“The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it…You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water
A man in a torpedo is launched from a submarine off the coast of an Alaskan island. He is briefed on the situation: terrorists have taken hostages. They want the remains of a legendary warrior so that they might be more like him.
The man surfaces and makes it to a service elevator guarded by two genetically enhanced soldiers. He takes cover, presses his hand to his ear and initiates a call.
“This is Snake,” the man grumbles.
But it isn’t, because Snake is not a character. He is an ideal that hangs above every Metal Gear Solid title. Snake is invisible, but always there.
Snake can have an hour-long conversation two feet away from a mercenary without being heard. Snake can’t quit smoking despite the surgeon general’s warning. Snake doesn’t kill people. Snake is better than those who resort to violence.
The first Metal Gear Solid defined Snake for the player. The mulleted agent of Foxhound uses stealth to procure his weapons on-site, a detail that makes the game feel like more of an accomplishment. Slipping by the enemy undetected, Snake’s lack of presence makes him stronger, elevating him to a higher plain than the average nameless soldier.
But there’s a paradox in Metal Gear Solid rooted in Snake’s multifaceted nature. In MGS1, the name Snake refers to both the player character and the main villain. You are Solid Snake and he is Liquid Snake, both clones of the aforementioned legendary warrior, named Big Boss in the first game, who also occasionally answers to Snake.
Because the player only sees the world of the first Metal Gear Solid form Solid Snake’s perspective, and since – assuming the player beats the game – he is (seemingly) the only Snake that survives the ordeal, the first entry establishes a prime identity.
Solid Snake is Snake, but only to us.
Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty, the second game in the franchise, puts distance between the players and their hero, reintroducing Snake in a prologue in a Manhattan tanker and then placing him out of reach when the ship sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic. The remainder of Sons of Liberty – the remaining eight to twelve hours of gameplay – is spent with Raiden, one of the worst received characters in modern gaming. MGS2’s protagonist uses the Snake codename only to have it stripped. Raiden is not Snake. Raiden is a joke.
The punchline is that the gameplay is identical. MGS2 has everything the first game had with better graphics. No controls change, just a voice actor and some animations (Raiden does an elegant, no-hands cartwheel instead of a dive roll). Both avatars are mechanically the same. Nothing is any less fun, but the switcheroo stings because players have a hero that suddenly must remain distant.
Solid Snake is still alive and a few steps ahead of Raiden the whole time, forcing players to literally follow in their hero’s footsteps. Even the self-aware plot borrows from MGS1. The sequel’s main villain is another Big Boss clone, Solidus Snake, who is genetically identical to Solid, Liquid and Big Boss. Snake seems to be everywhere in MGS2 except where you are.
It all comes to a climax near the end of the game when Raiden meets up with Solid Snake and the unplayable hero casually mentions that he is using an earned cheat to access unlimited ammo. Through the following sequence, you live and die by Snake’s generosity as he tosses you boxes of ammunition or health when you need a little boost.
You want to be Snake, and mechanically you are Snake, but Raiden isn’t Snake. Snake is always better than you.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – the third entry in the franchise – sends the series back to 1964 to give players a look at the man that spawned it all: Big Boss.
Codenamed Naked Snake for the majority of the game, Big Boss looks, controls and sounds exactly like the Solid Snake players remember. He procures his weapons on site and he is sneaky. Big Boss is even framed as the story’s real hero. He is the blueprint that gave birth to all other Snakes, enemies, heroes and meta-jokes alike.
Yet Big Boss fell short. He may be the only Snake in MGS3 (unless you count the actual snakes he eats), but the man’s progeny overshadowed him before we got to know the original spy behind the eyepatch. Better than Raiden but distinctly different from Solid Snake, Big Boss once again left players asking, ”Where’s Snake?”
But that’s the wrong question. Snake was there the whole time; people just didn’t see him (classic Snake move). In every moment of every game, Snake was the ends and the means. We were responsible for putting Snake in the game. Raiden is Snake. Big Boss is Snake. Solid Snake is Snake.
In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots you are given control of Old Snake: a more fragile version of Solid Snake in a world that may not need him. For the first time in the series, you are given the ability to buy weapons and ammunition instead of finding them. Weapons like the RPG or sniper rifle can be selected from a menu, purchased with in-game currency and equipped at will.
As a result, espionage – the defining quality of Metal Gear since the Super Nintendo games that preceded the series – is optional. For the most part, combat is not discouraged in MGS4. After depriving players of their hero for years, MGS4 gives him back as an old man who can do whatever the fuck he wants. It’s as if the game is testing you. “You like Snake? Show us.”
You must choose to be Snake when given the freedom to be yourself.
That’s the heart of Metal Gear Solid. Across four games, we play as four different versions of a legend whose actions made him unique despite being a clone. But the player was the one responsible for those actions. The player is the only thing that the Metal Gear Solid protagonists have in common.
Sixteen years after being introduced to Solid Snake, we are on the verge of a new entry in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Again, our hero is nearly unrecognizable. He might be Big Boss. He might be someone else. The comic grumble of David Hayter has been replaced by the popular tones of Kiefer Sutherland. Once again, this is not Snake, but it never really was.
The more we see of him the more we learn the truth. Snake is a choice. Metal Gear Solid is an education in identity that has nothing to do with convoluted plots, character models or voice actors and everything to do with simple awareness. It’s been so hidden in plain sight when we play these games that we must keep telling ourselves:
“This is Snake.”
“This is Snake.”
“This is Snake.”
Even if it’s not.