Codec Logs: A Weapon That Will Change the World



To: Blake Foley
From: Sean Gandert
Subject: RE: I’m Pretty Sure the Surgeon General Wouldn’t Approve

You asked whether Metal Gear Solid might be better on a second playthrough, and unfortunately I need to answer with the ambiguously less-than-useful “yes and no.” Like any story that relies heavily on twists, knowing about them beforehand transforms the experience. You can’t get the same highs you did the first time, and in fact I’m still sad that I couldn’t get the true Psycho Mantis experience because I already knew about his gimmick before I touched Metal Gear Solid—playing this encounter as originally intended nowadays would require a strange mixture of interest in classic games and complete ignorance about their most famous traits, which is to say that I don’t think it will ever really be possible again. At the same time, though, you pick up on a lot of things the second time through that you miss without knowing the full story, and perhaps even more important you think less about the gameplay in general. I wasn’t nearly so frustrated during the shooting sequence with Meryl this time because I knew I wasn’t doing something wrong, and likewise with the homing rocket. So I had a lot more time to think about the characters, the story, and above all the world while going through the game a second time, and though that kinda screws up one of the premises of this series of letters (one of us being a veteran and the other a n00b), oh well.


All of which is a long way of getting into the fact that I’m not sure I 100% agree with you that Metal Gear Solid is where Kojima’s Kojima-ness started to come to the forefront. We’re not playing it, but there’s a BIG difference between the work-for-hire Snake’s Revenge and Metal Gear 2, and I can see that just from reading a synopsis of the non-canonical game’s story. But I take your point, this is still where a lot of what we take as modern day Kojima tropes really started, at least as far as the Metal Gear series is concerned (one day we’ll play Policenauts or Snatcher… but “one day” seems most likely to be pretty far off). To me, though, what ended up defining Metal Gear Solid compared with the first two games was as much about the radically different approach to setting and worldbuilding that first appeared here as it was anything else. A lot changed, and this is something that sets Solid apart not just from its predecessors, but also nearly every other game out there.

One of the more famous quotes from Kojima about Solid was that, “If the player isn’t tricked into believing that the world is real, then there’s no point in making the game.” He’s exaggerating here, unless I’m wrong and a lot of people started panicking about nuclear weapons in Alaska and genome soldiers—I don’t think even QAnon has gotten into that yet—but this point is nonetheless important. Metal Gear Solid is obsessed with realism in all of its details, from making individual desks look different from each other to offering us the tedious details of each particular weapon. But at the same time, its world is filled with the type of science fiction that borders on absurdity, or at least magic. This simultaneous devotion to realism and sci-fi, contradictory impulses that seem on the outside like they shouldn’t fit together but to do so well here, are what I think of when I think of when I consider the world of Solid.

And like with Kojima’s sensibility, that’s not to say that these concerns are completely absent from the earlier titles, but here they’re at the forefront. One way to see how Solid moves on from its predecessors is to think about the settings. We move from Outer Heaven to Zanzibar Land to the Fox Islands in Alaska. Sure, Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land are supposed to take place in the real world, but I mean… only kind of. Really, they’re just weird names for game settings, and the information about Zanzibar Land being somewhere in Central Asia barely exists in the game and has no bearing on what you find there. Conversely, the Alaska of Solid matters. There’s the snow and the information about Snake being a musher, there’s the information about the native Alaskan population and the fact that the Fox Islands really do exist. Suddenly, we move from video game land to reality, and instead of dealing with farcical characters (our Sad Olympian of the past) we move onto the secretary of defense and the DARPA chief. Solid is set on (please excuse me) solid ground, not video game land, regardless of the 10,000 fourth wall breaks littering its storytelling.


At the same time, the science fiction here goes completely bonkers. There’s clones and genetic engineering, sure, but there’s also the stealth suits and the exoskeleton. In Solid, there’s no plot point too weird to be explained away through some completely absurd science-fiction trope. The Bloody Brads in Metal Gear felt out of place in Metal Gear because everything else in the game was supposed to be just a normal military setting. Were they in Solid, though, we wouldn’t bat an eye as what’s around is far weirder. Decoy Octopus literally copies people through draining their blood and putting it into his own body, which explains away several plot points but is also just so ridiculous when you think about it for even five seconds that it’s hard to not to laugh. And that’s true of a lot of the sci-fi here, which would be hilarious were it not both taken so seriously and explained away at great length regardless of how silly it might be.

