Is Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as brilliant as the last Metal Gear? No. Nevertheless, is it brilliant? Absolutely.
Its brilliance is related to Kojima’s efforts on previous games. Like those games, Snake Eater succeeds in yet again raising the bar in terms of what video games can be and what video game storytelling should be. It is brilliantly innovative in both gameplay and narrative and how it weds the two in a manner unique to the medium. Its story (a tremendously progressive one, but I will return to that point) is one that can only be told in an interactive medium. Like the aforementioned MGS 2, Snake Eater revels in the game as the plot, allowing its themes to play themselves out as play. But, before I get into the brilliance of Kojima’s narrative and metanarrative, let me briefly suggest why—while I like the game a lot—nevertheless, it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.
Metal Gear Solid 3
US: Jul 2007
I was a little worried when I initially began playing the game. Traditionally, the MGS series are slow starters. They usually take off around the first boss battle, as Kojima introduces us to his often bizarre rogue’s gallery of ambiguously natural and perhaps supernatural soldiers and to his fascinating and innovative ways of fighting his unusual creations.
Snake Eater begins exceptionally slowly, though. Its initial stealth elements, while familiar to fans, are more difficult and a bit more tedious than previous iterations of the game. The low-tech feel of the game, depending less on radar equipment to choose the right hiding and more on more fundamental stealth techniques like camouflage and patience, matches the retro qualities of the narrative’s setting—a just post-Cuban Missile Crisis Russian wilderness, but is also tedious in the extreme.
Snake Eater is a prequel to all of the prior Metal Gear games (including not only the most recent PlayStation games but also the Nintendo and MSX games). While it is seemingly appropriate that Snake (not the Solid Snake of most of the previous games, but a “Snake” nonetheless) in the Cold War era does not have all of the technological bells and whistles of Solid Snake’s later missions, the tedium of the low-tech stealth and the simple truth that avoiding stealth and blasting your way through the initial sequences is much easier and reasonable leaves at least this fan of the earlier games a little cold. Likewise, early boss battles—usually the highlight of Kojima’s games—are somewhat dull and conventional.
The only thing that kept me playing through the first five hours was some fairly intriguing cut scenes. As mentioned, this game is a prequel to the prior MGS games, and it stars a character codenamed Snake but not the character codenamed Solid Snake of the previous games. Kojima has done successfully here what George Lucas has been failing to do with his Star Wars prequels, telling the story of the bad guy and how that man’s history relates to the man who will become the heroic Solid Snake of the later and now classic series.
In Snake Eater, you play Big Boss, the main nemesis of Solid Snake in the first Nintendo MGS (in which Big Boss is killed) as well as the ostensible “father” of Solid Snake himself (in previous games, it is suggested that Solid Snake shares the genetic code of Big Boss—a kind of super soldier pedigree) and the “father” of many of the problems and enemies that Solid Snake will face in those later adventures (again, through genetic cloning and also through the passing on of his ideals of what a soldier is and what warfare and politics mean in the modern era to Solid Snake’s eventual enemies, like Big Boss’s other cloned “son” Liquid Snake or his philosophical heir Revolver Ocelot).
If all of this sounds confusing, that is because, well, it is. Kojima’s plots are as complicated as the politics of any Tom Clancy novel and its themes as complicated as any postmodern novel’s. Unsurprisingly, given all of the complicated heredity questions of the prior games and the game’s status as a prequel, the theme of Snake Eater rounds out the complicated father-son issues of the previous titles with a new and rather unusual theme: the story of a mother and a son.
If Big Boss is the “father” of Solid and his opponent Liquid and the wars and encounters Solid has had to deal with since he first tiptoed through and toppled Big Boss’s utopian vision of an “Outer Heaven” (check out the prior link for details on the Oedipal plot of the first MGS), this conflict is rooted even deeper in the “mother” of Big Boss himself—the Boss.
For me personally—a guy with Irish Catholic roots—the matriarchal qualities of the Boss (and the appropriateness of a mother figure being called simply “the Boss”) makes a great deal of sense. But, as a professor of literature and student of narratives both ancient and modern, I was surprised to see Kojima tell this story. Father-son stories are a dime a dozen in western and world literature (hence, the ease with which I can tag the previous games with an archetypal tag like the story of Oedipus), but I am unaccustomed to seeing stories about men and women that are anything but romantic and sexual dramas in most literature and film. Freud’s Oedipal theory is sound in that human culture seems to see stories of men and men being the stories of conflict, development, and conquest. Stories of men and women are full of conflict but eventual communion. Their are few stories of the mentorship of men by women or the conflict that arises between them due to who gets to ultimately be the “boss” in the developmental sense.
