We all have works of fiction that inspire and shape our lives regularly, maybe even daily. And it makes sense — as early as humanity could talk, and then write, we love creating and telling stories! And our appetite and affection for fiction has only increased in the 20th century, first with film, and then videogames. These 6 Metal Gear Solid reads are for any fan to both understand Hideo Kojima’s games better and to unearth his message and questions he’s imparting to you, the player.
If you’re reading this website, I probably don’t have to tell you how videogames bring us into a story like nothing else. Videogames move us with or without words. Or even with minimal words (and dialog that would be ridiculed in any other medium, but celebrated in ours).
I cherish many gaming stories, but even the SEGA CD Lunars cannot hold a candle to the impact that Metal Gear Solid has had on me (along with millions of unsuspecting videogamers worldwide).
Released in 1998 for the original Sony Playstation console, in every possible way, Metal Gear Solid is the first true example of the modern “AAA” era of videogames.
*Movie-quality script and voice-acting
*Incredible, real-time game engine which was even used for cutscenes
*Literature-esque undertones and themes
*A gripping Tom Clancy-like meshing of modern world history and historical fiction
*Explainable, near-future sci-fi technology (i.e. Even the heightened reality and the supernatural is explained scientifically)
(Metal Gear Solid’s “Good” Ending — Naomi’s realization on genetic destiny)
In an era when Final Fantasy VII was now-laughably viewed as the height of sophistication, Metal Gear Solid came out one year later and redefined everything that an intelligent videogame can and should be.
Instead of pandering or dumbing itself down as in vogue at the time, Metal Gear Solid treated like you were highly literate, up on current geopolitical affairs, and able to invest enough to be emotionally moved by low-polygonal characters’ plights in five-minute cutscenes.
Google wasn’t even invented yet (does that make this game sound old or what) but I scoured the Internet for terms, wars and historical figures mentioned offhand in MGS, as though they’re common knowledge (maybe they were, but c’mon, I was 16!)
“Per-i-stroy-ka? I don’t even know how to spell that to look it up?” “Analog and digital cloning? Which was that sheep, Dolly?” “Saladin? Is that like Big Boss’s Arabian vacation name?” “Kurd? Isn’t that the crap that Little Miss Moffet ate?”
These are the questions that ran in my head the first time I played MGS.
The early Metal Gear (at least the ones pre-MGS4) videogames exist in a suspended disbelief world where, in my opinion, everything is thrown at you in a way that you can easily “buy in” to the game and it’s message, in the era each game came out in. I’ve gone back and played the Hideo Kojima originals for the MSX platform (Metal Gear 1 and 2, freshly translated into English now) and I learned even more about modern history from them.
Later Metal Gear Solid titles mix fantasy and reality to impart a message to the player and tell a story larger than the literal plot of the action and characters.
Metal Gear is much more than running around and shooting people (or sneaking around them). I’m really glad you had so much fun playing Metal Gear Solid V like it’s Grand Theft Auto, blowing stuff up in new and fun ways. But Metal Gear is at its best when it’s about its themes, not about its weaponry.
So here’s the top Metal Gear-related books and articles that have led me to better understand the world I live in today. I hope you find inspiration from them as I have!
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
Outside from the obvious reference — this dude from Metal Gear 1 and 2 looking exactly like the most brilliant mind of the 20th century — the relationship between Kojima and Einstein goes beyond a few surface references.
Einstein had an independence, quirkiness and anti-war mentality that is directly in tune with the Metal Gear series. He was always a free thinker and spirit, and that enabled him to break “accepted” science wide open — similar to how Kojima reinvented what a videogame can be.
Einstein’s later ideas in the atomic age cast a large shadow over the themes in Metal Gear, as well. I had always thought Einstein was the only member of the Manhattan Project to have regrets or second-thoughts after because of his extreme pacifism — turns out he didn’t even work on the project, and was barely consulted for it because of his eccentric nature. His later personal religious views border on pre-destination (influenced by how he saw the universe as in inexorable, perpetual motion) also draw parallels to the theme of Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 in terms of how much of who we are is out of our control.
Metal Gear introduces a lot of hard science that the player mostly has to look up on their own, and it can be hard to separate what’s real from what’s plausible sci-fi. Einstein: His Life and Universe provides the best layman’s terms explanations for the significance of Einstein’s theories and how they impacted the course of how humans view and understand the universe. It’s a very enjoyable read about truly one of the most influential, significant, and human people to ever exist.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins,
That phrase should ring a bell: Liquid’s whole “bitch-fest” (as Snake Soup referred to it in The Reality of Metal Gear Solid 2) is based on the fact he thought he had “inferior” genes. He says he’s just following nature and doing what his genes tell him to do — about freeing both himself and Solid Snake from their cursed genes.
His whining about recessive genes being inherently inferior isn’t based in science or reality, really. But Liquid is also crazy, so in the construct of the game, I can accept it, plot-wise.
