A man, a plan, Afghanistan. The scorched and mountainous terrain is studded with outposts of fighters on high alert. A special-ops warrior, bearded and bandannaed, gallops on a horse through a dusty pass on his way to rescue a prisoner. It could be a scene from Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland. But when the soldier completes his mission and calls in a chopper for extraction, the helicopter descends from the skies blasting out A-ha’s hit song “Take On Me.”
Such joyous bathos has long distinguished the work of the Japanese video-game director Hideo Kojima, whose games have sold upwards of 36 million copies to date—yet it does not dilute his moral purpose. His new work, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is set in the decade of A-ha’s pomp, the 1980s, but it is clearly about our own age of never-ending “War on Terror” (periodically rebranded in phrases involving “extremism” and its cognates). We are familiar in other genres with historical fiction that comments satirically on current events. Now video games do it too.
But they do it while employing all the tropes and tricks of video-game culture itself. The name of Kojima’s series, Metal Gear Solid, has the medium’s signature ring of sonorous techno-gibberish, though there is a certain logic to it. (“Metal Gear” is the name of a bipedal nuclear-armed tank in the very first game, of 1987. The term “Solid” was added in 1998 for the series’ first 3-D title.) Yet while Kojima’s games are berserk in many ways, they are not the standard kind of first-person shooter in which thousands of indistinguishable enemy grunts (always Middle Eastern or Russian) die at the point of the player’s phallic rifle; in the Metal Gear Solid universe one nearly always has the option of using a tranquilizer dart (to put an enemy to sleep) rather than a bullet, and sneaking past guards is just as good as disabling them.
In their dynamic procedure as well as their scripted rhetoric, Kojima’s games are stealthily anti-war war games. In contrast to the fairground bullet-shower of the billion-grossing Call of Duty series (the equivalent in war-themed video games of Michael Bay movies), the Metal Gear Solid games deliberately bring weight to the choice to kill. The player will often, for example, creep up behind an unsuspecting guard and put in him in a chokehold before interrogating him as to the location of a MacGuffin. After the guard has spilled the beans, there is a choice. Put the guard peacefully to sleep, or cut his throat. The latter action is presented in as graphically disgusting a manner as possible, with an ominous orchestral stab on the soundtrack. The player may thus feel dirty and guilty for doing what is mere routine in other games. As well as in other art forms: MGSV’s emphasis on fanatical caution and planning, as well as the humane neutralizing of enemies, works too as an implicit rebuke to gung-ho war movies—in particular, in this case, the Afghanistan-set Rambo III (1988), whose hero deals very differently with the Soviet occupation.
Kojima’s detailed engagement with the modern war on terror began with a game that was prologue and teaser for the new one. MGSV: Ground Zeroes (2013) saw the hero tasked with rescuing prisoners from a CIA “black site” prison in Cuba called “Camp Omega.” According to the video game’s fiction, we were in 1975, but the very title of the game insisted on a 9/11 reference. And visually the camp was obviously Guantánamo: the prisoners were dressed in orange jumpsuits, some with hoods over their heads and the victims of torture. There was some media controversy about an audiotape within the game that revealed a woman character had been repeatedly raped in the camp, as though some things that actually happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere should not even be alluded to in a low-class entertainment form. Paradoxically, such critics routinely claim to be offended by the all-too-solid content of some videogames—as with the controversy that surrounded cop-killing and sex in the Grand Theft Auto series in the mid-2000s—while at the same time denying that video games can be the vehicle for serious social argument. On this view, video games can be vividly influential fictions, but only in the direction of moral degradation, and never in the direction of moral improvement or political illumination. They are fundamentally unserious. Is such a view really tenable?
The Metal Gear Solid series is, in a sense, a decades-long engagement with that very question: at one moment, the games will clownishly revel in the clichés of the form; the next moment they will deconstruct those very clichés and force the player to confront real suffering. These are anti-video game video games, in their postmodern exposure of the medium’s unspoken assumptions and shopworn tropes. In previous entries the player has been advised to turn the console off and do something else; or has discovered, upon returning to the game after a week, that an enemy character has just died of old age. The games evince a cherishable silliness, but also a frankly infantile humor. They contain an unusual amount of diarrhea-based gags, and an occasional adolescent fixation on breasts. (The impractically skimpy costume of a woman character in MGSV is narratively—if not convincingly—justified by the invocation of an obscure disease that means she can breathe only through exposed skin.) This wild inconsistency of tone may understandably be taken by some to weaken the impact of Kojima’s treatment of serious themes. On the other hand, it may help to lure some of the video-game audience into a critical engagement with issues that most games take unthinkingly for granted. Come for the breasts and guns; stay for the deconstruction of the global struggle against extremism. That is, at least, one way to sweeten the bitter pill of philosophy. MGSV reportedly cost $80 million to develop, and such investments need to pay. (The game grossed more than twice that on its first day.) As any artist must be who works at the blockbuster end of his medium, Kojima is loyal to the perceived commercial and demographic requirements of the form, while reserving the right to extend its parameters in surprising ways.
