Weapons of mass destruction. Terrorism. Patriotism. Government surveillance for your own security. The ethics of war. Echo chambers. Fake news. These are all buzzwords that came to dominate political discussion for those of us who came of age in the second millennium.
In 2001, when society was still struggling to make sense of the new post-9/11 world order that was unfolding around them, a generation of teenage gamers were playing through a distorted reflection of reality on the PlayStation 2. Somehow a video game had managed to capture the nascent spirit of the times so accurately that its message still resonates today like a prophecy. That game was #MetalGearSolid2.
Although development on the game began before 9/11, Metal Gear Solid 2 subverted traditional narrative expectations to offer a story of extraordinary prescience. With its focus on the manipulation of information available to the public in order to shape attitudes towards war and atrocity, it predicted problems that are now inescapable talking points in op-eds across the media.
A Game With A Moral Message
Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima has a reputation for silliness and screwing around with players for the sake of it, but he's also committed to exploring deeper themes in his work. In an interview with Edge Magazine, Kojima insists that his games have something important to say:
'It's important to me that my games aren’t only ‘fun’. I want them to carry a message or kernel of something that players can take and use.'
Kojima originally aimed to be a filmmaker before his career in video game development took off, and it shows in the cinematic sensibilities and references of the Metal Gear games. There's fun to be had in Metal Gear Solid 2, in spades, but even after 15 years and several sequels, what's surprising is just how keenly its core themes still resonate.
The Patriots' Prediction Of 'Post-Truth' And Their Chilling Solution
At the core of MGS2 is the idea that one can control society by controlling the information available to it. The game itself demonstrates its thesis on the player in several meta ways, the first being the fact that the game itself was originally marketed as a more traditional sequel to Metal Gear Solid, featuring Solid Snake as the main protagonist. The demo was carefully set up to give this impression.
Instead we get a new main player character, Raiden, who is introduced as a naive rookie keen to follow in the footsteps of legendary solider Solid Snake. As the game progresses, however, there are telling clues that all is not what it seems, and Raiden eventually ends up questioning who he works for and even his own memories and sense of self.
MGS2 features false flag terrorist attacks in New York City (which, after 9/11, meant that the game had to carry an explicit disclaimer declaring it to be wholly a work of fiction), morally questionable covert ops, double agents and a grand conspiracy that controlled everything from the President of the United States right down to the individual. Raiden exemplifies the easily-manipulated individual who shies away from thinking about inconvenient truths.
Just take a look at this codec segment from the late game:
The Patriots consider Americans to be incapable of dealing with the facts of their own reality. Since they can't be trusted to remember history, the Patriots have decided to do the thinking for us. Instead of a messy jumble of conflicting information, the S3-controlled internet will have a single voice and vision directed by the Patriots, all for our own good.
Whereas MGS1 was rooted in Cold War fears concerning the proliferation of nuclear weapons, MGS2: Sons of Liberty is about the dangers of the new digital era. The main fear that motivates the different factions are the ramifications of unfettered communication among the population via the internet, and the divorcing of authority from 'truth'.
The player experiences this though the character of Raiden. Raiden's past in Liberia has been mind-wiped by nanomachines controlled by the Patriots and love interest Rosemary is a paid actress tailored to meet Raiden's sexual tastes. Raiden's entire self is a lie and curated by his bosses as an experiment. Even entire levels in the game turn out to be fake, and some more suspicious players hold that the entire game is an in-universe VR simulation.
Towards the end of the game, the player is forced through Raiden's own mental breakdown as he struggles to escape the web of lies around him. This manifests through various weirdness and meta-game occurrences for the player. Although Raiden escapes the direct influence of the Patriots' AI by the end of the game, everything he's done in the game has inadvertently furthered their cause, and he ends up questioning whether he can ever be sure about reality again.
There's A War On For Your Mind
Anyone who's been paying attention to the news in the last decade will recognize that the themes of Metal Gear Solid 2, while seeming a little far-fetched and sci-fi back when the game was released, are wholly recognizable in today's post-truth world.
People are ever more concerned about the vast amount of data that's being collected about private citizens and held by unaccountable agencies such as the NSA or huge corporations. The political parties fighting for control over the population present us with 'truths' that are seemingly incompatible, destabilizing any sense of actual history and reality just like the Colonel described in the above codec sequence.
'Fake news', 'the post-truth era', 'echo-chambers', and 'alternative facts' have all been coined in recent years as ways to describe the mess of information and misinformation that spreads unchecked, virus-like through social media. Look at any controversial event nowadays and you'll see a flurry of different takes with accusations, counter-accusations and counter-counter-accusations of fake news on both sides.
Maybe the S3 program, able to target particular individuals to curate their life experience, seems extreme, but scrutiny of new big data analysis techniques utilized in the recent US election campaign reveals incredibly sophisticated personality evaluation and propaganda targeting, right down to the individual level.
You don't have to be an Infowars-following, card-carrying conspiracy theorist to be suspicious of what your government tells you. Famously, we went to war in Iraq over false, deliberately manipulated information about the threat of Saddam Hussein's WMDs. The government collects information on its citizens without restriction, but releases only limited information to the public on its own doings. Like Raiden, ordinary citizens are kept distracted and fed convenient half-truths to suit the interests of the elite.
Just how much power to give to the government and technology with regard to information remains up for debate. Figures like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange may be heroes or villains, patriots or traitors depending on your personal views on information and privacy in the digital age.
The Patriots' AI and their 'Selection for Societal Sanity' is a twisted parody of informational control by an unaccountable deep surveillance state that I'm sure no one would think is a valid solution to the tensions of the post-truth information age. But it is nonetheless the case that patriotism is often trotted out as an excuse for an authoritarian control of information (the post 9/11 extension of US government surveillance powers was even called The Patriot Act).
It's not just the government that can manipulate our sense of reality. MGS2 was released years before Facebook was a thing, but much has been made of the ubiquitous social media platform's algorithms and methods of curating news and content in people's feeds, as well as the company's opaque attitude towards censorship. Giant tech companies like Facebook and Google approach the scope and power of government agencies like the NSA in their potential to wield something like the kind of control that Metal Gear Solid 2's fictional Patriots aim to exercise.
'Metal Gear Solid 2' Has Plenty Of Substance Underneath The Silliness
There's a lot of debate about over whether video games should be taken seriously as an art form alongside films and novels. Sure, this game has its wacky moments. It's still a game where you can hide in a cardbox box and distract soldiers with porno magazines. Hideo Kojima, for all his earnestness, still muses on how best to cook up backstories to justify large breasts in his games. MGS2 is meant to be played for fun, but it remains a game with a message, and as the years have gone by since its release, I've only had more and more respect for the game's vision.
Isn't it the point of good artistic fiction to draw attention to real issues through exaggeration and speculation of contemporary phenomena? In its prescient exploration of the critical anxieties of the high-tech information society we live in today, and the fourth-wall breaking delivery of that message through manipulation of the player and main character, I'd say that Metal Gear Solid 2 deserves a place in the canon for being well ahead of its time.
What do you think? Does Metal Gear Solid 2 deserve credit for predicting the future?