He cites “The Selfish Gene” theory in regard to how families want their genes to live on, basically — as if they are organisms (or even parasites) that control us without our intention or awareness. Psycho Mantis references this on his deathbed, saying “Living things exist to mindlessly pass on their DNA. We’re designed that way.”
The fatalism of the Metal Gear Solid villains has its origins in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It does talk about the science behind genes, but is simultaneously almost philosophy in its views on the evolution of life and how genes exist to self-preserve and to replicate. In the new forward to the book, the author actually mentions that A: Some of the scientific ideas of the book are now outdated, and B: He never meant for people to interpret his book as saying life is a grim death march in which we have no control over our destiny.
Regardless, it’s a revolutionary piece of philosophy from an unabashed atheist, whether you agree with the book’s deeper premises or not. It’s also a vital piece in best understanding the themes of Metal Gear, especially the arguments of Liquid Snake and also the Patroits. After all,how can you fully appreciate and be inspired by Solid Snake’s voluntarism, optimism and “Let the World Be” philosophy without understanding what he fought against?
Another funfact: Dawkins actually coined the word “meme” in this book, which has taken on a very different meaning in today’s Internet Age (and in Metal Gear Solid 2, making it doubly required reading for both MGS & MGS2 fans.).
Che: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson
You’ll be hard pressed to find any other videogame series that can teach you more about 20th Century World History than Metal Gear. It’s often times the best kind of history: complex, messy, with characters far beyond “good vs. evil”. As far back as Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake in 1991, the characters you’ve fighting tell the players stories of what has led them to their current actions in opposition to Snake. This concept deepens in subsequent, 3-D sequels, culminating in the character of Big Boss himself — a raving madman at age 70 — portrayed in complex terms later on. Yes, you play as Big Boss in these games, but you are the protagonist, not necessarily a hero.
(Metal Gear Solid 3 ending spoiler) Big Boss rejects his country (the U.S.) and nationalism in general when he’s screwed over into having to kill his mentor, who died for her blind nationalism. He spends the rest of his life creating private armies and fighting proxy wars for groups that will pay his squad the most (often times at odds with the U.S.) — his “Outer Heaven.”
Metal Gear is great at providing a unique look at modern world history, showing characters who commit heinous acts, and often explaining their actions but without rationalizing them.
Character backstories provide a window to many events in 20th century not taught in American or Japanese history class: Warsaw uprisings in World War II Poland, Middle East ethnic violence, and South American meddling by the United States, to name a few. Hearing a character you’ve gotten to know the whole game tell her story of how she lost her family to the Chernobyl disaster — causing her to dedicate her life to stopping nuclear weapons — is much more powerful than reading a few lines about these horrors in a textbook.
Although coming from much different political ideologies, learning about the guerilla communist freedom fighter known as El Che is a great way to understand Metal Gear’s most important character, Big Boss. It’s also a way to see the 20th-century geopolitical spectrum in a whole new way.
It’s conflicting to read about Che as a North American. His battle methods were unflinching at best and brutal at worst, even to his own men. His ultimate goal was to destroy capitalism. He was uncompromising — a diplomat he was not.
But his idealogies were as fascinating as any warrior in human history, and he a true philosophical and combat revolutionary. You probably have heard of the Motorcycle Diaries — they chronicle his real-life journey as a young man around South America, a trip in which he developed a passion to fight against society’s oppression of the lowest classes of humanity. He simultaneously developed an open hatred for the United States for turning a blind eye to the common man’s struggles, as it propped up dictators and military juntas to stave off communist people’s movements.
He earnestly devoted his life to his principles, and rejected politics, compromise and ruling power. He serves as a stark contract in the book to his friend and revolutionary Fidel Castro, who at all times shifts his views, allies and ideas to lead himself to a path of power.
Che and Big Boss do not share political philosophy, but are both charismatic militants who drove world events and inspired fanatical admiration from both friends and enemies. They also uncompromisingly give up their lives for their ideals for a truly revolutionary life.
Che fought to bring about his idea of “The New Man, or El Hombre Nuevo” in which all people in society will work for the genuine benefit of others — not in the style of autocratic Soviet or Mao communist governments, but with selflessness and mutual benefit from top to bottom. Big Boss grew to hate how governments treated men who fight and risk their lives for their country as replaceable pawns used to play politics, and worked to create an independent, self-sustaining anarcho-militarist state to control his and his men’s destiny for themselves.
Whether you agree with Big Boss and Che’s actions isn’t important. What is important is to understand them as objectively as possible and draw your own conclusions. Hideo Kojima’s self-professed goal as a storyteller is to ask the player tough questions about life, the nature of reality, etc., and answer them for yourself. I can’t think of a world figure more polarizing and thought-provoking than El Che, and his story (and of Big Boss, to a lesser extent) can help you shape your own views about the world we live in today.
This book in particular is probably the best English account we’ll ever have of El Che — the author did exhaustive research, and he traveled to Cuba, Argentina – wherever Che’s exploits had taken him. He got access to previously classified documents about Che, both from capitalist and communist countires, and he even personally helped find and unearth Che’s then-unknown burial site.
