Constructed Reality – An Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

“Those days during the civil war were as real as they come. Every day was absolute, split between life and death. You ran from it, and now, you’ve been led back to war by something less than real.”


The Reality of the Mind

We think we always know what’s real and what’s not. But in the end, everything we experience as real has to pass through the mind first. The same mind that can dream, fantasize, be deceived, get confused. So what exactly is reality the moment we experience it? After it has been decoded by our brain and interpreted by our intellect?

These are the kind of questions that are at the basis of Metal Gear Solid 2’s story. It’s carefully constructed from layers of different realities; deceptions, simulations, illusions, and the ‘virtual reality’ of the game itself. This article aims to demonstrate how these different dimensions of reality intertwine and create a (false) sense of truth; constructing a reality.

The Reality of the Dream

One way the game constantly blurs the border between reality and fiction, is by referring to dreams. At the very start of Raiden’s mission, the Colonel describes the situation as a ‘classic nightmare’. Further into the game, Raiden more than once states he feels like he’s in a dream. “It’s like being in a nightmare you can’t wake up from.”, “If the Colonel is something that I partly dreamt up, then… everything I remember about her [Rose] could be…” One of the Navy Seals at a certain point makes the same comparison: “It’s like some bad dream.”

Referring to dreams makes sense, because dreams are deceiving. They create an imaginary world taking place in the head of the subject, but they can feel very real. In this way, dreams take place on the boundary between reality and fiction, so it’s no surprise that they are used throughout the game.

What’s interesting as well is how Raiden does not remember his past, but he does dream of it. ‘Pieces of the past I can’t put together.’ So in a way, the memories from the dream are real, and his memories when he is awake are not. The dream is the reality.

The Reality of the Deception

The game is filled with deception. It happens constantly over the course of the story: something that seems to be real at first turns out to be staged or faked later on. Stillman’s crippled leg, Fortune’s luck, Fatman’s bombs, Snake’s death, Big Shell’s purpose. A new reality has been created, meant to hide another one. A shroud, an illusion is fabricated, a deception meant to protect another truth.

Peter Stillman fabricated his reality, a reality in which he was a victim of the bomb explosion, to protect himself from the shame. In the case of Fortune, even she believes in the newly created reality, thinking she cannot die (it should be noted though that just before she dies, she was able to deflect missiles, so does this mean her luck was real after all?). Snake’s death was, according to Otacon, ‘a deception, for our own protection’. Fatman’s bombs aren’t the actual threat, but serve as a trigger for the real thing. Even the S3 Plan isn’t what it seems to be. It’s does not stand for Solid Snake Simulation, as the player and Raiden are lead to believe, but for Selection for Societal Sanity. The leader of Sons of Liberty is not Solid Snake, but Solidus Snake. The Big Shell is not a cleanup facility, but hides the construction of Arsenal Gear. One truth hides the other. And most importantly, Raiden is shielding Jack. The former child soldier who refused to acknowledge the realities of his past, but decided to fabricate a new reality instead.

The Reality of the Simulation

Of course one very important fabricated reality playing a huge role in the game is that of the simulation. The whole mission ends up being a simulation, a recreation of Shadow Moses. Even Raiden’s commanding officer, the man he’s been talking to the whole time, turns out to be simulated. He is an AI, an artificial intelligence, a simulation of intelligence or, as Solid Snake puts it: “The Patriots are a kind of ongoing fiction too, come to think of it…”. And this fiction orchestrated Raiden’s mission. ‘Complete your mission, according to the simulation.’ The Dead Cell unit simulate the FOXHOUND unit (before they simulated terrorist threats), and Big Shell simulates a clean-up facility.

Then there is Raiden’s virtual reality training. As he describes himself: ‘The kind that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.’ He explains there’s even a ‘sense of reality’ and ‘pain sensation’. Snake argues that it’s not the same, but for Raiden, there is no significant distinction. ‘The only difference is that it isn’t actually happening.’

The Reality of the Game

But there is another kind of reality, one that transcends the game itself. And that of the game itself, and how it relates to the player: our reality, in a way. The player’s reality. By breaking the fourth wall, the reality of the player, and his world, blur into the game’s reality. At the end of the game you can, just like Raiden does, ask yourself what the definition of reality is, and wether it is really nothing more than ‘what your brain tells you’.

At a certain point in the game the AI even talks directly to the player, telling him to switch off the console. It seems that some players actually did so. Why? They knew it was just part of the game, and that they would lose save data. But they did as they were told, without thinking logically for themselves. This reflects Raiden’s situation in the game. ‘It’s a game, Raiden. It’s a game, just like usual.’ the ‘Colonel’ says. And it is. Raiden’s VR training is ours as well, when we played Metal Gear Solid. How real is our memory of Shadow Moses, now that it’s just a memory? And if this is a game, then what is our role? Do we play Raiden, or do we become Raiden?