What Metal Gear Solid is satirizing in particular—almost uniquely for high-budget blockbuster products in this medium, or for that matter in cinema and TV—is so omnipresent in most modern fiction that it almost escapes notice. It is what I have called national-security ideology. Its key tenets are familiar: the enemy is fanatical and unreasonable, while Western government operatives are empathetic heroes; killing civilians with drones is just regrettable “collateral damage” in a righteous mission against the irrational fanatics (as in season three of the TV series Homeland); and torture always works to elicit time-critical information, as in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Homeland, and of course 24. Metal Gear Solid V here performs an intertextual coup of casting, in hiring Kiefer Sutherland—who as Jack Bauer in 24 more or less tortured everyone he met by way of saying hello—as the voice of Snake himself, who is very far indeed from the indestructible imp of “moral clarity” that Bauer was. In the Metal Gear Solid series, Snake is himself tortured, but he never tortures.
In the newest game the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is explained to the player in ways that make the parallels with the later American adventure there inescapable. Briefings on (virtual) audiocassette explain that the army of the USSR has invaded in order to counteract “the spread of Islamic revivalism,” and that “Afghanistan has become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.” Knowing nods to the present day are littered subtly everywhere: in the TV-style opening cast list for the game’s “episodes,” there is a credit for “Enemy Combatants”: a phrase familiar from the Bush-Cheney government’s rhetorical creativity in attempting to avoid acknowledging any “prisoners of war” to whom duties of care would be owed under the Geneva Conventions. Here, the “Enemy Combatants” are the Soviet soldiers, but the casting note works to plant a seed of ambivalence in the player’s attitude towards them.
In the past, the series has had as its satirical targets global conspiracy theories, terrorism scares, and modern military Keynesianism, according to which increased defense spending promotes economic growth—Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) was all about “private military contractors” and the “war economy,” and had the player buy upgraded weapons from a cynically wisecracking arms dealer named Drebin. The hero of all the games, Snake, is always caught up in the madness of a war-obsessed world. Reluctantly, he must make more war to try to stop it.
But his manner of doing so cannot be too po-faced and depressing. For this is, after all, a video game, in which the opposing forces are unwitting accomplices in kinetically creative, optionally bloody, and often very amusing mayhem. The genre is “tactical espionage operations”: the series in which this is the fifth major installment since 1999 used to be branded “tactical espionage action,” and the switch in the third term to “operations” is another knowing nod towards antiseptic real-world military jargon. Snake must infiltrate military installations (prison camps, garrisons) in order to acquire intelligence, destroy facilities, and so on. In his way are the soldiers guarding the installations, who patrol and react in semi-intelligent ways to unusual goings-on. And some of those goings-on are very unusual indeed.
Snake can creep around in a cardboard box; he can deploy a decoy model of himself that wobbles to and fro; he can smoke a cigar that speeds up time (the better to attack at night). He can hide an unconscious guard in a locker, or attach him to a powered balloon that whisks him off to be re-educated at Snake’s own private military company, based on a mid-ocean oil rig. He can ride into the theater of war on his horse, or take a dog as his “buddy.” (The dog can also sniff out wildlife roaming the mountains, for Snake to tranquilize and send back to base, following an ecological directive to rescue animals from war zones.)
Essentially the game is an elaborate, weaponized version of hide and seek, played against the entire Red Army. Snake can climb a guard tower and choke out the soldier at the top, or he may bring the whole tower down with C4 explosive attached to its strut. He can lure guards by knocking on walls, or distract them by shooting at distant fuel barrels. In this way the sinuous architecture of each Afghanistan compound, with its roving guards, crumbling stonemasonry, passing sandstorms, and dazzlingly beautiful day-to-night cycle, is a dynamic puzzle. Any imaginable approach might work, and no two attempts will go the same way. The Phantom Pain is in many ways the most robust and dynamically satisfying such simulation yet achieved in the medium. It is, first and foremost, a hugely enjoyable video game, and many players might not even notice the ambient satirical allusions. That might be a shame; but if the game were no fun to play, its politics would reach no one at all because no one would play it. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) was a ruthless satire of the Holocaust-fiction industry, but it also made sure to be a thrilling and irreverently amusing war movie.
