Metal Gear Solid 2 Retrospective: Be Careful What You Wish For

Illustration: Chelsea Beck (G/O Media)
Metal Gear RetrospectiveMetal Gear RetrospectiveAn ongoing series analyzing the Metal Gear games.

The initial technological threat in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is Metal Gear RAY. It is an “anti-Metal Gear,” a mech designed to destroy what came before. It is singularly focused on destroying the past, and so is Metal Gear Solid 2. This game is the anti-Metal Gear game. It is the great deconstruction that many fans consider the series’ greatest betrayal. Players wanted to be Solid Snake again, but instead, this game showed them how different they really were from Snake.

Many critics and fans call Metal Gear Solid 2 a postmodern game. It has been called one of the first or “most” postmodern games. In his book A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games, author Dylan Holmes says that “Metal Gear Solid 2 isn’t the first postmodern game, but it’s the first major commercial release to fall squarely in the category.” That assessment rises from Metal Gear Solid 2’s cynical relationship with the audience and its self-referential tendencies. It is a game about games, and it’s deeply skeptical about the political circumstances of its construction. Even so, all games cannot help but call attention to their construction. Players feel the weight of a controller in their hands and see the imperfections of the television they play on. Reality is always lurking in the shadow of any play experience. Metal Gear Solid 2’s fear—that player behavior undermines the craft of the artist—applies to any game. Games reject objective assessment due to the variation of each new playthrough. There is no “objective” playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 2, nor is there one in any game. Their worlds bend with a button press. An unexpected player decision or hardware failure shatters everything. Likewise, player fears and desires break down thematic and narrative stability. Metal Gear Solid 2 calls explicit attention to this fraught situation.

Then there’s the context of Metal Gear Solid 2’s release. 1998’s Metal Gear Solid was not simply met with critical acclaim, it was also seen as a console-defining experience for many players. It had all the excitement of an action movie with just enough real-world politics to make its story feel mature in the way that gamers of the time wanted to be assured that their pastime and they, themselves, were mature. Metal Gear Solid vindicated players. It was art. It also had an antagonistic relationship with the player, like the Metal Gear games before it and the ones that would follow, but it wasn’t as obvious about it. In Metal Gear Solid, it did not matter how often Solid Snake failed, it did not matter how much pain he endured or how much he lost completing his mission. Solid Snake was cool. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be Solid Snake?

Metal Gear Solid 2 is built around the core belief that a desire to identify with Snake is disturbing. The game’s design document stressed that the plot would consist of “a series of betrayals and sudden reversals, to the point where the player is unable to tell fact from fiction.” While existing players’ comfort was accounted for—MGS2 was still a corporate product that needed to sell copies—the game would also contain “ironies aimed at the digital society and gaming culture.”

Every punchline needs a set up. The E3 2000 and 2001 trailers for Metal Gear Solid 2 featured footage of Solid Snake sneaking through a tanker ship, subduing guards and clashing with old foes like Revolver Ocelot. There was a battle against a fighter jet on the Brooklyn Bridge, and footage of Snake fighting a mysterious rail gun-wielding woman. The 2001 trailer ended with the apparent return of the Cyborg Ninja, one of Metal Gear Solid’s most “badass” characters. By every indication, Metal Gear Solid 2 would be the triumphant sequel that fans craved. It was a deception which would lead to one of the most infamous twists in video game history.

“The Hudson River, two years ago..”
“The Hudson River, two years ago..”

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty opens on a rainy night in 2007. Solid Snake walks down the side of the Brooklyn Bridge smoking a cigarette. (Correction: I’m told this is the George Washington Bridge. Don’t blame me, I’m not a native New Yorker.) His pace picks up until he is running. The wind tosses off his raincoat, revealing that his form underneath is obscured by the activation of stealth camouflage technology. He leaps off the bridge, attaches a cable to the underside of it, and lands on the deck of a passing tanker, the USS Discovery. It is a dramatic start to a sneaking mission, as bold as Metal Gear Solid’s submarine insertion into Shadow Moses Island.

The mission is straightforward: infiltrate the tanker and take pictures of a prototype Metal Gear unit that the United States Marine Corps is designing, which is hidden in the tanker’s cargo hold. But while that mission is simple, the broader circumstances behind it are not. Metal Gear Solid 2’s main mode of operation is to take the preceding game and add complications and inversions. Within the narrative, that means negating the player’s victory in the first game. Metal Gear REX was destroyed but Revolver Ocelot escaped, leaking the design specifications to the world. Rogue states and even “dotcoms” either have functional Metal Gear derivatives or the information required to make one. Digital information is a key concern for Metal Gear Solid 2—Ocelot leaked data to the internet, Snake and Otacon want to uncover new information and similarly leak it on the internet. Information is just as powerful as any traditional weapon, and often harder to deal with.

Before the tanker segment begins in earnest, Metal Gear Solid 2 begins its push against the fourth wall. Octacon, talking to Snake over the CODEC radio, performs a gear check with Snake. The cutscene plays out from the same view as the rest of the game, and as the item menus are opened, Otacon comments on Snake’s items as if he could see the menu as well. There is a blurriness between what players know and what characters know. In this case, because the player can see the item menu, Otacon can “see” it as well. The gear check also brings a major inversion of the Metal Gear form. In previous games, Snake arrives at his destinations without any gear. Here, he starts the game with a suppressed tranquilizer pistol. There is no need to search for gear. The thin line between the player and the game world is further stressed in an additional curiosity. If the cutscene is left to play out, Snake will test the pistol by firing at a nearby light. If the player skips the cutscene, the light isn’t shot out and they will keep the extra tranquilizer round that Snake would have used. If the player doesn’t see it, it doesn’t happen within the fiction either. The world exists relative to the player’s perception.

The tanker chapter quickly moves to assert itself as a traditional Metal Gear adventure. The Marines on the ship’s deck are killed by Russian troops that have also infiltrated the tanker. They are led by Sergei Gurlukovich, a character only mentioned in passing during Metal Gear Solid. Snake is now in a race to covertly photograph the Metal Gear while also sneaking around Gurlukovich’s soldiers.

Playing through the tanker chapter is a comfortable experience. The M9 tranquilizer gun is a silent weapon that can disable enemies with a single headshot on any difficulty. Combined with the series’ signature radar, it is easy to see where guards are located and take them out well before they get close enough to spot Snake. The ship’s hallways conveniently guide players to their next objective while providing convenient corners to hide behind and pathways that make for predictable enemy patrol routes. Numerous environmental elements add texture to the experience. Shooting out lights provides shadowy areas for Snake to lurk in, and there are lockers in many locations to duck into. Enemies cast shadows that help players identify which way they are looking, even from positions where they can’t see or aim at the guards. Players can shoot glass to distract guards or fire at pipes to burst steam in their faces. One room features a lounge and bar where players can knock over a bucket of ice and watch the cubes melt in real time. The tanker is indulgent for both player and creator.

MGS2 added technical flourishes like melting ice in order to add more depth and texture to the experience.
MGS2 added technical flourishes like melting ice in order to add more depth and texture to the experience.

All of these technological flourishes and tactical modifiers fall in line with the series’ pattern of adding new texture to the world with every installment. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake brought elements such as making noise while running on catwalks, while Metal Gear Solid added footprints after the player stepped in snow and water. These elements existed largely to stymie the player. There are aspect of Metal Gear Solid 2’s new texture that also function this way—standing too long in the rain can give Snake a cold, creating involuntary sneezing spasms that give away his position—but most of the additions in the tanker chapter exist to bring richness to the world first and foremost.

The Tanker chapter mechanical additions make for a much more involved stealth experience than Metal Gear Solid. Using the environment intelligently reinforces the power fantasy of playing as Solid Snake, professional commando and badass. These affordances can seem uncharacteristic given Metal Gear Solid 2’s overall antipathy toward the player, but they provide a necessary contrast. Snake’s gameplay segments are broadly enjoyable, while experiences with Sons of Liberty’s true protagonist Raiden have much more friction.

Metal Gear Solid 2 uses the tanker chapter to set up a pattern of inversion that holds throughout the entire game. James Howell’s 2007 essay about Metal Gear Solid 2, “Driving Off The Map,” one of the foremost essays on the game, described this inversion:

MGS1 served as the player’s roadmap, and MGS2 selectively rearranged its familiar landmarks to confuse the player’s sense of direction. Familiar sights prompted the player to expect MGS1’s form—a pattern of failure and redemption—but they didn’t guide him to his expected destinations. Through these frustrations, the player dramatized the game’s spin upon its central theme. In form and content, MGS2 asserted that we must not let cultural memories inform how we act in situations that seem similar to those that first created our cultural memories.”

