Games | PlayStation 2 | Metal Gear Solid 2

Article by Jeremy Parish? | September 28, 2010

Metal Gear Solid 2

Developer: Kojima Productions
U.S. Release: October 21, 2001
Format: PS2

There is nothing the American media consumer hates quite so much as cleverness.

Wait, wait, come back. This isn’t some elitist screed against the stupidity of the common man; I’m certainly in no position to judge. Sure, I consider plenty of things unacceptably awful, but it’s not like I spend my evenings sipping brandy as I ruminate over the works of Chaucer or Tennyson. I’ve never hosted a Bloomsday party, and once I finished my art history course works I vowed never to spend another minute contemplating the underlying metaphors in the works of pretentious 20th-century art. In other words, I’m no better than you. Unless you actually enjoy Two and a Half Men, that is, in which case I’m obligated to pretend we’re not part of the same species.

The sad fact is that we’re not exactly a nation of geniuses; our only saving grace is that this is a trait we have in common with the rest of the world. We can sneer all we like about the perceived stereotypical flaws of other races and peoples, and they can have a laugh at us idiot Americans, but we’re all united by the fact that, on the whole, we’re collectively dull and intellectually lazy to boot. We like to think we’re pretty bright, though, and that’s where media comes into play. It lies to us, coddles us, makes us feel like our minds are sharp after all. I mean, like, I totally figured out what those “flashes sideways” in Lost were way before the show explained them. Clearly that means I’m an undiscovered genius rather than, you know, simply indicating that the show merely employed a common sci-fi trope that the producers telegraphed for weeks in advance.

The thing about cleverness is that it shatters our illusions. It makes us feel stupid. And we hate that. We like to nestle snugly in our reassuring cocoon of self-delusion, satisfied that our ability to follow the plot of a Dan Brown book and appreciate the deep environmental messages of Avatar is a sign that our literature professors had it all wrong. We’re street smart, man, just not book smart.

Then someone goes and gets all clever on us and that comfortable halo of pseudo-intellectual self-confidence is shattered. The solution is obvious, of course: Kill the messenger.

This is as good an explanation as any for the fact that Metal Gear Solid 2 is the single most deeply reviled thing Hideo Kojima will ever direct. PlayStation’s Metal Gear Solid was where Kojima perfected his craft, and for his follow-up he decided that rather than trying to surpass his masterpiece he’d deconstruct it instead, dragging his audience along for a deliriously self-aware ride through the metatextual underpinnings of the Metal Gear formula. It was bold, it was ambitious, it was unexpected... and it was also, tragically, incredibly clever.

Certainly MGS2 has no shortage of genuine flaws to point at, but none that -- either individually or collectively -- add up to the kind of revulsion with which the game is regarded. Furthermore, quite a few of the game’s failings appear to have been incorporated by deliberate design, as they bear a direct relation to its overarching themes and conceits.

Of course, that just makes people resent its cleverness all the more. That Kojima, he thinks he’s so smart... but how do we know that he really intended for the game to be a carbon copy of its predecessor, huh? Maybe the best he could come up with was just a hackneyed rehash, and that whole post-modern gimmick is just something he shoehorned in later to justify his lack of originality. Yeah, that’s right, genius-boy: We see right through your shenanigans.

For all its failings, though, MGS2 really is something of a masterpiece. A work of art, even, though of course you’re welcome to substitute some other word in there if you’re the sort to fume angrily if someone dares to come down on the positive side of the ledger when Roger Ebert decides to go for a traffic spike with his periodic “can games be Art?” trolling. But, you know, the thing about art is that while you may appreciate it on an intellectual level, you may not actually enjoy it. Just because you recognize the genius of Duchamp or Warhol doesn’t necessarily mean you want a vandalized urinal or a garishly-colored silkscreen of a soup can on your living room wall. Likewise, you can respect Kojima’s intent and achievements with MGS2, but that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy playing the game. It’s brilliant, but it’s not always terribly fun. [1]

So here’s the problem with MGS2 as a game: It feels like an uneven rehash of the original Metal Gear Solid. Past the self-contained introductory sequence, the entire game is carefully patterned after its predecessor. You battle bosses who echo Fox Hound’s techniques, you meet up with a cyber ninja working under the pseudonym “Deep Throat,” you engage in a sniper duel, launch rockets at one of Snake’s siblings as he harasses you from an aircraft, and listen to the villains monologue about their unbearable cleverness as you’re double -- er, triple -- well, OK, septuple-crossed.

What makes this worse is that Metal Gear Solid itself was little more than a 3D overhaul of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake; most of its plot twists and combat scenarios had been done years before on the MSX2. That makes MGS2 a casserole twice warmed-over -- not exactly the first thing you’d reach for in the fridge when fresher options are available.

Sadly, the game’s most impressive achievement -- the extraordinary graphical prowess and environmental detail that sold a million or more PlayStation 2 systems -- means practically nothing a decade later. In any case, the game’s most stunning visuals and features were crammed into the opening chapter of the game to wow the rubes. Once you clear that first battle with Olga -- not coincidentally where the demo ended -- the formerly rich attention to detail thins out considerably and you spend more of your time in sterile, repetitive, boxlike corridors. And then there’s the whole Raiden fake-out, which saw fan-favorite Solid Snake replaced as a playable character by a bland, girlish greenhorn. Even then, Raiden wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the fact that he was a spineless child, browbeaten by his treacherous harridan of a girlfriend at every turn; no doubt he would have been a lot easier for most gamers to swallow if his starring role didn’t mean that Rose would call them up every few minutes to nag at them about the most idiotic trivia imaginable. [2]

But again, all of those flaws were, by most accounts, deliberate design decisions. Kojima made his sophomore follow-up blockbuster kind of sucky intentionally. You may question the wisdom of using a multi-million-dollar tentpole release upon which the fortunes of both a publisher (Konami) and a new hardware platform (PlayStation 2) depended as an opportunity to get all experimental and metaphorical, and you’d be right to do so. All anyone really wanted really wanted from MGS2 was a fun stealth action game whose visual fidelity and game mechanics would make them feel like they’d made a good decision in dropping $300 on a PS2; what they got was a self-parody, a metatextual discourse on the nature of digital information, and one of the most stupidly convoluted plots ever seen in any medium.

