So I have a question: how long are we going to hate Konami?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate here; the stuff Konami has pulled over the past year -- at a bare minimum -- has earned them every last bit of scorn, and then some. Everybody makes jokes and throws shade at companies like EA and Ubisoft, but somehow Konami managed to become a supervillain, a traitor, a buffoon, and the embodiment of parody all at once. They packed up their toys and left, which means that a lot of good franchises as we know them might vanish in the wind. Well, if they haven’t already.
I can’t say I’m one of the people who got “burned” by Konami’s apparent exodus/heel turn. Not as bad as others; my first Castlevania game, for example, was Dawn of Sorrow. And while I respect the Metal Gear franchise a whole bunch, it’s never been a fixture of my mental space or my heart. So for a while, I was willing to let them walk out, and not make a sound…that is, until I realized that a pachinko-peddling Konami could easily mean we’ll never see another Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. That very nearly makes me choke on gallons of rage, so let’s talk about something else. I praised the gameplay last time, so this time I’ll focus on the story. Oh, and SPOILERS. SPOILERS OVER PARADISE.
Obviously, one of the biggest casualties in the Konami fiasco was the treatment of the Metal Gear mastermind, Hideo Kojima. At this stage his style -- his wordiness and love of historical/political tangents -- for the franchise is well known, even if you aren’t fully-immersed in the lore or his works in general. In fact, during the MGR demo when a few of the characters started going off about the political climate, a part of me deflated. Complex discussions about the nature of war seem ill-fit for an action game starring a one-eyed cyborg ninja. (Granted Kojima was only credited as a producer for the game, but the DNA’s still there in spades.)
And the full game seemed to agree with me. There are discussions, of course, but three important caveats prevent them from getting too unwieldy. First off, the military-industrial complex junk is there, but it’s kept under control; it adds flavor without overpowering the rest of the meal, because it’s wisely regulated. Second, the game manages a good balance of its elements; it remembers that even if this is a game featuring transhumanism and child soldiers (and worse), it remembers that it’s still a game featuring giant robots, soldiers sanctioned to swing around hammers, and purposeful shots of several characters’ CHEEKS OF JUSTICE. Third -- and maybe most important of all -- is that this is Raiden’s story. With a caveat. But I’ll get to that.
In any case, I have to make an assertion: if the main character is bad, the story is bad. They’re the defining factor of the story’s themes and ideas, and the chief mover-and-shaker vis a vis the plot. That much should be obvious -- but that just makes the many, many, many times there have been failures all the more baffling.
But Raiden is indeed a success. It isn’t just a matter of his story being passable, or not getting in the way of the slice-and-dice action. No, you are actually rewarded for clearing a level or boss, as you should. His story, and everything surrounding it, is a genuinely intriguing and entertaining story, one that -- much like the rest of the game -- cuts off the fat to be a lean but tasty meal.
I’ll get into this more in a little bit, but here’s an example that shows what’s on display here. Late in the game, Raiden manages to take down Jetstream Sam, a boss that’s been giving him trouble since the opening hour. It’s a tough fight for sure (both for the character and the player), but one that’s ultimately manageable. As I cleared the fight, my brother -- who was watching at the time -- was quick to note that unlike the other bosses, this one didn’t end with Raiden slashing him to pieces. Why? “He has to give his dramatic monologue,” I said jokingly, though I still prepared for a lengthy death speech.
Except he didn’t give a lengthy death speech. Sam wasn’t exactly silent, but we didn’t spend minutes at a time going over the minutiae. He just…died. It came as a surprise, but it makes sense in the grand scheme of things -- Raiden was in the midst of a race against time, and this guy was just a roadblock. (You could make the argument that there was absolutely no reason for him to engage in a sunset duel on the highway, but then again he probably wouldn’t have let Raiden pass otherwise.)
