Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ok, before I even put up my roughest of drafts, I’d like to mention that my “research” for this project was actually a video game (Metal Gear Solid 2). What’s more, the game’s plot is extremely thick and not easy to untangle. I, consequently, am having trouble figuring out which direction I ought to take my paper, so consider that in your comments =). I would also like to supply some brief background on the series’ plot:

2005 – Shadow Moses Island, Alaska – A terrorist organization making various demands hijacks a weapons-testing facility; namely, one holding the top-secret government project, “Metal Gear.” The Metal Gear is a bi-pedal tank equipped with a rail gun and capable of launching a swift tactical nuclear strike with little hands-on operation. An elite, hardened secret agent, codename Solid Snake, is sent to infiltrate the facility and dispatch the terrorists.

2007 – After the “Shadow Moses Incident,” the specs for creating a Metal Gear were wildly spread throughout the Web and the Black Market. Every country, rogue nation, terrorist group, etc. could feasibly fund and construct a Metal Gear. On a tip, Solid Snake, having left his post as an agent and working for an anti-Metal Gear organization known as “Philanthropy,” infiltrates a tanker going along the New York coastline; supposedly, a new Metal Gear headed by the Marines, codename REX, is being kept in the tanker. Snake plans to take photo evidence of the new project so as to post it on the internet and expose the project, thereby deterring it. However, a group of Russian soldiers hijack the tanker in the process, and their commander, Ocelot, crosses them, sinking the tanker and taking off with the Metal Gear. He speaks notably that, “[He’s] not stealing it; no, [he’s] taking it back.”

2009 – In the aftermath of the sunken tanker, the government planted a fake tanker in the same spot as to limit suspicions. The “Big Shell” was then erected as a clean-up facility for the New York harbor. There, a terrorist group ends up taking over the facility, making various demands; you, an elite, rookie soldier known as Raiden, are briefed that the terrorists are holding the President hostage and threatening to destroy the Big Shell. The explosion of the Big Shell would not only mean the death of the President, but it would also lead to the releasing of the toxins used to clean the mess of the sunken tanker, which would consequently wipe out the harbor’s entire eco-system. You enter the facility with the mission of dispatching the terrorists and saving the President. (Does this sound somewhat similar to the 2005 part? Trust me; it’ll make sense soon enough.) This is where the vast majority of Metal Gear Solid 2 takes place, and you, as the rookie agent, must complete the mission.

Now that I’ve gotten through the basic information, I’d like to go over my prospective topic (i.e., the one I think will work out the best):

1) Explore the medium of video games and its relation to the narrative; particularly, how it manages to involve its audience in its “message” and plot. Use Twain as a basis of comparison as the two have very similar ideas within:

In A Connecticut Yankee, Twain writes in such a way that we discover Hank is, in fact, a con man; he qualifies his statements with words such as, “cipher,” and he portrays himself as wanting to be the dictator sent from Heaven, so to call it, whose grace and benevolence will improve the lives of those in King Arthur’s time. We also learn how Hank views the ‘perfect’ human: no conscience; a person who’s trained in the ways of democracy, etc.—arguably, a cog in the machinery of Hank’s world. As a reader, though, the medium of text limits us to a more passive role. We hear of Hank’s man factory and know of his trickery, but we are not directly exposed to it. In other words, we do not experience the way in which Hank is molding these people in his “man factories” or fooling them with his “magic”; we are not as emotionally, spiritually or however so invested in his ideals, aspirations and actions as the people of King Arthur’s Court. In so many words, we are not the ones being conned or trained.

This is where the medium of video games can play a vital role. Video games offer a wide variety of means by which a player can become more involved in the story: graphics, customization, voice work, the playing of the game itself. All these create a more sensory experience than text alone can hope to accomplish. Basic sensory improvements do not necessarily elevate one medium of the other, however; there has to be something unique to video games. That one quality is that the story revolves around you. By extension of your character, you make the ethical choices (both consciously and unconsciously); you are obliged to complete the mission; you react to the world around you according to how you perceive it.

