In our second installment of this four-part series on the Metal Gear Solid video game series, I’ll be taking a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001). The bulk of the game has you playing as the young special operative Raiden, who has been tasked to subdue a terrorist cell that has taken over a federal decontamination facility and kidnapped the President of the United States. Along the way, he encounters a total of four women, two of whom are merely bad, one of whom is mind-numbingly terrible, and one who is such a complete about-turn that it’s a wonder she even exists in the same game as the others.
I’ll bring you the merely bad first. Early on in the game, Raiden meets antagonist Fortune, a former Navy SEAL operative who finds a swimsuit practical battle attire, and who appears to magically divert bullets. Fortune has survivor’s guilt for outlasting her father and husband on the battlefield, something which prompts an emotional speech during virtually every appearance. She is unaware until the last minute that her special ability to deflect bullets is not a supernatural charm/curse but an electromagnetic device the main villain had planted on her. Players sit by passively as the African-American Fortune is ridiculed for her naiveté by her white saboteur, before he kills her himself. Fortune still has the last laugh, using the last of her strength to offer support to Raiden and Snake and successfully diverting a bullet without the help of a device, causing Snake to speculate she really is gifted. (In a series with spirit mediums, ghosts and vampires mixed in with its tactical espionage action, this really isn’t all that strange.) While a promising character who ultimately earns the respect of the player, Fortune is undercut by her male gaze costume design, to say nothing of being so overwhelmingly obsessed with her personal tragedy that she is easily exploited. For one of only three people of color in this game –all of whom are tricked and killed off by whites– Fortune could have been a lot smarter and a hell of a lot more tastefully dressed.
Somewhat better news, but still appallingly off the mark, is damsel-in-distress Emma Emmerich. Although a complete civilian who needs a lot of handling, Emma comes through as a serious computer programmer who ultimately saves the day for the good guys. But Emma is also arbitrarily murdered, prompting what should be considered one of the greatest lapses in research and good judgment as ever experienced by a game studio. It is revealed in her dying moments that, contrary to professional opinion that this Just Doesn’t Happen, Emma has been romantically/sexually attracted to her step-brother Otacon since the two were little children. To add to the skeeve factor, Emma, though theoretically an adult, still looks like she’s about 12, while Otacon appears to be in his 30s. Yet, there is no hint of ethical ambivalence or discomfort on the part of the other characters present. Likewise, Otacon’s insistence that he has obsessed over his step-sister since their childhood is treated as a chivalrous or at least earnest gesture, instead of disturbingly creepy. Kojima compromises the otherwise refreshingly unstylized character of Emma by pandering to an otaku fringe fetish. This pseudo-incestuous age-gap romance adds nothing to Emma’s character except to make her into another of Otacon’s tragic lust objects; it doesn’t do great things for Otacon, either. The only bright side here is that Kojima doesn’t do anything quite so tasteless again.
This is not to say there is not an even more disappointing female “character” in this game– namely, Raiden’s girlfriend, Rosemary. From her introduction, Rose is depicted as a soft, feminine little thing who can’t stop talking about their relationship. Yes, communication is important, but Rose’s utter obliviousness to time and place frustrates both Raiden and the player. Not to mention, she never talks about anything else. Rose goes so far as to dissolve into tears about how scared she is at night and how she wants to have Raiden’s baby, all while Raiden is trying to focus on the mission. It becomes quite apparent over the course of the game that Rose is completely emotionally incompatible with Raiden, and that she wants a child in order to trap him. Like I said, communication is a fine thing, and there is nothing wrong with either expressing emotions or wanting to have children. However, despite Rosemary’s insistence that she loves Raiden for who he is, we never see any evidence of it. We only see that she is obsessed with her own identity through the lens of traditional conventions of femininity and domesticity, to the utter dismissal of Raiden’s own feelings. The game even mentions that he has assaulted her in the past, and Rose appears to sweep this, too, under the rug– just the same as her revelation that their relationship is founded on a lie of epic, global conspiracy proportions. The game holds Rosemary up as a sweet, fairy tale solution to Raiden’s problems –the slice of ordinary life that Raiden can come home to– and this is beyond appalling.
But I promised you good news was coming, yes? Enter the young and clever Olga Gurlukovich, who comes to us as an extreme counterpoint to Rose. We first meet Olga when Solid Snake runs across her during his infiltration of an oil tanker, which she, her father, and their group of Russian mercenaries have commandeered. Snake holds her up, and it is then that we find that in addition to a crew cut and men’s fatigues, Olga also sports unshaved armpits. Please pause to consider for a moment the awe-inspiring significance of a female video game character with hairy pits, in a series where even most of the men have gloriously waxed and oiled chests. And before you start to worry that Olga’s armpit hair is just a quick sight gag and/or some homophobic shorthand, consider that minutes earlier, Snake overhears that she’s pregnant. Mind you, we never learn how or by whom, but the chauvinistic trope of “the repellant lesbian that no man-seed could penetrate” is squashed in an instant.
Whatever her sexual identity, Olga is a woman who consistently makes her own choices. Unlike Rosemary, Olga doesn’t see pregnancy as something sacred: she faces off against Snake in battle anyway, even against her father’s orders. She comes away from the encounter fairly unscathed and later gives birth to a healthy daughter. However, her child is kidnapped by an Evil Organization and used as collateral to force Olga to work for them. Here, we do see a different side to Olga, as a woman with a deep emotional bond with her child. But rather than simply give in to the Evil Organization’s demands, Olga pretends to help them while secretly allying herself with Solid Snake and Raiden, and the three of them work together to topple their oppressors. Olga dies defending Raiden, her last request charging him with rescuing her daughter in her place. Like Sniper Wolf, Olga is honored as a warrior; unlike Sniper Wolf and many of the other women we’ve seen thus far, she isn’t mitigated by being turned into another example of The Woman As Other. Olga embraces those aspects of femininity that she chooses (motherhood) and discards out of hand what she has no taste for.
For this to come out of the same writer who brought us Rose and MGS1’s Meryl is, quite honestly, extraordinary. It demonstrates a complete turnaround in thinking. A fluke, you may be thinking? Not exactly, as next week’s installment will illustrate.