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Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

The book in question: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch. Source: Boss Fight Books

Part of my goal as an academic-slash-nerdy-stuff enthusiast is to be a person that helps build the bridge between those two tentpoles that, as time moves forward, seem to be pushed further apart. In truth, criticism evolved as a genre from the world of popular culture. Without going too deep into the history of literary criticism, what academics view as critical writing––examining texts through specific lenses and discussing the positive and negative results of such investigations––was birthed by popular thinkers arguing back and forth in newspapers, mostly people like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold yelling at other people. What criticism brings to its readers––and why it should be much more present in popular culture––is new ways to look at familiar things. You can agree with them or disagree, that’s fine; in critical discourse, if you disagree, you respond with your own critical analysis.

Criticism operates on the assumption that there is no one right way to read a text, so for people who have concrete definitions they’ve crafted or inherited about what a specific movie means or what a certain writer of a comic book is trying to say and they don’t want to budge because they know they’re right, then the critical investigation can’t move forward because a conversation can’t be had.

This is what is happening in the world of video game criticism right now, especially with the entire fracas that formed around Anita Sarkeesian’s videos and GamerGate’s reaction to them (among other sundry instances). Could Sarkeesian maybe have had more tact or been less forward in her presentation of her analysis? Sure. Because of that, did she deserve the response she got? Absolutely not. She was engaging in a critical discussion to not necessarily change the games we love but to bring these readings of the medium to the table for developers and players to use them as they will.

In their book for Boss Fight Books, Metal Gear Solid, the Burch siblings do an admirable job bringing critical investigation to a popular audience. As I mentioned in Episode 117 – Five Minutes to Funny, their approach was unorthodox for me who is more used to “classical” critical prose––i.e., very academic, argumentative, essayistic format––but it actually worked quite well. In more traditional co-written criticism (or most collaboratively written works, for that matter), no effort is made to distinguish between the contributions of each writer. In Metal Gear Solid (their book), the chapters are divided into sections with headings of either “Ashly” or “Anthony” to let the reader know who is speaking. This is ultimately effective for a few reasons. First, there is a slight difference in age between the two and the difference is enough to be notable; specifically, their initial comprehension of the game and what it was trying to do provides interesting juxtapositions. Second, and more importantly, the gender difference yielded very different reactions to the game and how it impacted their lives overall both in their youths and as adults, which would be lost or depersonalized if they had to neutralize the more dialectical (not a transcribed dialogue) format.

The Burch siblings. Source: TV Tropes

With that in mind, their book brings a lot of interesting aspects of the game to light that should be discussed, but usually aren’t. The standout for me is the excellent analysis of characters and their arcs––and the missed opportunities therein (their section on Otacon is outstanding)––which balances the “it’s complex stuff for the time” and “it’s really not as progressive as it appears to be” arguments fairly. This balance is a source of the schism in the greater video game culture; too many people don’t realize that you can criticize a game and still love it, which is exactly what the Burches do. They point out issues within Metal Gear Solid that, in a modern environment, can seem backwards and sometimes unforgivable. Snake, to a teenager or child (as Anthony and Ashly were, respectively, when they first played the game), is an uncompromising badass; however, upon reflection, it is clear he is a bully and sadist, especially to women. Meryl is presented as a tough woman who is every bit a soldier as the men on Shadow Moses Island, but with the way the camera, Snake, and the gameplay treat her, she is woefully underserved by the game that otherwise wants to present her as a progressive take on female characters in video games. A lot of this comes down to the apparent conflict within the series creator, Hideo Kojima, himself. I’ll quote here what I read aloud in the episode:

There are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle (21-22).

Part of accepting Metal Gear Solid as an artistic entry is to accept that, yes, it is thematically earnest and powerful and its characters are remarkably well-rounded, but for every two steps forward it––as a game and as a series––takes at least one step back. But that is also the nature of art. If any thing was perfect, there would be nothing to talk about.

