Saturday, 6 April 2013

How does it taste? The sexual politics of how Metal Gear Solid 3 treats Raiden


I like Raiden, okay? I’m a Raiden fan. I have all the merchandise - the action figures, the Skull Suit, the mask for casual and formal wear. So you can imagine my delight when Metal Gear Solid 3 allowed me to dress up as his spitting image – one Ivan Raidenovich Raikov. At first it seems like a bog-standard Metal Gear in-joke, but when it's considered alongside Raikov's relationship with bisexual electo-bastard Colonel Volgin, it suddenly crackles with a sexual charge. So is this a subversive twist on mainstream sexuality? Or just complicated homophobia?

First, let’s admit the obvious and situate MGS3 as a contest of masculinity. This is a game about predation where you put yourself at the top of the food chain by eating and conquering everything else. Sometimes when you eat things you get a cut-scene where Snake (properly Big Boss) vigorously bites into their flesh; other times, when you heal yourself, you get one where he stoically burns leeches off his own skin with a cigar.

It's also a game where you flirt shamelessly with your support team and field the advances of a tricksy female spy; a game whose character semantics surpass the lither Snake to deliver a bearded, steel-muscled hulk of a protagonist. Sometimes you are invited or even forced to strip naked to the waist. BB makes a succession of manly grunts and growls as you roll and CQC your way through the jungle, and if you fire the big machinegun for more than a few seconds then he will go “RAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGH”.

In this context the treatment of Raiden is a clear signal that MGS3 intends to reclaim Metal Gear 'for men' (like, real men). Fans hated Raiden’s effeminate locks and his ‘whiny’ dialogue. They were expecting to play gravel-voiced Snake and instead they got a hairless rubber-suited androgyne who complains all the time and is pestered his girlfriend (he’s actually a pretty good character, but it doesn’t take much to make the gaming community think you’re gay). In MGS2, this was a deliberate strategy to alienate and challenge the player by manipulating their relationship with the series protagonist; James Clinton Howell shows how the game uses Raiden as a chess piece in its exploration of free will and social conditioning. MGS3, however, eschews the postmodern plot structure of its forbear and conjures the ghost of Raiden only to exorcise him from the series. When BB wears a Raiden mask for the intro then rips it off upon landing it comes off as a pointed return to manliness; Raiden is sacrificed in order to prove the game’s narrative and sexual straightness.

This reaches its high point with the appearance of Major Raikov. Raikov is a little Raiden doll we get to dominate: track him, follow him, ambush him and hide him in a locker (almost literally ‘stuffed in the fridge’). Players who hated him can get their symbolic revenge while laughing at his portrayal as the submissive partner of electric bastard and main villain Colonel Volgin. If you call Major Zero while disguised, he says you’re “beginning to irritate [him] already.” Under interrogation, Raikov even gives us the answers that Raiden couldn’t give Rose – a joke which underlines his subordinate position.

And yet there is something awkward about the way that Big Boss has to manhandle him into that locker. The cut-scene where this happens even makes a joke of it, briefly positioning them as grunting lovers in a manner similar to Hitman Absolution (see 6:31). Even more awkwardly, once this pseudo-erotic body play is over, we actually have to be him, slipping inside him and inhabiting his angelic face and cascading silver tresses. Because he is explicitly introduced as homosexual and portrayed as Volgin’s lover, he is already a sexual creature, and the associations which cling to him may also taint the player.

Nevertheless, being Raikov is one of the most powerful positions in the game. If you call up EVA and ask her about him, she says Raikov is known for abusing his soldiers. Just so, you can run around slapping anyone you like, and practically nothing you can do will make people see through your disguise. While you can’t use weapons or kill anyone in-costume, you are essentially invulnerable; if you could wear this guy’s face and uniform throughout the game then it would be a pleasant jungle strolling simulator called Dear Boss. Beating up the guards also ties into the game system as a whole, because these are the men who have pissed you off throughout your journey here, and your cathartic blows have hours of frustration behind them. Now you get to punish them, and what’s more, they thank you for it, responding to your punches with groveling apologies and quivering obedience. If we extend our reading of Raikov’s sexuality to our interaction with his shape then this is not just a nifty bit of pacing – an island of invulnerability within the bastard-hard challenge of Groznyj Grad and just before the crisis point of your capture and torture – but a moment of erotic role-reversal which seems to complicate the game’s portrayal of manliness.

