About a decade ago, when I was 15, I spent the months of June, July, and August holed up in my basement bedroom playing video games. This experience was not atypical of my adolescent summers. Nor was it entirely spurred by a cliché cloistered pubescence; I consider it rather more like an evolutionary adaptation, a means of fleeing the soaking highs of Maryland in June for subterranean comfort. I played a lot of good games then, none less so than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2.
I remember the night I ran the game to its heady conclusion – a night that ended late, as protagonist Raiden dealt with the third act’s winding changes in perspective. In short order, the game exposes Raiden’s trusty handlers to be unreal, unreliable AI-generated characters. It pulls back the curtain to reveal the conspiratorial, Truman Show-esque backdrop of the game’s setting, the oil rig known as the Big Shell. In truth, Raiden’s – and the player’s – mission to stop a group of hijackers has all been an exercise designed by shadowy government forces to test Raiden’s skills and form him in the mold of Solid Snake, the player-character in Metal Gear Solid.
This design is abandoned when Solidus, the game’s villain, goes rogue and destroys the Big Shell. From there, the game speeds its way towards a dramatic fistfight between Raiden and Solidus atop Federal Hall in Manhattan, interspersing along the way mixed media digressions on the nature of the digital age, of information flow and control, of the nature of memes. Learned minds who care about this sort of thing have set firmly in stone the artistic value of MGS2, most of which is on display in this finale: the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall, the ensnaring metanarrativity of how MGS2 sets itself among the rest of its series’ canon, the particular novelty of the ludic, mechanical experience of postmodern narrative.
I think often of a few scenes late in American Psycho, when Patrick Bateman wanders a hellscaped (moreso than usually) lower Manhattan. Raiden’s experience in the bowels of the game’s final setting sings in harmony with images from Mary Harron’s film; recall how the ATM commands Bateman to “feed [it] a stray cat,” a narrative stunt twinned with the disintegrating Colonel’s command: “Raiden, turn the game console off right now!”
A decade on, I spent a late summer night unwinding the denouement of another Hideo Kojima game. I recently gave Death Stranding the highest plaudits for its mechanical and social experience, but in particular demoted the weight I gave to the narrative it told. This was a take steeped in the particular moment in the game where I wrote that piece. At midpoint, the breadth of the game’s mechanisms had emerged into full view, a sumptuous passage of movement in an environment of astounding natural beauty which left me so inspired as to write that earlier note.
But naturally, as the game concluded, the quickening beats of the story took priority and the mechanical experience ebbed away. A notable manifestation of this shift is that more and more of the game takes place in the all-important internal dreamworlds known as “Beaches,” upon travel to which protagonist Sam usually forgoes all of his tools and equipment. This bows the game into a quicker pace of boss fight > story scene > boss fight > quick traversal > story scene…etc.
Might as well take the opportunity to note deep spoilers of the game’s ending from here.
In the endgame, whose beginning I pin at “Episode 9: Higgs,” the player reaches the Pacific coast in the real world, and then goes to the Beach to defeat erstwhile central villain Higgs in a fistfight, by now a directorial mainstay. (Nodding again to the Kobo Abe short story whose excerpt provides the game’s epigraph, Higgs himself calls it a fight of “stick” vs “rope.”) A dissonant lyrical mood descends afterwards as you reunite with Amelie, Sam’s sister-of-a-sort and plot MacGuffin, and move to rejoin the rest of the game’s supporting cast back east, where the story began. Rather than tie things neatly up there, however, a half-dozen more hours of twisty developments proceed, culminating in an apocalyptic scenario put to Sam and the player. The central twist is this: Amelie is in fact no sister of Sam’s, and hardly even real, but rather one of a god-like sort who supervise the mass extinctions of life on Earth.
The scientific bent of Kojima’s stories as they approach the kind of stakes typical of auteur-driven action movies is worthy of more critical attention. He grounds this high-flying millenarian narrative in a mix, peculiar to him, of anthropology, archaeology, computer science, ethics, and media studies. His characters study geological strata and the fossil record to investigate the nature of these world-threatening plot devices, or else they leverage the supernatural elements of their world, like the timeless chiral material, into computational ends. Reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as the game takes place more and more in these internal dreamworlds, totemic items take on key narrative roles – a quipu, a dreamcatcher, a bead bracelet they use the Portuguese word miçanga to describe. Even when the mysterious messiness of the human experience is augmented by the powers of a fantastical author, it remains inextricable from the human attempt to settle a scientific order thereto, or so Kojima’s characters, many of whom are genius scientists, claim. To claw that bog of criticism down, I’ll say at the very least that the research effort that goes into fashioning all these contrivances of plot is admirable.
Again as in Inception, the game’s hero faces eternal exile in the Beach if his plan to stop the big bad, Amelie, from destroying the planet doesn’t fully catch. Sam finds Amelie in the dreamworld and she lectures him on the dignity of giving up in the face of inevitable death, an ideology she had in fact passed on to Higgs as the secret string-puller the whole game long. She offers Sam the chance to interrupt the onset of the next extinction, but warns of its latent inevitability. Sam invokes the power of love and human connection to change the mind of Amelie the god-being with a hug, at which point she agrees to delay the inevitable.
The rather reductive topic on offer – gauging the point of life in the face of inevitable death being the primary issue between the heroes and villains of this tale – is made better with the focus on the interaction of technology and identity in this world. The reveal that Amelie never really existed is compelling, as is the further explanation of her corporeal and non-corporeal existences, and why they present differently. Diegetically, most of the interactions with other characters are done via hologram communication, the facility whereof lets linger the constant question: to what extent are the game’s most apparently physical interactions even real?
The ultimate exploration, though, deals with Sam himself, as the mysterious tar-soaked man known as Cliff, who stalks Sam for most of the game, is eventually revealed to be Sam’s father. In his own life, Cliff was an army officer deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Another character, Die-Hardman, fought under him, and their mutual story’s end mines the rich vein of military relationships that Kojima crafted throughout the Metal Gear Solid series (and capitalized upon in The Phantom Pain). Watchful players could have guessed there was some familial relationship between Sam and Cliff much earlier in the game, but well-controlled direction and narrative sleight of hand work to obscure the exact nature of their bond until the very end.
After the credits roll, and the world is set to peace once more, the game concludes by unraveling a final knot of identity, that of the baby Sam carried on his body the whole time. BB-28, as the scientists refer to it, functions for Sam as a replacement for the child he lost in an accident, which is why he instead calls it Lou. Contrary to the game’s hints, BB-28 was not Cliff’s child, but rather a random baby meant for courier service.
In the course of Sam’s meeting with Amelie in the dreamworld, BB-28 died, and the government reserves for the reincorporated Sam the task of incinerating it. The trek to the incinerator, a repeat of one of the game’s earliest missions, is a soaring spectacle full of light and music. The camera pulls back and up as the player moves through a terrain rendered by the experience of 40 hours intimately familiar. Sam undergoes a set of visions at the incinerator which reveal to him the above mentioned truths about his own origins, and he decides to defy the government order and free the baby from its amniotic chamber. After bringing Lou back to life, Sam concludes the game by walking outside amid a rainstorm, framed by a rainbow.
Most things in my life have changed in the decade that’s passed between my playing Metal Gear Solid 2 and Death Stranding. What hasn’t is the appreciation I have for the messy ends given to these games, which, even in their jargon-fueled haze and all-too-encompassing scope, manage to say something capacious and groundbreaking about the experience of our times.