Metal Gear Solid 4 – Smoking Metaphor

October 6th, 2008

metal gear solid 4 act 1

I’ve been thinking about Metal Gear Solid 4 again, sorting through the game’s many metaphorical elements to discern a connection to other something article worthy. I think I’ve got one, I’m sure that I’ll have a few more in future, here goes.

Spoilers, of course, including the game's conclusion.

Throughout the Metal Gear series, smoking has always been significant, to a certain degree. There’s obviously a connection between cigarettes and the ‘grizzled soldier’ stereotype of Solid Snake (main character) . Quite often the cancer inducing product is cleverly melded into the gameplay too. Such as in the original game where smoking slowed down the timer of a bomb, prompted to detonate, giving our hero a greater chance of escape.

In Metal Gear Solid 4, the role of cigarettes represents a crucial piece of Snake’s fading identity, in a world which has succeeded him. As the game’s introduction puts it “war has changed”, war in MGS4 is no longer about training and experience, it’s about manufactured output. Something that Snake has a hard time dealing with.

Early on, in the first few chapters, during moments of solitude, Snake reaches for a cigarette only to have the moment interrupted by the call of the mission. It’s a hint to the fact that Snake is losing the small pleasures that are important to him. It isn’t just his body that is wearing away, so to are the things that define who he is; his cigarettes, his experience in battle. And while there are clear sequences of physical struggle, there are plenty of moments of emotional struggle as well.

In later chapters, this element of interruption switches to Snake’s body leaping into convulsion as a backlash between an old strain of Fox Die (a virus programmed to kill Fox Hound members from the original Metal Gear Solid) and a new strain of the virus which works in tandem with ‘the system’. A new form of battlefield control. It’s all garble but again another metaphor of the old (Fox Die, originally from Metal Gear Solid) and new (MGS4’s virus and system) displacing each other represented through Snake’s action.

The convulsions are much more sporadic and less subtle than the prior nuisances invading Snake’s smoko break. The magnitude of the problem is emphasized through the serious, harmful nature of the convulsions. Furthermore, Snake can inject himself with a substance to stop the convolutions. This represents him forfeiting what use to make him such an icon; his individual strength to carry on, with no interest in assistance.

The importance of the cigarette is enforced in several of the ‘mission briefings’ between the breaks of chapters in which Snake fiddles with his cigarettes and stares at them, pondering his existence.

old snake artwork
As the game nears closer to the end, Snake has only one smoke left. He knows that once it is gone, then so to is his identity. The other characters, his friends, encourage him to quit smoking, to give it up and just let it go. But he can’t, he refuses to accept it, just like his identity, it is slipping away and how he cannot bear the thought of losing it. This all takes part in the cutscenes preluding the final chapter and it’s the first time that we see Snake in such a moment of personal arrest. He’s no longer delivers one smart arse one liners, his comedy is weak, he is becoming arrogant. It’s clear that Snake has had enough and just wants to go home.

At the game’s conclusion, Snake’s father of great lore and legacy returns from a state of “eternal” sleep. His talk with Snake, encourages him to just let go of the fighting. His meaning is to let go of what the cigarette means, to let go of this identity that binds Snake to war, one which has only caused him great trouble. After this, the two enjoy one last cigarette and the game closes.

After this scene, in typical after-credits, MGS fashion there is a conversation piece. Instead of a big twist as there usually is, Snake converses with friend Otacon to inform him that he is giving up smoking. Signifying the closure of the metaphor.

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