As we discussed in a previous post, Hideo Kojima is the first game designer to create a Postmodern video game. Postmodernism is an artistic movement that began in earnest in the late 20th Century, though its roots go all the way back to the 1910s with Dadaism and Surrealism, such as Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka the “This is Not a Pipe” painting) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (aka the urinal sculpture). The point of Postmodernism is to deliberately break the rules of what art “should be.” Sure I could make yet another pretty landscape, but by this point, people expect that. They might just go through the motions if that’s all they see. However, knowing that people may skip over yet another pretty mountain, I decide to break a rule instead. Maybe the mountain has dinosaur spikes; maybe the mountain is just a blue triangle. If I break a rule, they maybe I will get a real emotional reaction from my audience. That’s one of the many thought processes behind Postmodernism. The idea is to create art for art’s sake; it doesn’t need to follow any arbitrary “rules” to convey meaning to its audience.
Postmodernism is aware of and directly addresses the relationship between artist and audience; in a way, it addresses the relationship the artist has with their own art as well. The art becomes aware of itself — aware that it is artificial, aware of its conventions, aware of its influences, and aware of the audience’s expectations.
In addition to asking questions about the human condition and addressing specific world issues, Postmodern Art also asks questions like: What does it mean to be a movie, or a novel? What does it mean to be artificial? What does it mean to make art in the first place?
A good example of a Postmodern Video Game is Undertale. Undertale deliberately breaks RPG and video game conventions, mostly using them as gags or jokes. For example, the tutorial character, aptly named Toriel, literally takes your player character by the hand and solves the first puzzle for you. Sans and Flowey break the 4th wall by looking at you, the player. But Undertale also incorporates this convention-breaking into the story itself. Undertale makes you realize that you, the player, have an unfair advantage in every video game. If you fail a fight, you can just start over and try again. If the enemy fails, they are forever defeated. They don’t get to reset and try again. Video game designers essentially line up dominoes for you to knock over. The characters in Undertale realize this. How does it feel to be the domino? The final boss of the game is actually another character that has found a way to access the God-like power that the player has. In this sense, Undertale is a Postmodern masterpiece, deconstructing RPGs in clever ways.
However, I don’t know if Undertale would exist in its current form if it weren’t for the works of Hideo Kojima. The Metal Gear saga is one long Postmodern series of deconstructing video games, and, by association, the entire military-industrial entertainment complex. Kojima was one of the first to make a game about killing things deliver a pacifist message.
4th Wall? What’s a 4th Wall?
“Breaking the 4th Wall” is a term derived from theater plays. In a theater, there are three walls — one on the actors’ left, one on their right, and one behind them. The fourth wall is the one we, the audience, see through. We are silent observers to the story unfolding before us. Most of the time, the actors pretend as if they are oblivious to our presence. There is an unwritten rule that we don’t touch this invisible 4th wall.
However, playwrights and actors alike have taken the liberty of intermittently breaking this 4th wall. This practice dates all the way back to Shakespeare’s day, when villains and protagonists alike would step to the side and voice their inner thoughts out loud. Modern actors will even walk out into the audience and pretend to whisper these asides into a viewer’s ear, or look to the audience for their verbal feedback.
Most modern video games actually break the 4th wall quite often, especially at the beginning of the game. After all, video games need to teach their players how to play. Usually game designers address the player directly during the tutorial by using text boxes and button prompts. To help the player stay immersed, the level designers try to hide their hand by blocking a player’s progress until they learn a skill, acquire an item, or master a specific control. A companion character may try to “teach the protagonist” how to complete a task, and thereby teaches the player at the same time. Regardless of how they do it, the general rule is to keep the player immersed in the game; therefore, the less 4th wall-breaking, the better, and in general it’s important not make your tutorial “feel” like a tutorial.
Hideo Kojima, on the other hand, has voice actors go out of their way to tell Snake which buttons do what actions and how to save the game.
