Back in ye olde times (by which I mean the year 1973), a notable French director named François Truffaut made an offhand point in the Chicago Tribune, which simultaneously aged like a fine wine yet continues to plague the mind of just about every Stanley Kubrick fan on the planet. Unfortunately, I am one of those Stanley Kubrick fans.
“I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film,” he stated. “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.”
At the time, this opinion had people metaphorically tipping their heads and doing their best Tim Allen grunt. But now many agree that Truffaut was onto something big — something potentially universally relevant.
The idea that depicting war in a piece of media, regardless of intent, will automatically appeal to the ‘thrill’ and ‘victory’ of imperialist conquest isn’t a new one. As early as 1968 critics were making very similar points, such as Roger Ebert in his critique of Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War” (1967).
“Lester has no more made an anti-war film, than has Goodbody, his hero, won the war,” Ebert states quite bluntly. In other words, war can’t be used to critique itself. No matter what lengths creatives might go to convey the horrors of warfare, someone out there is gonna think it’s the coolest thing ever — or even worse, that it’s something to aspire to.
It certainly happens! Even in mediums such as comic books and graphic novels, there’s a gratuitous misinterpretation of violent, tragic stories and characters among both fans and the general public. For example, how many cops have you seen sporting a Punisher emblem somewhere on their Facebook page or other social media profiles? More than just a handful, I’m sure. Or how about a self-proclaimed apolitical Rage Against the Machine fan (which is essentially an oxymoron) complaining about how the band has been spouting a little too much anarchist rhetoric for their tastes lately? The list goes on.
Following that train of logic, we can extend this idea to other forms of popular media today, like video games. I’m sure you’ve heard your fair share of the pearl-clutching “video games encourage violence in our youth!” This debate has raged since the early 90s, and somehow continues to rage today, although two-thirds of the people in this country play video games. Personally, I think we should be focusing more on this encroaching epidemic of gamer-on-gamer violence. We should work with each other, not against each other!
Back to the initial point; many believe that war can’t be used to critique itself. Perhaps they’re onto something, perhaps not. This is something I’ve thought long and hard about, and I think the answer might lie in a totally obscure video game franchise you’ve probably never heard of.
I’m kidding, of course. I’m talking about the Metal Gear series.
There’s a decent chance you’ve heard of, or at the very least seen, our favorite bandana-wearing, overly gruff super soldier on one occasion or another. Solid Snake, a man of the people! A guy frequently found either hiding in a cardboard box or monologuing to himself about whichever ethical dilemma is currently plaguing him. Or both of those things simultaneously. A dude who has us raising our glasses and proclaiming to the heavens, “he’s just like me, for real!” …Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, there’s a significant number of folks that have played Metal Gear or are at least familiar with it. A common idea about Metal Gear is that it’s a series full of machismo; a mere power fantasy for those of us who will never be able to experience tactical espionage in real life. Which, honestly, is most of us. However, if you happen to be in the small percentage of people who have experienced real tactical espionage, congratulations! You are officially more interesting than me.
Jokes aside, there’s a whole lot more to Metal Gear than its first impressions. To start, we should probably look at who got the ball rolling in the first place; Metal Gear’s creator, Hideo Kojima.
Kojima has never been subtle about his abhorrence toward the military-industrial complex, particularly when it comes to nuclear warfare. In a Twitter thread from February of this year, Kojima shed light on Konami’s initial reaction to his vision and intent behind Metal Gear.
“When I mentioned ‘anti-nuclear and anti-war’ in an interview, the media laughed at me,” he recalled. “The entertainment industry criticized me, saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! Anti-war, anti-nuclear, when you’re playing a game where you shoot guns?’”
Typically, they’d have a point (although they could’ve conveyed it in a slightly more constructive manner). Most games, films, and novels that attempt to push back against the very institutions they’re written about tend to fall flat. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the irony that so many popular shows and films that critique capitalism are funded by hyper-capitalist conglomerates that have essentially monopolized the entertainment industry. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be wearing my ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ shirt to the premiere of the second Spider-Verse film when it comes out, and you can bet I’ll be spending full price on those tickets. But I digress.
