But it needs to sort itself out.
[This piece mentions spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, 4 and Ground Zeroes. This piece also contains brief mention of rape and sexual violence]
This is a blog that has been fueled in part by what’s happened as of late in the period known as ‘GamerGate’, but truth is there is a part of me that has wanted to write this for a while, but just haven’t been sure of how to express it. I think I have a fair idea of how to do that now, but you’ll forgive me, as I’ve not written anything like this ever, if I am slightly worried as to how this pans out.
I am a huge fan of the Metal Gear Solid series. I started playing it at 11 years old when perhaps I shouldn’t have considering MGS2’s age rating was a 15 by the BBFC. MGS2 was the first mature game I ever enjoyed. MGS3 was at one period – up until last year of course if you’ve known me for a while – my favourite game ever and I loved MGS4, even though the ending did feel a bit of a cop-out.
But I’ve been troubled by something for a while regarding the series: the treatment of female characters as of late by Hideo Kojima. Again, another caveat – Kojima is one of my biggest heroes, as it was because of Metal Gear Solid 3, among other factors, that made me want to write about games (I even told him as such when he did his BAFTA games seminar in 2012). That feeling I had in wanting to write of games after finishing MGS3 and seeing its ending was incredible.
Sadly, I can’t help but worry about that element of the series that has let the side down as recently as this year. And after thinking back on it, it’s not the first time his treatment on female characters that has grated with me. Lets go back nearly ten years first.
Metal Gear Solid 3, easily in my top two favourite games ever now, has a scene at the end where The Boss – without question one of my favourite characters. if not my absolute favourite, in a game ever – tears open part of her suit and shows a scar she had after giving birth to her son, conceived between her and The Sorrow, in battle during the Normandy landings. There’s actually nothing wrong with that scene in the game, far from it. It was used to demonstrate how she got the scar after telling the story of her child’s birth to Snake at the game’s tailend. It’s heavily implied the child in question, taken away by The Philosophers soon after, turned out to be Ocelot.
But what’s since annoyed me about this scene is stuff like character figures or for the then-promotion of the Nintendo 3DS version of Snake Eater in 2012, where the partly-opened suit shows not only the scar but her cleavage too. I couldn’t help but feel very pissed off about it considering it was a character I very much admired, it felt very sexualised. Here was this scene in which a woman was pouring her heart out to someone who was basically as close to a son to her on how she ended up having to give birth in battle and had the scars – literally, the actual scars – to prove it. And now it was being flipped to help promote a new version of the game in a provocative way. To the best of my knowledge, the PS2 version of Metal Gear Solid 3 didn’t have this kind of promotion.
And then we come to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I had it within my Game of the Generation list last year. I know there are some who really think MGS4 really jumps the shark, but for the most part, I loved it. But in retrospect, there was one element that, after playing through it last year for GOTG, that’s made me feel awkward. And I wish I had spoken up about this part last year.
This is what I said at the time on MGS4’s boss battles.
One staple of the Metal Gear Solid series was its boss fights and how they weren’t the typical ‘go, kill’ battles. Whilst MGS2’s fights didn’t feel inspired, the remainder of the series has lived up to providing epic gameplay moments, from Sniper Wolf to The End; from Liquid to The Boss. MGS4, thankfully, kept this series tradition going with some fantastic boss fights with the Beauty and the Beast unit, comprising of soldiers who feel like a mix of both Foxhound (Octopus, Raven, Wolf, Mantis) in their skills as a soldier and the Cobras with their emotions (Laughing, Raging, Crying, Screaming).
And I stand by that, I enjoyed those battles, at least for the first part of them. But after you beat the bosses first time round, their armour falls apart and reveals four women who – having gone through really fucked up situations (as you’re eventually told by Drebin) – then seem like they’re coming onto you. And if they get close to you by embracing you, it bites away at your health. The only way to take them down is either you knock them to sleep with a few tranq shots or if you kill them, they end up engulfed in flames with their suits becoming ash (similar to some of the Frog soldiers if you kill them).
Maybe I’m grasping at straws here, especially considering they seem to be going through bouts of PTSD after they no longer wear their armour, but that left me rather uncomfortable. I wish I had the gall to speak out about those bits in the game, but truth be told, I was scared of the reaction if I had. It’s perhaps the one regret I have in doing the whole GOTG thing.
And then more recently, there was Ground Zeroes. For the most part, it’s a fantastic game, both mechanically and graphically. But it’s the game’s treatment of Paz and Chico that goes too far.
First, there’s the helicopter section with the bomb inside Paz and having to graphically see said bomb removed with blood and guts everywhere and no option of anaesthetic or sedation, instead having to be held down for it to be taken out.
All this is before being blown to bits anyways after leaping out of a helicopter as a self-sacrifice to save Snake after confessing there’s a second bomb forced inside her genitals .
And then there’s the implied treatment of Chico and Paz in Camp Omega by Skullface, including rape between the two characters.
