Video Games
A Nietzschean Take On Metal Gear

Dan Chamberlain | 29 Jan 2016 12:00
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"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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