that no idea can truly end. The third game suggests something similar in terms of obligation, and the fourth and fifth games are about reconciling oneself with history; the various Snakes of various times are all forced to realize that they are continuations of other people's goals.

Here at the end of Metal Gear Solid, before all of those other narratives were written, we are faced with a conflict between two ideas. One is Liquid Snake's dream of a world to come. The other is Solid Snake's disgust that a world based on combat and violence should come to exist.

All screenshots courtesy Konami

While many people credit Metal Gear Solid 2 with generating a robust critique of simulations of violence in games, the conflict between Liquid and Solid Snake at the end of the first game stages the argument completely. Liquid, still monologuing, articulates it this way:

Why did you come here? Well, I will tell you then: You enjoy all the killing, that's why! Are you denying it? Haven't you already killed most of my comrades? I watched your face while you did it. It was filled with the joy of battle. There's a killer inside you. You don't have to deny it.

This is, I think, is the heart and soul of the first few Metal Gear Solid games. A villain character, like Liquid or Solidus or Volgin, tells us that the world is wrong. They tell us that the world should be different, and that the problem is that it isn't a meritocracy. They tell us that we love to play these games, and they patiently explain that the reason we enjoy them is because we're being trained to be killers. They say that the world is constrained, and they claim that a truly free world would be one that favored the bold, the powerful, and those who would consolidate power with their strength. Implicitly, us players should be ruling the world.

Liquid Snake's apocalyptic beliefs justify any and every possible action. He can deploy nuclear weapons, threaten Solid Snake's friends with death, and even impersonate Snake's long-time mentor Master Miller. Liquid Snake tells us that there are no illegitimate tactics on the precipice of oblivion, and Metal Gear Solid does the most of any of the games in this series to show what a human will do when they believe that they have been backed into a corner.

This is a seductive argument. Liquid tells us that the world no longer values those who rise through the ranks on skill and ability, and he implicates the player in this system. He tells us that we're not as valued as we once were. This, I think, should be a familiar narrative to anyone who has been paying attention to the political discourse of the United States or Europe over the past couple years.

Every demand for the future is a critique of the present. Every claim that the world is making something unfair is a demand that justice be established. But I don't know where the injustice is for Liquid Snake. He wants a world for warrior kings of a certain type, but I don't know if I want a warrior king. I don't know if the world needs to be the way it was at the dawn, or even the midpoint, of the 20th century. And when I hear other people, real people, tell me that the future needs to resemble the past, I wonder what kind of kings they have in mind.