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today marks the 20th anniversary of metal gear solid 2's release, and hideo kojima tweeted a bit in memory of developing the game so long ago. one tweet in particular stuck out to me though:
"LIBERTY and FREEDOM have different meanings, and MGS2 is not about singularity, but about the 'norms' of society having a will of their own."
the year before the release of mgs2, the norms that maintain the social fabric of the United States briefly reared their head to the public. the 2000 presidential election resulted in a contested florida count; a week-long war where the soldiers were lawyers and county election officials. the supreme court eventually stepped in and settled the matter out of the hands of the voters who supposedly drove the process in the first place, and the culture managed to digest this aberration of electoral procedure cleanly. when a much sillier repeat of this strategy took place 20 years later, there was little discourse about its relation to a time when a party actually did manage to steal an election openly with no consequence.
the point of the above is not to bemoan the "unfairness" of the situation (the choice did not really matter to the american people) but to observe how the american ideological ship rights itself even when it openly contradicts itself. much of our "freedom" yields from america's supposedly democratic structure allowing citizens to exert themselves politically, even as voting is shown to be vapid ritual and direct action is suppressed at every opportunity. yet even when these truths are so plainly evident, the shadow of american capital obscures or supplants the truth as necessary to keep the citizenry proud of the "liberty" they hold. kojima rationalizes this the work of artificial intelligence; a neural network kept fat off of the endless drip of online content, and trained to filter information for the benefit for international capitalist hegemony. the economic engine of the west's security far exceeds the abilities of any group of humans to protect, and must be handled by some sort of higher power; an omniscient american consciousness whether as a group of AIs inside an underwater fortress or a commmon understanding woven into us by the superstructure we exist in.
of course, I don't want to imply that all of the above came directly out of kojima's mind onto the page, especially since I find praises of games such as these to be inherently "anti-capitalist" to be cope in a lot of ways; the text simply does not have any coherent critique of capitalism itself. kojima has stated (paraphrased by tim rogers) that the plot here is "merely a jumble of things inspired by current events," and not a "postmodern literary statement." the thematic undercurrent of this game sometimes struggles to poke its head through all of the mess of plot elements at play: otacon cuckolding his father, the peter stillman false injury subplot, rose's desperate attempts to crack raiden's hardened exterior, the vampire who is lovers with a marine commander and then moves on his daughter who may or may not be able to deflect bullets, and revolver ocelot having liquid snake's personality inside his arm for some reason. what's unquestionable though is that kojima has a keen mind for rooting out legitimately disturbing facets of US hegemony and exposing them within his work both narratively and through the game mechanics.
much of this relies on raiden, or jack, the hapless operator commanded to infilitrate the big shell and rescue the president. his mission: to play in a role in a cataclysmic test that will prove that the patriots (the aforementioned norms, the ideological backbone of america) can organically influence the actions of people via tight control of the information given to them. part of this game's infamous obtuseness revolves around the fact that not only has raiden been misled by his supervisors, but the people he interacts with friend or foe also are acting on false information different than what raiden has. there are instances where raiden will parrot off the plot up to a given point and will be met with incredulous looks by whoever he's talking to that never remotely get resolved, and piecing together the real plot from this can be difficult. his main enemy: solidus snake, a man who has upheld the status quo of america both abroad in the brutal secret military actions in africa as well as domestically as president of the united states. this is a man who has seen the superstructure and seeks to gain true liberty in transcending it; he's a man who has seen the true face of God and must be killed. even as raiden struggles to sort through his thoughts regarding all of this, he's pushed to duel solidus to the death to fulfill the patriots orders, and he has no choice in the matter. the patriots have organized the game for him and he (as the player's proxy) must participate. raiden has no alternate options, as his future is bound to the player's performance within the scope of the game, and he cannot disobey his direct inputs.
