Metal Gear Solid is an obsession for millions of gamers, with its totally insane science-fiction storytelling. But at its heart, the series has always been about celebrating and questioning the power of technology. The story of Solid Snake, Raiden, and Snake's evil dad Big Boss (it's... a long story) isn't just ridiculously fun, it's also a terrific vehicle for asking the kind of questions that science fiction has always asked, at its best.
Whether it's the concept of the titular Metal Gears themselves — bipedal walking tanks capable of launching nuclear missiles — or the rise of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, Metal Gear Solid is a saga that celebrates the tech of our future as much as it often condemns it. From the 1960s settings of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater to the far-flung future of, err, 2014 in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the future role of technology in society has played a huge part of the franchise.
The titular Metal Gear mech of Metal Gear Solid, Rex.
Metal Gear Solid began with 1987's Metal Gear, but became more widely known with the Playstation One cinematic stealth adventure Metal Gear Solid in 1998. And since then, the series has always grappled with our technological future.
Snake's war against a shadowy organisation controlling the world, known as the Patriots, uses its near-future technology to ask questions about personal freedom, the role of technology in our society as a tool to aid or even control us, even how media can influence and even trick us (a major role in the post-modern technological shit-show of a tale that is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which attempts to tackle the power of information as a memetic tool of control).
Even today, this sort of heady moralizing and debating is rare in video games — and when Metal Gear Solid came out in 1998, it practically didn't exist. For better or worse, with its lengthy cutscenes and frequent penchant for filibuster-worthy speeches about nuclear weapons and technology, Metal Gear Solid revolutionised a cinematic approach to video game storytelling that still influences the industry today, all through a science-fiction lens of mechs, genetically enhanced soldiers, and nanomachines.
A cutscene from Metal Gear Solid 4 explaining the adaptation of nanomachines into the human body.
Using this cinematic approach to storytelling and wild science fiction, the games have asked some pretty heady questions. Metal Gear Solid 4, in particular, deals with the modernisation of war as a business, in a world where national armies have given way to Private Military Corporations, and where soldiers' bodies are infused with nanotechnology to control their weapons and even their actions. The major themes of the game include the free will of individual soldiers, and whether that freedom is needed to keep the human element of war going, or a stumbling block that could be overcome with technology. Plus whether war itself is something that must be preserved via technological advancement, for the good of the world as a whole.
Earlier titles or spinoffs like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker dealt with the ethics of nuclear deterrence — or more specifically, whether nuclear deterrence could work without a human element to guide it (the debate being that, a human could always make the decision not to retaliate to a nuclear strike, out of fear of completely wiping out the human race, as opposed to an A.I., that would retaliate regardless). The intersect between man and machine, most especially in warfare in Metal Gear Solid's world, runs throughout the entire series.
Like all great science fiction, MGS uses technology — even on a metanarrative level, since this is a story that only really could be told through a technological medium like video games — to ask us big, moral questions. And this approach has helped the franchise endure. It's a human tale about the power of technology, a story almost as old as humanity itself. But, you know, with giant freaking robots.
The prototype Metal Gear, Peace Walker, used an AI instead of a human pilot. Also, this one was made 20 years before Metal Gear Rex, somehow.
And the ability to blend such serious philosophical debates with a ridiculously goofy charm is what has made Metal Gear Solid an icon, and it's what gels the whole franchise together. (In spite of the fact that it can look like a total tonal mess to an outsider.) All of the heady debate stuff I mentioned earlier? It sits alongside other elements of Metal Gear Solid such as cyborg ninjas, nanomachine technology basically becoming shorthand for actual magic, or the role of a cardboard box as quite possibly the greatest espionage tool of all time.
There are crazy villains like the mind-controlling psychic Psycho Mantis, or an (obviously fictional) former US president that you sword-fight with, on top of the US Treasury building (who is actually a genetic clone of the villainous Big Boss.) Or perhaps the most ridiculous opponent of all: Revolver Ocelot, a quadruple-agent, who's a thorn in the side of Snake for almost the entire franchise, and who at one point gets his arm cut off by a Cyborg Ninja, which is surgically replaced with the arm of Snake's (dead) clone brother Liquid, which possesses Ocelot and turns him into a new version of Liquid. Oh yeah, did I not mention that Solid Snake has a twin brother, Liquid Snake? They're both clones of Big Boss, part of a program to create the ultimate soldier.
And that's just the tip of the insanity iceberg that Metal Gear Solid revels in. It is, as the nerdy recurring hacker character Otacon says at one point, "just like one of [his] Japanese animes".
Revolver Ocelot, being possessed by the arm of the deceased Liquid. I forgot to mention he's basically a Russian cowboy too, didn't I?
Metal Gear Solid's ability to wildly swing between the serious and the insane, and still somehow stick the landing, is what's helped make it one of the biggest series in gaming today. Its irreverent quirkiness is something that no franchise can compare to, or even attempt to do without falling flat on its face. It's kind of why the serious side of it actually works: you come for the over-the-top melodrama and ridiculous giant robot shenanigans, but stay for the weirdly insightful socio-political commentary. Without its charm, Metal Gear Solid would be far too self-serious for its own good; without the philosophical debate-mongering, it'd just be another quirky Japanese action series. They're symbiotic in a way that should never really work, but it's created a legacy that endures today.
And that legacy is largely down to one man: Series creator and director Hideo Kojima. His name has been stamped across the opening credits of each entry in the series since the beginning, a constant reminder that the craziness you're about to witness comes from his mind. There is currently a controversy over the fact that, following disputes with the game's publisher Konami, Kojima has left the franchise and Konami behind — and as a result, his name has been stripped from the cover of what is now his final Metal Gear game, The Phantom Pain.
Hideo Kojima making a cameo appearance in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Because of course he does.
The idea of an auteur is an unfamiliar one to most games. But Hideo Kojima, with his love of big science fiction ideas, is absolutely the driving force behind Metal Gear Solid, for better or worse — worse, particularly, in the case of the series' often bizarre approach to women, a complaint that dogs the series even today. It's just another layer of Metal Gear Solid: just as the franchise itself is about the blend of humanity and technology, the blurred lines between where Hideo Kojima ends and Metal Gear Solid begins create a thoroughly unique experience that very few video game series can match.
It's why this week's release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the final entry from Kojima himself, marks the end of an era. Metal Gear Solid will continue, but without his touch it will be a far less-special experience. His guiding hand created a science fiction world that balanced the bizarre and the serious, to create something like no one had seen in a video game, and asked questions in a way that no other game could. As we get ready to hide under a cardboard box for one last time, it will be a bittersweet farewell to a series we hold close to our hearts.