Mirrors In An Empty Room: Metal Gear Solid and the Catch-22 of Constructing Better Realities

            On June 27, 2020 something inspiring happened that gave hope in a time where there is little. On a 7th generation console from 2006 on 5-year-old multiplayer server, every nuclear warhead was dismantled for PlayStation 3 in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. This was done without any given objective from the developer nor was any infrastructure put in place to do so. Subreddits were made and alliances were built, R/Philanthropy and R/MetalGearPatriots, respectively. Nuke watchers were ever present hoping to reach a virtual world free of nuclear weaponry. After the impossible was achieved they were treated with a previously known but never authentically unlocked 8 minutes cutscene around the fight against nuclear proliferation and to leave the world as we found it for our children. Although the PS3 reached nuclear peace, the other servers seem to be in a perpetual nuclear age with PC servers carrying 1193 and the PS4 showing an astonishing 2479 nuclear warheads. With both subreddits having over 5000 posts and countless discord replies, why go through all of this effort in creating sides, narratives, friends, enemy, and rallying cries? What do you do in the aftermath of a completed myth?

            Jack, the protagonist from the second game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2, said it best, “It’s like being a nightmare you can’t wake up from”. The decay of the world seemingly reaching terminal velocity all happening behind our screens is a particular dystopia I don’t think we saw for ourselves; at least so soon. In this techno-psychedelia where certain truths only makes sense depending on what timeline you find yourself on. Mass social labor movements as you click through your stories, race wars centering around a white womans bantu knots on another, and the full transition of a site we used to find our old middle school sweethearts now a swamp of fascist leetspeak. Life can begin to feel like just another day in a war without end where to imagine a world worth fighting follows the law of diminishing returns like driving a car off the lot. The one space we first enjoyed with the bright optimistic potential of a digital utopia was co-opted as the largest vehicle of manipulation through ad-sensed misinformation. The shattered black mirror only presented another empty room to us all.

            Hideo Kojima, an artist seemingly obsessed with this technological anxiety behind and in front of us has been wandering in these Bladerunner backrooms since 1988. Games he made prior to Metal Gear Solid like Snatcher (1988) and Policenauts (1994) spoke of fears surrounding state sanctioned violence spreading past our atmosphere, but it was with Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation in 1998 that elevated his text surrounding the slow, granted stripping of agency in a world that takes the reign of our future and places it in a government funded hard-drive mount. A game about the choices of a hard-nosed veteran, Solid Snake, assigned what was to be his final mission of taking back an Alaskan nuclear warhead testing facility from a group of terrorists, Metal Gear Solid predominately carries theme centered around genetics, political/military corruption, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, cybernetic prosthetics, gene therapy and genetic engineering, child soldiers, and post-traumatic stress disorder but carries a torch in fighting to take back agency in our own lives. That our futures are not dictated by our genes but in our choices. Such comments examined at length in a video game was unheard of at the time in 1998 where the other top games at the time being Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo Kazooie. Now we have Kojima’s offspring in the ways of Bioshock (2007), Spec Ops: The Line (2012), and just about any game that speaks of player agency in their own postmodern metafictional ludonarrative dissonant ways.

            A series about genes shifted to a series about memes in the follow-up to Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Without falling into the endless hypertextural rabbit hole around what the game is and what it’s about, 2001’s MGS2 is a game about the inherent failings of a sequel but it’s also siren cry around the perils of the Information Age we now face today. How the rapid flow of information rids us of any context to understand the world around us, it speaks of echo chambers on forums that carry their own truths while never being able to see other truths in other subcommunities. All this information is “junk data” but who could or should be the curators of the ideas worth passing on? They can’t all come with us and given to future generations. In 2001 (!) MGS2 believes that choice was never in our hands in the first place but in artificial intelligence. That AI term has been moved into the present day under the guise of The Algorithm. Deciding what will be show to us on our feeds. The canary in the coal mine was already dead in 2001 and we’re only coming to terms with the smell in 2020. For almost a two-decade old text, they really nailed it on the head. Honestly, I’ll let the colonel, the who’ve you follow all your order from through all games in the series, say it better than me. (Spoiler warning as this is easily THE cutscene of the entire game; if you do wish to play it then you maybe shouldn’t be reading any of this anyway?)

           first documentation of a video game blackpill?

MGS2 moves its theme from the prison of the body to prison of the mind but still believes in a fight towards living with your own agency in life. That the stories we tell ourselves, and not the ones we’re told, are ones worth fighting for. That words don’t mean so much. We should look past the words to find our own meaning in a world filled with symbols only given meaning by those before us. In all its truth telling, this game still believes in a story; it still thinks the empty room that we awaken in after the nightmare is salvageable.

            14 years later, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain shows us what it’s like to live in that empty room where all we face is our own ineptitude. MGS5is the terminal conclusion of a dream denied. A game about blind revenge and the lies we tell each other to keep that fire alive at all costs, it tells us what a nation-state does when it run out of enemies to supplant their jingoism into. When the memes we tell ourselves run their course. When the flow of information is so fast that history can’t keep us. When poor intentioned American sentiment of solidarity turns into paranoia and imperialism overseas becomes at-home authoritarianism. The two games really document to the pre and post 9/11 American objective quite clearly in my eyes: as MGS2 came out weeks after 9/11 (and had many parts of the game taken out due to taking place around New York), it heeded warning over information, unmediated spread of memetics, and hypertextual discombobulation. MGS5 looks at the carcass of a culture that once stood for something, albeit violence against others, and the endless spiral that can be strewn in every direction, including your own, when your enemy is a just another phantom.

