The following is an excerpt from a new book of essays that examines the cultural phenomenon that is Metal Gear Solid, entitled Okay, Hero. It features writing from Reid McCarter (The AV Club, GQ, Playboy) and Ed Smith (Vice, Edge, The Guardian), with editing from Astrid Rose.
The Island Coming Home
Metal Gear Solid 2's virtual recreation of the New York City skyline was altered before the game came out, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. It's the only aspect of the game that was able to be reworked in response to current events. Otherwise, Sons of Liberty's creators had made something without the context of the exact course on which American culture was just setting out that autumn. That the game feels so fully like a reaction to the beginning of a new age in global politics might be read as coincidence, but it's more likely the result of its makers paying attention to what was already on the horizon.
A lot has been written and said about Sons of Liberty's eerily prescient story. The deceptively straightforward set-up-Raiden, a young special operative, is sent to neutralize a terrorist group holding the American president and an offshore oil cleanup facility hostage—soon gives way to a maelstrom of unexpected twists centred on topics like digital information control, the erosion of Western democracy, and the impact of the internet on social evolution. But it's Sons of Liberty's commentary regarding an America on the brink of a self-shattering cultural crisis that resounds most strongly in the present day. This last point, hammered into the player through a final scene set atop the ruins of a newly decimated Federal Hall in Manhattan, speaks to the horrors that roiled the United States' collective gut on and after September 11th, the game seeming to forecast new wars, political trends, and shifts in international power structures just as they were beginning to take shape.
The crisis that kicks off Raiden's mission involves a shadowy cover-up concerning the enormous, gleaming metal clean-up facility that spiderlegs into the ocean off the coast of New York City. Aside from the prologue, which is set on the rain-lashed decks and swaying holds of a naval tanker, and the final hour of the game, Sons of Liberty takes place entirely on this facility—called, improbably, the Big Shell. Removed from land and populated only by soldiers and their hostages, the Big Shell is an island removed from the workaday reality of the city—and country—it belongs to.
As soon as Raiden infiltrates the Big Shell, Sons of Liberty assumes an otherworldly quality. He encounters "Dead Cell"—a group of terrorists who, even by the standards of the previous game's psychics, cowboys, and giants, are enormously strange. One, Fortune, is capable of supernaturally deflecting bullets. Another, Fatman, glides around on roller skates, drinking red wine through a straw as he plants explosives. Then there's Vamp, a seemingly immortal, shirtless Romanian who, as his name suggests, drinks his enemies' blood, runs up vertical surfaces, and can't be killed, even after taking bullets to the head. A cybernetic ninja shows up and Solidus, formerly the American president George Sears and now leader of the terrorists, puts on an octopus-armed power suit. Revolver Ocelot, returning from the previous game, is frequently possessed by the dead man's arm he had grafted onto himself following the first Metal Gear Solid. As Raiden contends with these villains, he learns, too, that the entire operation he's been tasked with is a sham: there was no oil spill and the Big Shell, stretching deep beneath the water's surface, is actually a gigantic robot called Arsenal Gear housing a sophisticated artificial intelligence program. His mission handlers are also synthetic agents of a world-controlling group called the Patriots.
By the time Sons of Liberty approaches its finale, heaping disorienting reams of exposition that combine the above plot revelations with summaries of memetic theory and digital-era sociology, everything has begun to feel like a dream. This isn't accidental. The Big Shell, though solidly physical in its clearly numbered struts and well-ordered, highly functional layout, might as well be a manmade island. Using water as a recurring motif, the game's introduction involves the prologue's sinking tanker giving way to Raiden sneaking onto the Big Shell from the murky sea, climbing onto a structure whose ad-hoc metallic supports place it just above, but always surrounded by the waves. Reinforced by imagery of precarious civilization beset on all sides by the chaos of the sea, the sense is that the Big Shell—and Raiden's mission aboard it—is one of isolation from the real world. Though his mission is of the utmost importance (there are nukes, of course, because this is Metal Gear; and an information-controlling super robot), the violence involved with subduing a terrorist threat is kept just offshore from the rest of the world. If the battles and bloodshed taking place on the Big Shell are stopped there, they won't affect the mainland. The metaphor of an America always able to keep the rest of the world's issues at arm's length, is made clear enough.
If this seems like a stretch, the rest of the game works hard to suggest an America-centred interpretation. From its subtitle ("Sons of Liberty") down to its setting—not in an isolated Alaskan weapons disposal base, the Soviet wilderness, a remote jungle, or an abandoned battlefield, but 30 kilometres from the United States' most populous city—the focus on American politics is tough to ignore. The Illuminati-esque Patriots are described as an extension of the country itself ("As long as this nation exists, so will we," says the AI), born of post-war America's unchecked growth in global power. Their villainy, which is defined by a digital censorship plan that paternalistically allows the Patriots to become arbiters of what information will be curated and passed on to future generations, is a particularly 21st-century manifestation of imperial might. Like modern America, they dictate which moral values and historical facts are allowed to proliferate across the world.
