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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots Novel Review: A Labor of La Li Lu Le Love

As anyone who's known me in the past two years can attest, I love Metal Gear. It's been the subject of my literal autistic obsession ever since I played the original PS1 game as a digital download. Since then, I've played through every game, beat all of the games in the Solid series multiple times, collected the various merchandise (including those beautiful but expensive Play Arts figures), and worked references into several aspects of my life (including my comics). Metal Gear has all the things I look for in a story; complex and sympathetic characters, a sophisticated (if often arcane and absurd) narrative, an ability to switch between wacky humor and tear-jerking drama, and a complex metatextual understanding of its own nature as a story. The best of the series, IMO, was Metal Gear Solid 4, the canonical ending of hero Solid Snake's story as he pulls his his dying, prematurely aged body together for one big final mission.

When I heard there was a novelization of MGS4, I was initially blasé about it; novelizations are usually mediocre to poor, as cheap cash-ins haphazardly trying to shoehorn a story into a different medium. The more appropriate piece of evidence for this case is Raymond Benson's novelization of the PS1 game, which treated the story as though it were a straightforward, cheesy James Bond epic, even giving Snake several lame one-liners (such as saying "Merry Christmas" to an enemy Genome Soldier, then choking him to death and saying "Christmas came early this year!"), which didn't fit at all with his usual warrior-poet personality. But this novelization has a much greater pedigree; it was written by the late Project Itoh (real name Satoshi Ito), a Japanese novelist and a personal friend of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima. Itoh was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and fought a long, hard battle that tragically ended with his death in 2009. Kojima even writes the afterward of this novel, praising Itoh's work here and on his original stories (many of which were originally fan fiction of Kojima games like Snatcher), and saying that his "genes" are now infused into the Metal Gear mythology. Given how the series is all about genes and memes passing from generation to generation, this is lofty and touching praise.

But how is the novel itself? First of all, I should say that if you're a Metal Gear fan who's played MGS4, you absolutely have to read this book. The narrator is Hal "Otacon" Emmerich, who recounts the final days of his hetero life-mate's life (as he promised at the end of the game, bearing witness to everything the legendary hero was). This is a unique and more somber account of the events, leaving out the action scenes that wouldn't have contributed to the plot (such as the Beauty and the Beast Corps battles, grotesque parodies of Kojima's own wacky mini-bosses), and adding some background detail that fills in the gaps and revises the sillier elements of the story. For example, there's a section on the villainous Liquid Snake's history, which removes all the "recessive/dominant gene" nonsense of his backstory and instead tells about how he spent many of his formative years as a POW during the Gulf War, being degraded and tortured and left out to dry by his own government, while his twin-brother Solid Snake became the glorious hero of Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land. There's also some interesting sci-fi explanations of elements that might have confused you, such as all the bar codes on Raiden's cyborg exoskeleton, or the full extent of Snake's illness. It may not have occurred to gamers that flying from Morroco to Peru to Czechlosovakia to Alaska to a floating ocean fortress was very hard on Snake's lungs, given all the wild differences in atmospheric pressure.

And if you haven't played any of the Metal Gear games? To be honest, that's a bit of a harder sell. MGS4 was a game with an extremely complex plot that invoked story threads from throughout Metal Gear history. The game worked because there were playable segments that didn't need such complex understanding, as well as an easily understandable and sympathetic main story of Old Snake's final mission. Here, a lot of it is left to exposition, including details that tell what characters feel instead of showing. It was written to be accessible to a wider audience, but in the end there's a bit too much hand-holding with the dialogue, especially when it comes to Solid Snake's motivations. Then again, that may be justified by the fact that this is written from Otacon's perspective, and it seems within his character to mix long technical pieces with blubbering histrionics. Especially when it comes to Snake, since Otacon lived and worked closely with the man for nine years, and saw more of Snake's tender core, rather than his tough super-soldier exterior.

But though the writing can be overwrought, I'd still recommend this as a piece of science fiction. For all its warts, including a convoluted narrative, a generous amount of Narm, and a villain who is possessed by the transplanted right hand of another villain, MGS4 is still a heartfelt story with a beautiful message. By this point, the series had evolved from being an anti-war narrative to an anti-digital-control-narrative to an ANTI-NARRATIVE NARRATIVE. The dystopian future of MGS4, where mercenary companies have dominated the world, war exists as the impetus for the global economy (how very far-fetched, he says with a roll of the eyes), and almost everyone has their senses monitored and influenced by nano machines, is the grim result of a power struggle between men trying to enforce their own ideal narratives upon the world. The utopian obsessions, spawned by different misinterpretations of a heroic idol, have led to a struggle of liberty vs. security with a result that satisfies neither. And Solid Snake, an artificially created man manipulated by both sides, has to put things right, motivated by no ideology but the desire to keep the world afloat so future generations can make their own decisions. The kanji character on Snake's uniform/powered armor in MGS4 stands for "To Let The World Be"*, and while this may at first sound like cowardice, it's actually a strong endorsement of volunteerism. If people do not make their decisions of their own free will, as opposed to subscribing to a systemic master narrative (be it religion, nationality, or the idolatry of a hero like the Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3), then there can be no progress.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to check out some of Project Itoh's original works, right after removing the tears from my eyes after experiencing the Microwave Hallway scene AGAIN.

* You can even use this for a disability rights reading, since it endorses acceptance of differences and individual perspectives over master narratives, including ableist ones like enforcing that people try to be "fixed". 

1 comment:

  1. I am sure this book will definitley liked by all the Guns enthusiasts