Metal Gear Solid 2 toys with player memories by providing familiar situations in altered contexts. This starts during the boss battle with Olga Gurlukovich on the ship’s deck. Metal Gear Solid featured Meryl Silverburgh, a tough-talking female ally and love interest for Solid Snake. Meryl herself was already a variation of a series trope that traced back to the MSX games with characters such as Metal Gear 2’s Holly White. It is a staple of the series to provide the protagonist and players with an attractive and capable female companion. Metal Gear Solid 2 inverts this trope. Olga is a highly capable female soldier who faces Snake as an antagonist. There is an echo of earlier formal elements that players expected to see, but the game denies its players the satisfaction of complete familiarity and repetition. Players don’t get a new “Bond Girl.” Instead they encounter a new enemy with her own agency outside of her relationship with the player.

Olga’s boss fight incorporates texturally elements like shooting out lights in order to stress Snake’s tactical prowess.
Olga’s boss fight incorporates texturally elements like shooting out lights in order to stress Snake’s tactical prowess.

Olga’s boss encounter is the most traditional fight in Metal Gear Solid 2, at least according to the precedent set by previous Metal Gear games. Later fights against the superhuman Dead Cell terrorist group will incorporate more strange technology and special abilities à la Metal Gear Solid’s FOXHOUND unit boss battles. Olga lacks any magical powers or absurd skills. Instead, in keeping with the tanker chapter’s emphasis on environmental textures, she resorts to tactics such as shining a bright light in Snake’s eyes or unfurling a tarp to obscure his view. These hazards are overcome when the player interacts with them—breaking the searchlight, shooting the tarp so it flies away in the wind. Snake’s victory over Olga will stand in contrast to Raiden’s inability to damage the femme fatale Fortune in the following chapter.

The rest of Snake’s infiltration proceeds at a brisk pace with a gunfight against some Gurlukovich soldiers as the only complication. This battle is a remix of familiar fights from the series, including the battle against terrorist soldiers alongside Meryl in Metal Gear Solid. To complete the tanker’s miniaturized Metal Gear adventure, there is a “battle” against Metal Gear RAY. Snake needs to take photographs of the prototype unit. Accomplishing this requires players to move around the cargo hold where the Marines have gathered to hear a speech from their commandant Scott Dolph. The player needs to take pictures from multiple angles, alongside another image of Marine Corp markings on the unit. They are provided with a digital camera. The camera’s interface and design mimics the design of the stinger missile launcher used in Metal Gear Solid to defeat Metal Gear REX. To take a picture, players press the same button they used to fire missiles.

The camera’s interface mimics MGS1's stinger missile launcher. Here, Snake “shoots” a metal gear.
The camera’s interface mimics MGS1's stinger missile launcher. Here, Snake “shoots” a metal gear.

Completing this objective kicks off a string of events that dissolves the focus on geopolitical struggles in favor of techno-thriller conspiracies. The cargo hold is seized by Gurlokovich and Revolver Ocelot, and commandant Dolph is held at gunpoint. While it initially appears that RAY will be seized by Russian agents, Ocelot reveals to Gurlokovich that he has no intention of turning over the weapon to Russia. Betraying Gurlokovich and his soldier, he declares that the machine will be returned to the Patriots, a strange shadow group that Dolph also refers to as the “La Le Lu Le Lo.” This phrase is nonsensical in both English and Japanese where it is expressed through the hiragana らりるれろ. (It would likely sound odd to Japanese players, since the Japanese language has a liquid phenome between tapped “r” sounds and lateral “l” sounds, and hiragana lacks specific monographs to indicate the latter specifically.) Ocelot’s loyalty is made to sound strange and alien, an indication as to how inscrutable the Patriots are in comparison to previous threats like terrorist organizations or major nations. This gets underscored further as Ocelot guns down Gurlukovich and Dolph. A representative of the Patriots kills agents of the United States and Russia and detonates explosives throughout the ship, asserting dominance in the plot and disposing of the politicking that players had come to expect.

Ocelot’s role as double agent and mastermind is short-lived. His role as primary antagonist is immediately called into question because of what happens next, which is the reveal of one of the game’s most contentious plot elements: the spirit of Liquid Snake is possessing Ocelot. After the events of Metal Gear Solid, Ocelot—whose arm was cut off by the cyborg ninja—has grafted one of Liquid arms on as a replacement. This has allowed Liquid’s spirit to exert control over Ocelot, with Liquid taking complete control once Snake confronts him. The addition of such a strange and supernatural element caused some players to bristle at the time. In retrospect, it makes more sense to view Liquid’s presence as a consequence of Metal Gear Solid 2’s nature as a sequel. Players would have expected another grand clash between Liquid Snake and Solid Snake. Liquid is here because of that demand. He supplants Ocelot as the final villain in the tanker chapter in order to give players what they want, or more accurately, a vindictive subversion of what players think they want.

Once again, Metal Gear Solid 2 isn’t really concerned with fulfilling what players want. The end of the tanker section sets up a satisfying payoff that then gets ripped away. There is no battle between the two brothers. Players don’t get a badass confrontation or grand battle against the active Metal Gear. Snake gets knocked unconscious by an explosion during a cutscene. Ocelot (and Liquid) escape with Metal Gear RAY, and the tanker sinks off the shores of Manhattan. Images of Snake, taken from a drone, will later get leaked to the public. He and Otacon will go down in history as environmental terrorists. Players are denied the satisfaction of success, and their connection with Solid Snake is violently severed.

Masks and mask removal will become a motif for the rest of the series. Naked Snake can start MGS3 with a Raiden mask. In MGS4, Solid Snake uses optical camo to assume various guises.
Masks and mask removal will become a motif for the rest of the series. Naked Snake can start MGS3 with a Raiden mask. In MGS4, Solid Snake uses optical camo to assume various guises.

The story jumps two years forward. A FOXHOUND operative called Snake is briefed on a terrorist situation by his commanding officer the Colonel. By every indication including the voice actor, this is Colonel Roy Campbell from Metal Gear Solid. Snake swims underwater towards an offshore marine decontamination facility called the “Big Shell,” built to clean the New York Harbor of the crude oil and materials that seeped into the water after the sinking of the USS Discovery. A terrorist group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty—supposedly led by Solid Snake—has taken a group of hostages, including the President of the United States, and is demanding a ransom of $30 billion. The insertion mission is classic Metal Gear. Snake arrives in the Big Shell much like the arrival to Outer Heaven in Metal Gear, swimming through a waterway.

The “Snake” players control in this scene doesn’t seem to be the one players know and love. His voice is lighter, his body svelte and elegant. Tufts of cornsilk peek out from underneath his breathing mask. Snake climbs up into a cargo dock and is further briefed on the situation. He is not the only one being sent in; a team of Navy SEALs will also attempt to rescue the president. Oh, yeah. He’s also not called Snake anymore. His new codename is Raiden.

Raiden is not Solid Snake. Don’t worry though. Raiden has trained all his life for this moment.

“I’ve completed three hundred missions in VR,” Raiden says over the radio. “I feel like some kind of legendary mercenary…”

Raiden thinks he is a badass because he’s played video games.

Stuffing enemies in lockers during Raiden’s initial infiltration prevents them from waking up before the elevator arrives.
Stuffing enemies in lockers during Raiden’s initial infiltration prevents them from waking up before the elevator arrives.

Raiden is not a badass. Through his initial infiltration, he is treated like the rookie he is. The Colonel needs to explain to him how the Soliton Radar works. When Raiden spots an enemy guard—a Gurlokovich soldier—he needs a briefing on exactly who Gurlokovich was. Raiden’s distance from Snake is emphasized in these moments. Snake would know these things; Raiden does not.

(There is also a practical reason for this: players can choose to start the game from the plant chapter if they want. According to the game’s design document: “Having the player start from the Plant Chapter will make it easier for someone not familiar with the previous game to get into the story.” While Sons of Liberty is designed to alienate series veterans, a great deal of the design document outlines ways to appeal to fresh players and demographics.)

