After Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the titular character went into retirement—both in the series’ fiction and real life. It would be another eight years before fans would play a Metal Gear game. That game was Metal Gear Solid, and it helped codify the stealth genre forever. Solid Snake’s story is full of betrayal, blood, and isolation. Being a hero sucks, and yet, players couldn’t get enough.
Metal Gear has always been a series about impeding player progress. Its traps and enemies exist to ward off players. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake brought back returning characters and offered a new fortress, explicitly rejecting the notion that players could truly save the world. Metal Gear Solid leverages this impulse and turns it towards Snake himself. Whenever he succeeds, events conspire to immediately undercut that success. His (and the player’s) skills mean little in the face of scheming villains and politicians whose background machinations have rigged the game before the start.
Metal Gear Retrospective: This story is part of an ongoing series analysing the Metal Gear games.
Released in 1998 for the PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid is one of the most fondly remembered video games in the medium’s canon. Its tense stealth-action gave rise to countless imitations from WinBack to Spy Fiction. After Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake had tested the waters, Metal Gear Solid made a splash whose ripples are felt to this day. The game’s self-commentary on its action movie pastiche proved intoxicating. Memories of the thrills linger, but its message drifts into the ether.
In Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake is wrested from retirement against his will and tossed into One More Mission™. Terrorists have seized a remove nuclear warhead testing facility on Shadow Moses Island in Alaska and it is up to Snake to infiltrate the base, rescue the hostages, and defeat the terrorists.
This well-trodden set up—this is the third time Snake has been asked to perform this very task, and it won’t be the last time the player does—is the crucible through which Snake will assert himself as an individual. Metal Gear Solid is a game about Snake becoming more than a player-controlled character, more than a weapon of the state.
Metal Gear Solid lives between two extremes. The first is the gameplay itself, where players are able to outsmart guards and tackle deadly bosses. These are supposedly the best trained soldiers, and the most elite specialists. Snake and the player will best all of them in an intoxicating power fantasy wherein one lone commando can take on waves of soldiers, go toe-to-toe with a cybernetic ninja, and destroy a state-of the-art battle mech. The narrative justifications behind Metal Gear Solid’s challenges escalate from somewhat believable future-war sneaking to full blown anime extravaganza. Overcoming these odds, usually through creative thinking, makes for highly rewarding gameplay. It feels good to make it through an area undetected. It feels good to outwit the world’s best sniper at her own game.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is everything surrounding Snake’s mission. When it comes to the big picture, the seemingly cool and composed Snake turns out to be totally in the dark. Metal Gear Solid weaves an intricate web of conspirators, terrorists, and rogue agents with conflicting agendas. Snake is at the mercy of all of them. He follows the orders of his commanding officer who is clearly withholding information from him. He defeats terrorists who are secretly allowing him to succeed. He strikes up friendships with radio support members who are plotting his death. The player controls Snake, but Snake is never in control of what’s happening on Shadow Moses Island. Every success is complicated by a fresh revelation that it somehow fits into another character’s scheme.
Like in Metal Gear, where Snake entered Outer Heaven through an aqueduct, Snake sneaks into Shadow Moses Island through the water. Fired first from the torpedo tube of a submarine, he exits his underwater submersible and swims up to a lonely dock. Up until this point, the player has watched Snake and has not yet been allowed to control him. Then, after Snake sends a message to his commanding officer Colonel Roy Campbell, Snake is placed in the hands of the player.
The goal is simple: reach a lift at the end of the dock. Guards patrol through stacks of crates, barring passage. It is a test. You remember how to sneak around, right? And yet, there is a difference. As the player starts to navigate the dock, credits play over the action. Programmers, CG artists, animators, the sole localiser.
Metal Gear Solid marks the start of creator Hideo Kojima’s emulation of film language. Rather than hide the credits in an opening sequence before the title, they are integrated into the game itself. Metal Gear Solid begs to be parsed through the lens of film, in order to better encourage players to observe its action-film mélange.
The dock, in combination with the heliport that follows it, is also a chance to introduce and reacquaint players with Metal Gear Solid’s environmental textures. The docks contain puddles that create noise, which attracts guards; walking through puddles results in lingering footprints, which guards can follow. Ascension up the lift to Shadow Moses’ exterior heliport reveals a playground of new textures and complications, including snow (which also leaves footprints), searchlights, and surveillance cameras.
In previous games, elements like noise could still impact Snake’s success in sneaking, but Metal Gear Solid goes to great lengths to populate each location with a greater amount of textural elements. The result is that each area contains remixes of complicating factors that the designers can rearrange and adjust to modulate tension and difficulty. The first two areas of the game are not necessarily difficult so much as a stealth playground full of details to play with. The docks and heliport are tutorial areas. It is impossible to avoid engaging with at least one of these complicating elements while progressing through them, be it crossing a puddle on the docks, trampling snow up above, or edging close to a surveillance camera.
Snake faces these new complicating elements with the help of Metal Gear Solid’s greatest overhaul: the Soliton Radar system. Radars are nothing new to the franchise, being introduced in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, but the Soliton Radar is the fulcrum upon which Metal Gear Solid pivots. Metal Gear 2’s radar was a three by three grid showing dots that corresponded to enemy locations. Stealth was still a binary: step into an enemy’s line of sight and an alert would trigger. It was not possible to see where enemies were facing while looking at the radar. The Soliton Radar changes this; each guard has an observable cone of vision.