perhaps the best illustration of raiden's construction of consciousness over the course of the game is in the arsenal gear section. raiden up to now has been chasing the identity of snake for some time, both literally as he trails behind snake's actions within the game and conceptually as the patriots program the environment around him to resemble the shadow moses incident. after being tortured within the bowels of arsenal gear, raiden is released fully nude and must evade capture as he undergoes a sort of peristalis within AG's intestines. as he proves himself competent after shedding his loadout (mechanically inherited from snake), the real snake bestows upon him an identity of his own: a katana that becomes raiden's primary combat weapon for the final sections of the game. raiden's literal play mechanics develop beyond the idea of snake in this moment thanks to a clever design choice by the developers: the katana uses the previously unused right stick to control its slashes and actions. up to now players are unconsciously playing as snake to some extent, as raiden's control layout has matched snake's MGS1 layout. it is now that players learn how to play as raiden and how he functions as a character beyond the shadow of snake, as he self-actualizes both narratively and within the scope of the game's mechanics.
I don't know if the critical gaming institution was ready to accept the confidence mgs2 brought when it came out, however. obviously the character bait-and-switch turned off those who played solely to become snake; perhaps raiden was an ugly reflection in some ways, as an awkward and lithe protagonist with only virtual combat experience to speak of. the sheer complexity and inexplicable loose ends of the story turned off many more who were willing to explore what kojima has created, including the translator herself: Agness Kaku. even though I disagree with her critique of the script, I do not envy the draconian word count requirements that konami held her to or the strict 1:1 localization requirements kojima enforced after jeremy blaustein's creative liberties in the excellent translation of the first game. the result here is a script that is stilted and cumbersome compared to the snappy script of the original, which I'm sure turned off even more people than mentioned before. it's taken many years to truly cleanse mgs2's mixed reputation for those who originally experienced it: as an example, while I tend to like jeremy parish's work, his writing on mgs2 captures a snide attitude towards this game that has not aged well, whereas his more recent analysis of the game on retronauts has begun praising its prescience of modern american political life as he's reexamined the game, a move I applaud him for as a prominent games critic and historian.
in fact, it's parish's criticism of mgs2's gameplay that I want to use as a launching point to discuss the game's amazing stealth action, which really cements this title as one of the best games ever made in my eyes. mgs2 falls in a difficult spot between mgs1, arguably the first modern AAA game, and mgs3, a game with remarkably few restraints on player expression and another GOAT contender. it's hard for me to argue that mgs2 is better than mgs3; mgs2 is a leaner experience while mgs3 is a much more convoluted web of systems to memorize and clunky controls, but mgs3 is a pure stealth experience in terms of environment and scenario design in a way that mgs2 cannot approach. what mgs2 is not, however, is a rehash of mgs1, as parish's writing (linked below) accuses it of. while there are certainly similar aspects between events in mgs2 and mgs1, mgs2 builds upon these ideas to present something completely new for the genre. mechanically mgs2 is a perfect midpoint between 1 and 3 that rewards player ingenuity and quick decision-making within the bounds of the top-down format and segmented area structure of the original title.
mgs2 brings two major innovations to the series: first-person aiming and the AI squad system. guns in mgs1 are functionally useless outside of the many annoying action setpieces throughout the game, as the aiming is non-existent and there's no way to quickly take down guards with weapons. in that game this flaw is papered over by the fact that guards lack much any critical thinking beyond looking at anything directly within their cone of vision, and thus the game encourages sneaking behind enemies. in mgs2, you now have the ability to headshot or crotchshot enemies for quick takedowns, and with this power comes a slew of challenges that force the player to use this tool effectively. the game stations guards in locations that often actively keep you from slipping past them as a casual player, either from having other guards watch their back, or from patrolling areas that make your footsteps clearly audible, or by putting mission objectives in positions where guards block you at every turn from accessing them. to make matters more complicated, tranquilizing or killing a soldier leaves their body behind, which if seen by another soldier can quickly reveal your presence even if you are on the other end of the map. body disposal becomes an essential and nerve-racking endeavor that is further exacerbated by the fact that dragging bodies is slow, and stunned enemies will eventually wake again. rooms become a matter of determining which soldiers risk mission integrity the most when active, how to best deal with them, and how to hide them in such a way that you have just enough time to achieve your objective before the body is found.
