Since the late 90’s, anyone paying even the least bit of attention to the video game space must have been somewhat familiar with the title “Metal Gear Solid“, even if they hadn’t played it themselves. In the 17 years since that game’s release, those three words have become increasingly high profile, up to the point that today this series can be considered one of the biggest franchises in the video game industry. Gamers know Metal Gear, whether they want to or not. They also tend to know the classic main character, Solid Snake, by name if nothing else. I’m arguing, however, that as the series has progressed, Snake himself has become less and less important, and at the current state of the franchise, he is entirely expendable and not key at all.
The series has gone through some very significant changes with each new entry. The most obvious change is usually the fact that the story just gets bigger in each game – it’s not just an extension of the continuation, but it overhauls the entire universe and reveals that the whole story is so much more than anything you learned in the previous title, and most of what you know turns out to be an elaborate lie. It may sound cheap and frustrating, but it’s really masterfully done; it doesn’t take away what you already know of the narrative, but rather places it in an entirely different context, which makes all the big events in the previous game seem small by comparison.
The Old Days
I’ll go ahead and elaborate that a little bit (the following will be one big spoiler if you don’t know the story of Metal Gear already). The first game, Metal Gear, was released in Japan in 1987, and it was about a soldier called Solid Snake who was sent into a terrorist base to dismantle their ultimate weapon and neutralize their leaded. The leader turned out to be none other than his own commanding officer, Big Boss. The plan behind the whole affair was to have Snake report false information about the organization to his superiors, thus hindering their activities against Big Boss.
The exception to my assumption that every game is bigger than the one that preceded it takes place right at the beginning; Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was, for all intents and purposes, simply the next adventure Solid Snake would find himself in. There’s something incredibly fascinating about this game, though: while it added very little to the mythos of the Metal Gear universe, it is commonly understood that this game is where it was revealed that Big Boss was in fact the father of Solid Snake – a detail which would be a key element in future games. This, however, is false: such a thing was never established in Metal Gear 2.
I actually didn’t find out about this myself until relatively recently, not having played the game back in the day for obvious reasons. I came across an article that delves into the claim that Big Boss and Solid Snake had a conversation about the former being the father of the latter, which pretty effectively explains the reasons for this misconception, and proves that this was actually retroactively added into the narrative, since apparently series creator Hideo Kojima did not come up with this story element until Metal Gear Solid. I really recommend checking out the article in question, if you’re interested in the series.
Back to the topic at hand – the first two games established the basic premise of the series, as well as introduced a few of the characters of note. One of them would turn out to be the absolute center of the Metal Gear universe, but it wasn’t the one that most probably expected.
Metal Gear Solid
The third game is where the story really became alive. Metal Gear Solid was the first game that was released outside Japan, and with the new possibilities brought about by the Sony PlayStation, Hideo Kojima and Konami were able to take storytelling into new heights – Metal Gear Solid is regarded one of the pioneers in the field of video games with a narrative comparable to motion pictures. This is where the father-son-relationship between Snake and Big Boss was retconned, as stated above, and where the unique features of the Metal Gear universe (as opposed to a generic action setting) started to become prominent. Furthermore, the game introduced themes such as dignity and morals.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty made the direction of the series clear: Metal Gear would be big. While the initial, individual story of this game appears unrelated to the previous titles at first glance, a deeper cut reveals exactly what I talked about earlier: existing storylines and events were taken into an entirely new context, giving them unprecedented meaning. The series was not about individual missions anymore; there was now a global conspiracy involved, creating correlations that one couldn’t have imagined within the boundaries of the previous title. The “Patriots” – would this be Metal Gear’s ultimate villain?
While the bulk of the game was missing Solid Snake altogether, this is where our gravelly-voiced hero was at the peak of his significance: the endgame would reveal that to a certain extent, everything that happened in Sons of Liberty related to Snake somehow. This went so far, in fact, that the game’s main villain, Solidus Snake (itself a reflection of Solid Snake, both in character as well as his relevance, in that he first gives the impression of being pivotal to the grand scheme of things, but eventually turns out to be one of the most expendable ones), believed the recent events to have everything to do with Solid Snake. This, however, was merely a diversion, as we were hinted at the end of this game, and explained a bit more clearly later on.