Video games can tell stories in a cinematic fashion with CGI scenes, and if they are sufficiently well written can therefore in principle be as serious in intent as any other form of dramatic art. What makes them unique is that they also have the formal capacity to make political and moral issues viscerally vivid, because the player is participating and not simply observing. And the way that the Metal Gear Solid series consistently undermines and questions national-security ideology in its plots, dialogue, and pairing of actions with consequences can have an electrifying effect on its players, especially those outside the U.S. (One fan from Santa Cruz, posting on an internet message board as “crithon,” has pointed out that an earlier game “was all about helping liberate banana republics. I found that really awesome, especially since I was born in South America in the 80s… So yeah it’s a weird subversive series.”) Moreover, the fact that The Phantom Pain’s dusty, shrubby Afghanistan is so gorgeous and hyper-cinematic in its visual presentation is in this context not merely a sensual pleasure; for it marks the point at which a dissident video game can in many respects match the visual fidelity of TV and cinema filmmaking that is essentially propagandistic in its narrative endorsement of national-security ideology.
While Ground Zeroes presented torture and rape as evils in a dirty war and was set upon for daring to do so, the film Zero Dark Thirty, for example, was predicated on the idea—promoted by insider “consultants” to the movie—that U.S. torture of prisoners resulted in actionable intelligence. (A canard that has been repeatedly refuted.) Some media critics considered this objectionable, yet the conversation was conducted respectfully. An art-film blockbuster can get things wrong, but it is still considered a serious contribution to such debates. A video game is not. In the mean time, video games continue to exert an aesthetic influence on the portrayal of war in films, which increasingly use game-style behind-the-head views of the protagonists or sections of first-person perspective. In films such as American Sniper as in mainstream war video games, the viewer/player hangs tight behind the shoulder of the protagonist’s powerful body, and sniping is portrayed as an exacting, artisanal craft that amply rewards patience and discrimination. (As proof of the synergy, Sony Pictures is now developing a film of the Sniper Elite series of games, based on a series of novels written by one of the co-authors of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.) In the Brad Pitt movie Fury (2014), meanwhile, the aerial, top-down shots of a tank battle seemed for all the world like deliberately knowing homage to the 1970s Atari tank-dueling game Combat.
Not only are video games setting the agenda of military fiction’s mise-en-scène, however; they are also where, increasingly, the voices questioning national-security ideology are to be found. Kojima may cut a lonely figure at the blockbuster end of video games, but a modern movement of serious, critical indie games is in full bloom. The celebrated work Unmanned (2012) by the studio Molleindustria, for example, is a simple Flash-based browser mini-game that casts the player as a drone pilot who goes to work in the U.S. in order to unleash Hellfire missiles thousands of miles away in AfPak. The player and his female superior flirt and make morbid reference to the deadening military bureaucracy. (If the player kills a target without permission, the superior asks: “You have any idea how many forms we’ll have to fill out?”) At the end of the workday the player goes home to enjoy high-budget shooter video games with his son. (“This game is so much better than Contemporary Warfare 2!” the child cries in delight.) The game thus satirizes the assumptions that drone warfare is surgically precise and robotically free of human fallibility, and also satirizes the video games for which war is, well, just a game.
Hideo Kojima’s games notoriously combine sharp reflections on contemporary political themes (The Phantom Pain concerns itself at length with issues of nuclear proliferation) with overscripted, didactic longueurs. There are, even his staunchest admirers agree, far too many hours of non-interactive expository “cut scenes” in his games, as well as his signature elements of surreal and supernatural invention. There is a vast and bamboozling lore tying together all the games in the series, which in turn are set over five decades in history. Yet as a cultural figure Kojima may be something like the Noam Chomsky of video games: someone who first introduces a player or reader to the iniquities perpetrated in modern history by the “good” guys. In a still-young medium whose most successful products are deeply conservative, he insists that video games can and should convey critical arguments about international relations and jus in bello. In this sense—in terms of his sheer cultural reach, and the ability of his gleefully odd games to sweeten the bitter pill of philosophy—Hideo Kojima is not just one of the great video-game designers of our times, he is arguably one of our most important political artists.