A Formal Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2

James Clinton Howell


MGS2 featured more variations upon MGS1’s forms than have been covered in this essay. Raiden’s search for Ames among the hostages recalled Snake’s search for Meryl among the Genome soldiers. Sea lice made Raiden’s rations unusable just as ice had made Snake’s unusable in MGS1, and the player had to solve each problem by manipulating his inventory. However, this essay has limited its focus to illustrate how MGS2 denied the player’s expectations as a formal affirmation of its narrative themes.

MGS2 created an unwelcome dramatic experience as it gradually disorganized MGS1’s familiar forms. These gestures would have been empty had MGS2 not used its form to support its theme: the nature of cultural memory. MGS2’s script had dwelled upon issues relating to the cultural remembrance of individual legacies, and MGS2’s form had showed the futility of culturally remembered solutions to formally similar problems. Raiden and the player had both inherited MGS1, but neither could relive the emotional reality that those forms had implied.

MGS2 addressed the problems we encounter when we try to relive our cultural memories in spite of our individual identities. Solidus Snake had named his terrorist organization “the Sons of Liberty,” a direct reference to the historical Sons of Liberty who had terrorized the British colonial presence during the American Revolution. Solidus failed because he had harnessed the power of a cultural memory—a myth of defiance—to deal with his present-day problems. Excessive loyalty to inherited myths will make us predictable, and conspirators had manipulated Solidus precisely because they understood the cultural memory that had given form to his actions.

The player and Raiden had similarly failed when they used their shared memory of MGS1 to react to MGS2’s emergencies. MGS2 had selectively jumbled MGS1’s formal elements to provoke the player’s narrative and gameplay expectations, and the player failed to relive the drama he remembered from MGS1. MGS2 denied access to the myth. The form dramatized the game’s spin upon its theme: each generation must move beyond its romantic ideals of the past and handle similar modern problems their own way.

These issues relate to America today. Our Founding Fathers won their freedom through economic and political terrorism similar to the tactics used by contemporary religious extremists. The Boston Tea Party and 9-11 differ mainly in scale and casualties: both were literal attacks against symbols that represented their enemies’ economic power. Since 9-11, we have seen the scandal and deception that arose when political leaders used the myth of righteous American violence to lead us fallaciously into war. As long as we live in a world with conflicting international interests, we will live with the problems that our Founding Fathers handled in their way, but we cannot let the myth that grew from their actions dominate our imagination.

But let’s return our sights to the microcosm of the videogame subculture. 

Players still complain about Raiden, and they still complain about the quality of MGS2’s script. The persistence of these gripes suggests that we lack the ability to regard games as formal rather than narrative experiences. The gripe that MGS2 is more movie than game falls through because a close look at MGS2 reveals its form as a videogame that deliberately frustrated the player through the medium’s interactivity.

MGS2’s form paralleled its content. It is an excellent example of an object that rises above the novelty of its medium. 

Poetry uses linguistic structure to create forms that abstractly embody, support, and express semantic content. In this way, it changes the rhythms and sounds of human speech from mere jingling into something divine. 

MGS2 is one of the few videogames that elevates the medium above the mere jingling of entertainment.

MGS2’s defenders have attacked the game’s critics by claiming that they “just don’t understand the plot.” Those critics then respond that MGS2’s script isn’t very good.

No, its script isn’t as good as MGS1’s. It’s not supposed to be.

The key to MGS2 isn’t its script or its narrative, but the form that both ultimately serve.

James Clinton Howell
July 2007

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