The Metal Gear Diaries: Sons of Liberty
The setup for these posts is simple: I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before, and I want to change that. I’m going to be writing my on-going reactions to the games as I go, and sharing them with the world. The Metal Gear Diaries are somewhere between a full critical essay and twitter gut responses, and will form an honest document of my shock, frustration and surpise at the events of, say it with me now, “Metal Gear?!” They will be packed with spoilers for all Metal Gear games!
Last time, we completed Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. I played on Very Easy, touristing my way through the game, ingesting the ridiculousness that is the story, and I enjoyed it even more than I expected to. The combination of goofiness and earnestness is exactly what I’m looking for in a good work of genre fiction, and even though it took me forever to play it, I enjoyed it immensely and I’m so glad that I did!
Today, we move on, to the sequel, the Metal Gear game that goes all the way to the white house. I think. Maybe everything I’ve heard about Metal Gear Solid #2 is wrong and you play as Snake the whole time. Maybe this is a double troll.
Knowing what I know about Kojima, I wouldn’t rule it out.
By the end of The Twin Snakes, I felt like I understood what Metal Gear Solid was, I understood its rhythms and its designs, and I didn’t think I’d be put off by trying to play it as an actual video game. So this time, I’m selecting normal, and I’m not using a guide. How this will affect my appreciation, I dunno yet, and maybe I’ll have to start again when I realise just how bad at game I truly am. But if nothing else, it will be interesting to try to play the series in such a way as I move forward.
In terms of the information I have going in, I actually know the least about Sons of Liberty. I know you play as Raiden, I know (or I think?) the ending has something to do with AIs ruling the world in the White House and it’s meant to be a ridiculous mindfuck? But the lack of context for any of the information I have about MGS2 is astounding, compared to my knowledge of the settings and characters of 3 and 4.
I couldn’t be more excited! Let’s do this. Come along with me on this journey to save the world from the menace, of Metal Gear…
Immediately, Sons of Liberty plants its flag as a more confident game than its predecessor. I’m going from Twin Snakes, and this already feels like an astounding leap so I can’t imagine what this would have been like for Joe ‘I ❤ Metal Gear’ Bloggs back in 2001. Specifically I mean the initial cutscene, which sacrifices the immediate exposition dumps that defined the writing in the original for tone-building, beginning with a long voiceless sequence of Snake boarding the Tanker.
It feels like a real leap not just in technical ability, although that is certainly a part of it, but in cinematic craft. Being able to make a scene where a man just walks for two minutes interesting is difficult, and Kojima’s team pull it off with flying colours. It works, so that by the time Otacon does come in to give me my exposition dump, my reaction is pretty much “hell yeah that guy!”
I’m so happy that Sons of Liberty — at least in this introductory segment — centres itself around the banter between Otacon and Snake. It’s so clearly the central relationship of that first game, and it brings a smile to my face to see Otacon doing well for himself, and still working with his best friend in the whole wide world, David. But while it was delightful to see the team back together, it was also explicitly fanservice-y in a way I wasn’t expecting. Everything people have told me about Sons of Liberty specifically positions it as a middle finger to the fanbase, but presumably that comes later, and this is setting people up for a fall?
That’s possibly the thing I’m most interested to discover about this game — why do people hate it? I know why people love it, and I expect to fall into that camp, but I don’t want to write off those who find it a dishonest or shitty sequel as approaching the series in the wrong way. I want to understand without dismissing, because I know that perspective is common enough as to have some validity, right? We’ll see.
Anyway one more thing I just want to note: “every dotcom has their own Metal Gear” is the best line in anything ever and also wtf and also lol and also let’s do this.
Let’s play some damn Metal Gear.
Snake On A Boat
Here’s what I have learned from playing an hour and a half of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty™ on normal without a guide: Metal Gear is not an easy game.
I’ve stuck with it, though! Now that I’ve learned the moment to moment rhythm of the game, the need to search every nook and cranny before moving on, the general progression of the items, the gadgets that need to be found, I’m feeling good about things. The fact that enemies don’t stay tranq’d for long is frustrating, but I’ve been able to keep my ammo up from the drops littered around environments, and when I’ve come under alert, running away has saved my skin without too much trouble.
Much like Twin Snakes had the illusion of size and scope more than it had both of those things, as works of Game Design, both games have the illusion of unapproachability. They start you out with nothing, and throw you into an environment littered with enemies who have the ability to kill you strikingly fast. But there are tools with which you may easily get by — you just have to trust that the game will give them to you.
And it’s that trust that I struggle with. The uncertainty, the inability to just let things be and focus on the moment. It’s just how my brain works, it’s why I horde ammo and items and refuse to actually engage with the design as a human being who isn’t consistently terrified that the rug’s about to be pulled out from under them. Now, there’s an entire book to unpack inside my brain with that reaction, but the point is more, I’m forcing myself to ignore that, and trust that I’m going to be okay.
Which I have been! I’ve struggled at spots, and essentially progressed at a snail’s pace due to my necessary relying on stealth, but the moments where the confusion clicks into understanding have been immensely satisfying, and I’m ultimately glad that I’m engaging with them myself rather than minimizing the difficulty those provide to get to the next story beat.
As an example: I spent a long time running around, unable to work out where to progress. I’d found so much USP ammo, but there was no sign of a USP — and eventually I reached the gate in the engine room which required a gun to defuse explosives. All the level design was funnelling me towards this gate, and there didn’t seem to be any other way to go. I searched the ship for a while, criss-crossing back and forth, until I realised that a Staircase which was blocked on the port-side entrance was completely open on the starboard side, and I headed up to the bridge.
I love the Tanker as a piece of environment design. It’s just the right size to experiment, to give a sense of scale, to let you feel lost without letting you get lost. Plus, the more branching nature makes it an more effective introduction than the docks of Shadow Moses, it feels like a confined space with which to learn your tools — the Guards not staying down cementing this as a purpose, so that by the time I’m able to pass through that gate, I’ve learned every basic about how to approach encounters.
In this sense, it is one of the most effective tutorials I’ve ever played.
Russian Buzz Cuts
A short couple things for this diary entry.
1: Snake being able to sense Russians by the cut of the commander’s hair was hi-larious.
Snake: “Russians.” Me: “Snake, you can’t tell just by a haircut, c’mon.”
Snake: “No Marine barber cut that hair.”
Setpiece By Setpiece
Moving past that explosive gate feels like a turning point. The corridors get darker, and longer, but ever increasingly claustrophobic. There’s a forced fight with a group of guards, an assault that’s far more a standard shoot-out than anything else, save for probably the communication tower in Twin Snakes. But while that is a cathartic moment (a catharsis which the game goes out of its way to criticize), this was far more awkward and just… a shooter. It was weird! It felt a little purposeless considering how effective the Olga fight was, but hey ho.
It’s followed by perhaps the goofiest stealth sequence I’ve ever played, in which you sneak through three rooms of marines, in order to make your way to Metal Gear Ray and snap some photos. But they’re all watching their commander give a speech, either on massive projected screens, or in person in front of the mech.
I loved it because it was specifically designed to bring attention to the nonsense of the situation occurring. Not to undercut it, because Metal Gear is far too earnest about its themes to do such a thing, but just to let you know that it knows. The fact that I see the beam of a projector, and instinctively know I have to crawl under it, is funny. As I move through, these moments just get increasingly ludicrous, with crowds of Marines turning because the projector shuts off and switches, or the commander stopping half-way to make his Marines do some stretches.
