I bought a Playstation 2 for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. That night (thankfully a Friday), I stayed up until 4 A.M. playing the game. Without a memory card I could not save, so I could not shut the console off. Then the power went out. 6 hours of progress gone and irretrievable. I staggered depressed to bed. Three hours later I woke up, turned the PS2 back on, and sat down until I beat it some 6-7 hours later.
Obviously Metal Gear Solid 2 meant a great deal to me.
15 years have now passed since its release. 6 million copies were sold on the PS2, and millions more in various re-releases. Despite consistent rankings among the great games in PS2 history, opinions on the game remain split. Some believe it to be the best of the series, others the worst. Some hate the main character, some love him. The quality of the story is argued about to this day. New players in these long years have done nothing to sway opinion to one side or the other. They just argue about the same things players before them did. The legacy of Metal Gear Solid 2 is hard to define. Much like the game itself.
The Weight of Expectation
The hype beforehand still sticks strong in my memory. Metal Gear Solid was arguably the best game on the original Playstation, so of course its sequel came with great expectations. The trailers beforehand worked the gaming industry into hysteria. MGS2 looked like everything gamers hoped it would be. Bigger, prettier, more convoluted, better gameplay. The original Zone of the Enders sold in large part due to a demo of MGS2’s opening tanker mission. In retrospect, the hype grew too much. MGS2 could never be quite what people wanted. The convoluted story bordered on nonsense. The bosses didn’t quite live up to FOXHOUND from the original. The ending’s ratio of exposition and cutscenes to gameplay favored exposition far too heavily, a particularly egregious sin because the gameplay was so good.
The misdirection creator Hideo Kojima played with the game’s protagonist and story didn’t help, either. Series icon Solid Snake featured exclusively in the promotional material (to the point of editing him into later scenes), and for the most part the opening tanker mission was the only level seen. No one expected the twist which followed that tanker mission, when new protagonist Raiden replaced Snake for the remaining 75-80% of the game. Raiden…disappointed, for reasons both fair and unfair. Valid reasons; his voice actor did not meet the high standards of the series, his character genuinely annoyed, and his inexperience and naiveté rubbed gamers the wrong way in comparison with Snake’s grizzled old vet.
More central to the Raiden complaints was a familiar topic here at The Fandomentals, our old friend toxic masculinity. Solid Snake is a good old-fashioned tough guy in every sense of the phrase. His voice is gravelly, he smokes, he has a rough, bearded face, a brawny body, and he makes sarcastic jokes in the face of danger. He shows fear and sadness, but only in situations you expect “a man” to, such as trying to save the girl. To say Raiden differs is an understatement.
Besides the smooth face and long, golden hair, he also has a slender figure and lighter voice. He shows vulnerability throughout the game. He constantly doubts himself, hates the violent things he must do, and argues with his girlfriend. In just about every way, Raiden represents the opposite of Snake, which Kojima intended. He wanted to design a main character appealing to the Japanese and female audiences more than the middle-aged, hardened soldier Solid Snake represented. And American gamers hated Raiden for it. Especially when Snake reappeared later in the game and went about his usual badassery.
Ultimately Metal Gear Solid 2 somewhat disappointed despite overwhelmingly positive reviews. Ruthless gamers tore Raiden and the convoluted story apart, and the backlash led Kojima to overhaul Raiden for his reappearance in Metal Gear Solid 4. For a time it appeared the game would be remembered as a misstep in one of gaming’s great series. Then something changed.
Metal Gear Solid 2 started looking very prophetic.
Themes and Memes
While hard to process among the various plot threads tangled together throughout Metal Gear Solid, the main theme of the game centers on the idea of controlling the flow of information to the populace. Raiden’s mission functions as a complicated final test for an AI built to filter information and select the “proper” information to pass on to the people. Raiden, the terrorists he fights, even the people he help are all unwitting participants meant to test the AI’s ability to process information. The game is all about the effect of uncontrolled information spreading through the populace and how the government (or rather the Patriots, the shadow group running the government) fears it. It was also a discussion on the things we pass on to the next generation; culture, ideas, beliefs, and such.
MGS2 was a game about “memes” well before the word applied to jokes run into the ground over the Internet. It was about a coming time when people would start running jokes into the ground over the Internet.
In many ways MGS2 was also about social media well before social media. Raiden’s past is erased and his identity entirely shaped by “memes.” He goes through VR training which damn near deifies Solid Snake and the Shadow Moses mission of the first Metal Gear Solid. He runs through simulations of the mission. The Big Shell mission he undertakes in the game is shaped to recreate Shadow Moses. The AI emulates Snake’s commanding officer in order to manipulate Raiden further, due to his hero idolization of the commander. His entire culture, the memes passed on to him, shapes him into the person the Patriots want him to be. The ending is entirely about choosing our own memes to pass on to the next generation. The game is based on the attempts of higher powers to control the memes we pass on. They wished to control the influences of society.