Big Boss Returns
As I stated above, Metal Gear Solid 2 was where Solid Snake’s importance to the series was at its highest – it appeared as if the series was in fact all about him. The next game, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, would begin turning that around; we didn’t see it at the time, despite the fact that this was another game where Snake was absent, this time entirely. Instead, we would be in the shoes of Big Boss himself, in the days of his youth when he was effectively a doppelgänger of Solid Snake.
In true Metal Gear fashion, Snake Eater expanded on the greater story in a fairly implicit way – it took some brain exercise to actually realize some of the connections between this game and the previous ones. The game lays the groundwork for the web that would eventually be revealed as the true untold story behind the games, and shifts the focus yet again: this game isn’t about a single person, or even a faction, but about nations and ideology, loyalty and legacy. While once again it wasn’t entirely obvious at the time, Snake Eater mainly establishes two things: Big Boss’s motivation for going rogue (as we have seen he did in Metal Gear), and the way the entire Metal Gear universe is laid out as a metaphorical chess board for the ones who pull the strings.
Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was the next game in the continuity, but it was an odd one in the sense that it did practically nothing to further the series’ story. It created a couple fun moments where Big Boss would meet some of the familiar characters from the series, namely Roy Campbell and Gray Fox, at this time simply known as “Null”. To say that the handheld games can be ignored in the continuity would be a big mistake, however; Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker would turn out to be not only a fantastic game, but one that actually did contribute to the story of the franchise.
Peace Walker was mainly about improving the depth of Big Boss’s character, but also the early steps of the path he would still be on in Metal Gear, commanding a sovereign community of mercenaries. This game has a colossal amount of subtle story progression in the form of optional dialogue mainly between Big Boss and Kazuhira Miller, who is another familiar character from the old games. It implicitly describes the split between Big Boss and his former commanding officer David Oh, better known as Zero; the relationship between these two characters is arguably the most fascinating, unique and complex in the entire series – or most other stories out there, I might add.
This is where I first realized that I had forgotten the existence of Solid Snake entirely, and that I didn’t even mind: this was far more intriguing than anything that the series had been about up to this point. It also became crystal clear that in the mind of Hideo Kojima and the people creating this series, this would be the bare core of what this series is all about: a single ideal, which two individuals perceive differently, and that tears those two apart and turns them against each other, all the while striving for the same basic ideal.
The Closing Circle
After the events of Peace Walker*, it was time to revisit Solid Snake; his story was coming to an end, in more than one way. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, gathered all the loose ends from Snake’s previous excursions and tied them up in a most spectacular fashion; this game was arguably one of the most powerful stories in any video game, provided that you are a fan of the series, obviously. The stakes were higher than ever – the fate of the civilized world was in the balance, and the conspiracy behind it all – the Patriots – had now been identified and revealed to us.
At this point, we knew that everything that had happened so far, including Solid Snake’s adventures, related to the strife between Big Boss and Zero. While those characters were absent in this game (I’ll get back to this controversial statement later on), and while we controlled Solid Snake and watched him do the dance to save the world, we knew this wasn’t about him. We saw the effects of Snake Eater and its aftermath throughout the game, and understood that beyond what was right there in front of us, the true battle was between the philosophies of those two men.
The final battle in Guns of the Patriots is a perfect embodiment of my argument in this entry: Solid Snake and Liquid Ocelot, brawling it out in an epic showdown – and it doesn’t matter who wins. The game was already over at that point; the Patriots (at this time revealed to survive as an artificial intelligence, autonomously carrying on Zero’s will and vision) were crippled and the world was freed from their invisible control. Either one (or both) of these two grappling geezers could have kicked the bucket, and it would have affected nothing.
