Welcome back to Carcosa, mortal! In this continuation of my series on the modern epic, we’ll be discussing one of my favourite stories of all time. I hope that in reading this analysis, you will see places where you can draw from this rich well for your own work, and find ways to expand your narrative from ordinary to epic. So, let us begin.
It’s no secret to those who know me that I love Hideo Kojima’s legendary Metal Gear Solid series. But one of the reasons I love it so much is that I consider it a modern epic. Video-games have delivered some of the most iconic stories and characters of the last thirty years. They stand on their own as valid artistic works. Not only that, but they culturally connect with a vast, vast number of people in a way that films and poetry increasingly don’t. Statistics have shown more young people play games than watch films. In some ways, films have become a cinephile niche, save for the one or two major blockbusters that draw colossal numbers. Whilst games are anchored with technology (therefore it becomes more difficult to play older titles as technology advances), this is no different from how epics are anchored to language. Who now speaks Ancient Greek? Very few among us, except perhaps within Greece itself, where it is compulsory and they are aided by the affinity of their modern language with the ancient one. Yet, The Odyssey can be read and enjoyed in translation around the world. So, too, can Metal Gear Solid be enjoyed in English (translated from the original Japanese) and by those with older consoles, emulators or even by those willing to purchase premium ‘remasters’ of the game that overhaul graphical fidelity and allow games to be played on later consoles. Of course, there is irony in this, as Metal Gear Solid is itself an exploration of technology and its relentless advance; the eponymous ‘Metal Gear’ represents a threat to the world, a mobile robotic walker capable of launching a nuke from anywhere.
I believe Metal Gear Solid has surpassed pretty much all other video-games in terms of its storytelling. This is because it reaches for that lofty trophy of the epic. Kojima-san is someone who clearly, intuitively, understands what constitutes an epic, and how to execute it. Tackling tremendous themes such as nuclear proliferation and the horrors of modern warfare alongside subtle emotional complexities such as the sins of parenthood (especially fatherhood), friendship and love, the epic scope cannot be questioned. He has learned from Western and Eastern masters alike, and synthesised the best of both to create something truly unique. Despite his cinematic leanings, Kojima-san uses a 5 Act structure in most of his stories (overtly dividing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots with five title screens). This undoubtedly takes its precedence from Greek tragedy and the work of Shakespeare, themselves epic influences.
In creating Solid Snake, Kojima-san has created an iconic epic hero, rivalling the greats of cinema such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken (off whom Solid Snake was certainly based). But how does Snake fit the epic archetype? Well, he’s a clone for a start (his unusual origin, royal genealogy and unusual power in one), inheriting the inferior genes of Big Boss, a legendary special operative gone rogue. Even though he has inherited the ‘inferior’ genes, Snake is not to be dismissed: his abilities are super-human, with lightning-fast reflexes and above-average toughness and strength. He inherently has a sense of right and wrong, of justice, even though he has been trained to kill from an early age. In a cold yet heartbreaking moment of self awareness, he says: ‘Unfortunately, killing is one of those things that gets easier the more you do it.’
Left: Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York”, played by Kurt Russel / Right: Venom Snake from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Snake uses specialist kit – including stealth camouflage, nano-machines, and high-tech weaponry – employed by only the most elite military units (magical equipment). His clone origin means he was not raised by his true parents (orphaned), but instead trained from birth to be part of FOXHOUND. Jokingly, Snake believes his smoking addiction to be his major flaw, but this is superseded by his real physical weakness which is a form of Werner’s disease, a byproduct of his artificial creation, leading to extremely accelerated ageing. In an emotional sense, Snake’s tragic flaw is his inability to form true human relationships, his lack of trust, meaning that even those closest to him feel they don’t know him. It is only by overcoming this weakness, trusting his friends, that he can defeat his nemesis Liquid Snake, his clone brother, at the close of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It should be noted that the fourth instalment in the game’s series is actually the last one chronologically. Like a true epic, Metal Gear Solid’s story is told out of order. In terms of narrative chronology, the ‘first’ game is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, followed by V, followed by 1, then 2, then 4.
