One Last Smoke – The significance of Snake’s cigarettes in Metal Gear Solid 4

A bent cigarette. A worn-out cigarette box. A lighter. Of all the tools and items Snake has at his disposal, none get as much screen time as the ones he uses for smoking. And while they have always had a role in the series, it’s never been as evident as it is in Metal Gear Solid 4. This is because the cigarette is an important recurring symbol, and its significance is twofold: it represents Snake, or more specifically it stands for the ‘role’ of Snake, and it also emphasizes Snake’s approaching end, and his indifference towards his own life. This article will show how the cigarette is used throughout the game in this manner.

Chronologically, we don’t see Snake smoke before accepting his mission from Campbell. At the graveyard, before the first briefing takes place, Otacon and Snake discuss Snake’s medical test results, which confirm he only has a few months left to live (a year at best). Snake remarks that ‘he’s not an ordinary man to begin with’, so visiting more doctors would be pointless. After this, the two of them board the helicopter where Campbell is waiting with a new mission.

“I’ll start my own fire.”

The cigarette plays a prominent role during the first briefing aboard the NOMAD. First we see Sunny noticing an ashtray filled with cigarettes that Snake has secretly been smoking underneath the kitchen fan. She berates Snake for this, but he more or less seems to ignore her. The character of Snake as we know him has always been associated with cigarettes, it’s one of his identifying traits, almost like a trademark. Over the past couple of years, Snake has been active under Philanthropy, and as such has been in his ‘role’ as the cigarette-smoking Snake.

As Campbell describes the current situation, Snake grabs a cigarette and puts it in his mouth, but Sunny and Otacon shake their heads, forbidding him from lighting it inside the plane. Snake walks around carrying the unlit cigarette, using it almost an extension of himself (like when he’s pointing at Campbell with it). An important moment occurs when Campbell takes the cigarette from Snake’s hand at a crucial moment during his plea to Snake. After explaining that Snake is on his own but there is no one else to turn to, and that failure will mean that Liquid will become ‘the greatest threat the world has ever faced’, Campbell walks up to Snake and briefly takes the cigarette from him. ‘Snake, you’re the only man I can trust’, he says, before handing the cigarette back to him. With this gesture, he asks him to once again take on the role of Snake. Snake accepts, taking the cigarette from Campbell. ‘Fine’, he says, holding up the cigarette. ‘Let’s hear it’.

After hearing more details, Snake accepts his new mission, but he also makes it clear that he is not some PMC who is in it for Campbell’s money. ‘But if you’re going to spark something, spark this,’ he says, holding up the cigarette. His request denied, Snake mumbles: ‘Fine, I’ll start my own fire’. And so, the game begins.

Snake has now assumed his role, and sure enough, the next time we see him chronologically, he has a cigarette in his mouth. He enters the war zone disguised as a rebel, but the cigarette tells us this is Snake alright. After reaching a safe spot, Snake lights the cigarette, but is almost immediately interrupted by a group of Gekko. In his escape, Snake drops the cigarette, but after shaking off his pursuers he picks it up again, and finally has his smoke as the game’s title appears.

As observed before, aside from the cigarettes symbolizing Snake himself, the act of smoking also stands for the indifference Snake has towards his own life. The few remaining cigarettes Snake carries with him during the game symbolize the short life he still has ahead of him. When all the cigarettes are gone, that will be the end of Snake.

“And if I choose death first?”

In the second Act of the game, Naomi examines Snake in her lab in South America to find out what is going on with his rapidly aging body (although she has ulterior motives, as we later find out). She has more bad news for Snake: not only is his lifespan programmed to be drastically reduced, he actually only has about six months left. Snake wants to light a cigarette, but she snatches it from his lips, firmly telling him: ‘don’t’.

Then she tells Snake he is now walking around with a deteriorating virus that will become a biological threat in about three months. The only way to stop this from turning into a potentially devastating epidemic is for him to take his own life before that happens. Snake once again lights his cigarette, and this time, Naomi doesn’t stop him. Instead, she turns away reluctantly, and lets him smoke. The cigarette is directly linked to Snake’s self-chosen death.

