Ruby Nation

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hal "Otacon" Emmerich, Metal Gear Solid's Autistic Hero?

Fictional characters on the autism spectrum are hard to find, and good characters in that category are almost non-existent. As autism has become more prevalent, we've seen it portrayed more often in the media, but those portrayals too often fall into the stereotypes, such as the damaged, volatile child unwittingly tearing apart his supportive family, or the emotionless polymath sociopath who can do horrible things without seeing a problem. There are very few autistic protagonists, or even supporting characters of a positive nature*.

Thus, many autistic people have found themselves speculating on which of their favorite fictional characters fit the spectrum, following the completely understandable need to see inspiring figures to fit into their own narrative world. Sometimes these fictional diagnoses are simple wish fulfillment that don't describe the diagnosed character at all, such as claiming that Severus Snape of Harry Potter has Asperger's Syndrome**. Others are much more accurate, such as Grant Morrison's in-universe speculation that Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four is autistic, and could (and should) be incorporated into canon.

An example of the latter is Hal "Otacon" Emmerich, Solid Snake's tech-guy sidekick in the Metal Gear Solid series of video games. Otacon's spectrum traits go beyond simply being a nerd, and put him squarely in the neuroatypical category. If you don't believe me, here's the evidence...


1.) Otacon's interests are (or were) so obsessive and insular that he missed the harsh realities attached. When he was introduced in the PSOne game, he was designing a Metal Gear unit because he wanted to make robots like he'd seen in anime. He was attached to that utopian sci-fi narrative, the kind where fantastical machines keep people safe. He was also completely oblivious to the fact that his creation was being used as a platform for nuclear missiles, until Snake bluntly spelled it out for him. Otacon's code-name is short for "Otaku Convention", and his desk is covered with little toys and posters. In another series, he might have been able to play out his fantasies and help the world with his giant robot fixation. In Metal Gear, of course, he became instrumental in the creation of the world's most devastating WMD.

2.) Otacon is extremely literal-minded. This is used with hilarious effect in the Snake campaign of Metal Gear Solid 2, where the good doctor tries to read Snake ancient words of wisdom upon saving his data (the way Mei Ling did in the previous game). Unfortunately, he completely misses the point of those famous quotes, and comes up with extremely bizarre interpretations after taking them at face value. The phrase "It's better to be first among roosters instead of last among bulls", according to Otacon, means that it's better to be a chicken because cows are subjected to alien cattle mutilations.

3.) Otacon is TERRIBLE at understanding his relationships. The extent to which he does not comprehend others' intentions (or his own, for that matter) leads to some of the most tragic scenes in a series known for its depressing tone. In MGS1, Otacon falls for Sniper Wolf, a bloodthirsty sniper and one of the terrorists holding him hostage. It is unlikely that she reciprocates beyond a show of basic decency (as he helped feed her dogs), but Otacon takes this mercy and uses it to fuel his childish crush. It's touchingly pathetic how fast-- and how hard-- he falls for Wolf, especially after her demise at the hands of Solid Snake. And we see it happen again in MGS4, when the morally ambiguous Dr. Naomi Hunter seduces Otacon so she can get data needed for a larger plan. The ease with which she manipulates him, saying all the right words about atoning for the sins of her science to create a quick emotional bond, is disturbing to watch when you know what she's up to.

The is explored in MGS2, where we learn about Otacon's past-- he was always socially isolated, and his sole companions were the family his father married-- his step-sister and step-mother. He became strongly attached to the former and even played house with her, despite the fact that she was five years old and he was a teenager (though Otacon had no salacious intentions spending so much time with the little girl-- he just wanted to experience family). Unfortunately, he was also "seduced"*** by his step-mother, which led to his father's suicide and Otacon subsequently running away from home. We don't hear much about the details other than Otacon's words (which are words of contrition, blaming himself for all of this), but it's unlikely that he understood what was going on at that point-- his inherent lack of social awareness facilitated all these tragedies.

There's also the fact that by far Otacon's strongest relationship is with Snake, as the two men work and live together, and even end up adopting a child in MGS4. The homoerotic subtext is so thick that it basically ends up as text, but it's not exactly clear if Otacon's feelings for Snake are romantic. He likely doesn't understand what he feels for Snake, other than the intensity of the connection. The sensitive nerd and the dour super-soldier end up having quite a bit in common, as seen in the "bad" ending**** of MGS1. Both are profoundly isolated human beings, even if Otacon's loneliness is more internalized than his lab-grown, shell-shocked veteran partner.

4.) Most importantly, Otacon is a complex and sympathetic character. As I said before, when autistic characters are shown in most fiction, they're shown in terms of stereotypes and plot devices. But Otacon grows and changes over the course of Metal Gear Solid, and provides a vital pillar of strength. He's the most genuinely decent character in the entire series, surpassed only by The Boss from the prequel MGS3. And The Boss is the series' messiah figure, so it's not really a contest.

When we first see Otacon, it's as a messy-haired, badly-dressed, bespectacled little dork . His first appearance is hardly auspicious, as he's wetting himself in terror when confronted by a crazed cyborg ninja. But he shows tremendous courage later in the game, taking full accountability for his part in Metal Gear's creation and risking his life to shut it down. In the second game, he's Snake's tech-guy and half of the anti-Metal Gear organization Philanthropy, working to destroy those robotic WMDs despite the risk to his personal safety. He's also become more attractive and well-dressed, though still a bit dorky looking. And by MGS4, Otacon has developed a rugged handsomeness that puts him square in Hot Scientist territory. Poor hygiene is a common trait in autistic people, but it's not an insurmountable habit-- Otacon proves this.

But most importantly, Otacon is by Snake's side during all these ordeals. Snake is the action hero of Metal Gear Solid, the one putting his life on the line at every turn. But Snake couldn't be anywhere near as successful without Otacon's support. In MGS4, Snake has prematurely aged due to his cloned physiology breaking down, and has only a few months left to live. Otacon's tech is the only thing allowing Snake to survive on the battlefield; the strength-boosting Octocamo suit was Otacon's invention, as were the vision-enhancing Solid Eye and the helper robot "Metal Gear Mark 2" (redeeming the machine's tainted name). But Otacon's greatest act comes at the end of the game, when the still-dying Snake is wondering what he has left to live for in the new world, and Otacon promises to bear witness to Snake's final days. Otacon refuses to let Snake die alone and unloved.

I doubt Hideo Kojima created Otacon with autism in mind, but if the autism label is attached to the character, it not only fits him but helps eradicate many of the negative stereotypes.

** There's no evidence for this in the books, other than Snape being a thoroughly repulsive human being-- and that's just proof that he's a repulsive human being, even if he didn't prove outright evil.
*** Otacon's words. But it's a clear case of rape, and one of the few instances where female-on-male rape is shown to be just as bad.
**** In which female love interest Meryl doesn't survive, and is replaced by Otacon as Snake's symbolic reason to keep on living.


  1. I noticed a lack of comments. It's kind of saddening because this is a genuine art work. I have a limited understanding of the series but you still managed to connect the dots for a man who hasn't played a single Metal Gear game. I guess it helps that after playing Earthbound/MOTHER, I do KNOW video games can have advanced emotions and well developed characters that you can connect to and understand. Absolutely a good little read.