In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs proposed that the central dynamic of capitalism is a phenomenon he called reification, or the transformation of people into things. For capitalism to take root and displace pre-capitalist modes of production, human labor had to be turned into a commodity whose price (wages) was regulated by the market. The result of this process is the transformation of human life into an instrument of the economic system; while economies were originally created to serve human interests, the logic of capitalism dictates that human beings be regarded as instruments for the realization of profit, the immanent end of the market. Lukacs thought that this reifying logic of capitalism came to permeate all aspects of human culture under capitalism, and that only Marxism could put human needs back at the center of economic organization. Arts and culture had a dual role on his vision: on one hand, the often mirrored the governing logic of the era; on the other, they served as places where the distorting effects of capitalist life were brought to the surface and interrogated.
Metal Gear Solid 4, a new game by the Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, is set in a future where war has displaced oil as the basic productive force in the world economy. The basic conceit is that private military corporations, or PMCs, have become largest segment of the international economy. In this imagined future various technological advancements have made it possible for these corporations to completely monitor and control the actions of their soldiers on the battlefield through computers and nanomachines. These wars pursued for economic gain have come to replace the “old” 20th century wars fought between sovereign nations for territory. Regardless of whether you think this is an immanently plausible scenario, I have to admit I found this a compelling line of argument for a video game to make. The series' protagonist, a prematurely aged soldier named Snake (don't ask), complains that all soldiers are fated to be instruments in the service of remote powers.
The irony, of course, is that the protagonist of a video game really is just a locus for external control. A game character is a puppet manipulated by a third party, the player. In previous installments of this series Kojima exploited this irony to good thematic effect, and he does so here as well. (One boss is a puppeteer-- when she takes control of the player you can see a set of marionette lines stretch from his limbs up to the ceiling. I have heard that when the player makes a some horrific mistake controlling the character-- say, walking off a cliff by accident-- the strings are visible as you fall.) The gamer's control of the main character in a game is a ripe ground for exploration, and one of the lessons I took away from the earlier games in the series (notably Metal Gear Solid 2) is that games might, as a medium, be able to interrogate themes of control and agency in ways unavailable in other media. They can do this by exploiting the gamer's control over their avatar, playing on the identification that occurs between the player and the game's hero.
Metal Gear Solid 4 fails to see this idea through; about halfway through it becomes weighed down by the need to resolve the series' byzantine plot through long expository cutscenes, and the game becomes freighted with so many points of thematic emphasis by the end that it fails to give a cohesive statement of any of them. While the presentation of the game as a whole and the cinemas in particular represents a high-water mark for the medium (one that is only comparable to GTAIV's gonzo similacrum of New York in its meticulous devotion to the small details that make for realism-- mice skittering in the corners of basements, visible breath in cold environments), it really exemplifies a disconnect between gameplay and storytelling that results from the series' overreliance on filmic techniques to convey narrative. And so the last half of the game is essentially a b-grade computer-animated spy melodrama about war, religion, information technology and the anxiety of influence. All this is done with level of narrative and visual sophistication miles above the average video game, but the medium has a long way to go.