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.

26 Responses to “The FOXHOUND Gospel”

  1. Outgoing: The FOXHOUND Gospel | Project: Ballad Says:

    [...] The FOXHOUND Gospel – a look at MGS, Animal Man, and how metacommentary doesn’t have to at the exclusion of real world commentary. [...]

  2. Cleofis Says:

    First off, thanks for finding a way to bring two of my favorite subjects (Morrison and MGS) together :) Secondly, this is a very interesting read that sheds light for me on Kojima’s intentions for the series; I think people (myself included) tend to vastly underestimate just how intelligent Kojima and the MGS games really are, and I’m consistently impressed with how he manages to find new things to say despite his apparent dislike of continuing the series.

  3. Zom Says:

    I don’t know much about Kojima, but what I do know has long suggested to me that he’s got a lot in common with our Grant.

    Cleofis, are you inferring from the content of the games that Kojima isn’t interested in continuing the series, or has he actually said as much.

  4. Ken Quichey Says:

    “We all understand that theory of criticism,…”

    Oh yeah, obvs we do. God, I can’t imagine ever even having a conversation with someone who doesn’t.

  5. Ken Quichey Says:

    This was a very interesting, but tantalising, little article.
    I want to know some specific instances of what Metal Gear Solid does in relation to self-reflexivity, critique of war/wargames and the other claims you make for it.
    You managed that, to an extent, while talking about Animal Man, which is grand but I’ve read that anyway.
    Can you give examples from the game? I’m intrigued but I’m almost certain that I will not be playing it through anytime soon myself.

  6. Ken Quichey Says:

    I think I might have found what I was looking for over at yr projectballad place (as linked to in first paragraph) unless there’s more.
    I want more. Computer games could be amazing things if they weren’t (generally) so pre-modern. By which I basically mean obsessed with simulation and suspension of disbelief. Like pre-modern literature.

  7. QueenB Says:

    I love both Morrison and Kojima, But I find Kojima very difficult to deal with in regards to his sexual politics. I feel like the guy does genuinely have something important he wants to say, but it gets obscured behind things like having naked supermodels crawling around covered in goo, or the constant staring at the female characters breasts. I guess it could be argued that he’s being satirical in his overt objectification of women, but it just rubs me the wrong way.

  8. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    First: great idea for a post. Loved it. Thank you Patchwork Earth.

    @Quichey – the self-reflexivity of the Metal Gear series is more clear in MGS2-4. However, at the moment, I cannot think of anything specific. I think that, because later games consciously echo the first adventure, the MGS series is build in many ways to comment upon and mock itself. Bosses show up as toys and seem to endlessly replicate, enacting a parody of the prismatic while Snake’s family tree and back story comes to resemble a soap opera more than it does a venerable genealogy.

    I’m thinking suddenly of this scene from MGS4, after Liquid has taken control of The System:

    Here was have a scene that both mocks gameplay and comments upon machine dependency in the 21C. It also happens to show a bunch of shit exploding.

    @QueenB – Yes, Kojima–unlike Morrison–treats female characters as Princesses to be saved, murderous Sirens, treacherous Whiners, or some combination thereof. Its a significant failure on his part.

  9. James W Says:

    Fair criticism, but in my (very possibly faulty) memory, Olga from 2 and The Boss from 3 are decent counter-examples. As nuanced/cool as any males in the series.

  10. James W Says:

    Also worth a cf.: and panel 2

    Sorry, I’m being that awful “nuh-uh, my favourite ain’t sexist!” fanboy, aren’t I? None of the above excuses the Sniper Wolf/EVA pandering, obviously.

  11. QueenB Says:

    I mean, I am a bigtime fan of Kojima, to the point where I choose to overlook the weirdness. Sometimes it does get pretty difficult to overlook things – like this for example from Peace Walker:

    It’s like he’s got a split personality between a perverted adolescent and a thoughtful adult.

  12. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    Yeah, I should add that Kojima’s (as QueenB calls it) perverted adolescent behaviour doesn’t stop me from being a fan of the series.

    Also, I know that calling a creator “sexist” can be hurtful to their fans. The accusation silently implies that those who enjoy the creator in question are likewise sexist (or racist, or whathaveyou). Nothing of the sort was meant. I’m just sayin’ that Kojima, while an interesting and occasionally brilliant storyteller (as in MGS1), has a couple hang-ups….

  13. James W Says:

    Of course (2 u both)! I can’t watch either of those clips because I still haven’t played 4 or Peace Walker (just started 4, actually), but it sounds like I’ve the creepiest 2 entries in the series in store. Hooray!

  14. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    Right. Now that that is done with, I wanna hear more about reflexivity and the critique of war in the MGS series. I’ve often thought that Metal Gear, and video games generally, deserved more analysis.

    This is good stuff!

  15. QueenB Says:

    I find the dichotomy in the MGS series between the horror of war (and nuclear war in particular) and the fetishisation of guns and the individual soldier to be completely fascinating.

    I’ve always found ‘Best Man Fall’ from the Invisibles and the MGS series to share some DNA between them. The idea that every masked goon that the action hero takes down is its own individual tragedy is one that is rarely explored in popular culture. The player character in the MGS games is generally regarded in game as being naturally gifted, but at the same time they are given constant explicit instructions by their commanders which blurs the line between them and the soldiers they are avoiding/killing. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the parallels between this and King Mob in the Invisibles on this website.