The entire Metal Gear saga, including the first game back in 1986, flirts with the whole concept of what a video game is and what they represent. In the original Metal Gear, your commanding officer, codenamed Big Boss, eventually starts offering Snake more and more dubious advice. Finally, near the end of the game, Big Boss tells you outright to turn off your system. You initially trusted him because he was your “tutorial character,” and yet over the course of the game your trust in him slowly erodes away until he finally reveals himself as the game’s villain.
In Metal Gear Solid, one of its most famous boss battles is with the telekinetic genius Psycho Mantis. To prove to you that he truly does have psychic powers, Psycho Mantis makes your controller vibrate, reads the PlayStation’s memory card, and, if you have other Konami save files, he will comment about them. He will also remark about how often you have saved your game up to this point. Finally, he will even make the screen cut to black in a way that appears like your PlayStation is malfunctioning. It’s jarring.
Game design logic would say that this is a risky idea. It could kick the player out of the experience, ruining the intended emotional impact. Somehow, though, it draws you into the game all the more. A Metal Gear Solid game is one-half genuine action game, one-half funhouse reflection of an action game, and one-half TED talk. Hideo Kojima, ever the indulgent game designer, wants everything in his video games. Sometimes he pulls it off, and sometimes he doesn’t.
A Video Game Becoming Self-Aware
Hideo Kojima’s best Postmodern work by far is Metal Gear Solid 2. Warning: I’m completely spoiling this game.
After picking a different protagonist in order to try to appeal to female gamers, Kojima wrote a video game story that dismantles the entire notion of what it means to be a video game, and in particular, what it means to be a sequel.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is divided into two episodes: The Tanker and The Big Shell. In The Tanker Episode you control Solid Snake as he infiltrates a U.S. Marines transport disguised as a tanker. Inside is a brand new Metal Gear being made in secret by the U.S. military. The entire goal of the episode is to just take photographic evidence of the new Metal Gear and upload them onto the internet. That’s all. Snake’s new weapon isn’t a gun, it’s information. After securing the evidence the tanker explodes and Snake descends into the dark water.
The Big Shell Episode takes up the remaining 3/4 of the game. You switch to controlling Raiden, in a move that was very upsetting to players back in 2001. Raiden’s arrival to the Shell is rather similar to Solid Snake’s arrival at Shadow Moses Island in the first Metal Gear Solid. He infiltrates by swimming, and he gets a lengthy briefing by the Colonel of the first game. It’s Raiden’s first undercover mission — having been trained by extensive virtual reality training, which Raiden insists is “indistinguishable from the real thing.” The mission, while not as world-destructive as the first game’s nuclear-equipped terrorists, is still rather urgent; the Big Shell was built to clean up the mess that the tanker made. The U.S. President was kidnapped while visiting the Big Shell by terrorists, and may in fact blow up the Big Shell.
The frays in the fabric almost immediately begin to unravel as Raiden begins his initial encounters with this game’s entourage of boss characters. He first encounters Vamp, a knife-wielding vampire, and Fortune, a woman who can somehow deflect bullets. Along the way Raiden meets Iroquois Pliskin, an army agent also sent to the Big Shell. His voice is suspiciously recognizable. From there Raiden’s mission gradually unravels more and more as he retraces the same steps that Snake made in the first game. He rescues a scientist, he takes down an aircraft single-handedly, and he reveals that the Big Shell is, in fact, a cover for a new weapon called Arsenal Gear. As the player, you assume it must be the Metal Gear that was lost in the Tanker episode. You imagine a bipedal robot with a rail gun.
After you get captured, yet another plot point from the first Metal Gear Solid, things start getting really weird.
You escape into a part of the Big Shell that you’ve never seen before. Stripped of all your weapons and clothes, you have to sneak around naked while panels of the building begin to show code and wireframes. The colonel begins calling you, spouting complete nonsense, until he eventually orders you to turn off your console. It’s creepy. Eventually you meet up with Solid Snake, who was poorly-disguised as Pliskin all along. Raiden’s fanboying is quickly put to rest as they have to push past onslaughts of guards. The game basically shifts to a run-and-gun game as you push forward. Snake offers you clothes, a sword, supplies, and as much ammo as Raiden needs. Raiden asks him where he got it from.
