It was E3 2000 when I nearly lost my shit. The sequel to one of the best games I'd played on the PS1, Metal Gear Solid, was coming out on the PS2 and the graphics showcased in Sons of Liberty were unbelievable.
Image from MGS4, but loved how it showed what Raiden would eventually become.
Realistic rain poured down on a tanker as it is taken over by a mysterious military group. The soldiers stealthily invade and their boots even make water splashes. The interior shots are beautifully lit and the shadows are used as a new mechanic for avoiding detection. This is all upended by the appearance of Revolver Ocelot in a two-shot execution, zooming closer with each camera cut.
"One day, MGS changed the world's games," the trailer states, intercutting into a knife fight with Olga. "And now, the world changes MGS." Change had come to MGS and the game that I thought would be an action blockbuster ended up turning into insidious, MK ultra paranoid mind trip, more Kafkaesque than Bruckheimer, a metaphysical social experiment that felt like it would be at home in a David Lynch film.
No one could have suspected the metamorphosis, least of all me. The first third of MGS 2 in the tanker was almost exactly what I was expecting based on the trailer, only better. You play as Solid Snake, jumping onto the tanker from the bridge above via bungee jump to get more information on a new Metal Gear called Ray. Everything from the visuals to the controls was so much better and polished. The thrilling score is composed by the master of action music, Harry Gregson-Williams.
Even in the plant chapter, when Snake is swapped out in favour of Raiden, I actually didn't mind. It was a unique experience playing as the more agile, ninja-like character. There are scenes that were uncannily familiar, seeming like retreads of the first MGS. Solidus Snake takes the place of Liquid Snake as the main villain. A strange AI called the GW is behind many of the evil machinations. Revolver Ocelot is back with Liquid Snake's arm. There's even a cyborg ninja like Grey Fox, only this time, it's a Russian soldier named Olga. I presumed Raiden would be a side story that would eventually end with me taking over Solid Snake again.
I was wrong. It's the third act that still stays with me.
With the help of Otacon's stepsister, Emma, Raiden uploads a virus to the massive AI system, GW. He's captured for a short time by Solidus Snake who reveals Raiden's past as a child soldier. He was so good at killing he was nicknamed "Jack the Ripper." After monologuing for a bit, Solidus leaves Raiden to Olga who agrees to free him.
That's when Raiden's girlfriend, Rose, who is also a data analyst to support him on radio, professes her unconditional love to him despite once having been a mass murderer. It's touching, if a tidbit melodramatic considering the timing. You make your escape in the nude as you don't have any of your equipment. That means you're running around cupping your private parts deep inside enemy territory.
This is when things start going off the rails. Your commander, Colonel Campbell, goes apeshit. He jumps through the fourth wall and tells players to turn off the console. Flashbacks of Metal Gear for the MSX2 play in the background, as does a scene from a VR simulation with Meryl from the first Metal Gear Solid. It appears the colonel is a program. Rose calls you to tell you that her meeting with you wasn't coincidence, that she was actually ordered by the Patriots to keep an eye on you. She still loves you and keeps on repeating it, even as she reported everything you did to the Patriots. Then she tells you that she's pregnant. Raiden is still doing acrobatic flips buck naked, avoiding enemy detection. It is perhaps one of the most surreal moments in any medium and the only thing I can think of that even compares are the strange sequences in Eternal Darkness. Finally, Solid Snake shows back up, and you're almost wondering if Solid Snake is even Solid Snake.
Raiden sums up the player's feeling perfectly: "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between reality and a game…"
Then you find out you're part of a game inside a game, a secret operation called the S3 or Solid Snake Simulation. The entirety of MGS2 is a simulation designed to artificially recreate another Solid Snake. And it's here I began to realise this was a social experiment. Not just on Raiden, but by Kojima, using you, the player, as a guinea pig to create a very uncanny gaming experience.
So many twists and turns follow (Dead Cell member, Fortune, wants Arsenal Gear, but Solidus actually planted that idea as he's actually trying to track the Patriots, but Revolver Ocelot is actually working for the Patriots, etc.), the specifics almost becomes irrelevant. When memories can be falsified, I no longer trust them to account for anything any of the characters say.
Right when you think things can't get more convoluted, the Patriots reveal themselves as non-human agents in control, a sort of Illuminati pulling the strings. "We succeeded in digitising life itself," a Patriot representation of Rose tells you before informing you what the greatest tragedy of human history is.
Reality TV. Celebrity trivia. The glut of trash information that will "slow down social progress" and "reduce the rate of evolution." They don't want censorship, but rather, to create "context." Social commentary ensues, lamenting the privacy of victims, condemning the illusion of the Horatio Algers myth, and the "humane" way in which weapons are developed to murder millions. It's revealed that the S3 is not a Solid Snake Simulation, but the Selection for Societal Sanity.
If our society gets to a point where all information and exchanges are engineered, is there any thing that's real? Everything we do, whether on social media, the internet, and video gaming is used to mine data to create an even better simulation (or in current life, created the best consumer tailored product by tracking your searches, page likes, and message interactions). This is all something I'd expect to hear about in a sociology or philosophy class, not the climax of Metal Gear Solid 2.
The sum thesis that the Patriots believe can be simplified as: "Anything can be quantified nowadays." Snake and Raiden (and perhaps Kojima) are trying to prove that humanity is not so easily reducible to a set of numbers.
It's the similarities between what the Patriots describe as a "simulation" and a "video game" that makes this experiment so fascinating. "I wonder if you would have preferred a fantasy setting," they hypothesise, making it clear that the specifics aren't as important as the tailored individual taste.
Even after you defeat Solidus, there is so much left unresolved, I thought for sure it would continue in the third act where you'd get to be Solid Snake again. Hunt down Revolver Ocelot/Liquid and find out more about the Patriots. The end.
The third act never came.
What excited and scared me was how Kojima had pushed the narrative. This was a game with social implications that seemed to be warning about video games and digitization while being told on those very platforms he was cautioning against.
We are able to kill without hesitation inside the game world, believing that it's just part of the game rules. We don't question our orders, and Jack the Ripper's legacy is our own mountain of polygonal corpses we've left in our years of gaming.
It was a bold choice for Kojima to end it the way he did. In many ways, this isn't Snake's story, nor even Raiden, but our own. It challenges the very notions of identity when even love and bravery clan be fabricated (have you ever fallen in love with a game character or been deeply saddened over one's death?). The fact that the end of MGS 2 is so unsatisfactory suggests not only that the fight goes on, but it's us that have to take up the mantle. Solid Snake can help, but he won't fight the battles for us. We are The Sons of Liberty. Will we take up the mantle?