Raiden’s lack of knowledge is only one of the myriad ways that Metal Gear Solid 2 will emphasize his difference from Solid Snake. The game will also debase and demean him throughout his mission. That starts during this insertion. Metal Gear Solid’s opening sequence had the player navigate a loading dock full of guards in order to reach an elevator. Raiden needs to do the same, but there is a complication: someone else has beaten him to it. Upon entering the room with the elevator, he finds all the guards knocked unconscious and a lone sneaking agent riding up the elevator. This is the real Solid Snake, who survived the tanker wreck. Raiden is left to sort out the result of Snake’s superior sneaking. An optimal strategy for securing this room involves dragging the unconscious guards to nearby lockers so that they don’t wake up. If the player does this, they are literally picking up Snake’s mess. They are more of a janitor than a hot-shot agent.

There is also a distinct difference between Snake’s radio support team setup and Raiden’s. Snake’s field support in Metal Gear Solid consisted of various specialists, including women like Naomi Hunter and Mei Ling. Snake’s relationship with these women was flirtatious. He also had his former teacher Master Miller at hand to help him, although this was later revealed to be Liquid Snake in disguise. In the tank chapter, Metal Gear Solid survivor Hal “Octacon” Emmerich is Snake’s main support. Otacon and Snake have an indisputable ease with one another, similar to the ease Snake had with “Miller” for most of the preceding game. Raiden, on the other hand, only has the Colonel and Rose. Rose is his girlfriend, a data analyst who conveniently is attached to the mission to provide logistical support and to keep an eye on her boyfriend. It is another difference between Raiden and Solid Snake. Snake could be cool and suave. He fell in love in the field and escaped with the girl. Raiden is “tied down” by Rose (or so stereotypical male player perception might have it). She gets personal with Raiden in a way that Snake’s support team rarely did and even scolds him for not knowing “what day it is tomorrow.” It’s their anniversary. Raiden is an idiot. In conversations with Rose, he is awkward and emotionally stunted to the point of being off-putting.

Raiden’s insertion also adds one more complication. While Snake had immediate access to the Soliton Radar, Raiden can only access it for each area he enters by finding a computer node and logging into it. After this, the Soliton Radar for that area gets revealed. Snake entered his mission prepared. He could see the radar and carried a stealth pistol with him on every difficulty. Raiden is disadvantaged. He cannot access the radar and unless the player is in Very Easy mode, he has no immediate weapon on hand.

A key moment occurs when Raiden logs into the first computer node. The player is prompted to fill out information including their name and date of birth. The data will later be revealed as the writing on Raiden’s dog tags. The assumption is that most players will input their own information. In doing so, they unwittingly affirm their overlap with Raiden. He’s not just a character the player controls. He is a representative of the player themselves.

Vamp’s introduction mirrors Grey Fox’s hallway assault scene in MGS1.
Vamp’s introduction mirrors Grey Fox’s hallway assault scene in MGS1.

The Plant chapter introduces complications far in excess of the Tanker chapter or even previous Metal Gear games. It starts with the arrival of Vamp in the Strut B transformer room. Formally, it’s a repetition of the approach to Grey Fox’s boss battle in Metal Gear Solid. Vamp disposes of SEAL Team 10 in a fashion comparable to Grey Fox’s slaughter of the Genome Soldiers. The only solace the player might have is an M9 pistol, provided they sidetracked to the Strut F warehouse. Even if players do take this precaution, they are denied the satisfaction of a boss battle as Vamp handily deals with Raiden and the lone remaining SEAL survivor Iroquois Pliskin. Pliskin, who is actually Solid Snake in thin disguise, takes center stage here. Raiden is deemphasized as Vamp focuses on Snake. Although the villain is driven off, Snake is injured and Raiden’s efficacy as a soldier is denied.

This undercutting of player expectations—there is no boss battle or grand victory—comes alongside Snake’s skepticism towards Raiden. As Raiden continues to boast of his VR training, Snake is unimpressed:

Pliskin: A virtual grunt of the digital age. That’s just great.

Raiden: That’s far more effective than live exercises.

Pliskin: You don’t get injured in VR, do you? Every year, a few soldiers die in field exercises.

Raiden: There’s pain sensation in VR, and even a sense of reality and urgency. The only difference is that it isn’t actually happening.

Pliskin: That’s the way they want you to think, to remove you from the fear that goes with battle situations. War as a video game—what better way to raise the ultimate soldier?

The distance between Snake and Raiden is reinforced here. Snake has been forged through real-life missions and trials. He’s suffered and found no glory in it. Raiden, as far as the game currently indicates, has never dealt with the same danger. His boasting is misplaced, his claims to expertise dubious. In that way, he’s like any Metal Gear player who ever rattled off firearm facts or other military trivia simply because they learned it from their favorite video game series.

Vamp’s introduction brings the threat of the superhuman terrorist group Dead Cell into focus. It’s followed shortly by a scene with Fortune on the connecting bridge between struts B and C. Fortune’s powers—bullets curve around her, grenades fail to explode—are even more explicitly magical than Vamp’s superhuman speed. The sequence evokes Grey Fox again, who was unable to be harmed by bullets in his Metal Gear Solid boss fight. Fortune also occupies the role of femme fatale previously held by Sniper Wolf, a comparison made more explicit by her long-range railgun’s similarities to Wolf’s sniper rifle. Savvy players might notice these similarities but they don’t stand out on an initial playthrough. It’s only in the game’s finale that it becomes clear these resemblances are intentional within the fiction and from a metatextual perspective.

Stillman’s introduction to the plot kicks off recurring questions about legacy and reputation.
Stillman’s introduction to the plot kicks off recurring questions about legacy and reputation.

Raiden’s encounter with bomb disposal expert Peter Stillman kicks off one of the most infamous and most important segments of Metal Gear Solid 2. Stillman, famous explosives expert who was supposedly crippled by a botched bomb defusal in a church, is crucial to exploring themes of identity and legacy. He is on the Big Shell to deal with Fatman, a Dead Cell terrorist and former student. Fatman is Stillman’s legacy, a blotch on his reputation that needs to be addressed. Metal Gear Solid 2 often approaches the theme of legacy and identity through pseudo-familiar links. That manifests in Stillman’s relationship with Fatman, the Snake siblings’ complicated relationship with Big Boss’ legacy, and even with Raiden and his relation to terrorist leader Solidus Snake. (One of Metal Gear Solid’s last-minute revelations is that there was a third Snake, United States President George Sears, a.k.a. Solidus Snake.) Forging a personal identity in Metal Gear Solid 2 often means surpassing your father figure. Fatman’s plotting will lead to Stillman’s death, and Raiden will eventually kill Solidus—who is later revealed as a foster father figure—in the game’s final boss fight. Stillman’s introduction kickstarts the personal identity theme. It will later be revealed that Stillman lied about his past. He was not injured in the failed bomb defusal; he merely pretended to be in order to protect his legacy. The image that Stillman presents to the world is different than the reality, much like how Raiden’s rookie nature will eventually be revealed as false once his past as a child soldier is brought to light.

Fatman has placed bombs throughout the Big Shell, and it is up to Snake and Raiden to diffuse them. Mechanically, this requires the player to explore every available location on the Big Shell to find the bombs and then spray them with a special coolant. This is a far cry from Metal Gear Solid, where the forward momentum of running to the top of the screen for most of the game gave a sense of drive and purpose that this bomb disposal mission arguably lacks. Instead, there is a continuation of the janitorial busywork established during Raiden’s initial infiltration. Raiden runs around the Big Shell’s struts, which have ironically been arranged like a lemniscate. He is caught up in the fantasy of being a super-soldier like Snake but largely relegated to a contained loop of busywork. Even as he disposes of C4 bombs, Snake is always one bomb ahead of him.

Moments after this, Fortune will express disappointment that she is not, in fact, facing off with Solid Snake.
Moments after this, Fortune will express disappointment that she is not, in fact, facing off with Solid Snake.

The bomb disposal sequence builds to a climax with a series of setbacks and reversals that robs Raiden of allies and the player of agency. First, Raiden learns the bombs he defused were decoys. The real bombs are elsewhere. Stillman then reveals himself to be a fraud before he runs off to defuse one of the real bombs, shedding the lie of his injury and revealing his true self—flaws and all—to Snake and Raiden. It is a gesture away from self-delusion and towards authenticity, a miniaturized version of the process Raiden is enacting throughout the game. Stillman’s bravery has a cost; Fatman has laid a trap and Stillman gets killed after triggering a proximity sensor near the bomb he had hoped to defuse. Authenticity has risks, perhaps even fatal risks. In spite of this, Stillman will prove victorious in the long run. Fatman will later be defeated, remembered as little more than a mad bomber and patsy for the Patriots. Stillman dies a hero.

