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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.

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