Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Metal Gear Solid 4: The Best Disability Game Ever

Finding good stories about disabled characters, like finding good stories about any minority group in narrative forms dominated by the majority, hard. Finding a good story about a disabled character in a video game would theoretically be even harder, because the interactive nature of games tends to attract people who want to enact fantasies of power, instead of dealing with more hardship than they have in real life. But if there's any one game series that can pull it off without falling into cliches and treating the disabled characters with respect and depth, it's Metal Gear Solid.

Hideo Kojima's popular stealth series has become famous ( infamous )? for savagely deconstructing the pop culture tropes that inspired it. One common theme of video games that is a regular target is the male power fantasy; the protagonist, super-spy/soldier Solid Snake, is NOT meant to be an enviable character. He was literally created via cloning to be the perfect soldier, has spent his entire life at war, and has developed a hardened demeanor that he seems almost inhuman. When this point went over the heads of most of the people who played the first game, the sequel MGS2 replaced Snake with Raiden, a whiny, effete, henpecked, and inexperienced Snake wannabe whose virtual reality training made him ill-suited to real combat. And while the third game was more charitable towards the notion of the power fantasy, its protagonist-- Big Boss, Snake's clone-father-- was established by that point as a villain, and the game played out as a supremely tragic prequel detailing the toll the horrors of war took on him.

Of course, MGS4 tops all three of these deconstructions by bringing back Solid Snake, only this time with a massive handicap.


MGS4 takes us on the final mission of Solid Snake, whose body is aging at an accelerated rate with a terminal prognosis. This soon established as degeneration thanks to the cloning method that created him, so we know there will be no miracle cure. But Snake still has to stop his arch-nemesis/clone-brother Liquid Snake from conquering the world, so he jumps into battle despite being physically in his seventies.

It's a common trope to see elderly veterans going out in a blaze of glory with their unbridled badassery. Unfortunately for Snake, this is not how his stubborn determination is perceived. His allies consider him a burden, treating him with polite patronizing at best and outright cruelty at worst. He's clearly in terrible health, and has to repeatedly inject himself with a nanotech syringe that causes tremendous pain, just to keep going. To get around in battle, he wears a high-tech muscle suit, but the suit doesn't give him superhuman endurance-- at best, it allows him to perform adequately. Despite all of this, Snake tries not to act like anything is different. A running joke throughout is Snake's attempt to continue smoking, despite being sent into a coughing fit every time he sticks a cigarette between his lips.

The events described above all occur in the cinematic cutscenes, but the player is not allowed to forget about Snake's handicap even in the playable sections-- some might say especially not in the playable sections. Snake's age is clear from just looking at his face on the game's packaging. He has the face of an old man, and an injury he sustains in the third act leaves half his face horribly scarred in a fashion usually reserved for villains. While Snake's previous design worn a skintight catsuit that showed off his muscles, he's now hiding his withered frame under bulky plastic muscles wrapped in a web of utility belts and pockets containing weaponry. He looks like an old man's head attached to the body Rob Liefeld superhero grotesque. Later you have the option of giving Snake a mask, or even cloaking his face to look like his younger self, but it won't change Snake's weary body language. He still moves slower, takes longer to get up when knocked down, and his stationary animations show fatigue and joint pain. Controlling Old Snake ( as even the screen interface derisively labels him ) requires the player to be very careful, to ensure that his stress levels don't become too high and further throw off his reflexes.

This all flies in the face of typical video game power fantasy logic, where sequels tend to give characters more abilities. The gameplay of MGS4 gives Snake new capabilities, but only in terms of his accessories. That his gadgets and weapons are more sophisticated than ever seems to draw attention to the fact that he needs assistance in his unexpectedly-early final days. It's been observed that even his radar must be separately selected and equipped; previous games had the enemy radar as an automatic function. And if this wasn't enough to establish Snake's infirmity, Raiden from MGS2 returns as a cybernetically-enhanced ninja, who pulls off non-playable feats of badassery and ends up rescuing Snake ( similar to the role Snake played for Raiden ). Note that while Raiden is handicapped, it's in the more conventional sci-fi fashion that ultimately enhances his capabilities; his new metal arms are capable of holding back a moving freighter.

