Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Alan Moore's next project, or how to stage a public tantrum

This posting is so full of spoilers that you should probably ignore it if you have yet to play Metal Gear Solid 1 or 2 for the first time and you have plans to do that. If you don't fit that profile, enjoy!

So, I was just writing a comment in reference to a link a Facebook friend posted this afternoon. The link goes to a short blog posting at Topless Robot talking about trivializing merchandise that's cashing in on the Watchmen* movie. The products range from the unsurprising to the frankly ridiculous ("Dr. Manhattan Logo Baseball Cap" is now a phrase that refers to an existing object). Anyway, the posting goes on to joke about Alan Moore's notorious dislike of merchandising and marketing and film adaptations of his work in general. So in my Facebook comment, I said that Alan Moore needs to write a book that folds back on itself by featuring, as some sort of plot detail, the shameless hocking of merchandise tied into the film adaptation about the book itself. That was what I said.

Or--or!--it occurs to me that Moore could also take a page out of Hideo Kojima's book. It never occurred to me prior to this past year that Metal Gear Solid 2 was anything other than simply the MGS sequel Kojima wanted to make, but on episode 43 of Retronauts, Jeremy Parish says that MGS2 was also a "temper tantrum" on Kojima's part. With MGS2, Kojima jerked his creation away from his fans' clutches, stridently sticking to his own vision, even if his vision wasn't quite what he thought the fans were after.

What you have to understand about MGS2 if you want to get what the "temper tantrum" comment means is that MGS2 is all about deception and manipulation, and those themes extended even to the American marketing campaign for the game. For example, one of the game's biggest surprises is that, for the most part, it doesn't document the adventures of the series' usual protagonist, Solid Snake. Instead, the game starts with a brief mission aboard a "tanker" and then flashes ahead two years to a longer mission that takes place on a "clean-up facility" installed over an "oil-spill" "caused" by the "tanker" in the Hudson River. Okay, no more scare quotes for a while! In the first mission, the player's avatar is, in fact, Snake, but in the second mission, the avatar is instead a younger operative named Raiden. The fact that the game switches characters in mid-stream was withheld from the American gaming press and came as a complete surprise to players when they got to the second section of the game. The American version of the game, which I assume is identical to the Japanese version, deliberately plays on its audience's ignorance, hiding the identity of the second section's protagonist behind a diving suit with breathing mask. The second operative's commander even refers to him as "Snake" for the first several minutes of the second section, much of which is made to resemble the opening section of the first MGS.

There are a lot of strange factors that influence the American audience's reception of Raiden, and a lot of them hinge on the character's appearance. In Japanese culture, it's not uncommon for a heroic male character to have long hair and a build that's more graceful than muscular. This sort of appearance might in fact be more common among male protagonists in Japanese video games than the alternative; the last few Castlevania games (prior to the latest one, which has a female protagonist) all had characters who were presented on the box art as reasonably slight, long-haired guys, and the Final Fantasy series often hews to this aesthetic with male characters. Sephiroth, the villain of one of the best known Final Fantasies (VII), is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about, with his long, silver hair and his (slimming) black outfit.

In America, many people have a completely different understanding of the code that lies behind a character's appearance than the Japanese do. Thus many American gamers, as far as I've been able to tell, read these characters as more essentially feminine than their Japanese counterparts do. There's a fine line there: these characters may or may not be intended to read as effeminate (I'd need to read way more literature than I have to understand whether that's the case or not), but the sorts of Americans I'm talking about take what might be deliberate effeminacy and read it as femininity.

So the point I've slowly been trying to set up here is that Raiden struck American audiences as, well, girly, or at least not the first guy you'd choose to play as in a game. And as if the game were designed with the American audience in mind, there are a lot of in-game jokes that, to be fair to American gamers, reinforced this interpretation of Raiden. For one, he's constantly modeling the stereotypical angsty qualities of a bratty teenager, complete with a snipey phone relationship with his (fake/not fake) girlfriend. At one point he's forced to run buck naked (seriously) through the bowels (not, um, entirely a metaphor) of a war-robot-base-thing. When he meets the President of the United States (not the one you're thinking of), the latter makes a quick manual genital check to establish Raiden's gender. Classy!