What’s even more interesting is that Sam actually doesn’t engage in much ideological mud-slinging with Raiden. He even goes out of his way to say something like “Haven’t we done enough philosophy talk?” It’s bizarre, but only because it’s such a foreign concept. Like, that’s just how these things go: two guys meet, argue, and then fight. The absence of it is still a strange turn, but one that puts the audience’s status above grandstanding atop a soapbox.
But it makes sense. This is Raiden’s story, and Raiden’s journey. And arguably, that’s the best way to describe it -- along with what’s best for the game.
Let me say this to start: creating a “badass” is tricky business. It goes beyond more than power or cool moves, and it certainly goes beyond having the possibility of a crusty sponge. By now, I’m guessing that you’ve seen some of my stuff before, and know about my biases. So on one hand, the reason I’m so hard on so-called badasses is because they can go astray pretty fast. On the other hand, it’s because once upon a time, I came close to making a terrible one of my own.
In a long-dead story of mine, there was an early scene when the main character was in school. While he talked with his girlfriend, someone in the background lost control of his yo-yo, and it ends up flying toward the MC. In the earlier drafts, the MC (in spite of barely paying attention) snatched the yo-yo out of the air with ease. In later drafts, however, the MC gets smacked in the head by the yo-yo. That’s a really minor detail, right? Nothing to boast about. Heroes get dunked on all the time.
But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between a badass who’s constantly trying to be badass, and a badass who’s allowed to look like a goof. A good badass isn’t allowed to shrug off everything and everyone, and can never, ever be in complete control of every situation. That’s defeating the purpose. Fallibility is a plus, not a weakness. It’s a matter of making the high-octane moments all the more potent when it’s time, rather than making every moment a chance to show how cool a character is. It just makes the whole thing bland instead of always-awesome. There needs to be an element of humanity and levity, patience and restraint. It’s all so that when your hero inevitably has his punch-up with the masked lord of the dead, the fight is a lot more meaningful.
So one of the strengths packed into Raiden’s CHEEKS OF JUSTICE is that he has much more -- for lack of a better word -- “range”. On one hand, this is a guy who’ll fling a mech the size of a school a hundred feet in the air, then run along its limbs to continue his assault. On the other hand, he’ll decide that the best way to begin a sneaking mission in Mexico is to don a sombrero and poncho…and then abandon both as soon as he finds a way into the sewers.
On one hand, this is a guy who’ll commandeer an unmanned jet by jumping from a helicopter and start steering it by ramming his sword through its brain. On the other hand, he’ll start stuttering when his operator’s strong accent makes him think he’ll have to take a dump. On one hand, he’ll beat up enemy helicopters so much that they’ll go into a dizzy state straight out of Street Fighter. On the other hand, he loses out to what might as well be a ninja cat. They’re little things, but they’re incredibly important for the character, the story, and the game as a whole.
But it isn’t just about squeezing in the laughs and making Raiden look like a doofus (as appreciable as that may be). There’s at least one other potential element to it. An important one. The one way to secure his grandeur.
Raiden gets his CHEEKS OF JUSTICE kicked.
In the opening minutes of the game, Raiden starts out in a good place. He’s part of a band of do-gooders -- Maverick Security Consulting, a benevolent PMC -- tasked with protecting an African prime minister. He’s calm, he’s cordial, he’s decked out in a nice suit, and he’s actually capable of cracking smiles and jokes. When it’s time to fight, though, you’d better believe he’ll fight -- good to know, considering that the Prime Minister gets captured and eventually killed. The culprits? While they’re not the absolute masterminds, there’s still a lot of blame to heap on Desperado Enforcement LLC., a none-too-pleasant PMC out to spread war and strife for their (and to a lesser extent, the world’s) benefit and profit. Naturally, Raiden ain’t havin’ that shit, so his adventure begins.
