Monday, September 1, 2008

I Sic Brecht on Arsenal Gear

The conventional wisdom on Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2 is that the game's conclusion is a piece of audacious but incoherent mindfuckery. Shadow government is stacked upon shadow government; we're given a 15 minute powerpoint presentation on DNA; Otacon weeps. Nobody's sure what's going on. Since I've squandered my adulthood reading philosophy, I have this tendency to slap an organizing theory on this kind of chaos. So here goes.

According to the Frankfurt School, a group of mid-20th century Marxist cultural critics, the distinctive dynamic of modern capitalism as a social system can be found by examining a phenomenon called the “commodity fiction.” The value of commodities-- metals, money, and other arbitrary materials that are objects of exchange-- is artificial: all these things have value because we give them value. But we forget this fact and treat these objects as if they had real value in themselves apart from their roles in the market and their relationships to our human species-life as a whole.

Labor, which is the productive force that turns raw materials into products, is not a commodity, because the sweat and toil we put into making finished products is something that is intrinsically valuable for human animals. But capitalism, with its implementation of wage labor, succeeded in extending the commodity fiction to labor itself. The problem with this move is that it turned human life (a person's labor) into an object whose value was determined by the market. (So if you're Starbucks, or whoever, you can buy a person for $8.75 an hour.) Under modern capitalism, the value of labor (and by extension, human life), is not determined by human needs but by the needs of the market-- profit.

The German dramatist Bertholt Brecht devised a new theory of theater by putting elements of this theory into action. Brecht read Georg Lukacs' theory of the fetishization of commodities in History and Class Consciousness, and though he disagreed with Lukacs on several fronts, he thought that the basic logic of the commodity fiction informed cultural life in capitalist societies as well. The problem with drama, he thought, was that we treated the artificial goings-on of a theater stage as if they were real. We get drawn into the fiction, empathize with the characters, and temporarily lose our ability to distinguish the real from the fictive.

Brecht thought it necessary to create new kind of theater that would break the spell of the dramatic fiction over its audience: force them to critically respond to the work of art put on before them rather than being drawn into its sentimental charms. He said that “The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.”; the audience must be made to remember what is real and unreal.

He invented a set of distinctive theatrical gestures that would undermine the audience's suspension of disbelief and force them to distance themselves from the action on-stage; he called this reaction the “Verfremdungseffekt, or V-Effekt for short. His characters would speak lines directly to the audience, speak their lines in a way that was obviously artificial, and so on. These and other transparent pieces of stagecraft were meant to alienate the viewer, rather than having them escape from reality by sobbing over the fate of some unlucky noblewoman. The distantiation and space for critical reflection cultivated by his plays would enable its audience to bring the same scrutiny to the other governing fictions of capitalist life.

On one hand, Metal Gear Solid 2 is an overstuffed spy drama about a solo sneaking mission to foil a terrorist seizure of an offshore oil cleanup facility in the East River. But on the other hand, it is a fable about the the player's immersion in fictional worlds and her identification with its characters. Raiden, the game's protagonist, is not a solider. He's a stand-in for the player. We learn that Raiden's scored this solo sneaking gig because he has the highest score in a series of “virtual reality” missions designed to recreate the events of the first “Metal Gear Solid” game. In other words, Raiden is just someone who played Metal Gear Solid; those are his sole qualifications. When you play Raiden you are playing yourself.

In the final sections of the game, it becomes clear that your guides through this virtual reality mission are not entirely reliable. The in-game characters who teach the player the rules of the game, give Raiden his mission objectives, and save the game-- the Colonel and Rose-- begin to behave erratically when Raiden is captured and transported into the bowels of an underwater fortress called Arsenal Gear. As Raiden escapes torture and runs nude through the fortress, Rose pops up on your codec and begins to relay bizarre messages to him: he is sitting too close to the TV, it's going to ruin your eyes. The mission is over, hit the power button on your console. When you regain your weapons and fight a group of soldiers in the next scene, a distorted version of game's “game over” screen pops up in the middle of a battle, and I spent some time wondering what the hell was going on before I realized I was still directing the battle from inside of the game over screen.