further complicating matters, the squad in each room now does routine check-ups on one another to ensure the team has not been comprimised, as well as calling into HQ regularly to provide status updates. making an incorrect decision can have an extremely costly result in the squad becomes suspicious and calls in a search team to sniff you out; the most frightening parts of this game come from hiding in lockers or under cabinets praying that a search team will get lazy when they reach your location and leave you be. this also implements a hidden timer after you eliminate a guard, where your next objective must be finished before the rest of the squad catches wind of the fact that one of their own is missing. even worse is eliminating a squad leader, which could result in HQ realizing that no regular status report was radioed in and thus sending in a team to determine the status in person. it's a delicate interplay between all these mechanics, as any advantage you can gain over the forces against you can be lost just as quickly if you have not planned further movements in advance. taking out guards one by one linearly is simply not an option: you must consider the totality of your environment, plan accordingly, and then execute said plan correctly, often with elements you didn't consider interfering and forcing you into hiding mere meters away from your objective. it is endlessly claustrophobic on first attempts of this game, and truly imposes a sense of dread upon being discovered that I don't think other entries in this series ever capitalized on in the same way. of course, as you grow more experienced, you begin to find ways to push against these restrictions, and to the game's credit it offers a bounty of built-in ways to exploit the guards. shooting a soldier's radio or throwing a chaff grenade jams their tether to HQ and keeps them from calling for reinforcements even in the event that they encounter you, for instance, and you can hold up guards for free takedowns and to lead them away from other guards in the vicinity. steam pipes can be broken to scald guards, cameras can be shot to free up your traversal options, fire extinguishers can serve as makeshift smoke grenades, and you can even drop onto unsuspecting soldiers from a ledge in order to get an instant knockout. what makes this game different is no matter how far you push, the game will still find ways to punish you if you choose to lollygag given the ever-watchful eye of HQ upon you. your job is to catalog your available tools in your mind, use them when appropriate, and plan out your goals in advance as to avoid wasting time once you've begun interacting with the environment.
in terms of macro-design mgs2 also leapfrogs mgs1 to provide area layouts that take advantage of the new tools as well as encourage more exploration. mgs1 lays out its areas in straight lines in both discs of the game, making backtracking a bore, especially during sections such as retrieving the sniper rifle or using the temperature-controlled key cards. mgs2 areas are still heavily enclosed, but feature a greater amount of interconnectivity that allows the player to choose their routes, or for different difficulties to change which routes are accessible to the player when. in the two main open hubs in the game - the tanker area as well as Strut A of big shell - the player can freely between areas for the most part while still being naturally led to the next objectives. it helps that each area is roughly symmetrical, and as such the player need not struggle with understanding a complicated interconnected map. after the harrier fight, the game linearizes and begins focusing on more setpieces rather than full stealth sections, but after a more freeform first ~60% of the game this doesn't bother me much.
the environments themselves strike a radically different vibe than mgs1, which focused on snake clawing through the darkness of alaska juxtaposed against the glittering snow blanketing the island of shadow moses. big shell instead feels sterile, with its position far out into the hudson bay removing it from any spatial context as it sits above the water surrounded by mist. I sympathize with those who don't like this setting and its palette, as shadow moses is unquestionably the more memorable area. my interpretation of big shell is that its built purposefully as a "game-y," flat area; a training ground of sorts for raiden. the interiors ignore the oppressive chill of shadow moses in order to present an lifeless area that illustrates the banality of the villainy involved, and the clean order that the patriots impose. its only as the game continues and the pageant the patriots have created begins to decompose that the aseptic facade collapses and raiden must overcome flooded hallways full of bloated bodies, flaming remannts of catwalks, and the blaring sirens of arsenal gear as he cleaves bodies in two and struggles against the framework imposed upon him.