I don’t think I have even a inch of skill in me to be able to properly describe that last part and give it justice, so I point you in the direction instead of an excellently-written piece by Ria Jenkins that talks about it much better than I ever could.
So even after all of that, why am I writing this? What’s the point of this piece?
My name is Johnny Cullen and I love the Metal Gear Solid series. But it has a massively serious problem in how to reflect its female characters.
Facing up to the problem
I saw Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett tweet this link out soon after a conversation I had with Sky and Ginx TV contributor Holly Nielsen for what I’m currently calling the Secret Project (the Secret Project I’ve referenced in part here via a conversation on, ironically, Metal Gear with my VG247 successor Dave Cook a while back).
One of the key observations – if not the key one – is to “acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it.” And after seeing the blog above, my conversation with Holly, the feelings that have been building up for the best part of two years in regards to how it treated The Boss in MGS3DS promotional stuffs and the B&Bs in MGS4, not to mention the events of Ground Zeroes, it’s time for me to come clean.
It’s perfectly okay to like things – no matter what form of entertainment they may be – if they include some really shifty things, be it games, TV (the link above mentions Game of Thrones as a reference), books or movies. In fact, for the latter, there’s a really good reference story mentioned in a USGamer piece written last year by Jeremy Parish on how an aspect of Breakfast at Tiffany’s made him uncomfortable as part of its larger angle on troubling bits in great games that I sincerely recommend reading.
But at the same time, you need to acknowledge that those bits are there. So here’s what I suggest: challenge the folks behind the things you love through Twitter or what not on those dodgy aspects, encourage them to get it right next time and then judge if they do indeed get it right.
For games, it already seems to be working. As part of Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, the critic – now since forced out of her home because of ongoing threats against her – cited the original Saints Row as an example of how it treats women as background objects. Volition creative director Steve Jaros tweeted the video out not in defence of Saints Row, but instead agreeing with Sarkeesian.
“I think that it is a problem in the games industry,” Jaros later told The Escapist in an interview at PAX Prime. “I think that we shouldn’t be portraying senseless abused women and I think that if I could go back and hop in a time machine I would have done things differently. But there’s also some things I didn’t [have] any control over and also I think that people’s consciousness grew.”
He added: “I think that there’s some things Saints Row does better than other games, and I think that there are other things that we could have done better. I think that every time that we’ve done a Saints Row game we’ve gotten better at it. I think that we always wanted to make sure we do things with fairness, but we’ve gotten better at it as time goes on.”
Already, the influence is being felt. Not just at Volition, but at many other numerous developers and publishers as well. You just have to look at people like Double Fine head Tim Schafer tweeting it out or BioShock 2 creative director Jordan Thomas agreeing with the criticisms the game got in Sarkessian’s video, to name a few.
Before seeing the link Pratchett tweeted, my talk with Holly were off on a tangent that eventually lead to Metal Gear and how its female characters are treated as of late. And while we did mention some of the stuff mentioned above and how Kojima very rightly deserves stick for what happened at the end of Ground Zeroes, we also chatted about how Metal Gear can get female characters right.
Look at Meryl and Naomi to give two examples. Strong independent characters with unique personalities – Meryl’s no bullshit nature as a soldier or Naomi’s smarts. And from a personal standpoint, I love Emma Emmerich and just how flat out geeky she is in Metal Gear Solid 2. I hung on her every word when she was talking about The Patriots, the Y2K bug and more. Even when it got weird at times, talking about her family and Otacon, I still listened intently. My heart almost broke when she died after her reunion with Otacon.
(Personal irrelevant tale: when I interviewed Jennifer Hale last year for Eurogamer, it actually took all of my restraint to not fanboy to her about E.E.)
And of course, The Boss. I mentioned above how much I admire that character: her own strongwilled personality as a soldier, the kind of maternal instinct she has, her inevitable tragic nature, how incredibly written her character was by Kojima and the performance of Lori Alan.
The sad thing is for all the bad stuff that Kojima’s gotten wrong with Paz in Ground Zeroes or how Quiet has been designed for The Phantom Pain – not to mention the tinge of awkwardness I felt with the models on the cardboard boxes during the gamescom demo – the potential is actually still there for awesome female characters in the Metal Gear series in the future like there was with The Boss and others. But in Kojima’s mad pursuit for realism, especially with the Fox Engine, I can’t help but feel concerned they’ll end up the way of characters like Paz or Quiet.
And that in turn has me very worried for the series’ future, especially when for years I’ve wanted a Metal Gear Solid game starring The Boss as lead character during the Normandy landings. I dread to think how it’ll be like when – or if – the game shows her giving birth in the middle of battle and how that will be interpreted.
So yes, I’m very much looking forward to The Phantom Pain still and I’m definitely excited to see where the series goes after it. But please, Kojima-san, treat your female characters with a lot more respect.
You’ve done it before, it’s not impossible.