To me, these bizarre sequences represent adaptations of classical Brechtian stagecraft to video games. The way we interact with a game is different than the way we interact with a staged fiction, and by manipulating the tools specific to game-interaction-- the interface and the mission-delivery system-- Kojima delivers that sense of alienating weirdness that's the hallmark of the Verfremdungseffekt. They make you consciously reflect on the fact that you are playing a video game, and that the person you control is just a character-- he's not you, the player; he's a puppet subject to the rules of the game's designer.

These gestures makes sense within the framework of the game's overarching themes. One of the guiding narrative threads of the Metal Gear Solid series is the attempt of modern governments to transform soldiers into objects-- turn war into a business by turning soldiers into commodities bought and sold on the open market. (During the final battle the colonel taunts you by saying that Raiden is, like his namesake, just a tool to be manipulated.) And so the critical space opened up by the metafictional craziness in Arsenal Gear is not accidental-- if the function of first-person shooters, on Kojima's view, is to turn children into soldiers by making them identify with obedient and desensitized killers, then art can counteract this function by breaking the spell of the game over the player.

Metal Gear Solid 2 was the very first truly avant-garde piece of video game art I'd ever played. People think Kojima's crazy, but as far as I'm concerned he's not crazy enough: I yearn to see him set loose from the narrative shackles of the Metal Gear series and channel his anarchic tendencies-- the manipulation of the interface, the knowing metaficational allusions, the theatrical self-consciousness-- into gameplay instead of interactive cinema. Games so rarely aspire to be surreal and self-conscious in the way MGS2 is, and it's a damned shame; they don't respect the player enough to confuse the hell out of them and undermine their expectations. And until they dare to do this, they'll never be more than wonderful pieces of escapism.


G. Christopher Williams said...

An excellent reading of MGS 2, Iriquois.

The first time that I ever felt that a video game might be bordering on art was when I played the first MGS (it was the Psycho Mantis sequence, and, indeed, it was the meta-qualities of that moment that shook me awake and made me realize that Kojima was thinking about the medium and the messages that it could send in a whole new way).

However, the first time I was really, really blown away by what the possibilities of the medium and became convinced that video games could be definitely be art was when playing MGS 2 for the first time. I often feel like the lone voice crying out in the wilderness about the importance and brilliance of this game, which so many panned as nonsensical (okay, I did have a student--a philosophy/english major no less--who I found to be as devoted to it as I).

MGS 2 may be the Moby Dick of the video game world. Nobody understood that book (and it pretty well ruined Melville's reputation during his lifetime) until Camus read it over fifty years later and (because other texts like it had finally emerged in the form of Modernist literature) realized that Melville was doing something ahead of his time. I think MGS 2 may be something like this in that critics will likely look back on it and realize that it was simply breaking so many rules that violated the expectations of what a game could or should be when it was released and finally give it the accolades that it deserves.

Great reading. I think you nailed it.

Michael Abbott said...

You, sir, are on fire. As Mr. Williams notes, you nailed it with this one; and you've been nailing it for the last several posts. I've fallen a little behind on reading, but I've enjoyed catching up.

I need to walk the whole Brecht, Moby Dick, Kojima thing around the block for well as Zelda, Metroid, the Odyssey and Aeneid from earlier. But you certainly have filled my head with ideas, and for that I'm most grateful.

nobody said...

Your argument is compelling and well thought out, as always. It makes sense, even to a rudimentary thinker like me.

I do not agree with you, however. Conceding that this game is about me (in my role as its player) I am raped and pillaged by it in a way that is not possible with Brecht's theatrical equivalent. My expectations of the experience differ with the context. My experience with this game is that Kojima crosses an unknown line and attacks me, personally, for playing his game. Admittedly it is intensely clever, it's probably incredibly pretentious, and as you say, alienating. I can objectify my experience in Brecht's version as I am one of the masses in the audience, not specifically its target. Thus I believe that Brecht's vision for theatre does not translate into games.

You've opened my eyes to the possibilities of games as art. Except that to do this the game must place the player in the role of victim such as with this piece of gaming inspired art. As an "ignorant wannabe" I need a nurturing piece that treats me with respect while it breaks my immersion and encourages critical thought. MGS2 hurt me, it wooed me and then cheated me. Is this a necessary function of such ideas or can it be made in a way that encourages me?