By inhabiting Raiden, Big Boss changes his relationship with both Volgin and the guards. The latter become his unambiguous playthings while the former transforms from his enemy in battle and the captor of EVA to – potentially – his master or lover. This danger is emphasized in the scenes where Snake-Raikov meets Volgin in person, and Volgin outs him by grabbing his crotch. So it seems like a typically topsy-turvy MGS move for the ostensibly submissive Raikov to offer us the most powerful and forgiving affordance in the game. This, after all, is also a game called ‘Snake Eater’, and a game which retains the series’ non-confrontational stealth system (what Erlend Grefsrud calls its “skepticism towards conflict”). While you can survive most fights in MGS3, I’ve lost track of the times when I avoided one by crawling slowly and calmly backwards into cover where I could have panicked and killed. So does this Raiden doll have a sting in his tail? Is Snake learning and becoming more powerful through his closeness to the ladylike Raiden – and achieving a more ambiguous, fluent form of masculinity?

Alas, not really. While Raikov can explore Groznyj Grad at his leisure, he cannot leave its borders. His power is confined within Volgin’s fortress. While his capacity for abuse does belong to him – Eva tells Snake “he’s just that kind of guy” – he is only able to exercise it with impunity because he is a lover to the more senior Volgin (later games show him discharged from the Red Army for his behaviour once Volgin’s is dead). So Raiden’s domination on the base is actually an extension of Volgin’s male potence, which encompasses Groznyj Grad like a bad smell. As J. Shea points out, 'Raidenovitch', when filtered through Japanese grammar, literally means 'Volgin's bitch'. Raikov's subjugation is Kojima's symbolic revenge on Raiden.

Big Boss, in turn, sneaks bodily inside this potence, hijacks it, and exercises it for his own amusement. In a sense, then, he cuckolds Volgin, crawling into his enemy’s sexual sphere and replacing his lover without his knowledge. If MGS3 is a “contest of masculinity”, then it's often a contest specifically between Big Boss and Volgin. The latter’s enormous stature and violent sadism set him up unambiguously as a rival for BB’s MAN CROWN, and together they share and compete for the slippery affections of EVA/Tatyana. Cuckolding the Colonel and misusing his potence is just another step on BB’s slow journey to dominating the game.

It doesn’t work. In the Weapons Lab West Wing, Volgin temporarily and very physically gets the better of the intruder by grabbing his crotch. “You made him a soldier; now you will unmake him,” he tells the Boss, after pummeling your naked torso and judging his body based on the injuries he’s received throughout the game. When BB pisses his pants under the strain, he gloats: “That’s what I like to see. Let it all go!” So this abuse is one more obstacle that Big Boss must overcome, and any hint of erotic proximity to Raikov or Volgin – any temptation to live within his potence – only exists to create a moment of supreme danger which makes BB’s eventual victory more significant. Raikov’s effeminacy and Volgin’s perversity are used, like Raiden’s ghost, to prove and confirm Snake’s ultimately righteous masculinity.

In the context of the series as a whole, this seems out of character. It comes between Raiden’s confrontational androgyny (and inner resilience) and the ancient, creaking, broken-down masculinity of Old Snake. But then, MGS3 aims to establish the myth of Big Boss, the legendary soldier, who of course has to be the manliest fucking pile of muscle in the world. With its survival setting and Bond-film trappings, MGS3 harks self-consciously back to (engage sarcasm) an older and less complicated time, when men were really men – although only later, drunk at some soldiers’ reunion, would they ever admit to having maybe eaten a snake or two.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, John!

    It's a complicated situation, but I believe you unpackaged it sufficiently. 'Tis a shame though - Snake Eater is one of my favorite games of all time, partly because it just oozes style (more than normal, even for a Kojima game) and partly because it does succeed in inspiring that Big Boss mythos and adulation that was hyped for so long.

    This issue may seem like a small thing to most, but the mishandling of Raikov was definitely a missed opportunity to continue to subtly use the style and trappings of 60's spy films to poke fun at Western Civilization's culture, society and obsession with dominance in the time of imminent global-nuclear-heat-death.

    I suppose the REAL question now is, what are some ways this could have been handled more adeptly and interestingly?

    What if you could not actually kill or neutralize Raikov, and had to play a cat-and-cat game of being dressed at him where he isn't? Snake could also be required to speak and act effeminately to carry off the disguise. And because he doesn't die, Raikov could torture you alongside Volgin, further cementing the viability of his power and version of masculinity.

    I think that the moment Raikov dies or is knocked unconscious he loses his position of power in the eyes of the player (the only eyes that really matter).

    ReplyDelete