Friday, May 20, 2005

Dulce et Utile: The Supremacy of Solid Snake

Homer Simpson is not a poet, but when someone mentions an epic poem by the great poet, Homer, to a passerby, said passerby usually shoots an awkward glance to the speaker as they picture the Duff-drinking Homer Simpson spouting rambling verse over accompanying bongo-induced syncopations.

Homer was a greek poet who wrote the seminal classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. His works (a play by play of torrential warfare and a travel adventure steeped in fantastical events and beings, respectively) were archived a good 300 years before what we know as classical Greece started, of which the above poems became their religious doctrine (how cool would that be to have the Odyssey be the basis of your religious faith?).

When Rome took over the world, and Greece with it, their very adaptive culture embraced Homer's writings. Eventually the first Emperor, Augustus, wanted an epic poem that would explain the history of Rome and how it was directly involved with the Trojan War (the subject that The Iliad deals with). For this task, he patronized the already popular poet Virgil to draft this daunting task. He did and thus gave the world the obviously derivative Aeneid.

Like any modern author, Virgil ran with a group of other writers. One of the fellow aficionados was a dude named Horace, the Mark Twain of his day. Horace, like Twain, seems to be known for coming up with memorable quips that people like to memorize and repeat. Maybe you've heard of some? Carpe Diem, Aurea Mediocritas, among others. But the phrase I'm paying particular attention to is one called dulce et utile, that is, 'sweet and useful'.

This is a literary concept created by the dead poet that decrees what he feels all good literature (in his case, poetry) should do. It should teach a lesson, say something useful, within its text that will cause the reader to learn or question a particular aspect of his or her life, but do it in a way that isn't overtly preachy or didactic.

Over the years, and with the advancing benefits of technology, this concept has spread beyond literature and has proven true for comics, movies, and, now, video games. The latter is most evident within Hideo Kojima's canon, the Metal Gear Solid series.

Though it wasn't very apparent in the original Metal Gear series (or at least the first one released for the NES), when I finished Metal Gear Solid I declared, in probably one of my nerdiest moments, "I've just finished the best game ever made." Later, realizing how pre-teen that sounded, I wondered why I even said it. It wasn't only until recently, when I discovered my new favorite latin term, did I understand my fascination, and consequential devotion, to Mr. Kojima's bizarre bastard children (but not all of them).

Despite the incredible convolutions, the storylines are quite engaging and usually focus around particular themes, one usually emotional, the other more political. In Metal Gear Solid, the emotional center was about what defines life, how a person decides their own fate (in that case, though this is for a different discussion, destiny) no matter how much science says otherwise. The political leaning is toward nuclear armaments and their continuing impending danger.

The second MGS (as it's known by hardcore fans and lazy internet junkies) was, by far, the most surreal and fantastic of the three, focuses on the validity of reality and the state of politics in America (or maybe just Capitalist-driven governments and how they are as susceptible to corruption as Communism is to despotism). It also examines how much your past affects your mind more than your future, and it's the decisions you make, using the information from your past, that press you through present. If you are "driven by what made you what you are," you're actually just admitting that you're not able to overcome the psychological damage events of the past have done to you (which ties in nicely to the political statement the game makes).

Lastly, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is the ultimate game of the series. Not only does the story make sense, but it ends up being the most poignant of the bunch. It asks the main character a very simple question that echoes the main theme of all literature, most notably with novels, "Who are you?" And Kojima answers it rather nicely. It also questions the modern soldier's sense of duty and how loyal a soldier ought to be. A fantastic game. Buy it, rent it, I don't care, just play it, beat it and learn.

The Metal Gear series looks to be going in new directions now that the next generation consoles are beginning to percolate into the scene. And Kojima himself has said that he will hand off the mythology to the young upstarts so that he can focus on other things. Though that may stop me from playing future MGS games, it won't stop me from gushing over his previous endeavors.

I've never experienced a gaming experience since MGS where I feel I actually gained something because I played the game. But it's probably easy to see how the dulce et utile receives a perfect example through these games: they probe important themes, ideas, and questions without beating you over the head with a wooden club of ideology yet are unabashedly fun to play. I have never stopped during play and said, "Jeez, I get it, guys, come on already," instead I only think about what an incredible game I'm immersed in. And in the process, Kojima has created a hero not unlike Achilles or Odysseus, a nearly infallible hero who is confident in his abilities but still has space in his battle-torn brain for the bigger questions. It makes me wonder, if Metal Gear is itself an epic, how will it be viewed by people in the future if everybody praised it with as much enthusaism as I do?

And that's the best game review I can possibly do.


andy said...

