A Nietzschean Take On Metal Gear

“Everyone who has ever built anywhere a new heaven first found the power thereto in his own hell.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


At its heart, the Metal Gear series is a tragedy in the Shakespearean fashion; a saga tightly focused on a single, doomed family and its internecine conflicts over the course of several generations. It’s a tale about the fall and redemption of the ‘House of Snake’; a lineage beginning with The Joy (aka The Boss), continuing through Naked Snake (aka Big Boss) and finally onto Solid Snake, the young redeemer. Like all great tragedies, however, the tale is merely a lens through which to explore philosophy and human nature on a grander scale. Hideo Kojima has displayed a great passion for Western philosophy; his explorations run the gamut of Kant’s Pursuit of Peace to the Hegelian dialectic. His deepest passion, however, he seems to save for Nietzsche.

The most recent game in the series (and Kojima’s last entry to the saga) is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It begins its final act with a Nietzsche quote:

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”

It makes for a fitting end to a game so hotly debated in its hidden meanings – hell, even some major plot points are barely agreed upon by the fanbase. One of the main controversies surrounding the game is its allegedly unfinished nature – Kojima’s magnum opus, cut short! Some thought it a grand postmodern experiment, designed to inspire the same ‘phantom pain’ in the audience that the game explores in its protagonists. Whatever the case, it seems evident that the game is at least not as complete or comprehensive as the director originally intended it. It was while ruminating on this fact, along with the aforementioned quote, that I began to think about Thus Spoke Zarathrustra. Arguably Nietzsche’s most famous work, it was originally intended to be six parts but was finished at four. Upon further reflection I noted the philosophical inspiration evident in Kojima’s story, with Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘Ubermensch’ (or ‘Overman’) playing a massive part in the tale of Big Boss, his mentor, and Solid Snake.

The idea of the Overman is Nietzsche’s conception of a transcendent state of being. It is the idea of a man who has overcome the human condition, who is liberated from all influences and authorities: a being of pure, unadulterated will. The Overman is thought of as being ‘at play’ with life, creating his own fate, his own values – a boundless creativity borne of true freedom. However desirable a state, Nietzsche pulls no punches in describing the sacrifices man must make to achieve it. In Thus Spoke Zarathrustra – a kind of ‘guidebook to the Overman’ – he details the three stages of evolution one must go through to achieve this transcendence. I found this model mirrored in the complex storyline of Metal Gear, with each painful stage of spiritual metamorphosis described by Nietzsche being played out onstage by the three main characters.


Stage #1: The Camel, or Solid Snake

The first level of metamorphosis is characterized by the suffering of duty; the willingness to embrace great burdens. Nietszche writes:

“What is heavy? so asks the weight-bearing spirit; then it kneels down like the camel, and wants to be well loaded.
What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? asks the weight-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.
Is it not this: To humble oneself in order to hurt one’s pride? To let one’s folly shine in order to mock one’s wisdom?
Or is it this: To desert our cause when it celebrates its triumph? To climb high mountains to tempt the tempter?
Or is it this: To feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge, and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of soul?
Or is it this: To be sick and send away comforters, and make friends with the deaf, who never hear what you wish?
Or is it this: To wade into dirty water when it is the water of truth, and not repelling cold frogs and hot toads?
Or is it this: To love those who despise us, and give one’s hand to the phantom when it is going to frighten us?”

This laundry list of sufferings must be taken on by the camel willingly in order to begin the hard road to ascension. It is the camel’s lot to embrace duty and thus to struggle with all that the human condition brings: love, hate, fear and loneliness, confusion and death, the endless thirst for knowledge – and finally, to “love those who despise us”.

It is fitting that this first stage of metamorphosis is portrayed by Solid Snake, the youngest out of the three protagonists and unwanted son of Big Boss. His journey throughout the series is exemplified by duty and suffering. At turns loved and reviled by the world, he continues on the path regardless. His personal sacrifice knows no bounds; forgoing love and peace for the trauma and loneliness of fighting a war without end. He is tortured, betrayed, isolated, and while everyone around him is striving towards their own goals, he strives only to fulfill his duty to the mission. I don’t think anyone among us can watch that scene in the microwave hallway without wincing. As Otacon puts it: “Snake … Snake had a hard life.”

Nietzsche sees this first stage as the furnace forging the strength, the resilience, and most importantly the humility needed to ascend to the next stage.

“I’m no hero, never was. I’m just an old killer, hired to do some wet work…” – Solid Snake

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Stage #2: The Lion, or Big Boss

Where the first metamorphosis is typified by the stoic and humble camel, the next stage belongs to that avatar of pride and rage: the lion. Nietszche describes how the camel must eventually enter ‘the loneliest desert’. In seeking out and struggling with life’s greatest burdens, the camel becomes apart from humanity. His alienation is borne from an existential crisis; it is the dawning of Nietzsche’s realisation that life is without inherent meaning. The world is indifferent, and the idea of universal purpose and virtue are illusions that the camel can no longer fool himself with. It is in this desert that the camel has two choices: to die or to become a lion. It is the overriding question of Nietzsche’s philosophy: how can one continue after the harrowing realisation of the Universe’s lack of inherent meaning?

