January 2nd, 2012

I’ve been a pretty bad Mindless; I haven’t been posting so much lately, because I’ve been busy working on that other thing, and my comrades here have been so exceedingly patient. While I was over there, doing that, I had an angry thought. See, some people said some nice things when I was talking about Metal Gear Solid, and since I’ve been playing those games a bit lately, I’ve also been reading what others have written, and somewhere or other I saw a statement that didn’t make any sense to me. “I just wish,” someone wrote, “that the games had something interesting to say about stuff in the real world, rather than just about video game design.”

So this made me think about Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man.

In some ways Kojima and Morrison have a bit in common, and I don’t mean surface level stuff like interests in things like meme theory. They’re both clever, maybe not the best in their fields but certainly in lofty places when you compare them to their peers; their works are both interested in moral issues but they often can’t help but get overly playful, often expressing critical views about their genres. There’s complicated storytelling stuff going on, with weird senses of humor, and the criticisms of their work tend to be the same: that they need stronger editorial hands, that they’re overly self-indulgent, that they’re deliberately obfuscating. Their fanbases tend to be violently protective, and sometimes more self-deprecating than the barbs from outside critics, and sometimes they miss the forests for the trees.

Hey, though, let’s get this out of the way first: let’s kill that “author” dead, okay? Their intentions are important, but only to a point. We all understand that theory of criticism, so I don’t want to dwell, but here and now I’m talking about what’s there, not what was intended. Guys like Moz or Hideo Kojima, their interviews and commentary can be valuable but only to a point. When we start comparing the finished works to the PR, you’re gonna get that cognitive dissonance going, and even a creator that made every good work by accident still made good work.

I’m sure people would be more interested in a comparison between the persistently strange Metal Gear Solid and Morrison’s The Invisibles – certainly, they’ve both got that spy chic going on and both series go about collapsing a lot of that us/them duality. Personally, though, I’m less interested in that. I think of Animal Man when I think of MGS because both works have these dual purposes that people have a hard time resolving. I don’t think either work is really as fragmented, though, as we tend to claim.

Here at the Mindless, Moz books are old hat for discussion, so let’s touch down there first. Animal Man is ostensibly about two things that never quite line up: one is Morrison’s views on animal rights, expressed through Buddy’s awakening consciousness of the subject, and one is a portrayal of what it would mean to discover that you were a comic book character. But are these subjects that unrelated? The key, I think, lies in the most obvious place: “The Coyote Gospel.”

The most beloved and celebrated issue of the run, “The Coyote Gospel” is the thesis statement for the story as a whole, and it takes place directly following the original limited series. You all know the tale by now: the Christ-like Wile E. Coyote analogue who comes bearing the story of his creator’s cruelty, and who is never able to deliver it. “Crafty Coyote,” though, is Animal Man – the creation of a cartoonist’s pen and made to suffer a series of trials in order to deliver a message to the world. If the connection wasn’t obvious enough at first glance, one of the first times that Buddy is trying out his powers in the series (pg 15, issue 1), he slips on a banana peel as a punchline. That Buddy’s superhero battles and crusading are constantly portrayed as out of touch in the face of real world issues confirms his separation from that world. So what is Buddy’s gospel?

The entire comic run of Animal Man is filled with screeds designed to make one more aware of animal rights, but the plot constantly involves Buddy’s rights as a fictional character. Like Crafty, he meets his creator and denounces the pointless cruelty of the storytelling, particularly those tropes involved in darker superhero fiction. As Morrison says when he meets his creation in the final chapter, the violence is expected and realistic, and maybe it would be better to be kind. We consider Buddy, after his struggles, to be alive enough that he deserves a happy ending. Certainly Morrison’s work has been full of expressions that fictional characters may as well be alive enough that such cruelty is unfounded, that they are deserving of existence.