Kojima-san’s invocation to the Muse is not a one time thing, but an ever-present trope through the series, in that he auteuristically homages movies and television that have informed his work. The style and characters of Metal Gear Solid are heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and many scenes reference and recall this iconic cult-classic, including one scene in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in which Snake, asked to reveal his identity, gives the codename: Iroquois Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, there are many uses of the ‘split-screen’, showing multiple threads of action at once, which is almost certainly a direct homage to the American TV series 24 which aired its first series 7 years prior to MGS4. 24 has many obvious thematic and plot similarities with Kojima-san’s work (spies, espionage, terrorism, how war breaks down human relationships). Later, Kiefer Sutherland, who plays 24’s legendary agent Jack Bauer, would voice Venom Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and go on to collect an award (Game of the Year) on behalf of Hideo Kojima when Konami, the developer Kojima-san previously worked for, refused to allow him to attend the ceremony. Here, the Muse is not only invoked but becomes part of the story. There is direct interplay between inspiration and output.
The split-screen action culminates in Metal Gear Solid 4 in one of the most iconic gaming scenes of all time, a scene in which the player must force Solid Snake through a microwave emitting corridor in order to disarm Liquid’s all-pervading digital control system, a system which will give him absolute control over warfare across the globe. On one screen, we see Snake literally coming apart at the seams, the microwaves frying musculature and braincells. On the other, we see his friends, Otacon, Raiden, Meryl, Johnny, Dreben, Mei Ling, fighting for their very lives against impossible odds. This scene is brilliant because it forces us to watch beloved characters fall, their last resistance against Liquid’s superior armies crumbling before our eyes, giving us all the incentive we need to force Snake on, even though he himself, a character we have known and loved for 20 years, is falling apart. Through its framing, it becomes a culmination of seemingly every war ever fought, the entirety of human suffering, condensed into a 5 minute sequence. The further we push Snake down that corridor, the worse it gets. In the background, a piece of music aptly entitled ‘Love Theme’ plays with sorrowful, funereal strength. Snake’s love is what sets him apart from his clone brothers Liquid and Solidus, and his corrupted father Big Boss. Although he is not perfect, he is more human than all of them. Broken, aged, he gives everything, redefining heroism for our era.
Kojima-san’s games subvert the tropes of video-games, that of killing to win, by forcing the player to focus on stealth and espionage. Avoidance of conflict is the solution, and this is reflected in the gameplay as well as in the cinematic storytelling; at the end of the series, it’s about passively enduring something un-endurable. He takes his influence from the Japanese writer Kobo Abe, who wrote: ‘The rope and the stick are two of humankind’s oldest tools. The stick to keep evil at a bay, the rope to bring that which is good closer, both were the first friends conceived by humankind. The rope and stick were wherever humankind was to be found’ (The Rope). The idea is that we use the stick to destroy things, and this is the predominant narrative focus of most games, movies and books, but there is an alternative path – that of the rope. Kojima-san discussed this philosophy at length an article for Rolling Stone. This not only subverts video-game tropes, but epic ones. In The Odyssey and The Iliad, killing is at the heart of the narrative, and is the method by which the heroes overcome most of their problems. Whilst the violence is not always justified or portrayed in a positive light (in a tragic scene in The Odyssey, Odysseus ‘weeps’ to hear Achilles described like a ‘human being’), it nonetheless proves the ultimate solution. Kojima-san creates an epic in which violence is a tragic reality, but not the ultimate resort of the true hero. Snake rises above violence in entering the corridor. He can’t fight the corridor, he simply must survive it, crawling on his belly (like a snake) to reach the end.
Stylistically, the use of the split-screen and music to generate such emotion is certainly epic. It has grandeur, ambition, and homages other epic tales that have gone before it. Like Orpheus, who was told never to look back as he walked from hell with the soul of his wife behind him, Snake cannot look back down the corridor. If he does, he will weaken and turn back. He must keep going forward through hell itself and trust his friends can hold just long enough. Similarly, epic catalog is employed frequently through the Metal Gear Solid series. Endless names, ranks, numbers, data, historical events, political treaties, technology and more are described and referenced, and you can call your allies on your Codec to get more information at any time. Military acronyms, tech-jargon, cutting edge science, are spliced with rich philosophy and poetic sentiment: ‘I’m a shadow that no light will shine upon,’ Snake says, ‘As long as you follow me, you will never see the day.’ Not only do the characters speak in weighty monologues rich with extended metaphor and double-meaning, but the names of the characters themselves are a kind of extended metaphor. Snake is told to ‘crawl on his belly’ by Vulcan Raven in Metal Gear Solid 1, an insult referring to his codename and the fact he spends a lot of time, well, crawling around like the sneaky agent he is. But later we are told that ‘A name means nothing on the battlefield’. Snake is not really a snake, he is a human being.
