Analysis: What Metal Gear Solid 3 Teaches Us About Hyperreality
Writer Zoran Iovanovici examines Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, looking at the acclaimed title's focus on deception and "the struggle to gain understanding in the sea of messages which may or may not be truth or reality".
[Writer Zoran Iovanovici examines the third title in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, looking at the acclaimed title's focus on deception and "the struggle to gain understanding in the sea of messages which may or may not be truth or reality".]
Having already explored some of the complex themes of the original Metal Gear Solid and its sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, we now turn our attention to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Considered by many to be the highpoint of the series, Snake Eater is more playful in its delivery of political and historical criticism than its predecessors. What sets Snake Eater apart is that it’s set over thirty years prior to the events of the first two games, allowing for somewhat of a clean-slate approach to story, setting, and character.
With Snake Eater there seems to be just as much emphasis on how the story is told as there is on what is told in the story. This is achieved through the use of ‘hyperreality’ as a narrative technique – blending history and fiction in a way that makes it extremely difficult for the player to separate the two while playing the game.
In fact, hyperreality is used so heavily and effectively in Snake Eater that the game is eventually able to pass off pure fantasy as genuine historical fact with remarkable consistency.
Series creator Hideo Kojima is known to inject real world politics, people, science, and technology into the MGS series and using real world crises and events is somewhat of a staple for Kojima, evidenced even by his earliest Metal Gear title released in 1987 for the MSX video game system which uses the oil crisis of the 1970’s as a backdrop.
It is especially helpful that Snake Eater is set in the past, as it is unlikely that players experiencing the game were alive in 1964. It would not be presumptuous to conclude that a great majority of the game’s target audience are relatively unlearned about many of the minute historical details concerning the long period of the Cold War.
"Half of what I'd been told was a complete and utter lie...
The other half was a conveniently constructed lie.
Where's the truth then?
It's hidden in the lies." (Eva)
While Snake Eater is set in the past, it is still very much a product of today. In current information societies where the game is marketed and sold, the majority of the population forms their conception of the world based on the flood of media images that approach and flood from nearly every angle. This is applicable whether the information is received through television, cinema, radio, the internet, or in this case, video games. The flow of media and information is sometimes so intense that fact and fiction sometimes become indistinguishable. This very phenomenon has been coined ‘hyperreality’ by postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations:
"In the postmodern world the boundary between simulation and reality implodes, and with this the very experience and ground of ‘the real’ disappears. It becomes the hyperreal."
Nowadays it’s quite common to see fiction (whether it be in the form of book, film, or video game) have the appearance of documentary reality as a style of storytelling, treating history and science on the same level as fantasy and science fiction within the same narrative. While it’s fully possible that many players will approach Snake Eater simply as a work of fiction, few can deny the historical facts that are presented in the game. Whether it is the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, players are constantly presented with historical data in the form of text, photos, and video footage.
Referencing so many real life events consequently allows Kojima to intermingle and pass off fictional information as genuine real-world fact. Fictional information in Snake Eater is presented by the characters with the same amount of conviction as historical fact and the two are often so interwoven that any effort in unraveling them becomes a considerable task. It is much easier and much more likely for gamers to accept the holistic experience of the game rather than deny the information contained therein.
It’s not at all surprising for players to have a difficult time discerning where reality ends and fantasy begins as the two merge seamlessly into each other. Early on in the game, for example, the protagonist Snake is likened to Alan Shepard when he becomes the first person to be deployed in an experimental military aircraft. Even if the name Alan Shepard does not hold immediate significance, anyone willing to perform a quick internet search will quickly understand why Snake is referenced to the first American to reach outer space.
Shortly afterward, when the fictional weapons development scientist Sokolov explains the ultimate mobile nuclear weapon Shagohod that threatens the world, the game makes reference to Emerson Heinrich, who supposedly wrote an essay concerning the development of such a weapon. With Sokolov and Emerson the likening is between two fictional figures, but the clever comparison, reminiscent of the one made moments earlier in the game between Snake (fictional character) and Shepard (historical figure), may easily lead some to simply assume that Emerson was a historical figure much like Alan Shepard.
Snake Eater features countless examples where the historical and fictional intermingle in a similar fashion. Hearing Major Zero mention Nikolai Sokolov’s missile development at the OKB-754 Design Bureau and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight in the Vostok Rocket in the same breath highlights the use of hyperreality at its best by mixing people, events, and technology all in one indistinguishable package. The entire script of Snake Eater is littered with these comparisons, showcasing the consistency in which the thread of hyperreality is used throughout the game.
By the time the game introduces various military developments such as miniature nuclear shells can be launched from a portable device or vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that individual soldiers can utilize to traverse over mountains, it is so late in the game experience that many players will likely have stopped questioning some of the game’s more fantastical representations. That it takes hours of historical and scientific research simply to discern which details in the game are historically accurate is perhaps the greatest proof of Kojima’s mastery of the postmodern narrative and the use of hyperreality.
