Do you agree with the following statements: “In the current digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness.” “Rumours about petty issues, misrepresentations, slander.” “The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate.” “Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum.” “No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.” They were written twenty years ago, not by an anthropologist, a sociologist, nor a demographer, trying to crack the codes of time, but by Hideo Kojima—whose peculiar stockpile of obsessions have led him to startling moments of prescience. The game that contains them is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and, though much of its plot is preserved in all its triteness, its ideas are anything but trivial.
Two decades on, the game’s script (by Hideo Kojima and Tomokazu Fukushima), fragrant with foolishness, has nonetheless come wafting back into relevance, borne on the hot air of fake news, big data, echo chambers, and social media. It took a little longer than Death Stranding did. That game, all about the Earth at its bleak and beleaguered finish, as everyone withdraws into their own small gated communities, came out in late 2019. Months later, as Covid-19 ravaged the globe, it was difficult to shrug off the comparison. Still, we should not be so hasty to grant Kojima oracular status. His graphic adventure Policenauts, for example, was set in 2010, a year which, in reality, catastrophically failed to deliver workable cryosleep technology. Likewise, as far as I know—and much to our societal shame—we have yet to allow a penguin to boldly blast into space, as did the hero of Kojima’s professional debut, Penguin Adventure, from 1986.
Yet there remains, about Metal Gear Solid 2, the swell and smell of importance. I am convinced that this has less to do with the fact that there have been papers published on it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or that it has been featured in the Smithsonian, and more to do with the untested truths that churn and accumulate in the minds of those who played it. The questions we ought to ask, after all this time, are not “Why the hell did we not play as Solid Snake?” or “Was it truly the first post-modern video game?” but, rather, “Is it a good video game?” and “Does it hold up?”
The answer to both of those questions, as far as I’m concerned, is yes. And one reason for that is the tone, which, this being a Kojima concoction, is about as tethered by gravity as one of his Policenauts. It is perhaps only in a narrative of outsize silliness that such weighty themes can survive without boring us half to death. No wonder the game features a man who is himself half to death; he is pale, fanged, hooked on hemoglobin, and his name happens to be Vamp. And then there is a woman, with locks of lemon-sharp blonde, named Fortune, around whose person bullets seem to bend and curve of their own accord. In turn, it is only in a setting of such hard, military drabness—that of grey tankers, drubbed with rain, and hulking offshore installations—that such comic-book exaggerations can hit the open air without congealing into the laughable.
The plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 concerns a young Special Forces operative, code-named Raiden, who is sent into a marine decontamination facility, called the Big Shell, in order to defuse a hostage situation. Only, it doesn’t. Not quite. It takes a while for us to grasp what the plot is really concerned with. One of the game’s prevailing traits is its knack for the ruse; Kojima enjoys tricking out his narratives with false notes, which, when played together, form an uncanny tune. When we hear that one of Raiden’s handlers is an old flame, named Rose, and that she calls him Jack, our reaction (beyond possibly expecting a third character whose designation is Iceberg) is one of foreboding; the mission has already sprung a small leak, and we are getting that sinking feeling. Furthermore, when we find a corridor that has been redecorated with streaks and blurts of red, and the camera glides along, drawn to muffled screams like a shark to a far-off bleeder, we think, Hang on! Haven’t we done this before?
And, of course, we have. It is a repeat of the scene, from the first Metal Gear Solid, in which its hero, Snake, encountered a gentleman who liked to lop off limbs wherever possible. Snake crept through just such a hallway, taking in the signs—or the smears—of his foe’s passage. If only he were here, on the Big Shell, to offer Raiden some warm words of encouragement. But, wait. Who is this Lieutenant Junior Grade Iroquois Pliskin, who not only looks an awful lot like Snake (with a mullet that has somehow survived the eighties completely trimmed of irony) but whose surname is a knowing wink to the man—played by Kurt Russell, in Escape from New York—upon whom Snake was based? Do we have a hero in hiding, and will the scales fall from our eyes? I’m pleased, and relieved, to report that these little jeux d’esprit do not frustrate, as they did so many people, back in 2001. Now that we have the full picture—now that the series’ story has slithered forwards and backwards in time around Metal Gear Solid 2, neatly biting its own tail—we can greet the game with lower stakes, and free ourselves up to be as playful with our own expectations as its creator was.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was revealed at E3 in 2000, with a trailer that was shot and cut like that of a film; and the effect was that the game, inching toward release, resembled that of the tanker in its opening—slow, vast, with surprises lurking belowdecks, and seemingly unsinkable. Before the internet broadened its bands and allowed for such acid-harsh probing, the game’s legend was stoked in magazines, which delivered a storm of blown-up stills from the E3 footage. Thus, you came away with a headful of glorious scraps, illumined with anticipation, and any conversations you had with friends were likely to spin out of hand—filled with rumours about petty issues, misrepresentations, slander. (Special note must be made of the spoiled readers of PSM2, who, for that magazine’s inaugural issue, were given a videotape bearing the trailer—which, subjected to the endless scrutiny of fans, grew scratchy with repeat viewings.)
All of which is to say that we might forgive the wincing reactions of some players, which have only soured more deeply with the passing years. Hype—whether bred in the quick-boiling ether of the internet or inked into dream-provoking print—was as unhelpful then, for making out the clear shape of an approaching object, as it is now. And you can hardly blame them for feeling miffed when they found themselves controlling, for the bulk of the game, Raiden, a man so plainly inferior to Snake, with his platinum tresses and his regular trills of complaint. There is, however, one utterly transcendent facet of Metal Gear Solid 2, on which everyone is in enraptured agreement: bottles.
