Having already experienced the wonders of two classic Final Fantasy games, I was already aware of what games were capable of. But back in 1998 when I first popped Metal Gear Solid into my PlayStation, I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience that awaited me.
Though I point to a number of games that had lasting impacts on my life, Metal Gear Solid stands tall as the moment when I embraced video games as a part of my identity. The skill required to master the game was challenging, the story-telling was some of the greatest in the series so far and the characters seemed like real people and not digital avatars representing either myself or some trope.
From the very beginning of the game: When the credits rolled on the screen as I was playing the intro, I was sucked into this insane world of espionage, government secrets and super weapons.
But what really made Metal Gear so great is that you weren’t just some random soldier. Solid Snake is a character who struggles with, I’d imagine, something many other soldiers have with before: What do you do when you suspect there’s a greater motive behind the actions of various military and governmental organizations?
Snake’s struggle, and Gray Fox’s as well, began to shape how I would come to see the world. Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece of a game fundamentally began to shape how I would view military and world events.
Sadly, conflict happens in our world. And with the escalation of conflict, and the advancement of human technology, our weapons continue to grow in sophistication and deadliness. While the idea of a giant walking battle tank isn’t necessarily realistic, Metal Gear itself, the weapon, represents many of the themes that Godzilla or even Frankenstein does: It is the embodiment of our worst creations.
The giant walking weapon that is Metal Gear stands tall as a symbol of the unstoppable military industrial complex and its drive to crush anything that stands in its way. But more than just that, it is also is a representation of what happens when the wrong people get a hold of such weapons.
Metal Gear Solid would also come to shape how I viewed the concept of a military draft, especially here in the United States. Here, we don’t have a draft—and the gut reaction might very well be that this is a good thing. But when there are statements such as “all I’ve ever been good at was fighting” from Gray Fox, it’s hard not to develop a critical eye on the concept of voluntary military service.
If Gray Fox, a character who’s own physical body has become an experimental plaything of various military organizations, represents the human who “chooses” to become a soldier, then we see exactly what’s wrong with voluntary service: It creates an army of people who are fundamentally different from the society they are allegedly defending. They are the ones who either can’t contribute anything to the larger society and so are faced with no other choice: They are, much to Fox’s dismay, tools of the government. In that sense one would say that there is a draft, one that preys on those who don’t strictly fit into society (which in real life is often lower-class individuals who also sign up on the promise of funding college.) This allows the military to take these people and mold them into soldiers, further alienating them from the rest of society, without the worry that the collective consciousness of the culture at large will judge them.
These themes reverberate throughout the rest of the series, but it’s in Metal Gear Solid that they are potentially the strongest. The game that represents the evils and dark secrets of the military in a powerful and resonating way. At the same time, however, it also does what some other anti-war works of art do: It humanizes the soldiers.
Though Snake comes to learn that he is a clone himself, he also uncovers the truth that all of the genome soldiers he spends the game sneaking around and killing are clones as well. This revelation’s dualistic meaning is undeniable: Firstly, it represents that the goal of our military—for better or for worse—should be a unified force that, hopefully, all think and act with the same speed and precision. Metal Gear Solid takes this to a literal level by making the soldiers identical to the genetic level.
Secondly, it humanizes each and every soldier Snake kills as they are, genetically speaking, identical to him. It almost feels reminiscent of the World War II story where a brief cease-fire occurred as both the Americans and Germans sang “Silent Night.” For a brief moment, before the chaos continues, there is a recognition that in the end, we are all the same: We’re all human beings caught in the same situation. We hear the humanity in one another, hear their voice, see their face, and then we resume pulling the trigger.
The word masterpiece doesn’t do Metal Gear Solid justice. It is a work worthy of honorable recognition. An example of beautiful game design combined with messages that are capable of permanently moving someone.