Friday, August 31, 2012

Naked Snake and the Philosopher's Stone

Like the rest of the series, MGS3 begins with a fucklot of cutscenes. My first mistake, it seems, was paying attention to the dialogue.

Not because the dialogue is bad, mind you--it isn't--but because the MGS series uses the dialogue both to describe the diegetic world and to poke holes in the plastic film of the fourth wall. The map is not the terrain, and the narrative is not the game. The diegetic gameworld has little concept of Continue, of course, and we all accept that any sentence that ends with "...or you'll die horribly" should be read to mean "...or you'll have to restart from the next checkpoint." Stealth games carry their own suspension of disbelief, that searches for an intruder will eventually be called off, as opposed to escalating into the kind of concentric search-and-destroy operation for which security forces are trained. The consequences of getting caught have to be severe enough to be interesting, but forgiving enough to be fun. But Major Zero really lays it on thick with the stealth stuff, exclaiming that you musn't engage the enemy at all, must leave no ammo casings, blood spatter, or any evidence at all that you were ever there. It's a lot to ask, even from a Metal Gear standpoint. Even with the (interesting, but not all that different) non-lethal options available in MGS2, nobody would look at an area Solid Snake had passed through and have any question that a heavy armed and highly trained special forces operative had been in to visit.

Still, I found myself wanting to do a full-on stealth thing, to actually avoid foes entirely, and the new camouflage functionality, combined with my old tricks from the previous games, seemed like it would fit the bill. (It didn't.) So I got seen, a lot. I tranq'd (tranqued?) a lot of people, and felt vaguely guilty for doing so. I broke necks and slit throats when I got annoyed. And I got seen. A lot. To the point that, fifty years later, there ought to be folk legends in Russia about the clumsy CIA agent who kept bumping into guards by accident.

You can imagine how gratified I felt, having tried to hard to be inconspicuous and play to Zero's specifications, when Volgin fired a nuke into the valley. Unlike the knife, the garrotte, and the needle, the Davy Crockett portable nuclear missile has never really been considered a "stealth" weapon.

Perhaps the story was playing a joke on the unrealities of the Tactical Espionage Action genre. Perhaps Zero was merely alerting the player, in a roundabout manner, of the types of things the NPCs would notice that they hadn't in previous games. Perhaps he was underscoring the diegetic point that it's 1964, FOX-HOUND doesn't exist yet, and the entire concept of Low-Intensity Conflict is still finding its legs. Intelligence and counterintelligence are older than dirt, of course, so at times it's difficult to remember that the shadow wars that made up American military operations through the latter half of the 20th century were breaking a lot of new ground. JFK might have been James Bond's biggest fan, but "James Bond" was hardly something that could be made into Standard Operating Procedure.

At any rate, at the commencement of Operation Snake Eater, I'd remind myself that this was still a Metal Gear game, and Zero could go fuck himself, because I'd be engaging the enemy violently and often. Which brings us to the second major point of confusion: the alarm system. More accurately, the lack thereof.

1 and 2 have a pretty simple, standardized, game-like approach to alarms. They go off, you break the line of sight and hide until it goes away. MGS2 added a few things like radio check-ins for dead/unconscious guards, but basically the pattern held. Worse came to worst, you could always just leave the area for a clean slate.

Most of MGS3 is outdoors, and there are very few alarms to pull. Reinforcements are handled by radio and person-to-person contact. So if somebody sees you, even if the Alert is blaring in the upper-right of your HUD, it goes away as soon as your observer does. There is no "general alarm" to worry about, just the guy who saw you, and anyone in range of his voice. The guy with the radio has a very long voice, but the principle holds, and logic compels you to disable him first. The logic of stealth in MGS3 is in this way more brutal than its predecessors: when you've been seen, hiding is useless. You survive by eliminating witnesses, and making sure you don't leave any living bodies, corpses, bloodstains or bullet-casings lying out where people might stumble onto them and get suspicious. (This last point leads to the more hilarious and/or horrifying moments of MGS3 when you're panicked and killing too quickly to hide the evidence, eventually leading to a badly injured Snake standing atop a pile of corpses like Frank Castle in Born.)

I was nearly finished with the game by the time I "got" this at any intuitive level, and consequently I missed a lot of weapons and items along the way. I'm replaying it now, and it's both thrilling and dull to move smoothly through a game that confounded me at every turn for so long. I stumble upon an AK-47, and wonder, why? Knowing for a fact that I can complete the game with a tranq pistol and my bare fists, why would I bother with this clumsy, unpredictable, score-killing death machine?

