The Coming of Age in Metal Gear Solid IV

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Ian here—

The level “Twin Suns” in Metal Gear Solid IV (Kojima Productions, 2008) ranks as one of my favorite videogame levels of all time. Smack dab in the middle of a game with more than its share of problems—the usual problems of unconscionably long cut-scenes and unconscionably short periods of genuine interactivity, plus new problems such as an inexplicably drab grey-green color scheme—comes something so conceptually audacious that I’m simply floored.

“Twin Suns” takes two of Metal Gear Solid IV‘s central themes, aging and the fear of obsolescence, and distills them into their most undiluted form. In Metal Gear Solid IV, series protagonist Solid Snake is old. (In fact, he’s so old that he’s given a new moniker, Old Snake.) This is used to greater or lesser effect throughout the entire game, but it really comes to the fore in “Liquid Sun,” which sees Snake returning to Shadow Moses, the location he infiltrated in Metal Gear Solid, a game released a decade prior. Given that series creator Hideo Kojima is well-known for using each sequel as a means of interogating the game industry’s lust for sequels, it should come as no surprise that this re-visit is in part a mediation on the way the franchise has aged. What is surprising is that this predictably modernist streak is shot through with something that approaches genuine pathos, and a fairly sincere investigation of what it means for an action hero to age.

(The title of my post pays homage to Simone de Beauvoir’s La Vieillesse, from which I’ll be quoting from sporadically. Although the Patrick O’Brian English translation I’ll be quoting from is actually titled Old Age, I much prefer the English language rendition The Coming of Age.)

* * *

A man whose project is to get on, to advance, takes off from his past; he defines his former I as the I that he is no longer and he dissociates himself from it. For some for-itselfs, on the contrary, their project implies the refusal of time and an intimate solidarity with the past. This applies to most old people: they refuse time because they do not wish to decline.[i]

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“Twin Suns” begins, quite unexpectedly, with an emulated version of the original PlayStation-era Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998). The graphics, the music, the controls: everything is preserved. Players are given no objectives, but those with a keen memory of the original will know exactly where to go and what to do, without guidance.

And then, after a few minutes (or a few tries, if the player dies during the emulated game), Old Snake wakes up, his face momentarily taking the shape of its 1998-era low-polygon model, before he gasps to full alertness. Avatars, it seems, dream of low-poly sheep.

Theres’ an easy joke here: Snake’s nightmare is to be reverted to his 1998-era self, before 2008-era PlayStation 3 technology put a more dapper suit of polygons on him. And sure, it’s worth a chuckle, but there’s something else going on here, as well. When Snake murmurs, “I was having that dream again,” the game comes closest to stating outright what has been implied throughout the game: Snake suffers from PTSD. He is an old soldier, suffering not only from a broken body, but also untreated psychological illness. For us, the players, this return to Shadow Moses is a fun lark, a reminder of afternoons well-spent in years past. Snake’s perspective, though, is different. For Snake, this is not a nostalgic romp, but a facing of demons.

Also layered in here are Kojima’s thoughts on the series he has authored. The switch to 1998-era graphics might seem deliberately engineered as a sort of “look how far we’ve come!” moment, but our actual controlling of Snake in these few moments of emulation tells a different story. Yes, changes have gradually been made to the series’ control scheme over the years. But beneath the seventh-generation polish, one can still detect the bones of a 1998 game. Metal Gear Solid IV‘s control scheme remains somewhat lugubrious. It spreads a few too many options over a few too many buttons. Its animations are fussy. The Metal Gear Solid franchise, for all of its strengths, is perhaps too set in its ways.

“Habit is the past in so far as we do not re-present it but live it in the shape of attitudes and forms of behaviour,” writes Beauvoir. “[I]t is the acquired reactions and automatic reflexes that allow us to walk, speak, write, etc. In a normal old age they do not deteriorate; indeed, their role increases, since they are made to help in the establishment of a routine.”[ii] Breaking habit is a young man’s game. Completely overhauling a control scheme is a young franchise’s game. Like Snake, Metal Gear is no longer young. It has its encrusted habits and routines. Kojima seems to recognize this.