The opening chapter (famously included on a demo disk with every copy of another Kojima game, Zone of the Enders), during which we play as Snake—another ruse—was nothing if not a tech showcase for the powers of the PlayStation 2. And the inclusion of first-person shooting meant that one could admire the scenery, as it crumpled and clanged realistically to the touch of your bullets. Chief among the shootable treasures are the bottles—and not just bottles, but wine glasses, cocktail glasses, and buckets of ice. Talk about raising the bar. The ice, once scattered onto tabletops, would melt in real time. Saucepans, hanging from a rail, would ping at varying pitches. And potted plants, when brushed past, would moult their leaves onto the floor.
At the outset, when Snake, talking about the intelligence that led him to the ship, says, “The whole thing stank, but our noses had been out in the cold too long,” who knew that it was a cautionary statement? Stay on deck, in the downpour (some of the best rain ever rendered, incidentally), for too long and Snake will catch a cold: an endearing flourish, until your position is given away by a sneeze. Touches like this, where attention to detail is turned on its head, and the detail starts to draw attention, is one of Kojima’s most underrated qualities. Not only does it root us in whichever reality—from the mundane to the deeply weird—that he has cooked up, but we start to notice the rules that govern these places, and the ways in which they can be rubbed together to produce defiant sparks. Radios, strapped to the chests of guards, can be shot out, preventing them from hailing extra help. In one fourth-wall-busting flourish, the exclamation mark that appears above a foe’s head, when he spots you, can be shot, and he will lose his train of thought.
One could defensibly accuse Kojima of pretension, or of being a real bore, but I know of no other blockbuster director so willing to mock the complex machinery of his own work. That he was denied the opportunity to make Silent Hills is doubly a shame, because horror, of all genres, is much the richer when comedy, as dark as rot, is allowed to moulder in its crannies. As it is, we should be thankful that he spent so long and ripe a portion of his career toiling in the vineyards of the stealth thriller. God knows, we need him there now.
Playing Metal Gear Solid 2 in 2021 is at once a joy and a sadness. For one thing, it’s a painful reminder of how deprived we are of undiluted AAA espionage. Sam Fisher, mired in the droop of middle-age, has of late had difficulty maintaining a direction, and can’t seem to negotiate a game of his own. Elsewhere in the Ubisoft stable, the Assassins have all but abandoned their creed of quietness, and now resemble swashbucklers and brawlers more than sneaks. The Watchdogs can watch all they like, but slipping past firewalls will never be as hot as crouching behind real ones. Agent 47 is still going strong, but he has always been a different breed, his brand of subterfuge dependent on the available wardrobe. The pleasures of Kojima’s game are probably most comparable to those of Dishonored; both offer wide avenues of strategy, bounding their design into intricate boxes and then rewarding you for thinking outside of them. In other words, they entreat you to play your own way; no one is invalidated, and nobody is right.
Personally, I can never bring myself to play Metal Gear Solid 2 in anything but the old-fashioned way: keeping my eyes pinned to enemy patrol routes, timing my movements, donning the occasional cardboard box, and living in fear of the sound. You know the one. The unmistakable tritone squeal that peals from Snake’s world into ours the instant someone sees you. It is still one of the most harrowing noises in all of gaming, a sort of metasound, conveying not only your failure but, somehow, a moral alarm—as though your enemy, like an angry parent, were disgusted at your misbehaviour. When you are at risk of being pierced by that noise, the pared-back line-of-sight stealth takes on a heightened thrill.
And it is as much of a relief to see what we are not confronted with. Playing the game this last week, I was as glad to find no hip-high foliage, within which I was made conveniently invisible (the entire genre, these days, could really do with some pruning), as I was to note that my enemies were not hooked up to a hive mind—wordlessly communicating my location when I was spotted. In future installments of Metal Gear Solid, we would daub our hero with face paint, or, niftier still, wait for his OctoCamo to copy the surroundings and paste them over the plush fibres of his fancy suit. But not here on the Big Shell, where Raiden has hostages to rescue, bombs to defuse, and a marine mystery—polluted with murky complications—to decontaminate.
It would be dishonest to suggest that Metal Gear Solid 2 holds its nerve. I doubt that I will ever greet its later acts—wherein Raiden discovers that the entire scenario has been, wouldn’t you know it, a ruse—with anything other than fatigue and mild impatience. It all centres on a superweapon, called Arsenal Gear, and entails characters acknowledging that they are in a video game. Thus, we get a number of thumpingly delivered codas to the illusion of free will (long before Andrew Ryan asked us kindly to club him in the head). And a lecture on the importance of passing things on to the next generation—an unsubtle message from Kojima, who at the time claimed that this would be the last Metal Gear Solid he would make. In short, the game disappears up its own Arsenal Gear. But this matters not. Twenty years on, its themes may speak eerily to our times, but the real shock is how its mechanics, as wondrous as ever, now address a sad absence in the genre. In a twist of irony that Kojima would surely relish, my reaction to the game now is, in a way, as it was then: Where the hell is Snake? If you played Metal Gear Solid 2 when it first arrived, and your memory is that the whole thing stank, it’s time to play it again. You may be surprised how long your nose has been out in the cold.