Which brings me to the third point that confused me for so long: not only are there redundant solutions to every conceivable problem in MGS3, but the solutions learned from the previous games are almost invariably impractical. The heavier weaponry is almost always more fun than it is practical, and I suppose that's a substantive achievement for the genre. Confusing as hell, but substantive.

In summary, 1) genre conventions override narrative conceits, 2) fight, not flight, and 3) prioritize the new shit. One could easily make the argument that these lessons, and my failure to learn them, comprise a neat allegory of my professional malaise. One would not be me, because me has one last to add: the most important red flag, when dealing with depression, is inability to enjoy things that usually bring pleasure. If I've learned one useful thing from the past five years, it'd probably be that it's harder to notice that flag when the things you do for fun are so closely linked with the things you do professionally. When you think of yourself primarily as someone who writes, games, and writes about games, it's not an occupational hazard when you find yourself unable to muster the interest to do any of those things for pleasure. It's a yawning chasm, a bright black void.

I've fucked up. A lot.

And thus, I Continue.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.

Last week, I finished Metal Gear Solid 3. It was bittersweet. We have a history, MGS3 and I. Fortunately, unlike the women I met in undergrad, MGS3 cannot be annoyed or offended by my writing it up here, and it can't file a restraining order should I attempt to play it again.

I'm old enough to remember the end of the Cold War, but not old enough to understand what it meant or why it mattered until years later. Which is to say that I am also too young to remember Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, or Snake's Revenge. I played Metal Gear once on the NES, and spent my time being confused why I was in a combat zone with a pack of cigarettes and no weapons. That was Metal Gear for me: unarmed, with addictive, carcinogenic drugs, and no clear idea what to do.

I got older, the wall came down, and Metal Gear Solid came out. I was seventeen, living in the phantom world between middle school and college, and I finished it in two sittings. Which is not to say I was particularly good at the game, just persistent. I learned the rules slowly, in the face of constant failure, but the Game is good, and the Game is kind, and I learned. Stay under the cameras. Break the neck if you're unarmed. Shoot from behind with a silenced pistol if you're not. The FAMAS for close- and medium-range firefights, the PSG-1 for long-range combat, the stinger for hard targets. Chaff grenades to make their attacks less accurate. Cigarettes and valium to make my own more accurate. MGS is a marvel of parsimony; a place for everything, and everything in its place.

I grew up a bit. "Watashi no senkoo wa seijigaku desu," is how the kids would describe it. MGS is a good thing to love if you're studying poli-sci, it turns out. The limits of deterrence theory, the ins and outs of modern weapons systems, the challenges posed by actor proliferation: all good stuff to have a handle on before you step into the classroom, especially if you haven't been there in a while. MGS stuck to me deeply in adolescence, and I suppose it sticks there still.

At 20, I acquired Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and played it manically, usually with an audience. The sheer craziness of the narrative was well-paired with the brutal sanity of the gameplay, and I died and died and died until I won. I didn't go for a lot of the secrets--I shot birds, sure, but I was never good at robbing guards, and I didn't think to look up the hostage's skirt--but I played it to death, and when I started working on my undergrad thesis, armed with a novice's knowledge of postmodern literature, I played it again. MGS2, and its progenitor, ended up being the centerpiece of my first significant academic work, my writing sample for grad school. Columbine taught me about CMS, but MGS2 got me there.

But that hadn't happened yet, so when I met Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, I was living surreptitiously in my girlfriend's college housing. Like the Democratic party at the time, I was disorganized, weak-willed, and completely without direction. So when MGS3 didn't "grab" me right out of the gate, it might have been my own lack of focus that presented the problem, rather than that of the designers. We cannot blame the snow, after all, for being soiled by the earth. (We can also infer from Ms. Edison an alternate explanation.)

I'd return to MGS3 periodically over the years, sometimes with high hopes for figuring out what I was missing, sometimes out of dull determination to get it over with. I bought a DualShock 3 controller, in the hope that it would make the AP sensor more useful. I ignored entreaties to buy the enhanced re-release Subsistence. I'd pick it up, get confused, and put it back down. The rest of my life was working out much the same way. Looking back with the smallest amount of distance, I can see the sundry errors, near-misses and general-purpose fuck-ups of the last eight years mirrored in my relationship with, and my approach to, MGS3.

Next post will pick up the thread from there: how I learned to stop worrying and eat the snake, and how frustrating it is to have already used that joke on an entirely unrelated post title.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


This is a really shitty essay on ethics and evolution, and I felt compelled to respond. Then I read it again and found the prospect of responding too dull. Then my partner got a phone call and I needed something to do for a few minutes.