I believe, in an interview with nobody important, Hideo Kojima gave an interpretation of what the basic idea of his games was. As you mentioned, the first Metal Gear Solid had to do with genes, and how biology does and does not make us who we are. Metal Geaer Solid 2, as Kojima put it, focuses on memes, which is essentially everything BUT the biology (social/cultural hooby-jooby). Kojima says Metal Gear Solid 3 is about "scene," in the sense of how the situation we are in affects personal development.

So, somehow from all of this, you are supposed to get that each Metal Gear Solid game focuses on one of the aspects that contributes to people being who they are. Genetics and the unfortunate circumstance of being a clone dominate the first. Psycho/Social construction/implantation make up the majority of the second game (and what an interesting way to try to make that manifest...). Of course, I think anybody that has played Metal Gear Solid 3 can see how it attempts to approach the concept of the "scene" changing the way we develop and who we are.

I suppose I am just trying to re-affirm what you've said. Although trying to compare Snake(s) to Oddyseus or Achilleus seems a little wild, but who's to say that's not a reasonable idea?

Sometimes, I wonder if these crazy game designers are really well-educated academics or are instead, as somebody said to me many years ago, garbage men who read lots of books. You never know.

(oh, and I did this all from my couch on my new computer/television... something I never thought I'd be doing)

Eben said...

If only I could make a burgoon bulletin post like that so people would understand my loyalty to Star Wars Galaxies... but I honestly consider Star Wars Galaxies to be more a kin to disease I've contracted...

I do love Metal Gear oh so much...
I particularly got a kick out of shooting those stupid little frogs this time around so that I could throw snakes at guards as an invisble ghost... eehehehehehehe

DCVB said...

Andy said...
"Although trying to compare Snake(s) to Oddyseus or Achilleus seems a little wild, but who's to say that's not a reasonable idea?"

I readily admit that maybe I was probably jumping a hurdle that was actually a wall by coming out and saying Solid (or Naked) Snake is an Epic Hero. I said that solely because I referred to the MGS series as an epic in the most general of terms.

According to my handy-dandy "handout packet" from my "Great Books" class (I hate that title, couldn't they just call it "Classical Lit."?), the hero of an epic must be "a figure of great national or even cosmic importance."

The characteristics of an epic, even, seem to match the qualities of the MGS games:

-The narrative starts "in medias res," that is, in the middle of things, at a critical point in the action.

One could say that the beginnings of the MGS games tend to be at points that the rest of the story pivots on. The "in medias res" example is most prominent in Metal Gear Solid (1), since they allude to that the actual start of that particular story is when they abduct Snake from his Alaskan retreat, which is left for the player to watch in the separate "briefing" files.

-At some point there are long catalogues of some of the principal characters.

I would say this is true for the most part since at the beginning of each of the games the Colonel/Agent Zero tends to do a lengthy run through of all the major player; mainly, the bosses, the dude you're trying to save, the "character x" who's going to complicate things (think Meryl, Ninja, Olga, and EVA) and those who shall help Snake in his quest.

-The setting of the [epic] poem is vast, and may be worldwide.

This is not entirely true for the MGS series, though, in [console] gaming terms (and especially in MGS3), the actual playing field of the games are rather large. I remember being entertained for hours simply playing the demo for MGS that came with a magazine I bought. The demo which was only comprised of the scuba arrival and the helopad outside the base (the demo ended once you crawled into the ventilation system to get inside).

-The action involves superhuman deeds in battle.

Psycho-Mantis, anyone? How about the Sorrow?

-In this action the gods and other supernatural beings usually take an active part.

Well, no gods, but definitely the supernatural beings. See the previous answer.

As for Eben:

I'm sure you could find a geeky way (as I did) to relate Galaxies (or, for that matter, MMORPG-ing) to some historically and academically tried-and-true explanation. Maybe even Star Wars, though that's often done on various forums and bulletin boards around the digital world.

DCVB said...

Oops. Let me correct myself before I am corrected. In MGS1, you don't actually get to "watch" Snake get taken from his cabin in just hear him and the colonel talk about it, albeit briefly.

andy q public said...

Try again, Dan. In MGS:The Twin Snakes, you actually do watch them brief Snake. Okay, so it's not them taking him from the cabin, but it is fully rendered hoo-haw of them giving him the business. And you can change camera angles. Whoop.

I think the major point is to help provide clarity to some of the odder parts of the dialouge (where body language would further understanding).

Oh, and in case I hadn't mentioned it, a lot of the pre-battle face-offs are completely over the top and matrixed out. Or, in the case of Psycho Mantis, Eternal Darkness-ed out.

DCVB said...

Yes, but is MGS: The Twin Snakes a true clone, or does it only carry the recessive genes of the original?
"No, it doesn't!" says my right arm.
"Shut up, right arm!" I say back to it.