And it almost ends before it starts. After the prime minister’s death, Raiden engages in a train-top duel with Jetstream Sam. In the midst, Raiden claims that his sword is a tool of justice, while Sam scoffs at the idea and tells him he’s just in it for the fighting and killing -- or at least that he SHOULD be in it for the killing. Raiden intends to prove him wrong, of course, but, well…
Sam is a reality check in more ways than one. It’s an immediate slap in the face for the player, the person who’s most likely to be riding high after judo-throwing a Gundam. But of course, it’s a way to spark Raiden’s story arc. Everything he’s believed in, and the creed he’s based his life upon? Waste of time; all that nobility and resolve won’t save you from getting your eye and your arm slashed. So what’s an agent of justice to do?
Raiden comes back hardier than ever, making sure to leave his carved-out eye missing, presumably as a reminder of the damage that’s been done (or to make him a dead ringer for Snake/Big Boss; the fact that the real game starts after Raiden blows the first mission is a dead-ringer for MGS3). His buddies operating as mission control note that Raiden’s sounding a bit colder and angrier than usual, and while that’s true every now and then, he’s still far from a battle maniac. He’s eager to carve out a win, but it’s as much a struggle to stop Desperado as it is a search for his own truths.
It’s an inherently simple story and setup, and one that’s no doubt been done before. Still, it’s interesting to see Raiden struggle as a result of internal and external stimuli. If you weren’t aware, MGR is quick to remind you that Raiden is a former child soldier, and even beyond that has had one brutal childhood…to say nothing of what he went through in the games proper.
The events of MGR reopen old wounds and making him want to fight that much harder for justice -- or at least what he perceives as justice. As a Maverick, he’s more than willing to bend the rules -- or even paint himself as an enemy of the country -- if it means stopping the bad guys. He’ll do what no other man will, because failing to do so means that the organs of children will continue to be harvested and made into a new wave of cyborg soldiers following rigorous brainwashing/programming. You can’t really blame Raiden for going a little berserk.
But in order for his story arc to come to a close, he has to reconcile his nobility with his ferocity. Is it really true that he’s not fighting for justice, but to retroactively take out his anger on those who’ll commit the same wrongs as those done to him? Is everything he’s believed about his opponents a lie, or excuses he’s created to excuse himself from guilt? Would he willingly sacrifice his humanity for a chance to play the hero -- and a bloody one, at that? Is he even a hero? (His wife and son are, to my knowledge, only mentioned in passing. Talk about Father of the Year.)
There’s a moment when Raiden starts carving his way through Denver to save the day. Before he can make it to enemy HQ, Sam’s face pops up over a slew of monitors in a plaza, each one declaring in perfect sync that Raiden’s resolve and reasoning are hollow. Raiden has believed up to this point that the people he’s cut down are soldiers that have made their choice, but are willing to die for what they believe in.
But many of the people Raiden’s been fighting -- up to and including Denver policemen -- are not only people who have become cyborg soldiers because of their own horrible lots in life, but are entirely aware of the fact that they’re going to die by Raiden’s hand. Worse yet, they’re going to die, but they can’t do a thing about it. Their bodies might move on their own and their words may say otherwise, but once Raiden turns on his sensors he can immediately hear the panicked thoughts of those he fights.
My knee-jerk reaction to that sequence was, “Come on, Raiden. Are you kidding me? You should know that you’ve been fighting humans this whole time.” But as the scene progressed, I came to different conclusions. The obvious one is that Raiden’s forcibly been covering his eyes and ears this whole time, treating his opponents as sandbags. When the illusion is shattered, he has to own up to what he’s done, and decide what to do from there. He finds some semblance of an answer…with a psychotic state of mind being one of its chief tenets.
And you know what? I found something that makes MGR’s story more credible, thoughtful, and satisfying than what is on the surface. This isn’t just Raiden’s story about coming to grips with his nature as a killer. It’s your story, too.
What do I mean? Well, I’ll gladly explain -- next time. Yeah, I’m sure you’re just bristling with excitement, but try to compose yourself. There’s only one more part to go, where I’ll lay it all on the line. And who knows? Maybe I’ll do that thing I do and try to poke holes in MGR until even its very atoms are riddled with holes.
I don’t see that happening, though. If Raiden can resist a titanium wedgie, he can resist me.