* * *

Then again: the nerve-circuits that allow the renewal of the images must remain intact. There are some diseases—senile dementia and cerebral atherosclerosis, among others—that destroy great numbers of them. Even a man who is still fit may be affected by quite serious lesions.[iii]

Once he arrives at Shadow Moses, Snake’s PTSD takes precedence. Snake has flashbacks. He hears snippets of dialogue from Metal Gear Solid. He has visual hallucinations.

Age comes back to the fore soon enough, though. Snake’s handler Otacon gives Snake a password to remember, saying he’ll need it later to access a facility computer.

Five minutes later, Snake actually encounters the compute. It suddenly becomes clear that the game actually expects you to have remembered this password. If this was 1992 and we were playing an adventure game, surely we would have written it down, knowing that such information was unlikely to be accessible again. But this is 2008, and players have long since been relieved of any expectation that they will have to remember things on their own, without the benefit of an in-game note system.

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When I first played this sequence, my astonishment that I was actually expected to remember a sting of numbers said only once quickly dovetailed into the realization that the game was giving me an unusual opportunity to roleplay as Snake, in all of Snake’s deteriorating capacities. Of course Kojima’s team knew that players wouldn’t realize they actually had to memorize the code. They wanted this moment of pressure, this moment of not remember. They wanted us to psychologically inhabit the same panicky moment of failing memory that Snake, in his old age, is feeling.

James Paul Gee makes the point that playing Metal Gear Solid IV “well” should include occasional bouts of failure. It makes sense, when playing as Snake in his diminished capacities, to not be perfect at everything. Shugging off his failure to remember the code with the defense, “hey, I’m 60 years old,” Gee points asks, “Aren’t you supposed to forget the code, if you want to go along with the game’s narrative?”[iv] I would answer in the affirmative—and, furthermore, point out that it’s not just Gee’s sexagenarian status that makes it easy to forget the code. The norms of videogames in 2008 dictated that player’s shouldn’t be expected to remember a five-digit number delivered out of nowhere. It is the intentional violation of these norms that sets up the role-playing potential of this scene.

* * *

Once a certain threshold has been passed—a threshold that varies according to the individual—the elderly man becomes aware of his biological fate: the number of years of life that remain to him is limited.[v]

An then there is Snake’s back pain. I keep Snake crouched on his knees a lot, to keep hidden behind things. But Snake’s back can’t take it.

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The result is little animations, sprinkled here and there. Tiny interruptions in the flow, reminding me that Snake has a body, that that body has limits, and that those limits are changing as his mortality looms.

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I appreciated when these interruptions occur at the most inopportune times, as they tended to do during the boss fight with Crying Wolf. The poor moments Snake would choose to straighten his back fell into the franchise’s long dalliances with comedy, of both the planned and unplanned sort.

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Other times, though, I almost wished for more interruption. Perhaps a control scheme that was more unpredictable. In contrast to the role-playing that the game encouraged during Snake’s “senior moment,” the game’s swift responsiveness to my input too often betrays this sense of Snake’s aging, uncooperative body. When Snake is in the middle of a back-ache, for instance, I am free to pop into the menu and back.

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This remains the case even when he appears to be rather severely injured.

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And, furthermore, despite the care given to these animations, I am always able to interrupt them, nearly down to the frame. Snake’s body betrays him, but it obeys my every beck and call. He will instantly snap from a position of sore self-massaging to lying prone on the ground if I command him to.

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It may seem counter-intuitive to argue for a control scheme that is less responsive, for animations that are laborious and un-interruptable. But the game is so careful in its attention to the details of Snake’s condition that I wish it would go further. Players have stuck by Snake for a long time. We have enjoyed inhabiting his expertise, enjoyed applying his special skills. It would have only been fitting if here, in his final adventure, were were to also inhabit his pending obsolescence, his broken body, and his mortality.

Metal Gear Solid IV doesn’t quite want to fully go there. And it’s a shame.

[i]. Beauvoir, Simone de. Old Age. 1970. Trans. Patrick O’Brian. London: Deutsch, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. Pg 362.

[ii]. Ibid, pg 466.

[iii]. Ibid, pg 363.

[iv]. Gee, James Paul. “Playing Metal Gear Solid 4 Well: Being a Good Snake.” In The Videogame Ethics Reader. Ed. José P. Zagal. San Diego: Cognella, 2012. Pg 120.

[v]. Beauvoir, Old Age, pg 373.

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