Stillman’s death robs Raiden of a key ally. It also isolates him from Snake, who cannot be contacted on the radar. It is a twisted moment of independence. Raiden needs to assert himself. After defusing the remaining bomb, Raiden is confronted by Fortune. This leads to a boss fight that players cannot actually win. It’s impossible to damage Fortune, so Raiden must instead hide behind cover for the duration of the battle. Metal Gear Solid 2 inverts the structure of the Olga boss fight in order to emphasize Raiden’s difference from Snake. In that fight, Olga darted and dove behind boxes while Snake was the aggressor. Here, Fortune sets the tempo and Raiden is forced to leap from cover to cover.

Raiden doesn’t instantly transform into a competent action hero in these moments, although a comment from Fortune indicating that Raiden has seen the “fires of hell” is our first indication that he’s more than he appears to be. Raiden does get to experience some level of success at the end of this fight. Vamp suddenly arrives on the scene, and one of the bullets meant for Fortune curves around and hits Vamp, seemingly killing him. Any satisfaction the player might feel in this moment is almost immediately taken away. As soon as Raiden leaves the scene, Vamp revives. The player is once again denied the satisfaction of a boss fight, and Raiden is denied victory within the narrative. These moments exist in contrast to the upcoming fight with Fatman, which marks the first moment where Raiden and the player share in a simultaneous success.

Fatman’s arena visually evokes the warehouse where Snake battles Vulcan Raven in MGS1.
Fatman’s arena visually evokes the warehouse where Snake battles Vulcan Raven in MGS1.

Fatman’s boss fight marks the moment when Metal Gear Solid 2 more openly mimics Metal Gear Solid’s visual design. The heliport on top of Strut E where the battle takes place features large cargo boxes that create a grid-like arrangement of pathways. It is a variation of the boss arena where Snake confronted Vulcan Raven on Shadow Moses. In that boss fight, Raven patrolled through lanes of cargo. The result was a game of cat and mouse where the player needed to loop around Raven to attack or else place mines in Raven’s path. These strategies largely repeat within Fatman’s boss fight.

The heliport’s familiar spatial design calls attention to similarities with the Vulcan Raven fight but also highlights a few key differences. In keeping with the game’s pattern of inversion, Fatman has a few key differences from Raven. While Raven carried a large weapon—his signature 20mm autocannon—Fatman wields a compact Glock pistol. Raven slowly patrolled his arena, stalking Snake and often attacking from a long distance. Fatman zips around on roller-skates and closes the gap between himself and Raiden. Tactics are inverted as well. While dropping claymore mines remains an effective strategy, Fatman employs a similar technique: plating C4 explosives around the arena that the player must defuse. The setting is familiar but the action plays out as an antithesis of Raven’s boss fight.

Raiden’s successful defeat of Fatman marks one of the clearest moments where the player and the character are aligned in their goals and needs. The player desires the unambiguous forward progress that they had been denied during the bomb disposal sequence, whereas Raiden wants to defeat Fatman and assert his own competency after a string of setbacks. Up to now, the player and Raiden have often had an uneasy relationship, one where his role as Sons of Liberty’s main actor conflicts with the player who has been used to controlling a hero like Snake. Even if players dislike Raiden, they presumably want to push forward, while Raiden “depends” on the player to guide him to success. Victory over Fatman eases that tension. Raiden breaks free from loop-filled backtracking busywork, shifting away from his chase of Solid Snake and taking a first step towards becoming a more competent and confident protagonist.

In MGS1, Meryl wore a disguise. MGS2 inverts that plot point by forcing the player to do so.
In MGS1, Meryl wore a disguise. MGS2 inverts that plot point by forcing the player to do so.

The following sequence further mixes and matches elements from Metal Gear Solid while connecting Sons of Liberty to the original MSX games. Raiden comes face to face with “Mr. X,” a mysterious ally who is a dead ringer for Metal Gear Solid’s cyborg ninja Grey Fox. It is the most blatant callback to the previous game, and an element that many fans eagerly desired. Mr. X first appeared at the end of early trailers for Sons of Liberty, leading to fevered speculation that a fan favorite character would return. That expectation is denied—Mr. X is clearly not Grey Fox, having adopted a new codename after Raiden expressed suspicion at their initial introduction as “Deepthroat,” the codename that Fox initially used at Shadow Moses. Much like Liquid’s appearance in the Tanker chapter, Mr. X arises in answer to player expectations. Grey Fox was cool. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have another ninja?

In this next sequence, Raiden must find the president, and the only person who knows his exact location is a Secret Service agent called Ames. Functionally, Ames and the president fill the roles that ArmsTech president Baker and DARPA Chief Anderson fulfilled in Metal Gear Solid. They are hostages who reveal behind-the-scenes intrigue when they are rescued. To find Ames, Raiden must disguise himself as an enemy soldier. This is a series tradition that started in the original Metal Gear when Snake needed to wear a disguise to enter a portion of Outer Heaven. This was changed in Metal Gear Solid—itself something of a reconstruction of the original game, and the game most MGS2 players are familiar with in the United States. Companion and rookie soldier Meryl Silverburgh wore the disguise instead. One portion of the game involved locating her among patrolling guards. Metal Gear Solid 2 once again inverts the previous form. Raiden is the one in disguise.

Multiple agendas come into focus once Ames is found in the hostage room in the Shell 1 core. Raiden’s discussion with Ames gets interrupted by the terrorists’ arrival in another part of the basement, at which point Raiden begins to eavesdrop on them. This is the first time Raiden and the player see Solidus Snake, who is still masquerading as Solid Snake. The scene involves Solidus, Olga, and Ocelot, all three of whom have their own agendas. Solidus wants to challenge the Patriots’ rule over the country, Olga is secretly acting to rescue her daughter from them, and Ocelot is actually one of their agents. Likewise, Ames reveals to Raiden that the president appears to be conspiring with Solidus; password entry to activate a new Metal Gear and nuclear device has been completed, which is something only the president can do. Ames also reveals that the Tanker incident was planned explicitly to facilitate the construction of the Big Shell, itself a secret facility for developing a new Metal Gear. There is a web of agendas: Solidus, Ocelot, the president, even Fatman’s own actions are revealed as rogue behavior. Previous events turn out to be part of larger plots. These mounting complications emphasize Raiden’s lack of agency. He only follows orders; the rest of the cast forge their own paths and seek personal goals.

Solidus will lose his left eye in the Harrier fight, evoking the image of Big Boss. It’s a faulty imitation; Big Boss lost his right eye.
Solidus will lose his left eye in the Harrier fight, evoking the image of Big Boss. It’s a faulty imitation; Big Boss lost his right eye.

The Plant chapter separates itself into two clear segments. The time spent on Shell 1—the bomb disposal sequence and subsequent boss fight scramble—largely focus on the artificiality of Raiden’s identity. He is “Snake” until he isn’t, he’s a top-secret commando doing chores, he is a game protagonist who can barely defeat the villains. The shift to Shell 2 is kicked off by a confrontation with Solidus Snake on the bridge between Big Shell’s halves. After the incident in the Shell 1 core, Solid Snake (alongside Otacon) has stolen a helicopter with the aim of transporting hostages off the facility. Solidus attacks Raiden using a Harrier Jump Jet.

The Harrier fight functions as a replacement for Metal Gear Solid’s fight against Liquid Snake in the Hind-D helicopter. Snake was confronted by Liquid while crossing a bridge between two facilities, and Raiden is confronted by a different Snake on the way to Shell 2. Mechanically, the fights are similar: the goal is to aim a stinger missile launcher to attack a flying enemy. But where the Hind-D was slow, the Harrier is extremely fast. Liquid made sweeping circles around the boss arena; Solidus often breaks away before rushing in a straight dive bomb at Raiden. Even the end result is inverted. Liquid was initially thought dead after the Hind fight, and Snake proceeded to deal with an (initially) deactivated Metal Gear REX. Solidus is immediately rescued by the arrival of Metal Gear RAY and escapes. This continues the pattern established by Vamp and Fortune earlier; Raiden and the player are denied even the smallest perception of success.