The result is an increase in player information that eliminates the costly mistakes that made Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 feel unfair. Each location is a single contiguous space, and seeing where guards are looking and how far they can perceive means players can’t, for instance, walk onto a new screen and instantly get spotted. (A newfound ability to look at the environment through a first-person perspective also helps in this regard.) The Soliton Radar is the key to what makes Metal Gear Solid satisfying. In being able to truly track enemy patrol patterns, players are better able to achieve the sort of geometric stealth the series has revolved around. Players know when to move, where to hide. The puzzle is in deciding when to risk movement.
The Soliton Radar is also a problem as much as it is a solution. In granting players detailed information about enemies, the game gives them a greater sense of security and confidence. This makes it easier to embody the dream of being a super-capable commando. It means that Metal Gear Solid is an easier game than its predecessors. It also contributes to the games inherent tension: it’s easy for the player to feel in control even as Snake is anything but.
To compensate for the addition of the Soliton Radar, Solid Snake’s health pool starts small, making direct combat foolish. However, this changes as the game progresses. Snake’s health pool increases after each boss fight and his arsenal continually expands. The player will eventually always have the tools to tackle new threats, and the Soliton Radar will continue to provide them with ample information. As a result, portions of the game can be played without care for environmental surroundings, with the player’s eyes glued to the radar instead. If Snake is meant to feel outgunned, the Soliton Radar undermines that. It is a problem so pronounced that later games abandon this type of radar mechanic entirely.
Snake (and the player) aren’t simply given more information thanks to the radar. Metal Gear Solid also places new emphasis on Snake’s radio support team in a way that previous games did not. While advisors were able to be contacted in previous games, they rarely made their presence known. Here, conversations with the support team are essential, and these advisors form a substantial portion of Metal Gear Solid’s cast. These include Colonel Roy Campbell, genetics expert Naomi Hunter, data analyst Mei Ling, and survival expert McDonnell Miller.
Although Snake is alone behind enemy lines, he is never more than a simple call away from one of numerous experts that can provide hints and further information. Their explanations use gameplay language, urge the player to do such things as press the start button to pause the game or tap the D-pad slightly to move slower and make less noise walking on grates. The line between their role as fictional characters and player companions is thin, emphasising the overlap between Snake and the player. Players feel secure because they talk directly to them; Snake feels backed up because they offer advice. This cast of characters is more firmly integrated than previous radio support teams, and their presence helps players feel more confident.
The initial segments of the game—the docks, the heliport, the tank hangar floor 1, and B1— involve a relatively straightforward progression from one area to the next, allowing players to adjust to the environment and establish a connection with Snake. While textural elements add complications, each new area is relatively open. Enemy patrols are limited and, in areas like the tank hangar’s first floor, side rooms are unlocked that will later be sealed. It is possible to collect a variety of tools by exploring. A truck on the heliport hides the SOCOM pistol; a room on the far side of the tank hangar contains thermal goggles. Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses facility, like its predecessors Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land, functions similarly to a Zelda dungeon. The main difference is that Shadow Moses often allows players to access key tools early. The opening segment of the game rewards exploration with items that will prove useful later on.
The first scene at B1’s prison is when Metal Gear Solid starts to establish its particular brand of cinematic narrative. This is also where the game begins to set up a slowly mounting series of failures on Solid Snake’s part. These failures continue for most of the game. Solid Snake is highly skilled, but he rarely succeeds during his time on Shadow Moses. Each time he reaches an objective, there is a twist or change that ultimately undermines the fantasy of being a skilled commando.
This cascade of failures starts with the death of the DARPA chief Donald Anderson. Snake infiltrates the cell where Anderson is being held hostage and learns that Shadow Moses houses a new Metal Gear—a bipedal, nuclear-equipped giant robot. Then, Snake can only watch in horror as the DARPA chief spasms and dies of an apparent heart attack.
Later in the game, Snake learns that Anderson’s death was his fault, in a way. FOXDIE, a specially engineered virus injected into Snake, has been programmed to target certain individuals present at Shadow Moses and kill them. Regardless of this knowledge, Snake’s first attempt to complete a mission objective fails. Players can sneak here without detection like a true professional, but no matter what, Snake cannot save the chief. He’s been set up to fail.
The events on B1 also mark the start of a series of formal repetitions of scenarios from previous games. Familiar elements from Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 will be reused throughout the game. Metal Gear Solid’s dark secret is that it is, in part, a remake or re-imagining of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. It hits similar beats, repeating combat encounters and environmental puzzles. All of this has happened before and will happen again, over and over, for the majority of the series.
This starts with the player’s introduction to Meryl Silverburgh, Colonel Campbell’s niece (who is later revealed to actually be his daughter). She was present at Shadow Moses when the terrorists took over. Meryl fulfils the role that Metal Gear’s Jennifer and Metal Gear 2’s Holly White occupied: a tough female soldier turned romantic interest for Snake. This also means that, unfortunately, her plot line runs into similar snags.
Meryl is a character caught between two conflicting roles. She is a tough, no-nonsense soldier, but she will eventually fill the same female victim trope as many of the series’ prominent women. Later in the game, players will face a choice for Snake to attempt to survive torture or submit. Snake choosing to submit will lead to an ending in which Meryl dies, after which point Snake sinks into a spiral of self-doubt predicated entirely over his inability to fulfll the Hollywood cliche of saving the girl. Meryl’s survival is the barometer by which Snake measures his own worth as a hero.