Raiden, who has been manipulated by the Patriots into blindly advancing their agenda, was chosen from a group of child soldiers for his role because, to paraphrase, he was a young person who refused to atone, learn, or face up to his violent past. The perfect arm for imperialist might, Raiden is selfish and blind to his own history—a model citizen who, if the plan had worked, would provide a basis for the Patriots' ideal soldiery and citizenry. Before he's wised up to what's going on, Raiden is the perfect agent of modern American hegemony: he's ignorant of his own history, blindly loyal, and willing to keep external threats at bay by following violent orders just beyond the sight of the mainland.
Sons of Liberty's final act sees the Big Shell, its wars previously confined to foreign lands, literally come crashing down on the homeland as its robotic core activates, driving Raiden and the villain Solidus through the streets and buildings of Manhattan. For the first time, the dream's remove vanishes. The violence of a distant battlefield comes to New York City in a startling, unexpected moment of violence. Even its colour palette, which consisted of gentle oranges and blues on the Shell, changes to a harsher, grubby landscape of collapsed stonework to reinforce the sense of having finally woken up.
There's a nihilist matter-of-factness to the game's foresight at this point, but one that doesn't linger through its conclusion. Raiden, breaking the pair of handcuffs he had been trapped in and preparing to fight the terrorist leader amidst the smoking rubble of Federal Hall, listens to a summary of what his enemy wants to accomplish. Solidus, the main villain of the game, understands the Patriots' designs and his hijacking of the Big Shell is meant to undermine them. Its destruction, timed to take place on April 30th, 2009—200 years to the day since George Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. president on the original Federal Hall's steps—is meant to kick off a new era for the nation. His group, named the Sons of Liberty after the early revolutionaries of 18th century America, also wants to violently overthrow those who would seek to exercise complete control over ordinary lives. Rather than the British, he imagines a new republic free of the Patriots' tyranny. Solidus is not a hero, even though his aim is basically sound. He manipulates others, torturing and killing civilians and acting in part on a desire to free himself of Patriot control as a way to grow his own power.
Among the naïve soldiers, terrorists, and imperial tyrants, though, the most frightening realization is that, with or without the Patriots, the ideals spread by an internet-enabled, globalized modern world will mutate from the starting point of American hegemony regardless. The form may change, but the seed will always remain the same: global culture, Made in the USA. There is no controlling it, no matter how advanced the AI. The Patriots, as representatives of American power, are simply outdated and it doesn't matter what happens once their immediate plans come to an end. The Big Shell crashes into New York City, ending the sense of security that an exceptionalist America once enjoyed. The terror the nation has wreaked on the world through its imperial policies comes home to roost. Unsurprisingly, coming from a videogame made by Baby Boomer Japanese creators, Sons of Liberty's sci-fi vision of America's forcible break from a long period of nationalistic isolationism is seen as an inevitable horror.
Raiden kills Solidus and Federal Hall burns, the grand experiment of the American project smoldering in the face of a horrific wake-up call that brings it into the modern world. If it was made even a few years later, it's likely that the game would end on a sourer note than it does here (2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots would find, but ultimately dismiss, some of the cynicism Sons of Liberty's finale lacks). Instead, the story concludes with hope. Raiden, forced into a fight with Solidus by a Patriot plot that means his death will cause the simultaneous termination of an innocent child, understands that literally allowing the next generation to come and improve on the situation he finds himself in involves learning from the nightmare from which he's waking. The future only exists—and this isn't too dramatic in our nuclear age—if he moves forward, reckons with his history as a Patriot pawn, and defeats Solidus. He has to take his destiny into his own hands, as a citizen and a victim who's been duped into following the orders of the powers that be. His options are either to die in despair and self-defeat or fight in an imperfect system to kill Solidus, hunt down the Patriots, and help forge a brighter, more equitable future for himself, America, and the world at large.
In order to drive home that these lessons are not just for the benefit of the game's characters, the game's final scenes involve prior hero Solid Snake and the newly triumphant Raiden dressed in their ludicrous sneaking suits talking while surrounded by everyday New Yorkers—police officers rushing to cordon off Solidus' resting place and businesspeople restarting the constant Manhattan foot traffic. Outsized, technicolour cartoon characters that they are, their concluding thoughts on the inherent good of free will—regardless of how it manages to be expressed under the control of those forces that guide our governments and access to information—are brought home to the real world. The cartoon villains and heroes of the Big Shell are synthesized, however bizarrely, with more familiar sights, forcing audiences to reckon with the message they're communicating.
The polygonal characters vanishing, the game transitions to real footage of the George Washington statue outside Federal Hall. Raiden promises his partner Rose that, whatever else may come and no matter how awful the modern world may be, he'll work to bring ideals like compassion and poetry into the future. It's a fairly pat ending, but its optimism, 17 years later, is more than welcome. As decades have passed, America sliding into a popular politics seemingly insistent on destroying the world through a determined refusal to look inward, its island nation drifts closer and closer to the global shores. The only real hero in Sons of Liberty's story, Solid Snake, sums up the point well enough as the game fades out over video of the Statue of Liberty, that rusted beacon of the United States' romanticized destination as international shelter from the injustices of the world: "Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing," he says, a concept that, if embraced back in 2001, would have led us to a different, better world today.