At its heart, it seems--along with the usual anti-materialist concerns about "how dare you use our idiotic prejudices about bodies and physicality against us"--is a complete failure to distinguish between descriptive and normative ethics. That some scientists study how moral decisions are made seems, to the author, to lead inexorably to the conclusion that he must be an insect or a computer or something. Because after all, if ethics really did involve conscious decision-making at any level, surely it would be impossible to study how various animal species behave!

So, I'm going to skip largely over what the author is saying, because what the author is saying is stupid, stupid bullshit. But it's worth spending some time on what the author is implying, that the very idea of descriptive ethics is not only pointless, but actually offensive to the legitimate field of normative ethics. I'm not sure what the antipathy is, exactly, although it probably doesn't help that advances in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have led to white-coated scientists empirically verifying things that Enlightenment philosophers pointed out three-hundred years ago, to wide cultural acclaim. We like scientists. Scientists make things. We are not, culturally, as enamored of fancypants professors. Nobody is more pissed off about this than I am; fancypants professor would be a good career path for me, whereas my science education is woefully inadequate, and my technical skill has so far served me to write some papers and code a text-based game about Kant's murderer-at-the-door scenario in C++.

The decisions made by ants are, in some ways, similar to decisions made by humans. They are also, in other ways, very different. They're primarily interpreted and executed via written/spoken language, an evolutionary technology so bizarre that only primates could come up with it. They are also orders of magnitude more complex, as our species has nested our fundamental concerns behind so many layers of interpersonal bureaucracy that we often lose sight of them entirely. But if ethics is to be merely a study of what we ought to do, it's worth pointing out that nearly every ethical philosophy already agrees on what any given person ought to do on a day to day basis, and argument tends to arise over issues that are either extraordinarily complex or hilariously rare. Still a worthwhile use of one's time, but there's beauty, and useful data, looking at it from the other end once in a while.

We can shake our fists at the blind, pitiless unvierse and bellow "I am human!" if we like, until Sheldon Cooper asks us why we're yelling tautologies at the sky. Of course we're human. This is not something in dispute. But we are also primates, and every part of us has some similarity to chimpanzees and bonobos, and we have a little less similarity to the gorillas and orangutans, etc. We didn't pop into the universe from nothing. What we did was develop a technology that radically accelerated our differentiation from the non-hominids. We walked into this movie in the middle, to paraphrase Stephen King. So we have a lot of work to do to get up to speed.

And it turns out there's a lot to learn from ants, and primates, and computers, because every metaphor we can develop for how humans function gives us new data to work with. And while "cooperative animal behavior" might not precisely equal "human virtue," it is worth noting that humans are animals, and all of our virtues (as well as many of our vices) involve cooperating with someone. More to the point, the cooperative animal behavior of ants isn't human virtue in much the same way that a cell isn't a person. They're different things. Still, get a few billion (?) cells together and weird things happen. Things you wouldn't have predicted. One of the things that can happen is a person, with awareness of moral law: an awareness just as certain as the fear of pain.

Big things are made of small things, to quote Gaius Secondus, and if you want to understand the big things, it helps to look at the small things. Free will is only a useful concept is we assume there are a) decisions to be made, and b) criteria for choosing one thing over another. While the gene theory of evolution, or theories of kin selection or group selection in general, might not be descriptive (human) ethics per se, they do suggest some fine candidates for where b) come from, and why they matters.

In Alien, the malevolent AI--who may or may not have any sense of "ought" in his synthetic brain--expresses admiration precisely for the titular xenomorph's lack of said "ought": "I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded my conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." And perhaps he's right. Primarily what the alien does to the crew of the Nostromo is kill and eat. Eating, as being part of that whole "urge to not die" thing, might be considered to be somewhere on our moral radar, but it might not. And besides, if we consider Alien to be a closed universe, unencumbered by the stories developed in sequels, the alien might not need to eat. It might be outside our rules of thermodynamics, or it might feed on starlight. Who the hell knows.

I bring it up because, if we do include the sequels, we see aliens working in groups to ensure the survival of their group. In particular, we see them making extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the protection of the queen and the survival of her eggs. What we see, in Aliens, and again in Alien Resurrection, is family. They likely don't "know" that's what they are, and they have no way to justify their actions as morally significant. I would question whether this is an entirely black-and-white distinction between cooperation and ethics. Animals don't have to "know" that fucking will prolong their species, but this ignorance doesn't make it any less effective. Perhaps a better question would be, can actions that reliably produce what we would determine to be moral outcomes be definitely said not to be moral actions?