The Reality of the Memory

But Raiden himself is part of the deception too. He is not the rookie he appeared to be. He has had ‘more field experience than he can remember’. When he was trained to fight as a child soldier in Liberia, certain methods were applied to obscure the reality of what he was doing. Gunpowder to keep him drugged, image training to make it feel like a movie. This is, of course, very significant to understanding why this reality theme is so important for the story. Raiden’s memory has been suppressed (either by The Patriots or by himself), and he is led to believe a new reality. And so are we. And perhaps that’s why Solidus Snake’s words, spoken near the end of the game, are so meaningful.

“Those days during the civil war were as real as they come. Every day was absolute, split between life and death. You ran from it, and now, you’ve been led back to war by something less than real.”

Raiden tried to deny his past, to forget the reality of what he has done. By refusing to accept this reality, by not allowing it to exist in his mind, it actually would cease to exist, in a way. But it also returned to him whenever it could, in his dreams, and only by acknowledging it was he able to move on. “Unless you kill me and face your past, Jack, you will never escape,” Solidus tells him. “You’ll stay in the endless loop – your own double helix.”

Do people live in realities, or do realities live in the minds of people? Is reality a product of the brain, or does it exist outside of these boundaries? What are we supposed to believe in? Even if Snake cannot answer these kind of questions for Raiden, one thing he knows for sure.

“Everything you felt, thought about during this mission is yours.”

And maybe that’s as real as it’s going to get.

  • Golgari

    MGS2 ending is the reason why it is 96 at metacritic. It’s not just a masterpiece but the game that is basically a museum exhibit and I know.. A lot of people have their favourite Metal Gear and that’s fine but MGS2 had the biggest impact on the media so far and sold more copies then any Metal Gear game so far.

    Let me remind you that Gamasutra has compared the game’s themes to the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, as well as the more recent social media and social gaming trends.

    The moment when you understand about biopolitical networks and information control you afraid of the future and it was the time when internet was not as big as today with social networks, facebooks and stuff. Twitter was not even a thing back then when MGS2 came out.

    “Everything you felt, thought about during this mission is yours.” that quote btw is excellent. It is actually a quote that made me think about the reality that it is real. That I’m experiencing something and it is mine and no one can take it from me.

    I hope that we will have even bigger topics for MGSV. I really want some serious shit with themes like Race and Revenge. I want to feel something at the end. I know, gameplay is important but when I will finish the game I want to think about it’s themes for years.

    • decoyF0XX

      Although I love the setting, characters and dialogue of MGS (1), MGS2 remains my favourite MGS game and even my best video game ever.It’s a masterpiece and Kojima’s greatest work. I think he said so himself that this game was a way of passing on his philosophies to the younger generation and damn, Kojima has a great mind!

    • psychomantis18

      It’s great that you love the game so much but the ending is not the reason it got a 96 on metacritic and I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it had the biggest impact on the media. Also, pretty much all of the MGS games explore various philosophical themes and while MGS2’s are very interesting, I found the themes of the others to be so as well.

      On a personal note, while I think that the conclusion to MGS2’s story is great, overall I found the endings of MGS 1, 3, 4, and PW to be more emotionally fulfilling and climatic. I also think that they were more well executed and had far superior end credit songs.

    • Fraaancis

      Thats why most of us love MGS.

    • César H. Sandoval

      MGS2 will always be my favorite one.

    • prothy

      Great comment, but I just wanted to mention that metascore really doesn’t mean anything in the gaming world.

  • Sly

    Great Analysis. I might have added the quote from Emma about the alphabet but that might have more to do with censoring reality. This makes me think of the reveal trailer of The Phantom Pain. It’s so crazy how the themes of these games are so interconnected like the plots and characters. Also the parts about Raiden’s memory and understanding of reality makes me think of Big Boss in TPP. This was good and these analysis only get me more hype. Thanks.

    • About what Emma said, The Patriots are trying to shape reality as well. But if you think about it, realities are understood through language, so the alphabet is a means to construct reality as well, in a sense.

      • Sly

        Yeah true. Like slang or words that we make up that aren’t officially words of the language but we understand the meaning so therefore it’s real.

  • turkishgamer35

    still playing this on ps3 (hd collection) even after 12 years game is suprisingly good both gameplay and graphics wise olso anybody got platinum trophy in this game is a real big boss!! that vr missions ….

    • Zeldaocto

      Yeah, it took me over 3 months and over 100 hours of gameplay to get it. Let’s just say that I despise sniping in MGS now. 😉

  • PrinceHeir

    Great write up!!

    I think it’s funny on how i played this many times back then when i wasn’t in US at the time. I always see NY and statue of liberty. People seem fascinated in that place, but i didn’t think of it at that time.

    Fast forward 10 years later, i’m now living in the very same place that i always see in the movies and all. When i finished the HD collection last 2013, it kinda made me nostalgia for some reason. I actually compared the scenes from the game to the current reality, and aside from technology improvement and transportation. It’s pretty much the same NY that i saw 10 years ago.

    MGS2 is my favorite game in the franchise. The amount that i’ve put to this game is just amazing. No other game came close to being replayed so much without getting bored.