So whether Raiden plays as feminine or effeminate or whatever in Kojima's native Japan, it's clear the game knows Raiden isn't the player's first choice, and it plays with that awareness early and often. Hideo Kojima games have always sort of read the player the same way that Harold Bloom says Shakespeare reads you: "more fully than you can read him" (to which suck.com's Mr. Mxyzptlk said, "so don't flip through Lear on the crapper"). The first MGS has a section where a villain actually reads your Playstation memory card, figures out which Konami games you have save files from, and then remarks on how you like to play Castlevania. But usually it's less literal than that; these games often have a way of playing with your expectations in a way that's tri- or tetrafurcated. In MGS2, Raiden is made to look like Snake when the game reenacts the opening moments of MGS1. Then it becomes apparent he's NOT Snake, and for the player, the significance of that similarity to the first game sort of recedes. But then later it's revealed that the whole second half of the game was a ploy--in fact, the Patriots, the evil and all-knowing Stonecutters of this game, put Raiden through a rerun of the first game's events just to shape him into an operative as talented and deadly as Solid Snake. So that momentary reminiscence of the first game, that little scrap of familiarity that was thrown out so quickly? That was deliberate.

Oh, but wait, it turns out that the Patriots weren't actually trying to train Raiden! They were trying to manipulate him into going through the motions of the first game's events just to position him to kill his mentor and, frankly, one of the good guys. I know, this is confusing.

The point is, the whole second half of MGS2 is a humongous mindgame that extends from the insertion of an oddly designed player character to an ending engineered by the same people responsible for every single moment of the game's plot. The philosophical question behind the game's events is simply whether freedom or control is the key to the sort of society you want, and it's an important and an intriguing question, but the game goes so far in stressing the themes of control and manipulation that it deceives its audience at every turn, even selling itself as a different sort of game than it actually is. Even the "tanker" from the first half of the game ends up being a military transport carrying a deadly war machine, but what's really crazy is that the "tanker's" explosive destruction is rigged as a pretense for building the Plant, the petroleum clean-up facility that serves as the setting for most of the game's second half. In other words, everything in the game, even the environment, is a lie.

Oh, and the Patriots themselves--who are they? Why, they're a bunch of guys who 1) have been making donations to Snake and pal Otacon's NGO for peace "Philanthropy," and in addition to that 2) all died a hundred years ago. Mysterious!

In retrospect, this is terribly satisfying, if you can be completely fair about it. Kojima wanted to get his point across, and he did, and along the way he stuck a great big middle finger in the face of every gamer going into the experience with any sort of expectations. If you went in expecting just a game, something that was kind of, sort of designed for you? No such luck :)

Click here to begin watching the whole darn game if you're confused, bored, and have about 7 hours on your hands!

This is the sort of thing I think Alan Moore should do for his next book. Not a real book, but a temper tantrum. Go get em, Alan.

P.S. I'd just like to say so long to those who didn't survive UGO's acquisition of the 1Up Network this afternoon. There's an awful darn lot of talent among you all, and it has been a true pleasure following your material. Good luck to you in the future; I know you'll do great. Here's hoping that 1Up, which is still home to some of my favorite game journalists, remains classy and informative, as I'm sure it will, in spite of its sordid new owners. Click "lifestyle" to initiate disgust sequence.

*Yes, this blog now comes without italics, because 1) it's a blog and 2) I'm sick of typing the html code for italics every time I mention a title. Enjoy!

Oh, Kung Fu Grip Japanese Toys and Collectibles gets the credit for the photo of the great MGS2 Kubricks!

1 comment:

  1. I only read this in hopes that the Harold Bloom joke had him as the butt of it (can I say "butt" without bringing in scatological referents? I bet not). Finding this not the case and not being a gamer, AND being informed of the basic Alan Moore bait-n-switch, I still found much to amuse. You might want to check out Mechademia for cutting edge commentary on J-pop culture (mostly anime and manga).