In Metal Gear Solid, being a Hollywood-worthy hero invariably leads to the people around you suffering. Meryl’s role as both well-rounded individual and trophy plays into this dynamic. She fights along Snake in these initial scenes, but the camera still makes sure to look at her bum as she runs away. (Paying attention to her wiggling hips actually matters later, since it’s an honest-to-God solution to a puzzle.)
Proceeding further leads to the B2 armoury, the closest thing Metal Gear Solid has to a central hub. Shadow Moses’ spatial design turns out to be very direct. There’s only a total of three buildings in the whole game: the tank hangar, the warhead storage facility, and the blast furnace building housing Metal Gear REX. This relative small scale is even more apparent when the setting gets revisited in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Metal Gear Solid compensates for its small size by forcing the player to backtrack and revisit certain areas multiple times.
The B2 armoury is where many of the various keys for Metal Gear Solid’s locks are found. Sometimes the “key” is an explosive, as in this initial moment. Snake must collect C4 explosives to blow a path to find the captured Armstech company president Kenneth Baker. The B2 armoury is also a place where players must backtrack in order to grab a PSG-1 rifle for the first Sniper Wolf battle. Metal Gear Solid’s design pushes and pulls the player to and from the B2 armoury, where essential progress tools and optional weapons can be picked up any time they find a new security keycard.
The backtracking moments can seem like an artificial extension of playtime, but they offer the benefit of making the player intimately familiar with Shadow Moses. Eventually, players learn the fastest routes and best tools to use in each room in order to expedite their travels. Their growing familiarity, in turn, helps Shadow Moses feel much more real and extant than the relatively cartoonish and excessive locations in Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land.
Blasting through the outer walls leads to a confrontation with Revolver Ocelot, whose cowboy aesthetics and Machiavellian trickery lean into Metal Gear Solid’s exaggerated action-movie pastiche. Ocelot will go on to become a key character within the series, a master manipulator and rogue agent who facilitates much of the series’ conflicts. In Metal Gear Solid, he’s the embodiment of Cold War-era anxieties that continued to colour ’80s and early ’90s action movies. Ocelot’s stated goal is the revival of Soviet Russia, a reversal that would bring the world back to a remarkably tense state of affairs. Those political ambitions come paired with an action-movie affect; he twirls his guns as much as his moustache.
Snake’s initial encounter with Ocelot interrupts Metal Gear Solid’s methodical pace with a harried gunfight. The muddled mechanics of the fight largely rely on taking away freedoms that players previously enjoyed. The Soliton Radar is unavailable, and moving into the centre of the room instantly triggers trip-wire explosives that kill the hostage, Baker. The battle plays out as something of a chase, but this time, Snake is the one doing the chasing—an inversion of the dynamics usually present in the gunfights that may have arisen from player detection in previous areas.
This sensation of the chase is owed to Metal Gear Solid’s fixed camera, which tends to hover directly above Snake and present a limited perspective of any given room. Ocelot hovers near the outer edges, and while it is possible to shoot him from across the room, players risk hitting Baker in the process. The setup encourages movement, dodging Ocelot’s shots until he reloads and players can retaliate.
Later versions of Metal Gear Solid, including the upgraded Integral version and the GameCube remake The Twin Snakes, grant players the ability to aim and shoot in first person. The result is that Ocelot’s boss fight is largely trivialised, as there is no longer a need to move around the room. In the original game, the mechanics suited the spaces they were in. The “solid” in Metal Gear Solid was a reference to the series’ move to proper 3D, and the Ocelot boss fight serves as a mini crash course in how the game itself functioned as a transitory moment in gaming’s collective understanding of 3D space. One change, one modernisation—and it falls apart.
The fallout of Ocelot’s defeat neatly encapsulates the two extremes on which Metal Gear, as a series, functions: action movie excess and real world politics. At this point, players are introduced to the Cyborg Ninja, who is adorned in a colour scheme worthy of any X-Men uniform and spouting anime rival-esque witticisms. He is a violent ghost, operating on the exaggerated and excessive end of the Metal Gear spectrum. Yet his flashy arrival comes paired with a lengthy series of cutscenes in which president Baker outlines society’s carelessness in handling nuclear waste and the potential for rogue states to gather materials to create nuclear bombs. The spectres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki loom heavily in Metal Gear’s consciousness, and Metal Gear Solid marks the moment where the action movie flair is counterbalanced by earnest proselytising about real world violence. There’s a tension here—Metal Gear Solid is anti-war in message, even as it also heavily fetishises military technology—and the series will simmer with that contradiction for its entirety.
In the aftermath of Baker’s rescue, up to and including his death at the hands of FOXDIE, Metal Gear Solid starts experimenting with narrative tone but also form. Metal Gear Solid 2 is often credited as one of gaming’s first postmodern texts, but Metal Gear Solid had already stepped in that direction in significant ways. Specifically, Metal Gear Solid plays with the post-modernist idea of deconstruction, which concerns the supposed barrier between what is “inside” and “outside” of a text. Metal Gear Solid calls attention to its own form and the supposed barriers of that form, then forces the player to transcend those barriers in order to progress. In order to exit the tank hanger building, players need to call Meryl on their codec radio. Baker’s only hint about her radio frequency—before he is killed by FOXDIE— is that it is “on the back of the CD case.” Players are meant to look on the jewel case that their game came in, view a screenshot of Snake talking to Meryl, and use that information to contact her. Like the tap code in Metal Gear 2, players are required to move outside of the game to find what they need. (Tough shit if you rented the game!)
