In 2001, Hideo Kojima pissed off countless fans with a simple twist. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty did not star everyone's favourite rugged action hero Solid Snake. Instead, players spent most of their time playing as Raiden, a whiny rookie who didn't know his arse from his head. It was perfect and still is. Raiden is the hero gamers deserved and exactly what the series needed.
1998's Metal Gear Solid is a formative game for the stealth genre, following professional commando Solid Snake as he foils a terrorist plot on a remote island in Alaska. Anticipation for the sequel was massive, with a bonus disc containing a small portion of the game helping to drive sales of Kojima's robot combat game Zone of the Enders. Trailers featured pitched battles as Snake fought a fighter jet on the Brooklyn Bridge and snuck around various industrial locations.
Snake is the star of Metal Gear Solid 2's first chapter. He infiltrates a tanker to document the existence of a new Metal Gear, a kind of giant robot. And then, the tanker sinks, and he seemingly dies.
The replacement protagonist for the rest of the game is Raiden, a fresh-faced agent sent in to deal with a hostage situation on a marine decontamination facility. He is everything that Snake is not. Snake was a rugged military operator; Raiden is a pretty boy whose visual design skirts the line of androgyny. David Hayter's grizzled vocal performance was replace with Quinton Flynn's nasally tones.
Snake had been tested in the fires of combat; Raiden apparently had no experience and had only trained in virtual reality. Worse, his existence had been hidden in all of the game's marketing. His very existence felt like a lie.
Raiden was a perfect repudiation for players who loved Metal Gear Solid. The point of Metal Gear Solid is not how badass Solid Snake is, it is how bad it is to be an action hero. Snake is lied to by his superiors, tortured by his enemies, and watches as friends and allies die around him. Where Snake goes, death and sorrow follow. His life is defined by loss, but many players failed to recognise this tragedy, enamoured with the power fantasy of being a dangerous soldier.
Raiden is a mirror held to the audience of gamers who want to be powerful. They do not get to be Snake, they get to be themselves: fragile, nerdy, and in over their heads.
Raiden is an insufferable brag who considers his VR training on par with real world experience. When he encounters the Navy SEAL Iroquois Plisken, a thinly-disguised Solid Snake, he boasts of his digital conquests:
Raiden: I've had extensive training — the kind that's indistinguishable from the real thing.
Pliskin: Like what?
Raiden: Sneaking mission 60, Weapons 80.
Pliskin: VR, huh.
Raiden: But realistic in every way.
Pliskin: A virtual grunt of the digital age. That's just great.
Raiden is a gamer, raised on a diet of digital shooting and sneaking. Many of those virtual missions are recreations of Snake's adventures. He is also sexually repressed, keeping distance from his girlfriend Rose, who often calls him during the game to talk about their relationship.
Snake built a smooth relationship with the less experienced soldier Meryl Silverburgh in Metal Gear Solid, and she often helped during his mission. Raiden is stunted, unable to embrace reality and incapable of connecting emotionally.
It is fitting that the level design of Metal Gear Solid 2 reinforces Raiden's inability to grow. The Shadow Moses facility in Metal Gear Solid was arranged so that progress meant moving upwards. The Big Shell facility that Raiden explores is arranged like a lemniscate. It is not readily apparent when the player is making significant progress, similar to how it's hard to tell if Raiden is growing as a person or succeeding in his mission.
As he fails to open up to Rose, he similarly fails to dispatch the terrorist threats. He can't harm the railgun-wielding Fortune, nor is he able to kill the seemingly immortal Vamp.
Eventually Plisken is revealed as Solid Snake, and Raiden finally makes progress through the Big Shell facility. Critic James Howell notes in his essay "Driving Off the Map" that Metal Gear Solid 2 formally repeats many of the scenarios of Metal Gear Solid in order to stress Raiden (and the player's) attachment to the previous game. Raiden's growth comes from rejecting the established norms of the series, culminating in him fighting alongside Snake while using a sword.
The weapon is new to the series and introduced to Raiden only as he starts to reject the fantasy around him and assert his own identity. The final moment comes before the final boss fight against terrorist leader Solidus Snake, where a handcuffed Raiden is freed after Solidus tosses him a sword. In this final boss fight, Raiden is not fighting for anyone else's agenda other than his own. His separation from Snake is expressed in a gameplay format that is unique to him.
At the start of the game, players are prompted to write their name and date of birth on a set of dogtags that Raiden wears. At the end of the game, he tosses them off. The Metal Gear series rejects players entirely, making them endure their time as Raiden only to be left aside.
Future titles like Guns of the Patriots sought to remedy player reaction to Raiden by making him more active, but the series never shied away from depicting this new life as tragic. In the end, his reward for surviving that game is a return to domestic life with his family, a far cry from his nomadic life as a warrior.
Raiden's story is complicated by the existence of 2013's Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance but is nevertheless appropriate for the time it was released. Raiden's initial role as mirror to the player shifts as he struggles with his own past and a changing political climate.
The final boss in Revengeance is Senator Armstrong, a raving right wing social Darwinist eager to "make America great again." In the end, Raiden defeats him, but the cycle of violence continues. Even when he wins and finds his own path, he still fails. Authenticity always has a cost.
Solid Snake was a relic of an old age, a dying action hero players misguidedly decided they would like to be. Raiden is the antithesis. He isn't a cool badass. He's a messy person struggling to survive through crappy situations. He's the perfect hero for an imperfect world.