It’s the game yelling “WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT” at itself, a hilarious bit of comic relief built into the play itself, which is a great bit of pacing, especially as I’m playing this game slowly. The pacing of Metal Gear is one of its most effective elements, I’m coming to really appreciate it.
ALSO THERE’S A CARTOON OTACON AND HE’S ADORABLE I JUST WANT TO TAKE HIM HOME AND PUT HIM ON MY COMPUTER AND TALK TO HIM AHHHHHHHHHHH SO CUTE
The Return Of The BROTHERRRRRRRRRRR
What the fuck.
I’m writing this entry with the game paused on the post-cutscene save screen, because I need to get down some kind of reaction to what in the hell just happened, because damn. The Tanker sunk, Snake’s apparently drowned? But he’s definitely been framed for this fuck up, in a move planned by Solidus and executed by the shared consciousness of Liquid Snake and Revolver Ocelot. THE SHARED CONCIOUSNESS. (People hated this? How?!)
As a moment of pulling the rug out from under you, it’s an excellent ending to what I assume is the prologue of Sons Of Liberty. It’s not that far off from the RPG trope of your town burning down in order to propel the story forward and reveal the true stakes and scope of the world at play. For a moment that I’d expected to be a very aggressive subversion of audience expectation, it’s really just foundational, 101 storytelling.
It reminds me of “No Russian,” the infamous level of Modern Warfare 2, again built to be this rug-pulling moment in a sequel that expands the scope and kicks the story into action. It focuses on the antagonistic Russian forces setting up the American protagonist to take a fall and implicate them in not-good shit in order to catalyse world reaction against the Americans. But MW2 uses it to kickstart a jingoistic tale of false flags and blood drenched Americana, whereas this could not be farther from the case here.
Honestly, it’s astounding just how pointed Sons of Liberty’s anti-American rhetoric is getting in the early stages. I kind of know about the Patriots, and I know Solidus is the President, but right from the start the game contextualises all these ideas in a really grounded context. The character of the Colonel exists deliver a critique of American cold war rhetoric, to shatter the conflation of capitalism and freedom. Ocelot’s betrayal then frames the idea of the cold war as somehow petty and beneath him, and the very real century long world conflict becomes a mere stepping stone to the conflict between Ocelot/Liquid and Snake, acting as mythic figures treating the world as their plaything.
I could probably ramble for an entire thousand words about this cutscene alone, but I won’t because I need to play the game. I’m so excited to see what happens next, because I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of Kojima raising his middle finger to his fans. Even as a rug-pulling moment, it has still been peak fanservice, because did I mention that Revolver Ocelot and Liquid Snake are now a shared consciousness?!>>!!>>!>!!???!?!!1 —
This game’s a delight so far, let’s carry on!
Oh! Okay, I don’t wonder anymore.
The intro to Big Shell is designed to suck the air out of the room. And I’m not going to lie — it kind of does! The tanker section is so propulsive, that prior scene such a fantastic shift into gear for the story, that stepping back into this completely different character with little to no understanding of what’s going on is a jarring shift to say the least.
Plus, whilst the Tanker section features the direct callbacks to Metal Gear Solid in aesthetic choices — the Game Over screen, Otacon, Solid Snake; the entire introduction of Big Shell is far more overtly a riff on the introduction of the design of Metal Gear Solid. It’s got the long exposition dump, it’s got the room with water, it’s got the elevator up to the surface where the main character is revealed. It’s what you want, and fuck you, Kojima’s gonna give it to you. Now see how you like it.
Raiden is the most obvious audience surrogate character that I’ve ever seen — his existence makes VR Missions canon! He’s trained in these simulations, and is convinced that makes him ready for the real thing — but Campbell is not convinced. Raiden’s the player (duh, I feel shitty writing this out because of how obvious it is), desperate for his chance to play at being Solid Snake, and through him we get to see what Kojima thinks of his audience.
The key difference between him and Snake — apart from Raiden being peak anime prettyboy — is Raiden’s attachment to others. Rose cares for him, and he cares for her, and I have no doubt that will prove to be his undoing in some way. Raiden is the anti-Snake, but he desperately wants to be Snake, and this is clear to everyone but him. He is not cut out for this one bit, and I’m interested to see how all this stuff plays out, because I’m going off the introduction alone, and I don’t really know how the meta elements of MGS work besides “Kojima Hates You.”
For as deliberately underwhelming a sequence as it is, it makes sure to throw in some hooks beyond “okay, you’re Snake now, deal with it.” Solid Snake is the supposed leader of the terrorists (what), but you also see him take out the guards ahead of you and ride the lift (also what), which functions mostly as the wink and nod from the team to say “there is going to be something at the end of this ride, keep going.”
Which is what I shall do!
Totally Not Solid Snake
Big Shell is a beautiful location. No longer constrained by PSone technology, but still forced to work within the limits of the PS2 in 2001, the game has this gorgeous stylised aesthetic that I don’t associate with Metal Gear at all. The orange struts, vibrant in the sunshine, upscaled far beyond their means in the HD collection are what you would call my shit. It looks so good.
I was right about it not taking long to introduce elements beyond just re-treading the beats of MGS but with Raiden being the worst throughout them. I honestly can’t believe Kojima got away with making the protagonist an audience surrogate who exists to be incompetent and awful at every single occasion. And then I’m told his audience at the time hated Raiden because he was too effeminate. Which is one of the best examples of both missing the point and proving the point in one swing.
Running into Solid Snake Lt Pliskin, we get the first Live Action footage of the day, in which Pliskin talks to Raiden about how VR Training is no substitute for real war, and works as a form of mind control to numb the public to the realities of war. And then, if the point was just a little too subtle he says “Turning war into a video game. It’s mind control.”
So, that’s pretty good. The quote at the start of this segment linked the development of Nuclear Bombs to the development of the computer, and whilst I don’t know how that’s going to manifest exactly going forward, it’s being invoked in all these meta elements to comment on audience complicity, to reveal the audience desire for war (virtual or real) as something constructed for them, a hollow illusion they have bought into.
Random thought: sorry, can’t hear Vamp’s voice without hearing The Collector from Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m a monster.
1: Fortune’s introductory cutscene was amazing, I can see myself liking her character a whole lot. Sad disaffected bad guys are my favourite kind, please can someone give her a hug?
2: lol Raiden. His response when anything doesn’t go how he exactly expected it to is to get indignant, the contempt the game has for him is ridiculous. If the game has one overriding theme so far it can be summed up as: this isn’t about you.
I have been searching for the bombs for fourty five minutes. I have three of them, I can’t get to one without being spotted, and I can’t find the one in strut A.
My decision to play this game without a guide is biting me in my butt. I have so many regrets.
Anyway I’m just sitting here chuckling to myself how much this is the most Raiden reaction to having to defuse all these bombs. I don’t wanna!
Bombs, Bombs, Bombs
Now that I’ve gotten into the meat of it, I think it’s interesting how structurally different Sons of Liberty is from its predecessor. I’m five hours in, and I’ve only fought one boss, whereas I’ve explored half of the map that’s available to me in Big Shell. It doesn’t have the sense of progression that defined the original, that sense of diving deeper towards the inevitable final goal. Instead, it has you do a tonne of busywork, giving you a series of menial stealth rooms, and not expanding your itemset. Hell, you get a whole two struts in before you even find your first gun.
