Metal Gear Solid 4 and Postcolonial History
Metal Gear Solid 4 tells a truly planetary tale of the worldwide struggle against neoliberalism, and went so far as to forecast the real-life meltdown of neoliberalism with uncanny accuracy.
In June 2008, Konami released Japanese director Hideo Kojima’s epic videogame, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (hereafter referred to as MGS4) for the Playstation 3 platform. The worldwide launch event drew massive media attention, as legions of fans flocked to game stores and lined up for hours at retail outlets throughout Japan, Europe and the US to buy copies of the game. The long lines were not solely due to the game’s remarkable pre-launch publicity campaign, which broke new ground in media history, for reasons we will explain somewhat later. Rather, they were testament to the unexpected power of community – as well as the extraordinary influence of postcolonial history – on a domain we usually think of as a privileged monopoly of neoliberal capitalism, namely the digital media.
To unravel this paradox, it should be noted that Kojima is one of the most renowned and beloved auteurs in the videogame industry. In fact, fans had every reason to expect nothing less than another masterpiece from his studio. In contrast to so many other media franchises, which typically begin at their creative peak and decline into lucrative but aesthetically deficient sequels thereafter (e.g. the Bond blockbusters, the Star Wars films, or the Spiderman films), the Metal Gear franchise has a twenty-year history of critical excellence and aesthetic innovation. In the fast-moving videogame industry, which cycles through hardware platforms and coding tools at a much faster rate than film or television, this is an astounding track record, comparable only to Square Enix’ world-class Final Fantasy role-playing game series (nineteen years old) or Shigeru Miyamoto’s storied Mario franchise (twenty-three years old).
It is no accident that all three of these franchises – Metal Gear, Final Fantasy and Mario – originated in Japan. The East Asian region has long been one of the most productive sources of videogame culture, in large part because of the frenetic expansion of its culture-industries. Beginning in the mid-1970s, cross-border exports of Japanese anime (animation) and console videogames, Hong Kong’s wuxia (martial arts) and action cinema, and South Korean films and television series have flooded the region, providing videogame artists with a vast library of expressive tools, editing techniques, and narrative structures which could be adapted to games.1
Back in 1987, Kojima borrowed many of those tools and techniques (most notably elements of the Japanese samurai movie, the Hong Kong martial arts drama, and Miyamoto’s Supermario platform game) to invent the stealth espionage videogame as a genre. Instead of resting on his laurels, however, he spent the next two decades constantly redefining the genre. Along the way, he assembled some of the most talented writers, programmers, voice-actors and artists in the game industry, eventually setting up a semi-autonomous studio within Konami called Kojima Productions. The Kojima Productions team went on to produce games which balanced epic science fiction scenarios with thoughtful, anti-war storylines, labyrinthine plots with multi-faceted characters, and pulse-pounding suspense with complex meditations on history and violence.
But when fans returned home and slotted the MGS4 game disc into their PS3, even the most hopeful of them was in for a surprise. MGS4 is not just another First World action-adventure tale with a few canny plot twists. It tells a truly planetary tale of the worldwide struggle against neoliberalism, and went so far as to forecast the real-life meltdown of neoliberalism with uncanny accuracy. The characters of MGS4 were gender-balanced, diverse in age (with prominent roles for children and the elderly, two underrepresented groups in videogames), and were derived from every corner of the globe. Kojima had somehow named the moment when the videogame culture shed the last vestiges of its lingering subalternity vis-a-vis the national culture-industries, thereby becoming one of the superpowers of the transnational media.
This is not the first media revolution spawned by the capitalist world-system, and one could point to the arrival of print culture, newspapers, the telegraph, and cinema as heralding equally momentous shifts. That said, the triumph of videogame culture has three unique characteristics which distinguish it from these previous revolutions – characteristics which form the the narrative bedrock of MGS4.
First, videogames are indissolubly linked to the open source software revolution, to the point that one cannot really be separated from the other. Second, the rise of videogames does not signify the demise or diminution of other mass media. Just the reverse: videogames are now one of the central public spaces or “commons” which has accelerated the global production, distribution and consumption of media across the globe. Third, and this may be the single most shocking surprise in store for newcomers to gaming, videogames are saturated with postcolonial history.
