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Analysis: What the Metal Gear Solid Series Teaches Us About Centralized Power

Writer Zoran Iovanovici looks at one of the most significant, yet often-overlooked overarching themes of the Metal Gear Solid series for Gamasutra -- its criticism of centralized power, and its promotion of decentralization.

Zoran Iovanovici, Blogger

September 10, 2010

11 Min Read

[Closing out his series of critical articles on the Metal Gear Solid series, writer Zoran Iovanovici looks at one of the major overarching themes of the series for Gamasutra, by exploring its criticism of centralized power and its promotion of decentralization.] Fans of the Metal Gear Solid series can attest that there is no shortage of deep topics and criticism in their beloved games, many of which appear as recurring themes in each installment. One of the more overlooked recurring themes is the criticism of centralized power and its consistent push for decentralization. In each game the message is clear: centralized global power by one government or organization is a major threat to world peace, more so than terrorism, political unrest, or economic instability. In the first MGS, Liquid hopes to acquire the remains and DNA of Big Boss in order to expose America’s genome army and prevent it from being used by the powers that be to maintain and extend global military power. In MGS2, Solidus recruits a collection of combat specialists to destroy Arsenal Gear and stop The Patriots’ intended goal of global information control. Even MGS3, set in nearly forty years prior to the events of the first two installments, sends a clear message that global military superiority by one superpower (either the U.S.A. or U.S.S.R.) would tip the balance of power toward complete disarray. MGS4 does a great job of combining the threats of the previous three games and addressing all three via it’s commentary on The System, PMC’s, and nanomachines. As the latest major installment in the series, MGS4 addresses the issue of centralized power in a decidedly thorough manner by putting series mainstay Liquid Ocelot in a major role in opposition to The System that sees humanity caught in an endless economic cycle of war. MGS 4 initially presents Liquid as a villainous figure who seeks to take control of The System in order to gain global superiority. His previous actions in the original MGS certainly play into this assertion and it’s easy for longtime fans of the series to assume this level of villainy from Liquid. This setup provides Snake’s initial impetus for seeking out Liquid. Yet, as the story slowly unravels, we discover that Liquid’s planned insurrection is not the hostile takeover of The System for his own private use, but rather its complete dissolution. In doing so he hopes to liberate PMC soldiers from The System’s control and free humanity from the all-consuming war economy. Protect And Destroy Early on, MGS4 sees Liquid engaging in disguised acts of terrorism and military aggression. Since his past actions in the MGS series have drawn the contempt of the scientific community and the mistrust of global nations, his method of gathering the right collection of talented scientists, researchers, programmers, and elite military agents capable of putting an end to The System’s reign is conducted via a grand scheme that spans the globe. Liquid’s envisioned Haven, a newly formed nation of free soldiers, is simply a smokescreen to draw attention away from his real activities. Rather than seeking to gain control of The System or hand it over to any nation or political group under some misconceived notion of creating a grand utopia, Liquid stays true to form fueled by the desire to subvert totalitarian global power. This puts an interesting twist on Snake’s mission as he is presented with somewhat of a lose/lose situation: kill Liquid and stop his insurrection in order to uphold The System and the war economy, or allow Liquid to dismantle The System and war economy and bring about global economic collapse in order to free humanity from the grip of The System. Campbell presents Snake with this rather conflicted objective in the game’s opening mission briefing:

"You have to stop Liquid from destroying The System. What we call 'peace' is an equilibrium kept in check by the war economy. Destroying The System means wiping out the information society. Like it or not, we may have no choice but to protract The System."

Here the game’s criticism and focus on totalitarianism, and subsequently the danger of centralized global power, comes to the forefront. The game establishes that The System operates outside of government, that it has over time become an autonomous entity whose power has become so overarching that it plays a role in (and perhaps ultimately controls) the outcome of political elections in major industrialized nations. It has also played a major role in legitimizing corporate PMC proliferation for the sake of boosting the global economy as witnessed by the exponential growth of PMCs in the game. In this case, The System has direct influence over the superstructure (institutions and ideologies) of nations that participate in the war economy. As a result the game’s push for decentralization, for fragmentation is revealed through its dystopian depiction of centralized power. If a centralized system grows too much in power, as The System has, it paves the way for tyranny and corruption. Additionally, if such vast centralized systems should collapse, it creates the disastrous potential for global political, economic, and social collapse. A Global System The game’s push for decentralization can also be seen in the multiple locales the game is set in. Snake no longer has the luxury of going after a single target in a single location as he did in previous installments of the MGS series. In MGS4 Snake must travel all over the world because Liquid has decentralized his power and his personal network of operatives, with splinter groups on every major continent. When Liquid actually gains control of The System (temporarily until he can dismantle it) his first show of power is a historic one, showing the fragility of centralized power. Campbell explains:

"The world’s military systems are all in Liquid's hands now. The regional systems have all been shut down. Guns are falling silent across the earth. It's the first total cease-fire in human history. The war economy has ground to a complete halt. It's tough to play down a crisis of these proportions. War economy-related stocks are already going into a free fall."

