There can be no talk of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty without first acknowledging the runaway success of the 1998 title that spawned it, a PlayStation game so unbelievably popular it sold over six million copies worldwide, inspiring a broad selection of pretenders to the stealth-action throne in the years that followed and growing into a Snakey sensation that would last for decades. In spite of this phenomenal achievement on paper Metal Gear Solid appeared to be a game that did everything wrong, daring to create scenarios that only really worked if the person playing them was inventive enough to reach unusual solutions to unique problems by themselves and thinking nothing of combining rocket launchers and cyborg ninjas wishing for pain with lengthy tracts of plot-critical dialogue laden with unfamiliar acronyms. Yet wherever it went it was showered with acclaim and adoration, a single game bursting with more memorable highlights than other series would ever hope to imagine in their entire lives: Do you remember Otacon musing about love blooming on a battlefield? When Solid fought Liquid, both beat up and bare chested, on top of the defeated Metal Gear REX? What about the first time Psycho Mantis noted out loud that you liked Castlevania and then made your own controller – a completely standard peripheral that previously hadn’t done anything more exciting in its life than perhaps act as a foot pedal during Time Crisis sessions – move on the table? Of course you do, because those moments and plenty more were enthusiastically told and retold to everyone, by everyone, until they became the stuff of gaming legend.
This is what Sons of Liberty was somehow expected to follow – not a good game, not an engaging story, but a legend. To be considered a success it had to be nothing less than better than one of the previous generation’s very best, it had to square up to a list of some of gaming’s biggest concepts and brightest ideas – and surpass them all.
And to it’s credit Metal Gear Solid 2, released only the year after the PlayStation 2’s Japanese launch, performed some truly show-stopping technical feats that still feel as fresh and remarkable as the day they were created, harnessing the power of Sony’s new Emotion Engine to give action game characters expressive faces and creating highly detailed 3D environments that had something meaningful to offer the gameplay as well. Now light and shadow were not only present but well-defined and reliable enough to inform your sneaking, letting you know a guard was just around the corner without having to press up against the wall – assuming you hadn’t chosen to shoot out the lights first. This feature is then twisted into a fun trick using an otherwise inexplicable toy model of Vulcan Raven placed in front of a torch (the exact same room also uses a locker-based shock worthy of Silent Hill to remind you that just because you can open almost all of them it doesn’t mean you should) and later taken to its creative extreme with Vamp’s mysterious ability to pin down your own shadow with a dagger during your first battle with him on the Big Shell. Wind and water are treated with just as much care and craftsmanship, with the former audibly whistling past Raiden’s ears when he’s outside, echoing uncomfortably inside his breathing gear when in first person mode, and messing up his beautiful hair as it blasts through opened hatches while the latter dramatically sprays up walls before rushing down corridors in real time (the highly controlled nature of this scene does nothing to diminish its impact), washes away blood, and best of all gives the impression it has real physical volume, ordinary objects made strange by their suspension in liquid in a way that really hadn’t been seen or done before.
And that’s all lovely screenshot fodder – just the thing for excitable magazine coverage and purchase-encouraging back of the box imagery – but Metal Gear Solid 2’s true joy is found in all the things that can only be felt when playing, by pushing the game and watching it push back in so very many unexpected and innovative ways. Take the guards for example: They can now work in teams and will react to damage based on the region hit, setting upon caught-out characters in groups and dropping instantly to a well-placed headshot – the same as a dozen or more games you could think of without any effort. What makes this special is the way these two details are then expanded beyond the usual question of “How many ways is this game going to let me kill people or be killed by other people?” and into the still-underused realm of simulated senses: It’s this sideways look at standard ideas that enables us to shoot a guard’s radio into uselessness while it’s in their hands – as they’re holding it to their mouths – before they make a call for backup, that allows us to casually walk around the back of the guy obliviously bopping along to the tinny tunes we can hear escaping their headphones, that obstructs everyone’s view when a punctured fire extinguisher’s contents fill the air, its short hose wildly snaking alongside.
There’s not even any need to kill anyone at all: Right from the beginning you are always given the option to harmlessly sedate anyone you can’t sneak past – even the game’s strange menagerie of bosses. But then what? What do you do when a tranquillised guard wakes up? Where do you hide when a heavily armed team’s checking the area because all the patrol guards were too busy snoozing to give the all-clear over the radio? Everything is so tightly intertwined with everything else and you have so many ways to approach even the most bizarre situations on your own terms, that it feels like you’ve been given your own little virtual world in which to play Solid Snake in. It may be true to say there are a million ways we can’t interact with Metal Gear Solid 2 but every way we can counts, right down to the daft sexy locker posters and the one guard in one corner of one location swarming with flies. It feels – ha! – solid.
And this virtual reality hits its first cinematic crescendo in Metal Gear RAY’s activation at the end of the tanker section, all sloshing water, screaming metal, and Liquid Snake – just as things should be. Every destructive footstep and floating corpse placed with purpose. This is the instant Sons of Liberty definitively proves it can out-Metal Gear Solid Metal Gear Solid, that the old gang’s back and then…
…and then Snake’s gone.
