I believe that video games are art, and therefore always enjoy comparisons between games and more “traditional” art forms and associated trends. This would include post-modernism, a movement that can described as: “often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself ” (Tate, 2006). Could we observe this trend in video games?
Controversy, a key element of post-modernism, is something the gaming industry is familiar with. Indeed, video games have had their share of controversies around violence, sexualisation of characters, or more generally sensitive themes – see the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 mission “No Russian” (‘No Russian’, no date) for an edifying example where the player has to kill civilians.
However I’m more interested in another important element of post-modernism: the self-awareness and subversion of its own tropes. Now, where have I seen these themes in a game before?
Let’s examine Metal Gear Solid, a long-running stealth/action series, created by the ever-controversial game designer Hideo Kojima. What do you expect when starting its anticipated second PlayStation instalment, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? Everything the trailers and artwork promised: polished missions, main protagonist Solid Snake on top form, streamlined tutorials for fans of the series, and more of the same. And that’s exactly what is delivered – until the end of the first mission. As mission 1 reaches its conclusion, Solid Snake dies and you control rookie character Raiden… for the rest of the game. The game also removes several gameplay options and adds new, very detailed tutorials.
Once the player recovers from the shock, they then realise that there is more to the main character than meets the eye. It’s all in the game’s dialogue, and here are some of my favourite game design nuggets, courtesy of the MGS Wikia (‘Fourth Wall’, 2014):
- [In first person view mode] If the player looks up while outside, seagull droppings may splatter on the screen
- [In-game characters] make cryptic messages, urging the player to turn off the console, saying lines from previous games – Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid, VR Missions and Ghost Babel, and famously spouting gibberish. At one point, [a character] even specifically refers to Raiden’s situation as a “role-playing game.”
- Just before Raiden throws away his dog tags at the end of the game, they display the information that the player entered at the beginning of [a chapter of the game].
To the attentive player, the game slowly becomes a “meta-game”: a game about the player playing a game. The game is self-aware in that Raiden / the player’s role is situated firmly outside of the game world; it also gently mocks the player for getting too involved, and sends regular reminders that this is not real.
Hideo Kojima famously resented making a follow-up to the first PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. Could we jump to the conclusion that he therefore created a self-mocking parody of the series he did not want to continue? Subversion of its own genre, confrontational and controversial decisions that will challenge the player’s loyalty (and possibly enjoyment) of the series… The jury is out on Kojima’s motivations, but we can safely say that MGS2: Sons of Liberty has all the hallmarks of a post-modernist game – players be damned!
‘Fourth wall’ (2014) Metal Gear Wikia. Available at: http://metalgear.wikia.com/wiki/Fourth_wall (Accessed 17 October 2016)
Kojima (no date) [image]. Available at: http://cdn-static.denofgeek.com/sites/denofgeek/files/6/64//kojima-main.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)
‘No Russian’ (no date) Call of Duty Wiki. Available at: http://callofduty.wikia.com/wiki/No_Russian (Accessed: 17 October 2016)
No Russian (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/callofduty/images/8/82/No_Russian_menu_image_MW2.png/revision/latest?cb=20130221215405 (Accessed 17 October 2016)
Model Raiden (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/metalgear/images/9/9f/Model_Raiden.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/180?cb=20091019140715 (Accessed 17 October 2016)
Tate (2006) Postmodernism. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/postmodernism (Accessed: 17 October 2016)
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (no date) [image]. Available at: http://www.destructoid.com//ul/323446-/metal_gear_solid_2_sons_of_liberty-1920×1080.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)