The combination of Baker’s allusions to real world political events and the need to literally scour the real world for Meryl’s codec signal an increase in Metal Gear Solid’s scope. This is a game that interacts with the world into which it was released, calling attention to its form and politics in a way that was unusual for the time. As this narrative scope increases, the player’s comfort decreases. Intrusion into the real world makes the player feel less secure. The player’s options after Baker’s death are limited: players move upstairs, call Meryl, and navigate a laser-filled hallway using either the thermal goggles or cigarettes. The game’s opening emphasis on stealth navigation fades as larger themes take hold, the narrative quickly propelling players into a confrontation with Vulcan Raven, who is captaining a tank.
The tank battle is mostly a repeat of a scenario from Metal Gear. In that game, a tank blocked Snake’s path from Building 1 to Building 2, and it was most advantageous to stay to the side and use grenades or remote control missiles to damage the tank. The Vulcan Raven tank fight works similarly; the tank can be dispatched with two well-tossed grenades provided they land in the open hatch. The tank’s presence, along with the later battle against the Hind-D helicopter on the Communications Tower, is less of a gameplay challenge as it is a thematic necessity. In providing fights against increasingly modernised and high-tech weapons, the eventual confrontation against Metal Gear REX is put into a sharper context. REX vastly surpasses and reigns supreme over all over mechanised weapons. This tank battle is a small initial impediment that serves to highlight how terrifying REX is.
Metal Gear Solid alternates large triumphs with moments of disempowerment. Fighting the tank feels easy for Snake and for the player, but once again, it’s followed by a cutscene that shows that Snake isn’t the one in control. In the aftermath of the tank battle, the player hears the terrorists discussing the prospect of letting Snake win and allowing him to collect a card key to the next building. They are simply toying with Snake, putting on a sort of theatre to convince him that his progress is not too easily won. Narratively, this undermines the achievement of destroying a goddamn tank.
Metal Gear Solid follows this with further disempowerment. Once players enter the Nuclear Warhead Storage Facility, the game disables their ability to use weapons on the first floor. Whereas Metal Gear often modulated difficulty by increasing the number of guards or removing hiding spots, Metal Gear Solid often opts to take away tools. The tank hangar basement and later areas jam the Soliton Radar, while the Storage Facility prevents players from simply pulling out their SOCOM and shooting a path.
As players approach an eventual confrontation with the Cyborg Ninja, the game continues to remove the tools they had once relied on, emphasising Snake’s lack of control in the face of the Ninja, who is a rogue factor in Shadow Moses. In a repetition of scenes from Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, players must disable a movement-impeding electrified floor using remote control missiles. They are not freely able to explore the storage facility basement due to poison gas. Instead, they are funneled towards their confrontation with the Ninja.
The hallway before the boss fight is littered with corpses and viewed with the camera pulled back to de-emphasise Snake. Short, unskippable cutscenes stop Snake in place and remove control from the player. From the adjacent rooms, guns fire. The Ninja is slaughtering the terrorists. Why are we being interrupted? Who is being focused on? The answer is the Cyborg Ninja. Snake (and the player) are the lesser entities in this power dynamic. They lose control and focus, because narratively, all power rests with the Ninja.
The fight continues the trend of disempowerment that started on floor one. Weapons are not taken away, but the Cyborg Ninja can’t be defeated with guns. He deflects all bullets and dodges grenades.
Many Metal Gear boss fights have corresponding items that make things easier, a bit like Mega Man. For instance, Psycho Mantis’ fight is made easier with thermal goggles to track him, and a later encounter with Sniper Wolf can be cheesed using remote control missiles to attack her without ever leaving cover. Chaff grenades can stun the Cyborg Ninja, but the true “key item” for this fight is no item at all. It is a rejection of the past boss fight paradigm that, for example, made grenades the simple “solution” to the tank battle.
Because the Cyborg Ninja is also Grey Fox, who players last fought hand to hand in Metal Gear 2, this fight is a formal repetition given weight within the narrative. Grey Fox wants another hand-to-hand soldier’s duel, and we are forced by the game’s design to give him the battle he craves.
Defeating Grey Fox give players a formal introduction to Hall Emmerich, a.k.a. “Otacon.” He’s a weapons engineer who designed Metal Gear REX without understanding the ultimate goal was to use the mech’s propellant-free railgun to stealthily fire nukes. Otacon becomes one of the primary characters in the Metal Gear series; his inclusion helps communicate how the cyclical nature of violence doesn’t just affect soldiers but those around them. In his first scene, he cites his grandfather’s experience on the Manhattan Project as proof that his family must be genetically cursed to be involved with nuclear weapons.
This theme of biological determinism has been lurking under the surface of Metal Gear Solid from the start, observable in its repeated set-pieces. The continued reappearance of this theme implies that there is something ineffable about humanity’s conflicts. Otacon brings that subtext to the front, spelling out the idea of a genetic curse on his family. (Similarly deterministic curses seem to plague Meryl and Snake. The former wants to be a soldier like her father was; Snake is thrust into endless intrigue as a result of being Big Boss’ son.) Otacon also fulfils the action-movie trope of hacker buddy and radio contact. He is the Al Powell to our John McClane, his dialogue often lampshading the action-movie excess for the absurdity it is.