“Here it seeks its last master: it will fight him, and its last God; for victory it will struggle with the great dragon.
What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? “You shall,” is what great dragon is called. But the spirit of the lion says, “I will.”
“You shall,” lies in its path, sparkling with gold – a beast covered with scales; and on every scale glitters a golden, “You shall!”
The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of all things – glitter on me.
All values have already been created, and all created values – do I represent. Truly, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more. Thus speaks the dragon.
My brothers, why is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why is it not enough the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent?
To create new values – that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating – that can the might of the lion do.
To create itself freedom, and give a holy No even to duty: for that, my brothers, there is need of the lion.
To assume the right to new values – that is the most formidable assumption for a weight-bearing and reverent spirit. Truly, to such a spirit it is a theft, and the work of a beast of prey.”

In the Metal Gear universe, we witness the birth of the lion in 1963, in a small clearing in the Russian woods. Naked Snake (soon to become ‘Big Boss’) kills his mentor, mother figure, and only true love. Up til this point, he has seemed alike in character to Solid Snake – dedicated to the mission, a paragon of duty. But the traumatic events of the mission spur his metamorphosis, and in Rokovoj Bereg, Naked Snake finds his ‘loneliest desert’.

At this stage in the metamorphosis to Overman, Nietzsche saw man as essentially having only two choices. One can either reject life as meaningless, or summon the will to create one’s own meaning and virtues instead. In order to do this, the camel must slay the ‘last dragon’ – a glittering representation of all of society’s values and traditions. The dragon’s signature phrase is ‘thou shalt’; it is the pure embodiment of the masses’ imposition of will on the individual. While the camel has been growing in strength by embracing life’s many challenges, it is still under the sway of the dragon; in its deep sense of duty, the camel still subscribes to the inner values inflicted upon it from without. It must now use its strength to become the lion: if the dragon is summed up by the phrase ‘thou shalt’, then the lion roars instead ‘I will’. The lion, in its rage and courage, manifests a grand rejection of all external loci of control. Big Boss, upon pulling the trigger on his mentor at her command, comes to that rejection. Having been used and betrayed by governments, squadmates, and even in some sense by his only hero, Big Boss once and for all decides to live the burning life of individual will. He becomes a tragic Miltonian anti-hero; founding ‘Outer Heaven’, a nomadic military nation-state for disenfranchised and abused warriors, he and his soldiers embarking on a decades long conflict against all forms of authority. ‘The Patriots’ are the embodiment of all they have rejected – through information control and societal manipulation, the Patriots impose their own values and their own will on the world at large. Big Boss can be seen as nothing more than a bloodthirsty warmonger, sparking great conflagrations wherever he goes in his enduring wounded rage, but he is more than that – he is the individual human will personified, an avatar of Nietzsche’s famed ‘will to power’.

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.” – Big Boss


Stage #3: The Child, or The Joy

The final stage of Nietzsche’s metamorphosis is of course, the hardest. The tragedy at the center of the Metal Gear saga is that Big Boss was unable to make this final leap soon enough. His sorrow and rage consumed him, bringing the world with it. Nietzsche understood that one couldn’t live a happy life in pure, blind rejection, no matter how necessary it be for growth. In the final stage, there must be a cleansing acceptance, a ‘forgetting’. He describes it thus:

“But tell me, my brothers, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why must the predatory lion still become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes.
For the game of creating, my brothers, a sacred “yes” to life is needed: the spirit now wills its own will; the one who had lost the world now attains its own world.
Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I told you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

With this in mind, we can see that The Joy (aka The Boss), is the ultimate Nietzschean Overman. She understands the absolute lack of inherency in the world:

“Is there such thing as an absolute, timeless enemy? There is no such thing and there never has been – our enemies are human beings just like us. They can only be enemies in relative terms….Politics, economics, the arms race – they’re all just arenas for meaningless competition. But the Earth itself has no boundaries – no East, no West, no Cold War.”

Where Solid Snake stoically endures the horrors of life, where Big Boss rails and rages and fumes, the Boss accepts. She is codenamed The Joy for the delight that she takes in battle – the struggle of life and death is a game to her, she is ‘at play’ with life. For Nietzsche, this state of childlike affirmation gives rise to the unbounded creativity that defines the Overman. This is where man chooses his own ideals, wills his own will, and thus lives his own vision of reality. The Boss has her ideology misinterpreted many times over the violent generations following the Cold War, but what she truly wanted was for people to transcend the limits of the human condition and reach the pure, light clarity of the Overman. Big Boss, close to his death, finally realizes this at his own moment of ascension:

“Boss… You were right. It’s not about changing the world. It’s about doing our best to leave the world… The way it is. It’s about respecting the will of others… And believing in your own. Isn’t that… What you fought for?”

Originally published on Wow, It’s Super Internet Friends by freelance writer Dan Chamberlain. Republished with permission.

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