Even if you rewind the story back a little, to the beginning of the game, you’ll notice that there’s not really much difference there: Liquid Ocelot retains some importance, seeing as he is one of the actual “Patriots”, having an agenda of his own, but Solid Snake is not any more pivotal. The outlandish argument that “he’s the only one who can defeat Liquid” aside, anyone could have taken his place, and done everything he did; after all, Snake failed in pretty much everything he attempted, except for the final push where he reached the server room to upload the virus to take down the artificial intelligence. During the course of this game, it becomes increasingly clear that it was never about him: just like it turned out that he had been a pawn of the Patriots in the original Metal Gear, he had retained that role throughout the series, and he was always simply the toy soldier in someone else’s little war game.
While Kojima clearly didn’t envision it back in the 80’s or 90’s, Metal Gear is the story of Big Boss, not Solid Snake. The principle is the same as in Star Wars – it initially appeared to be about Luke, while it was in fact the story of Darth Vader (up until Return of the Jedi of course). However, Metal Gear ended up in an entirely different place, and arguably did a better job at humanizing the character who started out as the main villain. The series ended up telling his story from being a naïve hero at the beginning of Snake Eater, to becoming a callous veteran at the end of that game, to a broken rogue in Peace Walker, then the vengeful victim in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and finally the demonized separatist he was when the world first saw him in Metal Gear.
I’ll take my argument a bit further: the fact that Big Boss was Snake’s father is also entirely irrelevant. The story of the series would be no different if that detail had not been added. Of course, that would have affected the existence of Liquid and Solidus, as they were built as characters to be equals to Solid Snake by genetic similarity, and that story would have made much less sense without Big Boss having this relationship with Snake.
The Controversial Ending
A few paragraphs ago, I hinted at the memorable ending scene of Guns of the Patriots, where Big Boss returns, healthy as a horse, and brings his old pal Zero with him. In my opinion, nearly the only good thing about this scene (aside from the initial heart-in-throat reaction when I saw Big Boss for the first time) was the way the entire now-colossal story of the series came to an end: Zero, arguably the most powerful man in the world, now immobilized and hardly aware of anything around him – or himself for that matter – sits expressionless in his wheelchair, while his best friend and worst adversary, Big Boss, turns off his life support, and moments later, he is gone. One of the finest character deaths ever written – hands down.
I appreciate this scene for one other reason: it attempted to give Big Boss a definitive end. After all, as the series had become focused on him instead of Solid Snake, it was unacceptable for a series of such cinematic quality to have its most central character die from a spray of fire in a frankly quite unexceptional bossfight in an 8-bit game. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Big Boss’s revised death scene, either, but it was better. They could have done it without ruining Solid Snake’s final moments, but this is what we got, so nothing to do but to roll with it.
One of the main reasons I believe Solid Snake should have died at the end of Guns of the Patriots is the fact that this game was intended to end Solid Snake’s story arc in the first place. It cleaned up the unfinished plot branches from his earlier appearances, and built towards an inevitable farewell scene throughout the game, which we got – until it was revealed that we didn’t. I can’t quite forgive Konami for taking away what would be the most emotional scene in any piece of entertainment I have come across, namely the scene after Snake has seemingly shot himself, where (I don’t remember the exact dialogue, it’s been a long time) Sunny asks Otacon where Snake is. Otacon turns away and, fighting the tears, explains that Snake is sick, and that he went on a trip to get better. Sunny wonders about them not going with him; Otacon replies: “No… He needs to be alone.” I don’t think I’ve ever cried that much in my post-infant age.
To wrap the topic up, now at the time of Metal Gear Solid V, it is already clear that Solid Snake is not the central character in the series, no matter how close he is to the hearts of fans of the series. Make no mistake, I love Snake, but I’ve come to realize the story of the series as it stands today has practically nothing to do with him. He is entirely expendable and replaceable in a narrative sense – he was simply the window through which we saw about half of the story unfold, and as far as the story itself is concerned, he’s a stooge who ended up getting tangled in events much bigger than him.
* I am aware that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released much before Peace Walker, yet for some unknown reason I wrote this sentence as if it was the other way around. I apologize for my confusion.