A split-screen of military painted illustrations for the Metal Gear games.

Spoiler Alert: A Story Summary & Analysis for Metal Gear & Metal Gear 2

Some games are intimidating. Dark Souls is known for punishing players who aren’t patient. Games like the Persona series require a daunting time commitment. Then there are some franchises that have been around for so long, and have such tangled narratives, that they are incomprehensible to players that haven’t done the homework. Nothing perfectly encapsulates the latter than the Metal Gear series. In an epic tale spanning 28 years, Hideo Kojima crafted a masterpiece that covers everything from heavy political topics (such as nuclear disarmament) to deep philosophical ponderings (like the nature of consciousness and the illusion of free will). It also contains poop jokes and constant objectification of the female form. It is a series that I often criticize more than I praise.

The series, as a whole, sounds like something a 13-year-old boy scribbled into the margins of his middle school notebooks. Yet somehow it was adapted into a multi-million dollar spectacle created by hundreds of talented artists and hard-working programmers. The series takes its story more seriously than it should while still making fun of itself at every opportunity. In many ways, the complete Metal Gear saga represents how a visionary artist duped the corporate world into telling anti-capitalist, anti-war stories by veiling them in gun fetishism, US military soap operas, and anime tropes. Not only that, but it popularized fourth-wall-breaking “mindfucks” for video games and catapulted its creator to “rock star” status. In order to truly understand the culture created by this series, you have to play every game. But sometimes you don’t have the time.

In a rare mini-series of The Backlog, we will attempt to understand Kojima’s 30-year masterpiece, starting with games on the Japanese MSX2 computer system and ending with modern consoles. Since the games can be appreciated in many ways, each issue is split into three categories that explain the story, the themes, and the mind-bending narrative hooks that have kept Metal Gear players asking the all-important question: “What the fuck?”

The Gameplay

The early Metal Gear games are played from an overhead view that is angled, also known as a “Three Quarters (¾) Perspective”, which allows them to navigate the avatar along the X and Y axis in a seemingly 3D world. That avatar is Snake, a bandana-wearing action hero with dark hair and dark clothes. The player can assign two items to Action keys, such as a weapon, a health item, a key card, or anything else. As the player navigates the world, they will encounter enemies that won’t immediately see Snake, so they are encouraged to navigate Snake around enemies in order to avoid confrontation. If Snake is “spotted” by an enemy, an alarm sounds, which floods the screen with more enemies until Snake successfully hides for a few minutes or dispatches all of the enemies.

Outside of combat, the player may activate a radio transmission that allows Snake to chat with other people. The radio has a three-digit frequency number (with a single decimal) that the player can dial.
Aside from a few key moments that play with this interaction, this describes the vast majority of the gameplay through Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. So, to recount, the narrative in Metal Gear is split between over-head action and radio transmissions.

Heaven & Algae (The Stories)

Metal Gear (aka Operations Intrude N312 & N313)

Big Boss is the militarily-dressed leader of FOXHOUND, a special forces unit with an unclear origin. In 1995, he sends agent Gray Fox to a mysterious and heavily fortified compound in South Africa called Outer Heaven. Why? To find out what they’re doing. Gray Fox never returns, so Big Boss sends Snake after him.

Snake enters Outer Heaven and learns that they have created a “bipedal walking tank” called “Metal Gear”. If you’ve seen RoboCop, imagine the ED-209 except bigger. You might also know it by the term “mech”, such as in MechAssault or MechWarrior. Snake also learns that the Metal Gear is carrying a nuclear bomb. During the mission, Snake rescues a few resistance leaders as well as Dr. Pettrovich, the creator of Metal Gear.

As Snake gets closer to finding Metal Gear, Big Boss tells him to abort. Snake notices that enemies seem aware of his location. Then Big Boss sends Snake into obvious traps. Snake fights the Metal Gear and then, while escaping, runs into Big Boss, who explains that he is the secret leader of Outer Heaven. He explains that the entire mission was supposed to be a counter-intelligence scheme, that whatever information gleaned by Gray Fox and Snake would be used to misinform the US and other Western governments. Big Boss then says that, if Outer Heaven is going down, then he’s taking out Snake, too, and activates a self-destruct sequence. A timer begins and Snake fights Big Boss and then escapes up an elevator before everything crumbles around him.

