Once of Liberty: American Ideology and Individualism in Metal Gear Solid 2

Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game which has drawn almost continuous discussion since its release in 2001, and for good reason: it’s been called the first postmodern video game, and even today it comes across as clever and provocative. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is because it’s a rearticulation and deconstruction of Hollywood action films; this is pretty blatant even without the numerous times its creator Hideo Kojima has gone on record and talked about his love of the medium. (As his Twitter proclaims, “70% of my body is made of movies.”) The interesting thing about this, though, is the extent to which MGS2 revolves around not just the trappings of the genre, but the fundamentally American ideology it espouses: namely, that of individualism and personal autonomy. Or, as Howard Suber puts it:

What American movies are selling is the Unstated State Religion of America: Individualism — the belief that the most important power in the world lies within each person.

Metal Gear Solid 2 takes this philosophy and runs with it, spinning a moral about the importance of the individual and arguing that it falls to each of us to forge our own legacy. At the same time, though, this glorification of an ideal sits uneasily against its harsh critique of America as a political power, and it’s this tension which coaxes out some of the game’s most interesting messages.

(Major major spoilers for all of MGS2 ahead, particularly endgame).

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Freedom, Culpability and Failure in Dragon Age II, or: My Boyfriend The Terrorist

“Freedom was no boon.” – Varania, Dragon Age II

“I cannot imagine how we forgive ourselves for all the things we didn’t say until it was too late. But how else do you tell if something is hot but to touch it?” – Doc Luben, “14 Lines From Love Letters Or Suicide Notes

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Perhaps this is an overly dramatic way to introduce a blog post about a video game, but Dragon Age II is the kind of ambitious beast that deserves it. It’s dark and experimental and messy and very very flawed, but it just got to me in a way that I don’t think I’ve actually experienced in the medium before. As this excellent piece by Alex at While Not Finished argues, the whole game is marked by a feeling of powerlessness almost unheard of in a format which usually tries to give the player as much control as possible. Most of the major plot beats are immutable: your sibling always leaves the party after the first act, the qunari always stage an uprising, the mages and templars always wind up in a climactic battle for the city, and all you can do is try to avert the worst-case scenario. And in such a bleak setting, there’s only one way to wind up a victor:

[Another blogger] suggests that the real win condition of DA2 is to get through it without having any of your companions turn on you (which, if you have Sebastian, is impossible unless you side with the Templars), and she’s right. […] So most of the choices in DA2 are more subtle than an either-or decision at the end of a long dungeon. The most important choices in DA2 are about what Hawke does have control over: how she relates to and how she treats her companions. Does she make an effort to forge a relationship with these people? Does she earn their respect? Does she support their goals or does she thwart them? Does she help them with their problems or merely meddle in their affairs? Friend or rival? Building a relationship with these people is the most important thing […] If you want what passes for a good ending in DA2, to “win”, you need to get to know the characters. DA2 is a character drama: it is nothing without them.

By and large, I do agree with the argument that the game is about Hawke’s lack of power over the world at large, and it nails what I liked about Dragon Age II. But I differ on two key aspects, and they’re both crucial ones. One, although I do agree with the idea that it’s about making the best of the little you get, I don’t think you can “win” the game as such (and, as the credits rolled, I certainly didn’t feel like I was walking away a victor). Instead I’d argue that it doesn’t even really have a win condition, because it’s not supposed to be a game that you win or lose in the classic sense as much as it is a story you can impact. And two, the role of agency is far more complex and problematic than presented here. The game’s central theme is that of freedom and security, which permeates its whole tone; where it really shines is how this comes across (and is problematised) in your relationships with your companions, and the way you can skew them towards friendship or rivalry. It’s a brutal take on the typical affection system: agreeing with a character in order to try and win them over is synonymous with granting them agency over safety, and that’s not always the best or most satisfying way to go. The freedom given to the player is at least as problematic as the freedom given to any of Hawke’s companions, and it certainly isn’t an easy thing to bear. This game is not a power fantasy, which is why it sits somewhat oddly against the genre as a whole, but that defiance of convention is exactly why it’s so good.

Here’s the long and the short of it: Dragon Age II presented me with the greatest sense of personal failure I have ever experienced in a video game, and the real tragedy was that it was completely and utterly the cumulative product of my conscious decisions.

(Colossal spoilers for the whole game under the cut, of course.)

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Game Design and Taking Romance Beyond the Transactional

“Romance in games is inherently transactional,” a friend told me once, “but isn’t everything? It’s just a limitation of the format.”

That was six months ago, and I’ve been mulling it over since. As optimistic as it might seem, I refuse to believe that romance arcs in games are incapable of transcending the basic “choose correct conversation option, repeat until you receive sex” formula. Granted, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise – a quick Google search for romance games turns up either flash games or a general sense that it’s a weakness of the medium. As sad as it may sound, romance being done well in games is something I’m deeply invested in; interesting character dynamics and a feeling of immersion are two of the things I look for in media (and games in particular) and I’ve thus far found it kind of lacking. It feels tacked-on at worst, and prescriptive at best; either it has no bearing on the story at all, or it’s inseparable from the plot but completely divorced from the sense of player agency which is so crucial to the medium.

Romance in games roughly tends to follow one of two models. Either they’re a complete side story to the “real” plot and add no more than some dialogue, as in many RPGs, or the plot splits off into one of multiple routes depending on which character you choose to pursue, as in many visual novels and dating sims. For the sake of argument, let’s ignore games which assign you a canon love interest and a set path for that relationship; I’m interested here in the way choice plays into romantic arcs, whether in their selection or the way they unfold. I think my ideal here is a game in which the player’s enjoyment of the plot is inextricably linked with their enjoyment of the game’s central relationship and the choices they make in regards to both, and I don’t think that’s impossible to ask.

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