How can this possibly be? Aren’t videogames the epitome of information capitalism, the toys of neoliberal speculators and silicon rentiers? Haven’t they always glorified the ghastly neocolonial wars of the US Empire, or legitimated the crassest neoliberal consumerism?
Not so. While there are a few games which are guilty as charged, the field of videogame production as a whole, in Bourdieu’s sense of the term, has never been the obedient proxy of the US Empire or the tool of neoliberalism.
Consider the issue of open source. The very first videogames created on 1960s minicomputers were open source programs written by programmers in the spare time. This tradition continues to this day, in the sense that many of the coding tools and systems employed by contemporary studios are open source. Furthermore, many studio professionals are deeply critical of neoliberalism and the corporate culture-industry, while the top studios in the industry (including the in-house studios of Sony and Nintendo) consistently pursue business models which privilege community sharing and fan participation over short-term profit maximization and copyright fundamentalism. For his part, Kojima has always placed the open source movement at the center of the Metal Gear universe, everywhere from Otacon’s hacking profession to Snake’s lifelong struggle against nefarious plots by military-industrial cabals and corporate conspiracies.
Videogames are having a similarly catalytic (rather than destructive) effect on other branches of the mass media. As an inherently digital form, videogames can cite and pastiche a wide range of other media, ranging from voice-acting in animation to film editing techniques, and from theatrical melodrama to radio plays. However, the logic of digital copies (copying creates a perfect new version of a work of art which can be shared, and does not destroy or damage the original), plus constantly-decreasing digital distribution costs, means that videogames are becoming a key site of cultural distribution, by making sound-tracks, images and scripts accessible to a global audience via disc-based media or the internet. Instead of displacing or undermining other mass media, videogames are accelerating their global distribution.
Finally, videogames have a surprisingly long association with postcolonial history and fiction. The role-playing videogames of the early 1990s were heavily influenced by the politics of decolonization, the arrival of cheap VCRs and VHS videotapes, and the rise of Third World culture-industries such as Bollywood. After the turn of the century, role-playing games diversified further, and quoted extensively from the vibrant musical, video and cinematic works of the semi-periphery (e.g. Brazil, Russia, urban China) and true periphery (e.g. West Africa’s music culture, Nigeria’s Nollywood and India’s Bollywood, as well as the theatrical forms of rural India and China). One of the genuine achievements of the Metal Gear games is its respectful recuperation of non-First World narrative forms, ranging from the testimonio to one the most venerable narrative institutions of them all, orature or verbal story-telling (in the form of the extensive radio or Codec conversations Snake has with Otacon and other characters).
Given this background, it should not be at all surprising that many of the greatest videogames of the post-Cold War era have delivered scathing critiques of the US Empire and neoliberalism. Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1996) stresses the themes of ecological rescue and anti-capitalist mobilization, and emphasizes the primacy of community over profit. Valve’s Half Life (1998) depicts the epic struggle against an interstellar colonialism, a colonialism bent on doing to the Earth what neoliberalism did to much of Africa, Asia and Latin America, i.e. drain it of all human and natural wealth. Remedy’s Max Payne (2001) depicts an undercover police officer waging a guerilla war against Wall Street neoliberalism, in the form of the malevolent Aesir Corporation, whose corporate logo is the Twin Tower-dominated skyline of lower Manhattan (the game was released in April 2001). Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3: Vice City (2002) is an extended hijacking of the neoliberal mass media, featuring an all-star sound-track and some of the most biting political satire of US consumerism ever written. Square Enix’ Final Fantasy 12 (2006) portrays an insurgency against an Imperial invasion and occupation of a Middle Eastern-themed country, features a sensitive and subtle interracial romance, and denounces the machinations of neoliberal elites.