In Metal Gear Solid 2, you play the role of Raiden, a rookie soldier who’s first mission is of dire consequences: the President’s life, New York’s ecosystem, the balance of the entire country lies on your shoulders. You, as the soldier, are in essence the Freeman from A Connecticut Yankee; you’re driven by circumstance and training to carry yourself as you do; you must complete the mission, fulfill your role at any emotional or physical cost. By comparing the role as a player in Metal Gear Solid 2 (henceforth abbreviated as MGS2)—in particular, the way the game treats and guides you through the narrative—to the role as a reader in A Connecticut Yankee, I plan to illustrate the uniqueness of video games as a medium for a narrative. At the same time, I will outline the advantages a video game supplies an “author” for involving his or her audience.

From here, I’ve only outlined the way I envisioned completing the paper, as I was unsure how well this direction would be perceived. I will, however, list the topics I plan to use to substantiate my claims.


-Your character in MGS 2 is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to gender. The director/writer (Hideo Kojima) arguably utilizes this to keep from isolating any part of his audience. Hank, on the other hand, is just Hank: a Yankee man of the 1800’s. He’s so specific that a large of the audience may not be able to connect with him. It is also important to emphasize how customization in video games (not only in MGS2, but in others) is a feature that cannot be found—in the same capacity, at least—in any other medium, especially text.

-In Twain’s book, and even in CYOA books, you never get entirely defined; there’s no absolute “you.” In MGS2, however, certain shots of the game highlight that this character, Raiden, is in fact you. In one shot, for example, you must enter your information (name, sex, age, blood type, nationality), then it shows you being shocked as it “initializes” you. Not only does this spark the imagery as you being a machine of sorts, but it symbolizes your being (as in your existence) being “downloaded” into the character; your information or, rather, you have been digitized in a sense.

-Twain vividly describes bloodshed that ensues near the story’s end, the “[vomiting of] death.” In MGS2, you not only get experience the bloodshed visually (and in an equally gory manner), but you are also the purveyor of the bloodshed. This makes a perfect segue way into the next topic.

Emotional Involvement:

-Throughout the game, you can make conscious and unconscious ethical decisions; furthermore, you’re not strapped into one or the other. In other words, the game can be completed despite how gruesomely you play it. For instance, the vast majority of the entire game can be completed without killing a single person. It may also be completed by the destruction of each and every enemy you encounter.

-Take one of the games main features, collecting dog tags, as another example: not only does this manage to personalize the soldiers whom you may kill, but, as a result of the manner in which you collect them, many soldiers will beg for their lives, while others will resist. It’s clear that Kojima varies the emotional scale for a player, appealing to their sympathy for the beggars and antagonizing them with the resistors. On top of that, remember that you, too, have a dog tag; these soldiers are just like you: they’ve a got a name; they’re a life.

-During the mission, your character Raiden has a support team. One of whom happens to be your love interest; she begs you to complete the mission and come home safely no matter what—even when you begin to have doubts about the authenticity of what you’re doing. The game is compelling you by circumstance to finish your job, again, at any cost. This also brings forth more robot imagery about being hard-wired to complete your duty.


-This is seemingly a draw between text and video games, because audio is just the voicing of text, right? I, however, would like to argue otherwise. In A Connecticut Yankee, for example, you as a reader are not able to raise objections; you merely watch the event happen and make internal observations and judgments. Being involved in MGS2, however, allows you to question what’s going on. Kojima foresees many of the ethical questions and problems that may be posed by the player and let’s your character put them in the foreground. For example, during one conversation with Rose (your love interest), the following is said:

“I've killed someone” (Raiden).  
“Jack, it's a battlefield...” (Rose).  
“My opponents are living, breathing human beings! This isn't like the VR training!  They have bodies. They have -- had -- lives. I took all that away from them” (Raiden). 
 “But you've got no choice if you want to survive” (Rose).  
“And yet... maybe because of the VR training... I can't help but try and block out that reality.  It's the only way I can manage to fight...” (Raiden).  
“I don't care what it takes, just as long as you come back alive.  Do whatever it takes.  Please!  Just come back in one piece!” (Rose).
Direct Character Interaction:
-All these previous portions contribute to how great of a medium video games can be for a narrative.  Ultimately, though, it comes down to its ability to manipulate you personally through your character.  Throughout the story, you are constantly bombarded with the facts of your VR training.  Your support team constantly reminds you of things like, “Complete your mission at any costs!” and “That wasn’t part of the simulation.”  In the end, you’re even confronted with strange events like your support team going berserk, sending messages like, “I need scissors! 61!” and the “Game Over” screen appearing when you haven’t died.  By the game’s end, you discover that you were being directed by an AI employed by the “Behind-the-Scenes” rulers of the United States.  In essence, you were a test machine.  The program’s purpose was to prove that, given any situation, any circumstance, you could be pushed to overcome it.  Ultimately, you realize that you were merely a replaceable cog in the social machinery the government runs, as Ocelot notes, “If the boy had allowed the Big Shell to be destroyed, this exercise would have ended there. The project has no room for failures.”  Furthermore, the AI that ran your whole mission explains:
Colonel    : We used Shadow Moses as a paradigm for the exercise.
Rose       : I wonder if you would have preferred a fantasy setting?
Colonel    : We chose that backdrop because of its extreme circumstances. It
             was an optimal test for S3's crisis management capacity. If the
             model could trigger, control and solve this, it would be ready
             for any contingency. And now, we have our proof.
This brings the game, and my point, to full circle.  By means of a video game, you were trained and conned into completing the mission.   Had you failed, it was simply “Game Over.”  In the end, you came out of the man factory molded exactly as the ‘owner’ of that factory saw fit.  
Well, that’s where I finish up, though I was considering adding a section on some of video-games drawbacks; namely, that people will often read books looking for a message or moral, whereas many play video games paying little or no attention to the ideas being put across.  I hope things make sense, and I hope you like the direction I took.  By the way, sorry for being so late.  I have gobs of pages of notes, and I had to repeatedly work through them to find what I needed and coherently put it together.


Charlie said...

Ahh, God damn text wrapping. I'm going to try to post the last few things in here so you can read it...

This brings the game, and my point, to full circle. By means of a video game, you were trained and conned into completing the mission. Had you failed, it was simply “Game Over.” In the end, you came out of the man factory molded exactly as the ‘owner’ of that factory saw fit.


Well, that’s where I finish up, though I was considering adding a section on some of video-games drawbacks; namely, that people will often read books looking for a message or moral, whereas many play video games paying little or no attention to the ideas being put across. I hope things make sense, and I hope you like the direction I took. By the way, sorry for being so late. I have gobs of pages of notes, and I had to repeatedly work through them to find what I needed and coherently put it together.

*After previewing it, it looks like it worked.*

Adam Johns said...

I'm trying to decide how to respond - I think I'll begin with a few random thoughts that will hopefully build up to something more substantive.

1) It's not true that the "you" is never clearly defined: think of Night of 1,000 Boyfriends. That still doesn't make it a great book, but "you" certainly know who "you" are.

2) I think the great danger here is lack of focus: you have a number of balls in the air. Just arguing that by being in MGS you are effectively experiencing the kind of con which Hank talks about (although I'd strongly argue that the reader is a victim of a con, just a different one than the freemen) is nearly a finished argument in its own right.

3) One thing you might want to think about -- you and several other people as well (I have something connected on my comments to Nik's last post) is what you see as the relationship between narrative and gameplay. They might be closely related concepts, but they're not the same thing (or are they???)

4) You discussion of the machine imagery connected to the "you" of MGS is fascinating. My one comment (despite teaching this class, I'm pretty skeptical of all commercial art forms, beginning with Hollywood movies) is that one could interpret this as a kind of acknowledgement of the way the reader/player/viewer is turned into a cog in the culture industry (once again, I'm drawing on Marcuse and his colleagues here).