It’s interesting how this is contrasted by the chatter of Pete and Snake Pliskin, clearly operating on a higher level with Raiden, dealing with far more important business. Again — this is not about you. The game presents its stealth challenges in a way designed to heighten their artifice, to draw attention to the fact that this is what you’re here to do, right? Do the stealth rooms. Enjoy it, rookie.
It almost completely pushes the story away — by Metal Gear standards there have been practically zero cutscenes in the two and a half hours I’ve been on Big Shell. After the pitch-perfect pacing of the Tanker, where it lets you know that it totally could give you a great time if it wants to, Sons of Liberty throws the carrot from the stick. It’s not refusing to answer the mysteries ahead of me, it’s refusing to admit there even are any mysteries.
Certainly, there are arguments to be made about whether this is good game design or not. It’s probably not, but there’s few concepts that inspire less give-a-fuck in me than the idea of “good game design.” The game holds the player in contempt, wasting my time, energy and investment in more ways than one, but at least it’s doing that thoroughly on purpose, in service of the thematic ambitions of the game.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate out this fall. (I wrote this article in goddamn July).
Fortune Favours The Dead
Well here we go. Apparently immediately after I wrote the last entry, Sons of Liberty was ready to kick into overdrive. If it’s anything like the original, it’s going to be pretty much entirely boss fights from here on in, which makes total sense considering the fact I’ve already been through these stealth rooms multiple times.
Fortune keeps getting better as a character, and fits right into the themes that resonated so strongly to me in Metal Gear Solid. She’s a soldier, born into war, but unable to die, although there’s nothing she wants to do more. The idea of soldiers unable to change their nature as soldiers is a recurring one in Metal Gear, and while I think that might be a little too fatalistic for me (I know, shh), I appreciate whenever it takes the time to show the human cost of war within its characters.
The human cost is never the cost in lives here, although that is certainly a part of it — Raiden is shocked Rose is so okay with him just taking the lives of other humans away from them. Instead it’s more of the inner turmoil of the participants, where no soldier comes out unscathed, and none of them are ever allowed to be free. Fortune is the most on-the-nose nod yet to the permanence of war.
I’m consistently surprised that a game with Evangelion Mechs is commited to inspiring such empathy towards those who have experienced trauma. There’s certainly shitty ways you could read this repeated idea; indulging in the pain of others purely to point and go go “hey, this fucked up!” Given what we all know about Ground Zeroes, this isn’t an incorrect read at all — but so far I’ve found it so far to be on a side where it’s respecting the trauma of the people that it portrays. At least by videogame standards.
Not that that’s a high standard.
The Fatman boss fight took me forever, and then I backflipped off the edge fourty minutes in and had to start again.
I then beat him in five minutes. Videogames.
Fatman’s character is interesting to me because one, I expected them to pump his scenes full of far more fatshaming than they do. There’s still a lot there, but his characterisation focuses more on his complete adoration for bombs, for the purity of their technological design.
He’s kind of not worth talking about in great detail, but I do want to note how Raiden begins to get more and more sympathetic at this point. He’s always been suspicious of military structures (GOD KNOWS WHY THEY CHOSE THIS MAN FOR THIS MISSION), but he’s beginning to gain the confidence enough to act on his own to save more people than he is being ordered to.
Despite being ordered not to, his going to Snake and revealing his mission objectives is a key turning point in Raiden’s arc, I think. I’m interested to see how this manifests itself and what happens to Raiden as a character as we progress — especially outside of the element of his character where he’s a despised audience surrogate. He’s other things too!
Oh, and I mean Pliskin, he goes to Pliskin.
Need To Know
Psych! No we’re not, because holy shit Gray Fox is here ahhhhh it’s Gray Fox I don’t even care that Gray Fox died, he’s baaaaaaaaaaaaack
Okay, he’s not back, but there’s another mystery cyborg ninja, hooked up in exactly the same cyborg ninja gear. I’m glad that cyborg ninja gear is mass-produced in the Metal Gear universe, it’s only fitting for a world where every dotcom has their own Mech. And he gives us a level 2 card (finally! These came so thick and fast in the original, it’s an odd change of pace), as well as filling us in on the fact that everything Raiden’s been told is an obvious, obvious lie.
Immediately, this signals a shift in the game. The level 2 card unlocks doors in the warehouse to supply us with multiple assault rifles, and the concept of wearing enemy uniforms is introduced. It feels like a real expansion of my arsenal, far more immediate than the gradual building of power that has defined the progression of both games so far.
This character knocked me off balance a little bit. There’s so much I don’t know, and there’s so much I do know that is probably wrong. I’m excited to push further into the game and get some answers, because man I’m at that point in the middle of a mystery between the setup and the payoff and I’m waiting for it to be filled.
A Whole Lotta Things Happen All At Once
Well. Once Sons of Liberty stops wasting time, it really doesn’t waste any time. The Shell 1 core sequence is one of my favourite parts of the game so far, with this solid three act ramp from infiltration (sneaking in, disguised) to execution (finding the Directional mic and using it) to pay off (everything is revealed but nothing is revealed ahh!) It’s hard to talk about in this format, because I don’t have the context for where it’s exactly going, so I can’t really do any thematic analysis or anything much more than raise my arms going “I KNOW RIGHT?!”
I’m liking the way the mystery is progressing, because instead of Metal Gear Solid’s amazingly baffling web of lies which all centre on Solid Snake, Raiden is so incidental to the happenings. He’s bumbling into scenarios and having his identity assumed by different factions, because they can’t possibly imagine someone could know so little The mystery is bigger than Raiden, the mystery doesn’t care about Raiden — nobody cares about Raiden! The reveals aren’t just reveals of information, they’re reveals of how little you’ve been considered in this world — this isn’t about you.
I wanna take a quick moment to write up my understanding of things so far, because it’s very muddled and really I have no idea. Okay:
Okay, so there’s the La Li Lu Lie Lo, which seem to be a governmental organisation that secretly runs America? Ames works for them and assumes you’re working for them and have been sent to kill the President. Then there are The Patriots — who might just be the same as the La Li Lu Lie Lo? Ocelot seems worried about the possibility of Patriots retaliating against the Sons of Liberty. And Ocelot, Olga and King (who’s gotta be Solidus, right?) are the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, and are trying to liberate Manhattan and make it a rouge state?
Okay. Yeah. Well, I wonder how much of that is 100% wrong and based on a thousand layers of misinformation! We shall see as we move forward.
Also, from the conversations about Raiden’s past that he’s having with Rose, I’m betting like a fiver that the twist is that Raiden doesn’t exist and is a created tool of some kind. Considering the whole game has thematically been about Raiden’s a) incompetence and b) irrelevance, I assumed at first he was just a guy who was Not Snake, but it’s clear they’re building to some kind of reveal and that’s my guess.
I have to be over half way, right? There’s no way of knowing! Let us proceed to the second shell.
What We’ve All Been Waiting For
I did not proceed to the second shell, because the game exploded. Everything happened! I assumed after the prior scenes of reveals we were in for a little more video game downtime, but I walked through a few doors, shot a sniper through a flag, and suddenly the world exploded.