I’d say a game about the dangers of the proliferation of misinformation and passing of culture over the Internet feels quite relevant today. It’s a very timely message. And MGS2 delivered it in 2001.
This message is not the only aspect of the game which time benefited. As years passed and disappointment faded away, fans of the series looked back on Raiden through a fairer lens. Rather than feel disappointment about his differences from Snake, the question arose about the intentions behind those differences. Kojima developed this character with a purpose deeper than appealing to the Japanese audience and women. Raiden speaks towards gamers themselves. He is a gamer. The darker history as a child soldier in Africa is unknown until the very end of the game. All we know is Raiden’s development through VR; basically, video games. Snake directly says as much after hearing of Raiden’s experience.
Kojima reinforces this message through clips of Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions while Raiden describes his training. His skills and training are the skills and training of players who experienced the first game. His worship for Solid Snake is our worship for Solid Snake. He wears dog tags with the name and birthday the player inputs after taking control of Raiden for the first time. In just about every way, Raiden is us. He represents the subject of video game violence and the desensitization of children through such games. Obviously Kojima cannot take any moral high ground on this considering his series, and I don’t think he intends to. He just opens the discussion.
To tie back to the message of shaping people through memes, Kojima can also be interpreted as tearing apart his own shaping of culture and ideas he imprinted in gamers throughout his career. Considering Kojima’s original intent to walk away from the series after MGS2, Snake’s end speech to Raiden about finding his own culture and identity can be interpreted as Kojima trying to inspire the coming generation which will replace his own. Raiden/the player navigating a recreation of a previous mission may be Kojima’s way of further reinforcing that message.
Kind of awkward to savage Raiden once you realize he represents the people savaging him. It’s easy to, but why focus so much energy on doing so rather than understand the literary purpose behind his existence? Over time fans have reached the same conclusion.
The same is true of the plot as a whole. As great as the gameplay is, the plot is the reason fans praise MGS2 more fondly now than they did in the year or so after its release. There is so much to dive into, enough that time was necessary to realize the true depths. Metal Gear Solid has always had a lot to say about the world and humanity. Nuclear war, genetics, family, fate, the shifting politics of the world, and the limits of technology number just among the main themes throughout the series. MGS2 arguably stands as the peak of Kojima’s ability to pack an immense number of political and social statements into a single game (which arguably weakens it in the long run). There’s just so much it has to say.
The best comparison I could make is that MGS2 is to Metal Gear Solid what A Feast For Crows is to A Song of Ice and Fire. Both introduce a large number of new characters where fans expected more of the old. Both have issues with pacing that make the material hard to parse through initially. They pack an immense amount into their stories and characters that take time and analysis to grasp fully, which meant neither would be fully appreciated for years. And time has seen both remembered more fondly because of that.
I speak from personal experience here. As much as I loved the game upon release, enough to spend separate 6-hour timespans playing through it in a 24-hour period (childhood was nice), the characters did fall flat for me. Raiden was lame and girly with a terrible voice actor. Rose was whiny and unnecessary. Fortune, too. Her Dead Cell companions were just okay. The only characters I particularly cared about were Snake, Solidus, Otacon, and Revolver Ocelot, of which only Solidus was a new character. Even he had some history from the first game and as a stand-in for Big Boss, so he was not entirely new.
Sounds familiar, right? Who cares about Arianne Martell or Asha Greyjoy? Who cares about Victarion? Why give Brienne a POV? Readers liked Doran Martell, but mainly because he was Oberyn’s brother. Much like A Feast For Crows is ASOIAF’s re-read favorite, Metal Gear Solid 2 became the equivalent for its series. Fans needed time to look accept the new characters. Fortune became the tragic victim of a government plot to take away her family rather than Dead Cell’s overdramatic leader. I already covered Raiden. Rose’s role as emotional blackmail aimed at him became clearer and sadder. Even the popular characters grew in popularity. Olga’s desperation to save her daughter broke our hearts. Solidus’s role as the anti-hero rebelling against the group that manipulated him from birth to death saw him become arguably the most popular villain in the series.