5) You spend a lot of time on the ethical aspects of MGS. One way you could write about this is first person: how do you play it, and what is the moral impact upon you. Your moral analysis is a little too abstract, in other words.

Anyway, I think you do need to focus farther - your notes are voluminous and interesting, but nonetheless scattered.

Are you most interested in the moral difference between interactive and non-interactive narratives, with MGS and Twain as examples? That's what I get out of this, I think. Anyone else?

neutch718 said...

The MGS series has been a favorite of mine since 1998 when MGS Solid was released for PS2. Some ideas: The series is STRONGLY concerned with identity and efficiency. As a player, you are always uncertain of the player's identity. This is all produced by the fact that the "perfect genome soldier" is being developed.
I think that you could make a strong argument how identity plays such an important role in narrative while relating both identity and efficiency with Twain.
As for Adam's comment about gameplay and its relation to narrative, I actually mentioned Metal Gear Solid in my midterm project and one of the aspects of this game that makes it so different than others is that the extremely long cut-scenes in the game give it more of an "interactive movie" feel than that of a simple computer game.
Good luck, I hope some of these comments help.

JamesGz said...


You've got a lot of great ideas floating around on those numerous pages of notes, but I want to expand on one of your main points which I believe carries your best thesis. In my opinion, you should really explore the idea of social status in A Connecticut Yankee compared to that in Metal Gear Solid.

You compared the differences between text and video games and wrote, "You, as the soldier, are in essence the Freeman, from A Connecticut Yankee, you're driven by circumstance to carry yourself as you do; you must complete the mission, fulfill your role at any emotional or physical cost."

You should really compare Hank's first person narrative versus the video game's first person narrative in which you are in fact the narrator. There is audio dialogue from other players and perhaps mission updates from the game itself (never played MGS), but most of the time you are running around in control of the character.

The things you observe and experience, like you mentioned, drive you to carry out your mission. You must fulfill your role at any emotional cost and you can choose on a relative scale what that cost it. Now the real question is, do you understand why you made your decisions in the game? Are they logical, are they based on what you might feel compelled to do in actual life?

On the other hand, Hank's narrative in A Connecticut Yankee offers a biased opinion on why certain social decisions are made. For example, when the King thinks about turning in two escaped prisoners, Hank notes, "There it was again. He could only see one side of it. He was educated so, born so, his veins were full of ancestral blood that was rotten with this sort of unconscious brutality." (272) The king has been bred to think one way and there is no other way for him to think. The real question is, do video games, through the first person narrative in which you are in charge, force you to re-evaluate your in-born tendencies?

Social status is always affecting the story in a Connecticut Yankee, and Hank’s impartial narrative forces the reader to ponder the dreadfulness of social rules. When talking about the Tragedy at the Manor House, Hank notes, “The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class.” This ties in with your comments about the emotional involvement with the game.

You never have to kill anyone, but the game is designed so that if you do, you have their name tags. Ironically enough, your own name tag can be collected reminding you that you too are of the same social status, a soldier. Very much like the freemen at the Tragedy at the Manor House, you are killing equals of your own social status because the life of someone more important than you (the president in this case) has been jeopardized.

I know this is awfully long winded, but I really do think you have quite a masterpiece going here and I am trying to put the pieces together myself. It might be easier for you to refocus all these thoughts but here’s my main impression:

The narrative of a text like A Connecticut Yankee encourages a reader to re-interpret the social hierarchy around him/her, but the direct engagement required in MGS forces a first person narrative from the gamer whose own actions inside the game reflect how much he/she is gaining from the experience.

Evaluate the points you talked about before (visuals, dialogue, etc.) and interpret what message the video game creators were trying to portray. When an observant gamer makes these observations, does it affect the way he plays? Does he/she play differently than a lazy gamer who ignores the narrative? Does the narrative of MGS make an effective point and does it outweigh Hank’s arguments on social hierarchy?

Interestingly enough, Hank is a man who effectively killed 30,000 men in 10 pages and did not receive one dog tag….