Robbing the possibility of success appears to rob Raiden the opportunity to prove his worth, but there is an important development in this scene. As the bridge between Shell 1 and 2 is destroyed in the fight’s aftermath, Snake’s identity is finally revealed to Raiden. This itself is an inversion of Metal Gear Solid where Master Miller was revealed to be Liquid Snake. Solid Snake and Liquid Snake share the same codec frequency between games. Liquid was the player’s enemy; Snake is their ally. Raiden moves out of Shell 1 and the loop he was caught in. The leminscate is shattered and Raiden will be forced to forge his own path beyond chasing after Solid Snake.

President Johnson fills the role that both ArmsTech president Baker and the DARPA chief served in MGS1.
President Johnson fills the role that both ArmsTech president Baker and the DARPA chief served in MGS1.

Raiden’s development as a character hinges upon gaining both real-world experience and a better awareness of his mission. Where Shell 1 was largely about following orders blindly, Shell 2 is where Raiden finally gains greater perspective on his role within the plot—even if he will not gain a complete picture until much later in the game. Shell 2’s core is partially constructed like Metal Gear Solid’s nuclear warhead storage facility, a location where Snake learned truths regarding the nature of Metal Gear REX and learned the Cyborg Ninja’s true identity. Raiden learns his own truths, which notably come after the repetition of another series trope: deactivating an electrified floor with the help of remote controlled missiles. This has been present in all games of the series thus far. Metal Gear Solid 2 functions as a ritual on many levels; it is an imitation of previous Metal Gear games. Raiden repeats Snake’s action and is rewarded like Snake was: with information about the new metal gear and his enemies.

President Johnson admits to Raiden that he was conspiring with Solidus and the other terrorists, specifically working to gain independence from the Patriots. It is revealed that the Patriots control all facets of American life including the presidency. Johnson wanted to seize the latest metal gear as a bargaining chip to earn more power; Solidus wants to use it to destroy the Patriots’ power outright. Not only does Raiden learn about the Patriots, he finally gets a better notion of Solidus’ plan, thanks to a key new piece of information:. RAY is not the metal gear that Solidus will use. Instead, the Big Shell is home to a different weapon: Arsenal Gear. It is a fortress guarded by mass-produced RAY units, stocked with warheads and equipped with the ability to censor digital information. The latter part is crucial to the Patriots’ ultimate goal.

Like any good hostage in a Metal Gear game, Johnson’s exhausted his role. To prevent Solidus’s use of a nuke, he needs to be killed so that his biometric data can’t be used as part of a sci-fi security check confirming missile launch. Raiden understandably pushes back against the idea of killing the president. The matter is settled when Ocelot arrives and kills Johnson regardless. Again, Metal Gear Solid 2 lives within the shadows and expectations of Metal Gear Solid. Snake couldn’t save ArmsTech president Baker; Raiden cannot save Johnson. Raiden’s mini-rebellion against the mission is notable—it’s one of the first times he refused anyone’s orders within the game—but it’s fruitless. Desperate to disable Arsenal Gear, Raiden then seeks out Emma Emmerich, Otacon’s sister who (can you believe it?) happens to be held hostage in the basement.

Like during Ocelot’s fight in MGS1, entering the center area in Vamp’s arena leads to instant death.
Like during Ocelot’s fight in MGS1, entering the center area in Vamp’s arena leads to instant death.

Metal Gear Solid 2’s swimming sections are hazard enough but rescuing Emma also leads to a boss fight against Vamp. This fight functions as a repetition of the Revolver Ocelot fight from Metal Gear Solid. Both fights take place in square arenas with deadly spaces in the center—C4 tripwires with Ocelot, instant-death water pool for Vamp. Each fight puts the protagonist up against a master of a particular weapon. Revolver Ocelot used his namesake pistols, Vamp uses a collection of knives. Where Vamp remixes the scenario is in his use of the arena space itself. Vamp can leap to the balcony, forcing the player to attack using first-person mode. Vamp can only be hit if the player is not using lock-on. This is a notable variation from Ocelot. Metal Gear Solid didn’t use first-person aiming with the exception of specialized weapons, and using first-person mode in the GameCube remake The Twin Snakes trivializes the Ocelot fight. Vamp also flips the script by closing the gap on the player. Ocelot ran away from Snake. The best strategy was to aggressively chase Ocelot down.

Vamp’s supernatural abilities play into the fight as well, but their implementation is awkward. The Metal Gear franchise offers a diverse pool of villains with various backgrounds and ethnicities. Many of these characters are given dignity, but the writing sometimes plays into stereotypes and questionable tropes. Several of Vamp’s supernatural powers once belonged to a different character altogether: a Dead Cell member with the questionable sobriquet “Chinaman.” He was one of two Dead Cell members cut from the game and had abilities that involved magical powers such as water walking and a dragon tattoo that came to life. This character would have served as a remix of Metal Gear Solid’s Vulcan Raven as a member of the enemy team with mystical powers.

In my analysis of Metal Gear Solid I noted that the visual language of sadism and homosexuality were often used as a shorthand for villainy. Vamp’s codename within the fiction of this game comes from the fact that he is bisexual, not because he drinks blood. He engages in self-mutilation and slips into Raiden and Snake’s space to sniff them and mark them. His predatory homoeroticism continues in further games where he appears; in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, his main weapon’s sheath rests right around his crotch. Vamp has some big-time BDSM energy, specifically knife-play, as a means of expressing that he is violent and depraved. His connection to Chinaman and by extension Vulcan Raven—Vamp places claymores near boss arenas like Raven did—reminds us that villainy in Metal Gear often comes by accentuating the “other.” Raven is largely characterized as a mystical native shaman. Chinaman, whose name is a derogatory term, would have been the mystical foreign warrior with dragon-themed powers. Later games like Snake Eater incorporate more explicitly magical elements but shift away from half-baked and stereotypical portrayals of mysticism. This means we will eventually shift from ideas like “mythical dragon tattoos” to much more sensible things like “guy who controls bees.” (Writer’s note: The previous sentence should be read in the driest tone possible.)

Vamp’s defeat marks another moment that Raiden and the player’s goals are in alignment, and where that overlap is rewarded. Like the victory against Fatman, both Raiden and the player achieve forward progress against Vamp marked by a demonstrable increase in skill. The player completes a mechanically varied and high-paced boss fight; Raiden achieves victory over one of his more tenacious foes. This victory also initiates the start of a rivalry between the two characters that is ultimately resolved in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Raiden grows and asserts that growth. The player asserts their prowess. Metal Gear Solid 2 will ultimately reject this overlap, but it uses moments where success is shared in order to help players better identify with Raiden before the game’s conclusion.

MGS2's greatest threats aren’t bombs or mechs; it’s censorship and digital warfare.
MGS2's greatest threats aren’t bombs or mechs; it’s censorship and digital warfare.

Emma’s arrival fulfills an essential Metal Gear trope: the inclusion of a beleaguered scientist whose work is ultimately co-opted by oppressive power structures. This invariably means working on the latest metal gear unit. Emma is an engineer specializing in artificial intelligence. Her work provides the backbone on which Arsenal Gear’s chief AI system “GW” is built. Whereas previous engineers like Doctor Madnar and Otacon contributed directly to the construction of metal gears, Emma’s work is digital and reflects Sons of Liberty’s broader concerns about information control and censorship in the emerging days of the internet. But her presence also constitutes a deliberate repeat of Metal Gear Solid. That game had an Emmerich—Otacon—so Sons of Liberty does as well. It is among the more blatant repetitions, and one that should clue players into the strangely cyclical nature of the Big Shell incident.

The game’s portrayal of Emma is complicated. On the one hand, she is a remarkably intelligent expert in her given field and speaks with authority as she explains the Patriots’ aim to control and censor key information in the digital age. Her aquaphobia, which is the result of a childhood incident when she almost drowned, is also treated carefully. Raiden shows deep empathy as he helps guide her through the flooded segments of the Shell 2 core. On the other hand, she is treated partially as a liability. Drugged and unable to progress without Raiden’s aid, the player can only proceed if Raiden holds her hand and practically drags her along. In practice, this is an inversion of Metal Gear Solid. That game had segments where Meryl led Snake around. Here, Raiden’s main female ally on the Big Shell literally needs her hand held. It is a friction point for players, a complication that makes Raiden’s mission more tedious than Snake’s. It is also one that paints the only directly present female character—since Olga only appears in cutscenes in Raiden’s segments and Rose is never on the Big Shell—as an inconvenience.

