Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Social Satire of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

    Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a much more thoroughly straight-forward in its satire than its sister title Metal Gear Solid. Despite this, its themes are no interesting. After the somewhat overwrought dissection of the War Economy and Media Control in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance returns to a more grounded reality. Well, a more grounded reality with cyborg ninjas and hundred-foot-tall mechanoids.

    The heart of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is the question of violence and its necessity. What level of violence is need to solve the world's problems, if any? It's an old question based around a fundamental problem with no solution. How does one solve the issue of violence without violence? If one side is willing to use violence and the other side isn't, does that mean the side which is willing will win automatically? History shows us examples from both sides.

    The Metal Gear series is decidedly anti-war but the games long struggled with the fact you were encouraged not to kill opponents while, nevertheless, still being a soldier. Revengeance's protagonist  is a character who fully embraces his role as a killer. Throughout the game, he gives various justifications for his violence ranging from "they chose this" to "I am a killer, so this is what I do."

    At the start of the game, he discusses the concept of deterrence and how a sheathed sword can prevent others from being drawn. I.e. the threat of violence is more important than the actual use of it. Likewise, he talks about the idea of killing one man to save many. The game dissects this question from multiple angles, pointing it out as both hypocrisy which favors the morality of killers and also as a truth of reality.

    Raiden saves many lives by killing villains but he's also confronted by the fact that the people he kills are usually employees, not evil themselves. Those who do evil deeds are unlikely to be intimidated by threats of violence against their minions. In short, deterrence is difficult unless you're willing to strike at those who make the decisions.

    Throughout the game, we have Raiden serving as the so-called "sword of justice." The gameplay encourages us to view combat as a ballet of swordplay, combos, and finishing moves. In contrast to Metal Gear Solid, which is filled with a largely melancholy instrumental score, the game is filled with Devil May Cry heavy metal which encourages you to enjoy the violence going on. As Raiden is cursed with "Jack the Ripper", his alter-ego who loves killing, so do we experience his blood-lust in a positive manner.

Raiden is not your ordinary hero in many respects.
     Yet, the strongest scene in the game is undoubtedly when Raiden is forced to confront a set of cybernetic policemen who have been brainwashed into being unable to retreat. Raiden is forced to kill them despite having their electronically recorded thoughts projected into his brain. He and we are forced to hear how terrified they are of fighting Raiden and how they have no idea what's going on.

    It's a brutal moment that calls into question the philosophy of war where one man is evil but to stop him you may have to kill ten thousand good ones. What about if said evil man was going to kill ten thousand and one or a million? The game gives no easy answers. Instead, it invites you to think about the serious consequences of going to war.

    The game's harshest criticism, in-fact, is of individuals who go to war for stupid or ill-considered reasons. America receives a rather brutal slamming in the game not for being the world's sole remaining superpower but having a military policy based on public opinion. The idea of going to war to raise public morale and industry is ruthlessly slammed. The game attributes this to the "toxic meme" of American exceptionalism.

    During one scene, Raiden literally pauses in the middle of a battlefield to surf the internet. He discovers that America is going to go to war with Pakistan because a group of mercenaries trying to assassinate the President have been killed (by Raiden). The nuances of the situation are completely lost in favor of the fact Americans have been killed on Pakistan soil.

    Unexpectedly, the villain of the piece, Senator Armstrong is repulsed by the typical attitudes of his fellow Americans. He loathes the greed, materialism, self-satisfaction, and lack of ideals amongst stereotypical US citizens. In a time when people have no religion or philosophy (a gross overstatement but reflecting feelings in some circles), being born in a specific place is no substitute for ideology. Unfortunately, his substitute is to try and replace it with an anarchy he believes will foster an environment of the strong.

    I think Kojima is being unfair to Americans in this respect. Americans are one of the most religious people on Earth and many others have secular ideologies. There is a strong undercurrent of materialism in the country but it is, by no means, the defining force behind our politics. Instead of accurately trying to deal with the issue of American exceptionalism, the game just ascribe Social Darwinist theory to its villains. They are all killers and believe the strong should rule the weak.

    Social Darwinism is a theory which has mostly been discredited (with good reason). However, Metal Gear Rising examines an element of it which relates to the eternal conflict between militancy and pacifism. The majority of Metal Gear Rising villains espouse a doctrine of "might makes right." However, repeatedly, Raiden is confronted with the fact that high ideals mean nothing against his opponents until he's strong enough to oppose them. In short, might doesn't necessarily make right but the right NEED might to enforce it. In short, violence is a tool that those who seek peace need as much as those who profit from war. I appreciated this point.

    The game also addresses, though not at length, the use of mercenaries and the problem of vagrant children. While both are issues in the real world, the game argues the real struggle is against human apathy towards them. Both continue to be a problem because people don't care enough to involve themselves. I'm not sure this is true. In my opinion, the larger social-political-economic issues are a great deal more complex than the game indicates but it, at least, made the effort to say the issue deserved more attention than it gave it.

