The Culture Cache is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
Of course, not all backstory is bad. When it’s done right, it adds immeasurable depth to the characters we all know and love. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is perhaps the best example I can think of. If anything, it does too good a job, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. As luck would have it, this game just so happens to be the one one of our Patreon donors, Xakor, wants to see! Let’s indulge Xakor and examine one of the most beloved games on the Playstation 2, and that’s saying something in and of itself!
Backstory. Yes, backstory. This aspect of narrative driven art can either make it, or, more likely, break it. Take a look at Sleeping Beauty. Okay… You’re staring at her too long. It’s kinda creeping me out. Stop it! Let me be a bit more clear. Take the story of Sleeping Beauty. Who’s the villain? That’s right, Maleficent. The root word of her name is malice, meaning hatred, spite, or evil. Seems simple enough, right? An evil woman plots to kill a beautiful princess. How could anyone possibly screw this up?
Enter Maleficent (the movie). This is the perfect example of backstory gone awry. No longer is one of Disney’s most potent villains evil and menacing (and remember, HER NAME IS A SYNONYM FOR EVIL!), now she’s an innocent victim and has been all along. Somebody put her on the potty backwards as a kid and now she’s screwed up for life. Poor Maleficent! We should feel sorry for her! Perhaps her revenge plot is even justified after everything she’s been through! Obviously, this is not the case. Some of us actually care about fidelity to canon…
By now, we’ve well established that Big Boss is holding every genetic trump card, but there’s much more to him than that. If he never honed his natural endowments, they would have simply vanished into the ether as wasted potential. He had to learn his physical and mental toughness somehow. That’s where The Boss comes in. She is his mentor and is clearly a maternal figure to him. Imagine BB’s shock when, early in the game, The Boss turns on him, leaving him a battered, broken mess. This scene is much more than a typical Metal Gear swerve. It’s foundational to the character of Big Boss. This betrayal is absolutely paramount. Nevertheless, he continues his Cold War era mission. Sadly, this won’t be the last betrayal for poor Big Boss…
Hilariously, an actual news network ran this Metal Gear screenshot as evidence of REAL LIFE child soldiers in a story once. No joke!
Peace Walker offers many important insights into Big Boss’ character. First, we see how BB has distanced himself from any specific country. This is a natural development, considering the nigh on abuse he suffered under 1960s Democrat President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. We also see his general adherence to non-fatal means of combat. While it’s true that he still does pack (and deploy) live ammunition, he no longer carries a KA-BAR combat knife. Instead, he wields a stun rod. While it’s nearly functionally identical to the knife, it subdues instead of destroys. It is abundantly clear in this game that Big Boss would much rather take enemies prisoner and ultimately recruit them as opposed to outright killing them. By the end of the game, you’ll have some 200 soldiers under your direct command, nearly all of which you recruited in this manner. Peace Walker’s MSF (Militaires Sans Frontiéres) and Mother Base systems are incredibly rich and deep. It takes literally hundreds of real hours to fully develop your fighting force. Now consider that those hundreds of hours are hundreds of days to BB. He has relationships with these people that are not fully personal, but certainly more than merely professional. So when it all comes to a fiery end during the conclusion of Ground Zeroes, we, the audience, worry not only about Big Boss’ physical condition. Honestly, I know how long it took me to build up Mother Base. Playing Ground Zeroes for the first time keeps just enough of the MB system around to fully swerve you when it gets destroyed. It hurts me, as a player, to witness the inglorious destruction of all my hard work. I literally skip this scene every single time. It’s just too hard for me to watch. If it has that reaction on me, consider what it does to Big Boss, who directly interacted with his comrades (or is that comPATRIOTS…?).