one aspect where mgs2 is notably rushed is the boss selection: the main enemy organization Dead Cell has multiple members that evidently were cut in development even though they get brief mentions in the lore. unlike mgs1 where many of the fights are based in specific gimmicks, the bosses in mgs2 are spaced out much more and generally have multiple methods for how to take them down. the fatman fight always sticks out to me, both in sheer ridiculousness and in how it balances defusing the bombs fatman puts down with actually damaging him. balancing those two mechanics makes the fight more than just dodge-and-shoot, which is a fine design for a mgs fight but not always the most interesting. other fights such as olga and vamp sort of fall into the latter category, and then the rest feel a bit more gimmicky, generally leaning on some sort of non-standard weaponry. they're all good, but I wouldn't call them as memorable as the two games that sandwich it in the series, especially mgs3.
of course, there is much I haven't touched on in this review that I could continue to offer my thoughts on, such as the way the game begins violently rejecting the player from even playing it as they attempt to bend against the will of the patriots, or the way the game uses parallel events between mgs2 and mgs1 to confuse the player rather than give them some cynical "I get the reference" moment. perhaps this game's status as a "postmodern" masterpiece is simply because no other game has ever achieved this level of ludonarrative coherence, where the act of playing the game itself is relevant to the plot and subtextually reinforces the themes presented in the text. it's one thing to have fourth wall breaks, especially after the twists in this game were subsumed by gaming mass media and diluted into sillier configurations, but this game refuses to use them only as parlor tricks and instead weaves them into a broader narrative about the control of information and individual agency that resonates at a time when people are hyperaware of the context of their era and yet absolutely powerless to influence it. it's a game where even multiple legendary soldiers are unable to buck machinations of a country that are entirely beyond them, and where they must live with this doomed knowledge whether they choose to feebly resist it or not. in many ways, this is a game that was far ahead of its time and lacks an inheritor of its legacy as both one of the most fantastic action games ever created and one of the few titles that capitalizes on video game's unique traits as an equal form of art and sport.
It's kinda incredible just how uncompromising this is with what it wants to be, everything is contextualized and nothing is particularly convenient for the player. Everything is done to immerse the player into the mindset of the slugcat. It's stressful, beautiful and almost infinitely replayable to me. It may be flawed but i can't say it really has any strong detriments to me with how much it excels at most things and just how much it appeals to me personally. Also hunter mode has got to be one of the best hard modes in any game.
The Beginner's Guide
One of my favorite games of all time, and is probably the most unique game I've ever played.
Rain world puts you against a world full of dangerous predators, and unlike other games, gives you barely any ways to defend yourself other than your mind. You will miss your spear attacks, your attacks will bounce back, and getting out of a tough situation will take a lot more than simply killing whatever's on the screen.
The wildlife in this game is well.. wildlife. It's a real ecosystem where every creature fends for themselves. You aren't the only thing the enemies focus on, you're just a part of a bigger ecosystem. Enemies will attack each other, have territorial fights with their own species even, some will straight up ignore you and getting past a difficult area sometimes will require you to take advantage of the fact that these creatures behave like real actual animals with goals rather than mindless entities hellbent on killing you and you alone.
Rain world is all about experimenting and observation, seeing what works and what doesn't, what you can eat and what you can't eat, what moves can you pull off and what moves you can't; observing every creature's behavior carefully to come up with the best plan to get past them. Even getting past one single creature trying to hunt you down will feel like you just outsmarted an intelligent opponent, and will feel satisfying. A lot of people give up on this game immediately, and I completely understand why. It's unlike any other game, definitely not everyone's cup of tea, the controls can be extremely rough to get used to, and it can be very brutal, but going into it, you just need a separate mindset and recognize rain world is not just another platformer, another 2d action game, it's its own thing, and trying to play it like a lot of other games will result in too much frustration.
This game is a perfect representation of survival in nature. It's literally the most immersive game I have ever played, and although it beat me down senseless countless times, beating this game felt more satisfying, more accomplishing than beating any other game I have played. Surviving in Rain World is hell, but damn is it satisfying to conquer it.
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