In fact, this experiment in hyperreality can be experienced even before playing the game itself. The Snake Eater instruction book includes, along with directions on how to navigate and operate the game, a three page timeline spanning an era from 1939 to 1964. The timeline includes a clever mixture of historical events and in-game events that are integral to the plot, revealing Kojima’s attempt to create a strong context in which the game can be located historically.
The manual also possesses a presentational style similar to military survival manuals, with information on field weapons and equipment, how to cure and heal wounds and perform emergency medical treatment, as well as information on how to effectively use camouflage, procure food in the wilderness, and effectively engage in close quarters combat. Even before the playing the game, then, the player is made aware that the events and actions in the game are very much in league with those of true survival missions experienced by real life soldiers.
"It’s funny how we get so absorbed into things even when we know they aren’t real." (Paramedic)
Further enhancing the hyperreal gameplay experience are the wealthy number of optional conversations that the player can strike up over codec communication with various members of the supporting Fox Unit. Some of the most compelling of these are the conversations with Paramedic. It’s not surprising that Kojima would place particular emphasis on conversations with Paramedic since players must call her if they wish to save their progress in the game before ending their gaming session. Moreover, as she can provide Snake with information on jungle survival with knowledge of the plants and animals of the area along with medical advice, Paramedic becomes the most frequently contacted character in the game.
As much as speaking with the paramedic is one of functionality and necessity, it is yet another creative attempt to locate the game historically and play with hyperreality. An avid fan of films, Paramedic brings to life the context and era in which the game takes place by constantly citing the films of the time. Whether she is citing 1960’s film technology or describing scenes from her favorite movies, she becomes a fountain of information about the world during the Cold War era. Most of her commentary is based on real world fact, but with the seed of hyperreality already planted so firmly within the narrative, how is the player to discern the small bits of fiction sprinkled in?
More importantly, all of the films she references have relevance to the plot of Snake Eater, such as the exploration of nuclear Armageddon in the Japanese post-apocalyptic film The Last War. It can even be said that Paramedic’s commentary on the value and power of cinema can be seen as indirect commentary on Snake Eater itself as the focus of Paramedic’s fascination is not simply to express admiration for the films, but also to explore how they resonate and leave a lasting impression on viewers. She often throws out statements such as: “suspend your disbelief, that’s the whole point of movies,” that are directed not only to Snake but to players themselves.
“There are no certainties in espionage, only calculated guesses." (Major Zero)
Despite the heavy focus on hyperreality, Kojima does not completely abandon postmodern political, economic, and social themes in Snake Eater. To highlight the tension and complexity of the Cold War, Kojima refrains from siding with Eastern or Western political and social ideology in the game’s plot. Neither the U.S.A. nor the U.S.S.R. are made to seem favorable, making the conflict between both governments seem questionable. There is no outright mention of the superiority of democracy, no brandishing of the hardships typically associated with communist dictatorships, no allegiance to either side, making the sides of good and evil even more hazy.
This is especially important considering the amount of conflict in the game: East vs. West; U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R.; capitalism vs. communism. Kojima presents them all on equal terms, as though all are equally valid and equally flawed. While Snake Eater doesn’t turn away completely from political grand narratives, it focuses on an even more important conflict: fact vs. fiction.
The blurred line between fantasy and reality can also be interpreted as a clever form of political criticism, where it is nearly impossible for the average individual to discern the truth regarding covert operations approved and initiated by political leaders and committees. In so doing, the game suggests that politics during the Cold War, or even the present time, are too convoluted and difficult to be disseminated by the average individual and that the game of politics is itself embedded in hyperreality. That which is presented to the general public as fact by political parties may actually be fiction while certain events that are shrugged off by national governments as mere fiction may indeed be fact. This element of the unknown is hyperreal in itself.
As real-world espionage and Special Forces operations are largely concealed from the public, writer Hideo Kojima can take great liberties in delivering a dynamic plot. After all, espionage, properly executed, is the engagement in covert activities that are never revealed the general public. Espionage is linked to hyperreality in that both result in the struggle to gain understanding in the sea of messages which may or may not be truth or reality. A spy thrives on blurring reality, on manipulating truth, on living a series of lies – mirroring hyperreality by blending fantasy and reality in an indistinguishable amalgam.
As is characteristic of Kojima’s work, Snake Eater begs the question as to whether games are just escapist entertainment or active forms of engagement with the potential to say something significant. Kojima seems to be pushing for the latter in Snake Eater by employing hyperreality as a narrative technique to play with player perceptions.
Everything from the characters, the setting, the dialogue, and even the newly introduced gameplay emphasis on camouflage can be considered an extension of this focus on deception. The result is that it often becomes too difficult to discern what elements of fantasy the player will take out of the experience and interpret as real-world fact. And that, perhaps, is true testament to the masterful execution of hyperreality in Snake Eater.