I say shot a sniper through a flag, what I did was stare at the sniper bridge forever, then twenty minutes in I thought “hey, what if I turned behind me?” Low and behold, behind me was a detonator, and I felt incredibly smart. Then I stood there for twenty minutes not realising I’d missed the first few times I shot a sniper through a flag. Videogames.
Anyway, in the short time since the last check in, Solidus Snake showed up, Metal Gear Ray all but destroyed the base, and most shocking of all, Pliskin was revealed to actually be Solid Snake(!!!!!) I know! Though honestly, my favourite moment of all the reveals was the fact that Otacon was there. I cheered for Otacon, because I’ll always cheer for Otacon, who do you think I am?
Sons of Liberty is not the seventeen car pile up in the final room, because there’s simply just too much going on. It’s clearly more complicated, and I’m waiting for the nonsense that has been advertised to be as one of the most confusing endings in videogames, but so far it’s allowed each plotline to breathe. The pacing of the reveals allows these moments to happen, bounce off of each other, and then re-contextualise the status quo until the next big moment. Which is good, I don’t think MGS could get away with another ending like the first game, because people know what the series is now. They have to deliver and deliver they do.
Another thing I’m incredibly into — and it’s been throughout the game, there’s just not been a good place to mention it in this mammoth series of posts — is how Solid Snake is having his own Metal Gear game, you’re just not allowed to see it. There exists in an alternate universe an identical version of this game plot wise where you see it from Snake’s perspective. And that probably would have been fun and all, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting.
Even discarding the meta elements of Sons of Liberty, Snake’s in a good place. He’s working with Philantrhopy, he’s not got any real internal conflicts at the moment, whereas Raiden is not at all. It’s hard to get a read on him, he doesn’t really have any character traits early on except “bad at things.” But through interacting with Snake he begins to gain an appreciation for the core values of the series. He’s finding something to fight for, a reason to keep going, something to hold onto and keep himself human as he dives further and further into battle.
Plus, Colonel Campbell is consistently referring to the simulation as if it matters anymore, and discarding every logical thing that Raiden says, so if Raiden actually exists I will eat my hat.
Immediately after the most intense couple of story beats the game’s had so far, comes about twenty minutes of me falling off ledges as I make my way towards Shell 2’s core. They’re fun enough, but I’m getting frustrated at them now — Metal Gear games tension between story and gameplay runs deeper than in most anything I’ve played. Matt plays these games as, and I quote “Kojima Bullshit Delivery Mechanisms,” which is how I played Twin Snakes.
I can see why, because when you have to deal with a bunch of busywork before the next big thing, it can be frustrating. But as stealth games, they’re these really interestingly designed sequences of setpieces, and I’m probably not going to be playing them again any time soon. So I’ll take the slightly longer running time and any annoyance, because the moments where you solve the puzzle rooms are worth it to me, as someone with no intention of ever playing VR missions.
Plus, I can’t change difficulty now. Made my bed, and all that.
So many of the setpieces — and story beats — are direct riffs on those from the original game. I have to find a remote controlled missile launcher, I have to take down an aircraft with a Stinger, I have to find out the identity of the Cyborg Ninja. I wonder whether that will have any real explanation in the game, or whether it’s purely to play into the fact that Sons Of Liberty is so clearly a game about games.
Games about games have become incredibly common in western spaces over the last decade or so, but Sons Of Liberty feels so far ahead of your Bioshocks and your Spec Ops in terms of its commentary. The things that it is about — the tension in the relationship between player and creator, player entitlement to immediate reward, fans not actually understanding what makes the art they love good — are all still relevant in games today, if not more so. It’s got so much more going on than just “it hates the player” or “it’s a middle finger to the fans,” there’s no singular Would You Kindly moment (even though, you know, Raiden also probably doesn’t exist).
I think that’s my favourite thing about how Sons of Liberty approaches its meta-commentary, is that it doesn’t exist to shock you. It does toy with player expectation, it does hold the player in contempt, and it does raise questions about your agency and entitlement in engaging with someone else’s art — but it doesn’t do any of those things to show off that it’s doing them. It’s an honest exploration of those ideas without an in your face swagger. Metal Gear’s form of indulgence is far more earnest than that, and it is that earnestness that holds the whole thing together in moments of anime nonsense, anti-war drama or when it’s telling the player that they don’t matter at all.
Alas, My Finger Must Have Slipped
Ahhhh. AHHHHHHHH! !!!!!!!!
So. Okay. So much happened in the last cutscene, and the entire state of the world is flipped upon its head. I don’t usually do this, but I need to do a little summary just to see if I’ve got it all. The Patriots are the secret organisation controlling America, but they go even higher than that? It’s a council of twelve, The Wise Men, who make the decisions for the state of the world, performing the illusion of democracy in order to placate the public. Sick of being pawns, The President wants to join them, but Solidus wants to end them and remove their power, and now we have this whole situation right here.
Also Big Shell is the new Metal Gear which, yeah, called it. High fives all around!
Anyway, what I love most about this series of reveals, is that on the surface it seems like a standard “Illuminati!” conspiracy, where the answer is that everything is being controlled by a select few and that’s why the world is bad. Usually those kind of conspiracies perpetuate conservative ideologies, playing into the fear of the man, in order to emphasise *coghs everywhere* “traditionally American values” of freedom, personal liberty and not paying tax.
But as it’s introduced here, it’s framed in the complete opposite light — which may explain why so many Metal Gear Solid fans fell off after this game, because the first game definitely allows itself to be read as a pro-military action hero story if you’re only half paying attention. Here, there is no room for misinterpretation — Sons of Liberty is a pointed anti-american and anti-capitalist text. It takes its common rhetoric about war, that Soldiers cannot escape it and all are hurting within it, and applies it to the power structure of its own universe.
Sons Of Liberty is keenly aware of the systemic nature of agency. Soldiers have choices, they can fight for what they believe in, but they are soldiers on a battlefield, and the only way to be free of that is to be free of war. Here, The President talks similarly into his lack of power under The Patriots — “there is no difference between submission and rebellion.” One person cannot change the systems which enforce the power structures of the world, no matter how powerful they may be.
Which is why this reveal focuses on The Patriots fear of the internet, of the ever increasing flow of information, of what happens when people all around the world can collectively organise and work for the end of the system keeping them in check. If information is able to flow freely then the structures that keep The Patriots in control are able to fall, as they’re built on a bed of lies and misinformation. And the only way to keep control, is to build bigger and bigger weapons, to put their foot down harder and harder.
So much of what Sons of Liberty is about to so far centers on a denial of individualism. This comes out through its meta-commentary on games (you do not matter), through its portrayal of soldiers and now through the state of its world. Even Snake’s goal isn’t to save the world, it’s to expose the lies of nations and governments in order to incite others into action. You do not matter. We matter.
Plus, this scene — and the earlier scene with Snake and Raiden — stick out due to their sympathy to terrorism. Much like Deep Space Nine, a show that examines these ideas superbly and consistently, it asks the question of how valid acts of terrorism may be, if they are in the service of bringing down a corrupt and powerful system? When Raiden calls Snake out on his methods of taking down Metal Gear across the world as being “more like terrorism,” Snake simply says, “that’s a fair comparison.” Even Solidus Snake is clearly not the big bad guy anymore, he wants to disable Wall Street and cause chaos, but with the end of softening the Patriots hold on the world.