The next portion of the game is about Meryl. Her depiction in this game is decidedly mixed. At times, she seems like a human being, sharing stories about her life and opening up about her flaws. At other times, the game objectifies her and undermines her agency.
Snake’s rendezvous with Meryl is a sort of puzzle that requires players to locate her in the storage building where she is hiding in disguise among the guards. The solution refers back to her noted wiggling hips. Identifying which guard walks with her swagger tips Snake off to which guard he needs to allow to spot him. After that, Meryl runs to the loo, a moment that echoes Metal Gear 2 and Snake’s meeting with Gustava Heffner.
Players who chase her into the loo fast enough can then see her walk around in her underwear. Earlier in the game, there’s a similar option available to players who repeatedly enter and exit the vent above her prison cell; do it enough times and Meryl will strip down. Meryl is a character we’re meant to trust, a likeable and strong companion, but she’s never so valued that we can’t stop to appreciate her arse or, if we play our cards right, see her panties.
Metal Gear Solid’s script is of two minds about Meryl. She is a competent soldier and brave ally. Yet she is also an out-of-depth rookie who hesitates to pull the trigger, and eventually, a damsel to be saved. Metal Gear Solid never completely discounts Meryl’s competency or humanity, however. When she talks to Snake about her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps as a soldier, a comment which ties back into the theme of parents and genetics, Snake listens carefully. Players are meant to take Meryl’s goals seriously as well. She is open about the difficulties that she has in navigating her own femininity, talking about her disdain for makeup and her aim to prove her worth on the battlefield. These comments are not treated as throwaway chatter, but the genuine pains of an individual navigating their sense of self. Yet Meryl’s ultimate fate in the series is to get married in Gun of the Patriots. Her story in the franchise concludes with a marriage to Johnny Sasaki, a gag character best known for his chronic diarrhoea.
A notable interaction happens near the midpoint of this scene, when Snake asks if Meryl wants to swap guns with him so that he is using her .50 cal Desert Eagle while she takes his .45 pistol. Until this point, players might assume a degree of possessiveness over Meryl, either out of a desire to protect a valued ally or (presuming a somewhat stereotypical male player) protect the chick. Snake falls into this trap, expressing that concern while also implicitly calling Meryl’s judgement into question. Maybe the tough commando should have the big calibre gun, right? Meryl refuses, and it is unclear whether we should admire or roll our eyes at Meryl’s insistence that she keep the higher calibre weapon.
Meryl’s control over her own fate is not to last. The unravelling of this control starts during the boss fight with Psycho Mantis. It’s only a handful of steps down the hallway before Meryl is striped of agency. The Psycho Mantis fight is one of the most well-known boss fights in video game history, for good reason. But it’s telling that one of Metal Gear’s most famous moments is also the moment when Meryl is compromised, her sexuality weaponised against Snake. She is hostage and temptress while under Mantis’ control, and the player must start the fight by knocking her unconscious. Otherwise, so the game’s reasoning goes, she’d just be a liability.
The Psycho Mantis fight is one of the most active mixtures of tactical-action and real-world puzzle solving in the entire series. The wall between the game world and the player is made thin. Mantis reads Snake’s mind, although it’s more like the player’s mind, since he is actually reading the player’s memory card saves and offering comments if they have other Konami games’ save data. If they have the DualShock controller, he uses his telekinesis to move it, achieving that effect by revving the controller’s haptics. Most famously, he can predict the player’s movement. To avoid this, players must remove their controller from port one and move it to port two. Psycho Mantis’ fight is an exciting mixture of video game and extra-text. Like finding Meryl’s codec frequency, it calls attention to the game’s form as artifice and encourages reflection on its action-movie tropes.
Metal Gear Solid is a game. The player knows it is a game. The game knows it is a game. Once that premise is accepted, once the barriers between game and player start to crumble, it is possible to encourage creative puzzle solving that moves outside the scope of simply using the right item or having enough ammo. It elevates the Psycho Mantis fight into something unique, even shocking, within the context of its release.
Mantis’ defeat marks the first death of any FOXHOUND member (to the player’s current knowledge) . In previous games, bosses were little more than disposable minions with higher health pools. One of the keys to Metal Gear Solid’s success comes from how it breaks from that trend. Instead of an unceremonious death, Mantis is given time to monologue about his troubled relationship with his father and the terror he felt reading minds and seeing how most people yearned to procreate. He marvels at Snake’s loneliness, and in the end, he even helps Snake and Meryl by using his powers to open a nearby passage. Mantis is pitiable, but Snake never shows contempt. When Mantis asks to have his mask put on, so that he might be alone with his thoughts before death, Snake obliges. For all of Metal Gear’s stumbles as a series, its games are always intimately concerned with why its characters do what they do. Later games will run wild with this, venturing into the area of trauma-porn, but for now, Metal Gear Solid manages empathy and is a better game for it.
Through Mantis and Meryl’s questioning, the player realises that Snake is a lonely, isolated individual. He’s a cool bad-ass who blows up tanks and beats super-soldiers, but he’s also the man who failed to save two hostages, is being unknowingly manipulated by the terrorists, and cannot reciprocate Meryl’s affection. Metal Gear Solid allows players to fulfil the superficial duties of an action hero, but it continually undercuts the idea that being a hero is actually fulfilling.
After passing through a wolf-filled cave, Meryl and Snake are ambushed by a sniper. Meryl is shot, her mere proximity to Snake turning her into a target. The sniper leaves Meryl’s wounded body in the open as bait to draw him out. Sniper Wolf, FOXHOUND’s ace sharp-shooter, has struck.
