As the once-hated lead of Metal Gear Solid 2 charges back into the limelight -- and, finally, into mainstream acceptance -- with Metal Gear Solid Rising Revengeance, Gamasutra takes a look at the cultural forces that shaped the character. What cultural forces shaped the Metal Gear Solid lead, and what does his story mean?
Metal Gear Solid 2's high posture derives from what it says about video games and its players. Enthusiasts insist that its metafictional tropes elevate the game to intellectual postmodernism; and in that arena, director Hideo Kojima doesn't pull his punches.
That is made more clear by his portrayal of Raiden, the game's protagonist. The recurrent analysis is that Raiden serves as an avatar for the player and his difficulty in differentiating reality from fiction -- one of the many aspersions inveighed against hardcore Metal Gear fans.
In truth, these attacks are aimed more against the otaku, Japan's subculture of anime hobbyists, rather than their American counterparts. Fans further overlook that postmodernism in Japan had a different origin -- one that coincided with the evolution of the otaku. In other words, what the game says about its fans specifically applies to Japan. To understand MGS2's themes, one must dive into Japan's late history and discover what makes the game postmodern in a Japanese sense.
It began in the 1980s. Japan's economy was booming when Kojima entered the video game industry. As this happened, postmodernism rose as a fashionable mode of thought for youth in Japan -- even outside of the confines of academia. Critic Asada Akira's book, Structure and Power: Beyond Semiotics, became an unanticipated bestseller in 1983 despite its esoteric subject matter.
Asada was not alone. "The players in this movement," explain Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono in the English introduction to Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, "[were] writers, critics, and even advertising copywriters… [and] were followed as celebrities and enthusiastically supported by younger generations."
Shigesato Itoi, the creator of Nintendo's Earthbound/Mother video game series was one such copywriter. As an advertiser, Itoi served as an intermediary for short-form, digestible information between capitalists and consumers. In other words, he provided information for people to swiftly and easily absorb.
Despite the apparent profundity of the Japanese masses reading postmodern theory, there were signs that they merely consumed rather than understood the "movement's" ideas. For instance, as Marilyn Ivy asserted in her essay Critical Texts, Mass Artifacts: The Consumption of Knowledge in Postmodern Japan, readers may have scanned the preface of Structure and Power and the chart at the end without so much as glancing through the rest of the book. Critic Hiroki Azuma, author of Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, was skeptical of the movement's lasting impact after it was swiftly forgotten in the following decade.
"What is important here," Azuma wrote, "is not really the content of theories of postmodernism but the fact that in Japan this highly complex body of thought turned into a kind of faddish media frenzy."
In a twist of irony, PoMo in Japan fell victim to the very two elements it endlessly screeds against: capitalism and consumerism. Regardless of its evanescence or supposed superficiality, if PoMo was as big of a sensation as scholars describe, then its difficult to see how Kojima could've escaped its glance. Besides Kobo Abe, he has cited a range of postmodern authors as personal influences.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker even references French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose work was often read by Japanese executives during that decade. The Metal Gear Solid series explores similar topics to Baudrillard's treatise, Simulacra and Simulation, including cloning and nuclear deterrence theory among others. Taking this into account, the fan sentiment that MGS2 is a postmodern video game may be a label vaguely applied, but the truth of it is not so far-fetched.
The otaku and followers of Asada's theory of New Academism (who were known as "New Homo Sapiens") emerged together in the 1980s as information consumers. The latter rarely come into conversation these days, but otaku continue to prevail as a driving force in the market.
The decade that followed molded the otaku identity even further. Just as swiftly as the sun set on its flirtation with postmodernism, so did Japan's prosperity. The economic "bubble" burst and a commenced a recessionary "lost decade" of opportunity and malaise for its youth. To make matters worse, the Kobe Earthquake and Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks depressed its mindset even further. Anime and manga consequentially grew more pessimistic as a result. "The profile of Japanese literature and manga began to shrink," Azuma said. "And most of it focused on the young generations psychological problems, or suicide, or youth crime. It was very dark."
The 1995 TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion is a prime example. Its creator, Hideaki Anno, has been critical of the otaku subculture in interviews and used the series as a statement on this subculture and tropes in anime. "Evangelion criticizes anime fans and anime culture," Azuma has said. Indeed, Eva turned hackneyed anime tropes and archetypes on their heads through its characters; the series' protagonist, Shinji Ikari, exhibited asocial otaku traits of his own. Much to Anno's confusion, his psychologically malcontent characters resonated with Japanese youth at the time.
Thematically speaking, MGS2 addresses similar issues. And Hideo Kojima recently made comments suggesting that Evangelion is an influence on the future of his Zone of Enders videogame series. As previously mentioned, writers have observed that Raiden's psychological profile is supposed to represent the player. What they miss is that, like Shinji, his character traits are otaku-like and may not resound with gamers unfamiliar with the subculture.
For one, there's a persistent stereotype of the otaku as asocial -- hence why Raiden is unable to open up to his girlfriend, Rose. Furthermore, the otaku are renowned for maniacally hoarding merchandise, the way Raiden collects dog tags throughout the game like Pokémon cards. An additional stereotype is a tendency for otaku to isolate themselves and withdraw deep into their own world; as a result, they can't differentiate between fiction and reality. Such is the case when the Patriots create a simulation of the setting from the first game, and Raiden can't tell what's real anymore.