Then comes the revelation about the circumstances of Emma’s near-death experience in childhood. It is explained later that she was dragged underwater during her stepfather’s suicide, and that she called out to Otacon. Otacon did not respond to help her, something that Emma holds an immense grudge over. Otacon later reveals that he did not rush to help Emma because he was sleeping with Emma’s mother (his stepmother) at the time. Otacon was roughly 17 or 18 years old at this time. His guilt over the situation ultimately led him to run away from home, leaving Emma with abandonment issues.
The Emmerich family situation is awash in issues of sexual manipulation, the worst of which involves a possibly underage teenager being taken advantage of by his step-parent. Huey Emmerich, Otacon’s father, becomes a chief character in later games. He’s a piece of shit who uses Otacon as a test subject for acquiring test data from a metal gear unit he was building at the time: Metal Gear Solid V’s Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Huey’s mother—a character called Strangelove—sends him to live in America away from his father. Huey retaliates by murdering her.

I have an extremely hard time untangling these events into something meaningful and I’ve ultimately decided that’s a poor use of my time. The Emmerich family drama, particularly in Metal Gear Solid 2, is lurid and voyeuristic to such a degree that it’s a very real black eye for the series. It is made worse that the women involved are respectively a sexual predator, a violently murdered wife, and a child whose trauma and resentment are further exploited in her adulthood.

Raiden’s sniping segment, unlike Snake’s battles with Sniper Wolf, are largely static affairs. There’s no need to run around.
Raiden’s sniping segment, unlike Snake’s battles with Sniper Wolf, are largely static affairs. There’s no need to run around.

Raiden’s goal is to escort Emma to the Shell 1 core, where the two of them will rendezvous with Snake and Otacon. When they get there, Emma will upload a virus to Arsenal Gear that will disable GW. In order to reach Shell 1, Raiden and Emma need to cross the oil fence underneath the rest of the structure. This thin walkway is covered with patrolling guards and drones. Raiden covers Emma from a distance using his sniper rifle in an extended sequence where the player needs to react quickly to dispose of enemies before they can spot and attack Emma. It’s another moment of achievement for Raiden and the player, and although Snake later arrives to provide backup, it is entirely up to the player if they accept that offer.

A player looking for the maximum challenge—particularly one attempting to complete the game without killing a single guard—would direct Raiden to decline the offer. (Snake always shoots to kill.) In a Big Boss playthrough of the game, James Howell noted that that superior gameplay performance is often interpreted by many players as a more “canonical” version of story events, even if no player’s gameplay experience is more authoritative than another’s. The oil fence sequence stresses this. The best possible performance (one in which Emma is never spotted and enemies are disposed of immediately without Snake’s assistance) is most likely brought about through practice and repeated playthroughs of the section.

This repetition stresses Metal Gear Solid 2’s artificial nature as a video game. It is possible to practice sequences like the oil fence sniper defense with almost perfectly repeated variables such as guard positioning and patrol timing. This repetition is only possible because MGS2 is a video game with underlying code that reliably recreates these variables on each playthrough.

“While a Big Boss playthrough can be interpreted as a more definitive version of the game’s concrete narrative events by virtue of the fact that it is a superior performance,” Howell says, “it’s only made possible by going through uncounted cycles of botched playthroughs to observe, experiment, and strategize.”

In spite of this, perfect performance is often given a weight of canonicity. The oil fence sequence, in an ideal playthrough, constitutes a resounding success on Raiden and the player’s part. They protect Emma and do so without Snake’s assistance. Raiden’s role as protagonist is reinforced, as is his growing skill parity with Solid Snake.

Emma can’t escape the ultimate fate of many women in the series: to die in order to further someone else’s character development.
Emma can’t escape the ultimate fate of many women in the series: to die in order to further someone else’s character development.

This pattern of success is ultimately undermined as Vamp appears once again to take Emma hostage. In contrast to Metal Gear Solid’s battles with Sniper Wolf—characterized by Wolf’s constant movement around the battlefield—Vamp remains still behind Emma. The battle itself is easy as a result, particularly if the player uses the PSG1-T tranquilizer rifle, as it avoids any fatal mistakes if Emma is hit. Regardless, Raiden’s previous victories over Vamp are invalidated by his reappearance, and although Raiden seemingly kills him once again, Emma will be fatally wounded in the process.

Emma’s death continues to stress her role as Meryl’s opposite within Metal Gear Solid 2’s structure. Where players could save Meryl through the right course of action in Metal Gear Solid, it is impossible to protect Emma. Raiden and the player are denied the same success that Snake achieved canonically in Shadow Moses. Unfortunately, Emma’s death is later used as a tool to fuel Otacon’s characters. Haunted by his past and still reeling from his inability to save Sniper Wolf years ago, Otacon suffers another loss. This will later be repeated in Guns of the Patriots with Naomi Hunter’s death.

Emma’s death is treated with care. Metal Gear Solid 2’s writing shows empathy for her fears and treats her death as the senseless tragedy that it is. Analyzing fiction often involves holding two opinions at the same time, however, even if those thoughts seem to clash with each other. Metal Gear Solid 2 does treat Emma more carefully than previous games might have, but her death fits into a repeated pattern where women are sacrificed for the character development of men. Emma’s death ultimately becomes a moment that highlights Otacon’s pain and Raiden’s failure.

MGS2 isn’t exactly subtle about what’s going on in the final segments.
MGS2 isn’t exactly subtle about what’s going on in the final segments.

Following these events, Raiden is “betrayed” by Snake and the Cyborg Ninja, the latter of whom is now revealed to be Olga Gurlukovich in disguise. This moment marks the start of a constant series of revelations and reversals meant to alienate the player and cause confusion. It starts with Raiden waking up in Arsenal Gear in a room that is a near-perfect replica of the room where Snake was tortured in Metal Gear Solid. Raiden is stripped naked and tortured by Ocelot and Solidus. Like Raiden, the player is humiliated and helpless to stop this from unfolding. Still, Raiden’s nakedness isn’t only about humiliating the player. It’s a visual shorthand for how this moment is also about revealing hidden truths. Raiden is laid bare, all of his flaws on display.

The player has been lied to, because Raiden has been lying to himself. Solidus reveals that he knows Raiden. Years ago, Solidus trained child soldiers in the Liberian Civil War. Raiden, known as “Jack the Ripper,” was the most skilled among the children. Solidus and Ocelot then leave Raiden alone to talk on the codec radio with his girlfriend Rose, at which point he breaks into tears. He is a broken man, struggling with PTSD and all but incapable of connecting with others. Rose was an exception to that rule, even if Raiden never told her about his past. The player gets something they wanted: to play as a professional soldier instead of a foppish rookie. But Metal Gear Solid 2 functions like a cursed monkey’s paw. Yes, the player can be a skilled soldier. No, it isn’t cool. Raiden isn’t a badass for fighting in a war. He is a helpless cog in a military machine that strips him of his agency and sanity.

Yep..
Yep..

Olga then reveals herself to be an ally and frees him. She and Snake merely used Raiden’s capture to gain access to Arsenal Gear. The following escape sequence is perhaps the most famous series of events in Metal Gear Solid 2. Player options are hobbled. Raiden must sneak through Arsenal Gear completely naked on his way to rendezvous with Snake. Because he is covering his genitals, he can’t place enemies into a chokehold or shimmy on balconies. Exposure to the frigid surroundings means that he is sure to develop a cold, which can cause him to sneeze and alert nearby guards. Unlike other segments of the game, being spotted triggers an immediate alarm like it did in Metal Gear Solid. It is Metal Gear Solid 2’s most vicious moment of disempowerment.

These mechanical hurdles combine with a complete breakdown of the support systems that players took for granted. Specifically, the Colonel starts exhibiting odd behavior that eventually devolves into complete nonsense. Echoing Big Boss from Metal Gear, he tells Raiden to turn off the game console. The lines between Raiden and the player are shaved away. Raiden’s humiliation comes hand in hand with the player’s lack of control over the game. The Soliton Radar breaks to show footage of a gravure model and codec messages from the Colonel feature footage from previous games.

Everything Raiden knows is called into question; he even remembers that he’s never met the Colonel in person. Rose contacts him to tell him something. She admits that she is a spy for the Patriots; her relationship with Raiden was not a happy accident. Rose insists that she fell in love with Raiden regardless; her feed is cut right as she starts to say that she is pregnant. Relationships have been jumbled, Raiden’s agency is called into question, command structures collapse, and through it all, the game world clashes with the real world.