    The main villains of Metal Gear: Revengeance are a PMC which has become so large and prevalent, it has started using advertising to brand itself as a family-friendly brand every American knows. This, despite the fact the PMC has nothing to offer most Americans. It has become normalized to the point it's nothing more than another company. After all, why not? America is a democracy and appoints the leaders which employ private military contractors. I feel highlighting this issue drew attention to the wrong questions to be asked about any company which profits from war.

    Yet, unlike previous games where the PMCs are demonized unilaterally, the game also shows Raiden's own military outfit as fairly moral. Raiden points out that most Private Military Contractors are just security providers and treating them all as mercenaries or war profiteers is unfair. It's a nice bit of reality in a game series which has, until now, treated all PMCs as instruments of evil.

    Its moral ambiguity on the subject is thrown away, however, with the PMCs use of child-soldiers. Thankfully, this is a subject we can all agree is universally bad. However, the game doesn't just stop at child soldiers but talks about poverty in general. The world is filled with abandoned or vagrant children who are either easy prey for criminals or unable to receive the kind of education which would pull them out of their circumstances. I consider education, alone, not enough but that's a conversation for another time.

    Metal Gear: Rising talks at length about how the problems with homeless children are manifold but have been ignored because it is too difficult a subject for most to tackle. The game forces the exploitation and suffering of the defenseless into your face and comes up with an imperfect but workable solution for the individuals involved. Raiden can't save the world but he can possibly save a small number of its citizens.

    The economics of both war and the failure of nations to care for children are both dealt with in the game. No one, aside from the cartoonishly-evil Desperado corporation, wants to hurt children. However, no one wants to foot the bill for their recovery either. A major subplot of the game is the attempt by the Maverick PMC to find a cost-effective solution for the care and education of the victims they find in Mexico and later Colorado. The end result seems to be putting the cost on the children, themselves, who must pay for the cyborg bodies which were cruely ripped away from them. "An imperfect solution for an imperfect world" indeed.

    In conclusion, the game is extremely effective at conveying its ideas of violence. Overall, I think the game comes down on the idea that violence is both necessary but also something not to be trivialized. As a student of the martial arts, however briefly, the first thing I learned was fighting was meant to be a last resort. The game taking the simple philosophy that violence begets violence but one should be prepared for it is a good one, especially when coupled with the knowledge it's something to be avoided when possible.

    More games should have this attitude.


  1. Loved your article, great summary, but this point I disagree with somewhat.

    Note: Spoilers for the game for those who haven't played below.

    (I think Kojima is being unfair to Americans in this respect. Americans are one of the most religious people on Earth and many others have secular ideologies. There is a strong undercurrent of materialism in the country but it is, by no means, the defining force behind our politics. Instead of accurately trying to deal with the issue of American exceptionalism, the game just ascribe Social Darwinist theory to its villains. They are all killers and believe the strong should rule the weak.)

    While I agree the villains all espouse variants of Social Darwinism as their raison d'etre, the American exceptionalism angle was pretty fair, and I say that as an American. During the battle with Metal Gear Excelsus, the song in the background talks about surrendering to the collective consciousness and letting the nation dictate your will, and it's most damning critique seems to be that blind patriotism can oversimplify public opinion, and combined with an inherent belief one's country is superior, it leads to an arrogance that one's country needs its glory impressed on others and that due to nuances of the situation being lost on those blinded by that arrogance, it leads to the situation Raiden saw where Americans were screaming for blood against what they saw as a bunch of enemies their great and noble nation needed to crush to assert their dominance, even though the facts when examined rationally were tragic but not war worthy, much like Vietnam was started over a questionably legitimate incident in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to a pointless war fought for reasons that many went with because the alternative seemed to be going against America's position of dominance in the Cold War era (i.e. - letting another nation fall to communism and thus forfeiting what made them "exceptional" in regards to resisting the spread of communist influence)

    However, despite the fact the incident Desperado engineered wasn't nearly as horrible as they tried to make it out to be, an inherent belief in America's exceptional status amongst the public blinded them to the nuances of the situation and thus made them more prone to start screaming for blood without thinking first, which has been and still is a common criticism of The War on Terror, so while the villains alternative was certainly not much better (even worse in many ways), the point that American citizens have a predisposition to American exceptionalism and thus become more prone to hive mind rage and knee jerk bloodthirst that make steering public opinion easier by those in power seems like a fair point to make.

    I concur that American exceptionalism is not part and parcel of the beliefs of every American citizen, but it has been enough of influence on events like The War on Terror I would consider the criticism fairly accurate.

    1. You raise a fair point and I think the satire on American exceptionalism is, perhaps, more nuanced than I gave it credit for. Certainly, the War on Terror did expose that the biggest problem in many respects was the public not thinking things through criticially (or the leadership). I'm glad you liked my review and appreciate you taking the time to sit down and compose such a well-thought-out response.

  2. No problem. Thanks for making a well thought out review/critique and being willing to accept respectful criticism and show good grace in return, look forward to your next one. :)

    1. Feel free to check out my other essays and articles!

  3. This is the best video game article I've ever seen. Most reviews and websites just write this game off as an "over the top hack and slash with robots", but it's one of the most in-depth ideological games out there, and you fleshed its themes out with great finesse.