Players can’t even engage with Sniper Wolf initially. None of Snake’s weapons can reach that far. Instead, Snake needs to turn and run, backtracking to the armoury to pick up a sniper rifle. It’s the first mandatory run back to the tank hangar facility, and it’s oddly placed, given the narrative urgency. It hurts to leave Meryl behind, and the resulting stealth sections mean renegotiating old space in a new form and context.
As Metal Gear Solid has progressed, stealth segments have fallen by the wayside in favour of boss battles. These stealth sections were the moments when players had the most control and agency; they could lie in wait, choosing when to engage. This moment of backtracking has the benefit of challenging the player to rethink their approach, while also urging them to act quickly. It is a break in the movement forward. Losing your ally means experiencing a literal setback. But this is also what it means to be a hero. You will suffer, and you watch those around you suffer. It sucks to be John McClane.
The Sniper Wolf fight is not on par with the sniper battles later to come in the series, but it does help lay the groundwork that later games would build on. Ultimately, the boss arena’s limited space holds back the full promise of a sniper duel. The long corridor makes it very easy to get targeted, and Metal Gear Solid’s sluggish sniping means that players will often get shot, have their aim knocked off-course, and not have enough time to avoid Wolf’s follow up shot.
The battle succeeds more as a chance to explore further textural elements. Much of Metal Gear Solid’s stealth action is contingent upon how the player interacts with the environment. Do you run on a grate and make noise? Do you trample in the snow to leave footprints? These interactive flourishes help the world feel real, despite its action film trappings. In the Sniper Wolf fight, she also interacts with the space around her; most prominently, her breath shows in the cold air and allows players to see her hiding spots. Having an enemy interact with the game world helps players buy into the fiction.
Undercutting Snake and the player’s accomplishments is key to the game’s case against action hero mythologising, and Metal Gear Solid lands its biggest punch after the Sniper Wolf battle. Snake is captured and brought face to face with the terrorist leader Liquid Snake. All player control is arrested as Snake finally meets the chief antagonist. Snake gets strapped to a torture table by Revolver Ocelet, and Liquid is free stand over him and gloat. Metal Gear Solid alternates between periods of stillness and bursts of forward progression. Snake’s capture halts everything and emphasises the player’s failure with the “punishment” of cutting them off from the exciting stealth gameplay and power fantasy that they crave.
As Snake is repeatedly tortured by Revolver Ocelot, the player is forced to strenuously mash buttons or else die without the option to continue. Metal Gear Solid’s tendency towards restricting the player doesn’t end at limiting their use of weapons or removing radar access. The assault on the player also involves tearing out essential pieces of the game itself. Ocelot can detect when players are using a turbo controller to press buttons too rapidly. Players had been encouraged through the Mantis boss fight to think outside of the game, but now, Metal Gear Solid is punishing attempts to work around the torture sequence. You either suffer and strain physically, or submit and fail to live out the action hero fantasy.
Metal Gear is a franchise with a complicated attitude towards the male body. Metal Gear’s approach towards female bodies is often reductive, opting for lingering camera moves (particularly in later games.) The camera doesn’t quite obsess over male bodies in the same way, but the games’ stealth aesthetic does invite a focus on the idealised male form. Chiselled bodies are enveloped in tight sneaking suits, warriors toss away their weapons, metaphorically (or sometimes literally) stripping to grapple with each other, and heroes are bound and placed on display. The appearance of stealth in Metal Gear Solid is sleek, smooth, and intensely sexual: sleek. Yet the Metal Gear series never settles on how to navigate the sexual trappings inherent in the presentation of its main characters.
This torture sequence expresses a series-long trend when it comes to homo-erotic language and the use of male bodies. The scene depicts Snake shirtless, tied up, at the mercy of his captors. It’s both a sexual image and a romantic one. Snake is vulnerable, exposed. His body is on display, inviting examination. (In a similar scene in Snake Eater, Volgin makes comments on Big Boss’ body, depending on how much the player has been injured.) Once the torture begins, Ocelot makes it clear that he derives sadistic pleasure with the pain he causes. Snake’s suffering serves the subtext of devaluing the action hero myth, but there is also a nobility to it, a way in which his body is framed as a beautiful thing. Damaging it is a particular kind of crime. For Ocelot, that transgression brings a very clear sexual release.
This torture segment, as well as Naked Snake’s beating at the hands of Colonel Volgin in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and Raiden’s violent confrontation against Vamp in Gun of the Patriots use the visual language of sadism to codify the depravity of the series’ villains. This is often deployed hand in hand with implications of homosexual appetite. We learn that Volgin is bisexual because he grabs Big Boss’ crotch. Vamp blatantly enjoys licking Raiden’s white-coloured blood off his knives. The series never quite resolves the fundamental tension between its more nuanced portrayal of intimate male relationships and the way it also deploys queer sexual imagery as a shorthand for villainous intent.
Escaping the prison with help from either Otacon or a rogue-acting Cyborg Ninja kicks off the final third of the game, triggering a significant increase in pace for the rest of it. Stealth segments are increasingly abandoned in favour of action setpieces, boss battles, and cutscenes replete with political intrigue. It takes little time for Snake to return to where he was captured and proceed to the communications tower. Here, a triggered alarm leads to an extended chase sequence up the tower. This is a repetition of a sequence in Metal Gear 2, and after a brief encounter with Otacon, the player gets tossed into a fight with Liquid Snake, who is piloting a Hind-D helicopter.