Still, what a discourse. MGS2’s message extended well beyond the bounds of the game itself and into its promotion and marketing, a part of the game at once essential to its success and yet utterly ephemeral. The fact that Snake was replaced for most of the game by a sulky protege of sorts was carefully obscured before launch, and not simply through judicious vetting of which game footage could be shown in trailers; Konami actually lied by rendering and recording Snake’s model in scenarios which were played out in-game as Raiden. Those who remembered those promo trailers and found themselves baffled by the switch undoubtedly gritted their teeth in irritation when they reached Arsenal Gear and the virtual Colonel called them up to ramble on about the unreliable nature of digital media. Well, no; everyone gritted their teeth in irritation at that point. For those who remembered and wondered about the game’s inconsistency with its trailers, however, that annoyance went deeper than mere pique at being forced to sit through someone else’s mass comm senior thesis; they correctly recognized the Colonel’s dialogue as a taunt, as Kojima jeering, “Gotcha, suckers.”

The simplest explanation of MGS2’s unexpected design philosophy turns the whole thing into a didactic metaphor in which Raiden -- ostensibly an inexperienced soldier whose training had consisted entirely of electronic simulations, aka videogames -- was a stand-in for the player; Snake, the illusive sense of heroism that players seek in a game; the Colonel, Kojima himself. By that measure, the hatred directed toward Raiden would seem to represent a startling amount of self-loathing within the gaming community... although it must be said the game does tilt the deck somewhat with Rose, whose emotionally retarded relationship with Raiden overplays the notion that gamers are socially stunted idiots by painting them as losers who are so desperate to have someone in their lives that they’ll just settle for anyone, however shrill. [3]

The Raiden-as-player-avatar interpretation almost works, too, until it’s badly derailed in the 11th hour by Kojima’s overeager lack of restraint. Rather than follow through with the premise that Raiden is a pretend soldier, a true Solid Snake Simulation, the director just couldn’t resist the urge to pile on the stupidly incestuous soap opera elements. It wasn’t enough for Raiden to be molded by unknown forces into a mass-produced version of Snake; no, he also had to be the son of Snake’s secret clone brother, who adopted Raiden as a war orphan. Worse, “adopt” is used here to mean “turned into a soulless child soldier,” meaning Raiden’s no greenhorn, but rather a ruthless killer. (So much for the character/player parallels.) And that doesn’t even get into the nonsense around the Selection for Society Sanity and the Patriots and the talking hand and, oh yeah, there’s also this thing called Metal Gear!?

All of this accounts for why MGS2 is merely something of a masterpiece rather than an unqualified success. It’s a game bursting with fresh ideas, both narrative and mechanical, but it keeps tripping over its own feet and fumbling on both fronts. The original MGS worked because, despite its frequent contrivances and self-indulgence, the whole package fit together in a sleek unison. The game’s passive and interactive features felt like a unified whole, complementing one another in a way that made the overall work far more than the sum of its individual pieces. The story gave players a reason to sneak around a frigid military base, and the challenges and thrills of that mission gave them a greater investment in the story being relayed between action sequences.

MGS2 never reaches that level of integration. It mechanical innovations are interesting, but the plot forces them to play out in suffocating, repetitive environments. Its critical and conceptual subtext have a lot to say about gaming and digital media in general, much of which has proven to be highly prophetic... but it’s delivered with graceless excess, and it’s simultaneously undermined by the larger saga while in turn undermining the otherwise excellent gameplay. MSG2’s greatest crime is that it’s much less than the sum of its parts. Any of its components, viewed individually, look like a close-up of a true masterpiece. But in the larger perspective, MGS2 is a mess.

It speaks to the underlying excellence of the core Metal Gear concept that MGS2 didn’t utterly destroy the franchise [4]. You can easily point to specific moments of MGS2 as real jump-the-shark scenarios, like the fat guy on rollerskates or the demolitions tech who cries about how he’s only pretending to be terribly crippled or the incomprehensible jumble of mixed-up motives and man-behind-the-man reveals atop the hull of Arsenal Gear. Yet the fact is that these are simply byproducts of the game’s bigger issues, and demonizing them is to fail to appreciate the full scope of all that MGS2 does wrong, as well as what it does right.

MGS2 is hardly a game without merits, but they’re best appreciated in the proper context. Taken alone, this game is a disaster. As a hesitant, experimental step forward in the series’ evolution -- and indeed, the medium’s evolution as well -- it’s important and at times downright intriguing. But you’ll enjoy it much more if you pad it on either side with its predecessor and sequel to help soften your sense of bewilderment at being confronted with something so damnably clever.

[1] By this measure, the fact that you hate playing MGS2 is probably one of the strongest arguments that videogames can be art -- capital A and all that -- but we can leave that debate to the comments field of the Chicago Sun-Times website.

[2] Do I know what day it is tomorrow, Rose? No, but I’m really hoping it’s the day you shut the hell up.

[3] The fact that Rose is allegedly patterned after Kojima’s wife adds even an weirder subtext to the whole situation, and frankly I’m just gonna leave that one alone.

[4] And, as well, to just how much its sequel put right... only to have it all knocked down again by its own sequel, which is a different article altogether.

Previous: Super Mario Bros. | GameSpite Quarterly 5 | Next: Section Two: The Fun Club