Japanese Aesthetics in the Metal Gear Solid Series
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Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear series, has been awarded several awards for his work in the games. Not only did he innovate upon the stealth game genre but created a rich experience utilizing Western and Japanese aesthetics. I will briefly cover how he manages to incorporate aesthetics such as Mono no Aware, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Yuugen into his games’ gameplay designs, narrative direction, and artwork.
The first aesthetic that is present in every Metal Gear game ranging from the overarching game design all the way down to elements in the narrative and characters is Mono no Aware. Mono no Aware roughly translates to, “the pathos of things,” which can be further broken down to “a melancholic appreciation of the transiency of existence” (Lomas). Deeper in Mono no Aware is the term MujÅÂ, which can be translated to mean impermanence. Impermanence relates to how nothing will continue to stay the same or things are ever changing. Examination of Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games presented that, aside from a continuing narrative and stealth game mechanics, all of the Metal Gear Solid games were different games fundamentally.
- Metal Gear Solid: first 3D stealth game with Alert/Warning/Clear status and environmentally aware enemies.
Metal Gear Solid took the gameplay formula from Metal Gear: Solid Snake and transferred it into a 3D world, giving the stealth mechanics more depth to be explored such as hiding inside or underneath large objects. This was also the first game in the franchise where leaving an area wouldn’t result in the enemy AI losing track of the player after they were spotted. Instead players had to wait on the timer cooldown to reach 0 before the enemies would resume normal patrol paths. Enemies in this game have also developed senses of hearing and sight outside of a straight line. If the player wasn’t cautious, it would be possible to get a guard’s attention by running, leaving footprints, or knocking on surfaces, which ties back into the depth of the stealth mechanics.
- Metal Gear Solid 2: introduced platforming mechanics, new character with different fighting style
Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty added more verticality to the series and essentially turned it into a platformer. Raiden had to navigate using abilities such as hanging/dropping from ledges, jumping over small gaps, pressing up against ledges, and swimming. While swimming was possible in Metal Gear Solid, there were no sections that required the player to do it to progress in the game. Toward the end of the game, Raiden’s fighting style changes to hand-to-hand combat with a sword instead of guns, changing the gameplay to feel more like a beat-em-up rather than a tactical stealth game.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Survival mechanics, world exploration encouraged
Snake Eater transitioned back into the stealth gameplay and expanded on it with survival mechanics never before seen in the series. Players had to collect food by hunting animals, collecting rations from bases and so on to keep their stamina up. Stamina has a direct correlation to Snake’s performance in game in relation to his aiming stability, speed, ability to climb/hang, and other physical tasks, which is a first for the series at this point. The world layout was also created in a way that players were encouraged to explore them fully to collect all the animals while previous installments had very linear designs or most rooms did not contain secrets.
- Metal Gear Solid 4: Interactive, cinematic experience, “partner” feature
Sons of the Patriots gave players a semi-open world, cinematic experience that was meant to finish off the series’ story. It also gave players the chance to use tools like the Metal Gear Mk.II, a companion tool that the player could control to examine ahead of themselves before putting themselves in danger. While being able to see through Snake’s eyes during certain cutscene moments, interactive flashbacks where images of past game events were introduced to help induce a sense of nostalgia for long time fans but required player interaction to be triggered.
- Metal Gear Solid 5: Dynamic, open-world sandbox, base building / mission assignment mechanics, crafting mechanics
Phantom Pain was the first real open-world game in the series. On top of that, the world’s persistence was modified based on the player’s playstyle, specifically regarding enemies. Consistent headshots meant that enemies would start wearing helmets or consistently taking on operations overnight meant enemies would be equipped with night vision goggles and flashlights. This was also the first console game of the series to have you physically craft a base and your starting equipment while managing resources and invaders of your base. Collecting personnel for the base was a mechanic introduced in Portable Ops so the fulton system was not quite new for this game.
