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For All it Gets Right, ‘Metal Gear Solid’ Sucks at Sexuality

For All it Gets Right, ‘Metal Gear Solid’ Sucks at Sexuality:

In 1998, video game developer Hideo Kojima was tasked with reviving his long-stagnant Metal Gear series for the PlayStation, appending the word “Solid” to the title to emphasize its new 3D graphics. Since then, Metal Gear Solid has commanded an army of dedicated fans, compelled by its science-fiction-meets-political-thriller narrative, its elective stealth gameplay, and a thousand little things that characterize the series in ways that inspirit some players and infuriate others.

Throughout its storied history, however, Metal Gear Solid has been plagued by a monster of its own creation, casting a tall and overpowering shadow over all of the series’ virtues and innovations. Despite their uncanny ability to chart a path between seriousness and goofiness, development studio Kojima Productions’ farcical attempts at portraying sexuality have done long-lasting harm to the series’ legacy. And they have run out of shields with which to defend these decisions from criticism.

When it originally saw release on the PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid was heralded as the next great evolution in narrative-driven video games. The title is remembered so fondly that, even fifteen years after its release, fans propelled it to the top of Sony’s “Best PlayStation Game of All Time” poll held for the console’s 20th anniversary. To many in the video game industry, players and developers alike, Metal Gear Solid represented the first major foray into the world of cinematic cutscenes and adult writing for video games.

There remained a small caveat, however, where Metal Gear evangelists would have to dismiss complaints about aspects of the game to encourage a holistic view and divert attention from small details that seemed a little out of place. It never really gets talked about much that rookie soldier Meryl Silverburgh implies she stuck a keycard inside of herself in order to smuggle it into the enemy base.

Aside from exposing a fundamental misunderstanding of anatomy, details like this were wholly unnecessary to the narrative even then. Over time, those unneeded bits and pieces slowly went from throwaway lines of dialogue to larger, more pronounced elements seemingly designed to seduce the player with equal parts crassness and meticulous design dedicated to said crassness. The amount of work and effort that goes into the Metal Gear Solid series’ lasciviousness would arguably be impressive in a vacuum were it not so off-putting in context.

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Eventually the developers dropped all pretenses and began designing barely-clad characters designed to be gawked at and lusted over, culminating with Quiet in the most recent game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

This is not to say that sexuality is bad, or that sex is anything to be ashamed of, but the level of writing Metal Gear Solid aspires to has been subverted by Hideo Kojima’s use of female characters as Barbie dolls designed to be stripped and examined. The first three games in the series, Metal Gear Solid, 2001’s Sons of Liberty, and 2004’s Snake Eater, all had their uncomfortable moments, but were capable of balancing it out or providing narrative context for them. This balance has since shifted in a direction that the writers no longer seem capable of properly addressing beyond outlandish half-measures and fantastical excuses.

By Metal Gear Solid 4, allusions to sexuality reached absurd extremes. The villainous troupe of bosses in the game are collectively known as The Beauty & The Beast Corps., hardened warriors portrayed by actual models with an odd propensity for moaning sounds. Clad in skin-tight catsuits, each rewards victory in battle by strutting toward protagonist Snake in an attempt to fondle him to death. One defense Snake can employ is to activate dancing music to compel them to mince around and occasionally pause in Japanese idol poses, showing off parts of their body while Snake encircles them with his camera. It should be noted this particular feature of sinister photography was not new to the series, but this is the first time major characters were designed with it in mind.

Staying at this level of ludicrousness would have been uncomfortable, but still preferable to director Hideo Kojima deciding he wanted to progress the writing into what he perceived as adult, transforming goofy and misguided ideas into horrific sexual nightmares. With Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Kojima introduced sexual torture into his stories, adding genital assault with explosives and forced rape by and against prisoners. It makes one long for the days of Japanese idol photo shoots during boss fights, if only for a brief respite. Ground Zeroes’ partner piece, The Phantom Pain, ushers in Quiet, the bikini-garbed silent sniper who nearly gets raped because writing women is apparently difficult without sexual assault as a motivator.

These things should not be off-limits in all video games, and Metal Gear Solid in particular shouldn’t be precluded from discussing them, but they are subjects that demand the efforts of someone willing to explore them skillfully. These are topics that are not only sensitive, but represent significant complexities and horrors in society and humanity alike. They cannot just be used for shock value or marketing materials. To attempt so is a disservice to the narrative and the audience experiencing it. However, the way Hideo Kojima defends these choices, even when the curtain has clearly been yanked away, indicates that he cannot tell the difference.

While tweeting about Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet, Kojima outright stated that he demanded her outfit be redesigned to be “more erotic” so that cosplayers would dress as her at conventions. After the ensuing controversy, Kojima took a hardline stance, saying people would be “ashamed of their words and deeds” when they discovered the narrative reason—a ludicrous excuse that involves photosynthesis—why she is essentially naked. Did I mention she’s named “Quiet” because she’s physically unable to speak English?

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I have a deep affection for the Metal Gear Solid series, but Hideo Kojima acts as both provocateur and auteur as the situation suits him, often using one as shelter for the failings of the other. The series’ inability to tackle adult situations from adult perspectives has been a self-imposed weight around its neck that grows heavier with every game. Claims of serious motivations that were merely unsuccessful in execution are betrayed by camera work focusing on physics-defying breasts and close-ups of women bending over as centerpieces of the scene. Any sense of titillation one could derive from them is quashed by how insincere and insistent it all feels.

Metal Gear has never been able to live up to its promise of high-minded writing because it found puberty too fascinating to ever leave. When the book is closed on the series, this will be the misfortune that haunts its legacy, and it could have been an entirely avoidable tragedy given appropriate restraint.


Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based writer who spends too much time talking about video games to stop now. You can find him on Twitter @imranzomg doing this same thing in bite-sized form.


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