It’s worth noting that Morrison’s “imaginary friend” Foxy, who is still out there calling back to him, even if he can’t see it, is an animal – a similar animal with a similar name to Crafty. These two stories, at the beginning and ending, parallel each other. These characters, imaginary or no, exist out there, the book argues. And that means that they are life. The book exists as a reaffirmation of the sanctity of life, be it forgotten superheroes or chimpanzees. The animal rights issues are a call to ending cruelty, and so are the metafictional elements, and the two dovetail to support one another. If you disagree with how Buddy is treated by his handler – not even his creator! – then how can you abide the cruelty towards animals? And in the same fashion, the similarities convey our disgust with animal cruelty on the fictional characters that support and inspire us. There is no difference in the text.

So, what does that say about Metal Gear Solid, which is a work with a more divided audience and a wide spectrum of critical reception?

Metal Gear Solid is about war and being a soldier. It’s about that subject in a lot of ways. The anti-nuclear message is perhaps the most obvious, as it’s carried through all of the titles even into the most recent installment. Like the animal cruelty issues of Animal Man, it’s literal and direct. There are other concerns that are addressed in the same way, though, like the moral responsibilities of the individual soldier, that makes the larger and more inclusive subject of the series something like “ruminations on the nature of war” – an incredibly gutsy subject to tackle in a series where the protagonists never serve in a frontline military conflict on screen.

Sure, Big Boss plays Che Guevara on the portables, Raiden suffers the PTSD of a former child soldier, and Snake slips through a series of pitched battles on his way to his objectives, but at no point do you, through the characters, serve in any sort of traditional soldier role. You’re always a spy, or a superhero, or a ninja, or even a general. This is, I think, by design. First-person shooters that portray on-the-ground combat have a tendency to glorify, and while your grandad taking that hill in one of the “good wars” might very well have been heroic, that doesn’t say a whole lot about the war itself, the context that put him there. It’s the stare-downs, double crosses, and vested interests that tend to tell the true story there. When Metal Gear Solid is being “serious,” it does have some things to say about war, and does so very literally.

But the game spends equal or more time talking about games themselves – especially their artificiality. Now, I covered the Brechtian thing once before, so I’d rather not repeat it all. But the game series as a whole spends a lot of time decrying sequels, the glorification of its protagonists, and reminding you in dozens of ways how absurd virtually every single aspect of the series is. The psychics and vampires, the potty humor, the way the fourth wall is treated like so much tissue paper. Some argue that Metal Gear Solid is about war games, not war. Well, which is it?

You know how in Animal Man, the danger in the climactic conflict was a giant missile being toted around, and how it looked very silly? And it was defused in the same way as the Thanagarian art piece from earlier in the book? The violence-as-statement, it was being equated with the “grim and gritty” superhero material, and so the solution was literally to just stop doing it. It was a reflection of Buddy getting his family back in the ending – the idea that even in delivering the message, the book was on some level part of the problem (which is one of the reasons, I think, that we’re able to handle the awkwardly-handled near-rape in the book’s opening chapters). It’s only because the book is about books, and about something outside of books, that it’s able to deliver its message with the correct level of self-criticism.

And maybe that’s a roundabout way of viewing it, but that’s how I see Metal Gear Solid. You can argue that certain elements are very aggressive towards the player, but the harshest of its criticisms are always turned inward. As a wargame against war, and against wargames, it can only deliver its message properly if it’s properly self-critical. That make sense?

Here’s the pointed end of the stick: in criticizing war-based video games, the series is inherently criticizing the perception of war, because this is one modern way in which it is expressed. When Metal Gear Solid 4, for instance, spends much of its time attacking the nature of sequels, it’s also inherently attacking the idea that war does not have true consequences. Because there can be no consequences in a story that continues indefinitely. Isn’t this, after all, the problem that Buddy faced? That someone else would take over and drag him through other cruelties?

You can’t necessarily have one without the other. A game that convincingly looked at war in the manner that Metal Gear Solid does, without picking apart its own medium, would likely be an unplayable polemic. Any efforts made to entertain would undermine its message. And so in order to facilitate both the game itself and the game as artwork, it has to, by nature, be self-reflexive. Games about other subjects would not have this problem, but violence is such an in-built component of most of the games industry, it had to work in both directions. In this way, the form and the content worked to support each other.

Like Animal Man, it couldn’t comment on the real without commenting on itself.

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