The Metal Gear Solid franchise is an odd beast. Written and produced in Japan, and primarily penned by now-middle-aged (and male) game director Hideo Kojima, they are to the world of “men’s own” action adventure what the spaghetti westerns were to the western genre: they are more “action story” than action stories, and yet at the same time are filled to the brim with complex narratives, strong characters, and dynamics that border on the operatic. What we are left with are games that, despite being aggressively marketed toward men, have a lot of appeal for women– not to mention, they are home to some of the strongest female characters in the gaming medium, though it takes them a while to get there.
To kick off the return of the game review section here at Hathor Legacy, I will be doing a four-part series on these games and its characters. All of these posts contain heavy spoilers, so please read at your own discretion.
In some ways, even though I’ll be going through this series sequentially, I’m going to be bringing you the bad news first and the good news later. These games’ representations of women start out pretty galling, but you will see that the game designers learn quickly, with the last two titles actually being downright feminist in places. It’s fascinating to see the arc undergone by this particular writer-director, and how well that bodes for a developing industry.
The first Metal Gear Solid (1998) has you playing a half-Chuck Norris, half-James Bond super-soldier codenamed Solid Snake, who has been sent to a remote nuclear facility to stop a group of rogue special forces agents. Snake’s radio support team is comprised almost entirely of women, to whit: a sexy “British” doctor, a sexy Chinese girl who saves your game data, and a sexy Russian weapons expert, who has no real purpose except to, I guess, smoke her cigarette, sexily. Snake flirts with pretty much every one of them, and the Chinese girl in particular squeals about how awesome and flattering it is. No, I’m not making that up.
Anyway, two of the three of those women are almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, while the third, the sexy doctor Naomi Hunter, turns out to be the cause of the entire cast’s suffering. You see, Naomi blames Snake for the death of her older brother, whom he was ordered to face off against years earlier. Never mind that the brother Gets Better (this is a common trope in these games), Naomi swears revenge. All well and good, except from the player’s perspective, Naomi is irrationally essentializing the situation down to murder, when Snake and her brother dueled as former friends, full of manly honor and respect for each other. So we are barely scratching the surface of Naomi’s motivation, and already she is depicted as a petty, misunderstanding little girl who refuses to accept a warrior’s code of ethics.
Furthermore, Naomi is characterized as taking a classically “cowardly” revenge: poison. Namely, she injects Snake with a virus that kills not only several of his opponents on the island (as part of a political cover-up) but will also kill Snake himself one day, all out of a bitter disregard for a contract between two gosh-darn respectable males. And then, after Snake learns of all this, Naomi breaks down into tears of regret, recanting everything and blaming her emotions. But, of course, the damage is done, and Naomi’s “uplifting” monologue at the end of the game, telling Snake to make use of the time he has, does little to redeem her: she’s still a bitter, emotionally unstable poisoner and a coward, the absolute worst thing that a character can be in games such as these.
For as bad as Naomi is, however, the two other primary female characters are even more ghastly. First there is Sniper Wolf, whom many male gamers (I’ve noticed) often hold up as a sterling example of a strong female character: she stands up for womankind, letting Snake know that “all the best snipers are women,” and she is such a dangerous opponent that no one would dream of belittling her as a warrior. Except, not really. First, this isn’t the first time that the idea of a female sniper has been played up as an erotic wartime fantasy, and Sniper Wolf herself is predictably sensual, suggestive, and completely underdressed. But we can take that in stride if the game still acknowledges her toughness, right? Wrong.
When Snake guns her down in battle, she boldly demands that he finish her off, but beside them, a secondary male character who has fallen in love with Wolf begs Snake to override her request and show the poor delicate flower mercy (ie, let her continue suffering in horrible pain), because she’s so sweet and personable and harmless, really! Again, this is a man who claims to be in love with her. Thankfully, the one time Snake does show deference to women is when they’re good fighters, and he shoots Wolf as she requested. His male companion, Otacon, goes on a sobbing tirade, and while it’s a fine thing for a “man’s game” to have male characters who can express their emotions, Otacon’s feelings come off as selfish and chauvinistic.
Edit: Thanks to a commenter, I’ve discovered my memory of this section of the game to be inaccurate. Otacon’s pleas of mercy actually come before the battle. Not that this does not serve to undercut her still, but it’s nevertheless a significant difference. As she lays dying, Otacon merely guilts Snake for being unable to save Wolf. Still a failure to understand the woman he claims to love, but not as awful as I’d made it out to be.
Filling out the female roster for MGS1 is Meryl Silverburgh, a rookie soldier who joined the mission in an attempt to prove herself. She not only blusters that she’s a capable fighter, she also makes an explicit point of reassuring Snake that all of her sexual urges were conditioned out of her as part of training, just in case he was getting any ideas. You guessed it: she’s the love interest! And what a girl– unable to fire a gun or even disguise herself effectively, Meryl is almost immediately captured by a bad guy and telepathically manipulated to turn against Snake. First, she zombie-walks toward him and begs him to make love to her; when Snake (in a refreshing moment of professionalism) doesn’t take the bait, the telepath uses Meryl to attack him, and the only way to stop her is to punch her out. No, I’m not making that up either. And after that incident, Meryl is promptly mowed down by Sniper Wolf, captured by enemy forces, tortured, raped, and unless the player tries very hard, the bad guys kill her, and that’s that. If you do save her… well, let’s just say that that “sexual conditioning” was as flimsy as you expected it to be.
I would encourage you at this point to not lose hope. Since the commercial and critical success of this game, Director Kojima has gotten bolder and more thoughtful, discarding cliches for more innovative, even revolutionary female characters. Furthermore, the ones we see here come back in later games improved or even overhauled– especially Meryl. So take heart: compared to later installments, this is as entrenched in The Bad as it’s going to get.
Well, sort of. You’ll see what I mean in the next review.