In short, Snake is not aging gracefully, and his characteristic acts of masculine fantasy cause him too much pain for there to be vicarious appeal. But this is a world that will not let Snake be anything besides a soldier. Snake was literally designed to fight, his DNA an attempt to replicate Big Boss and his effectively superhuman combat abilities. His value on the battlefield existed in the fact that he had the physical strength and skill to kill better than anyone else. Once he starts losing those abilities, he becomes a liability instead of a hero. The battlefield demands perfect specimens, and civilians playing soldier via entertainment come in expecting that their avatar fit that ideal. Sequences like the infamous hallway trek in the final act, where a dying Snake has to literally drag himself to his destination across a microwave-laced corridor that is cooking him from the inside, aren't the stories that people expect of their avatars.

And this all would make MGS4 the most depressing video game ever made were it not for the epilogue, which rewards Snake for enduring such hardship. Earlier in the game, we're led to believe that Snake's accelerated aging will not only kill him, but interact with his altered body in the way that turns him into a biological weapon of mass destruction. After defeating Liquid, his final mission seems to be suicide, so he can save millions from himself. But a surprise revelation stops him from pulling the trigger, and while Snake is still dying, he has his final days to himself. No longer a soldier, Snake retires with his tech support partner Otacon and their adopted daughter Sunny. His prize for a life on the battlefield cut short by illness is to leave the world in peace, and with an actual family. An unconventional family that pushes homo-erotic subtext to its limit, but a family nonetheless.

In the end, Snake is not rewarded for his sacrifices by having his strength magically restored, or even by going out with a manly bang. Snake's reward is to see a world where his value is no longer contingent on his strength.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Invincible Iron Man 30; Nice Job Breaking The Space-Time Continuum, Tony

After a bit of a lag since Stark Disassembled, the Matt Fraction/Salvador Larroca Iron Man book has started to pick up the pace. The latest issue had more plot, as Tony Stark and Sasha Hammer ( Ezekiel Stane's cybernetic girlfriend and part of the mother-daughter team behind the current Hammer Industries ) finally meet, and inevitably come to blows. Before that, they have a surprisingly civil conversation about Tony's new armor, a liquid metal thing powered by his repulsor heart, stored in the hollows of his skeleton, and shaped by his brain. Tony reveals that he got the idea from Iron Lad of the Young Avengers, who came from the future with a similar design. Which led Tony to invent the neuro-kinetic armor technology, which would later be adopted by Iron Lad, who came back in time and inspired Tony to create the neuro-kinetic armor technology, which would later be adopted by Iron Lad...

I appreciate the nod to the Young Avengers ( and Fraction has mentioned in his interviews that the new armor was inspired by both the Iron Lad suit and the movie suit ), but time-travel stories are ridiculous enough as is, and this story had absolutely no need of a continuum-thrashing paradox. Some futurist you are, Tony...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

If Jenny McCarthy existed in the Marvel Universe...

...she'd pin the X-Gene on vaccines, and display the same public, self-aggrandizing bawwfests about how her adorable baby boy was broken. She'd endorse the abolishing of mandatory vaccinations because of the tragedy of having a mutant for a child, while endorsing risky and unpleasant treatments to cure the world of Homo superior. And because the public of the Marvel Universe is even more ignorant and reactionary than that of the real world, they'd believe her.

But then, her son's X-Gene would manifest, and he'd be the most powerful mutant ever. And after realizing that his mother was dangling him in front of the world as the poster child for a group of inherently " flawed " people, he'd sign up with Magneto. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants would resurge in power, and after the X-Men spent five minutes trying to protect McCarthy, they'd get sick of her and toss her to the Brotherhood. Humanity would fall, and Jenny McCarthy will have been the instigator.

