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Codec Logs: What Do Jeans Have to Do With Nature and Order?




To: Blake Foley
From: Sean Gandert
Subject: RE: Don’t worry, it’s a game! It’s a game just like usual.

I’m fond of the term “Kojimaverse,” especially since there are plenty of nods to his other works in the Metal Gear games, and I say that as someone who’s probably missed countless others as neither of us have played through his much more difficult-to-come-by Policenauts and Snatcher ventures. What this word also reminds me of is a long-forgotten essay in which Tim Rogers wrote about the handful of video game auteurs. When he got to Hideo Kojima, he had this to say, “Kojima has a distinctive style — however, he only seems to be capable of expressing that style in the form of Metal Gear Solid games.” Like you, though, he doesn’t blame the man himself for this issue, but rather the system behind game development, a system that has only gotten worse during the intervening years. “You’d figure that, with this degree of notoriety and name recognition, he’d be able to make games that aren’t always about the same damn thing. Well, he doesn’t.” 


I sometimes wish that Kojima wasn’t interested in AAA games, as it would’ve freed him up a long time earlier, but at the same time there’s plenty of worthwhile indie games that I’ve ignored, and I’m sure I’d be inclined to ignore his, too, the same way I still haven’t played even titles like Fez or Undertale that I’m fairly interested in. I guess ignore isn’t the right word, more like passed by. Time is finite, and I read a lot for fun, plus a ton more for my “day job.” I also watch an incredible amount of movies even though I don’t review them anymore. As a result, I play far fewer games than most people as interested in the medium as I am, though I still think about them even during the months I’m too busy to play anything, and try to follow what’s happening in the industry. The point I’m meanderingly trying to get at is that it’s a double-edged sword that Kojima was so committed to AAA productions—ultimately he stuck with Metal Gear, and as a result turned the series into a completely unique entity in the medium’s history.

So if Metal Gear, as you posit, ended up as a sort of shell that he used to put his stories and ideas into, this leads to a surprisingly weird follow-up question: what the hell is the story here? What, to put it simply, is Metal Gear Solid 2 actually about? Now we get into much murkier waters, and I want to bring up a few ideas here, some of which you might even agree with. 

One thing I do want to say right at the top is that Metal Gear Solid 2 is not about postmodernism. I have read people saying this online, and if I could I would happily end that line of discussion forever. That, I think, is an easy misreading of “Dreaming in an Empty Room,” and while I don’t want to get completely lost in my own description of postmodernism, as many would of course disagree with it (an old roommate of mine thought I was completely full of crap on the subject…) in an of itself that is a pretty stupid concept to make a game about. And Metal Gear Solid 2 is a lot of things, but it’s not stupid, or simple, or nearly so straightforward as to be functioning with only one real purpose. It’s using certain tenets of postmodernism, but it’s not just an essay on the subject in the form of a game.

Two dudes shooting guns at something unseen and just off-camera. Pretty much the whole game in a nutshell.

When I read through the translated “Metal Gear Solid 2 Grand Game Plan,” what stuck out to me the most was the section headered, “The aim of the story.” Here, Kojima lays out his plan for the games to feature, “A series of betrayals and sudden reversals, to the point where the player is unable to tell fact from fiction.” He goes on to note that every character lies and betrays someone at least once, and asks, “Can one tell the truth even while inside a virtual reality? Is what we call reality the truth?” [Note: underline in the original]. 


There’s a whole additional pile of alternate themes and concepts we could write about in the design document, and of course even more in the game itself. But this struck me as a unique aim, not just for a game but for a story in any medium. I teach writing. I’m not going to claim I’m a great teacher, or that my ideas on the subject are anything but derivative, but the comment I try to hammer home to students, the thing I try to communicate above practically everything else, is clarity. Our goal is to communicate our thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible, to make characters and scenes legible and understandable. This isn’t just a tenet of good writing, it’s how good storytelling works. That isn’t to say that stories shouldn’t be complicated—my own books have been accused of being complicated to the point of indecipherability—but that these complications should be laid out as simply as possible. Don’t lose the reader, the listener, the viewer. The player. This is storytelling’s golden rule, the thing to nail above your desk as an unbreakable compact with your audience.

But this concept runs headfirst into a wall when the very idea that you want to portray is confusion. Kojima references capturing the feeling of L.A. Confidential as an aim, and to be honest, that movie is not fantastic, partially because of its plot holes and convolutions. But beyond this, there is also quite a difference between telling a story that requires confusion and making a person actively participate in that confusion the way games do. There are things Metal Gear Solid 2 does that are unique to games, and the type of confusion and frustration it creates are intrinsic to the medium. The scathing hatred some people have with the game’s story isn’t surprising, as it seems to break that compact with players… only it doesn’t, really, because it’s not trying to allow us to understand what’s happening. It never entered into that compact in the first place, as the idea it wanted to express makes that impossible.


After finishing the game, I asked you whether Rose was always a simulation, and if not, when did she start being one. You didn’t know. And on the one hand this is a small point, but you’re also a person who’s beaten the game a dozen times, played through the rest of the series, and spent hours digging over the lore, not to mention additional hours writing these silly letters with me. You and Tim Rogers seem to think of the end of the game as dreamlike, and there’s something to that, but I think as much as anything it’s a result of the ground beneath our feet disappearing. Betrayal after betrayal after betrayal leaves the certainty of reality behind, and suddenly we’re as lost and confused as Raiden. The vulnerability he feels with his nakedness is mirroring the player’s own uncertainty. 

What the game’s pre-release press wanted you to think the whole experience would be.

Traditional plot structures, even those with a twist like Metal Gear Solid, are safe. We know where they’re going, and can follow the beats. Kojima knows this as well as anyone, being an obsessive film buff. But the end of MGS2 throws that structure out the window, and we’re left grasping onto anything we can for a sense of what’s actually happening and where this is all heading. You can easily play much of MGS2 and largely ignore the story, but I’d love to hear what someone who skipped the cutscenes thought was happening at the end of the game. It’s a fever dream, layered conspiracies of unreality that seem like a 2001 AAA game version of Alex Jones’ ravings, only at least some of it is actually supposed to make sense. 


This, for me, is the biggest triumph of the game. There’s only a handful of books or films that have ever pulled this feat off before (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend The Lady from Shanghai, which is the Jeopardy-style answer to, “What if L.A. Confidential were good?”), and so far as I’m aware no other games. That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of confusing games, but not intentionally so, or in as controlled a manner… or that are good. Myst-style confusion is, as far as I’m concerned, a dead end, as are copycats in this type of opaque guessing game as to what the developer wants you to do, while Destiny-style confusion is simply shitty storytelling. What I want to posit is that what’s happening here is different from these, that there is a method to the madness, though I may be doing a bad job of explaining why exactly that is.

And maybe this is another reason why it does matter that Kojima stuck to the world of AAA games. The level of polish in his titles constantly illustrates to us that none of what we’re experiencing is accidental—in fact, strike accidental, it’s incredibly expensive and requires a large team of individuals to create this masterful insanity. In an indie game, it’s easy to go, “This is an unintentional mess,” but here the intention bleeds off the page. When it comes to thematizing the confusion of the post-mainstream Internet world, you may not like what Kojima is aiming for, and I totally get that, but I think it’s undeniable that he not only succeeded, he raised the bar for what was possible. 

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