This theme of identity extends well beyond the broader message of cultural influence talked about earlier. Raiden does not stand alone in having his life manipulated by the Patriots. The same is true of every character in the game. The Big Shell incident comprising most of the game stands as the crucial moment in each of their lives to stand against the control which brought them there to begin with. Both Snake and Solidus were literally created through cloning to be Patriots pawns. Rose met and dated Raiden under their orders. Fortune joined the military because they took away everyone she cared about one by one. Ocelot was their agent (as far as we knew; I won’t get into future knowledge of his motivations). Fatman came along merely to test Raiden. Even those with no direct influence only arrived because of Patriot interference, such as Peter Stillman and Otacon.
Each of these characters makes decisions on their fates, on the person they want to be or not be, regardless of whether they know about the Patriots or not. Some succeed in rebelling against what the Patriots want them to be. Some try and unknowingly play right into their hands. Others even prefer the control of forces greater than themselves. Everyone ties back into Kojima’s final message about the player deciding on their own identity. It’s all really genius to look back on and realize the intention. At least regarding themes and the design of character and plot, MGS2 is Kojima at his peak.
So why did it take so long for people to notice and appreciate all this? I wish I could place the blame solely on the complexity and genius. Unfortunately, much of this is hard to discern from the storytelling. Any fan of Metal Gear Solid knows Hideo Kojima’s quirks and flaws, and MGS2 is also the arguable peak of both.
Wait, Can You Repeat That?
The storytelling of the game often bogs down in exposition delivered via Codec or characters standing around, which consists of too much telling and not enough showing. This especially applies to the end of the game, which is still heavily criticized for a huge amount of exposition delivered over some 20 straight minutes to reveal much of the critical plot info. It doesn’t help that many of these Codec conversations are optional. You can miss out on character backstories, group motivations, and valuable setup for future plot points if you don’t go out of your way to make these calls yourself.
This flaw exists due to the Codec in each game, but MGS2 was especially bad about pacing these conversations or finding ways to make sure the player heard the information elsewhere.
Also lost among this muddled way of delivering information are the various connections each character has to each other and the various groups with a stake in the game. Which character was Fortune’s father and which was her husband? When did Dead Cell go rogue? Wait, who does Ocelot work for? How are Snake and Otacon at the Big Shell? Who knew about the Patriots? Keeping track of all these things is tough with the best presentation. MGS2 most certainly does not have the best presentation.
The amount of absurdly silly content in the game doesn’t help much either, instead breaking the atmosphere the more serious moments work hard to create. Some of it comes across as plainly poor taste. Fortune’s ludicrous spandex body suit does not scream “leader of a military unit.” Vamp might come across a little more dangerously if he wasn’t a hypersexualized vampire stereotype. Much of the series has this problem (see Kojima’s reasoning for Quiet’s outfit). MGS2 often goes too far. How tense can the game really be when it lets you smooch pin-up posters inside lockers? Or when a main character can be possessed at any moment by the ghost of a dead man inside his transplanted arm?
Metal Gear Solid has always struggled to decide between a serious story and the silliness of video games. There’s a clear dichotomy between what Kojima wants to do and his personal quirks. MGS2 borders on failing sometimes, as does MGS4. It often feels like Kojima was way ahead of his time. He had serious things to say and good ways of saying them, but sometimes those messages lose themselves in the fact that he is making a video game and must tailor his style to that fact. Maybe he would be better off coming up in the modern gaming world, where a game like The Last of Us can revel in serious storytelling and see universal praise. At this point changing Kojima’s style is likely a lost battle.
The Most Metal to Ever Gear
MGS2 will always be a divisive game, much the same way A Feast for Crows divides fans of ASOIAF. The flaws are too deep and the successes too great for it to be any other way. Some will endlessly praise the game as the best in the series for its thematic achievements. Others will endlessly decry the game for its muddled delivery. Some will come to appreciate Raiden while others will never warm to him. Agreement on the quality of the game will never exist beyond the general praise any Metal Gear Solid game deserves.
The one thing I think all can agree on is MGS2’s status as the quintessential entry in the series. It has the best examples of Kojima’s writing and his storytelling flaws. It has his best and worst characters. His moments most serious and silly. The most innovative plot which also depends on copying the original. Ask a fan to point out the moment that best represents Metal Gear silliness. MGS2 probably has the moment they pick. Everything good and bad defining the series mixes together into one wild package you’ll hate one moment and love the next.
15 years later, I think that is the lasting legacy of Metal Gear Solid 2. Every year sees new gamers give the series a try for the first time. They have the same opinions, the same divisiveness, the same praise and complaints. Metal Gear Solid 2 will never have an agreed spot in the list of best games in the series. What can be agreed on is that no game better defines the name Metal Gear Solid.
Images courtesy of Konami