Monday, May 11, 2015

Metal Gear Solid and Psychoanalysis (Part I)

Though the Metal Gear Solid series has been the subject of countless analyses, one of its most important and challenging dimensions has gone utterly unexamined: its psychoanalytic narrative. To me, this is a major oversight. Symbols of castration, Oedipal conflicts, incest fantasies, and repression are all defining components of the MGS story. But no one (to my knowledge) has paid them any attention. This article is the first part in a series that will fill this gap in our critical appreciation of MGS.


Firstly, let me explain that when I say "psychoanalysis," I am referring to the seminal theories of Sigmund Freud and subsequent psychologists exploring the contents of the unconscious mind. Later in this article, I will get into the specifics of these theories. For now, suffice it to say that the basic premise of psychoanalysis is that the human psyche is rooted a set of early childhood conflicts that get repressed in adulthood. Being repressed does not mean they are forgotten. Rather, the early conflicts become unconscious templates for our future personalities and behaviors that guide us without us being aware of them. This is the core premise of psychoanalytic theory.

Some might object right here. "Hasn't Freud been discredited/disproven today?" Though this is a complicated issue, the simple answer is No. While it is true that in the U.S., psychology departments have a critical attitude toward psychoanalysis, in other regions, such as South America and Europe, it still has considerable clout. Furthermore, in the U.S. today, psychoanalysis is undergoing a mini-renaissance in the field of neurology.

More to the point, the scientific standing of psychoanalysis doesn't really matter for my analysis, because what we are talking about is the realm of art. Whether Freud is right or wrong, his theories have had a profound influence on writers and film makers, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott, who have found the unconscious to be a compelling concept for their works. MGS, as a series deeply informed by these specific film makers, inherits their Freudian influences as well, as I will show.

Big Boss and Oedipus

To get started, let's take stock of the fact that the central drama of the MGS series is an Oedipal conflict. Big Boss is himself an Oedipal figure: a tragic hero-king who loses an eye and is punished for his unwitting "incest" (in this case, incest with himself via cloning). More importantly, the sons (Solid, Liquid, Solidus), map out an Oedipal relationship by fighting with each other and against their father for control of their destinies. The sons are completely defined by their relationship to the father, not only because they are his clones, but because who and what they are is decided by how they relate themselves to him. Some fight to overcome him, while others endeavor to complete his plans. Whatever the case, their identities spring from and are shaped by his choices.

For many of Freud's patients, the image of the father, or "father imago," played a central role in constructing the unconscious mind. In essence, he found that an image/recording of the father from childhood would be implanted in the psyche. As a result, no matter how old one got, or whether one's actual father was still living, within the unconscious mind, one was forever engaged in a childhood struggle with the father, fighting (even though one consciously couldn't see it without Freud's help) to free oneself from his control. This battle was unconsciously shaping adult behaviors.

MGS essentials literalizes this relationship with the father imago by making the sons genetic clones of the father. In this case, the image of the father is literally copied into their genes. As a result, the sons can never be sure if they are unconsciously carrying out the program of the father or making their own independent decisions. This is thematizes for the player in the many instances in which Solid Snake must question the purport of his actions. Is he fighting against his father or, unwittingly, helping to create the world he wished for?

For example, Liquid's exchange with Solid toward the end of MGS1 highlights how Snake's actions might not be his own, but part of his genetic program:

Liquid: "So why are you here then? Why do you continue to follow orders while your superiors betray you?"

Snake: "..."

Liquid: "I'll tell you then. You enjoy all the killing! That's why."

Snake: "WHAT?!"

Liquid: "Are you denying it?! Haven't you already killed most of my comrades? I watched your face as you did was filled, with the joy of battle."

Snake: "You're wrong..."

Liquid: "There's a killer inside don't have to deny it. We were created, to be that way!"

Snake: "Created?"


In MGS series in general, the sons live in the shadow of the father. They are all fighting to define themselves in some relation to him. In MGS1, this is even figured by the location of "Shadow Moses." To be in the shadow of Moses is to be in the shadow the great patriarch-father of the West.

Please Don't Take Away My Solid Snake

To go deeper into the Oedipal dimensions of the MGS series, we need to discuss Freud's theory in more detail. For Freud, the Oedipal conflict crystallizes for the child around the struggle for the mother. The mother is, naturally, the child's first love object, as she is the source of his greatest pleasures and the fulfillment of his greatest needs (coddling, stroking, feeding). The problem, however, is that the child has a competitor for the mother's affections: father. This leads to an animosity toward the father on the part of the child. He is in the way of a perfect relationship with the mother.

Now Freud noted that this conflict between father and son was often "resolved" by a certain incident. At some point in the child's early life, he would catch sight of a naked woman (usually his mother or sister) and he would realize that they don't have a penis. The child would then wonder if this lack was a punishment, possibly dished out by the father (the most powerful figure in his life). This thought put the fear of god into the child and pressed him to give up fighting with father over the mother. Consequently, the son represses his desire for the mother and identifies with the father, working to become his copy.

The repression of the Oedipal conflict, however, does not mean it is over. Like all repressed content in the unconscious, it carries on in the life of the adult. In Freud's analysis, this most frequently translates to symbols of "castration," such as the loss of eyes, arms, legs, and or body parts in dreams and works of fiction. These images of dismemberment stand in for a more fundamental and earlier threat of loss posed by the all-mighty father, and serve as a perpetually warning.

MGS is covered with these symbols of castrations. Ocelot loses his arm. Liquid is dismembered. Raiden loses his arm. Miller loses a leg. Solidus loses an eye. Solid Snake loses his virility and, in a sense, his eye through replacement. These could all be read as figurations of the unconscious conflict with the father who threatens to unman his rebellious sons. In essence, all of these characters are metaphorically castrated for their opposition to the father.

Castration also appears in less obvious ways in the series. I would include Big Boss in this list of castrated characters. Though he is the father in the MGS series, he is also an Oedipal figure guilty of a symbolic incest (cloning). He is correspondingly castrated for this, losing his eye and arm. More subtly, Kojima makes castration a core feature of MGS2, as I have argued previously. He took away our Solid Snake (a great euphemism for an erection and phallic virility) and gave us a castrato to play with instead. The player was thus castrated by the game, unmanned by the character swap.

To Be Continued...

I have so much more to say in future posts, like how Solid and Liquid represent two different paths through the Oedipal conflict, the importance of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and their relation to Outer Heaven, and the psychoanalytic significance of the clones absent mother. So please check back soon for more!