The Hind fight serves multiple purposes. The first is practical: this fight is meant to train players on how to use the Stinger missile launcher before the climactic fight against Metal Gear REX. The arena offers ample protection against Liquid’s strafing runs, giving players time to find cover and then pop out to fire missiles. These protections are later removed during the REX fight, forcing players to fall back on their understanding of the Stinger’s mechanics in order to succeed. That the Hind fight is significantly easier serves to call attention to REX’s superiority within the fiction.
Destroying the Hind and seemingly killing Liquid provides a moment of triumph, but it’s soon undercut by Snake himself. This should be a huge accomplishment: one man faced down a dastardly terrorist and destroyed their helicopter in a dramatic one-on-one battle. Indeed, this is Otacon’s reaction. He’s amazed by Snake’s combat prowess. But Snake can’t agree with the assessment that he’s a hero, instead dwelling on his inability to save Meryl from Sniper Wolf. If the action hero always saves the girl, then he has failed to fulfil the trope. In some ways, this further serves to relegate Meryl to a prize-like status, but it’s also a continued commentary on the plight of action protagonists. There’s an existential tension and lingering doubt that isn’t washed away, no matter how many villains you kill, one-liners you say, or cool explosions you walk away from.
Almost immediately after taking an lift down the tower, Snake gets drawn into another battle with Sniper Wolf. This second fight succeeds far more than the first when it comes to delivering a proper sniper’s duel. The open snowfield where the fight takes place ensures that Wolf takes more time to move to each of her sniping locations, making it possible for players to track her movements. When played using only the sniper rifle, the battle is an exercise in aim and reaction time. The series will later iterate upon these open designs, adding a sniper duel in each game and larger areas.
Players who opt to use a wider arsenal will be able to use some alternate strategies. In general, Metal Gear Solid rarely encourages this sort of thing, but Wolf’s fight and the upcoming battle with Vulcan Raven do offer some degree of tactical choice. For example, it’s possible to track Sniper Wolf’s position and strike her in cover using Stinger missiles, and a small nook on the east side of the battlefield provides cover from which players can launch remote control missiles and attack without ever exposing themselves to Wolf’s attacks. These are less obvious than alternate strategies that are presented in later games—for instance, either using thermal goggles to track Metal Gear Solid 3’s the Fear or tossing rotten food to poison him—but they’re significant indicators of where the series will go as it progresses. Lock-and-key boss fights will slowly be abandoned in favour of battles that reward a variety of tactics.
Wolf’s death sequence and monologue incorporate many series hallmarks, including broader connections to the real world. While later villains’ origins veer into the outlandish, Sniper Wolf’s is straightforward. She was a Kurd who faced persecution and later found a place for herself on the battlefield. Part of Metal Gear Solid’s focus on genetic destiny and violence means having characters who offer alternate explanations for their circumstances. Naomi and Liquid Snake’s obsession with genetics as the primary determinant factor in human behaviour clashes with stories like Sniper Wolf’s. In her case, it is not some ineffable evolutionary instinct or ingrained destiny that placed her on the battlefield. It was social circumstance and oppressive systems. Metal Gear Solid and the series as a whole eventually brushes aside ideas of genetic determinism for a broader understanding of history and culture as the cause of human suffering. Wolf and Snake fight because external societal forces drove them into conflict.
The intervening area between the Sniper Wolf fight and the Vulcan Raven fight is the last real stealth sequence in the entire game. The Blast Furnace has a handful of patrolling guards and security cameras that bring back spatial stealth. Pacing-wise, this allows players to decompress from the Sniper Wolf fight, grab spare supplies, and then proceed to the next boss encounter.
The back half of Metal Gear Solid increases boss confrontations as a means of increasing tension, allowing Snake a series of bloody victories that are nevertheless undercut when Metal Gear REX is activated. There is always more killing to be done, always another warrior to face. To be a hero, especially in a video game, is to face a gauntlet of unavoidable slaughter.
Vulcan Raven’s boss fight is an inverse of Sniper Wolf’s. Where the prior fight’s main strategy was to face the enemy and beat them at their own game, Vulcan Raven encourages an indirect approach. The areas before the boss arena are littered with claymore mines that the player can collect. In the boss arena, Raven patrols down tight pathways between stacked boxes; these are ideal places to leave mines. Trying to rush at Raven is not really possible; his gatling gun can hit from further away than any of Snake’s guns. Instead, players can either guide Raven into mines or use tools like the remote control missiles to attack him behind.
The escalating pace of character deaths from Sniper Wolf to Vulcan Raven comes with a corresponding increase in plot twists and shifting loyalties. Everything that came before is now being called into question, whether that is Master Miller casting doubt on Naomi, or Vulcan Raven revealing that the DARPA chief encountered at the start of the game was actually master-of-disguise Decoy Octopus. Colonel Campbell has clearly been withholding information from Snake, characters are revealed to have entirely different identities and allegiances, and support structures like the code radio can no longer be treated as reliable. This shift mirrors the confusion in the latter half of the first Metal Gear, when Big Boss starts to feed to player false information, and serves to further highlight how undesirable the role of hardcore commando actually is.