Another fascinating aspect the book investigates is how Kojima openly and freely manipulates the relationship between the player and Solid Snake, arguing that Kojima willingly draws Snake and the player together at times and forcibly separates them at other times for a purposeful, emotional, and narrative purpose. It opened up a through-line for critical investigation into games as power fantasies, so that the conversation doesn’t just stop at “video games are power fantasies.” The Burches delve into how Kojima uses that fact to both make the player feel powerful (like most games do) and also use that trope to make the player feel detached, weak, and helpless. If anything, for both the criticism and the praise, the book showed me the art that goes into game design and how mindful Kojima is with his games despite his own severely problematic flaws as a creative.

Who is in control of this game? Of my tv? Screenshot from Metal Gear Solid. Source: Metal Gear Wiki

For all the good that this book does at managing the intersection between criticism and popular culture, it is clear they have the events of GamerGate on their minds, which is smart considering that a co-author is female and, by the virtue of that simple fact, she, her brother, and the book are automatically painted with targets. Their apology takes the form of the concluding chapter, titled “The End?”, in which Ashly takes the lead with a passioned defense that, I would argue, comes dangerously close to diminishing the very poignant and important arguments she and her brother make in the book to that point:

So, Anthony and I shit on Metal Gear Solid for about half of this book. If you’re a fan of MGS1, you might be kind of pissed. But despite the amount of acid we spit at the game and its various baffling choices, despite the inordinately long cutscenes, the convoluted plot, and the awkward dialogue, we do love this game (159).

This is problematic because 1. they surely don’t “shit on Metal Gear Solid” at all. They critically engage with it and because they are able to do that with detailed and thorough arguments it 2. proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they love the game. In that instant, this concluding chapter felt a bit reductive and unnecessary. What’s impressive is that despite being couched in a chapter-long ass-covering thesis, Ashly does an admirable job teaching not only what criticism is, but why it’s important for the industry as well as for fans:

[W]hen we hear a complaint…about a game we love, we have to stop that little seed of defensiveness from spilling over into anger. We have to recognize that a critic’s concern doesn’t say anything about us, and it doesn’t make us wrong for liking the game. We’re all on the same team, and we’re all just trying to make this medium the best it can be. For everyone (161-2).

This chapter was an eye-opening moment for me as a reader, gamer, and wannabe critic, perhaps because I audibly scoffed when I read this chapter, saying something akin to, “You didn’t have to do this, catering to those people.” The D. Bethel that said that was Professor Bethel, the academic, the person whose workplace and occupation don’t have to apologize––among colleagues at least––for challenging arguments. In fact, they are expected.

What is Snake hiding from: a clear and present threat or genuine, productive, and thoughtful criticism? Source: PlaystationLifestyle.net

However, in the pop culture nerd world that Podcast Co-Host, Comicker, and Website Curator (and straight white male) D. Bethel operates, you have to do this, especially if you’re a woman or minority. And while it’s atrocious and insulting that anybody would have to write this chapter, it shows why this book is successful at building that bridge I longingly want to help construct.

I want more good, challenging gaming criticism. I want to buy books of it. And though some exist and continue to get published, such a desire may be self-defeating in the end. If we’re looking to bridge that gap between pop and academic cultures, it won’t be through book stores. Instead, it is happening online in the form of podcasts and videos and, occasionally, articles. However, if we’re looking to make this a two-way connection, from the halls of academia to reddit and back again, in order to legitimize games as critical texts in the eyes of PhDs, books should be made as well as journals and panels at conferences. The Burches’ Metal Gear Solid definitely offers the academic handshake toward the people who love and care and talk about video games on the internet with confident airs and cries for legitimacy. I just hope pop culture is willing to accept and return it.

Episode 107 – Spock’s Screams

Episode 107 – Spock’s Screams

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WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew bides his time until Civilization VI releases by playing a bunch of Blizzard games while Dan swims through the lush animation and Old Norse world of Thunder Lotus Games’ Jotun.