Big Boss is supposed to meet up with his liaison, Adam. When this plan doesn’t quite come to fruition, he instead rendezvous with Eva (why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think there’s something important about those names!). Over the course of the game, Eva assists Big Boss by providing him with occasional equipment and information, as well as certain other “tokens of support.” Let’s just say that these two get very close. I mean, c’mon. Big Boss shares his ramen with Eva. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what love is! Sadly, this is an unrequited love, as, much like The Boss, Eva turns on Big Boss, stealing an important plot-centric item from him. At this point, we could already assume that Big Boss will have trust issues (especially with women) for the rest of his life, but, unfortunately, this is far from the last moment of duplicity in this game.
Big Boss didn’t get a letter from LBJ. Instead, he got a handshake (still no laurel, though). Mission accomplished and a job well done! All is right with the world. Hmm. Given the last few paragraphs, I doubt it. Nope. As luck would have it, The Boss didn’t turn at all. Instead, she was under deep cover all along. Knowing she would be killed by her pupil’s hand, she took the mission anyway. Big Boss was left in the dark, totally unaware until after he’d already dispatched her. Really let this sink in for a moment. Try to imagine your favorite teacher combined with your mother. Now ask yourself, could you kill her, even when put into an extreme situation. Then realize that it meant almost nothing and that the two of you, and the bond you shared, were exploited by an uncaring government. In a weird way, Big Boss becomes almost a sympathetic character. It honestly makes it hard for me to kill him in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (Remember, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots never happened. I don’t care what they say. That “plot” is imbecilic). This is a man who gave everything, EVERYTHING, for his country and all he got in return was, effectively, a kick in the teeth.
The first game in the series, Metal Gear (yes, this series existed before the “solid” was added to the title), takes place almost right smack in the middle of the timeline. Little did we know way back in 1987 that this would be anything other than the start of the series, let alone anything more than a single, standalone game! The story in this game is fairly simple, especially for a Metal Gear game. You play as Solid Snake as he carries out his first mission. His job is to infiltrate the African mercenary state of Outer Heaven. Along the way, he receives guidance from his superior officer, Big Boss. Big Boss seems to know a lot about this place, but has a strange way of revealing it. He usually calls to tell you about a trap just as you are springing it… That’s not at all suspicious. In what was, debatably, the first moment of treachery in the series (by release date), it turns out that Big Boss was really in charge of Outer Heaven all along! Solid Snake saves the day by defeating Big Boss with copious rockets to the face. All in a day’s work!
This was the title that introduced most people to the series (but the cool kids grew up with the first on NES). And what a perfect introduction it was! To date, it’s still one of the best entries in the series, and for one as heralded as Metal Gear, that really is high praise. The main part of the story we need to focus on (for now…) is what relates to Big Boss. We learn that Big Boss is Snake’s father… of sorts. Shades of Star Wars much? Well, not quite. Solid Snake is a clone of Big Boss. One of many, in fact. This means the events of the prior two games are tantamount to patricide, and given some of the other character interactions, there’s a healthy side of fratricide to go with it. Since Big Boss was such an amazing soldier, we can’t just let his superior genes go to waste, now can we? So we made multiple clones of BB, including Solid Snake. At this point, he’s an incredible specimen of a human being, but we still view Big Boss as a brutal tyrant. With elements of the plot of these three games under our belts, we’re finally able to discuss Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
All this backstory they’ve given to the one dimensional final boss of the first Metal Gear game is so effective that it’s literally changed the focus of the entire series in my eyes (or is that eye?). This character is one of the richest and most complex in all of gaming. He has all the makings of a literary tragic hero. He lives for the fight, not for the kill. When you stack him up against Solid Snake, it gets particularly interesting. Solid has little trouble offing anyone who stands in his way (and, admittedly, I appreciate that as well), goading Meryl to not think about the bullets tearing through her enemies bodies. It’s a simple point and click interface. BB likely wouldn’t do that, even to his own detriment (like Vash the Stampede). Remember those child soldiers we were just talking about? Big Boss clearly doesn’t want to create more of them through indiscriminant killing! This cannot be forgotten when you consider how this series deals with such a touchy subject! Shockingly, when you actually reflect on the entire story of the series, we actually have many times more the development of Big Boss than Solid Snake, prompting the question, “Who is actually the main character of the series?” I have to go with Big Boss on this one. Even in most of the games in which he never appears, he is still a major aspect of driving the game forward. That’s what I meant by the backstory, perhaps, being too good.