While the gameplay from entry to entry might have impermanent properties, there are details in the narrative that dive into the notion of Mono no Aware as well. One of the last things that Big Boss tells Solid Snake at the end of MGS4 is, “Everyone dies. You can’t stop it. You can’t run away from it.” Even the Patriots, an organization created by Zero but eventually turned artificial by AI at the time of MGS4, breaks away from Zero’s will and become something new on its own. All of this leads to the eventual fall of an entire war based economy, to which Big Boss mentions, “... the Patriot’s society was reverted to a blank slate.” This ties slightly into the Shintoist idea of Kire (stemmed to Kiru - to cut) but that will come later.
MGS2 is riddled with the concept of Mono no Aware. To prevent this section from dragging on, I will only reference the ending sequence starting with the crash of Arsenal Gear.
There is the thought behind Zen Buddhism that all things are considered either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. There are countless moments throughout the series’ dialogue that reference this idea. Big Boss in the ending scene of MGS4 has an incredibly long monologue that covers this concept multiple times:
“...and with me the last ember of this fruitless war dies out. And at last those old evils will be gone. Once the source of evil returns to zero, a new one, a new future will be born….
Everything has a beginning, but it doesn’t start at one. It starts long before that, in chaos. The world is born from zero. The moment 0 becomes 1 is the moment that the world springs to life. 1 becomes 2, 2 becomes 10, 10 becomes 100. Taking it all back to 1 solves nothing. So long as Zero remains, 1 will eventually grow to 100 again. And so, our goal was to erase Zero. Even the mighty patriots began with a single man. That one man’s desires grew huge. … We realized too late that we had created a beast. We had helped turn Zero into 100… and for that reason I’m taking it upon myself to send Zero back to nothing.” (Big Boss MGS4)
Another aspect of Buddhism that comes into play can be found in MGS3 when The Boss has her back story monologue with Naked Snake before the final fight. She shares that she had a moment of Kensho during her trip to space. Kensho is a brief experience of enlightenment, or initial awakening experience.(Eastern-Spirituality). It does not mean a person has reached full enlightenment but this moment can act as the basis for how the person moves forward. She states:
“That’s when it finally hit me. Space exploration is nothing but another game in the power struggle between the U.S and the U.S.S.R. 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. And the irony of it is, the United States and Soviet Union are spending billions on their space programs and the missile race only to arrive at the same conclusion. In the 21st century, everyone will be able to see that we are all just inhabitants of a little celestial body named Earth. A world without communism or capitalism, that is the world I wanted to see.”
Having had her realization, The Boss used her moment of Kensho to determine exactly how she was going to live her life from that moment on.
Buddhism - Kire
One last Buddhist term that is often implemented throughout the Metal Gear series is the concept of Kire or Cutting. It is a practice aimed to help one see one’s own nature. Zen master Hakuin writes, “You must be prepared to let go your hold when hanging from a sheer precipice, to die and return again to life”(Hakuin 133-35). This idea comes up in conversation many times toward the end of each of the series’ entries. Solid Snake survives the Shadow Moses Incident in MGS and talks with either Meryl or Otacon about how he has to find a new life to live because his old ways of being a mercenary are over with the destruction of Metal Gear Rex and the death of Liquid.
In MGS2, Raiden is freed from the manipulative grasp of Solidus by literally cutting him down with a newly acquired sword. Solid Snake reminds Raiden that while he was used for an experimental simulation, everything he felt was his to feel and what he chooses to do with his feelings and experiences is up to him from that point on. He gets to live a new life as a free person with a new name, clean slate, and new memories as he throws his dog tags away that had the name the player gave him at the beginning of the game.
MGS3 saw Naked Snake killing The Boss, basically the root of his entire life so that he may survive to finish his mission. The Boss was the one who trained Naked Snake, she basically raised him, and she was a mother / lover figure for Naked Snake. This caused him to question his life as a mercenary and his life as a man. He questioned his character, his life purpose and if it was even worth living.
