It's a strange thing in retrospect, but two months after the terrorist attack that took down the World Trade Center, we were saving the President from a group of terrorists in Metal Gear Solid 2. Our friend Colonel Campbell explained the mission to us: The terrorists had other hostages, and they were going to blow up an oil spill cleanup facility right off the shore of Manhattan. It was up to us, in the shadow of 9/11, to fight and win against those who would threaten our democracy by paralyzing our financial institutions.
To the sadness of many players, we weren't in the body of series protagonist Solid Snake. The character we had taken through Outer Heaven and Shadow Moses, sites of Metal Gear development and staging, had appeared to die in the game's long prologue. Instead, we controlled newcomer Raiden.
Raiden couldn't have been more different from Snake. Long blonde hair instead of a brown mullet, a high-pitched voice instead of a low growl, and an elegant cartwheel move where Snake would have heaved his body forward in a somersault. Gone was the smart and savvy survivalist who had turned his back on the military-industrial complex only to be brought back in for one last mission. Instead, we had an eager recruit who was ready and willing to convert his VR combat training into intimate knowledge of the field.
Raiden was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 is all about how that enthusiasm is betrayed. As the game pushes forward, we find out that Raiden had real field experience as a child soldier nicknamed Jack the Ripper. We realize that he hasn't been sent into the mission by Colonel Campbell, but instead he was the stooge of a shadowy conspiracy. It's even revealed that the entire plot of the game, from President capture to terroristic threats, is merely a ruse by ex-President George Sears to get access to a list of the names of the people who really run the world.
The real kicker is that those people, the Patriots, have set up the entirety of MGS2 as a simulation. It's meant to test if anyone, you or me or a guy named Jack, could become as good at "tactical espionage action" as the radically awesome Solid Snake. Playing through the game successfully proves these Illuminati-esque figures right: With enough time and effort under the correct conditions, anyone can become a living weapon. Every person in the world can adapt to the container you put them in if you put enough care into the fitting.
With enough time and effort under the correct conditions, anyone can become a living weapon
It's the care that matters. You set the narrative or the conditions of possibility just right and you watch people fit into their roles. Debuting just six days before MGS2, the tv show 24 presents the threats of terrorism as explicitly urgent and Middle Eastern. Then it can be used to think through and justify any use case of torture you might want.
Framing Saddam Hussein's actions and speeches in just the right way and ignoring all evidence to the contrary produces consensus on the necessity of a war. It's all conspiratorial, but it is that way because these are acts of grand narrative invention. It's changing the boundaries of how we think about what we think.
When Raiden learns all of this information about himself and the simulation he lives within, he rejects it all. He even begins to suspect that he, his thoughts, or his personality might not be real. It sends him into an existential crisis.
In the long view of retrospect, Metal Gear Solid 2 is a strange light in the darkness. In a country that was slashing civil liberties with the Patriot Act and spinning up into two long wars, it was a breath of fresh air. Through its pageantry and (sometimes) high campiness, it told a very simple story: The people in power probably do not have your best interests in mind. They will shape you and the narratives you interact with to make their positions seem easy and normal, no matter how far afield they are.
And it feels like we're coming around to that again. We're heading into a political climate of extreme control, and we will need games like Metal Gear Solid 2 again. Not mobile cash-in games that prevent the President Elect from reaching the inauguration or Tetris clones that obstruct his ability to govern. We need games that reach out to us and say, "Listen, the world is completely upside down, but you're a person and you matter and your beliefs are important."
We're heading into a political climate of extreme control, and we will need games like Metal Gear Solid 2 again
I know how that sounds. How could I position a game about a giant underwater media control system that's being invaded by a cadre of superterrorists who are being foiled by a black-box supersoldier as politically useful in any way?
It's not about the specifics, but about the grand message. As Solid Snake tells Raiden at the end of the game, "Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing." I think it will be harder that it looks to keep the past alive in the coming years, and despair about the future is already deep-set for many.
The task is, I think, in keeping the thoughts of the past alive. In remembering where we've been and the small gains that have been made for relatively few in the vast cavalcade of violence that we call history.
I hope that those narratives of vague hope and actual political change are remembered so well that the new frameworks of defunding, disrespecting, and trampling over don't completely eradicate them.
A game, or a movie, or a piece of music is a document of a moment in time, and Metal Gear Solid 2 came into being in a pre-9/11 world. It had the political ideology of a game out of time, from a different era, or from a parallel universe. And that's why it is still so affecting to me today: It has the spirit of art that said "no" to its time.
I hope that game developers, from blockbusters to sub-indie hobby projects, keep that spirit alive. I hope the slow, painful progress of the last few years can be saved. I hope that those narrative of vague hope and actual political change are remembered so well that the new frameworks of defunding, disrespecting, and trampling over don't completely eradicate them. The next several years are going to require games that are out of their time, because we're going to need ways to point to the world we want to have.