During the course of the game, Snake often clashes with the other characters about his smoking habits. What this is really about though, is his willingness to throw his own life away, and, by extension, his disregard for other people’s feelings about his heedless attitude. One of the characters hurt the most by this is Meryl, who still cares for him and looks to him for inspiration. Repeatedly she asks Snake to let her handle the situation rather than putting his own life at risk. This is most apparent during the scene at the train station, in the third act of the game. Meryl tells Snake she and her team can handle Liquid, and that there is no need for him to throw his life away. Meanwhile Snake is once again smoking a cigarette, underlining his indifference towards his own life. He more or less refuses Meryl’s assistance and undermines the perception she has of him: ‘I’m no hero. Never was.’ Deeply hurt, Meryl abandons Snake and goes her own way.

Interestingly, Meryl is the one who lit this particular cigarette for him, but the Snake she lit it for was a younger, healthier looking person, as he was wearing Facecamo as a disguise. However, it is just a mask. Snake’s intense coughing while having his smoke makes his real, old face appear, breaking the illusion and showing the reality of who he is. This happens just after he told Meryl not to worry, as ‘old soldiers never die’, but Meryl seems anything but convinced by his ironic statement.

“Enjoy it… could be your last.”

At the end of the briefing of Act 5, just before infiltrating Outer Haven, the team has gathered aboard the Missouri to prepare as best they can for what is essentially a suicide mission. Snake only has one question though. ‘Anybody got a smoke?’, he asks. The response in the room is unanimous; dismissive, and the meeting ends with an awkward silence. Still, Otacon concedes and lights a cigarette for him.

But once again the discussion on his smoking habits comes up. Otacon asks Snake wether he’s ever thought about quitting, but Snake responds by saying that it’s not like he’s got his health to worry about, immediately followed by another display of his body breaking down. ‘Are you trying to kill yourself?’, Otacon asks, as he tries to get him to reconsider going on this suicide mission. But Snake tells him he has got things left to do, ‘besides smoke’. He then suggests Otacon come with him, but Otacon declines: ‘I’ve still got things to do myself, and I don’t even smoke’. This moment is a clear example of the game drawing parallels between Snake’s smoking habits and his tendency to carelessly throw his life away in his Snake role, regardless of how it makes those close to him feel.

Moments before entering Outer Haven, Snake has a conversation with Drebin, who is also aboard the Missouri. Snake takes out his last remaining cigarette for a final smoke before the mission. Drebin reminds him this could very well be his last, to which Snake replies: ‘It is. I’m all out’. Snake is going on a suicide mission, he doesn’t expect to come back alive. His final cigarette signifies the end of Snake.

However, Snake doesn’t actually get to smoke the cigarette. Instead, he decides to give it to Little Gray, Drebin’s pet monkey. Drebin remarks: ‘Looks like that smoke will have to wait after all’. This foreshadows the fact that Snake will not actually die yet during this mission. Looks like the end of Snake will have to wait.

“You have been given freedom to be… outside.”

Still, the end is coming. Even after defeating Liquid and coming back from his mission more or less in one piece, Snake still has the looming threat of the deteriorating FOXDIE hanging over him. He returns to the graveyard with one last mission: to end his own life. And this time, he really does have his last smoke.

However, it turns out this isn’t quite how Snake ends. In the final scene of the game, Big Boss appears, as if he were an icon come to life. Big Boss will be the one to end Snake, but not by taking his life. Instead, he tells him that due to the new FOXDIE that Drebin injected in him, which is uprooting the old, the mutant strain inside him will soon be gone entirely. Of course, this doesn’t mean Snake has yet a long life ahead of him, but Big Boss does grant him an important aspect of this remaining life: he gets to live it not as a snake, but as a man. Snake can finally discard his title, his role that he has carried all his life. ‘You have been given freedom. Freedom to be… outside’. Unlike Big Boss, who retained his role until the very end, Snake can live out his final days as David. And so, Snake lights one final smoke, but this time, it’s not for him. It’s a cigar meant for his predecessor. Snake takes it from his lips and hands it to Big Boss, who dies with the burning cigar between his fingers. It falls to the ground. Snake has quit.

“No thanks. I’m quitting.”

And so, in a final conversation with Otacon, Snake tells him he stopped smoking, much to Otacon’s surprise. ‘These things will kill you’, Snake says. And while his last remaining days are short, lived as a ‘shadow of the inside, of the old age’, there is still something Snake has to do. ‘I have to see this age off. See what the future brings’.

And this future will not be found on the inside of a cigarette box.

One last thing to note is that nearly every time Snake is seen smoking (or trying to smoke), there is a sign in the background that indicates smoking isn’t allowed. This is the case inside the Nomad, the train station, and the Missouri. It’s as if the entire world is trying to tell Snake to stop his destructive habit, but he ignores it every time.

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