What Kojima’s coworkers and various media moguls at Konami didn’t realize was that Metal Gear’s narrative focus wasn’t on war itself, but the people who carry it out. I don’t mean the people giving orders. I’m talking about the people who take them.
Within a series of briefing files found in “Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes,” a remake of the original “Metal Gear Solid,” the first recording we see shows Snake begrudgingly forced out of early retirement by his former commander. Unlike what we’re shown in “Metal Gear Solid,” it’s obvious to us how much Snake doesn’t want to do this. He’s young, only 26, yet he’s experienced more than enough horrors at the hands of those he was once in service to. Snake makes his feelings on continuing to do the government’s dirty work VERY clear, but we as the audience know that this is only the beginning of Snake’s story.
Already, there’s a discrepancy between what we’re expecting from our protagonist and what we’re given. Well, you might be thinking, obviously, he’s the only guy for the job. That’s why he’s got no choice but to do this. Once he saves the day, he’ll realize that this is what he’s meant to do. Being a hero is his purpose! His destiny, even. Am I right?
If only! Without spoiling anything from future installments or infodumping until your eyes bleed, it’s pretty much all downhill from here. No matter how good Snake is at his job, no matter how many times he defeats the bad guys, he’s never finished. His superiors never really let him go. He’s always called back to deal with crises that are no fault of his own, nor his responsibility. He’s always relied on, yet rarely provided for. This guy never ever catches a break, not even on his literal deathbed — to all my homies who have played MGS4, you are entitled to emotional compensation.
So, how exactly does this offer a critique of war? Because right now it just sounds like a long, depressing story with an unsatisfactory end. And… yeah, actually. You’re correct. It is a long, depressing story with an unsatisfactory end.
Metal Gear gets to the heart of what many of us know, yet often refuse to acknowledge about imperialism and the war economy that drives it. War has no place for people. I don’t mean in the sense of bodies, labor, or anything else that people can provide. I mean people. Humans. War has no place for feelings or families or any collective benefit to the creatures we share this planet with. War is devoid of empathy; it’s emotionless and it doesn’t discriminate between the ideologies or intentions of the people who perpetuate it. Kojima and the others who worked on Metal Gear knew this too, only they opted to shine a light on it when most other games feigned a blissful ignorance in favor of making their games more marketable. In hindsight, the irony is like a slap in the face.
So I suppose that brings us back to the original point. Is Metal Gear really an effective critique of the military-industrial complex, or does it fall short like so many other pieces of anti-war media do?
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Metal Gear is a game. In the wise words of my totally real and legitimate uncle who works at Nintendo, Reggie Fils-Aimé, “The game is fun. The game is a battle. If it’s not fun, why bother? If it’s not a battle, where’s the fun?” And he’s right! Metal Gear is a video game where you’re a cool guy with tight glutes kicking other people’s less tight glutes into oblivion, and you’re damn good at it. Some might even say you’re the best at it. What’s not fun about that?
In that case, maybe we need to look past the game itself and look more into the game’s narrative, themes and characters. What’s the story trying to say? What are the characters trying to say? Judging by what’s been stated already, I think they drive the point home as effectively as they can.
At its core, Metal Gear isn’t about winning, or doing your duty, or enjoying the spoils of battle after beating up a bunch of people because some middle-aged guy in a beret told you to. It’s about humanism. It’s about empathy. It’s about finding things to cherish in life despite its horrors. It’s about breaking the cycle of violence you’ve been forced into by leaving the world a slightly better place than it was when you got there. And, cheesy as it may sound, it really is about love. Loving others! Finding a capacity for love you didn’t even know you had! Loving the world and wanting to make it better on your own terms, not the terms you’ve been given by someone else.
In Solid Snake’s own words, he sums up Metal Gear’s core philosophy succinctly. “Life is worth living, even if it hurts you, even if you hurt in it.”
If there’s one thing this ridiculous series of games has taught me, it’s that we’re the only ones to decide what our future will look like. Our actions affect other people to an extent we can never fully comprehend, and we ultimately control our actions. We shape the world that everyone after us is born into. Who would’ve figured that all this time, we just needed a disgruntled man in a skin-tight bodysuit to remind us of that?