As I write this, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is still a few days away. Many people are treating this upcoming release as the unofficial end of the series. There will no doubt be more Metal Gears, but creator and writer Hideo Kojima has had a falling out with the studio and claims to be retired from the series. For all intents and purposes, this is the end.
So what better time to look at the beginning?
The first Metal Gear Solid game was released way back in 1998, and I still remember being blown away the first time I played it. What makes Metal Gear Solid special, in my opinion, is that it has the plot of a simple action thriller, but is actually about so much more. On the surface, the game is about a super spy breaking into a remote nuclear facility to stop a terrorist plot. Down underneath, the game is about nihilism, free will, predestination, and what it means to be human.
That’s right kids, we’re back in high school English class. Let’s pick apart the themes of Metal Gear Solid like it’s a John Steinbeck novel.
“A strong man doesn’t need to read the future. He makes his own.”
The big theme in the first Metal Gear Solid game is predestination – the idea that everything that will happen in the future has already been decided by fate. During the course of the game, this idea of predestination vs. free will comes up again and again. Sometimes it’s subtle, but more often than not Kojima will hit you over the head with it.
Back when I attended Catholic school, I remember being annoyed by the concept of predestination. I’d argue with my religion teachers about it. “So God creates a person out of clay or whatever, and while he’s attaching the legs he already knows this ball of clay is going to commit murder and then go to Hell for eternity?”
I struggled with the concept because it seems like a shady thing for an all-loving God to do. But a lot of people do believe in fate –they believe they are MEANT to be with someone, or do something specific with their lives. This idea is the main focal point of Metal Gear Solid, as almost every character in the game has their own personal struggle with their “destiny.”
“I don’t know what the hell my genes look like. And I don’t care.”
For the main characters, it’s not God or some abstract version of fate they’re fighting - it’s genetics that represent predestination. Both Solid Snake and Liquid Snake are clones of super soldier Big Boss, and feel the need to fight because it is literally in their blood.
Liquid Snake, the evil, blonde, inexplicably British clone thinks he has been given all the weak, recessive genes. He wants to prove to Solid Snake that genes, and their representative predestination, do not shackle his destiny. He is an advocate for free will, and tries to prove it by besting Solid Snake mentally and physically:
You can’t fight your genes. It’s fate. All living things are born for the sole purpose of passing on their parents’ genes. That’s why I’ll follow what my genes tell me. And then I’m going to go beyond. In order to break the curse of my heritage. And to do that… first I will kill you.
Bad move – Solid Snake ends up foiling his plans and saving the day, of course. So is this a win for predestination? Not quite – a post-credits scene reveals it was actually Liquid who had the stronger genes all along, he just didn’t know it.
So if Solid Snake had the weaker genes, and still saved the day – score a point for free will!
The theme is echoed in Solid Snake’s character as well. As he moves through the terrorist base, he is forced to fight and kill enemies and soldiers. Liquid Snake calls him out on it:
Why do you continue to follow your orders while your superiors betray you? Why did you come here? Well, I’ll tell you then… You enjoy all the killing, THAT’S why! There’s a killer inside of you. You don’t have to deny it. We were created to be that way.
On the one hand, Liquid is right on the money. Solid does have a killer inside of him, put there by Naomi Hunter to kill certain people he comes into contact with (and eventually, himself). This is the ultimate case of being ruled by fate – Snake’s genes are literally killing people without him being able to control it. In this sense, he is not in control of his own destiny – score a point for pre-destination!
But does Snake really enjoy the killing because it is baked into his DNA? The game leaves this ambiguous –when Snake rides off into the sunset, we think maybe it possible for him to live a simple peaceful life with Meryl. Maybe his “soldier” genes don’t define him, and he can choose to “live” life like Naomi ultimately advises.
Then again, having played the rest of the series – maybe not.
Echoes in other plots
Like any good theme, there are hints of it in almost every subplot the game introduces. Nearly every character is struggling with their “destiny” (aka what they’re supposed to do) and their free will (what they want to do).
“Meryl thought she had to become a soldier… thought it was the only way. She said she thought it would bring her closer to her dead father.”
“I finally understand. I wasn’t waiting to kill people… I was waiting for someone to kill me. A man like you… You’re a hero. Please… set me free.”
“The truth is… my grandfather was part of the Manhattan Project… Three generations of Emmerich men… We must have the curse of nuclear weapons written into our DNA.”
“Humans weren’t designed to bring each other happiness. From the moment we’re thrown into this world, we’re fated to bring each other nothing but pain and misery.”
“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate… to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live. The important thing is that you choose life… And then… live!”