Note: this article contains major spoilers.
In today’s fourth and final installment of our series looking at Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, we’ll be addressing the latest game, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008). As the game was co-directed with Shuyo Murata, and with significant input from American localizers, it’s a little difficult to tell how much of the game comes from Kojima’s own head and how much comes to us from other contributors; likewise, the title is a mixed bag of the very awesome and the utterly despicable. Nevertheless, it makes a gallant effort in places, particularly in redeeming some of the series’ earlier failures.
The first thing we need to address is quantity. Previous MGS games have all featured women in the single digits, rarely if ever passing the Bechdel Test. In MGS4, we get dozens: the strongest enemies the player faces off against on the field are a group of highly-trained female soldiers known as FROGs. I personally see no problem in the heroes mowing down female opponents in exactly the same way they do male flunkies: anonymity is one form of equality, and the sooner games stop treating The Female as an exotic, the better. As an added bonus, the FROGs are dressed in practical head-to-foot armor, only earning a point off for their over-detailed chestplates.
In another departure from previous games, the majority of MGS4’s boss characters are also female. However, these four bosses, known as the Beauty & Beast Unit, are about as far from inspiring as it’s possible to get: dressed in skin-tight suits and viewed from every erotic angle possible, the B&Bs are described in-game as tragic, PTSD-afflicted damsels whose feminine natures have been overtaken by ugly, beast-like fighting personae. Yup: super model comeliness characterized as a sort of virginal purity, “violated” and made “ugly” by the horrors of war. Whether you kill them or defeat them nonlethally, the game congratulates Snake for ending their suffering, as the women curl up into fetal positions on the floor.
An easter egg in the game even allows you to take photographs of the Beauties while they pose sexily for you, because that’s not further demeaning them at all. Players need to face up to it: these are not characters, they are masturbation material. At best, they are a clumsily-executed leitmotif to accent the game’s themes, and at worst, they contradict the forward strides made by other female characters.
A returning character from the first Metal Gear Solid (1998), Naomi Hunter both exceeded and fell far short of this player’s expectations. While Naomi helps save the day, we only hear about it from other characters, with most of her own screen time devoted to having sex with Otacon in clear earshot of Snake and hooking up with a Depraved Bisexual Stereotype for an arcane, Machiavellian purpose. Honestly, of all the women in this game with significant face time, Naomi is the one who once again frustrates me the most. Like MGS1, it isn’t that she’s a bad character necessarily; I just feel that the story’s execution of her is severely lacking. To give you an example: we hear that Naomi set into development the computer virus that saves the world, but what we see is a woman clinging smugly to Vamp’s arm soon after sleeping with Otacon. Likewise, when Naomi is speaking seriously about something essential to the story, Snake hints at us to press the POV trigger to try to get a peek up her skirt. (And even if we don’t indulge, he certainly does.) What does the game really wish us to make of her?
There is some more unequivocally good news, however. Olga’s daughter, Sunny, is shown to be a seven-year-old computer programming prodigy, kicking around in hand-me-down combat boots just as gaily as she plays at cooking. Her adopted parents, Snake and Otacon, don’t appear inclined to impede her personality one way or another: she has just as many conventionally “boyish” as “girly” affectations, seeming to pick and choose whatever qualities she feels drawn to; only Naomi makes an effort to counsel her on how to supposedly act her gender, and only the utilitarian advice seems to stick.
Then there’s Meryl. When we last saw her in MGS1, she was little more than a recurring sexist joke thinly done up as a character. And given the litany of abuses she suffered (torture and rape among them), no one could really fault her for falling apart at the seams. In MGS4, however, she has turned into a stable, seasoned career soldier. She seems to have recovered from her past traumas, and old sexual tension with Snake is largely dealt with by their first meeting, after which we see she is the cool, capable commander of her own elite unit. She even possesses sensible battle attire and realistic upper body mass– a shocking thing when you compare her to the twig-like, underdressed creature in her last appearance.
Over the course of the game, Meryl develops romantic feelings for her subordinate, Johnny Sasaki, who spontaneously proposes to her in the heat of a firefight in the last chapter. Meryl, annoyed, rebuffs him; when Johnny asks if it’s something he did, Meryl counters that she simply prefers to do things her way, and with that, she drags him behind cover and proposes to him instead. Stunned, Johnny stutters out a yes, after which the two go right back to mowing down enemies. As this is going on, Meryl rants that she wants “a real wedding, with flowers, and a cake;” and adds rapturously: “It’s what I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little girl!”
We catch up with the two in the epilogue, where we find Meryl getting all dolled up for her white wedding– with her gun holster still buckled around her hip. It’s quite obvious that Meryl, like Sunny, feels welcome to act however masculine or feminine as she likes, no matter the occasion. Her fellow strong women, Olga and the Boss, both come across as aggressively desexualized; with Meryl, the game is letting us know that this isn’t the only option open to a woman in the Kojima story universe. Meryl is the same as the gun-toting manly men that grace the series’ game covers; the only difference is, sometimes she feels like being a pretty princess too, and that’s okay.
Had Metal Gear Solid 4 stopped short of the B&B Unit, I’d have a far more positive feeling about its female offerings. As it is, the inclusion of the B&Bs’ male gaze garbage seems at cross purposes with how much the game seems to want to say with Meryl and Sunny. Nevertheless, given that the B&Bs represent what is essentially standard of video game females, the fact that we even have a Meryl or Sunny (or Olga or Boss) to talk about is frankly spectacular, and note should be made of it.
On the whole, the Metal Gear Solid series’ women are far from perfect, but they provide us with far more than we might expect from the packaging. No woman is just a damsel in distress or eye candy devoid of substance, and I hope these articles have done a little to highlight what I feel are the more successful characters.
Next week we’ll be turning our attention to the 2008 multiplatform release, Mirror’s Edge. In the mean time, thanks for reading, and as always, your comments are welcome!