As she is introduced to us in the first few hours of Snake Eater, the Boss is a powerful woman—clearly feminine and clearly in control. Her appearance reminds me of Linda Hamilton‘s buffed warrior mother in Terminator 2—self assured, physically powerful, and ready to do anything to protect her son. Boss is not literally Snake’s mother, but she has trained him as a soldier and, thus, as a “man”. Snake’s mission in the nearly overtly Oedipally-titled Snake Eater is to kill this mentor, who has defected to the “other” side. Boss’s mission and goals are stereotypically “feminine” in that they are unclear, mysterious.
Boss is also feminine in that she has “mothered” more than just Snake but a team of soldiers known as the Cobras (the “snakes” that Snake must “eat” in his quest to finally displace not this feminine Oedipus Rex). The Boss is also the prequel to the conflict and war of the future. These (as Kojima refers to them) “Sons of the Boss” are not merely soldiers but iconic of what war produces—their code names are The Pain, The Sorrow, The Fury, and The End.
She is the mentor of soldiers. She is the mother of war.
It is as this theme unfolds and the products of the Boss must be faced that the game catches up with the narrative. In particular, the battle with The End marks the beginning of Snake Eater‘s brilliance as a game. The tedious gameplay of the initial sneaking missions coalesces into a grueling sniper duel between yourself (Snake) and the aging sharp shooter The End. This battle, like many of Kojima’s ingenuous boss battles in the series, is unlike anything that you have experienced in a game before. Camouflage, patience, and tracking are required to hunt and defeat this foe. The battle may take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours (seriously), and it is a fascinating exercise for the player playing the soldier in a war framed by a game.
This is Kojima’s genius, connecting the player’s experience of the game with the game’s themes. Kojima is well aware of the similar strategizing of gaming and warfare and he makes you aware of it as well. He often reminds you that you are playing a game through characters who tell Snake how to save his game and what buttons to press and wraps that metafictionality around the narrative by allowing you to “play” soldier, following such “orders” but also “playing” the game your way.
Unlike so many other developers in the industry, Kojima is unabashed about telling a linear story. Everyone wants games to offer the “freedom” and “emergent gameplay” of the Grand Theft Auto series and consistently refer to games as a sandbox where your imagination determines your goals. Kojima is also here to create a place for players to play, but, he is also here to tell a story. Thus, he has written a game—one with rules that allow you to improvise (stealth it or go in with guns blazing or some combination of the two) and one that also has the predefined goals of any soldier—completing the mission.
Kojima, then, is building an experience of a world akin to the world of his characters. If war is a game, then a player is a soldier. He has orders, a mission, a destiny, and only some ability to determine how he will achieve those ends.
Thus our experience of the plot becomes more profoundly personal and at the same time impersonal. We have choices but our situation, our environment, our mission determines us. It is our war done the Boss’s way.
But, Kojima has already played (or I suppose Kojima has allowed us to play) this theme out in the complex ideas of the training of real soldiers through the virtual simulation of war in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Instead, Snake Eater‘s terminus is found in its final conflict between mother and son, mentor and student, boss and servant, and begins asking some more interesting questions about the relationship between playing and being played through its feminization of the “bosses” that determine our destiny.
Snake Eater‘s final battle occurs in a field of white flowers against a mother blamed for producing warriors but with every intention of saving the world while taking no credit for it herself (sound familiar to all you mother’s out there?) who blends invisibly into that startlingly beautiful battleground in her white camouflaged armor against a son whose destiny we already know (from the earlier games) that will eclipse her power as the Big Boss. Before beginning this final duel of hide and seek, Boss unzips her armored top, revealing her biological “female-ness” through her exposed breasts and her biological “mother-ness” through a long jagged scar, evidence of a battlefield C-section when she had to give up a child and seemingly with it her “female-ness” and “mother-ness” to be a soldier.
In order to become a symbolic and iconic Boss and to produce “Sons of the Boss”, she has had to give up her identity as a woman, her authority as a mother. As she reveals herself to Snake, knowing that it is his destiny to kill and replace her, she explains that now she must give up her life for him. The Boss has been playing a game for years, simulating motherhood and producing good children, good soldiers. The game ends as her game ends with the reality that a mother’s authority is predicated upon her willingness to give herself up for her children.