Snake points to his bandana and says, “Infinite Ammo.”
The bandana that Snake is referring to is an item you can acquire after beating the first Metal Gear Solid. When starting a second playthrough, you can unlock a bandana that offers unlimited ammo. In a single gesture, Snake shows that the video game has become aware of itself and of its lofty heritage. I guess the original Metal Gear Solid was so popular, even its sequel knows about it. MGS2 is basically having an out-of-body experience with its predecessor.
The colonel reveals to Raiden that the entire mission was, in fact, another training exercise of sorts. Solid Snake is too valuable a soldier to allow to die. Therefore, after Raiden’s virtual reality challenges, they created a complete artificial mission to make Raiden become like Snake. And for the most part, it worked. Raiden went from a green rookie to an expert agent over the course of the mission. Raiden becomes a stand-in for the player, in a literal sense. If they played the first game, the player likely looks up to Solid Snake. They probably want to become him. And MGS2 picks that power fantasy apart. It asks, “Why would you want to do that?“. Arsenal Gear turns out to be a supercomputer. The real weapon was a means to control information, not a mech with missiles and cannons.
We could probably talk all day about how Kojima managed to predict the “post-truth” zeitgeist of our current day and age, where false information is just as prevalent on the internet as real information, and social media spreads fake info almost faster than the real thing. But once again, the Arsenal Gear is just another visual metaphor. As the vehicle containing Arsenal Gear crashes into New York City, landing at the feet of the statue of George Washington at Capitol Hall, I see the way in which American media, including video games, glorify heroes, especially war heroes. Isn’t George Washington just another Solid Snake, only with a wig and a plantation? Isn’t Andrew Jackson? Ulysses S. Grant? Eisenhower? Isn’t that every protagonist of every war movie or action movie?
A Video Game Becoming Self-Realized
Just as Raiden is controlled by the player, so was the player controlled by the game. The game lined up its dominoes for you, and you were all too eager to knock them down. Raiden emerges from the ruins of Capitol Hall with Snake and Raiden struggles with what to do moving forward. Snake looks at Raiden’s dog tag and asks, “Is that yours? Do you recognize the name?” Raiden looks at the dog tag, as if for the first time. Your player name is inscribed on it. Raiden says, “Never seen this before in my life.” He takes off the dogtags and, in a classic Kojima metaphor, rejects the military life he led — and by proxy — rejects being controlled by the player.
Snake adds in one last word of advice, though it’s unclear whether this advice is to Raiden, or to the player:
Listen, don’t obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide. You can find your own name, and your own future….
Everything you’ve felt, thought about during this mission is yours. And what you decide to do with them is your choice….
Life isn’t just about passing on your genes. We can leave behind much more than our DNA. Through speech, music, literature, and movies, what we’ve seen, heard, felt — anger, joy, and sorrow — these are the things I will pass on. That’s what I live for. We need to pass the torch, and let our children read our messy and sad history by its light. We have all the magic of the digital age to do that with….
Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
What is a video game? In the end, it’s like the entire Metal Gear saga. The series is an oxymoron. It shamelessly contradicts itself. It strings together serious and silly themes along an interactive narrative. Isn’t the video games industry exactly that? Isn’t it simultaneously mature and juvenile at the same time? Isn’t the industry as a whole just as indulgent as Kojima?
What is a video game? It’s artificial polygons designed to replicate real places and people. It’s lines of code. It’s a series of arbitrary symbols designed to evoke real feelings inside of us. It’s a lie we that decide to agree to believe for a while. And by following along with the lie, we uncover unexpected truths.
What is a video game? It’s a torch, ignited by a passionate developer. Playing that video game is receiving their torch. And we will take that light, and decide what torch we will light ourselves. We will pass that on to someone else.
And in that light, thank you for following me on this journey.