G. Christopher Williams said...

I get what you are saying, Nobody, concerning the sort of metafictive "traps" that a great many of the more overtly artistic games set for their players. I think that this is a function of the tension of the medium (with the story's writer operating on you while you operate on the text before realizing that, well, the text and its author may have the upper hand after all).

An awful lot of games in the recent release cycles have fallen into this model (Bioshock, GTA IV, etc.). I think that Suda 51 and his more avant garde releases have also touched on this. No More Heroes is largely a joke on the player himself and may have the sort of inherent cruelty of design that you describe. You might consider his first game, though, Killer 7 as *I think* (if I am recalling the game's ending correctly) one in which a rather cynical artist may be in some sense attempting to instruct and make the player aware of the "roles" that a video game places on its player (via the various guises of the assassin/player in that game) and then attempts to free the player from the cycle of violence that makes up so much of video games' core storytelling model (constant violent conflicts) by atempting to do away with a need for those guises.

However, I do think that, perhaps, games are simply reflecting the other artistic phenomena surrounding and influencing it contemporarily. Frankly, many postmodern texts are working in the realm of this same metafictive theme of a fictional universes that determines and shapes their readers or audiences and render them trapped within fictionality itself (a kind of attempt by these folks to reflect what they see as a very deterministic vision of the larger "real" universe). I am thinking of very violent and often nihilistic writers like Chuck Palahniuk, films like Memento, books like Danielewski's House of Leaves (a book that is very much a labyrinth-like trap of textuality that the rader finds himself subject to--Leaves are a bibliographic term for pages--when you are reading a House of Leaves you are within that "House").

Even more canonical contemporary literature like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has this same authoritarian metafictive theme underlying much of its plotting. The author's world is his world to shape (he declares that he is writing in that novel not the history of India, but the history of "my India"--a space "belonging" in some sense to its creator--the author/god), and he is capable of making you subject to his perspective as a result. What I'm trying to say is that one of postmodern's main themes it seems to me is that there is an inherent authority in authorship and these texts reflect a belief in the primacy of the power of storytelling to shape others' conceptions of the world (an embrace of the idea that history is told by its victors and by extension the victors' history becomes the truest and realest history).

I think where you find games that are more serene and sublime, you find games and designers more oriented towards a traditionally romantic kind of expression as opposed to the kinds of almost naturalistic and brutally deterministic visions of the universe. I would point to something like Shadows of the Colosses as a game that is a beautifully designed universe that generates a sublime kind of expression in play (celebrating decision making and problem solving in the player rather than satirizing him by poking fun at his limitations--it is more a celebration of the individual and free will). Such games most often seem to me to lack (or sacrifice) all this metafictive and often avant garde design and narrative issues in order to tell more romantic and heroic stories, though, as I don't think that their point is easily expressed through such pomo decadence.

frakkin toaster said...

But do you get to kill hookers?

frakkin toaster said...

No, I'm kidding. Interesting stuff; I've heard the adjective "Brechtian" before, mostly as applied to the work of The Doors, but now that I think about it, you could really say that Monty Python is Brechtian in a very silly way. Case in point: the final scene of 'Holy Grail,' in which King Arthur's charge on the French Castle is interrupted by policemen who arrest Arthur and Bedivere and throw them into the back of a paddywagon. Another example from the comedy world: Andy Kaufman, who loved to draw the audience into some drama that blurred the lines between performance and reality. (This, I think, is why he loved professional wrestling.) Anyway, good work, keep it up, Beantown is not the same without you and the rest of the band.

chasmang said...

I disagree about Raiden representing the player. If that was Kojima' intent, he did a poor job as it's obvious above everything else that fans of the original Metal Gear Solid were not meant to like Raiden (at least not at first.)

Instead, Raiden being selected for the Big Shell mission based on his high score on the Shadow Moses mission serves to make him the player's rival of sorts.

Not only have we been exposed to hype and a playable demo of another one of Snake's missions only to have it all taken away from us just when things get "good", but we're also asked to take control of an annoying, girly man who doesn't have a clue. Snake, under the "guise" of Pliskin, voices our opinion by belittling Raiden on pretty much every occasion.