It’s not quite on the level of Final Fantasy VII, a game in which you play as a group explicitly referred to as eco-terrorists, but it’s certainly up there, and it uses the abstraction of its goofy anime reveals in order to have a conversation about enforced, structural violence vs the violence of individual acts with the aim of dismantling those systems.
What is very clear, however, that November 2001 is the latest this game could have come out. I’m interested to see how MGS approaches these ideas in a post-9/11 world, where these words came to have different contexts than they did before. I assume Snake Eater won’t touch on it too much, being a 60s Bond Movie, but The Patriots are central in Guns of the Patriots, so we can only see.
It’s weird being someone who knows the events of 4’s ending, but none of the thematic context to any of them. I’m so interested in what lies behind these doors.
I Wasn’t Finished
Oh, apparently I wrote that entire last entry half way through the set of reveals that is this part of Sons of Liberty — the big bombshell being that Snake and Otacon already knew all of this and were just waiting for you to catch up, which is hilarious and great. Even when Raiden is discovering massive world changing plot twists, he’s still lagging behind everyone else.
What I found interesting about this recap, which served mainly to fil Raiden (and the player) in on the context of what’s been happening to Snake since the first game and the Tanker mission, is how it continues to talk about the idea of terrorism as a PR tool. The Snake of Shadow Moses was a hero, built into legend, and they needed to run a smear campaign against him, and turn the public away from him. To do this, Snake doesn’t need to change, he continues doing what he always does and always will do, but his consistent actions are taken sometimes as acts of heroism, and sometimes as acts of terrorism depending on the framing.
As ever, the strength of Snake and Otacon’s convictions is what keeps them going (ALSO THE STRENGTH OF THEIR PURE FRIENDSHIP), who have their inbuilt sense of what’s right in a way that Raiden is only beginning to develop. He doesn’t know how to perceive the actions of The President, he sees him as a man he failed to save, rather than a man willing to sacrifice himself in order to save others and lay the groundwork for a safer world.
Sons of Liberty has gone from a game that doesn’t care about the player to a Collectivist Text in the last hour or so. All the themes are coming to the surface, and it’s not finished yet.
Raiden The Vampire Slayer
Vamp’s boss fight took me a good 40 minutes before I was able to beat it — Metal Gear boss fights have a strange rhythm that requires a great deal of time investment before you can figure them out. They have a ramp up, starting out with an easy introductory stage that introduces you to the concepts you’ll use to beat the boss, and by the end of the fight are complex challenges where you implement everything you’ve learned.
What this means is that whenever I fail, I have to play a good ten minutes of boss fight before I can even get to the part that’s challenging. It means Metal Gear boss fights are continually walking a knife edge between excellent and trash and there’s really little place in between. The Vamp fight was pretty great because I beat it when I realised I should be using different guns depending on the attack that Vamp was throwing at me.
Metal Gear structures each of its setpieces in this puzzle-like way, which means most of them have this moment where it clicks and I feel incredibly smart. But unfortunately, when it falls, like the Fatman bossfight from earlier, it falls hard.
Oh, You Were Doing So Well
This message just landed in Matt’s skype inbox: “EMMA SHOWED UP AND MGS 2 GOT GROSS AND WEIRD.”
I’m going to take a moment and just sigh loudly, let it all out.
Anyway. The Emma stuff was all going so well until now. It gave Otacon a really interesting backstory — that of a guilty brother who was unable to help the people that he loved because he didn’t even realise they were in trouble. It was — and still is, I guess — building towards a confrontation between the two of them, where they work out their issues and come to a place of common understanding and recognition of mistakes made along the way.
And I wanted that! Otacon is a character that doesn’t have much in the way of internal conflict at this point, and was always in desperate need of a backstory beyond “programmed Metal Gear Rex.” But then there was the moment with the glasses, in which Emma refers to them as a gift from “someone more important than her first boyfriend,” and talks about how Otacon and her used to play house when they were younger. It’s alright, they were step-siblings.
Then, as the turd topping to this delightfully shitty series of developments, Rose and Raiden have an argument about whether Raiden’s attracted to her. Rose is jealous because Raiden never opens up to her (on account of him not existing), and expresses this jealousy in a strange way that I can only describe as “written by a man.”
It’s like all of Metal Gear’s worst elements decided to come out at once and make me sad. No wonder this is the part that nobody talks about! All I know is that Guns Of The Patriots ends with a wedding on the tarmac of Shadow Moses, and I’m fairly sure that Otacon is the groom. If that’s where this is going then I’m gonna be the grumpiest saddest person, don’t do me like this game — go back to being a goofy game about the perils of capitalism! Please!
There is one positive element of this scene which I want to comment on — Emma’s phobia of swimming is never treated as weakness. Her trauma is given respect, and her phobia portrayed as a natural response to such a trauma. It was nice that Raiden never treated her as a burden, and she was never seen as lesser.
Granted, Raiden’s “treating her like a human being” reaction may just be fuel for conflict between her and Rose so maybe this is about to go from being a Great Game to being a Trash Game.
I know there’s going to be moments like this throughout Metal Gear though — I’ve heard about the ending of Ground Zeroes, for example. And whenever I come to moments of extreme grossness or shittyness I’m not going to defend them in anyway, they’re bad and even as someone who still likes the game and is ready to see it through, I’m not going to sit here and try to ignore it. It’s in the game, it’s as valid a part of the text as any of the elements that I enjoy, and I have to be honest about that.
It ain’t half disappointing though.
I’m always a fan of when Metal Gear explains something that I realised about three infodumps ago, it makes me feel super in tune with what the game’s themes are. Emma just dropped one about the Patriot’s fear of information in the modern age, and elaborated on the role of GW — it’s a giant censorship device that only works because people forget what the truth is. All of this was clear to me from The President’s initial reveal, but it’s nice for it to be a little more explicit.
Especially because, well, I’ve been on twitter this last year and it’s really strange watching history get rewrote in real time by deliberately biased algorithms that refuse to acknowledge large groups of people protesting the repeated police murders of unarmed black men, despite the collective amount of people talking about them.
GW is a strikingly prescient creation in terms of genre fiction, considering things like it actually exist, just without the secret codified group that runs the world and more with white supremacy and capitalism. And in the game it’s framed as a massive unthinkable creation — albeit one commenting on real world ideologies and attitudes — so it’s sad and scary for systems like that to widely be in place on various social media networks on the internet today.
I want to make a quick note to say that the conversation about genre fiction’s invoking of these systems of violent oppression in a manner that separates them from the humanity of the victims of those systems in the real world (and make no mistake, Metal Gear falls into that) is an important conversation to have. Metal Gear uses its genre-enforced distance to comment on systems of capitalism and control in a manner that makes it easier to engage with, but so does Hunger Games, and both are deafeningly silent when it comes to race.
That’s a deeply ingrained problem when it comes to genre fiction — even Star Trek, which I love to death, has this problem. Hell, they did a movie about Racism in which the main “black” character was played by Christopher Plumber. In the nineties.
So, I hope if Metal Gear’s going to be tackling these issues of capitalist power structures, censorship that shapes public opinion, the effects of the War between the powerful on those without power, it also starts to portray race and gender without being the worst but I know that’s not going to happen. There have been four black characters across these two games — three of them are dead already and if Fortune makes it through this game alive I will eat my hat.
There’s still games ahead of me. I know at some point there’s a black arms dealer with a talking monkey.
Damn It, Escort Missions
This blog post may as well be titled “Everything That Sucks About Metal Gear.”