None of these games languished in isolation or obscurity. They are the bestselling iterations of blockbuster franchises. Indeed, out of the twenty top-selling videogame franchises of all time, not one displays a consistently neoconservative or neoliberal politics.2 This is in striking contrast to the major Hollywood superhero franchises, which are dominated by a narrow range of neoconservative or neoliberal allegories of elites who police other elites (Batman) or quell unruly peripheries (Ironman) – spectacularized versions of the Wall Street ideology of self-regulation, backed by the military firepower of the US Empire.
One of the little-known structural reasons for this track record of dissent is political economy. Unlike most other branches of the media, the videogame industry depends almost entirely on direct sales to consumers – advertising revenue makes up less than five percent of total sales. In addition, the interactive structure of videogames makes traditional forms of advertising inherently problematic, in the sense that onscreen messages unrelated to the game are perceived by players as annoying distractions from game-play. Freed of the shackles of advertising, and equipped with the latest digital tools and storage media, videogame artists have created rich and compelling game-worlds which satirize, problematize, or simply ignore advertising and the neoliberal media.
MGS4 extended this logic even further, thanks to the remarkable publicity campaign constructed around the game. While Konami did use a few traditional marketing tools – a couple high-profile television ads and retailer events – most of the pre-launch promotion and marketing was performed on the digital commons. Kojima’s team created a wide variety of freely downloadable media, ranging from podcasts (e.g. producer Ryan Payton issued regular production reports) to interviews at game conferences, all the way to extended trailers which showcased various in-game sequences and footage. These trailers ranged in length from five to fifteen minutes, far too long for a television slot, but deserve to be considered as works of art in their own right.
To be sure, these trailers were the tip of the media iceberg, in the sense that the cut-scenes of MGS4 deliver slightly more than nine hours of high-definition footage – the length of four blockbuster films, or a full-length telenovela. Remarkably, none of this footage could be considered extraneous or excess padding. Every scene counts, every moment has its particular function and meaning, the pacing never flags, and the voice-actors deliver every line of dialogue with precision and panache.
This is perhaps the place to lay to rest another common misconception about videogame culture, namely the notion that the rise of digital actors is making flesh and blood culture-workers obsolete. If anything, videogames have increased the demand for such workers. Sophisticated sound-tracks require skilled musicians, audio engineers and sound designers, epic storylines require editors and writers, while the movements of of onscreen characters are created by teams of skilled voice actors, “mocap” (motion capture) actors wired with electronic suits who perform action sequences and stunts, as well as facial animators capable of creating complex and subtle facial expressions.
Conversely, the complexity of coordinating the efforts of these individual artists requires tremendous skill. Here is a transcript of the opening scene of MGS4, where our protagonist, Solid Snake, is riding in the back of a truck into a nameless Middle Eastern war-zone, disguised as a mercenary for hire (video clips of the sequence are available on Youtube in low-resolution and high-resolution format):
Opening shot of dusty desert battlefield, somewhere in the Middle East. Ruined houses and corpses line the roads. A line of trucks appear, ferrying militia soldiers to a battle. Close shots of militia members, their faces hooded, on a truck. Mournful tune plays on sound-track.
Snake: “War has changed. It’s no longer about nations, ideologies or ethnicity. It’s an endless series of proxy battles, fought by mercenaries and machines.”
Close-up of Solid Snake, disguised as a mercenary, lighting a cigarette.
Snake: “War, and its consumption of human life, has become a well-oiled machine. War has changed. ID-tagged soldiers carry ID-tagged weapons, use ID-tagged gear. Nanomachines inside their bodies enhance and regulate their abilities. Genetic control. Information control. Emotion control. Battlefield control. Everything is monitored and kept under control. War has changed.”
Truck enters front lines. Militia start firing wildly and dying from extremely accurate incoming fire. Their enemy, soldiers employed by a PMC (private military company) is better armed and equipped, and takes a terrible toll on their numbers.
Snake: “The age of deterrence has become the age of control, all in the name of averting catastrophe from weapons of mass destruction. And he who controls the battlefield, controls history.”
Camera follows Snake as he leaps off truck and makes his way through the carnage and chaos of battle.
