The Metal Gear Solid series is a collection of strange games, made stranger through its habit of waffling on whether the goings-on are supernatural or technological. But within this world of ghosts and ghosts-in-the-machine, there’s one figure that stands above it all: that “powerful practitioner of psychokinesis and telepathy,” Psycho Mantis. The genius of Mantis as a villain is that he gets to rise above the usual cadre of Metal Gear Solid‘s half-vampires and nano-solidiers, to see the story for what it is. In a tale that oscillates between the natural and metaphysical, he gets to have it both ways. His supernatural stuff is technology: the system sitting in front of you. Standing apart from thousands of phony psychics, Mantis is the real deal, a seer who really can see something the rest of us can’t – the parameters of the game.

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As a member of Metal Gear Solid‘s turncoat FOXHOUND team, Psycho Mantis seems at first to be one of a menagerie. They all fit a certain pattern – each member of this elite black ops unit of the military has a history of emotional strife, and pairs their select proficiencies with an animal totem that seems to speak to their damaged souls: Sniper Wolf, Vulcan Raven, Decoy Octopus. And like his cohorts, Psycho Mantis has a past fraught with trauma that has transformed him into who he is today – his mother died in childbirth, and after inadvertently learning of his father’s loathing for him, his psychic powers ran amok, burning down his entire village. Later, working as a psychic profiler for the government, he delved too deeply into the mind of a serial killer, and caught the man’s madness like an infection. Now, he is a gaunt, emaciated man, forced to wear a helmet at all times in order to shield himself from other people’s minds. The result is a vaguely insectoid figure, part bug and part bugaboo, who floats through the air limply as if snared in a spider’s web.

All this might set up a boss fight that plays out as another chapter in Metal Gear Solid‘s pseudonatural high drama – but Psycho Mantis is no mere freak of the week. After attempting and failing to seduce you through your possessed teammate, he reveals himself and announces that you are worthy to witness his true powers. He proceeds to read your “mind,” or the closest thing to it – with his legendary abilities, he scours your game file for data. Psycho Mantis knows how many times you fell for traps, if you’re cautious or reckless, whether you’re a seasoned pro at the game or have stumbled along one tripped alert at a time. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll mock you as a coward or a poor warrior. Mantis belongs to a long tradition of shit-talking villains, but who else will scold you if you haven’t saved your game enough? He turns every scrap of information into a dirty little secret he dangles over your head, even going so far to bring up other games you’ve played: Castlevania, Suikoden, Vandal Hearts. A remake of the game is on the GameCube, and it’s particularly disconcerting to hear Mantis hiss, as if through clenched teeth, “So … you’ve been playing Super Mario Sunshine, haven’t you?”

If that save file tea leaf reading isn’t enough to jar you out of the game, his next feat has you place the controller on the ground, as flat as you can – in the later version, your character himself nods to you, to give you the go ahead – and then, using the rumble feature, Mantis makes it skitter across the floor. Psychokinesis! But this plugged-in controllervision isn’t just a simple gimmick. When the fight begins, Mantis reveals that he can read your every move, reading and dodging every button press before you can even deliver your attacks. All the while, he flits about the room, blinking the video to a black screen that reads HIDEO in the top corner. Do not attempt to adjust the picture – Psycho Mantis controls the horizontal, and the vertical.

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Without pausing to consider how to outfox such a digital gremlin, Psycho Mantis is indeed, as he says, invincible. But unfortunately for him, these technological shenanigans work both ways – through he can read every button press on controller 1, controller 2 is a mystery to him. By plugging your controller into the second port, your movements are concealed, leaving Psycho Mantis as little more than a bug-eyed piñata. It’s true that once you know the solution to Mantis’ little trick, the boss fight holds little challenge, but the way that you reach victory is interesting nonetheless. To beat Psycho Mantis, you have to play along with his metatextual charade, forcing you up out of your sofa to fiddle with plugs, ports, and crossed wires – the very stuff we don’t want to be thinking about while playing a game. This inconvenience shows how successfully Mantis worms his way out of the game and into your space. But it also hands him a very different sort of psychic control – one over the narrative of the story itself. As you endure Mantis’s taunts and tricks, you’re not dealing with Metal Gear Solid as a cohesive tale, but as a whirring disc in a machine. For a few brief moments, Mantis doesn’t just strain credulity, but rather breaks it over his knee, stating matter-of-factly that the game you are playing is thuddingly, resolutely unreal.

The result is the crowning moment of fourth wall breaking that Metal Gear Solid aspires to, and one that defies normal player expectations of control. So often, we’re told that it is that illusive quality of “immersion” that makes our games great – the ways they conjure breadth, and entice us to follow along. But nestled deep in the guts of Metal Gear Solid‘s elaborate psychodrama of betrayals, reversals and revelations, is this megalomaniacal joker, out to remind us that it’s all just hokum. Though Mantis’ mind games resemble parlor tricks, his very presence begs the question: Who is the real trickster here – some weirdo who can read your save memory, or the writers who expect you to buy into such a cockamamie game? Psycho Mantis laughs away any illusions of immersion that the player might have, reminding them that they’re playing a game, and hinting that tomorrow, they’ll play something different. Through his strange little interlude, he suggests that any investment you might have into Metal Gear Solid is fleeting and illusory, just one more trick of the light.

Every villain in Metal Gear Solid is a snarl of shifting allegiances and hidden motives, battering against the boundaries that box them in, but Mantis proves himself as the most radical antagonist of them all: an enemy rebelling against the game itself. Metal Gear Solid, of course, is not short on deathbed speeches, and in Mantis’ final moments, he reveals that his motives for joining FOXHOUND’s ill-fated rebellion are not ideological, but insane – he just wanted to kill as many people as humanly possible. But is this behavior really “psycho” if the people he kills are just spools of data in a game’s winding script? In failing health, he boasts that the protagonist of the game is “just like me.” But how are they alike – as killers and mercenaries, or as fellow fictions? In a final wink to the player’s limited choices, he croaks that the future between Solid Snake and his love interest is not yet written … because, you see, the game has multiple endings. In one, she lives. In one, she dies. Even heady themes like fate and free will break down to a coin toss of ones and zeroes.

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Mantis, as a seer, has proven unusually prescient. At the time of Metal Gear Solid, the contents of our consoles were still top secret. There was no networked way to display or share what we might be playing on any given day, and the contents of our save cards were known only to us. What we played, and how we played it, was our business alone, which only magnified the unseemly experience of Mantis rooting through our past save files like pages from a diary. Mantis’ trick turned the private in public, which partly explains why his recitation of other memory files is read off so gleefully, like a schoolyard bully giving the straight dish on Santa Claus. But would today’s gamers be vulnerable to such a stunt? Today, with online player profiles in Xbox 360, PlayStation and Steam, a gamer’s play history is an open book, and anybody can take a peep. The data that Mantis dredged up to such mocking effect is now public domain, and the twinge of reflexive discomfort that comes from revisiting our gaming history is now par for the course.

In gazing deep into the bowels of your memory card, Mantis reads not only the entrails of your game, but of all of gaming – where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going. In all of Metal Gear Solid‘s grand vainglorious drama, Mantis shows himself to be that rarest of species – a puppet who can see the strings.

Brendan Main can’t sleep, cause his bed’s on fire. Don’t touch him, he’s a real live wire.

Question of the Day, November 16, 2010

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