Snake’s final task is little more than busywork that plays into the terrorist’s hands. In order to deactivate REX, Snake must bring a keycard to various locations in Shadow Moses. The metal changes shape depending on the temperature—this is a callback to Gustava’s shapeshifting brooch in Metal Gear 2—and ferrying the card to multiple locations delays the final confrontation with another sequence of backtracking. The player and Snake are literally running errands before the final fight. As they grow aware of mounting manipulations and agendas, players can do nothing but continue the mission.
The keycard sequence, which was meant to shutdown Metal Gear REX, actually turns the machine on. The depth of Liquid Snake’s manipulation is revealed. Snake was always meant to get this far; Liquid is not dead at all, having masqueraded as Master Miller for the entire mission. Around the same time, Snake (and the player) learn that he has been carrying the FOXDIE virus that has been specifically killing all witnesses to Metal Gear REX’s development. The virus itself has been altered by Naomi, who reveals herself as Grey Fox’s adoptive sister, eager to enact revenge on Snake for nearly killing her brother in Metal Gear 2. Everything goes wrong, everyone is using you. Good luck fighting the giant death machine, hero.
The fight against Metal Gear REX removes many of the tools that players had taken for granted. Metal Gear Solid’s stealth emphasised the use of geometry to hide out from enemies and duck into cover from bosses, but the REX area is open and exposed. Barring the use of chaff grenades, there’s no way to stem the tide of REX’s attacks. Instead, players need to react quickly, learn the pattern and range of each attack, then fire a missile in between each.
The Metal Gear series always uses its mechs as embodiments of each respective game’s themes. Metal Gear REX, as a thematic device, represents the growing irrelevance of flesh-and-blood soldiers in the face of evolving tech. The audience is meant to fear it because it is both capable of mass destruction and highly impersonal. The battle between Snake and REX is a clash between man and machine, one in which blood needs to win over steel.
For Snake’s victory to mean anything, for his progress in the face of countless manipulations to mean anything, this victory needs to be more than just destroying a robot. Throughout the game, Snake has been toyed with by his allies and enemies. He’s also been, to an extent, a puppet dancing at the end of the player’s string. At last, in this scene, he gets a moment to assert himself.
After Grey Fox arrives to help damage REX, he gets pinned to the wall by the mech. There is an interact-able cutscene during which players can aim their Stinger missile at the mech’s cockpit. However, because the resulting explosion would kill Grey Fox, Snake refuses to fire the missile, even if the player hits the trigger. It’s a small but important moment. Metal Gear Solid 2 will establish a complete break between the player and Solid Snake, but this is the moment when the cracks form. This is the moment when Snake is in control.
That small moment leads to a second round against REX that ends with the robot destroyed and a one-on-one confrontation against Liquid Snake. Liquid has been a champion of determinism throughout the game. He reveals that he is Snake’s twin, supposedly made using “inferior” genes compared to Snake’s “superior” stock. He says he fights because it is in the fibre of his being, and he continues the legacy of his father Big Boss by enacting an imperfect version of his plot: capture a base, have a big robot, create a world for soldiers.
At first, Snake reacts to this with cynicism, but eventually, he takes up Grey Fox’s call to fight for what he believes in. He will not fight as some government tool, he will fight because he believes it is correct. The final boss fight against Liquid is a fist fight, similar to Snake’s battle with Grey Fox in Metal Gear 2. Two ideological rivals clashing, Snake’s triumph making a refutation of Liquid (and, to an extent, the game’s) insistence that we are born into certain destinies. Liquid’s defeat is the moment when Snake takes hold of his own life.
Depending on whether the player endured Ocelot’s torture or submitted, the final escape sequence from Shadow Moses happens with either Meryl or Otacon. In the former case, it’s a reclamation of Snake’s worth, the achievement of an action hero trope that is, in theory, more earned now that Snake is acting of his own volition. The game apparently cannot avoid turning Meryl into a reward for Snake’s self-actualisation, but it also doesn’t disrespect her completely. Reunited, the two act as equals in their escape. This is very much the case in Otacon’s ending as well, where he gets to act out his own self-actualisation by removing his stealth camouflage and helping Snake in earnest.
Liquid Snake still has one more miraculous final hurrah, which manifests in an extended car chase sequence down a tunnel. But Snake has already won. This is a formality, a final chance to leave the spectre of the past behind. Snake’s car flips over, and he and his companion are stuck; Liquid steps forward to claim victory. Instead, FOXDIE kills him. The virus coded for Snake kills his twin instead. Nothing is certain. Naomi’s revenge becomes Snake’s salvation.
Naomi delivers her final words to Snake, in voiceover over footage of nature. She tells him that life is a choice. We are indeed more than what we are born into, or the parents from whom we were birthed. Snake has been abused, tortured, manipulated, and pulled into conflict again and again, but that is not all he needs to ever be. And even if fighting is in his future, it can be his choice. The ending music kicks in. The song’s title says all there is to know about a self-determined future, away from the action hero mould: “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
Yet this message that it is better to live your own life than fit into the action hero fantasy will go ignored. Snake was supposed to be free to make his own fate, but fan and critical acclaim consigned Kojima and his colleagues to a sequel. The next game in the series, Sons of Liberty, is fed up with these misunderstandings. It has no patience for players looking to infiltrate bases, who care more about being bad-ass than being authentic. It is the height of the series’ themes, oft misunderstood or derided, but ultimately necessary.
For now, Snake and his companion ride off into the sun. Free from manipulators, free from needy players, and free from the notion that the future is anything other than what he makes.
Featured image: Illustration: Chelsea Beck