Warning: Heavy spoilers for the Metal Gear Solid series from this point out.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was widely embraced by that all too familiar journalistic shorthand of a “return to form” when it was released in 2004. “Back to the basics” was another cliche.
A pervasive opinion is that series creator Hideo Kojima minimized all of the pretentious, intellectual stuff from Metal Gear Solid 2 for a more direct story. As a result of this, Metal Gear Solid 3 is safer, accessible, and thus more successful.
None of this is exactly wrong, but doesn’t go far enough in explaining the title’s appeal. MGS3 is an incredibly subversive game, but Kojima brilliantly disguises this while fully committing to his premise. That commitment leads to a payoff that is one of the best in gaming history.
But first, let’s talk about James Bond.
James Bond has traditionally been presented as the ultimate man’s man. He is capable in any situation, a natural adventurer, intelligent, an ace in hand to hand combat, quick with a gun, quicker with his wit, and irresistible to all women. In almost every film, Bond is tasked with stopping a villain and his organization from taking over the world. The key to said world domination is generally a super weapon that could bring the planet to its knees.
Over the course of his journey, Bond engages in some light espionage that usually points him in the direction of the villain’s lair, meets and seduces at least one, but sometimes multiple women, one of which is often a spy themselves, meets the big bad’s main henchman and dispatches them, usually with a one liner to boot, destroys the superweapon, kills the bad guy and rides into the sunset with a woman in tow.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is an obvious homage to 60's cold war spy thrillers, the Bond series in particular. I am far from the first to say this about MGS3, but this isn’t unique to action adventure games, or really, Metal Gear Solid games. The original Metal Gear Solid plays out similarly to a Bond film as well, right up to getting the girl in the canon ending. Metal Gear Solid was incredibly unique at the time for way its story was told, but its overall plot is pretty simple. The lore is what complicates Metal Gear Solid.
Metal Gear Solid 3 hits the homage over the head a lot more bluntly than most action titles. You have a game set in the 60's during the cold war in which the world’s manliest man needs to stop a bad guy with a world altering weapon or die trying. There is a British commander, a femme fatale, a double agent (several, actually), a seemingly all powerful henchman, and a detestable villain. The game embraces the era’s campy tone in almost all of its aesthetic choices. I mean, come on. Listen to the theme song:
But reducing MGS3 to a simple spy film homage doesn’t do it justice. It succeeds because it knows how you expect these things to play out and then turns them on their head.
Let’s do a quick set up of the plot. 1964, an American soldier going by the codename Snake is sent to the USSR to extract a defecting scientist named Sokolov who is creating a super weapon called the “Shagohod”.
Snake finds Sokolov, but is encountered by the Colonel Volgin, a vicious psychopath planning to overthrow Soviet Union leader Nikita Khruschev and use the Shagohod to control the world. In addition to Volgin, Snake is surprised to see The Boss, a legendary American solider and his mentor, who tells Snake that she has defected to the Soviet Union. Volgin recaptures Sokolov and the Boss kicks Snake’s ass and throws him off a bridge. In his escape, Volgin detonates a nuke given to him by The Boss on Soviet soil. Snake survives his fall and is extracted by his unit.
The USSR blames the Unites States, specifically Snake’s unit, for the explosion. To prove their innocence, Khrushchev tasks the United States with killing Volgin, destroying the Shagohod, and most distressingly, killing The Boss. Snake is sent back to the USSR, and the game proper starts off from there.
On the surface, Snake is all of the man that Bond is. He is a more rugged than Bond, which seems to be a version of masculinity that Kojima is more attracted to. He is also an intelligent, capable soldier, who is more skilled than 99 percent of the people he comes in contact with. He is still effortlessly charming and likable, both for the player and other characters. He has no problem with women. EVA sums up his appeal nicely: “I bet if I kissed you, you would taste like a wild beast”.
Where Snake differentiates himself from most action protagonists is his sensitivity and deep desire to trust and connect with other people.
I believe that if Kojima made MGS3 as a film, Snake’s body count would probably only consist of Colonel Volgin, The Boss, and a few indirect kills from the soldiers chasing him near the end of the game.
Snake is more than capable of killing, but doesn’t have the same lust for using his License to Kill that Bond has. Metal Gear Solid 3 makes a point to never shows Snake killing anyone in a cutscene. Even the bosses are all killed by them self destructing.
Crucially, the gameplay reinforces this idea. You don’t have to kill anyone, and the game rewards dealing with foes nonlethally. And even if you do choose to kill on your journey, the context of the story justifies the violence. Contrast this with the Uncharted series, where Nathan Drake is made out to be a good guy in cutscenes, but spends his time ruthlessly killing hundreds of people because that is what the gameplay demands. Another example is BioShock Infinite, which features a personal tale requiring minimal violence, but the game you play is insanely gory and you stack a body count in the low thousands. Snake never comes off as an aloof murder machine, and that is important for selling you on the story.
To further back up my thesis, I present Ocelot. In a Bond film, Ocelot would have never made it to the end. Snake’s speech to Ocelot about the foolishness of using an untested battle technique in a real fight would be given by Bond while Ocelot’s light fades from his eyes:
In their next encounter, Snake comes out on top again. He not only lets Ocelot go, but stops EVA from shooting him as well. He justifies this by telling EVA that Ocelot is young, inexperienced, and doesn’t deserve to die. Throughout the game, Snake has multiple opportunities to kill Ocelot if he so chose, but instead he dispatches him through nonlethal and usually embarrassing means. You even see Snake take a liking to the young agent, respecting his skills, and eventually kind of befriending him.
