You will never forget your first encounter with George Salonikh.
For me it was a bleary weekday afternoon, and the YouTube algorithm had just recommended a livestream of a man playing Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. I filed in next to a tasteful 200-or-so viewers, and sure enough, there it was: a native 16:9 emulation of one of Big Boss' most forgettable sojourns. Snake skulked through the jurassic 8-bit foliage and I discovered that, apparently, this was the middle of a marathon. George Salonikh was playing through every Metal Gear game, one after the other, in chronological order, which meant that once he'd conquered Metal Gear 2, he was jumping straight into the whizbang theatrics of Sons of Liberty, and the maudlin Guns of the Patriots after that.
That in of itself wasn't anything out of the ordinary. There's no way Salonikh was the first person to celebrate the Metal Gear canon through an extended history lesson. These things happen at Extra Life fundraisers and AGDQs all the time. But as I dug deeper, I discovered something printed in the stream description that will be blazed into my memory for as long as I live. Here it is, in its original syntax. "Marathons completed: 14."
Let the implications of that sentence sink in, and you will never be the same again.
Yes, since June, Salonikh has spent almost every day playing Metal Gear games for a live audience. In that time he has completed the entire series 14 times over. Suddenly, the dedicated viewership and the algorithm's interest made way more sense. I was witnessing one of the most maniacal, Sisyphean stunts in video game history, and I'll fully admit that at first, I wasn't a believer. Salonikh never appears on camera, and the entire screen is taken up by the stream. I thought for sure that there had to be a bot or a looped gameplay video pulling all the strings, because nobody on earth could possibly love Metal Gear this much. So I typed a message into chat, doubting the veracity, asking to be proved wrong. A moderator gleefully responded: "George, put on the cardboard box and spin around."
"Okay," he replied. That little chibi Solid Snake completed the instructions. There was a man behind the curtain. We weren't in Kansas anymore.
About a week later, when Salonikh was knee-deep in Metal Gear Rising, and thus one game away from tipping over the edge of the world again and starting a new marathon with Metal Gear Solid 3, he agreed to answer some questions over his own personal Discord. The particulars of his obsession are surprisingly workmanlike. At his core, he is a 23-year old Greek dude with an insatiable love for the franchise.
Before his gaming career took off, Salonikh spent a chunk of time in mandatory service with the Greek military—a time he remembers fondly for the change of pace from civilian life, and "the feeling that I had a purpose." Afterwards, he started uploading his own Rube Goldberg-esque Metal Gear Solid 5 clips to YouTube when that famously unhinged sandbox released in 2015. Those videos are about what you'd expect: titanic, physics-stretching stunts that require both expert gameplay precision and the fundamental Three Stooges silliness inherent in the Metal Gear fiction. Unfortunately for Salonikh, they weren't making him any money. That's why he first hatched his plan; livestream the 10 Metal Gear games over the course of 10 days, because in his words, that business model is far more "profitable and less stressful than regular video making."
That was five months ago, when Salonikh's channel sat at about 11,000 subscribers and an average of 100 viewers a stream. Today, those numbers have jumped to 42,000, with a peak of 950 viewers when he was in the middle of one of his Metal Gear Solid 3 runs. This isn't a speedrun, in the sense that George doesn't track his time or hold himself against a broader competitive infrastructure—and if he did, he'd almost certainly be the only person competing in the Metal Gear Franchise category—but he is stupidly good at the games. To watch Salonikh is to watch someone who has mastered every facet and curiosity of Snake's eccentric moveset. Watch him time his cardboard box in perfect unison with The End's flashbangs, or catch Sons of Liberty's Fatman in a horrible labyrinth of claymores. Sometimes Salonikh throws in his own personal handicaps, like a pacifist completion of Snake Eater, just to keep things interesting.
"I don't consider myself the best of the best but at this point I can play [all the games] in what you might call an 'auto-pilot,' aside from the most difficult parts of the series," he says. "But all in all, after a couple of months of playing them on stream I have learned every game inside and out. To give you a reference, I'm [answering these questions] in the middle of my livestream."