Snake finds himself frequently descending into hell. In Metal Gear Solid 1 this is perhaps best expressed. Snake must infiltrate a secret base in the depths of freezing Alaska called Shadow Moses. Cut off from help, struggling to survive in hypothermia-inducing temperatures, the stark landscape, concealing layers and layers of military facility which he must literally descend into, becomes a kind of hell. It is even cold, much like Dante’s Inferno is at its absolute abyssal inverse-apex on the Ninth Circle. Hell literally freezes over. In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater we follow Big Boss (Solid and Liquid Snake’s forbearer) as a young, naive soldier (not the jaded villain we know from later parts of the narrative) as he journeys into a kind of Heart of Darkness, a 1960s Soviet jungle. ‘Hell is murky’, Lady Macbeth claims in one of Shakespeare’s iconic monologues. This is eminently true of the jungle we explore in the game. But in a breathtaking scene where Big Boss must throw himself down a sheer cliff into a river to escape Soviet prison, we enter a more literal hell. Big Boss seems to die, and begins wading down a river in the dark. Suddenly, he meets the deceased member of the elite Cobra Unit, The Sorrow. The Sorrow summons the dead against Big Boss, forcing him to experience the suffering he has inflicted on others. In a brilliant twist, Kojima engineers the game so that every person you have killed confronts the player, in exactly the state you killed them. There are soldiers burning forever, clutching at slit throats, riddled with bullet-holes. It’s harrowing and punishing. The more people you’ve killed, the longer the sequence goes on for. This is true katabasis.
In terms of a guide, I’ve already mentioned a few who help Snake throughout his missions. The most significant is Snake’s friend Otacon, who takes his name from the Japanese word ‘Otaku’, which means ‘geek’. He’s an anime fan, a kind of sly wink-nod to the audience playing the game, who will most likely be fans of Japanese culture and anime themselves. He’s a cowardly scientist (pissing himself with fear the first time we meet him), but extremely intelligent, loyal, and kind. Although arguably he displays a different kind of bravery to Snake’s, trying to help undo the terrible wrongs of helping to create Metal Gear, even though he knows he will face consequences for betraying his former masters.
Metal Gear Solid is an incredible tale, told over twenty years. It’s a miracle that Kojima-san got a chance to tell it. And while his last efforts were partially scuppered by Konami at the very end (MGSV: The Phantom Pain is unfortunately unfinished – Kojima’s original plans for it would have brought the series full circle with a beautiful closing arc, but sadly this was not to be), the series still holds up without any major gaps in the tale. Epics, after all, are notorious for being left unfinished anyway. It’s part of the risk in undertaking such a vast story. Virgil’s Aeneid was half finished. On his deathbed, the Roman poet commanded it to be burned because he was disappointed with it, but the Emperor decreed that it be saved. Strangely, though Virgil had another 12 books (chapters) planned, the poem ends at a perfect, spine tingling point: ‘Turner’s soul fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night’ – the soul of the antagonist finally going down to hell, defeated. Similarly, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen was purportedly half completed when he died, and yet it ends at a moment that to me perfectly encapsulates the transition from the era of the heroic and epic into the modern day, when the Blatant Beast, a creature that destroys art and sincerity, escapes from captivity to roam the world again.
But of course, the Blatant Beast cannot truly destroy beauty in the world, because there will always be epic poets, and epic stories worth telling, we simply have to look for them. Whilst epics always bridge the gap between past and present, they do not have to be backward looking, or rehashes. They can be bold, different and unique – and they can be modern. We like to think the Ancient Greeks could never have conceived of the idea of a giant walking robot with nuclear capability, but what then is Talos, the gigantic iron guardian who attempts to halt Jason and the Argonauts? Resonant imagery is eternal, echoing down through time, through generations, finding new ways of expression that are concurrent with the era we live in. At the same time, epics cause us to reconsider the world around us and our culture. Metal Gear Solid, while undoubtedly a story of war, is also its sincerest critic. It tells us that the epic is still alive and well, and that heroism exists, but not in the way we think.
We’ve now come to the end of part 2 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 3, we’ll look at our second example of a ‘modern epic’, an ambitious collaborate narrative work… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!
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Until next time, my friends!