How Metal Gear Eschewed Realism to Convey the Horror of Imperial Violence

It's absurd and nonsensical, but that's the point

The Department of Homeland Security was established November 25th, 2002. Immigration and Custom Enforcement was established March 1st, 2003. The War on Terror is harder to formally establish a starting time on — do you start at September 11th, 2001, as many people do, or do you fold the conflict into the Gulf War (August 2nd, 1990)? Either way, the Metal Gear series is older than all of them. It’s also the only piece of art I know that makes the scale and sensation of the escalating American imperialism and violence they represent comprehensible.

Metal Gear is usually lumped in with military fiction and spy fiction, with games like The Division or Call of Duty. But crucially, Metal Gear does not deal in slavish verisimilitude. Instead, it embraces startling, often ridiculous fantasies. By leaning so heavily on impossible, fantastic things, Metal Gear breaks ranks with military fiction and instead becomes magical realism. In doing so, it is better able to communicate the impossible horror of war.

More Like This:

Kids in America

Although Metal Gear shares subject matter with classic military fiction, the series embraces a wholly distinct tone and style. Metal Gear is unafraid to be nonsensical. This is a series where an antagonist is named “Vamp” not because he drinks blood (which he does), but because he is bisexual. It’s a series where a deadly female sniper has to wear a bikini at all times because otherwise she will suffocate. Metal Gear plays fast and loose with technologies and science, but is utterly honest to the horror of the military industrial complex. By contrast, Call of Duty is disturbingly faithful to the technologies and sciences with which we create war, but it presents this faith with no critique of soldiering. It is this strange balance between fantasy and honesty that puts Metal Gear in lineage with works of magical realism. 

Magical realism can share space with the fantastic, but it is not fantasy. Although both focus on the impossible, the politics of the world we live in is the explicit focus and referent of magical realism. Fantasy displaces impossibility outside of the world we live in — outside of our lives. The point of fantasy is that it is not here. Magical realism, on the other hand, displaces our familiarity with our lives by tying it to the impossible. The point of magical realism is that it is here.  “…impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly,” Salman Rushdie said of the magical realist works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “out in the open under the midday sun.” Although there are american magical realist works, most magical realism emerges from the global south, in explicit resistance to imperial violence. 

Magical realism is the language wherein the ‘impossible things’ can finally be seen and unwound. That someone would die at the exact same time as their twin or that tears of sorrow would poison a wedding feast or that a single stream of blood could flow from a son’s execution all the way to the family home is as clear as the logic behind our violent political systems, specifically the logic of imperial and colonial violence. 


The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp is a military prison established by President George W. Bush in 2002. The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was built in Cuba in the late 19th century, but the facility which still holds at least forty people, indefinitely, was established in 2002. The installation is in some ways just a military base — it has a Taco Bell and a McDonald’s and scuba diving and about 8,500 US military personnel. It is also the site of more than fifteen years of human rights abuses, such as force feeding and “enhanced interrogation.” 

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place at Camp Omega, a black site run by Americans in Cuba and an obvious analogue for Guantanamo. In the game’s opening moments, we see a number of impossible things happen. We see a boy in a cage pull an audio jack from a port in his chest to listen to a walkman. We see a man named Skull Face wipe identifying marks from a helicopter with a laser. We see our protagonist, Snake, use what is for all intents and purposes a smartphone in 1975. 

It doesn’t matter that even in extraordinary instances of torture, we have never outfitted people with audio jacks on their chests. It doesn’t matter than in 1975, there was no hand-held laser to wipe away helicopter insignia instantly. What matters is that Camp Omega is utterly oblique and untraceable, and that the things happening there are unconscionable. What matters is that the player has the tools needed to finally see and understand the gravity of these abuses.  A conversation between guards regarding who’s running this operation ends suddenly. “Well, some of the guys were saying… you know what? Best we just drop this, all right?” 

They do not know who they are working for, and may not even know who they are holding. Is that ignorance meaningful absolution? Best we just drop this.

All of Metal Gear is like this — the impossible serving to gesture to the truth. It’s silly that in Metal Gear Solid 2, the replacement for a Kurt Russell-body double-super soldier is a fey twenty-something whose girlfriend has to remind him of their anniversary. It’s silly, but at a point, don’t our soldiers stop being super-soldiers and start being our fuckup friends who grew up playing shooters that are partially funded by the military? Aren’t their state of the art prosthetics totally sick?


The character Revolver Ocelot is one of the best examples of this balance. Born via cesarean section on a battlefield during D-Day to Soviet/American parentage, Ocelot goes on to become the architect of every modern military conflict of the late twentieth century. This is impossible nonsense, but of course he was born during the war that developed both the United States of America and the Soviet Union as global imperial powers.

Ocelot is capable of startling self-delusion. He hypnotizes himself to believe people are other people. He hypnotizes himself to believe he is someone else. He plays every side of a conflict against each other, against himself. Revolver Ocelot lies so convincingly, so masterfully, he believes it himself. There isn’t a better stand in for the American experience. We lie to ourselves — that we are somehow victims and underdogs — as we drone strike weddings and waterboard people who have never been convicted of a crime. And all of it has crept into our lives so efficiently as to become mundane.

Last month, the Call of Duty news account @charlieINTEL tweeted information regarding the first killstreaks for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — essentially, how the game incentivizes killing a large number of players consecutively. Among these rewards are white phosphorus flares. It is difficult to overstate how horrifying white phosphorus is as a weapon of war. White phosphorus burns bodies exposed to it so efficiently that it can burn in the absence of oxygen. If you live through the burns, white phosphorus is known for causing systemic organ failure. It is a brutally effective killer. It is an intensely normal part of our culture, a weapon Americans have used for the last thirty years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

But we can’t see the terrible strangeness of our empire in the same way we cannot see the air we breathe. It is so pervasive, winding its way into the stickers we put on our trucks and military recruitment specialists that come to every high school in fatigues. We don’t see empire, and as a result games about working as a paramilitary commando can claim to be apolitical. We don’t see it, we can’t see it, without stupid sexy Raiden’s full body prosthetic turning roided-out Dick Cheney into ground beef. Metal Gear makes the hideous silliness of our empire clear — these impossible things happening clearly under the midday sun.