It’s worth noting how the game presents the world’s first total cease-fire as an all out economic crisis. Liquid’s ultimate goal to destroy The System gives rise to a new era of uncertainty as humanity must adjust to life without having their daily lives regulated by digital control. At the same time, this action simultaneously empowers humanity to shape the world outside the confines of an all-controlling, all-regulating entity. Liquid considers the destruction of The System as a heroic deed, and sees the chaos that would result from destabilizing the world’s governments as a necessary obstacle that nations will have to overcome. While global economic collapse is no small matter (as evidenced by recent real world crises), keeping The System in place is arguably the greater of the two evils, especially when one considers the plight of the average PMC solder and the proliferation of nanomachines. The growing number of standing global PMC troops in MGS4 is staggering thanks largely to the established war economy that sees life as a PMC soldier as an ever increasing career choice. As more and more civilians join and fight for PMC’s, The System gains increased control over individuals via compulsory nanomachine injections. Once contracted, individual soldiers are entirely under the control of their employing PMC. Should soldiers ever decide to engage in battle outside of direct orders given to them by their PMC, their ID weapons (issued and controlled by The Patriots) will cease to work. From the game’s opening monologue, Snake provides a glimpse as just how dire the situation is:

"ID-tagged soldiers carry ID-tagged weapons, use ID-tagged gear. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance and regulate their abilities. Genetic control. Information control. Emotion control. Battlefield control. Everything is monitored and kept under control."

What we see here is an extension of The System’s totalitarian grip, the key term being control. With nanomachines, The System’s control extends to each and every individual soldier, influencing, when, how, and why they engage in combat. Even if soldiers tried to mount a revolution or defect, they couldn’t, as Meryl, a member of a PMC watchdog organization, explains:

"[The System] ensures that no one can use firearms or military vehicles without the proper System ID. It's true for every piece of equipment out there. Even if the PMCs tried to mount a terrorist attack or coup d’etat, their weapons and equipment would automatically be locked out. They wouldn't be able to move, attack, or engage in combat of any kind."

In essence, nanomachines help The System exert totalitarian control by eliminating the threat of resistance. They also go one step beyond by psychologically quelling the desire for deviance. As nano-machine injections are a requirement upon employment with a PMC, the element of free-will comes into question. Meryl goes on to detail just how intrusive and overarching the nano-machines in each PMC soldier’s body actually are:

"[The] System monitors, in real-time, every single soldier engaged in combat action, whether he's state army or PMC. Each individual soldier has been fully ID-tagged with nanomachines injected into their bodies for that purpose. The nanomachines keep track of the soldiers and their real-time personal data 24 hours a day. They monitor each man's position, movement, speed, reserve ammo, firing accuracy, wounds, rations, water intake, heart rate, blood pressure, sugar levels, and oxygen. All of it is collected by an AI at The System's core. It's being used by the US military, by state armies in allied countries, and by PMCs. Even police agencies are starting to adopt it."

The World On A String Even more intrusive is that nanomachines have the ability to suppress emotions and fears, as revealed by Dr. Naomi Hunter, the scientist who helped develop the first generation of nanomachines that eventually saw widespread implementation. Emotion control suggests that nanomachines can create an unnatural sense of accomplishment and euphoria from battle. This power of emotion control is essentially mind control and provides The System as a single entity with global influence over individual human beings. It also explains Naomi’s eventual decision to go rogue and help bring down The System:

"The nanomachines inside soldiers' bodies adapt to different conditions, promoting the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and stimulants. They can create an artificial combat high by releasing endorphins at the same time a soldier kills an enemy. Or they can suppress hormones to neutralize the soldier's emotions, prevent them from panicking and engaging in friendly fire or needless massacres. It's all controlled by The System's core AI. It artificially controls the soldier's pain, emotions, senses; in other words, the essence of his being."

These are certainly two very lengthy diatribes and to see just how invasive and powerful nano-machines are, we need only look at Meryl’s encounter with the special operative Screaming Mantis, where Meryl’s nanomachines are hacked and used against her control, her body moving awkwardly and erratically like a marionette. In a sense, all PMC soldiers can be considered marionettes pulled by the strings of their respective PMCs, which themselves are a subset of The System. Worst of all, no method of removing the injected nanomachines is ever presented. The sad truth may be that the only freedom injected soldiers may have is two shots to the head and a quick burial in the morning. The MGS series proves that the sides of good and evil are not always so clear cut, as the motivations of each side are constantly put into question throughout each installment in the series. There is a lingering element of uncertainty and mistrust among all-powerful global entities. Whether outright or behind-the-scenes, they strive towards absolute dominance and control, until the entire world is in their grip. The methodology by which anyone can put a stop to these entities and their designs to bring about a New World Order is put into equal inquiry. The series never presents a clear-cut quick-fix agenda. Indeed, it suggests that perhaps the only answer is no agenda. That’s arguably the true magic of the MGS saga – it makes players ask some pretty big questions. And for good reason, too. With real world organizations like the Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, the U.N., and WTO pushing for globalization, a global currency, a global court, and essentially a centralized New World Order; clandestine groups like the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg Group, and the Club of Rome calling shots behind the scenes; questionable global slush funds like the Red Cross hoarding money for unknown projects; and world threatening mega corporations like Monsanto seeking to control global food supply, the issues that MGS brings to light can hardly be glossed over.

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