Other Worlds Than These: What Snake watches on TV

[It’s time for another Monthly Musing — the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. — CTZ]  

Warning: Non-essential but totally badass spoilers follow! Don’t read this blog if you don’t want to know about the single BEST moment in all of Metal Gear Solid 4!

The Metal Gear Solid franchise is one of the great blessings of the game medium. While so many games have a half-hearted devotion to creating a “realistic” setting or recreating an actual event, Kojima Production’s magnum opus has (especially since the release of the second game) remained utterly devoted to creating a world of insanity and madness.

Giant, mechanized artillery robots exist in the same world as hyper-spiritual shaman that see beyond the grave. Fetishistic levels of firearm detail and modeling are featured alongside psychic soldiers that know what games you’ve been playing. Mad bombers use roller blades to pick up speed and a suicidal femme fatale has the misfortune of being unable to die. Oh, and some people can shoot bees out of their mouths! This is a series that has relished its opportunity to throw its devoted fan base for a loop at every single turn. It’s totally bananas.

Of course, the craziness of the actual gameplay and story events leave me with an important question: DO NORMAL PEOPLE ACTUALLY HAVE TO GO THROUGH WITH THAT BULLSH*T?

You’re telling me that ordinary civilians live in a world where genetic soldiers are born from DNA, that tiny machines can help stave off death and disease, that a man can LIVE IN THE ARM OF ANOTHER MAN? What on Earth do people do in a world where hyper intelligent AI systems can break down alcohol as it enters the bloodstream to prevent inebriation? Do kids learn the names of elite paramilitary organizations in school? What do adults do after work? For God sakes, what do these people watch on T.V?

For whatever reason — call it genius, call it madness, call it extra capital and a love for FMV sequences with live action actors — Metal Gear Solid 4 answers this question. Metal Gear Solid 4 shows us what ordinary people WATCH ON TELEVISION.

The very beginning of Metal Gear Solid 4 (following the first of those five installations) starts us not at the unnamed Middle Eastern country that players saw in pre-release trailers, but with a shocking, mind-blowing, HYSTERICAL series of FMV “television shows” that regular, average individuals in the Metal Gear Universe — the near-futuristic world culture managed and regulated by Artificial Intelligence — might watch on a television. I’m not talking about any special day of the year, when the television is of an especially high quality. I’m not talking about a news report describing the events currently happening in Unnamed Middle Eastern country. These sequences are not meant to catch players up to speed on the events of Metal Gear, nor are they designed to let people know what to expect in the game. It’s just … television. Ordinary, everyday, average, television.


What’s on television today, at the start of the game, you ask?

An interview with famous actor David Hayter. Yes. David Hayter. “Actor, screenwriter, voice of a generation” according to his interviewer. Full Motion Video of David Hayter. Played by David Hayter. Wearing a Big Boss, Solid Eye-esque eye patch.

“Oh! You mean the Eye patch!” David says when questioned about the huge black robot cover on his face. “I’m watching the baseball game as we speak.”

I mean … just look! Look at this! This is the first thing you see in the game!

On the next channel (which you can cycle to by pressing any button on the PS3 controller), you can watch an exercise program. According to MGS 4, future exercise televisions features is less like jazzercise and more akin to a choreographed RAVE. The instructor has clearly been grinding caffeine pills into dust and injecting them directly into his bloodstream.

If future rage exercise isn’t your speed (and future rage exercise is, for the record, nobodies speed), maybe you can watch a game show! In the future, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire rip-offs and knock-offs have reached their peak with “Heaven and Hell”, which, like all good Post-Millionaire game shows, is exactly like Millionaire (right down to the use of steel sets and dark blue/purple lighting) . Is your knowledge of famous PMC’s enough to send you to Heaven? Or will one wrong answer send you straight to Hell?

What’s on the cooking channel? The head chef is showing viewers the best way to prepare Crocodile meat. What’s being advertised in the commercials? Applications for PMCs named after animals, of course!

WHAT IS GOING ON? The world of Metal Gear Solid is so messed up! Everything in the world is messed up.

And THIS, my friends, is why these opening FMV sequences — non interactive, totally crazy, and filled to bursting with inside jokes (a good number of the actors in these sequences are from the English voice cast) — are so important in the grand context of the Metal Gear Solid games.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise is an absolutely absurd franchise, but the reason it can get away with that is because the entire game takes place in a void, an indiscriminate shell that neither cares about nor is affected by other events in the world. The series is allowed to be crazy because nothing else matters but the actual events contained in the story. The series rarely makes pains to show the player what is going on outside of the gameplay scenarios witnessed by Solid Snake (or any of his analogues). We see the world that Snake lives in from behind the iron sights of an M4. Both Snake and the player alike are asked to concern themselves with “the mission”. Any consideration of the outside world outside of your CO’s constant reminder, ”You gotta stop that Metal Gear, Dog!” would be considered, in the logic of the game, a deviation.

Snake has never wanted, nor has been asked, to consider the grander socio-political climate and the reaction the world may have to his choices. The player has never been asked to consider the ramifications for their actions with the “citizenry” of the world. For Snake and player alike, all that was important in the previous three installments of the game was the mission. For the purposes of these games, there WAS no world. There is no outside world in the first there Metal Gear Solid games. There is only the mission. The only places that existed in the Kojima-verse were an old military base in Alaska, a Natural Disaster Recovery platform, and a forest in Russia. There are no other people in this world but the villains and the player.

These opening FMV sequences reveal, for the first time in the series, that there are other people in this world. Normal people people who would be genuinely freaked out to see a man give himself a heavy dose of Nanomachine-nullifying juice. The actions of Snake —  and, by contrast, the player — are far reaching, and will have effects on other people. It enhances Snake’s own status as a martyr, putting his life on the line and his will to the test for the futures of six billion individuals he will never meet.

If the previous Metal Gear Solid games seemed to take place in a vacuum, the fourth installment actually serves to show the player that there IS a world beyond the linear sneaking/third person shooting. The world does not end with the player, but extends outward, and the actions of the protagonist will actually change the lives of individuals all over the world.

And set them free from terrible-awesome television programming.

Metal Gear Solid 4
is probably my least favorite game in the Solid franchise (that particular honor goes to the second installment) and that’s partly because the game never matches or exceeds the ridiculous, insane, and over-the-top heights that are achieved in these opening FMV sequences. For me, these FMV sequences represent a moment when the outside world actually managed to have affects on the Metal Gear Vacuum. For a brief, sublime moment, we step out of the shoes of the cliché “killer unafraid of death” and into the footsteps of someone profoundly more interesting; an ordinary person watching television in a world with Biomechanical bipedal robots.

For the first time, the Metal Gear Solid series stops being a series of arbitrary events inside the minds of a crazy man. By acknowledging that the world exists, and that there are decent, hardworking, suffering people watching bad television, the Metal Gear Universe becomes an actual, inhabited world.