[The following article discusses the themes of Metal Gear Solid 4 and contextualizes them with Hideo Kojima's directorship. It contains no plot spoilers, but nonetheless those wishing to avoid all thematic details should steer clear.]
"War has changed."
That's one of the main themes of Metal Gear Solid 4, and from the beginning, it forms a major thread that runs through Hideo Kojima's hallmark marriage of gameplay and narrative.
Even if one were to skip the game's introductory cinema, it's evident something has changed from the first moment of gameplay. The silent tranquiliser gun, a fixture of the Metal Gear Solid series, has historically been the key weapon in a game that prefers the player be stealthy rather than confrontational, pragmatic rather than murderous. As the symbolic lynchpin in that approach, it's usually one of the earliest pieces of equipment the player obtains.
At the beginning of MGS 4, though, as soon as gameplay begins, your first look at your weapons inventory reveals that instead of the seminal, suppressed tranquiliser gun, you start off with a real one.
Though the game takes place across several different locations, it opens in the Middle East, where local rebels are at war with the soldiers of a private military company (PMC). Instead of Snake's customary subtle insertion into the outliers of a guarded facility, you're in the thick of war when the game begins. Stealth is much, much harder now, and cutting through enemy soldier lines against the desert backdrop or carrying an assault rifle amid tanks and grenades evokes moments of feeling just as if you're playing a typical war title.
War has changed for the MGS universe - and the experience of approaching the series has changed for the player.
Within the game, though, the reason for the evolution in war is explained largely in two parts: First is the privatization of war, waged by corporate platoons-for-hire rather than national armies, and second is the proliferation of nanomachine technology.
The nanomachines prevent soldiers from experiencing fear or feeling much pain, and a digital ID system prohibits them from using unapproved weapons or taking inappropriate actions on the battlefield. The overall effect renders these PMCs little more than remote-control humans, without allegiances, loyalty or personal reasons to fight, and their wars are just business.
This new value set for war stands in direct contrast with the one with which we became acquainted in the original Metal Gear Solid, whose theme could be summed up in a single question: "What are you fighting for?"
In fact, the entire MGS 4 continuously recalls the narrative structure, cinematic arrangement and other key elements from the first game, emphasising the contrast. The series' past themes of the necessity of war, battlefield values and personal ideals are put to the test along with the gameplay's core tenet of intelligent non-confrontation.
MGS 4's antagonist is overtly once again Snake's twin, Liquid. But the larger conflict is with this corruption of core ideals - the game presents a world where Snake's core values, and by extension, the franchise's, no longer mean anything.
Perhaps that's the reason behind the decision to prematurely age Snake so severely - that state of affairs actually required some reaching outside of previously-known information to explain. But his advanced age emphasises his status as a relic in this digitised battlefield, creating player empathy for his loss of relevance and highlighting his heroism when he continues to stand and fight against such overwhelming odds.
Snake, of course, directly contradicts the labelling of himself as "hero" - several times throughout the game, when he's asked why he still goes into battle, he responds simply that he "still has things left to do." Simple as that.
The question is, could Metal Gear Solid 4 be a larger metaphor for Kojima's career and the evolution of the game industry, where high-powered, mindless-slaughter FPS titles set in explosive warzones now dominate, and both creativity and individual vision are minimised against the high-risk "arms race" of the video game console war?
In MGS 4, war has become a financially-driven corporate industry, and the "war economy," in which PMCs wage war for profit, is another key theme. The game world is bereft of all value except the financial - and even that fluctuates regularly depending on the tide of the war. It looks a lot like a depressing interpretation of the game industry, come to think of it.
MGS 4 was also promoted with the tagline "No Place To Hide," frequently punned as "No Place For Hideo." It's entirely possible that MGS 4's themes are an expression of Kojima's own sentiment that the industry has lost its values, glutted itself on war titles, relegated personal strength and creativity to near-extinction, and become entirely focused on money - leaving "no place for Hideo" after all.
Kojima has actually mentioned numerous times that he's finished with the franchise, often before making a new Metal Gear game - just as, at the end of every game, Snake attempts to retire from war.
Snake is always drawn back in when he's needed, though, notably led by people who tend to manipulate and lie to him. Even when he's aware of this, though, Snake, a mercenary who follows orders because of his own values and not because of allegiance to a larger organisation, fulfils his objectives for the sake of finishing things.
Maybe Kojima felt he "still had things to do," just like the rapidly-declining Snake. MGS 4 wraps up all of the loose ends in the series' plot; whatever Snake has left to do, he'll finish it at last. And maybe this time Kojima is truly finished, too.