The Konami game company’s Metal Gear games are awesome. They’re kind of the reason I was thinking of impractical doomsday weapons the other day which Russia might create to terrorize earth. The name ‘Metal Gear’ is referential to a nuclear-powered walking battle tank which forms a core story element in the games. The games are notable for their visionary takes on the information age, weaponized genetics, and military technology; built on a foundation of great gameplay, visuals, and music. But they are also rife with crazy conspiracy theories.
By the time you complete playing a Metal Gear game, you probably: 1. feel like a badass, but 2. may be convinced that series creator Hideo Kojima is something of a mad genius. Maybe you might even go a little crazy.
After giving up on trying to integrate some Metal Gear music into the blog yesterday, this morning I coincidentally Googled ‘metal gear russia‘ and was surprised to see that the top results referenced June 2019 stories about Russian Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kartapolov who told a Duma panel that [translation]:
“The American intelligence agencies are widely implementing projects on the Internet, such as Graphics, Metal Gear, Echo of the Runet, aimed at directly manipulating the public consciousness and above all young people… A number of programs are being implemented aimed at creating active protest activity and dissatisfaction among the authorities of the country among young people“.
(According to the Interfax report, ‘What Kartapolov meant under the name “Graphics” was not found out’.)
Due to Russian efforts to sow discord online this criticism seems to be a usual bit of misleading Freudian projection. Given the conspiratorial overtones in the games, it is quite poetic in my view that Metal Gear would become embroiled in a Russian conspiracy theory as a supposed information weapon of the West. But it is a conspiracy that is simply easy to disprove. Maybe I can offer a better hypothesis for what the game series represents.
As Polygraph points out related to Kartapolov’s claims, the idea of Metal Gear being some US Intelligence project doesn’t ring true. Metal Gear is a Japanese game series which was launched in 1987 on the MSX2 computer. It isn’t an American game series. Kojima also quit Konami shortly after the release of the last game in 2015 and it is unclear if Metal Gear Solid 6 will ever be made.
I do think it would be fair to say that the Metal Gear Solid (MGS) games which launched in 1998 on Sony Playstation (as a polygon-era reboot) have some element of Russian ‘enablement of terrorism’ inherent in all the narratives.
Yes, MGS2 (2001) in particular has indeed been seen as ‘prophetic’ for its foretelling of an era of fake news and information warfare. But in this case, while MGS2 may have significant plot elements related to Russia, the conspiratorial story is centered on the US political system.
There also do seem to be legitimate examples of Russian culture as opposed to Russophobia influencing the Metal Gear game design. For one, there were widespread allegations that the Metal Gear Solid theme was a plagiarism of Georgy Sviridov (leading to the theme being pulled from MGS4 and onward).
It isn’t hard to see why someone who has national pride could be offended by the games. It is true that from the earliest moments Solid Snake steps foot on (the fictitious) Shadow Moses Island on the Fox Archipelago in the Bering Sea in MGS1 in order to bring down the FOXHOUND terrorist cell and avert nuclear catastrophe, he is intrigued by the arrival of a Russian Hind-D chopper and how the terrorists may have procured it.
- In MGS2 (2001), the terrorists are enabled by a rogue Russian general and his mercenaries.
- In MGS3 (2004), (as the genetic predecessor of the MGS1 character who is a genetically-engineered clone) the player learns a lot about the GRU and fights GRU soldiers.
- In MGS4 (2008), set in a heavily militarized future, a recurrent theme of Private Military Contractors (PMC’s) and mercenaries from the earlier games is developed. Although the game doesn’t specifically focus on Russia, in the game canon the main villain Revolver Ocelot is of Russian (and American) heritage.
- In MGS5 (‘MGSV’ / 2015) the player reprises a doppelganger of the MGS3 character and infiltrates Soviet-occupied 1980s Afghanistan as a mercenary serving generally Western interests.
However, there is no clear trend towards ideological identification with the West across the series. While the player often finds themselves in a position performing work for Western interests, those interests are portrayed as opaque, frequently betraying, and therefore not to be trusted. I believe the game series takes a neutral ground along these lines when it comes to being pro-American vs. anti-Russian. For starters, the Metal Gear weapons are frequently American, and of American design (the exception being MGS3).
- In MGS1, the terrorists are members of a US special forces unit.
- In MGS2, the final boss is the former American President and many of the ‘bosses’ are from a US military unit.
- In MGS3, the player pursues his mentor as a defector to the Soviets but finds the answer is not so simple.
- In MGS4, the player frequently finds himself clashing with the interests of the US military.