NEWS BLAST – UPDATE – METAL GEAR SURVIVE: Metal Gear series creator and famous non-employee of Konami, Hideo Kojima, boldly said that he has nothing to do with Konami’s upcoming Metal Gear Solid V spinoff, Metal Gear Survive, on stage at this years Tokyo Game Show. Konami retaliated by releasing approximately fifteen minutes of co-op gameplay to a rather tepid response.

LEGACY CHARACTERS 2.0: Building off of the previous conversations about “legacy characters”––superhero mantles that can be passed from person to person rather than being locked to a single identity––in Episode 09 and, tangentially, in Episode 104, Dan and Andrew return to the topic now that the world has a new Superman––officially New Super-Man––and recent Legacy turns with Wolverine and the use of a Legacy character in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Ghost Rider v3.0, Robby Reyes. So, there’s lots of stuff to talk about.

Leave your thoughts about this week’s topics as comments at forallintents.net. Be sure to join the official Facebook page and follow Andrew and D. Bethel on Twitter. Help the show out by leaving a review on the iTunes store. Check out the official YouTube channel, as well!

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“New Blood (Here Comes a New Challenger)” by Another Soundscape (Street Fighter II remix)
-“Little Ashes” by Joseph LoDuca (from Army of Darkness)

Episode 105 – Conditional Evil

Episode 105 – Conditional Evil

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WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew watches a classic Doctor Who stories, sequels of each other, in the Fifth Doctor adventures “Kinda” and “Snakedance,” while Dan watches two episodes featured in Amazon.com’s sitcom “Pilot Season”: The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

NERD AUTEURS: Starting with the reveal trailer at this year’s Gamescom for Konami’s surprise, Metal Gear Survive, Dan and Andrew discuss the impact of public-facing creators of popular nerd franchises and what happens when they leave those properties. What should be expected? How important are the creators? What about the creators’ next projects?

PAX

Andrew is going to be at PAX West this weekend, check him out as helps out with gameplay demos of the card game, Yukon Salon, on Friday 9/02. He will also be helping to run the Watch the Skies Child’s Play benefit game, put on by Seattle Megagames, on Saturday 9/03.

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On Thursday, September 8th, from 5-9pm, D. Bethel will be an exhibitor at Crocker-Con. This is a nerd culture convention held at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum and costs $10 to get in or free if you’re a member of the museum. There are also student discount admissions available with proper identification. Dan will be premiering (and selling) Long John, Volume 2 at the event, and friend of the show, Josh Tobey, will be sharing the table, selling prints of his paintings.

Leave your thoughts about this week’s topics as comments at forallintents.net. Be sure to follow the show at its official Facebook and Google+ pages. To help the show, please leave a review on the iTunes store.

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

FEATURED MUSIC:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith
-“Noble Farewell/Finale” by Mel Brooks & John Morris, perf. Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra (from Blazing Saddles)

Episode 85 – I Hardly Even Knew Me

Episode 85 – I Hardly Even Knew Me

We’re a little under the weather this week, but we do our best to provide with the most premium content we can offer.

Week in Geek: Andrew plays the indie prison-escape simulator, The Escapists, while Dan sees Deadpool and definitely has “feelings.”

Silenced Hills: At the recent DICE Summit, a keynote was held that reunited Metal Gear Solid‘s Hideo Kojima with Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Guillermo Del Toro to talk about how much they like each other. We talk about how much they like each other.

First Person Theater: A trailer for the film, Hardcore Henry, landed in theaters and on the internet, and Andrew and Dan are wondering both “What the hell?” and “Why the hell not?”

If you have any comments on this week’s topics, leave them at forall.libsyn.com. Be sure to join the official Facebook and Google+ pages. You may also e-mail the show at forallpod [at] gmail.com. If you want to support the show, leave a review on iTunes!

For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.

Featured Music:

-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“The Man Who Sold the World” by Midge Ure
-“Hardcore” by Dee Snider
-“Infected” by Bad Religion