Flashback: How 'Metal Gear Solid 2' Foretold Our Post-Truth Future

Flashback: How 'Metal Gear Solid 2' Foretold Our Post-Truth Future

Konami's 'Metal Gar Solid 2' was a brilliant evolution of the series and one of the best games to appear on the PS2 Glixel/Konami

An unexpected (and controversial) change of hero and AI allies showed up for this 2001 sequel to the PlayStation classic

An unexpected (and controversial) change of hero and AI allies showed up for this 2001 sequel to the PlayStation classic

It was one heck of a bait and switch. Almost exactly 15 years ago, the then-new PlayStation 2 was finally seeing the launch of its most hotly anticipated game. It was heralded by a spectacular demo shown at E3 2000 that showed off everything a Metal Gear Solid fan could hope for: Solid Snake infiltrating a storm-lashed tanker under assault by Russian troops; incredible next-generation 3D and lighting effects; bullets that would realistically shatter glass and send objects flying; and a vast new Metal Gear robot.

That was all in there when Metal Gear Solid 2 released on November 12, 2001, but it was just the prologue to the biggest bait and switch in gaming history. Rather than a tanker by night, you'd be playing on an oil platform on a sunny day, and not as gritty old Metal Gear star Solid Snake, but as some long-haired fop called Raiden.

Metal Gear Solid 2 was incendiary. It caused outrage and confusion. The series was already famous for the kind of trickiness that would print answers to riddles on the CD jewel case and ask you to switch controller ports to defeat enemies. So where was game director Hideo Kojima going with this one? It was all part of Metal Gear Solid 2's grand theme of truth and identity, a story that made it the most narratively ambitious console game of its time.

It was also a blockbuster so big that it was instrumental to sealing PlayStation 2's dominance over its generation. For the time, Metal Gear Solid 2's production values were off the scale, with an electronica-laced orchestral soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams and long and kinetic in-engine cutscenes that provided a sense of escalating drama. Its rogues gallery of bosses – Fatman the bomb obsessive, Fortune the mystic, Vamp the immortal pervert – walked the Kojima line between cartoon excess and human pathos.

Its stealth design is still deeply fun, too, partly because the rest of the game is so filled with crowd-pleasing details. You can hold up enemies, cause them to wet themselves and collect their dog-tags. Bullets cut up melons, break bottles on shelves, and cause steam to burst from pipes. You can slip on seagull guano, leave wet footprints behind you, catch a cold. Fabric billows in the wind. There are lengthy conversations about daylight savings and the value of selling new jeans that come already ripped and worn.

Here is a game in which almost every event is a lie of some kind.

But Metal Gear Solid 2 also resonates because of narrative themes which were strangely prescient of not only its own time but also today. Its launch was just two months after September 11, 2001: a campaign of vengeance was being set into motion and accusations that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling uranium were beginning to escalate towards the Iraq War. And along came a game with a prologue depicting a terrorist attack set in New York City over a weapon of mass destruction, telling a tale about deception and paranoia and shadowy organisations controlling all.

And yet Metal Gear Solid 2 was gazing at the future rather than the present. Played now, in the context of a country reeling from an election which seemed to wield and dodge truth at every turn, here is a game in which almost every event is a lie of some kind. You don’t play as Snake but as Raiden. Bullet-bending boss Fortune doesn't have magical luck but unknowingly has an electromagnet inserted in her body. Raiden isn’t a novice to the battlefield but a seasoned child warrior with a wiped memory. Raiden's commander, Roy Campbell, and girlfriend, Rose, are AI constructs. And then the game starts breaking the fourth wall. After all, your real target is not a war robot but an AI that will control the world’s information.

Towards the end of the game, there's an extraordinary conversation in which the motivations of the Patriots are revealed, along with their disturbing ideas on the effects of mass culture and social media on the people.

"But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible," says Campbell, now revealed as an AI.

"Rumours about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander..." continues Rose.

"All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate. It will only slow the rate of progress, reduce the rate of evolution," says Campbell.

And then Rose says, "Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever 'truth' suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large." Somehow, it'd foreseen the effect of Facebook's algorithmically curated newsfeed long before even MySpace was invented.

It's not that Metal Gear Solid 2 offers any particular answers to today’s post-truth world. But this transcendent, bizarre, base, confusing, funny, rambling, rich, ridiculous, self-indulgent, and deeply generous game can still hold a mirror up to it. 15 years later, it still has us talking.