  • Le Guy who drowned quiet

    even though mgs3 is my 1st mgs game that I played.Im attached to this one.

  • Invader_skoodge

    MGS1 was revolutionary in many ways including storytelling and graphics, but MGS2 was much more ambitious in my opinion. I always felt that the real story was found in the CODEC conversations. All the philosophical and political ideals were conveyed inside the Select Button, and to think that apart from the mandatory conversations, most people who didn’t like the CODEC simply played the game like an action game, waiting for that “finish line” and be done with it. Where most of the charm of MGS2 in my opinion was in those moments of calm and quiet before advancing the plot. That’s when I did most of my conversations with Rose and also I spent some time shooting seagulls. LOL
    And also this…….Just beautiful.

    • cardboardbox engineer

      dude, your write up was beautiful

    • True, everything comes together to tell the story, the codec, gameplay, cutscenes, etc. This is also one of those games you have to play more than once.

    • Damn this song even hints at the cobra unit. Never realized that in all these years.

  • prothy

    I’m not going to write essays, but the last fourth of MGS2 was mind-bending, beautiful and scary as shit at the same time and that’s why MGS2 has always been and probably always will be my favorite game of all times, not to mention I played it over like a million times and then there was the Substance version…

  • flying_fox

    …And that’s why City of Glass is a must-read for MGS2 fans. 😉

    Great write up!

    • Salad Snack

      this comment is 2 years old, but I’m still going to ask….

      I didn’t read it, but what does it has to do with mgs2?

  • Cartmangus

    Great piece, Nyx. There are so many reasons to respect this game and what Kojima did with it that it is just crazy, sometimes I can barely believe that a triple A developer was basically given the budget to do whatever he wanted with his series and he pretty much did the riskiest thing he possibly could’ve done. It’s incredible how the game has gotten more relevant with time and how many people that didn’t appreciate it then, have come to get a better grasp on it now. It does so many things to screw with your expectations and there are so many subtle details in the game that makes it all feel fake and like you said, a dream. Colonel’s performance is definitely one of those things, before you know the truth about the game you might just catch onto the fact that something about him is just not quite right, and the way he responds to certain things is very telling “It’s not part of the simulation” that stuff is super cool as well, Colonel in general is great in this game from the dead pan delivery to the crazy breakdown in Arsenal Gear.

    “When we need to reach you… contact you, the codec will beep”

    My experience with this game is great in so many ways, I would be extremely surprised if any game ever tops my personal experience with MGS2.

    And man.. “Those days during the civil war were as real as they come. Every day was absolute, split between life and death. You ran from it, and now, you’ve been led back to war by something less than real.”
    That quote by Solidus is so fucking good, bone chilling. I love it.

    • Yeah, it’s a shame some people write the game off so easily, when there’s so much to it. Just thinking about all the elements and facets of this game, there always seems to be more things to think about.

      And that quote is probably my favorite in the series. John Cygan’s awesome voice acting doesn’t hurt either.

  • Big_Boss88

    Awesome article Nyx! I always enjoy reading these :). I would write longer post, but need to go play Evil Within! Now that I finally got time for it after few other games lol ;D.

  • Shalashaska Has Landed..

    MGS2… A massive underrated masterpiece.

    • Batzi

      underrated? Dude this game is highly rated!

      • Theo Cevallos

        I believe this is the less-liked MGS. Underrated in same way (mostly because ‘oh I don’t get to play as SS’

  • Alex

    Those 3 lines Morpheus says to Neo in the white room are the basis to this entire game. “What is real? How do you define real? If real is something you can see, taste, or touch than it is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

  • Remco

    My favorite game after mgs3 and then mgs4. although I didn’t like Fortune being able to deflect missiles and vamp walking on water…

  • Alexandre Saccol

    I stare at the stars… and the sky up above
    and think “what am I made of?”

  • Sting’s Dad

    The official MGS Facebook page posted a link to this article earlier. Nice work, Nyx.

    • Yeah, very awesome. It did crash the site a bit though, but luckily that did not last too long. Quite an honor to be featured on the official page!

  • Keanu

    After replaying the game again a couple of days ago, I noticed how similar in function Arsenal Gear was to the Helicarriers from Project Insight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And from a game that preceded the film by over a decade? Just wow. While all of the Metal Gear games are socially and politically relevant, I think MGS2 has been the most distinctly postmodern one.

  • Mr. Huttunen

    Metal Gear Solid 2 might be the most realistic game ever created so far, because of how unrealistic it actually is.

  • Ilja Y.

    This article gave me the urge to start the MGS saga once again.

    At the end of the day I can proudly say that the Metal Gear franchise had the most emotional impact on me in video games

  • Mini gear


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  • Amrit

    This article is great Nyxus. I love coming back to it every few months. I wish I could do analysis like this on my own but I always need to go and find these types of things in order to under the series on a deeper level. Can I teach myself how to do this sort of analysis or is it an “either you’re born with it or you’re not” type deal?

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