MGS4 has Solid Snake attempting to end his life because he believes that a virus inside him will cause an epidemic. This is when Big Boss comes back one last time to explain to Snake exactly how everything that had happened began with The Boss, Zero, and himself starting with the events that took place just before and during Operation Snake Eater (MGS3). Suddenly Big Boss begins to suffer from the disease inside Snake and quickly fades out of existence while telling Snake that he has a chance to live a real life without fighting; instead of living the life of a soldier, he is free to live the life of a man.
Lastly, in MGS5, Venom Snake gains the memories he lost during the accident that took place in Ground Zeroes. Despite having his memories back, Venom Snake makes the choice to continue living as the second Big Boss to create the world recognized image of Big Boss instead of returning to the role of being Big Boss’s medical staff member. The original Big Boss is quoted at the end, “you’re Big Boss now.”
Animals in Shintoism play a critical role in the way the world works and how a person’s fate might play out. The animal I will spend the most time on is the snake. A snake in Shintoism represents many things that oppose Western views of snakes. Shintoism sees snakes as fortune bringers, symbols of healing, being just and wise, and the flowing of water. One of the 7 Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin) is Benzaiten, Goddess of fertility and flow, is represented with white snakes and dragons as her messengers. This plays nicely into the Metal Gear series’ main characters. Big Boss was originally named ‘Naked Snake’, creating the first instance of the family of snakes. Venom Snake (MGS5) is his first “clone” that did everything that he would have done in his place, acting as Big Boss if he had shed his skin and become new. His cloned sons, ‘Solidus, Liquid and Solid Snake’ can be viewed as his rebirth again as they are direct, genetic copies of him and EVA. This can be seen as the second time Big Boss has “shed his skin” to continue his legacy. However, it is interesting that snakes are supposed to bring good fortune and all of the Snake characters are riddled with misfortune and bad luck. They bring death everywhere they go and the people around them tend to die off however they are the ones who have the fortune to stay alive the longest compared to their neighboring characters. Liquid “dies” last in MGS1 and is one of the last to die in MGS4 when dueling Solid Snake, Solidus is the last to die in MGS2, Big Boss “lives” until Zero, the last member of his original unit, is dead in MGS4, and Solid Snake ends up staying alive despite being told that he was going to die soon.
There is a term in Shintoism called Kegare which means pollution and defilement. Death and killing others is one way to defile oneself and requires a ceremony to cleanse oneself of the kegare. Those who are killed without being shown a form of gratitude toward their sacrifice will hold an Urami or grudge and they will seek Aragami or revenge. Kegare, Urami, and Aragami play a huge part in the game design of MGS3. As the player goes through the game, the game tracks how many soldiers the player kills. When the player reaches the encounter with The Sorrow, all of the souls of the murdered will seek Aragami on Snake and try to drown him.
The river that Naked Snake wades through during the encounter with The Sorrow also acts as a reference to the Shinto river that divides the Yomi-no-kuni (Shinto “underworld”) and the world of the living. Snake’s battle for his life is represented by him walking in the middle of the river (between life and death) and wading upstream.
Yuugen requires that viewers of the world look beyond the immediate sights presented to them. It is important to note that Yuugen does not suggest belonging to another world but rather it explores the depths of the world we live in. Imagination is a critical component to successful examination of things like Splashed Ink Landscapes to fill in the gaps to create the full image a person sees in their minds. This style of painting carries over to Metal Gear’s concept artist Yoji Shinkawa and his process of creating all the character art.
While Yoji’s artwork doesn’t quite match the Splashed Ink Landscapes, the use of blacks, whites, and line definition to create the shapes is the biggest commonality. Sometimes small amounts of color are added for extra detail. There are also many instances where Yoji includes multiple characters in one piece of artwork. One thing that he does take away is that typically the backgrounds are void or minimally filled in.
Kojima and his team have created a successful game series not only based on financial reception but also successful in terms of player feedback. He created the games using a rich palette of aesthetics found in Japanese culture to keep the series as cohesive as possible while trying to branch out and do as many things as Kojima did with the series. This examination only begins to scratch the surface as there are many more art aesthetics, religious references, and combination of western and eastern culture as Kojima is heavily influenced by Western movies and novels as well.
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