You Are Big Boss: Antagonism and Antagonists in the Metal Gear Universe
Like war, games are by nature centrally about conflict. The player has chosen to antagonize himself or herself for the sake of feeling the pleasure of conquering the game, which makes you not Snake, but Big Boss.
After completing Metal Gear Solid V, I went hunting for some explanation of why the second half of the game appeared to be so chock-a-block and unfinished and why the game features so many endings. While figuring that out, I got the impression (though I could be wrong, I didn't read deeply enough to see if that was universally the case) that a number of players were not that happy with the “Truth” ending of the game.
Bizarre and outlandish as that ending is, it seemed to me personally to be the perfect ending to Hideo Kojima's work on this series of games, as it does bring his epic series full circle, connecting this final game he will work on to the very first game that he created in the series from the perspective of the full arc of his storylines, but more importantly to me, it is thematically consistent with Kojima's universe.
Kojima's Metal Gear Solid in addition to being a game about the nature of Cold War politics and modern warfare has always been obsessed with turning its perspective back on the player of the game. Through meta-theatricality, Kojima has very regularly turned a mirror back on the player, reminding that player that he or she is a part of the conflict in his games simply by holding the controller.
For me, the most obvious and explicit example of this idea comes in the first Playstation iteration of the game, Metal Gear Solid, during Solid Snake's battle with Psycho Mantis. Infamously, this battle is impossible to initially win, as Mantis is able to dodge all of Snake's attacks against him. The conceit of this sequence is that Psycho Mantis, a highly developed psychic, can read Snake's mind, and, thus, he is always able to foresee Snake's next attack.
After losing this battle several times, the game hints rather explicitly at a solution to this battle. The player (not Snake) is having his or her controller inputs read by Psycho Mantis (a metaphor of sorts for “reading” Snake's mind), thus, what one needs to do to win this fight is to unplug one's Playstation controller from port 1 of the console and plug it into port 2, then the battle can be won.
Such blurring of the boundary between the player's universe and the game's universe occurs once again in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty near that game's ending when the player's in game avatar, Raiden, suddenly dies for no clear reason and the game kicks the player into a familiar Game Over screen, a screen where you usually watch through a smaller window your character's death. However, the player, who is likely confused as to why Raiden just died -- after all, he may have been at full health -- will soon realize that Raiden is still actually quite alive and playable in that small window. The game and its digital antagonist are messing with not only Raiden's but the player's head.
In both sequences, the player is reminded that two worlds exist and coincide when playing Metal Gear Solid, the real world and the fictional universe of Metal Gear Solid. Not only are Snake and Raiden being antagonized by their fictional opponents, but, Kojima seems to want to remind the player, the game itself is antagonizing you, the player. After all, games (like war) are by nature centrally about conflict. The player has chosen to antagonize himself or herself for the sake of the “fun” of playing a game and feeling the pleasure of conquering it. Being antagonized, once again Kojima seems to remind us, is fun because we like the idea of taking the chance of losing for the sake of believing that we can eventually resolve a conflict, win the game, win the war.
Another tendency on Kojima's part (and, perhaps, this is an extension of his tendency to antagonize the player directly or to remind the player that he or she is being antagonized by the game, just as the game's protagonist is being antagonized by his enemies) is to play around a great deal with his audience's sense of who exactly the protagonist (and antagonist, in some cases) actually is in his games.
Once again, infamously Kojima antagonized players when he pulled a switcheroo on them in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. He had teased the game before its release with video of Solid Snake infiltrating a ship. Thus, players assumed that they would once again be taking on the role of Solid Snake in the Playstation version of Metal Gear Solid 2. Which was true, for about an hour or so of the game. After infiltrating that ship as Snake, players of Metal Gear Solid 2 then found themselves pressed into service as the game's “real” protagonist, Raiden.
Metal Gear Solid 3 would follow on the heels of Metal Gear Solid 2 with once again teasers that showed a character that looks like Solid Snake going on sneaking missions. That protagonist ultimately turned out to be what was assumed to be the first Nintendo game version of Metal Gear Solid's main antagonist and final boss, Big Boss, in this sequel set decades before any of the games in the series.
Since then, players have played as Solid Snake once again in Metal Gear Solid 4 and now seemingly as Big Boss once again in Metal Gear Solid V.
If it seems strange to shift the players sympathies between the series's major “hero” and the series's main villain throughout the history of the series, one should remember that Metal Gear Solid isn't set in a universe that is morally quite so starkly black and white as we might like. This is a universe that seems primarily concerned with war, and in war, it usually isn't so easy to attribute blanket moral values to one side or the other. There aren't really “good guys” and “bad guys” in war. There are people in conflict, sides with competing agendas, antagonizing one another because those agendas differ, grounded as they are on the moral authority of the goals or needs of nations.
And soldiers, well, soldiers aren't supposed to necessarily think about these things. They follow orders. They execute missions, as a player might in a video game, receiving their objectives from an external authority.
All of which returns us to the “truth” revealed in one of Metal Gear Solid V's endings, the “truth” that the player has not been playing as Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid V, but, instead, as, well, themselves. When the player character learns that Big Boss has left to build the “real” Outer Heaven and that the character that the player has believed was Big Boss is really a character that the player themselves designed during the introduction of the game, the player also discovers that he or she is the very first Big Boss encountered in a Metal Gear Solid game -- that is, the first release of Metal Gear way back in 1987 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Note that the phantom "Big Boss" is looking into a mirror when he (and we) discover this about himself. Also note that the whole "Truth" sequence is played from the first person perspective, unlike any other sequence in the game, which is in third person. Kojima seems to want us to understand that "we" are looking into that mirror right now.
So, if the game is telling us, the players, the “truth” when it says that “you're Big Boss” in this moment, then we have also been the perceived antagonist of the series all along. After all, aren't all the played conflicts of the Metal Gear series very literally initiated by us, the players, who desire the pleasure of the antagonism that games provide us?
We buy the game, we load the game up, and we play it. We are the source of conflict in the Metal Gear universe, a fictional universe, of course, but one that springs into being only when we decide that we want to participate in conflict, good little gaming soldiers that we are.
So, yes, Kojima has ended the series with yet another absurd and outlandish plot twist, but one that emphasizes one of his own chief conceits in the series, the reminder that we are complicit in this virtual war that has been going on since 1987. We buy the game, we load up the game, and we play it because we are the real antagonist of the Metal Gear series, the architect of war. We are Big Boss.