Snake’s sexuality is also far more subdued than Bond and as a result the sexual power structure of MGS3 is far more nuanced. The aforementioned double agent EVA is the stand in for the femme fatale role. On their first meeting, she immediately shifts into high gear trying to seduce Snake. Where in a Bond film, Bond would be the aggressor and this encounter would almost undoubtedly lead to sex, Snake is comes off as awkward and borderline oblivious to her advances. He obviously finds EVA attractive, but he doesn’t approach the situation with your normal action hero bravado. He brushes her off by either claiming he is focused on the mission, or saying that he isn’t sure that he can trust her. She vips her motorcycle suit waaaaaaay down to reveal herself, but he only gets excited when she gives him a custom gun:
This push and pull is at the core of every interaction between Snake and EVA in the game. EVA is the sexual aggressor, and Snake continuously rebuffs her advances.
At the very end of the game, after the action is over, Snake and EVA do finally have sex. However, she betrays him, revealing herself to actually be a Chinese spy. She steals a disc containing a massive sum of money called The Philosopher’s Legacy (well, she thinks she does) that Snake secured earlier for the United States and leaves him. Remember, Snake wants to trust. He eventually does, and the result is heartache.
That kind of thing does happen to Bond, but he always gets the better of the femme fatale in the end. He gets to initially exert his sexual power and eventually dominates her either psychologically or in combat. No one breaks James Bond’s heart or outsmarts him.
In this case, Snake is used and left alone.
This is far from the first time we have seen Snake in a position of weakness. In fact, it is where he spends most of his time, both emotionally and physically. He is beaten down multiple times by The Boss, brutally beaten and tortured by Volgin, and later loses his eye due to Ocelot accidentally shooting him. Scenes of weakness doesn’t reduce Snake’s heroism, but increase it. As a player, you can relate to his pain, and are motivated to help him succeed. When Snake finally does defeat Colonel Volgin, it feels good, because it was a hell of a journey to get there.
Snake is badass, but unlike Bond, he isn’t the toughtest person in his world. And the other person that is unquestionably more badass is a woman.
It is needless to say that this would never happen in a Bond film, and I struggle to think of a mainstream adventure film where a lead male character’s mentor is a woman. The Boss is portrayed as being the most powerful person in MGS3 and perhaps the whole series. Not even the psychopathic, lightning powered sadist Volgin dares to cross her. Several times Snake attempts to fight her before their final battle, and each time she effortlessly wipes the floor with him, putting him in a cornucopia of joint locks and destroying his gun in the process (symbolism!).
A henchman of the main villain being a former peer or mentor of the protagonist is a common action movie trope. Generally speaking, this character’s arc goes three ways:
- They become so evil that putting them down is deemed necessary. The protagonist might be slightly sad in the moment, but move on quickly to defeat the Big Bad.
- They redeem themselves in the final act, usually dying, but crucially not at the protagonists’ hand.
- They reveal themselves to be good all along and were just playing a long con to help the protagonist.
It is initially hard to gauge where The Boss fits on that spectrum, and she ends up as weird blend of the three. Even when the Boss is “aligned” with Volgin, her relationship with Snake is still that of a mentor and motherly figure. She is not outwardly evil to other characters and often works to deescalate scenes of violence. Because of the nature of her defection, Snake spends the whole game less angry at Boss, but more hurt that she would turn her back on him.
The entire game is leading to the fact that Snake has to kill The Boss to succeed in his mission. A lesser game would have chickened out on this in the last minute. They would have found a way for you to get your cake and eat it too.
Not MGS3. You are forced to fight and kill her. As a player, you have to because that is what is demanded to complete the game, just as killing Boss is what is demanded of Snake in storyline. The player themselves are the ones that are expected to pull the trigger:
It is a much more striking meta narrative than anything in Metal Gear Solid 2.
James Bond would have shot her, said “you’re not the BOSS of me” or something and that would be that.
The final scenes of the game reveal that Boss was good all along, only playing the part of the villain to save the world from descending into all out war. Having this knowledge revealed to both Snake and the player after killing The Boss is no solace. It only makes it all hurt more.
The one-two-three emotional punch to Snake is devastating. A protagonist killing his mentor, being manipulated and abandoned by a woman he grew to care for and trust, and then learning that he was only forced to kill his mentor in the first place due to political machinations outside of his control is a powerfully sad way to end a big budget video game, or any kind of media designed for mass consumption.
This isn’t a game returning to its roots, as much as continuing on the path that Kojima laid out. MGS subverted people’s expectations in gameplay and delivery of video game narrative, MGS2 rehashed the plot of MGS on purpose with a surprise main character as a meta narrative on game sequels, and MGS3 subverted the tropes of the films it was celebrating to create something more moving than the sum of its parts.
It seems like a no-brainer now, but Kojima definitely took a big risk, and it paid off because of his deep commitment to the story he wanted to tell. People don’t love Metal Gear Solid 3 because it pulled away from risk, but because it took the right ones.