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (aka Operation Intrude F014)

In 1999, Dr. Kio Marv creates OILIX, a new species of algae that could solve the oil crisis. As he’s traveling to a conference in Prague, he is kidnapped by soldiers from Zanzibar Land, a country between the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Snake is then sent by FOXHOUND’s new commander, Roy Campbell, to rescue Dr. Marv and save OILIX.

While in Zanzibar Land, Snake discovers that Big Boss survived Outer Heaven and is the secret leader of Zanzibar Land. Also, Big Boss had re-kidnapped Dr. Pettrovich and forced him to make smaller, non-nuclear Metal Gears, one of which is piloted by Gray Fox!

Dr. Marv dies, but Snake steals the OILIX data. He jumps into a Metal Gear and fights Gray Fox, a battle that destroys both machines. So Snake and Gray Fox engage in hand-to-hand combat in a minefield. Snake wins and then meets Big Boss. Since Snake lost his equipment, he creates a flamethrower from a lighter and an aerosol can, defeating Big Boss. Snake escapes with Holly, a CIA operative pretending to be a journalist that Snake rescued during the adventure.

Quadruple Guess (The Themes)

Deception will become the most common theme throughout the series. Big Boss’ goal was to feed the US government bad information. Gray Fox becomes an enemy to Snake in MG2, hinting that he might have known Big Boss’s true intentions in the first game. So was he really kidnapped in the first game? Or was that all a part of Big Boss’s plan? So, if Big Boss’s plan was to confuse and deceive, then what if everything went according to plan? AHHHHHHHHHHH! From the very beginning, Metal Gear makes you second, triple, and quadruple guess everything you thought you know.

These games also introduce the idea of Science Fiction as an explanation for the unexplainable. In MG2, OILIX isn’t a magic alternative to oil: it’s algae! While “sci-fi explanations” are relatively realistic in this game, they will get crazier as the series continues.

Another recurring element introduced in these games is the constant creation of expendable characters. Aside from the handful of folks I’ve mentioned, MG and MG2 have 25 named characters! Sure, some have great codenames, such as Dirty Duck and Night Fright, but most of them don’t play into the overall story of the series. In fact, a lot of them are completely disposable within the game itself, especially the women. This will become a frustrating, yet prevalent, trope throughout the series.

Smoke Breaks & Lost Warlds (WTF?)

Snake tells you to turn off your MSX console.

In the first example of fourth-wall-breaking in MG, Big Boss tells Snake to abort the mission by turning off the MSX console. While a relatively small moment in a larger piece, it was completely unheard of at the time. Breaking the fourth wall will become one of the most memorable qualities of the series, especially in Metal Gear Solid. Still, it’s important to note that Kojima included it in the very first game.

Also, the first MG has a critical time limit near the end. After defeating the Metal Gear, Snake must escape and then go up a long elevator ride. One of the game’s more notable secrets is that, if Snake equips his pack of cigarettes, then he will get more time to escape. These sorts of gameplay Easter eggs will become one of the franchise’s hallmark qualities.

Concerning the development of the games, Metal Gear was the first game that Hideo Kojima directed. He had pitched a game called Lost Warld (yes, that’s an “A”), but his higher-ups at Konami turned it down. Metal Gear was actually someone else’s project that Kojima took over. Because the MSX home computer wasn’t designed for combat, Kojima changed the focus from action to stealth. The series has become his legacy, and later games reference things that happen in the first game. But players should not assume that things that happen later were “planned” to happen. It was not “planned” that Metal Gear Solid, released 10 years after the first game, would contain references to the original, or that plot devices created in earlier games would influence the others. And Kojima has never stated otherwise. So, when things start to fit into place later, this isn’t because it was all planned out from the outset: it’s because the creator has found creative (and often absurd) ways to retroactively include them.


We’re going to alternate issues of The Backlog Presents Spoiler Alert, so The Backlog Issue 08 will take a look at Metal Gear Solid, a game that promotes genetics, mind control, and bondage gear.

But issue 07 of The Backlog is going to take a look at one of my favorite games. Don’t Look Back is a free browser game created by Terry Cavanagh, and it is easily one of the best examples of how to tell a story through gameplay.

Images courtesy of Maze Rats, Konami Group Corporation and Terry Cavanagh


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