A Formal Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2

James Clinton Howell


Back in November 2001, I had lived in a camper trailer without running water for almost a year. The mobile home rested on concrete blocks that sank unevenly into the dirt of a subtropical forest about an hour’s drive outside Tampa. I worked grounds crew where I lived: a Presbyterian summer camp that the Alafia River occasionally flooded when the Bay’s emigrant storms fell black.

I had wanted to know the shape of my mind without television and its static furies. Besides my co-workers and visiting friends, I spent those days with someone else’s dog, my books and my typewriter, and a radio so borrowed it was practically stolen.

Most of the time it was a good way to live.

That month I took an invitation to play Metal Gear Solid 2 at a friend’s apartment. Four of us jammed all night through the Tanker and Plant Chapters, and I cut Solidus Snake down at seven in the morning. My friends breathed loudly on the floor and couch, growing stubble and dreaming. The blinds cut morning into boards of light that stacked through cold cigar smoke.

If games like MGS2 were possible, I decided, then the medium was worth rediscovering.

I hold open the possibility that I might choose a better way to live. Nonetheless, I’ve engaged videogames for the past six years. 

They aren’t my greatest treasure. Poetry wears that crown. But they’ve been crucial to my adult years. My fiancée and I met through the shared hobby, and the medium has helped form two of my careers.

It’s no trite assertion that MGS2 changed my life.

I have written this analysis as part of a larger essay that explores how videogames can use postmodern narration techniques well. However, I want to join the festivities in honor of Metal Gear’s 20th anniversary despite my grounding in South Carolina. I’ve slit the longer work from gills to gut and slipped out this fillet.

Hideo Kojima often catches flak for directing interactive movies rather than videogames, and those who rush to his defense quickly summon the word “genius” as a totem. In this essay, I have described the formal order that I see in MGS2—an order that only arises through its medium. I’m no apologist for Kojima’s status as a genius, but a formal analysis of MGS2 in conjunction with its narrative and themes reveals a brilliant organization.

This essay has taken the perspective of a player’s experience immediately after MGS2’s release. The game has been on the market for six years, and its twists have become more common knowledge. Knowing what’s ahead dilutes MGS2’s formal impact. I’ve therefore written about the narrative and the player’s experience in the past tense.

I have embedded thumbnails of relevant images within the text to help readers better understand the formal comparisons. Click on a thumbnail to open a new window and view the full image.

I hope that this essay can help vindicate MGS2 from detractors who see little more than talking arms and bisexual vampires.

Happy 20th anniversary, Snake.

(And Raiden too.)

James Clinton Howell
July 2007

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