- In the hand-held game Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker (2010), the enemies are CIA agents.
- In the MGSV prelude game ‘Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ (2014), the player infiltrates a US Naval facility based on Guantanamo Bay and kills US servicemen.
- In MGSV, the main terrorist is a defector from a US special forces unit who betrays the Russians.
Overall, the series presents a theme of a conspiracy to dominate the world by an AI system called ‘The Patriots’ (which is much of the basis for its serviceability as foretelling modern information warfare). The nations of the world, and the genetically modified, protagonists of the games are also pawns of this system. In this sense, I think the game series is neither pro-Western or anti-Eastern.
Instead I think it is reflective of a Japanese perspective on the nuclear age turning into an information age and the potential metastasizing threats which come with it . The Russians may be more frequently the enemy grunts in the game, but never do they really seem to be the ‘Wizard of OZ’ behind the scenes. It’s usually some collaboration of Eastern and Western operatives selfishly escalating the tension.
That said, I think it would be fair to say that it is hard to believe the Aum Shinrikyo cult movement was not influential on Japanese attitudes as the millennium approached and MGS1 was released. Their 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Japanese subway were horrifying examples of modern terrorism. Further, the Nostradamus-obsessed cultists were seemingly heavily enabled by Russian government elements – with Russia providing them a military helicopter; and Aum Shinrikyo recruiting many Russians as cult members. They also recruited Russian scientists who allegedly attempted to build nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
This kind of story added to ideas of poorly controlled nuclear materials and terror-inspiring briefcase bombs which were frequently associated with Russia in this era. The idea of a palpable ‘Russian connection’ to apocalyptically-motivated attempts at nuclear terrorism could be expected to be known by the obviously well-read Kojima.
(It is also worth mentioning, though I haven’t developed it here – how much like elsewhere in the world, Japanese Nostradamus interest is linked to the Russian Orthodox (via Ben Goto), who seems to have inspired Aum Shinrikyo and cults like Soka Gakkai.)
It is not hard for me to imagine the arrival of the Hind-D in MGS1 as being reflective of Russian efforts to aid Aum Shinrikyo and echo the (attempted) nuclear terrorism of the group.
But we also shouldn’t take the bait and look at Metal Gear as an American intelligence project. We should look at it as a reflection of Cold War geopolitics, from the perspective of someone from the only country to have been attacked in war with a nuclear weapon – Japan. The theme of nuclear proliferation is constantly examined in the games.
Metal Gear cautions everyone to be wary of the perils of biotechnology, nuclear power, and information warfare and seems to view the world itself as a battleground. The player is on that battleground in a gray zone. The Fox Archipelago is between East and West, where Russia meets America. I doubt this is a coincidence.
In this sense, the possible reflections of millennial apocalypticism and Aum Shinrikyo in 1998’s Metal Gear Solid should be seen also as reflective of Japanese fears – not those of a government – but of the culture and interpreted by the game’s visionary creator (Kojima). Characters like Revolver Ocelot and Sunny Emmerich/Gurlukevich can be seen to be the product of the intersection of the East and West culture in the game which contributed to the present age derived from the Cold War, not an endorsement of one culture or another. It focuses on ‘child soldiers’ of the nuclear-biological-information battlefield, but not those of a particular nation. Snake’s group of mercenaries is ideologically portrayed as an army without a nation, or a Militaires Sans Frontières.
In Metal Gear’s self-referential way, one may wonder if it comments on the players themselves as child soldiers in such a technological war of cultures and ideas in a post-national internet world.
I’ve recently thought about how art can be unintentional propaganda, or have the same effect when it reflects the beliefs of the culture which created the art. That could be true for fascists or communists, or any political system I think. So in this sense too, I think Metal Gear may have a similar function as “Japanese” propaganda when reflecting the political views or imagination of Kojima which seems cautionary on nuclear matters – rather than a US one. If anything, I think it is equally damaging to American pro-war ideology as that of Russians.
In a similar vein, I enjoyed The Witcher games as well and recently glanced through an interesting thesis on the Polish game series which places its stories within a Polish national context. That game world finds itself at the mercy of two empires (seemingly influenced by the German and Russian). Maybe it is where I got this idea.
Instead of being an information weapon, I think the MGS series is important as a visionary meditation in evaluating the potential technological future and the perils it can bring; even if it is often ridiculous and rife with conspiracy. Anticipating the intersection of war and information control, the series might indeed inspire young people to resist information control.
On another level, were the US to ‘implement Metal Gear’, I think we would beat the Russians at the crazy nuclear superweapons game. But maybe they are all just information weapons in the end.