Snake essentially passes the torch to Raiden. Players bristled regardless.
Snake essentially passes the torch to Raiden. Players bristled regardless.

This breakdown is necessary for Raiden’s development, which goes into overdrive when he meets Snake once again. After collecting all of his old gear, Raiden is given a brand new item: a high frequency katana. This is the most important item in Metal Gear Solid 2. Only Raiden can use it and it features an entirely new set of mechanics. Players can swing the blade using the right control stick and block incoming fire by holding the L2 button. These “verbs” are completely unique to Raiden. In building his own identity distinct from Snake, Raiden begins to develop a play language of his own. This should be understood as a type of expression. As Raiden faces the breakdown of his old life and becomes his own individual, he gains access to a weapon that no other player character in the series will use. This weapon is given to him by the man he tried desperately to emulate and whom players to this day wish they could inhabit once again. The torch is passed, and Raiden stands side by side with Snake.

If the metaphor of Snake passing Raiden a new weapon wasn’t enough, it’s stressed in the next gameplay segment: a lengthy battle through Arsenal Gear where players fight along with Snake. Wave after wave of enemies fold against Raiden and Snake’s combined skill. Snake usually holds his own on the default difficulty, but on higher difficulties he needs to be actively protected by the player. Throughout the Plant Chapter, Snake has been a distant figure offering advice and assistance—tossing missiles during the Harrier fight, helping to snipe enemies on the Oil Fence. Instead of others relying on Snake’s help, Snake now relies on Raiden and on the player.

The action feels triumphant. It is a heroic push into the enemy’s lair, one which culminates in a massive battle against multiple unnamed Metal Gear RAY units. Snake holds off Fortune while Raiden is left to take on the Metal Gears. On normal difficulty, the player needs to defeat six units. On the highest difficulties, this number is increased to 20. It is a number greater than anything that Snake ever faced. Sons of Liberty’s maxim of delivering what the player wants—a grand battle against a Metal Gear—is mutated into an oppressive and potentially exhausting battle. You want Metal Gears? Here’s some fuckin’ Metal Gears.

This should be a moment of intense victory for the player. In surviving the Metal Gear RAY boss battle, they have proven more than Snake’s equal. But narratively, that satisfaction is denied. Even if the player’s execution is flawless, Raiden will ultimately give up as he is overwhelmed by the sheer number of Metal Gears. Olga rushes to his defense but is quickly killed by Solidus. The end should be in sight. Instead, the player’s catharsis gets shut down. Even Snake, reliable until now, gets captured by Fortune. The good guys lose.

The anti-climactic assault in Arsenal Gear is meant to undermine the player’s gameplay achievements. What follows is a complete rejection of their autonomy. As Fortune and Solidus’ plans clash—the former only wants to drop a nuke on New York, Solidus wants to detonate it in the air to create an EMP—Ocelot reveals himself as the true mastermind of the Plant chapter. Fortune wants revenge for Dead Cell’s mistreatment at the hands of the US government. Solidus has aspirations of taking Manhattan offline to create a sort of free-state away from the Patriots control. Neither of their motivations matter. Nothing has mattered.

According to Ocelot, the entire Big Shell incident was a test by the Patriots to see how well they could control and manipulate extreme circumstances. It was a miniature recreation of Shadow Moses and the events of Metal Gear Solid. Dead Cells stands in for FOXHOUND, Solidus plays a role similar to Liquid. Raiden is Solid Snake. The plan is called S3: Solid Snake Simulation. Every step of Raiden’s mission, except for Solid Snake’s arrival, was planned. Each victory, each setback. The Patriots outlined it all and everyone was played for a fool. Even the smallest details within the fiction are lies. Fortune doesn’t have super powers; she’s been protected by an electromagnetic gizmo hidden by the Patriots. Ocelot shoots her easily.

It’s a gut punch. Raiden’s growth was not really his own. The player’s achievements weren’t astounding victories in the face of extreme odds. Solidus, a well-intentioned extremist, never had a chance. Cynically, this can be interpreted as an allusion to the relationship between the player and the game’s developers. Games are completely planned works and while they can have occasional glitches, their trajectory is largely fixed. The Patriots puppet Raiden around like a toy. Kojima similarly bats the player around like a ping pong ball. Sons of Liberty’s subtext, expressed in repeated similarities to Metal Gear Solid, is text. It’s all a game.

But even Ocelot is being taken for a ride. First, his attempts to kill off the remaining cast are foiled by Fortune, who somehow manages to deflect his missile salvo after surviving being shot. She dies but manages to die a hero, pushing against the role the Patriots made for her. Seemingly robbed of her powers, she stands as a confident individual in the face of systemic powers, and while she falls, she also throws a wrench into their plans. More importantly, this setback buys enough time, although she couldn’t plan for it, for Liquid Snake to take over Ocelot’s body.

Players expect the return of Liquid Snake, and even if the Patriots don’t want it, those expectations inextricably summon him back into the plot. The three Snake siblings need to clash, right? And so, Liquid asserts control over Ocelot. Sons of Liberty’s rules constantly shift in the climax. The constant string of reversals and revelations can feel comic at times. Each character tries to take a hold of the situation but fails. Even Ocelot is undone. The narrative tricks—expressed through the Patriots’ plot and plans—can still be overwritten by the game’s apparent need to meet player expectation. Liquid attempts to kill off the rest of the cast. There’s little stability to be found as scene dynamics shift and power leaps from character to character and between the player and the game. It’s excessive but that excess ultimately happens in order to further confuse and isolate both Raiden and the player. Liquid makes his escape, knocking Arsenal Gear out of the sky. Snake dives off to pursue him.

Sons of Liberty’s final stretch is intimately concerned with shifting truth and matters of censorship. It’s ironic, given how Arsenal Gear’s destruction and the following action was eventually censored in the game itself after the 2001 World Trade Center attack. The script originally called for footage of Arsenal Gear displacing the Statue of Liberty and ramming through Manhattan. This is omitted from view, albeit implied, leaving Solidus and Raiden stranded atop Federal Hall. It is the site where George Washington took the oath of office, and where Solidus—the leader of the Sons of Liberty—intended to start a state free from the Patriots. The sudden shift to Manhattan is dreamlike, almost to the point of magical realism. The direct destruction of American symbols and exploration into the perversity of American culture moves the series, which sometimes pointed fingers but never too harshly, into a much more agitated and angry place.

Solidus declares that he intends to kill Raiden and take the nanomachines inside his body, using them to find where the Patriots are. His dreams of a nation are faltering but this could provide a path towards achieving his goal. The stage is set for a final boss fight. It is a clash between a soldier and the man who helped shape him. Parent and child. Like Big Boss clashing with Snake in Metal Gear 2, Solidus will battle Raiden. It should be straightforward from this point. Instead, Sons of Liberty only gets more complicated.

Well, this seems bad...
Well, this seems bad...

The Patriots are not gone. The destruction of Arsenal Gear did not halt their plot. Emma’s virus didn’t disable its artificial intelligence systems. The Colonel, a representation of the Arsenal Gear AI who is apparently still alive, calls Raiden. It shouldn’t be possible, but the Patriots are nebulous masterminds, automated weapons—they are a concept, the spectre of American Exceptionalism made manifest. Later games will create a boring justification for the Colonel’s survival and say this is simply an artificial intelligence talking to Raiden. Sons of Liberty opts something less logical and more surreal.

Colonel: To begin with — we’re not what you’d call — human. Over the past two hundred years — A kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House. It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago. The White House was our primordial soup, a base of evolution — We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often. How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.

A question has been simmering in the background throughout Sons of Liberty: are we what we choose to be, or are we the product of the systems and surroundings we are raised in? Are we individuals, or simply pulled along like helpless video game characters by unseen forces? For Sons of Liberty to examine this, the Patriots can’t simply be a few nasty old men or rogue ‘bad actors.’ They need to be something bigger. In this case, they are America itself. Put more directly in the design document: “The evil in MGS2 is the American government.” The Patriots are the unchecked id of capitalism and patriotism. Raiden doesn’t buy it. If the Patriots are immortal, why bother with plans to control events or censor information?