None of Raiden's psychological traits are unprecedented if you look at Evangelion's characters. What's different is that MGS2 directly correlates the relationship between otaku-like groups and the internet. Before the U.S. got the notorious 4Chan, Japan had 2Channel. Like its American successor, anonymous postings were the popular mode of conduct, even when internet anonymity was still controversial. If people could write anything without repercussion, it left room for libel and other falsehoods to stream freely. Bearing this in mind, The Patriots -- MGS2's antagonistic shadow government -- agenda of internet censorship is more easily understood:
Colonel: But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible.
Rose: Rumors about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander...
Colonel: All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate.
When The Patriots discuss the spread of "junk data", communities similar to Japan's 2Channel are the unmentioned culprits. Any friend of democracy is right to abhor government-sanctioned censorship, but Raiden's feeble objection amounts to nothing more than circular reasoning -- information suppression is evil because he says so. The Patriots, on the other hand, point out that he's selecting his truths from a cafeteria. "You turn your back on everything you don't like," said the Patriot AI. "You do whatever you like, see only the things you like, and for yourself alone."
While 2Channel may have been a forerunner in the internet's potential to disperse dubious information, other social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have made it easier for users to customize and filter unwanted data. "Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum," The Patriots said. "They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever 'truth' suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large." This rings even truer now than it did then.
Writers have stressed the agenda of Orwellian cyber-totalitarianism beneath The Patriots' scheme. That is one facet of the story. The other side is the Brave New World argument, from Aldous Huxley's novel. "In 1984, Big Brother is watching you, so your desires are very restricted," Azuma said. "In Brave New World, everyone's desires are met, everyone is happy, but those desires are very sophisticatedly controlled by the government. I think the 21st century may be a bit similar to Brave New World. Of course, the controlling agent is not government… Perhaps information technology [instead]."
In this sense The Patriots are a synthesis between the two. Information control filters data akin to 1984's Ministry of Truth and people's indulged desires still come into play as in a Brave New World. What's desired isn't carnal pleasure, on Raiden's part, so much as a willful ignorance. The Patriots are merely discarding information that Raiden rejects and refuses to accept.
The promotional work for MGS2's release preemptively demonstrates The Patriots' stance that the otaku are easy to manipulate and fool, which stretches back to information consumption and advertising concepts from the 1980s. Raiden's appearance in the game wasn't revealed until its original release date. So far as people knew from commercials, advertisements, and even the press, the "actual" Solid Snake was the game's lead.
Kojima took consideration from a fan letter when designing Raiden's appearance and tapped into the otaku-like anime aesthetic during his conception. Kojima arguably gave fans exactly what they wanted by offering a re-scrambled simulation of the first Metal Gear Solid, and the notion that he was able to trick them through advertisements demonstrated how easily exploitable his fanbase is.
That message didn't go so over well. Fans lingered longer on Raiden's substitution for Snake than on MGS2's themes. It even reached a point where Kojima received death threats. Kojima was unspecific about their source on the topic in interviews, but 2Channel is infamous for posting death threats against anime directors online. There was a similar occurrence when Evangelion dissatisfied its viewers with an avant garde finale for the original series -- to the degree that fans vandalized the studio's headquarters and e-mailed threats to Anno, which he later included in the anime itself.
Fans have metaphorically held Kojima at gunpoint for his plans to leave the franchise. Kojima originally took it as a joke, but the staff at Konami got nervous. He credited this as one of the reasons why he continued to lead the series despite intending MGS2 to be the final sequel with his oversight. Anno himself decided to produce an alternate ending for Evangelion, at least partially to placate his devotees, and has continually produced more remakes in the franchise. Kojima's instruction for players to find an identity independent from the game, when Raiden discarded his dog tags, went unheeded.
The fact that MGS2's criticism of Japanese otaku often overlaps with American fan culture is partially coincidental. As illustrated above, the economic and historical conditions of the otaku are Japanese-grown. Kojima isn't a prophet; science fiction writers rarely are. However aligned The Patriots' arguments are to the SOPA internet regulation laws and issues around information sharing on social media, Kojima didn't predict their arrival -- as some have suggested.
Like Orwell, he was simply observing the present and past trends of his own country; Kojima possibly took Japan's history of information suppression into account during its authoritarian wartime and postwar years. There's a reason he depicts the subject with such abject terror: In Japan, information suppression wasn't a possibility; it was a historical reality.
This isn't to say that otaku are exclusive to Japan. At the time of MGS2's release, these ideas didn't crisply overlap with American behaviors. Times have changed, and I'd argue that more otaku-like traits are beginning to emerge in America's Millennial generation. Devotion to video games and comic books as a mainstream behavior has expanded, and the salience of the hipster subculture shares some similarities with the otaku due to its dependency on technology and social media to form communities. Furthermore, generational scholars are continually frustrated by the Millenials' inability to grow up and give up childish things. This isn't a new narrative for Japan, and has been a recurrent issue since its post-bubble years.
Azuma himself believed that the otaku "should be grasped as one manifestation in Japan of a grand trend towards the postmodernization of culture." One of the reasons his book on the otaku may have been a bestseller in Japan was an interest for the otaku to better understand themselves. When backlash ensued after film critic Roger Ebert opined that video games could never be art, video game defenders recurrently listed MGS2 as one of many counterexamples.
Like the Japanese otaku, American video gamers might be seeking a similar means of self-understanding. There's a strong urge for players to understand the medium and why it sparks such a deep passion. Metal Gear Solid 2 may have carried Japanese themes packaged within a semi-Americanized aesthetic, but there are indications that it has more universal implications as we slouch further into the database age.
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Brett Fujioka is a writer concentrating on video game criticism, literature, pop culture, politics, and Asia. He currently lives and works in Japan. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brett_Fujioka