In that way, I think the player is more like Snake: we both have a better idea of what's going on around us and we both experienced the Shadow Moses incident for "real". It's effective, though, that we never resume control of Snake again since it's really not his fight. I think it's also interesting that we never really play as Solid Snake again after the Tanker (one could argue that you never play as him again in the entire series.)

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with chasmang. I'll grant you that Raiden has unappealing weaknesses, but if they are particularly or intensely off-putting they are so precisely *because* they hit too close to home for a gamer. Raiden's unlikeability does not preclude him from representing aspects of ourselves that we don't feel so good about. IP notes that like Raiden, the gamer is a Snake "wannabe:" the gamer is not physically strong, or highly trained, or endowed with the real-world applicable skills we admire in Snake. If placed in Raiden's position, (s)he would look just as hapless and blundering. However, I can't bring myself to regard the gamer as a rival to Raiden. Seeing an analogue to myself inside the game continually reminds me that it is a game-world, and that I live in the real world, which prevents me from regarding Raiden as "myself" OR "my rival"--I can only see him as a construct, intended by someone else to represent me. I did not experience any aspect of any MGS game "for real," because I experienced it in the context of a game. Nor did Snake experience any of it "for real," because (as I am induced to consciously own) Snake cannot experience anything. He is a fictional personage without a will or memory. The fact that the game makes us acknowledge these extremely basic truths is what makes it "irritating." The real question is, as other commenters have discussed, whether it does so in a truly effective way. Ambitious game designers should aim to give their games a critical edge (at least), but one can certainly argue that they might reach a wider audience or make a deeper impact on players if they really aim to *engage* the player in a critical interrogation of gaming rather than leaving the player to merely "watch" the designer's interrogation play out. That said, I loved the wonky parts of MGS 2.

Julian said...

chasmang, I have to disagree with you about the intended disdain for Raiden precluding him from being representative of the player. Quite the opposite, I think you can look at it as a comment about the player. You, as the player, are not a badass. You're playing a video game, not going out and fighting. You're assumed to have no real combat experience. Probably most gamers would break down in a real combat situation, just like Raiden. If we're playing the game as a form of escapism, what does that say about our perception of ourselves? Especially taken from a Brechtian perspective the goal is to shake us out of our passive consumption of media, and juxtaposing a character like Snake with Raiden makes us think about the types of characters we do and don't like to play. Playing games, we don't WANT to be ourselves, we want to be somebody else. That's why we resent Raiden.

I liked how some of the most badass sequences in MGS4 were Raiden, and people were complaining about how they DIDN'T get to play as Raiden. Is that poetic justice or what?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@christopher williams: I had that moment in MGS1 in my mind too. As I wrote, I felt the same way about MGS2. It really is avant-garde and formally self-conscious in a way that is totally lacking in most games. I think its precedent really paved the way for games such as Bioshock which openly play on the dynamics of power and authority that take place between the player and the designer. The game is not without it faults but to my knowledge it is the first to really use the tools of the medium in this way.

P.S. I didn't read the entirety of your response to Nobody because a fresh copy of Killer 7 is on top of the pile of shame. But I think you're right that different games can frustrate the gamer's expectations without alienating them, and that this is often a matter of style and aesthetics. (Shadow of the Colossus is a good example, I think it belongs in the same conversation as MGS2 and Bioshock in its use of unreliable narration)

@mike: hey! thanks for coming by, i always get inspiration from your site as well.

@nobody: I think you're right that the expectations of the spectator are very different in games than in theater. However, I think that like Brecht, the aim of Kojima's trickery is not to frustrate the player but to cause him to rethink their relationship to the game and its characters; and I think it was effective at that. It helps that I just thought all of this trickery was really kind of neat, and this prevented me from feeling the kind of offputting alienation you mention.

@toaster: word! Monty Python is always ahead of the curve. Missing Allston too... *sigh*

@chasmang: I agree with the two posters below. Raiden is, deliberately, portrayed as a Solid Snake wannabe; this is important to the narrative. I think you can debate whether this is effective (apparently it didn't do much for you) but I still think he's interesting, if not likable.

kairina said...

I just found this post while searching for something. I think it's 'commodity fetish'. Been wanting to write something about the awesome meta-ness of mgs2 for a long time, but you just did. I'll be reading more from this blog then. :D

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