I don’t like playing Metal Gear. I love experiencing Metal Gear. I love Solid Snake. Because I love him because there is enough in the game to make me love him, enough character interaction and gameplay opportunity to ask me to love him and exhibit why I might stick around, and because I stick around I learn. Loving is learning, and learning lets you know how to love. One of the things I learnt about (sideways, through a prism) was the Cold War. That’s kind of a joke, calling it “one” of the “things.” Metal Gear pretty much teaches you that war is everywhere, all the time, and “cold” warfare just means it’s hot somewhere else. There’s a character named Hot Coldman.
I don’t like playing Metal Gear because it’s both too immersive and not immersive enough. I like to play sneaking games with my body; I don’t like to play them without it. Metal Gear is a console game that you hold in your hands while you sit; it’s not the game of Soldiers that real soldiers play. I’m not by Snake’s side, I don’t have his back; I’m his guardian angel. And it’s a task I take too seriously. I can’t really help it, like I said, I love him. I’ll love anyone I need to protect that completely. You become fond of people you watch. But I can’t really keep anyone safe through the miniature movement of the press of a button and the maneuvering of a digital “camera.” My angel eyes can’t see enough. My saviour’s hands are kept from precision by a four-button H-shaped controller and a janky digital reality. The urge to keep a sneaking soldier safe is terribly physical, the lurch in my stomach when that “!” blurts out is real, and my physical feelings have nowhere to go but the sofa, the plastic, adrenaline, a yell.
Playing Metal Gear doesn’t make me feel good; it makes me feel wretched. I guess that’s a lesson about cold war. About how nervous the common individual must have been, largely powerless and largely uninformed. And about how shitty the concept of a “cold” war is. My impression is that the Cold War is remembered as a victory, because Russia and America did not exchange bombs. No dropped nukes. It’s good everything else happened, because there wasn’t another Hiroshima-Nagasaki gash made in history.
Military drone operators get PTSD, did you know that? It’s because responsibility isn’t removed by the inability to personally touch your victim. They are watching real people, and then they are killing those real people, and they are exempt only from engaging with the visceral, literal mess.
Over the course of the series, Metal Gear becomes the story of American warfare as seen from the outside. A Japanese developer created a story spanning, what, one hundred years? Of Americans who can’t stop warring, the British (in fair terms the English, but we like to wear both hats) men who manipulate them into it, and the orphaned Russian obsessed with that anglophone legacy of combat. Metal Gear’s protagonists are men: Solid Snake, a.k.a. David, an American boy with a Japanese adjustment to his white American clone-daddy’s material, and his unknowing don’t-call-me-father Big Boss (Jack, alternate for John, like my own socialist great grandfather). They’re men who became soldiers and experienced losses and who say they want peace but continue living to fight.
Metal Gear covers the whole of the Cold War period, and (as historians tend to agree is wiser) it doesn’t reserve itself to the Russo-American glare-off, but places great importance on pre-war (that war, World War II) politicking and post-wall (that wall, the Berlin one) politicking, and South American revolutions and armed civilian struggles in African nations, and widespread nationalist fear of nuclear destruction. Metal Gear zeroes in on the question of whether it’s the vast movements of the tides of history or the personal movements of individual men, which can change the world. And just like historians do, Metal Gear takes a leaf out of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ book and says, about political peace, “Goodnight Westley. Sleep well. I’ll probably kill you in the morning.”
Because as Kathleen Burk says in the BBC’s World Histories February/March “Did the Cold War Ever Really End?” feature:
“What was notable in the second half of the 20th century was that the two superpowers forebode actually coming to blows. Those countries that endured proxy wars were apparently of less account.”
The Cold War was not a warless period of history. It isn’t called the Cold Peace. It was simply a very modern war in the sense that it was a matter of branding: “We’re not fighting. We want peace.” Look at how much I want peace, says Punished Snake, building his seatopia barracks for his nation of mercenaries. Look at how much I miss my mother figure, says Naked Snake, who grows older to refuse his biological sons. Look at how much I want a better world, says Old Snake, as he ignores shy, autistic, nine-year-old Sunny offering him her “home”-cooked eggs. He and his bestie adopted her because she deserved a safe life. She lives on a warplane where there aren’t even cushions. And he never eats the eggs. We are all always failing, and our failures nurture conflict.
Metal Gear is sort of a series about how war is hell, capitalism kills, and how frivolity in the face of suffering is dishonourable, but viewed as a narrative whole after both Snakes are dead the primary refrain that chimes out beyond that chorus is move mountains to prove your loyalty. That’s what Metal Gear admires: proving who you’re fighting for and that you’ll do it the most. And isn’t that the “why” of war? Humans fight without wages; it can’t all be blamed on weapons tycoons. To turn away from loyalty might end a conflict, but then how do we deal with the guilt? How do we respond to being betrayed, or the betrayer?
The only way Metal Gear ends stories is with unnatural deaths. After them, Metal Gear continues. War is everywhere, all the time. By playing you accept that. By watching, I can’t say it’s wrong.