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Analysis: How  Metal Gear Solid  Teaches Us About Technological Anxiety
Analysis: How Metal Gear Solid Teaches Us About Technological Anxiety Exclusive
June 11, 2010 | By Zoran Iovanovici

June 11, 2010 | By Zoran Iovanovici
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[Starting a series of articles on Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear game franchise, commemorating the release of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Zoran Iovanovici addresses the 1998 PlayStation title Metal Gear Solid, examining (with story spoilers) the dark military themes of the groundbreaking stealth action title.]

This week marks the release of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the latest installment in the groundbreaking Metal Gear video game series. Comprising nearly a dozen games and tens of millions in global sales, the secret to the series’ success is multifold.

MGS games are constantly pushing the technical limits of the hardware they are designed for. The stealth based gameplay has helped pave the way for an entire genre of action-adventure games. Then there are the masterfully crafted the characters and storylines that have kept the series strong over nearly a dozen installments. Most notable, however, is the series' ability to tackle some very difficult issues and ask some pretty big questions.

This is largely thanks to the pioneering vision of series creator Hideo Kojima. Often multitasking and taking on the responsibilities of writer, producer, and director of the series, Kojima quickly became celebrated worldwide for his masterful plot construction and determination to discuss difficult and controversial topics in a video game.

For Kojima, a game is not just a medium of entertainment, but a tool for social, political, and cultural criticism. What the game means, what message it conveys, what it teaches the player about the human condition, and how it concerns important social, cultural, philosophical, political, and psychological issues are now mainstays of the series.

Not convinced? Make a quick visit to any MGS dedicated online forum or message board and you’ll find gamers, students, writers, and critics who devote their free time in deconstructing many of the intricate story and plot elements in the MGS universe in hopes of yielding valuable insight into the world that Kojima crafts with each installments. It's this very complexity that helps explain why fans are so fervently drawn towards the series.

The first Metal Gear Solid title certainly doesn’t pull any punches in addressing some very deep issues. Political and military corruption, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, cybernetic prosthetics, gene therapy and genetic engineering, child soldiers, and post traumatic stress disorder are all explored at length.

Kojima is particularly keen on presenting technological and scientific advances as possessing a double-edged nature, depending on their ultimate end-use in society. There is a distinct focus on addressing the darker aspects of scientific projections and the frequency of such critical reflection in Metal Gear Solid is so high that the series can be seen as indicative of anxiety over such rapid and potentially hazardous advancement.

As players progress through MGS, they are bombarded with examples of how certain highly sophisticated scientific and technological advancements, which often elude the awareness and understanding of the general public, remain in the hands of powerful organizations and governments where they become dangerous in their use.

Consider the many NPC’s conversations throughout the game, whether it’s with the DARPA Chief Donald Anderson, ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker, or Hal “Otakon” Emmerich. The lengthy diatribes that these NPC’s spit out are often laden with regret and remorse at their personal involvement in projects centering on the misuse of military and technological advancements.

While Metal Gear Solid is littered with complex themes and conspiracies, two concerns stand out at the forefront: nuclear proliferation and gene therapy. Starting off with nuclear proliferation, the game discusses the history of failed nuclear energy development and poor disposal policies and procedures for nuclear warheads. Once a bright prospect for as a limitless energy resource, the dangers of nuclear radiation and weaponry have far outweighed the benefits of nuclear energy, with disasters like Chernobyl acting as a reminder of humanity’s overzealous drive to harness immense power.

Though Snake is charged with the task of stopping his brother Liquid from commandeering the most powerful nuclear weapon on the planet in Metal Gear Rex, the knowledge that there is ongoing nuclear weapons development, secret nuclear black ops projects, and nuclear weapons disposal problems put a damper on the success that Snake may have in completing his mission.

While stopping Liquid and Rex are no small feat, putting an end to the countless nuclear threats that face the world are beyond the capability of even the most intrepid hero. The result is that the game not only endows players with the knowledge of such issues, but also instills a slight sense futility or anxiety over the sheer magnitude of the problem, especially since it reflects real world dangers currently facing humanity.

The topic of gene therapy is presented with equal magnitude in the game. Metal Gear Solid takes the once exciting prospect of the Human Genome Projects and turns it into a potentially frightening discovery that could shape the future of military warfare. At the outset of the game, players are informed of how the science poses numerous medical benefits when Dr. Naomi Hunter explains: “we can remove genes which we know may lead to sickness or disease, and at the same time, splice in genes with beneficial effects such as resistance to cancer.”

Yet, the base that Snake is tasked with infiltrating is guarded by an elite group of Next Generational Special Forces who are essentially genetically modified super soldiers. It’s not long before Naomi admits that gene therapy is harnessed by military powers in the development of so-called super-soldiers with scientists identifying and harnessing “more than sixty ‘soldier genes’ responsible for everything from strategic thinking... to the proverbial ‘killer instinct’.”

The cyborg ninja, a figure that would become a staple of the series, is an extension of this issue. While the prospect of cybernetic limb replacements rehabilitating people with lost limbs is enticing, the cyborg ninja is an example of the devastating effects an individual can bear when the technology is taken to an extreme. By undergoing the process of cyberization, the game’s legendary soldier Grey Fox was able to escape death and live on to fight again. Nonetheless, his sense of humanity and purpose is lost as he fails to come to grips with his loss of humanity. Unable to ever exist in any capacity outside of warfare and bloodshed, the cyborg ninja eventually becomes obsessed with the very death that eluded him.

