A Digital Theatre Opus – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
“I can’t begin to count the number of agents whose lives were saved by a cardboard box…”
November 13th 2001. North America. The Playstation 2 is booming to life with countless waves of genre-defining titles that are sure to linger in the scent of nostalgia and greatness. This is one of those titles.
Development on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty began in 1999. Its earlier form was, naturally, a considerably different entity to product we received in 2001 (2002 for Europe). Revolving originally around a nuclear weapon inspections narrative, set in Iran / Iraq, Solid Snake would have to stop the new generation of Metal Gear aboard an aircraft before time runs out. Liquid Snake and his compatriots would return, doing away with Liquid’s supposed death in the previous game. As tensions in the Middle East began to rise, it was decided in development that these themes couldn’t be pursued further.
Thematically Metal Gear Solid 2 strikes a sharp dagger through the line of relevance today, more so than in 2001. Considered at the time to be overly heavy in narrative content, specifically Kojima’s cyberpunk / philosophical infused script, the story of MGS2 split players and critics alike down the middle. Over time MGS2 has been reappraised and applauded for its inventive thematic scale that dealt with topics more relevant in a post 2010 culture, such as fake news / social media and post-truth politics. Themes of generational learning, via Solid Snake’s POV on humanity’s need to preserve knowledge for future generations, underpinned a narrative that only Kojima and co. could navigate with precision.
Tactical. Espionage. Action.
The moniker that the series has been known to bare truly shines its distinction proudly in MGS2. Moving on with its limited angle perspective, Kojima’s signature tension grips the player by injecting fear in the form of unknown threats ahead. With only an alternative POV presented through an FPS function, dispatching guards hot on your tail feels like a dynamite thrill.
Acting as a mentor to the series fresh protagonist Raiden, Snake helps to infuse Raiden with a sense of questioning that would hopefully help him reassess what he feels is valuable to pass onto those in the future. Could the digital age be a catalyst for advantageous societal growth? Or could it be a void to spread falsehoods and corrupt ideologies? Substance serves as an anchor to what sticks properly as time passes.
Raiden himself, a blank canvas used seemingly for tactical insertion amongst the military climate, is at first devoid of any tangible links to his own personality. Possibly living in a simulation of a linear thinking normality, Snake’s introduction breaks down those barriers to aid Raiden in gaining substance for himself. Raiden’s introduction itself was also another road that led to fan upset initially. Viewed as a bait and switch, players would learn only until the game was released that the rest of the game would feature Raiden as the main character in an entirely new setting known as Big Shell.
The Tanker chapter was, like the demo, a taste of things to come.
Like the original Metal Gear Solid demo, MGS2 offered players a generous portion of early game to delve into. The entire Tanker chapter, a good hour or so of gameplay, was readily available. Personally I can vouch for many afternoons spent replaying this demo to figure out any different avenues of approaching the task at hand. Or just hiding in lockers, much to the frustration of Otacon.
Even in a condensed form like the Tanker chapter, the lifeblood of the game’s exceptional vision and creativity is already on show. Acting as part tech demo for the Playstation 2 and tease of Kojima’s mastery, the confidence of the development team was abundant. With the Playstation 2 still in its infant years, it is still mind-blowing in regards to the technical accomplishments that Metal Gear Solid 2 has to offer. Simple, mundane details like ice cubes melting in real-time still manage to impress me with the level of detail Konami Computer Entertainment Japan showered the game with.
The concept of A.I flushing the player out in stages of detection/alert/lethal force will never not bring an unfiltered feeling of pure fear when I hear that alarm tone go off. It’s more than just an adrenaline shot, this is a primal atmosphere of hunter vs hunted. That cardboard box can only do so much against a barrage of balaclava-clad guards requesting backup. Harry Gregson-Williams and Norihiko Hibino’s score, like the rest of the game, is grin inducingly superb.
Hideo Kojima and sound director Kazuki Muraoka sought Williams out after watching Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers together. Sending over a custom mix of 18 tracks that featured both public and rare items of Williams work, he was flattered that Kojima and Muraoka had gone to the effort to compile the mix. To aid getting past the language barrier between, Williams would be sent specific words or phrases to describe the action sequences that were in the process of planning. When his work was complete, Williams would send over his pieces to the development team who would then shape the action around the orchestra.
Blending traditional orchestral work in the vein of Hans Zimmer (who Williams had been working with prior) and techno-infused beats, the score of MGS2 still projects a raw urgency unrivalled by any game of its release year.
More than a decade later, MGS2 still resonates as a wickedly potent piece of gaming craftsmanship and metatextual storytelling within the medium. Whether Metal Gear will return to our consoles in a fresh new way remains to be seen. At least we’ve still got the classics.