We’re not the first to note that Solid is basically a remake of Metal Gear 2, but the science fiction and realism of Solid turn the game into a completely different experience. You can’t compare Psycho Mantis to Jungle Evil or Red Blaster because it doesn’t feel like they exist in the same universe. Or for a better example, let’s look at the two games’ ninjas. Schneider as Black Ninja is just a guy who shoots at you and occasionally teleports, and his sci-fi bit, working for the extraterrestrial environment special forces unit, is played for laughs (at least, that’s how I took it). None of it makes any sense, and it feels like a doofy video game trope, or perhaps a parody of doofy video game tropes. We are not, at any point, supposed to take him or what he says seriously.  Frank Jaeger as the cyborg ninja is explained ad nauseum, such that we know a great deal about his exoskeleton and his genome experiments. We don’t laugh at him, in fact he’s given a great deal of pathos; his ridiculous story is something we’re supposed to take, because of its many details, as real.

I can completely understand why some players might become incensed about the amount of exposition in Solid, the lengthy explanations of every weapon, of how the codecs work by “directly stimulat[ing] the small bones of your ear” rather than, I don’t know, just having a radio. But that’s how the game sells its ridiculous story. We are supposed to believe things because they have been thought about, and because we can have that information. Information overload is a narrative technique just as important as the details on those little desks, and its purpose is to convince us that the things that appear to be magic, the science fiction that defies what we know of reality, is all ok because it exists within the rules of this universe.


Maybe all of this caught my interest so much because, while I’m not really a science fiction author, I did write a (somewhat… sort of… I don’t know, according to the publisher) science fiction novel, and it’s one of the impulses that I had as well. When you want to convince someone about the reality of something, we tell them all of these details, and Solid wants to tell a ridiculous story but make us believe it, so those details really matter. Maybe there aren’t any real cybernetic ninjas or walking nuclear tanks… but if Solid did its job right, then the idea of them shouldn’t feel too far off.

Before I pass the baton back to you, I don’t want to ignore the implicit question of why it’s so important to Kojima that we treat all of this seriously. The answer, I think, lies within those few live-action pieces of cinematics, which were shocking the first time I played through the game and, unlike the twists, no less jarring when I played through it again. Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 were games that were about… games. I don’t think you could ascribe to them much more purpose than that, even with the whole nuclear tank/country for warriors thing going on along the side. Rather, the nuclear-launching tank was just a cool idea for a McGuffin in the first two games, but here I would argue that it’s supposed to be treated with as much reality as anything else, and the exhortation towards nuclear disarmament is treated with full seriousness. It may take us a goofy story to get around to it, but Solid wants us to think about what the possible consequences of nuclear warheads getting into the wrong hands could be (and, to a lesser extent, about the dangers of genetic experimentation and war in general). A lot of the game’s thematic material is supposed to be considered in a similar light, though often it’s not quite as successful as this central message. But for any of this to have any real meaning, any stakes beyond old-fashioned hokey video game stories, we have to have that realism.


I don’t know if I could say right now what it is that sets Kojima apart from other developers, but I think that Metal Gear Solid might be the point where he realized that in order to actually say something, for his video games to have any real meaning beyond the experience of pure play, he had to get all the details right. And that if he got those details right, he could be as goofy as he wants to be, because it all feels a part of the same whole. Until recently, very few games had anything to say, they were simply play. Even story-based titles tended towards the type of pulp where fun is the only purpose. There’s nothing wrong with that (as it turns out, fun is fun), but Solid is the first instance I can think of where a game wanted to do more than this. I’m not saying it fully succeeds, but the very fact of trying to do something else was new to the medium, and admirable just for the attempt.

I’ve spent the last couple thousand words writing about the world, but of course that’s only part of the game. And honestly, it ends up one of the more forgettable parts of any playthrough, since it’s only the backdrop and side comments, when the real meat of the Solid is in the characters. Obviously there’s a lot of difference between what we have here in Solid and what came before, but do they feel like part of the same story still—is this Snake still the same Snake, for instance? And looking at my question of realism, do any of the character here feel real? Are they supposed to? Does that even matter? I feel like there’s something going on with the cast that I can’t quite put my finger on, why they feel more distinctive than many film and book characters (let alone video game ones), and I don’t think it’s just the high quality of the voice acting, though I can’t mention this aspect without saying that it holds up incredibly well. What are your thoughts about their place in things, given that you’ve spent quite a bit of time with Snake, Liquid, Ocelot, and the rest of the games’ weirdos?

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