Well, I can dream, can't i? :P

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iron Man Legacy 6: A Great Hidden Chapter of Tony's Lost Weekend

Today saw the release of Iron Man Legacy #6, by Fred Van Lente ( writer ) and Steve Kurth ( artist ). Though the series takes place throughout Iron Man history, the inaugural arc was set in a fairly generic status quo period ( what seemed to be post-Secretary of Defense, pre-Extremis ), so I wasn't compelled to read it beyond the first issue. But the second arc, " Industrial Revolution ", takes place in a more obscure part of Iron Man history-- Tony Stark's first trip to the West Coast.

Iron Man veterans will remember that after he lost everything in an extended alcoholic binge, Tony sought to rebuild his life on the other side of the country. With the substitute Iron Man Jim Rhodes and the brainy Erwin twins, Tony went to Los Angeles and started a technology firm. At the time, he had just decided to stop drinking and didn't want the pressure of being in the armor, instead helping Rhodey learn and maintain the suit ( much to Rhodey's chagrin ). Those were good stories, with exceptional writing by Denny O'Neil and utterly stunning artwork by Luke McDonnel. Unfortunately, O'Neil was not an Iron Man fan, and as great as his stories were, it was rather clear that he didn't care for Tony Stark ( probably because Tony was a decadent ex-arms dealer, while O'Neil was the guy who had Green Lantern and Green Arrow take a cross-country trip to find the real America ).

Then again, that was over two decades ago. Iron Man has developed as a character by exponential leaps and bounds since those days, and Van Lente takes the more recent history into account. For one, we finally get an explanation why Tony's friends in the superhero community didn't offer him help when he was sleeping on the streets; he would have refused charity even after he sobered up, given his pride. For another, Tony is still carrying an Iron Man armor around, albeit an old one he can't afford to keep in top shape, and that he only snuck past Obadiah Stane because he disguised it as a bag of his father's golf clubs. Finally, Tony's time in LA is noticed by the Pride, the West Coast superhuman crime syndicate that served as the parents/villains in the Runaways comic.

That is quite a bit of retroactive surgery, especially having Tony lug around an armor of his own ( I suppose to keep in line with more recent portrayals of the character, where Tony thinks of the suit not as Iron Man the superheroic dual identity, but THE Iron Man, a tool he uses towards his larger goals ). But it's a really promising start to the arc. While the old stories had Tony take more of a zen humility towards his recovery, Van Lente's version reminds us that this is still very much the cocky bastard we know and love. Tony makes a lot of self-effacing comments as he wanders Wilshire Boulevard, like how Oprah owes him a big confessional scene on her show, or how he now understands Spider-Man's difficulty affording web fluid ( and will reverse engineer a more efficient brand once he regains his wealth ). These definitely have a bitter edge, keeping with Tony's larger character; this is the point where Tony has lost everything due to his own damn fault, basically having given all his resources over to a madman while he was enjoying the luxury of a drunken stupor. ( A nice flashback scene is shown where Obadiah Stane is gloating over the recently deposed Tony, about how he won't last a day without his wealth; another nice continuity nod, since Obadiah was poor as a child, and became a cold-blooded mastermind in order to get an advantage over the world that gave him such a lousy start ).

Tony's best stories are lessons in humility for him, be it the original Stane Saga, Matt Fraction's run, or his neural degeneration under Byrne/Kaminski. I like that Van Lente is revisiting this chapter of Tony's history, and having Tony confront just how far he's fallen when he's hanging out on the street with a paranoid schizophrenic, and realizes that not so long ago, he, too, was a deranged street person. Very few challenging stories have been told with franchise superheroes that don't get retconned away somehow, but Tony's descent into alcoholism is one of them. Even though he regained all his wealth, he still endured the trauma and shame of that class plummet. It's good that we get a reminder of just how far he fell.

Also, I want to give equal commendation to artist Steve Kurth, who did the previous Legacy arc as well as the Ultimate Armor Wars series. Not only is that timeliness impressive in an era where many artists need a break after a single arc, but the art is beautiful. The rendering of the Proto-Classic armor ( the one with the horned mask ) is especially impressive, as well as the awkwardness of Tony having to get around on his armor's roller skates once his boots run out of jet fuel.