Essentially, Salonikh shared the dreams of thousands of other 23-year olds, all over the world. He wanted to play video games for a living, but he wanted to do it his way—without conforming to League of Legends, Hearthstone, Fortnite, or the rest of the traditional livestreaming infrastructure. So he did the impossible and imported Metal Gear into the Twitch generation. It's a self-created position; the world's foremost, and only, professional Metal Gear Solid performer. Living proof that in 2018, literally anything can be your job.
"I know how saturated the streaming market is, most people think that they can go and stream whatever everyone else is streaming and make a living, but they don't account for inflation," says Salonikh. "But on the other hand, you cannot grow a channel by streaming something that not many people have an interest in. So you gotta find an opportunity at the perfect balance of things, a game that has people's interest but at the same time it doesn't have heavy competition."
The stream itself is surprisingly entertaining. Salonikh tells me he specifically keeps his voice and face out of the broadcast, in order to present Metal Gear Solid as a cinematic experience. This is abundantly clear from the chat; Salonikh's gameplay brings to mind a midnight Rocky Horror screening—everyone knows all the lines and in-jokes. Watch during the marathon's best melodrama, like Rising's batshit showdown with Senator Steven Armstrong, or Snake Eater's brutal armistice with The Boss, for the Greek chorus at its best. Salonikh occasionally leans in with some meta-commentary of his own. For instance, whenever Emma and Raiden climb down the ladder in Metal Gear Solid 2, he always makes sure to play "What a Thrill" over the audio channel. "People are always expecting me to do it," he says. "It's become part of the game."
My main question, of course, is how he manages to play this franchise over and over again without getting bored or complacent. Salonikh tells me this is the thing he's asked most by people like me, who are simultaneously enthralled and horrified by his craft. "I livestream the story of 10 different games within the span of 10 days," he explains. "By the time I livestream the same game again, 10 days have passed, and it doesn't feel as boring as anyone might think." He goes on, citing other streamers who play more Twitch-friendly games, he perceives to be stuck in a loop that's far more rote and depressing than his own. "Metal Gear has enough content to not make us feel bored of watching the same thing over and over, my loyal viewers are there to vouch for that."
For the record, Salonikh tells me he's having the most fun when he's in the middle of either Snake Eater (for the depth of strategy) or Rising (because he likes cyborg ninjas and metal), and his least favorite, unsurprisingly, are the two red-headed topdown adventures from the series' prehistoric era. Currently, he is making enough money to support himself, and I expect that the longer he carries on this performance, the greater his mythology will grow. "I currently don't have any greater plans in mind so this work format will keep going indefinitely until there's a fork in the path," he says.
I certainly hope so. It's been a depressing time to love Metal Gear, with Kojima brutally ousted from Konami and his company, Kojima Productions, disbanded before reforming without any ties to its most famous franchise. A future filled with diluted aberrations like Metal Gear Survive feels like such a awful devaluation of a franchise that always stood for an aspirational, if often stomach-turning prestige.
Meanwhile, as all of that craven shit is going on, as Kojima is gearing up for a fresh new obtuse experience and Big Boss is on the back of milk cartons, we at least have Salonikh livestreaming an everlasting tribute to the games he adores. Tune in, and appreciate these dinosaurs; made of sticks, stones, and CQC; shipped with 45 minute cutscenes and no multiplayer module, into a games industry landscape that simply cannot exist anymore.
"Any future quality Metal Gear games are pretty much out of the picture, this has led to a slow and steady decline in interest for Metal Gear, and this pretty much makes my channel a nostalgia hub more than anything else," finishes Salonikh. "But despite its weakened community, the fans are fanatical enough for the games to provide me with great support for the channel. There's currently no great competition to what I'm doing out there so I kind of feel like the only supporting pillar for the Metal Gear community, as far as a YouTube channel environment is concerned. I don't take any pride in it but people really appreciate what I do, and I'm happy to keep them happy."