The answer rests in a dubious source: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, a well-known atheist and bastard who recently said that eugenics, while totally a bad thing, would probably work, released The Selfish Gene in 1976 as a treatise on the dissemination of ideas within a society. Metal Gear Solid was deeply concerned about genetics, wondering if personality or worth was written into people’s very being. Metal Gear Solid 2 seizes on Dawkins’ idea of the “meme.” It’s a term that’s become ubiquitous today but Dawkins deploys it in a very specific way to mean any kernel of information that spreads throughout a culture. Religious beliefs, fashion, catchy songs. Some ideas, Dawkins notes, have a resilience that others don’t. They last through history while others wither.

“Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today,” Dawkins says. “... but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.”

The Patriots’ fears about excess digital information leading to factionalism and misinformation has more than a kernel of truth to it.
The Patriots’ fears about excess digital information leading to factionalism and misinformation has more than a kernel of truth to it.

The Patriots fear this. They fear that the internet and other forms of communication will allow undesirable ideas to persist. The S3 plan wasn’t a “Solid Snake Simulation,” meant to turn Raiden into a super-soldier. It is the “Selection for Societal Sanity,” a process through which the Patriots test their ability to control and manipulate information.

“Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum,” an AI version of Rose says about the internet. “They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.”

It’s easy to see this in the world today. Facebook continues to fail to stop the spread of incorrect news, and that information is disseminated out to users who chew it up and repeat it. They share falsehoods and lies, and even if they’re given the correct information afterwards, it rarely seems to help. The Chinese government works with Google to hide certain search results within their country. The former is what the Patriots fear; the latter is their solution. Prune down excess information, allow people to only see what they want them to see. Remember how the trailers for Sons of Liberty hid Raiden and replaced him with Snake? Sons of Liberty has always been about the control of information, even before the game was released.

Kojima is often hailed as a sort of soothsayer for the writing in this segment. That’s especially true as the 21st century has developed to bear out the general thesis of this game. There’s slews of information available today, and cult-like communities that form. The word “meme” is better known, even if it refers to funny pictures more than Dawkins’ original meaning. Sons of Liberty’s read on the digital landscape can feel particularly prescient in our current post-fact political landscape. The idea of Kojima as far-seeing genius—social media posts now hail Death Stranding as making more sense in the lockdown-laden reality brought about by the covid-19 pandemic—is a meme unto itself. Like any meme, it represents a fraction of reality.

In an interview with Hardcore Gaming 101, localizer Agnes Kaku spoke about her experiences working with Konami and the difficulty of untangling Sons of Liberty’s writing. She even questioned Kojima’s role as writer. According to Kaku, much of Kojima’s writing and political prognostications were less a result of intense insight and more over-enthusiastic conspiracy writing chasing after Hollywood plots.

“I don’t think Kojima’s a writer,” she said. “The fact that he would even be considered one shows how low the standards are in the game industry. Nothing in MGS2 is above a fanfic level. He wouldn’t last a morning in a network TV writers’ room, and those aren’t exactly turning out the Dark Tower series or The Wire.”

According to Kaku, the localization process focused on smoothing out the writing by altering the mood. As for the writing itself, she suggested that Kojima might not be the leading voice.

“When a story has a plethora of cliches (‘the-government-made-me-a-killer-then-abandoned-me’ comes painfully to the mind) AND takes itself seriously, all one can do is lay on a good coat of noir and make it stick,” she said. “Maybe Mr. Kojima would dispute that, or whoever actually wrote the game. Does he actually write these things?”

Sons of Liberty does indeed have a second credited writer: Tomokazu Fukushima. For Sons of Liberty, Fukushima assisted with script planning and research alongside writing tasks. Later games would bring in writers like Shuyo Murata and Etsu Tamari. Tamari would go on to write Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance; Murata would fulfill an uncredited role as co-director on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. In spite of this and Kaku’s claims about the localization process, Kojima gets the majority credit from fans.

This is one of Sons of Liberty’s greatest ironies. A game about information control and legacy, where characters fight to be remembered by history, is considered the work of a lone genius rather than a team of multiple writers and voices. Culture curates itself like Sons of Liberty claims it does. Complexities are removed, information culled and pruned, until there is a “truth” that everyone accepts. This isn’t to detract from Kojima’s talent—I wouldn’t be writing about Metal Gear if I didn’t think Kojima was doing smart and interesting things—but the cultural idea of Metal Gear tends to iron out blemishes to create a cleaner story. That can mean ignoring the series’ shaky gender politics. It can also mean ignoring the contributions of other writers.

Underneath the social commentary, meme theory, and meta-text, Son of Liberty’s final battle is between two people—both wronged by the government—who want to lead their own lives. Solidus, once a puppet of the Patriots, wants to have a legacy of his own beyond being one of Big Boss’s sons. His plot against the Patriots has noble political goals but Solidus’ life-long journey has been spent trying to leave a mark on the world. The Snake siblings can’t have children, and so Solidus settles for a different kind of “immortality.” He will become a liberator, known throughout history. Raiden’s goal is less lofty but similar: escape the tangled life the Patriots made for him and make his own decisions. These goals are incompatible. And so, for all the twists and turns that have led up to this moment, the stakes are simple. Someone has to die.

The dove symbolize the fact that some badass shit is about to go down.
The dove symbolize the fact that some badass shit is about to go down.

Solidus breaks Raiden from his handcuffs. Raiden takes up his sword. The boss fight doesn’t really have any tricks or special win conditions. Instead, victory comes as the player (and Raiden) demonstrates mastery with a unique skill. Raiden’s final fight with Solidus has superficial similarities with Solid Snake and Liquid’s fist fight at the end of Metal Gear Solid but the gameplay language is entirely its own. The player and Raiden have developed familiarity with this language together during the assault in Arsenal Gear. To win, they must both “speak” that language with each other. It is a moment where the player’s goal and Raiden’s goal are in total alignment: survive. They overlap with each other, connecting for one final moment.

Solidus dies, tumbling off Federal Hall. In the original script, Raiden cuts down the American flag, which would fall down to drape over Solidus’ body. This was cut from the final release but it’s still clear that Sons of Liberty finds nobility in Solidus’ struggle. Where Snake and Liquid seemed destined to clash, Raiden and Solidus might have been allies under different circumstances. Raiden’s mission is complete and as pedestrians stream into the Manhattan streets, Snake appears at Raiden’s side. How did he get there after diving off Arsenal Gear? It ultimately doesn’t matter. Raiden’s emergence out of his mission takes on hazy qualities, as if he’s stirring up from a dream. Why not? This might be the first time he’s ever been awake in his entire life.

“Who am I,” Raiden wonders. Snake says that’s up to him. Few things are ever locked in stone. Raiden doesn’t have to be a killer. He doesn’t need to be a super soldier. He doesn’t need to be Snake. He doesn’t need to be the player character. With a look down at his dog tags, the very same ones that players presumably wrote their names on, Raiden decides to find his own path. He hurls the dog tags away. He’s free from the Patriots, and free from the player.

There are loose ends. The player who looks carefully in the background will see Vamp lurking within Manhattan’s crowded streets. Snake is now prepared to rescue Olga’s child. A post-credits scene will hold a mind-numbing twist that the Patriots apparently died a century ago. There’s more adventure to be had. Raiden is eager to go, but Snake tells him to wait. Raiden has his own unfinished business: reunite with Rose and come to terms with who he really is. As Snake seems to fade into the crowd, Rose miraculously appears. There are no more masks for either Raiden or Rose to wear. No more lies. Just two messy people who, in spite of everything, love each other. Their future doesn’t rest in some Patriots plot. It’s in their hands.

This is one of the most important moments in the entire series. It could have ended here and been fine.
This is one of the most important moments in the entire series. It could have ended here and been fine.

Sons of Liberty isn’t a story about espionage and betrayal. Not really. It’s about one person learning to be his best self. The most dangerous threats to our lives aren’t bullets or bombs or government censors, even if those things are undoubtedly vile. The most dangerous things are the things we do to ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves, the love we deny, and the dignity we trick ourselves into thinking we don’t deserve.

We do deserve these things. Love, hope, choice. They can be robbed through the most extreme circumstances, but we can reclaim them. Raiden was caught in a loop, wandering the double helix of the Big Shell in a quest to be what he wasn’t. He’s not Solid Snake. Sons of Liberty decides that is a good thing. No one should be Solid Snake, especially the player. The best thing we can be is ourselves. Finding what that means can be a painful process but it is a necessary one. You’re not a super soldier. You’re you. Damn, if that isn’t beautiful.

Former Senior Writer and Critic at Kotaku.

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DISCUSSION

As someone who thinks MGS is one of the best games of all time, this game infuriated me to no end.