Buckle up, because we’re going to have to really tear into the red meat of many aspects of this series’ story. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but know that there will be some (many) from here on out. In order to effectively examine the backstory, we first have to look at the story as it was presented to us in the games. It seems to be axiomatic in gaming that if a series goes on long enough, it will eventually monkey around with its own timeline, and this series is no exception.
There’s a little debate here that I have to quickly address. In the US, the next game was Snake’s Revenge, while in Japan, it was Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Snake’s Revenge is a fun game that plays a lot like the first one, but it’s non-canon. Series creator Hideo Kojima was not involved in Snake’s Revenge and that game is what spurred him to create his own sequel. As it turns out, Big Boss survived (because video game logic!) the events of the first game. The world is stymied by an energy crisis (déjà vu?), but a miracle algae, known as OILIX, emerges to fulfill the world’s needs. Or at least it would have. Big Boss has monopolized control of both OILIX and nuclear armaments. Once more, Solid Snake is called into action! Snake encounters familiar faces and some shocking new surprises before confronting Big Boss once again. Taking a page out of Aladdin’s playbook, the unarmed Snake has to improvise. Like plenty of idiots you can find on YouTube, he fashions a flamethrower out of an aerosol spray and a cigarette lighter. I always knew that Axe was up to no good… Still, sic semper tyrannis. Right?
I’m not afraid to say that, knowing everything I know about this character, this mere image can move me to tears. This is one of my favorite characters in gaming. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is head-and-shoulders my favorite game on the Playstation 2. The Metal Gear series is a true OASIS in a sea of shovelware. I love this series and I love this game. And, yes, I’ll say it. I love Big Boss.
Across multiple games, we see the internal strife that Big Boss deals with. In this game, in one of the most moving interactive moments in any video game ever, we get to partake in this very struggle. In this “river of the dead” boss battle, BB encounters literally EVERY SINGLE ENEMY he has killed. To make this stick with the player even more, each enemy is depicted in the manner in which he was killed. This nightmarish event clearly stays with the character. Fast forward to Peace Walker. In that game, Big Boss has a score of 8000 (out of 9999) in every single stat except for one… his psyche, which is 6000. This is a perfect use of the video game medium to masterfully illustrate a point! He is damn good at nearly everything, proving what an excellent warrior he is, but he still carries an immense mental burden with him at all times. His 6000 psyche points is still above average, but well below his other uniform stats.
The first thing fans of the series will point out to show that Big Boss is still a hated villain has to do with child soldiers. There’s no denying this, but it’s important to see how it came about. Cause and effect is supremely important here. There is a little debate here as well, which is natural in a series as long running as this, especially when it has canon and non-canon entries, as well as plentiful uses of retconning. BB begins by giving war orphans food, clothing, and shelter. More than that, he offers them some semblance of family and acceptance. This is clearly a positive thing. Would these children be better off had he not taken them in? Does he offer them a net gain to the quality (and, in all likelihood, length) of their lives? As unfortunate as it is, the answer, for the vast majority of these children is, sadly, yes. It only enters the gray area when you consider that BB offers them the only teaching he knows: how to be a good soldier. Even then, it’s all too easy to overlook a poignant point regarding his psyche. Thankfully, the series lets us fully vet him in that department as well.
If you hadn’t read the previous paragraph (or played this game beforehand), you could easily mistake Naked Snake, pictured above, for Solid Snake, the hero of all the above mentioned titles. This is the elder Snake. He has many aliases, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to calling him Big Boss. In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, you get to play as Big Boss. Again, I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum and reveal only those most important aspects that relate to my larger point on backstory. Suffice it to say that the ouroboros-like title was not an accident…