The Snake Soup is one of the earliest and most impactful opinion and analysis Metal Gear fansites. If you want to go online and complain how Raiden is too girly and he’s awesome as a ninja, this probably isn’t the place for you. But if you want to learn more about the motivations of characters and the creator, and both the canon storyline from 1987 to today and the “meaning behind the words, then decide” this is the place to go.
Just as a playthrough of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is essential to understand both the overall plot and themes of what’s branded as the Metal Gear Solid series, Ravi’s editorials as required reading for anyone looking to get more from Metal Gear than just a stealth videogame peppered with transsexual vampires, anachronistic bionic-limb technology and cardboard box make-out sessions.
He’s also got some cool philosphy for you to check out, too.
Watch The Reality of Metal Gear Solid 2 immediately — it’s a short video breakdown of what Kojima was trying to tell the player in Metal Gear Solid 2, one of the first postmodern (and misunderstood) videogames ever made. If they ever figure out how to display videogame experiences in museums, MGS2 should be there with this video accompanying it!
A site I think of as a companion piece to The Snake Soup (they link to each other as well), Wolfe is has some extremely thought-provoking pieces about Metal Gear on his website, including this eye-opening guest blog post on El Che’s similarities to Big Boss, authored by a Urugyuayan named Alexander Sylazhov.
It outlines why El Che even today is almost universally beloved in South and Latin American and outlines their lasting dislike for “Unitedstatesian” policies and attitudes regarding their half of the world. It also draws the parallels between Big Boss and El Che that I noted above in my writeup of Che: A Revolutionary Life (This post is how I discovered the book).
Wolfe is also working on a Hideo-Kojima related book that I’m super excited to hear more about. Other pieces on his site include breakdowns of most of the themes and stories of the Metal Gear Solid games.
From the first time I played Metal Gear Solid as a high-schooler, I was in love with its combination of cutting-edge gameplay, analysis of geopolitics, and uplifting message that “humans can choose the type of life they want to live”, free from curses of their biology or upbringing.
When I played Metal Gear Solid 2 in 2001, my criticisms matched that of magazines and my friends: the codec team was lame, it copied MGS1 too much, the plot was way too weird, the ending made no sense, and Raiden sucked.
I still loved playing MGS2, so I just accepted that it would never be the life-changing work of fiction for me that MGS1 was.
It took JunkerHQ — a Hideo Kojima and Lunar fansite — to permanently change that in the early 2000s.
How can this be? Because Metal Gear Solid 2 is not supposed to be taken literally. The Reality of Metal Gear Solid 2 sums it up best:
“Making sense of the ridiculous story is the complete opposite of understanding its reality, as its plot is nothing but a vessel for its message to the player. The game asks the player a good number of questions, the most significant is the question of reality — which in reality is fiction told so many times that it becomes accepted as reality.”
First off, I’d never seen anything in videogames analyzed like a work of art, music or cinema. After all, what had come out to that point that really warranted it? Maybe EarthBound (which itself took years for Americans to appreciate it)?
Metal Gear Solid 2 is a much more than an action videogame sequel — it’s a revolutionary use of an interactive medium to impart a creator’s questions to the observer.
JunkerHQ saw past reviewers’ and fans’ disappointment and picked up on Kojima’s messaging (no doubt because of their love for Kojima’s lesser-known works Snatcher and Policenauts) and did the gaming community a huge favor by putting their analysis together to help others understand why Metal Gear Solid 2 exists in the first place.
It’s a brilliant commentary on sequels in fiction and as a way to get the player to ask him or herself: “How much of my world is controlled by information imparted by others?” And it’s told in a way completely unique to the interactive medium of videogames. There is no MGS1-style, heavy-handed “no nukes” or “you are not controlled by genes” message.
The message of MGS2 is not telling you what to think, but how to think. it’s an open invitation to you, the player: be critical of the world that’s presented to you, think about it, and trust in yourself to draw your own conclusions.
This ending analysis breaks down the end-game dialog and uses Ghost in the Shell and the Turing Test to explore the nature of reality as proposed by MGS2. It’s also where I learned that The Selfish Gene is a real theory and book and not just some crap Liquid Snake made up while on the toilet one day.
Videogames are a great way to have fun and engage with others — they’re the new American pastime, as we say at Games Done Legit. But they have the capacity to be so much more than time-fillers. Videogames engage us emotionally in a way that no medium can; we feel like we’re driving the action and a part of these virtual worlds.
As Virtual Reality is finally an actual reality, the link between the digital world and the real world is only strengthening. Gaming is a new way to educate as well as entertain, and this is true for Metal Gear . Now that Hideo Kojima has left Konami and the Metal Gear as he created it is finished, the more we can appreciate the contributions this pioneering series has made to gaming and players’ everyday lives.
I hope you found this list of Metal Gear Solid reads helpful. I’d love to talk Metal Gear and hear the impact it’s had on your life. Hit me up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat! — Chris Hatala, Event Director / Final Boss, Games Done Legit entertainment