Gaming in Wartime

mgs4 old snake

“War never changes.” —Fallout 3, 2008

“War has changed.” — Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, 2008

It was clear, in the last months of George W. Bush’s presidency, that culture had mutated in reaction to the dark realities of modern warfare. Easy access to digital information made it impossible to ignore a new paradigm of terrorism, high security and perpetual uncertainty, all topped off by a global financial crash. As a result, no popular medium seemed immune to grimness, cynicism, and sometimes out-and-out alarmism. In the U.S., newscasters began acting like clowns and comedians took it upon themselves to tell the truth. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, even Batman found that, for all his tools, the only one capable of stopping the Joker was a surveillance state.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Fallout 3 were both released during this strange twilight period. And each game introduced us to its world with a simple, philosophical statement about the nature of war. But despite emerging from the same moment of history, these statements seem to directly contradict one another. Looking back now, which game’s perspective has endured? Has war changed? To answer this question, we need to look at each game’s world as the argument for its stated thesis — and ask ourselves how that argument stacks up against the world we live in.

Fallout 3 takes place in a devastated, post-nuclear landscape where the player scrambles for survival, improvising weapons and facing down brutish mutants, human raiders and the irradiated environment. “War never changes,” it argues, and it’s worth noting that it always has; the iconic catchphrase has been with the series since its inception in 1997. As the player roams the wasteland, they find that everything is a threat: wherever resources are limited and survival is in doubt, violence will follow.

fallout 3 VATS

Released just one week before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Fallout 3 is the ultimate fantasy of post-apocalyptic America. The player traverses the bombed-out ruins of the Washington D.C. metro area in a first-person perspective, using a variety of guns and weapons to fend off the wasteland’s many threats. Artifacts of the old world are ironically repurposed in the new, and there’s a cynical but well-earned humor in seeing what few things have survived intact — “Nuka-Cola” machines, for instance. Eventually, the player single-handedly saves the Capital Wasteland, restoring water and the hope of new life.

The first-person shooter format offers players a fantasy of control. Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. system allows players not only to point and shoot, but to freeze time and zoom in on different parts of the enemy’s body, allowing you precise control over whether you are going to blow out that mutant’s kneecap or just explode his head. You are a lone gunslinger versus a hostile world, and to win, you must point and shoot. The game’s open world means it can be explored in any way the player wants, but the solution to every problem is the same: violence. It’s kill or be killed, and war is the same as it ever was.

Metal Gear Solid 4 takes a more ambiguous tack. The game is a stealth-action drama set in the year 2014, in a world that’s ostensibly a heightened version of our own. It imagines the harrowing eventualities of global capitalism in broad, even abstract terms: the world is consumed by perpetual warfare between local populaces and faceless paramilitary companies with automated drones. These wars are not waged for a people, a country, or an ideology. Instead, they are mere expressions of economic flux. It’s all girded by the ominous “System,” a network that uses nanotechnology to interlink soldiers on the battlefield with the massive artificial intelligences running the show. These AIs, tasked with preserving world order, have determined, to a mathematical certainty, how to use neverending war to maintain economic homeostasis.

Like Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 4 is an intense action game featuring a diverse assortment of weapons. And although the player must navigate chaotic warzones, the object is not to engage with every enemy, but to use stealth, guile, and situational awareness to make your way to important characters or pieces of technology that forward the story. Unlike Fallout 3’s open world, story-if-you-want-it structure, Metal Gear Solid 4 is rigidly linear and defined entirely by its narrative. The story begins with series protagonist Snake hunting for an old nemesis, Ocelot, who has hijacked partial control of the System. When Ocelot deactivates it, an entire army drops to the ground in pain; until now, nanomachines in their bodies have suppressed all emotion to make them more efficient soldiers. Without this artificial emotion control, the soldiers have no defense against the full load of trauma, fear and shock.

mgs4 old snake in battlefield

The Metal Gear Solid series has often commented on the relationship between videogames and war, and the System is one of its most ambitious narrative conceits. We can see its real-life analogue in reports of drone operators experiencing post-traumatic stress, despite being a world away from the battlefield and any physical danger. In the world of Metal Gear, power is not just the ability to wage war, but also to streamline it, stripping it of emotion or ideology. And like our own world, this kind of power comes with familiar specters: paramilitary companies, wetwork teams operating in third world theaters, and drone weapons, some of which eerily resemble animals.

Another hallmark of the series is its inventive boss encounters. In addition to the gameplay challenge, Snake is also forced to encounter an opponent who represents a philosophical or psychological perspective on war that augments, reflects, or contradicts his own. The real mission statements of Metal Gear Solid games are often made in these encounters. In the 4th installment, the boss characters are all anonymous young women, traumatized by war as children and then plugged into the System. These characters pilot large robotic suits that use biomimetic technology to give them an advantage in battle. Laughing Octopus, for example, pilots an eight-armed chassis that can mimic the camouflage of an octopus. When Snake defeats each boss character, the pilot is ejected from the suit and he is forced to face them directly. They’re revealed for what they are: shellshocked young women, who are nonetheless bizarrely sexualized by the game. If Snake doesn’t kill them, they enfold him in their embrace, which steadily drains the life out of him. Snake, too, is part of the System — if he embraces his emotions and trauma, he will die and the game will not continue. When a “boss” lies dead, a contact radios Snake and tells him the story of the trauma endured by the young girl. These stories are horrific, and a notable departure from the usual mold for video game villains. They aren’t the antagonist here, and neither is Snake. In the end, both are only functions of an economic expression, a war without human meaning. Trauma and collateral damage, rather than being moral imperatives against war, become a byproduct that’s easily circumvented.

So has war changed, and do these games make a compelling argument one way or another? For me, Metal Gear Solid 4 makes the stronger case. This isn’t to say that Fallout 3 isn’t making a valid point. In a broad sense, war is always motivated by limited resources. And if our technological and economic infrastructures were to give way, it’s easy to imagine finding ourselves in a pitched struggle for survival and control. But it seems to me that fantasies of the post-apocalypse are motivated by a desire to escape the strangeness of the present era, rather than comment on it. So far, the 21st century carries a sense of cresting towards technological, economic, or environmental critical mass, and some storytellers have addressed this rising tension by imagining a cataclysm that relieves it and deposits us into simpler circumstances. It’s hardly surprising that the 2008 financial crash was followed by a glut of zombie- and apocalypse-themed stories across every popular medium.

But we’re still living in this strange new era, with its entirely new vocabulary: PMC, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Predator drone, IED, sleeper cell. It’s a difficult reality to make sense of, but one thing seems clear: our motivations for war, and the ways we wage it, have changed, and barring a worldwide catastrophe, there’s no going back. With the U.S. defense budget topping out at over six hundred billion dollars, more than the next 8 highest-spending countries combined, it’s not a giant leap to conceive of a world where constant war is simply a tool for executing financial equations, where the human element is only a brutalized remainder.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.