Anti-War Games


THERE ARE MANY WAR GAMES. There are few games about war. The Me­tal Gear se­ries, helmed by au­teur devel­oper Hideo Kojima for three decades, has al­ways been the lat­ter. His pur­ported fi­nal chap­ter of the 40-mil­lion-selling fran­chise, the 1984-set Me­tal Gear Solid V: The Phan­tom Pain, is named af­ter the ab­surd agony peo­ple can still feel af­ter los­ing limbs. Kojima told Game In­former he wanted to de­pict how “even if you come back [from war], there’s some pain with you.”

Rather than reg­u­lar armies, Phan­tom Pain fea­tures pri­vate mil­i­tary con­trac­tors in Soviet-oc­cu­pied Afghanistan (where one of your first mis­sions is to res­cue an Is­lamic Mu­jahideen fighter) and the An­golan Civil War, a bru­tal Cold War proxy.

Kojima’s games are also filled with thrilling bat­tle­fields to fight in, but it makes sense he’d have a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with com­bat since Ja­pan it­self has one. Though sa­mu­rais and nin­jas re­main his­tor­i­cally ro­man­ti­cized, the na­tion has felt the hor­ror of war like few oth­ers.

Kojima was born in 1963, a decade af­ter the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion ended and two decades af­ter Ja­pan’s im­pe­rial am­bi­tions went up in a pair mush­room clouds.

“My par­ents were born in the 1930s and they ex­pe­ri­enced the air raids on Tokyo,” Kojima said dur­ing a 2012 talk at the Smith­so­nian. “I got a lot of in­flu­ence from them and I think I in­her­ited a lit­tle of that anti-war sen­ti­ment from them. When I went into the in­dus­try and started mak­ing my own games, I re­ally wanted to carry over this mes­sage of anti-war, an­ti­nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion into my games.”

Kojima was also born a year af­ter the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, the af­ter­math of which helps kick off his story, chrono­log­i­cally speak­ing, in 2004’s Me­tal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The first Me­tal Gear game came out in 1987 — the year Rea­gan chal­lenged Gor­bachev to “Tear down this wall!,” and when a nu­clear holo­caust still felt in­evitably nigh.

It was one of the first war games where the goal was to avoid con­flict — though play­ers de­ter­mine their own style, it re­mains prefer­able to put en­e­mies to sleep rather than kill them — birthing the stealth genre in its wake. It in­tro­duced black-ops soldier Solid Snake and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Big Boss. Set in a then-fu­ture 1995, the goal was to in­fil­trate Outer Heaven, a “na­tion” in­side south­ern Africa con­trolled by PMCs, and de­stroy a weapon of mass de­struc­tion, the tit­u­lar bi-pedal nu­clear tank known as a Me­tal Gear. But Big Boss turned out to ac­tu­ally be the leader of Outer Heaven, where he was try­ing to es­tab­lish an ide­ol­ogy-free home­land for pro­fes­sional sol­diers.

Over the years, the se­ries be­came more elab­o­rate and science-fic­tional (ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, cloning, nanobots, etc.) as it un­spooled a dense story set be­tween the mid-’60s and the mid-2010s, fea­tur­ing ne­far­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions with names like the Pa­tri­ots, Mil­i­taire Sans Fron­tiers, Des­per­ado En­force­ment LLC and Sons of Lib­erty. The lat­ter were the vil­lains of the 2001 en­try Me­tal Gear Solid 2, in which the Big Bad was the U.S. pres­i­dent and the hero a for­mer child soldier.

Though Big Boss was the bad guy in all the games set af­ter the orig­i­nal, he’s also the playable pro­tag­o­nist in pre­quel games like Peace Walker and yes, Phan­tom Pain, where he’s voiced by Kiefer Suther­land. But it was a philo­soph­i­cal be­trayal by a cor­rupt U.S. gov­ern­ment that pre­cip­i­tated this shift.

Over the years, Kojima’s grey-shaded view of war has also been dis­qui­et­ingly pre­scient, pre­dict­ing a ma­jor terror at­tack in New York, the sur­veil­lance state, in­for­ma­tion war­fare, bil­lion­aire ca­bals and drone war­fare.

In Me­tal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Pa­tri­ots, re­leased in 2008 but set in 2014, Amer­ica’s now-fa­mil­iar state of per­pet­ual war was ex­plained as an eco­nomic busi­ness model. “War has changed,” ex­plained Solid Snake. “It’s no longer about na­tions, ide­olo­gies or eth­nic­ity. It’s an end­less se­ries of proxy bat­tles, fought by mer­ce­nar­ies and ma­chines. War, and its con­sump­tion of life, has be­come a well-oiled ma­chine.”

In MGSV’s 2014 pro­logue game Ground Ze­roes, Kojima even took on Guan­tanamo, telling The Guardian, “Hol­ly­wood con­tin­ues to present the U.S. army as be­ing the good guys, al­ways de­feat­ing the aliens or for­eign­ers... I am try­ing to present an al­ter­nate view in these games.”

Phan­tom Pain’s North­ern Kabul set­ting it­self, jux­ta­posed with Afghanistan’s more re­cent past, re­veals the fu­til­ity of war, given that the oc­cu­piers may change but the oc­cu­pa­tion does not. But the game’s over­ar­ch­ing theme, as sym­bol­ized by its loop-clos­ing story of vengeance cor­rupt­ing Big Boss, is Kojima’s warn­ing that war’s “false spi­ral” of re­venge “will be car­ried on to next gen­er­a­tion.”

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