    It always strikes me as bizarre that in the background of all this thoughtfulness are frequent and detailed explanations of just how AMAZING THIS FUCKING GRENADE LAUNCHER IS OH MY GOD IT CAN FIRE A 5IN INCENDIARY ROUND THAT CAN INCINERATE A 5M SQ RANGE.

  16. QueenB Says:

    Incidentally, fuck the Matrix taking its inspirations from the Invisibles; this is where the heart is at.

  17. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    You do see a lot of enthusiasm for weapon specifications in MGS4, mostly from that weapons dealer, but isn’t there much more enthusiasm for gizmos throughout the MGS series generally? Think about how often we receive information about nanites, camouflage suits, airborne cameras, and computer viruses? It seems to me that we receive that sort of information more often and in much greater detail than information regarding weaponry.

    This didactic feature of Kojima’s storytelling resembles that of Morrison and Ellis (probably more so Ellis). And at the same time the gizmos echo or bring to the surface the broader themes of MGS, such as machine dependency, nature and nurture, etc.

    As for the question of tragedy among individual characters, I wonder if a better word wouldn’t be farce or travesty. Although the MGS series plays with the notion of fate, it does not seem that fate has much to do with the downfall of the series’ villains. Most are simply deluded or damaged beyond repair, playing out a grotesque mockery of the central Metal Gear narrative.

  18. Ken Quichey Says:

    In the context of storytelling media, it might possibly be worth distinguishing between tragedy and events which are tragic.
    Just for clarity, like.
    A death is tragic.
    A death which is inevitable, due to the essential character of the deceased, is the culmination of a tragedy.
    Not just because they’re a soldier, but because they are the protagonist of a dramatic form which revolves around their inescapable fate, as formally explicated in the narrative to which they belong.
    As opposed to a comedy, which is where ugly alcoholics draw faces on their genitals and screech about their ex-partners, so that their audience can howl and wet their cheeks without embarrassment.
    And stuff like that sort of thing.

  19. Ken Quichey Says:

    That youtube links’s giving me the old 404.

  20. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    Sorry ’bout that.

  21. Ken Quichey Says:

    Wow. The voice acting in that game is really quite camp. (I also looked at the clip QueenB posted with the dude salivating over the customised .45)
    That guy making kiddy gun-fingers that really work is a bit eerie. Like a Marshall McLuhan addendum about the future of military technology.
    The gun as the extension of the (child’s) gun-fingers.
    Shit, is it McLuhan I’m thinking of? Someone here will know what I’m on about.
    It’s a bit of a lame connection anyway.
    Or maybe… Did I dream it, or are modern tanks controlled with playstation-style control pads?

  22. Patchwork Earth Says:

    Oh, hey, I guess I should reply to some of these:

    Ken: In a game where one character says “war became a series of games that refused to end” and literally shows all of the games in the series in the Playstation menu during a cutscene, I’m guessing if you saw controllers, they were there.

    On Kojima and women: His dirty sense of humor makes things difficult, I admit. This is one reason I made a point in the article of playing the “death of the author” card. Because intention is beside the point. Here’s the thing, though: oftentimes your discomfort is part of the point. When Snake and his “dad” leer at their asses and tits, you should feel ashamed. They’re not likable people. Good characters, not likable people.

    On female characters in MGS: Meryl was not the greatest character in MGS 1, but her reappearance in MGS4 solidified her purpose in the narrative: She expected life to conform to a story that she was telling herself – this is not a female-specific flaw, and actually aligns her with the player’s expectation of Snake. When she finally lets go of those expectations, in the climax, one of her self-told stories is finally granted, when she gets her wedding. You know, my wife winced a bit at Meryl in MGS1, but by the end of MGS4 she thought Meryl had A) grown up, B) kicked ass, and C) loved that she got together with Johnny. I think strong female characters exist in MGS, and not just in the Kate Beaton sense of the term. Eva has to carry double the weight, because she’s also a Bond girl pastiche in a Bond-parodying story, and Bond girls by nature can’t escape sexualization. Context is always key. Not that I’m going to blame anyone who IS offended.

    Self-reflexivity in MGS: I covered quite a bit of that in the Brecht article on my site, yeah, but really look no further than the character of Raiden, who many gamers hated at first glance. Raiden is asked to “be” Snake and keeps getting jammed into that role, square peg-style, when his first instinct at any given moment is to comment on how ridiculous and stupid every situation that he gets thrown into really is. I love Raiden. Every time he whines, I laugh harder and want to high-five Kojima.

    Zig: As I said in my other article, I don’t think the first MGS game is as “vanilla” as many people claim it to be – it only such in comparison to the others. On its own, it’s quite consciously silly and deliberately artificial.

    Thanks to all for commenting.

  23. Ken Quichey Says:

    Re: controllers.
    No, I haven’t seen that game. I was thinking of RW tanks. Maybe in a Michael Moore film? (if that counts as RW – well not from a computer game anyway, that’s the point; that’s one end of the eeriness vector.)

  24. Kind Words! | Project: Ballad Says:

    [...] piece that was recently posted here might be interested in following the somewhat-related post over at the Mindless Ones, which recently made Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers and got a kind nod from Sean T. [...]

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