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.