[Following his analysis of the original Metal Gear Solid, writer Zoran Iovanovici examines the franchise sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty, looking at its "focus on memetics and information control" to examine its message.]
The second installment of the franchise, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, turns its attention toward digital communication and computer technologies, namely the Internet and the flow of information. In an era defined by the rapid transmission of information; the game addresses the impact that control of these advancements can have in an information age where societies are increasingly reliant on digital storage and communication.
With internet freedom and censorship being hotly contested topics, MGS2 doesn’t pull any punches in its exploration of the nature of modern digital communication and its control by government and private organizations. While the first installment saw nuclear weaponry as a means to bringing the nations of the world to their knees, MGS2 looks at how control and access to information is becoming the most important tool for global domination.
Global Control via Information Control
Most of the major plot elements in MGS2 revolve around the Patriots: a clandestine organization whose goals involve global social, political, and economic control. To achieve this, the Patriots focus primarily on establishing control over the dissemination of information that occurs through digital channels. This falls in line with Kojima’s dark projections of advanced technology (where powerful organizations utilize said tech for questionable means), as the Patriots seek to extend and maintain their power by controlling the very flow of knowledge in society. Consequently, MGS2's newly introduced Arsenal Gear isn’t even a weapon but rather a massive mobile defense installation with the capability of controlling information across global digital channels.
The methodology of the Patriots and their intent to use Arsenal Gear is explained by NPC Emma Emmerich, the leading developer of Arsenal Gear’s GW computer system:
"In this day and age, information emerges from every direction, and is freely distributed. In fact, the speed of this circulation process is accelerating on an almost daily basis. […] Political scandal, corporate corruption; up until now, the Patriots have managed to keep a lid on these and other self-serving events. But with their existing data processing system, they are no longer able to effectively control the flow of information generated at the individual level. With the newly created system, they can fully regulate digital information. High-level information can be categorized in stages, given clearance levels, and deleted as necessary -- never to be seen by the public. By deleting such information, the Patriots can shape the course of history as they see fit."
This echoes a similar concern over knowledge and information championed by postmodern theorist Jean Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition. Along with commenting on the changing state of knowledge in advanced information societies, Lyotard asserts:
"Knowledge will be a major component in the world-wide competitions for power and it is conceivable that nation-states will one day fight for control of information just as they battled for control over territories in the past. […] Knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government."
Lyotard’s work reveals that controlling the flow of information in order to shape history is a byproduct of our current postmodern Information Age. MGS2 not only takes this idea to heart, but runs with it full speed and lends itself favorably to Richard Dawkins’ theory of memetics. Originally published in 1987, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene introduces the idea of memetics as a method of measuring the cultural evolution of ideas:
"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain."
The theory of memetics shows how creating a mode of natural selection for memes in the sea of uncontrolled digital information via Arsenal Gear would allow the Patriots to shape public discourse by easily replacing radical or opposing ideas with those that the group finds more convenient for maintaining their power.
This rampant focus on memetics and information control brings up an interesting issue: how the MGS series, like all forms of cultural expression, is itself memetic. After all, players can play the game, think about its themes, speak to fellow gamers about the content in the game, post and discuss on internet forums, and pass copies of the game on to others.
The series, which has already been experienced by tens of millions of gamers worldwide, has itself become a strong and thriving source of memes. It’s no surprise that Kojima himself would eventually brand the MGS abbreviation as Meme-Gene-Scene to coincide with the main theme behind each MGS game, with MGS2 appropriately assigned the Meme designation.
There is one slight drawback to the intentional use of memes to drive home ideas and that lies in repetition. While repetition is essential for spreading and preserving memes, it can also make creative endeavors (in this case a video game) seem formulaic and derivative. In fact, one of the criticisms of MGS2 is that certain game elements felt repetitive of the first installment… the bosses, the cyborg ninja, Metal Gear Ray, the interrogation and torture scene.
Shortly after the release of MGS2, Kojima Productions produced an interesting interactive DVD titled The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2 as a companion piece to MGS2 that explores the issues of repetition and recreation through another postmodern convention known as hypertext.
Postmodern scholars typically use the term hypertext to illustrate how a creative work is an amalgam of various sources and inspirations and how the work itself inspires endless new avenues of exploration for the reader, viewer, or, in this case, the player. This is initially evidenced by the DVD’s opening cinema, which fills the screen with horizontally and vertically scrolling messages over a backdrop of overlaid photos and cinema sequences.
The rapid succession of images and text that appear from nearly every direction create a feeling of visual sensory overload, where the incredible amount of material used in the series is presented in no discernable sequence. It mirrors the endless flow of digital information that comprises the modern day internet and acts as a reminder of the ultimate goal of the Patriots commissioned Arsenal Gear in controlling this chaotic sea of information.
Beyond the opening cinema, the special DVD contains a dozen sections that are accessible from a main menu. The sections range from Script and Game Plan to Character and Background. When the player/viewer accesses a particular section, let’s take Chronicle for example, they are able to view the timeline of the game’s production. Numerous entries in the timeline are then highlighted and provide access to new menus with sub options.
A section of the design team’s study of the Verrazano Bridge in Manhattan, for example, contains photos of the architecture which can be inspected one by one, giving the player the option to access another menu for the video game rendition of the architecture, which allows the player to see which artists on the design team worked on the modeling, which in turn permits the players to see profiles of the designers themselves. The entire disc functions in this way: a seemingly endless sea of clusters that lead viewers to photos, short films, website links, reading recommendations, developer drafts, and so on.
The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2 illustrates how the entire MGS series is a byproduct of hypertext, composed of a combination of artifacts that led to the final product. It is also indicative of the role of hypertext in creative production and writing, whether it is military research, art design, narrative themes, or character motivation.
Kojima could very well be pointing out how, despite constant advancements in technology within the video game industry, most games are themselves hypertextual in that they are not completely original, but amalgamations of established thematic ideas borrowed from literature, cinema, history, the arts, and other games. Even groundbreaking games that scream innovation and yield seemingly ‘new’ experiences eventually see their innovations borrowed by other developers in future games.
The unknown Unknown
That a single organization like the Patriots could control the flow of information and ideas in society is a truly frightening thought and since the existence of the Patriots is unknown to the general public, their actions escape public scrutiny as well. Ultimately MGS2 leaves players wondering how a shadow organization like the Patriots could be opposed and effectively removed. With the flow of information completely under their control, there can be no movement and thus no revolution. It's a heavy thought and the game provides no easy answers.
Tackling the issues of digital information control, memetics, and hypertext in a video game is no easy feat but MGS2 does an admirable job of showing how the three work in tandem with each other and provide insight into some of the concerns that affect our current Information Age. It is a clever combination used with stunning effect, inevitably showing how the MGS series becomes more complex and theoretical with each installment.