I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game. For years I thought the series was impenetrable, a shadowy and undecipherable opus hidden behind the mythic auteur of Hideo Kojima. By sheer cultural osmosis and the impact of Death Stranding last year, I finally decided to finally give the franchise a proper shot.
Critics have previously called Kojima “the Jonathan Franzen of video games” for his aspirational narrative gestures — which led me to realize Metal Gear Solid itself is no stranger to the world of fiction. Recently in the December 2019 issue of the New Yorker, Jamil Jan Kochai published the short story Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Told from the second-person perspective of a young man with family from Kabul, the piece explores how we dive into the narrative of protagonists to escape trauma. It attempts to answer the question of how we translate the surreal logics of games into believable prose via characters, and by turn, into our own lives as players. But why choose Metal Gear Solid, of all franchises? Without context, I had no answer.
Besides finally playing the series for myself, I sought supplemental reading: Raymond Benson’s 2008 official novelization of the 1998 PlayStation game. For a stealth title apparently about people having lots of lengthy conversations over radios, it made sense. If I hesitated diving into my first stealth-action game, the familiarity of prose would help ease my transition into Kojima’s eccentric mindscape. At worst, I’d realize reading about a man crawling on his knees under a box with someone named Deepthroat whispering sweet nothings into his ear wasn’t for me. If I wanted to fully experience this first wild entry, I had nothing to lose.
The Messiness of Snake-Wrangling
Video game novelizations are nothing new. During the nineties, Scholastic published chapter book editions of popular Nintendo Entertainment System games such as Mega Man 2 and Bionic Commando under the Worlds of Power imprint. These books infamously included a novelization of Metal Gear’s illegitimate NES port — a game originally released for the Japanese MSX2 computer in 1987. Drawing as it did on source material that was already bastardized, the original Metal Gear novelization bears no resemblance to the hyperbolic and larger-than-life dialogue of later entries, nor does it actually even feature Snake. We wouldn’t see another novelization until 2008, ten years after Metal Gear Solid’s 1998 PlayStation debut and corresponding with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. This novelization, unlike its predecessor, completely and utterly leans into Metal Gear’s surreal genre-fiction influences.
Benson’s treatment of Metal Gear Solid is straight-up political thriller/military fiction, which makes sense given his history with the James Bond series. It’s both a re-telling and a re-imagining, filling in gaps in characterization where the game left off. Jeremy Blaustein’s original translation is largely preserved in Benson’s prose and this version of Snake, whose voice was inspired by the very same character Benson wrote for years. In “The bizarre, true story of Metal Gear Solid’s English translation,” Blaustein writes about his initial approach to Metal Gear Solid: “I had the sense that that’s what Kojima was going for: a gritty feeling of realism, with touches of James Bond’s gadgets and inventiveness. So I read, re-read […] savoring the feel of that world […] including the sarcastic machismo.”
The world of Snake and company was, in a way, reverse-engineered from the political thriller’s love for obsessive descriptions of technology, of bizarre black ops, and meticulous world-building. Benson’s novel is littered with these strangely odd-angle interpretation of events, like Snake’s first encounter with Psycho Mantis:
“Do your worst, you circus freak!” Snake shouted as he zigzagged through the room. “Did they leave your cage in the sideshow unlocked, Mantis? Don’t you miss living with the geeks?”
Later, Snake briefly pauses during his mission to rescue Meryl to contemplate the 9/11 attacks:
“The images of what had happened to the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 flashed through [Snake’s] mind, and he hoped that the fires would not be that intense.”
Even that, though, isn’t quite as odd as Snake’s first impressions of Ocelot, in which he muses that “Central Casting could use him for the role of General George Custer in a community theater production of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.”
Blaustein’s intentional portrayal of “sarcastic machismo” in his original 1998 translation of Kojima’s script has become embedded into the DNA of every Metal Gear Solid iteration. Regardless of the authorship and despite Kojima’s possible oversight in the novel’s adaptation (insofar as being credited in the acknowledgements), Blaustein’s personal touch is impossible to ignore. If Metal Gear Solid is the video game adaptation of a madman’s American military fiction, then the novelization is the franchise’s purest return to form.
Peeking Behind the Curtain
In Blaustein’s original translation, Snake delivers the line “I’m just a man who’s good at what he does. Killing.” This quote is notably preserved in Benson’s adaptation, having earlier been altered in the 2004 remake of Metal Gear Solid, Twin Snakes. The line’s inclusion in the 2008 novelization shows how Metal Gear Solid’s now revised hyper-hyperbolic, post-Snake-remembers-9/11 world thrives on such embellishments, auteur-approved or not.
The Benson adaptation is not unlike Blaustein’s effort to localize Metal Gear Solid for an audience culturally fluent in the poetic machismo of James Bond and Road Warrior. As someone with no experience actually playing Metal Gear entries, I found Benson’s Snake immediately recognizable. From a literary perspective, the flat delivery of Kojima’s batshit plot and characters do enough of the heavy lifting to set the tone — you definitely aren’t getting a serious political action thriller, but a fiction inspired by shameless, cinematic machismo.
Benson’s treatment is littered with these hammy winks to the reader, like the final confrontation between Solid Snake and Liquid Snake at Metal Gear REX:
“With that, Metal Gear emitted an earsplitting roar as if it were a dinosaur from a long-lost world!
My God! Snake thought. They even gave the thing sound effects!”
After I read this, my suspicions that this book knew what it was doing were confirmed. Without sound effects, computer graphics, and player control, prose is the obvious antithesis to video games. The Pulp Fiction-level of surrealness in experiencing Metal Gear Solid as a novel comes from this massive gap between game imagery and matter-of-fact language of commercial fiction. At the end of the day, I couldn’t tell if I appreciated Metal Gear Solid just for the sheer novelty of experiencing a game as a book, or because I actually cared about people like Snake, Otacon, and Meryl. Like a fever dream fanfiction project, it fully revels in eccentric minutiae of the source material to create its own new, organic narrative ecosystem. Metal Gear Solid’s novelization begs to be read with all the seriousness and purposeful intent of a prose stylistic laboring over every word. As a writer, it’s a bewildering exercise in form. I didn’t finish the game.
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Medium Vs. Message
Witnessing Blaustein’s and Benson’s treatments of Metal Gear Solid is like watching the same film shot by different directors — but despite their differences, both manage to connect all the necessary cultural dots. The novelization, alongside Benson’s 2009 adaptation of Sons of Liberty, was notably a English-only work before the official, Japanese-only novelizations were published. While novelizations of Guns of the Patriots, Snake Eater, and The Phantom Pain now exist, I doubt another American Metal Gear Solid book will manifest again. It’s a shame, because Senator Steven Armstrong clearly belongs in a Tom Clancy title.
As Moira Hicks writes, Metal Gear isn’t subtle — it “embraces startling, often ridiculous fantasies” about what it means to be American, to live under a military industrial complex, to be paranoid and violent in a cinematic flash. Exaggeration has always been the franchise’s speciality and the commitment to Kojima’s fantasies into literal military fiction only emphasizes the sheer absurdity of Metal Gear’s narrative. By camouflaging so well into the American genre fiction inspiring it, this anomaly of an adaptation proves the infectious psyche of franchises might never need fidelity. It turns out the message, if loud and utterly inescapable enough, doesn’t need the medium after all.