            Culture used to be a very small thing. Whole countercultures distilled into street names, bricks thrown, and seats taken on buses. Now we don’t know how to cope with how much history happens to us every day. The names, the protests, and tragedies coming at such a rate where it’s impossible to reconcile and place within a greater context. So how do we cope? We don’t! They wash over us as we create our own slower, smaller fiction that makes more sense than reality ever could, not unlike what the colonel spoke to in games prior. MGS5 is an ode to the third act of America, where we are no longer the scrappy nation fighting from tyranny nor are we the king of the hill for the rest of the world to look up in jealousy, we’re the snake eating its own tail since we’ve run out of food to eat. How can we create meaning in the abyss?

            The players on the PlayStation 3 version of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain created their own meaning in the abyss by creating a problem worth believing in. On R/Philanthropy (now r/metalgearantinuclear) and r/ThePatriots vicious sentiment travelled between cross posts, many would take shifts in the middle of the night to see if nuke we’re being made under the shroud of darkness. Private discord had watchdogs figuring out next steps towards how to avoid hackers and moles infiltrated into their own voice channels. The names are based off of in game organizations: The Patriots Philanthropy being Snake and his partner’s anti metal gear NGO and the Patriots, the metal gear’s equivalent of the deep state. Started in earnest back in March, reddit user u/thehunghorse created a discord server to round up anyone will to get the war count to zero for the first time ever. In an interview with arstechnica, thehunghorse admitted to the beginning issues ,”At first, nothing got done because we simply didn’t have the numbers. But slowly, our numbers grew to 60, 70… It was heartwarming to have everyone come together for this goal. Me and a few other members actually bought a PS3 copy [of Metal Gear Solid V] just to help out”. Planned coordination brought the number of warheads in the thousands in June to just 100 by July and to zero by the end of the month. After they reached the number they had been fighting for all of lockdown, Japan’s Metal Gear twitter account responded quickly but in the way they had hoped. “A nuclear abolition event has occurred in PS3 version of MGSV:TPP from July 28, Japan time, but we are currently investigating this matter.” Was posted the very next day and have yet to confirm Philanthropy’s efforts. Some people feel as if getting confirmation of nuclear abolition day will unlocked some new content in a game that is widely considered to be unfinished, but this is all hearsay and will most likely result to nothing. A discord server can dream, I suppose.

            This journey shows that when your dreams are denied you construct your own approval. And even through all this inane hardship they were still rewarded with Kojima hiding a 8 min cutscene in the game only seen once by hackers fooling servers into thinking the nuke count reached zero over two years ago. Echoing the same sentiments as MGS1 we have a role in not bettering the world but leaving it be for our children to allow them to make their own choices. MGS5 continues to show its prescience even half a decade over in other ways too. A large story beat surrounding MGS5 is the spread of a vocal cord parasite that grows only when certain languages are spoken from the host. In this case, it’s the English language, the world’s lingua franca, to liberate society from the social consciousness of how our brains are shaped by the English language. The coincidence of how predominately English speaking countries refuse to come to grips with our own reality’s global virus where the more we talk the faster this virus spreads is not lost on me through replays of this Sisyphean game about forming an enemy in an empty, endless war. These phantoms also have their own analogs in modern times. In MGS5 its “Cipher” and “Zero”, but in real life its Qanon, the Deep State, and Antifa. We must create our own myths to fight, even if nothing is really there. 

            The reason this series is in the medium of video game in the first place is due to Kojima’s ideas on player agency and how the form of video games can supplant textural narrative, elucidating the passivity of storytelling other media showcase. The character will not progress in the story unless you do, unlike a movie where the story will unfold the same way every time with or without you present. Form and Metal Gear Solid go hand in hand. These games not only speak of agency, but  alsomaterially confront what it means to control an avatar that being controlled by higher power both in game and in real life. In MGS1, the only way to beat a particular boss battle was to switch controller ports from player 1 to player 2 so he could no longer “read your thoughts.” You were expressly told in game by a character that you could only find the phone number for another character by reading the back of the game disc case. These fourth wall breaks were impressive at time but MGS2 took it a step further. Multiple times through the last act you are ordered to turn the game off. That Jack will face continuous hardship as long as we play. That we enjoy all the killing. By holding the controller, we aren’t just a part of the conflict, that we are the source of it. MGS5 provided a more subtle examination with the nuclear proliferation multiplayer component. The only way to stop this is if both side stop playing. Why are the servers still up for a lesser version of a five-year-old game on a console no one plays anymore? Why we’re subreddits and discord servers created for dismantling virtual nukes? Why does this make me happy that people fought for something? Do we enjoy all the killing, the posting, thee tweeting, the in-fighting? Maybe because even if we never arrive at an absolute reality, the joy of believing in something was worth it.

            On June 27, 2020 they’re were 0 nukes, touting a small victory in a subset of an already tiny microcommunity. By August 2, 2020, 40 nukes were back on those PS3 servers,106 at the time of me writing this. In 2021, the START treaty initially made in 1963 will expire, leaving us with nothing towards supervision against facing the second nuclear age. Nuclear proliferation as it happens on servers can now happen in real life with the US and Russia’s arsenal now left unchecked. As Putin states that he happy to extend the treaty without any precondition, the US stalls on signing the extension. The mirrors of conflict face each other in an empty room- battling for a decaying world stripped of its resources and wonder. Do we continue to stare in a never-ending brinkmanship? Do we break these mirrors, or do we walk out the room and build a better one? Whatever we do, we must something. Lest we face just another day in a war without end. 

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