The game thus questions whether it’s necessarily a good idea to cyberize and put soldiers back on the very front-lines of battle that caused them physical disfigurement in the first place and, if so, how much of their humanity remains as their bodies become more and more machine like in the process. Here Metal Gear Solid is arguably at its best – presenting a kick ass character with incredible strength and agility, an electric sword, and thermal camouflage only to have him be one of the most tortured and complicated figures in the game, a tool of a corrupt military black op and a byproduct of wayward technological development.

All these cleverly interwoven issues reveal an overarching motif that undercuts the very ground that Metal Gear Solid is built upon and one that is present in every subsequent installment: that the most important and revolutionary scientific and technological advances in human history see initial application in the military sector. No matter how these advancements may be spun when they are eventually revealed to the general public for commercial application, they often have a dark military history.

It’s really no surprise that the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid would only further enhance the tension of the plot. At first glance, Metal Gear Solid seems like any another action-adventure game with a protagonist placed in a larger than life setting in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Bear in mind that taking control of an avatar on a solo espionage and infiltration mission with the lack of any on-site support team (aside from Codec transmissions) or issued assault weaponry and the need to cautiously avoid conflict with enemy personnel at all costs while covertly gathering information is no small task for players.

While players can eventually procure weapons from enemy personnel, the sound of gunfire or the slightest hint of danger among enemy forces essentially compromises the mission objective of remaining undetected. Metal Gear Solid is less about the glory of combat and more about the content within the game. Any player who approaches the game from a traditional standpoint of action/shooter games will find themselves all too familiar with the “Game Over” screen.

Sounds rather 'unfun' at first, but it doesn’t take long for most players to realize the nuance that makes the game so good. While the action often takes a backseat in the game, the incredible tension that comes from facing seemingly insurmountable odds and the general uncertainty of what direction the narrative will take make the game hard to put down.

As heavy as the first game is, it’s just a warm up for what follows in subsequent installments of the series. Things actually get more complex in Metal Gear Solid 2 and we’ll take a look at that in the near future, in part two of our series.


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Comments


Chris Kozlowski
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The themes explored in MGS seem rather common to a lot of Japanese media as a whole. While I often disagree with their conclusions (rampant, unstoppable corruption, the "evils" of nuclear power, and an often paranoid view of biotechnology), works such as this do more than just show the technological anxieties of some, but more specifically, nearly unfathomable impact the 20th century had on the Japanese nation. For an isolated, agrarian society, to a world military power, the recipient of the only nuclear attack in history, to one of the most powerful technological and democratic states in Asia, the rate of change has been mind-boggling, and I often have to remind myself of just how terrifying this must be at times to those who have been living through it.

Zoran Iovanovici
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Thanks for the stellar insight Chris! You're absolutely right that much of the technological anxiety that stems from Japanese art and fiction is a result of the rapid industrialization that Japan endured in the twenty-first century. The shift from feudal to industrial occurred so fast in Japan that it's no surprise that many of Japan's best writers of the time painted rather dark portraits of the impact of modernization. It's great that you picked up on this.

Dan DeMatt
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It's nice that some of Metal Gear Solid's political and sociological commentary are finally being explored here and there - it has only taken the better part of a decade, but better late than never.



I wrote a rather lengthy essay on the first Metal Gear Solid exploring its main theme, which in my opinion is an indictment of gene determinism and genetic manipulation.



http://popularsymbolism.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/metal-gear-solid
-genetic-bondage-spoilers/



I have another article waiting in the wings on Metal Gear Solid 2 - it will be vastly different to essays such as 'An analysis on genetics, evolution and information regarding Metal Gear Solid 2:Sons of Liberty' - instead, I will be discussing how the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 is directly related to the 'Revolution in Military Affairs' - which is mentioned twice or so in the actual script but alluded to innumerable times.



I'm looking forward to seeing Zoran's own take on the game. I would just add here for the sake of interest another great article (not written by me) that goes into the whole cybernetics/Revolution in Military Affairs aspect of MGS2.



http://www.powso.com/?p=1005



Hope you don't mind me posting all these links in the Comments section.

Zoran Iovanovici
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Many thanks for the great links Daniel! Your MGS essay is very well written, thoroughly researched with lots of great links, and addresses tons of issues in the entire series. I'm a big fan of the conspiracy theory angles and how you take the time to address various kinds of indoctrination. We're very much on the same page on a number of issues. In fact, while my upcoming MGS articles are mostly finished, I may just link to your article since they cover some very similar ground.

David Hughes
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One of the other genius aspects of MGS is that, for as deep and depressing as the game's central message is, there are other moments that are sheer hilarity to gamers.



Like when you have to contact one of the NPCs and the player is told that the codec frequency is on the back of the cd case. I remember one of my friends being so confused--looking for a cd in the inventory--until I pointed out that it's *literally* on the back of the game.



Also when Mantis makes you put the controller on the ground and 'shows' you how he can move it with the power of his mind!



This relief moments make the game's message that much more successful. If it was all heavy-handed, I don't think Kojima would be anywhere near as successful.



And, by the way, you have to love the twist at the very end of the final credits.

Rune Ploug
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Hitman Blood Money anyone? I'd say the topics in there and the movie is some times very scary. Where is the borderline between military school and mentally brainwashing kids from early on to become nothing but warriors? How close are we really to getting soldiers with just crude custom DNA with some military or intelligence benefits and [hopefully not] back-drafts? If we where to be way more aggressive in our pursuit for medical treatment via DNA research will we end in Rapture or a new golden age that could save millions of lives and solve some basic problems like hunger? Ethical questions and games are really a good mix in my opinion.

Dan DeMatt
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Rune: Never explored Hitman Blood Money before - you've piqued my interest, thanks. Somehow I always put it down as being somewhat superficial, but apparently that was too presumptuous of me.


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