“War has changed. When the battlefield is under total control, war becomes routine.”3
At first glance, this is a ferocious denunciation of neocolonial wars (in this case, Iraq) and the commercial and geopolitical interests which profit from them (e.g. the US Empire). It is not just about US neocolonialism however – the sound-track is a mournful tune by an Israeli singer, sung in Hebrew, a subtle repudiation of Israel’s dreadful and inexcusable neocolonial war on Palestine.
Meanwhile, knowledgeable fans of videogame culture would recognize two other inside references to gaming culture. The shot of the crows pecking at the corpses of soldiers is an allusion to the opening of Final Fantasy 12, where a cut-scene at the beginning of the game portrays the airborne battleships of an imperialist empire passing over a landscape where carrion birds gnaw on the bodies of soldiers. The second allusion is Snake’s disguise, a quotation of the hero’s garb in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, a time-traveling adventure set hundreds of years ago in the Middle East. While Assassin’s Creed does not have the most compelling storyline, the designers did something genuinely new, by giving players the ability to roam and climb freely throughout a medieval city.
Within the specific confines of this cut-scene, the first allusion is thus a nod to Final Fantasy 12‘s anti-neocolonial geopolitics, while the second is a professional acknowledgement of the creativity of other game designers in the industry. In the rest of the game, however, Kojima goes even further, by reworking these tropes into the broader themes of anti-neocolonial insurgency and digital-era player interactivity. The astonishing finale of MGS4 raises the stakes even further, by transforming these themes into powerful symbols of a progressive geopolitics and identity-politics, respectively. While the full scale and scope of Kojima’s achievement cannot be fully explored in this essay, suffice to say that, at its outer limit, MGS4 points towards the premonitory convergence of the anti-neoliberal and anti-neocolonial struggles into a united, transnational front – a front just beginning to face off against transnational capitalism across (and within) a wide range of cultural spaces, marketplaces and political structures.
Of course, we cannot yet know what this transnational front will truly look like – that is something only a myriad of class struggles and collective mobilizations will decide. Still, Kojima’s text offers one of the most profound aesthetic meditations on the possibilities of the dawning post-neoliberal age, a meditation which cultural scholars, activists and concerned citizens should take seriously.
- Some of the best accounts of these cross-border flows are: Huat, Chua Beng and Iwabuchi, Koichi, editors. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008. Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Iwabuchi, Koichi, editor. Feeling Asian Modernities: Transnational Consumption of Japanese TV Dramas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. Iwabuchi, Koichi; Muecke, Stephen; and Thomas, Mandy, editors. Rogue Flows: Trans-Asian Cultural Traffic. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004. Liu, Yu-Li and Chen, Yi-Hsiang. “Cloning, Adaptation, Import and Originality: Taiwan in the Global Television Format Business.” In: Television Across Asia: Television Industries, Programme Formats and Globalization. Moran, Albert and Keane, Michael, editors. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004 (54-73).
- The following table displays software units sold as of April 3, 2006 for the top twenty franchises, according to data collected from VGChartz.com, an independent fansite which aggregates the sales numbers of company and analyst reports. Note that even franchises which one would expect to be neoconservative due to their problematic source material, e.g. Star Wars, rarely do so in practice. Similarly, while franchises like The Sims may preach a certain technocratic rationalism, it is more a managerial simulation rather than an panegyric to market fundamentalism. Somewhat further afield, the military-themed first-person shooters which are usually cited as examples of the rankest imperialism are not merely a tiny segment of all game sales, but are frequently critical of the US Empire and neocolonialism. For instance, the Halo franchise offers another variation of a heroic human resistance against invading interstellar neocolonialists. Finally, it is worth emphasizing that sports, fighting and wrestling videogames are heavily infused with the non-market values of fan culture and social gaming, i.e. they are ultimately based on the metrics of athletic or personal achievement, as opposed to monetary accumulation.
VGChartz.com. Accessed June 10, 2009. Web: http://vgchartz.com/games/
3. Youtube. Accessed June 10, 2009. Web: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK9Ie3Fp7yg
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