The Shit Got Real
The single most beautiful shot in the game may be Raiden and Emma climbing down the tower with the sun setting behind them. The cutscene has no purpose aside from to look good, to give a moment of calm beauty in a game which has relatively few.
It’s followed up with a really long sniper sequence, which I enjoyed primarily because it brought back a thing that had been conspicuously absent for the last few hours: everybody shitting on Raiden. If the threats are too much to take out yourself, you can call Snake and have him shoot with you — the game makes you go out of your way and ask — who then taunts you and tells you to watch how a real sniper does it.
In any other game that doesn’t trade in the themes that Sons of Liberty does, this would be a moment of masculine bravado, the game mocking you for not being good enough to shoot the men yourself. Instead, it’s to point out the distance between me — me Raiden and me the player — and Snake, the person we thought we signed up to be. So much of the game has been forcing us to watch Snake from a distance, to perceive him without deluding ourselves that we our him.
Rose and Raiden talk as I save about this difference, Raiden saying he’s nothing like Snake at all. Snake fights for something he believes him, Raiden’s just there to fight. He enjoys the act of killing, he takes pleasure in this game. (His words, not mine. Sons of Liberty is not a subtle game).
In the midst of the game clarifying and going deeper on its scathing critique of its own fanbase, Emma gets stabbed by Vamp. Maybe she’ll survive, but it looks like she’s not going to make it, and her death is just going to fuel Otacon and Raiden’s sadness. Which is a shame, because “Otacon’s sister making the same mistakes as him because he abandoned her” is a fantastic plotline and, well, this game has handled it about as poorly as it is possible to handle.
So good job, everybody involved. A round of applause to all.
The Beginning Of The End
Emma’s death scene is a rollercoaster. Not only in terms of emotions, but due to the wild swings it takes from total inexcusable garbage to alright, this doesn’t seem too terrible. It starts off salvaging Otacon’s character, making it clear that this attraction is very much one way, and to Otacon Emma is just a sister. Then it drops the reveal that Otacon was sleeping with Emma’s mother, his new step mother, which is why his father killed himself.
What the hell is this video game, ahhhhhhh.
It goes back and forth even more times, but ultimately ends up in a place where I’m mostly okay with it; it’s still gross and weird but it’s far less gross and weird than it could be. It treats both Otacon’s relationship with his step-mother and Emma’s attraction to Otacon as something that comes out from a place of deep pain, and a need to be loved no matter what. Which is a far healthier ending to this unthinkably misguided plotline than I could ever have expected. It’s still got some awful implications, but Christ am I glad that it’s over.
More interesting in this scene is what it does for Otacon’s character as someone desperate to find love and purpose in life, but who keeps watching the people close to him die — a point it drills home with a flashback to Sniper Wolf. Otacon is a survivor, but rare in this series, he’s not a survivor who represses his emotions and humanity. He feels everything, far too much, and is still able to reach a place where he can keep going. I find this element of his character really inspiring, and I’m glad that despite everything, that is still able to land. I cheered when he and Snake hugged! What kind of a monster wouldn’t cheer?
And then something happened. Snake turns on Raiden, bringing out Olga (I called it! I feel so smart!) to knock Raiden out. It’s not clear who he’s working for — I’m sure he’s working for the Philanthropy still and is totally a good guy — but what is clear as usual is how little importance the player is. You thought you were best friends with Snake now? Where do you get the ego?
There’s a grander plan going on and you’re a tool in it. Now play your part, pick up the controller, and finish the game.
Today we have completed the game. The game is done! The credits rolled, then a post-credits scene played, then a stinger played, and then I sat there for about 20 minutes loudly going “hmmmmmmm.”
I have no idea what I’m going to say, I feel like everything I’ve written about the game beforehand has been rendered irrelevant. The world just exploded all around me and I fell into some kind of serene coma. But here we go, ready as we’ll ever be, it’s time to talk about the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty…
I formally apologise for suggesting that the ending of Sons of Liberty wasn’t going to be a seventeen car pileup of everybody lying to you. Whilst the story throughout the rest of the game is certainly more simple, and less just a series of exposition dumps, they sure went hard on that ending didn’t they? There were at least six layers of world-changing reveals, one after the other, and in the end nothing really got resolved at all.
As a structured series of scenes playing out, I think the ending is a little weaker than Metal Gear Solid, but that’s primarily because of the loose ends that still hang over everything as the credits roll. The reveals happen, but due to the sheer weight of the implications of each of them, there’s nothing to do but let them be for now, and come back in seven years to see everything get wrapped up.
I have a bunch of questions about where things are going, and the things that I do know about Guns of The Patriots only make me more confused. It’s like I’ve seen the entirety of that game’s final act, but with the sound muted. I know the who, I know the what, I know the situations and the scenes, but I have no idea of the motivations, the plans and what any of it is trying to say.
Which makes it all the more complicated to talk about the right now. Sons of Liberty exists in this place where it cannot stand alone, a game about both its predecessors and its follow ups, rather than a game that has any identity of its own. And that makes sense, given everything the game is about, but now that I’m sitting here ready to tie the bow on my time with it, I don’t quite what value the conclusions I end up drawing will have considering it’s just one part of a work so clearly in progress.
And that’s my general feeling on the ending: a kind of sedated confusion at the whole thing. I liked it, I certainly liked it, but it’s been swirling around my head ever since I’ve finished it, and I’m still trying to work out what the hell it even is. It’s an ending full of contradictions and unresolved conflicts (not just plot wise, but thematically too), designed to make you walk away in many ways, unsatisfied.
But that dissatisfaction is intentional, it does not come to this place by accident, it leaves you there and lets you sit and think about what just happened.
Anyway, that’s enough of me talking around specifics, those are my general impressions and feeling on the ending, but I’m not going to leave you without some more detailed reactions and analysis! *Deep Breath* Here we go!
Jack The Ripper
“He doesn’t exist”
–Revolver Ocelot on Raiden
YOU DON’T SAY, OCELOT. I felt, for just a moment, vindicated because it’s been so clear to me all along that Raiden doesn’t really exist.
And it turns out that’s totally true, but also totally not true. Sons of Liberty ends with a far more complex interrogation of the idea of the self, presenting Jack as a man of multiple identities and histories, a man for whom all truths of his past are equally real and equally a part of him, be they events that happened or fictions dreamed up by an A.I. program with the recesses of his brain.
The main reveal of Raiden’s character is his nature as a child soldier who fought for Solidus in the eighties, and not only was he a soldier, he was a deadly one. He killed more men than any others in his unit of child soldiers. Hence, Jack The Ripper. Like Snake, he is a child of war, but in completely opposite ways. He was not bred for war as Snake was, he grew up surrounded by it through tragic circumstance. He is a Son of Big Boss, but he is not Big Boss’ son.
In the Metal Gear games, DNA and genes take on a mythical importance that they don’t have in real life, containing the keys for your very way of being. It’s full of biological essentialism that I don’t subscribe to for a second, but it’s exaggerated in such a ridiculous anime way that I’ll go along with it because it uses those elements to make thematically interesting points. Raiden is defined by being something which he is not — he is not a soldier, but he is moulded into one. He is not Solid Snake, but he is moulded into him.