And from that rug-pull – a genuine shock at the time – we move on to the game’s second beginning as Raiden enters the Big Shell facility, a story that has the sheer gall to build its everything around the assumption that the person playing has not only cleared the original Metal Gear Solid but adored it and its legendary hero… and considering the impact the first game had who could argue with that logic? Everyone wanted to see Snake back for another sneaking mission – heck that’s what we all thought we were already playing – everyone wanted to have another go with those remote-controlled Nikita missiles, to once again sneak perfectly past the guards patrolling the watery secret entrance, to flex the sniping muscles trained so well in repeated plays of Metal Gear Solid VR Missions/Special Missions, to walk down another creepy corridor streaked with blood, to see another cyborg ninja, to meet another timid scientist soaked in their own urine, to play as a legendary hero just one more time…
And instead we got Raiden, a man with no combat experience (as far as we’re all currently aware) who views his extensive VR training and vast knowledge of the Shadow Moses incident as proof that he’s more than capable of handling the eerily similar scenarios he faces during his first official mission even though he’s never sneaked for real in his whole life. Hang on a minute… Don’t you think that sounds like someone we know? Don’t you think that sounds like… us?
Which is very much the point: Raiden isn’t just the character we control, he’s literally us. We are both the inevitable outcome of an individual experiencing the exact same love for the exact same story and the exact same VR combat. Raiden’s abilities – and those of us six million-plus fans – are the wholly anticipated and quantifiable output of a Metal Gear Solid successful cleared. After all:
“Given the right situation, the right story, anyone can be shaped into Snake.” – Revolver Ocelot
With this single line a returning boss we never get to fight turns years of attachment to the first game against us personally. Of course we’d love to pretend he’s only speaking to Raiden, that this is the evidence we need to prove this over-confident and unwanted replacement with very nice hair isn’t as special as the real thing but Metal Gear Solid – and the people who play it – know better than that. The uncomfortable truth is the apparently untouchable Solid Snake, his incredible mission, and our own “special” skills, are nothing more than infinitely reproducible assets – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Metal Gear Solid 2 asks many questions – about truth, about the importance of context, about freedom – but it’s also asking – practically begging those of us playing – if what’s being offered is all we really want, if feeling good about seeing something familiar is as big as our gaming dreams get. Are we so in love with the original Metal Gear Solid that this is enough? Do we really just want a redressed version of the same old story – destroying bipedal mechs, fighting weird bosses, and taking codec calls from the same recognisable faces – time and time again? Did we honestly even notice this is what was happening before Ocelot pointed it out? Did we spot our own hypocrisy as we laughed along when various characters openly mocked Jack’s codename “Raiden” but thought nothing of everyone taking Solid Snake so seriously? Did we ever wonder why it stung so much to hear our hero say –
“Change sides? I don’t recall saying I was on yours.”
– in the very first scene that finally put Raiden – us – in the same room as him and Otacon?
We patiently sat and watched their every move, witnessing them working together like super best pals and keeping busy saving the world just like always, waiting for the moment when even if we really weren’t going to get to “be” Snake again then at least all three of us would stride off together and save the day.
As I’m sure you know – that doesn’t happen.
And it doesn’t happen not because Snake’s behaving out of character, or because Hideo Kojima’s a jerk who doesn’t understand what fans really want, it happens because of us. All along we silently assumed that – like a social media follower who eagerly consumes everything an account holder makes but never actually crosses their path – because we knew all about them then we were their friend. That Snake the legend and Snake the person were the same thing, and knowing one gave us the absolute right to approach the other. That we’d done all this under the mistaken assumption that we would be rewarded with unfettered access to another person we’d never met.
We’d come this far and done so much, but we were still too transfixed by a man who barely knew we existed to notice our own abilities.
And from that point onwards Sons of Liberty spirals into a very personal sort of unreality, taking great pains to strip us – literally naked at one point – of everything we were so very sure of when our VR-trained little selves happily jumped back on the Metal Gear Solid hamster wheel so many hours ago. Raiden’s beloved Rose was sent to manipulate him into loving her – if she’s even a person at all. The cyborg ninja is a woman in a suit. Failed missions might actually only be fissions mailed. And the always-reliable Colonel Campbell we’ve spent all game talking to never existed in the first place, a truth-upending fact delivered to Raiden as well as those of us living through him by Otacon:
“The Colonel is in part your own creation, cobbled together from expectations and experience…”
We were only backed up by Colonel Campbell because we, the undisputed masters of all those tuxedo-suited runs and the name at the top of every VR mission ranking table, expected ourselves to be – and we never questioned his contrived presence until this AI shaped by our imaginations malfunctioned to the point of spouting utter nonsense. But who else could have possibly filled that role? We already know who because the game has given us the answer time and time again – anyone.
It is only at the end – after we have hit rock-bottom, been rejected by our heroes, manipulated by our enemies, and led by lies – after Solidus has been defeated and crowds begin to gather around Federal Hall, that Raiden looks at the dog tags he’s been wearing. His name. His past. His own identity. As if giving us the final confirmation we needed that we are him and he is us, these tags bear the details we entered at that first terminal a whole story ago, and through his journey we can at last understand who we are and how we relate to Snake and Metal Gear Solid as a whole.
Or so we thought. Much like Snake Raiden is taken away from us just as we were sure we knew where we stood and who we really were, not recognising our name and even going to far as to throw his – no, our – tags away, physically rejecting us as his true existence. He’s not the Snake replacement he thought he was – and he’s not us either. So where does that leave us? Are we nobody? Are we so replaceable and reproducible we mean nothing at all?
Snake has an alternative reading of our – and Raiden’s – situation:
…everything you felt, thought about during this mission is yours.
Metal Gear Solid was always our story, was always whatever we made it – and in the future it can be whatever we make it again. Metal Gear Solid doesn’t have to mean Shadow Moses and Snake and if it isn’t then it won’t be any less true of a sequel because the one constant and the most important part was always us. As we all know the reaction to Raiden was so strong we ended up with Metal Gear Solid 3 including someone who looked like him as a joke, but it’s important to remember that Sons of Liberty was never trying to take Snake or even Raiden away from us – it was actually trying to give us a story – and a future – of our very own.
“And whatever you choose will be you”