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Metal Gear Noir

Not exactly the big city, but bear with me here
Not exactly the big city, but bear with me here

I’ve often expressed the opinion that the third installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise is the worst installment--an opinion based, admittedly, upon hazy memories of playing the original PS2 version on a small television in my (equally) small dorm room in college. The visuals were muddy, the sound was tinny, and detecting the presence of enemy soldiers was all but impossible given the lack of a Soliton Radar (which is primarily how I’d gotten through the previous two games, although in reality I’d never beaten the second installment solo--my friend and I sat in his basement playing through the game and were suitably baffled by the ending in high school). The (recently concluded, until it’s not) Metal Gear Scanlon series, however, gave me the final burst of motivation needed to go back to the Metal Gear Solid franchise. I picked up the Legacy collection--including MGS1, 2, 3, 4, Peace Walker, and (last but not least) the original MSX games--and began my trip down memory lane.

I’ll probably come back and talk about my return to the first two games at some point--basically, MGS1 holds up better than it has any right to, and MGS2 is far better than it has any right to be (and it has a plot I actually followed the second time around, which I never did before), but it wasn’t until I got to Metal Gear Solid 3 that the series really came together for me (I haven’t started a replay of 4 yet--a game I’ve never actually played all the way through, and indeed before the final episode of Metal Gear Scanlon had never seen the complete ending of; my brother finished the game while I was at work and every other time I’ve seen the game most of the final cutscenes and exposition got skipped through). The gameplay is much improved, and (unlike a fair few other folk I’ve spoken to about the game) I really enjoyed the hunting and camo systems and the overall open feeling of the earlier levels--and the fights against The End and The Boss might be two of my favorite boss fights in any game to date (the fights against Volgin, the Shagohod, the Shagohod’s front section, and the Shagohod’s front section with Volgin on top, however, are uniformly awful--the Volgin fight for being a king bastard, and all the Shagohod fights for being tedious as hell). But that’s getting away from my intended point, here: what I really liked about Metal Gear Solid 3 was its story. Specifically, what I really liked was the way the story of Metal Gear Solid 3 initially presents itself as a Cold War spy thriller, but what it becomes by the end is a classic noir that happens to have a Cold War spy thriller backdrop.

Not exactly a trench coat, either--but dude's pretty damn hard boiled anyway
Not exactly a trench coat, either--but dude's pretty damn hard boiled anyway

Like all classic noir films, our hero is a smart, self-assured tough guy who is, as it turns out, in over his head, although he’s got no idea this is the case. We’re told up front that John is not just capable, but he’s one of the best soldiers there is--second only to the Boss, you’re led to believe. That this boss of yours--an old friend and comrade--performs an egregious betrayal is what kicks off the central mystery that John spends the whole game trying to solve--namely, why did the Boss do what she did? This is where the narrative shifts a bit to create another noir situation--the guy strong-armed into performing a service for shady people (in this case, the “shady people” are the CIA instead of say, crooked cops or mobsters, but I think the comparison (especially these days) works pretty damn well). Your mission--stop Volgin and kill the Boss--takes priority, but John is haunted by the Boss’ seeming betrayal throughout. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the Boss’ defection has much more driving it than merely Volgin’s Russian escapades--and things start to come together, at least in the sense that so much more is going on than John’s been told--and large-reaching conspiracies being another large part of modern noir, it makes perfect sense that there would be more going on.

By the time we get the full picture of what’s happening, it is far too late for John to do anything about it. The plot was set in motion before the Virtuous Mission even started, with the only wrinkle being the use of the Davy Crockett by Volgin. Like most noir protagonists, John comes out of the experience completely worse for the wear--minus an eye, traumatized by having to fight and kill his mentor, and left with a deep feeling of betrayal at how much of a pawn he’d allowed himself to be. It is often traditional for the protagonists of a noir film to wind up battered and bruised (see: Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (or really any of the shit that happened in Chinatown)). The difference between the two is that nobody was there to throw their arm around John’s shoulder and encourage him to forget it. Instead, John elects to become a conspiracy-driving mastermind himself--an ultimately doomed mastermind, but a mastermind nonetheless.

James Bond, only without the ability to button up his shirt
James Bond, only without the ability to button up his shirt

Of course, this is all without mentioning EVA, who fits the femme fatale role so perfectly (beautiful, deadly, and of questionable loyalties until the very end) that considering her role is what brought me to the conclusion that MGS 3 is one big noir. EVA relies on her sex appeal to carry out her mission, although she is unable to sway John in what feels much like a mirror of the mostly sexless noir protagonists of cinema--the Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade in particular sprang to mind for me, but pick your favorite Bogart of choice and odds are he’ll spend a lot of the film rebuffing the advances of the fatale before giving in (which will either lead to his downfall or, in the case of a film like The Big Sleep, the end of the movie and a poorly-revised happy ending deviating from the book that pissed me off to no end).

The other argument you could make would be that this is in fact not a noir but a good old fashioned spy film--and that’s easy to see too, particularly since Kojima has his characters talk about James Bond at least once--but then again, I think there’s a lot of the DNA of noir in spy film, too. I actually toyed with the idea of MGS3 being a Bond film where you play as one of the side characters--maybe even the “Bond girl”--while EVA takes the role of James Bond, but I’m not 100% sold on that interpretation. The noir comparison works a lot better to my mind, although I should be clear that this is only really when it comes to the plot, and not so much the art style--no high-contrast colors here. Still, I like the way the plot fits the structure as it gives an extra bit of weight to the doomed John’s tale--bested, like so many noir protagonists, by forces they never really had a chance of beating in the first place. Forget it, John. It’s Metal Gear.

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