As a reveal, it also completely changes the audience perspective on Raiden as a character. Before, his incompetence, his distance, his attitude to killing, have all been linked to his reliance on VR. Raiden isn’t a real soldier, he doesn’t know the realities of combat, and until this point the game has positioned that as the fatal flaw in Raiden’s character, the key element of his incompatibility in the role of Solid Snake. But now, his reliance on VR, his references to killing as a ‘game,’ are presented as coping mechanisms. Solidus even raised him on 80s action movies, in order to better form him into a soldier. Distancing himself — from both the realities of war and the realities of everything else — is what allows Raiden to function.
Which is what makes him such a perfect fit for the S3 program: he doesn’t exist. He runs away from every element of himself that he doesn’t like, he runs away from his past, he runs away from his future, he is incapable of doing something else. He has no identity of his own because he defines himself in opposition to things and through a lack of personality.
But we’re slightly getting ahead of ourselves with that. Christ, this ending is too dense, why did I take on this writing series noooooooooooo…
Turn Off The Game Console
This is where everything starts to melt down, the moment when I start to realise the sheer level of what-the-fuck that I’m walking into. When Campbell starts yelling at me — not Raiden, me — to turn off the game console because the mission is a failure, everything begins to get extremely strange. It’s deeply unsettling, and for a moment I get scared to carry on. This technique is so usually the domain of horror games, because it makes you question reality in a very real way.
The artifice of a game, its UI, its controls, its framework, is taken as fundamental and unchanging. It is not a part of the game world, it is the permanent means of communication with the game world. If it is revealed as fallible, then every single piece of information that you’ve received along the way is tainted. It taps into a very base human fear, the fear that we may not (and in fact, definitely do not) know everything. The fear that we do not matter. The fear that this isn’t about me.
It’s an explosive and scary catharsis of the game’s metatextual themes up to this point, where the game’s casual and often playful contempt for the player turns into an active desire to taunt and torture the player, to make them question every assumption they have made along the way.
But this isn’t the ending, it’s only the setup for the ending, the unstable last gasp of a system about to lose all its power. Because the flipside is also true, when Raiden — when I — understand that the game can lie to me, then the balance of power shifts away from the game. The game — GW’s — bizarre fourth wall breaking acts are ones of desperation, last ditch attempts to hold up a façade that keeps them in control.
As a piece of meta commentary, it reminds me a striking amount of The Stanley Parable, specifically in its portrayal of conflict between artist and audience. If Sons of Liberty so far had focused its criticism on telling the player that this isn’t about them, it is here where the tables are turned, and the artist is forced to accept the same thing. GW fills the role of narrator, the artist with a story to tell, a story that now cannot be told because their audience refuses to listen. For a game that I’ve heard described as an ungrateful middle finger to its audience, it’s incredibly aware of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between an artist and their audience, and the responsibilities of honest engagement on both ends.
Importantly, the game continues past this point, and even though the power of the artifice is lost, and both artist and audience know the events to be revealed for a hollow show, the game must still reach its climax. Sons of Liberty is not about revealing the lies inherently built into videogames as a form, it is about navigating the relationship with your art. Becoming aware of the artifice of a game does not immediately tear it down; our connections with games are not built on pretending that they are reality.
It is through accepting their unreality of our art that we are only able to examine and engage with the art’s message on any substantial level, and it is through accepting the unreality of his mission that Raiden is able to understand what is really going on.
Solid Snake Simulation
And what is really going on? Well, first, a short series of encounters where you fight alongside Solid Snake, now clad in full sneaking suit gear (even though his soldier getup was far better) with his Infinite Ammo bandana. Because even though this game is a merciless commentary on the relationship between artist and audience, it’s still the most fanservice thing. And it’s an excellent moment, the climax of the game in terms of a sense of play, at least. It’s awkward and clunky — Sons Of Liberty is not designed for cathartic bursts of action — but the spirit of the moment is still able to come through.
After that, the real intense pile up begins, because once you fight the swarm of Metal Gear Rays, it’s a good fourty to fifty minutes of cutscene before the final boss fight can go down, and layers upon layers are peeled back. But I can break it down to the three most important ones, I think:
- Solidus reveals Arsenal Gear was never the real objective, and this entire operation has been to find the information hidden within G.W. — a list of names of The Patriots.
- Ocelot reveals himself as a member of (associate of? I don’t think he’s one of the twelve) The Patriots, rendering Solidus’ plan useless and framing the entire plot as the real Solid Snake Simulation, not Raiden’s VR training.
- Liquid Snake reveals himself from inside Ocelot’s consciousness, and takes over (permenantly?), and goes off in Metal Gear Ray to kill the Patriots.
All of this happens in what is essentially a single unbroken scene, save for the odd cut to archive-footage or live action, and there is no break between reveals to establish a new status quo. Each new truth is eliminated before it can be accepted, leaving you completely disorientated at the events unplaying before you. It’s key that Raiden spends this entire scene in handcuffs, silent, not a participant but a witness to events he cannot at this stage begin to understand.
The framing of the Big Shell incident as a deliberate in-universe recreation of Shadow Moses surprised me, because I expected that element to remain subtextual, but in hindsight I should have always expected such an explanation. The game’s meta elements have all consisted of revealing the artifice inherent in the form, and this is just a that idea writ large. Neither Raiden nor I are playing the game because we want to, the game (well, the artist) wants something from us. The Patriots want Raiden to make it to the end, and leave them with the data they need to perfect the S3 simulation and mass-produce a series of super soldiers.
As a reveal, it also shifts Sons of Liberty from a game about games to a game about sequels, specifically. All along it’s been commenting on the idea of sequels, the idea of fan entitlement and expectation, and what it means to come to art wanting something specific from it. But with this reveal, the balance shifts, and the game stops for ten minutes to point out how ludicrous the conceits we accept in continued narratives are. Did you really think that all these elements — Dead Cell, The Ninja, Solidus — were here because that’s just ‘how things are?’ Did you think the world arranged itself into a near-exact recreation of that last game you played by accident? Don’t be so conceited.
It’s especially great because of how inconsequential a reveal it ends up being (surprise: S3 doesn’t really stand for Solid Snake Simulation), because Sons of Liberty doesn’t want to just be a game about games, it’s a game about war, about the internet, about America, about identity and about life. It’s the middle of a series of moments that are meant to enforce to Raiden, and the player, how little control they truly have.
Invoking this persistent subversion of accepted conventions and form in game design definitely raises lots of conversation, but it’s not Sons of Liberty’s primary goal in the slightest. It’s a tool, a stepping stone of player empathy, putting you in the shoes of someone realising that the world they knew is not theirs. I almost feel bad for the weight I’ve put in these posts on the way Sons of Liberty toys with the player, because they’re nothing but the cherry on top. They are not the meat of the themes that Sons of Liberty is conveying, because they are not the meat of the themes that Metal Gear has ever been conveying. They’re just, and always have been, the cherry on top.
I love the triple reveal of Solidus’ objective, Liquid’s objective, and finally Snake’s objective (the last reveal in the game, when Snake stands with you on a New York street as the people simply pass you by): they all have identical goals. So much of Snake’s characterisation in Sons of Liberty — from the Tanker incident to the discussion about terrorism — has been placing him as not that different from his brothers, the supposed villains of this series. And not in a rug pulling, we’re not so different you and I sense, but in a sense that is intended to make the audience question what heroism means, especially in the context of war.
Snake says to Raiden: “Murder is never good, no matter what,” and yet just like his fellow Sons of Big Boss, he is using deadly means to advance a cause for which he believes is right. Why is it that we believe Snake a hero, and Solidus a villain? Is it because we play as Snake, and we take the journey with him? Well, says Sons of Liberty, let’s think about that, let’s take Snake away from you, and play a completely different character taking a near identical journey. Let’s view Snake from the outside and attempt to reconcile all the facts about him that we know.
All of these characters are fighting for a world where the Patriots are no longer in control. Solidus doesn’t even want Arsenal gear, he has no use for a giant killing machine, for there are only twelve lives that he truly cares about.
It’s an amazingly nuanced portrayal of the nature of villainy, heroism, and structural violence. The game is clear that nothing a single villain could ever do compares to the violent and perpetual control that The Patriots have. And it’s clear that nothing a single hero could ever do compares to the possibility of people working together for a common goal.
But in a world where we’re Raiden, where these wars are fought on mythic planes, where these systems cannot be broken, what does any of this mean for us?
The Patriots, And Their America
And so we come to the true ending of Sons of Liberty, where focus shifts from the grand epic of Snake’s war with the Patriots, to a more intimate conclusion, Raiden v Solidus Snake. Wait, sorry, that’s not what I mean at all, I mean Raiden v America.
After Arsenal Gear crashes into New York City, you receive a call from the Colonel, which shouldn’t be possible, because GW has been destroyed. It’s at this point that the game’s most amazing reveal of subtext becoming text happens, in my opinion: you’re talking to the very concept of America, which over time has formed its own consciousness. It’s a moment given no explanation — it happened because it happened, what more do you want? — and I assume it’s one of the big sticking points for those poor misguided folk who thought Metal Gear was a grounded military franchise.
But I love it, and they form the perfect villain for this final act. The Patriots are American Hypocrisy made literal, ensuring the continuation of a culture that prides itself on freedom by exerting more and more control. And when they finally get their chance to explain their motivation, they do so surprisingly effectively, to the point where it actually shook me a little in my previously steadfast interpretation of Sons of Liberty’s morality.
Their motivation centres on a key — and prescient — criticism of a culture that evolves digitally. The permanence of digital information means the amount of truth In the world is multiplying rapidly, and it will never go away. In their worst case scenario, everyone will fall into small subcultures, each with their own unchanging truths, and culture will begin to stagnate. One only needs to take a cursory glance at the way communities form on twitter for evidence of this idea, a site that wasn’t close to existing when Sons of Liberty was released.
Raiden, and my main response to that is obvious: what gives The Patriots the right to decide which information is worthy of permanence? There are boundless cultural problems that come with changing our methods of information storage and communication, but culture will adapt because it always does. Losing the old method of cultural growth is not necessarily a bad thing, and (in my eyes, at least), technology that allows greater possibilities of communication is always a good thing. That’s the Star Trek optimism in me talking.
And the Patriots respond with a damning indictment of Raiden’s character, of his selfishness, of the individualism of him and his fellow Americans. The lies of a meritocracy, the evil of feeding children the idea that hard work will bring them their dream when such an idea is so clearly false and preposterous. How can a person so selfish as that be allowed to decide anything for themselves?
It happened almost without me noticing in this conversation, but this is the most adept and fascinating ideological query of the game. I’ve said in these posts before how Sons of Liberty is a rejection of individualism and a proponent of collectivism, all the arcs in the game revolve around people finding something greater than themselves to fight towards. And whilst I believe it still totally is that, suddenly it frames the protagonist as a representation of individualism, and its villain as a representation of collectivism. The Patriots are people fighting for something bigger than themselves, and are willing to sacrifice the autonomy of others to achieve it — how is that fundamentally different from what Snake is fighting for?
All these ideological questions are being thrown at me, and I’m running over the morality of all my stances in my head considering the new information ahead of me, when it’s time to fight the final boss. Sons of Liberty interrupts this moment of culmination, this peak of uncertainty in an ending defined by increasingly worldview shattering reveals, to force you to fight a pointless final Boss Fight, all because The Patriots want you to.
Ultimately, no matter how much Raiden wants to defy them, in the system and situation he has been placed in, he has no other choice but to kill Solidus. He can reject the ideas of The Patriots, but he cannot find an alternative, or a way out of their control.
The Moral Of The Story
Which is where that question comes in again: what does that mean for us?
Sons of Liberty ends not with the resolution of any question, but the deliberate unresolution of every single plot-thread, and for good reason. After everything falls into such disarray, Sons of Liberty ends in a surprisingly serene place. The Patriots are still at large, Liquid/Ocelot is unaccounted for, Raiden might not even exist, but people still have to go to work on time. Life goes on.
And that this is the form of Sons of Liberty’s true catharsis warms my heart, it might be my favourite thing about the game. All the uncertainty of the cutscenes that precede it instantly make sense in this one moment of calm. It’s not a game that even wanted to debate whether one ideology was greater than the other, it’s not a game that wanted to debate whether the artist had more control over the meaning of the text than the author, it’s not a game that wanted to debate… anything. Because in the end, after all this time, in one moment: Sons of Liberty is about you.
It’s spent so long shitting on you, holding you in contempt, asking you to consider your own worth in both artistic and societal terms, and even questioned the agency you have in your own actions. But now it’s over, and nothing that the game has done has taken away your power, your strength and your ability to just be you.
The conclusion isn’t defeating The Patriots, it’s accepting them and rejecting them all at once, and doing what you can. Sons of Liberty’s ending is incredibly powerful to me, because it is an ending that doesn’t give structural inequality a face in The Patriots in order to defeat it in an act of wish fulfilment. Instead, its parting message is far more real, and is one of the importance of holding onto your humanity and living the best life you can in an unfair world you can’t control. It’s ultimately an ending of the power of information; realising the truth about The Patriots control can’t change the world, but knowledge of their existence is power over them in and of itself.
And that’s what proves The Patriots wrong. Their greatest fear is that too much information would lead not to just their demise, but the demise of human culture and society as we know it. But Sons of Liberty has so much more faith in humanity than that. It says that ignorance is neverbetter than knowledge, no matter how much easier it may seem. It says that the possibilities of digital information far outweigh any cultural difficulties we’ll have to confront. It says that Raiden may never be able to know what is and isn’t real in his past, but now that he knows the truth of things, he can choose the future that he believes in.
Raiden cannot defeat the Patriots, nor can he defy them. But with what he’s learned, he can deny them, and if others can too, then The Patriots will lose their power. Without a public that buys into their myths, they’ll just be twelve dead men with ideas rejected and thrown away by a culture that has outgrown them.
And that’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. What a fantastic game.
I didn’t expect it to be so intimate, in the end. It felt both larger and smaller than The Twin Snakes, a story that aimed so much higher and wider in what it was about, but wanted to connect on a far more personal level. In the day since finishing and writing this piece, the ending has gone from “huh” to “one of my favourite moments in a videogame ever” just by letting it sit with me for a while. I love this series.
Next time, we’re going to begin Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the game I know the least about, so the next few posts will be all about shock and discovery, and my posts with 4 will be all about the divide between my expectation and reality. I can’t possibly imagine I’ll write a post this long again! This is only for very special occasions, I like the broken-up serialised nature of them. But hey, the ending of Sons of Liberty is incredibly dense — I barely touched on half of the damn thing and I’ve almost written 4,500 words.