Did that soldier just shoot the fourth wall?

Yesterday evening I finished Metal Gear Solid 2. The ending was decidedly underwhelming, for all its action and its cascade of relevations, one topping the other. It was also facile and preachy, and it hadn’t earned the right to be preachy. I wasn’t as annoyed at it as many people seem to have been, though, based on reviews and posts on the internet.

Penny Arcade’s take on the MGS2 ending

What seemed to annoy them most, however, was the metafictional self-awareness that crept into the last 2-3 hours of the game. Your superiors, who keep contacting you via radio throughout, start to make increasingly explicit references to everything that’s gong on being a game, even telling you at one point to switch off the console. While this isn’t postmodern fiction on a par with Pynchon or Auster, it’s still a refreshingly clever take on most videogame narratives, where you, the player, are as much of a puppet as your in-game avatar, following orders that the game’s narrative imposes on you, with little or no choice. The self-referentiality is also represented quite wittily, with everything that’s overtly game-like – the ‘continue’ and ‘save game’ screens, for instance – playing into it.

Why is it, though, that people – gamers as much as readers or movie and TV audiences – hate self-awareness so much? Read IMDB comments (admittedly, hardly the most critically-minded crowd) and you’ll see that self-aware fictions tend to get extremely strong reactions. Audiences, by and large, don’t want to be told that what they’re watching or playing is a film, a game. They prefer to submit to the illusion that ‘this is real’. In fact, they resent narratives that don’t allow them the comfort of that illusion. Because if something that we want to believe to be real is actually a fiction, it raises questions that may be a tad uncomfortable. Or perhaps I’m just a snobbish post-structuralist… But I think that at its best, you can see the puppeteer’s strings and appreciate his illusion-making, yet still feel for the puppets as if they were real.

And now, so’s you don’t get bored: a movie!

On a different note: What do you do if you get a book as a present, and you want to honour the present – but you hate the book? After Miéville, I moved on to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and I keep wondering whether I really want to be reading this. It’s one of those “you have to laugh to keep yourself from crying” type of memoirs, where the things that are (supposedly) tragic are drawn in an exaggerated, cartoony fashion. According to the blurb on the back, it’s “hilarious… Adrian Mole scripted by Hieronymus Bosch”. The problem is, I don’t buy any of it. I’m not saying that Burroughs concocted the whole thing from scratch, but its over-the-top, camp tone and narrative feel fake to me. Augusten, a ceaseless self-dramatiser, is one of the most annoying narrators I’ve read in a long time. Is he a poor sod? Yes. Do I want to listen to him being a poor sod? No. And for all of its outrageousness, its lurid sexuality and forthright storytelling, there’s something disappointingly conventional and even prudish to the novel. Which may be true to the young protagonist, but that doesn’t make him or the book any more interesting.

So why am I still reading it?

Surreal Snakes and heroic metafiction

– What’s going to happen to us?
– There, there. We always end up in a universe where we exist. Remember Copenhagen?

Remember the self-aware, postmodern hospital soap opera that Nate watches in the first episode of season 3 of Six Feet Under? Well, if that network – COMA TV? – had a 24-type series, chances are it’d be pretty much like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the PS2 game I’m currently playing.

 Quite honestly, I’m not certain whether MGS2 is a badly scripted, badly acted mess of a soap opera as done by Tony Scott, or whether it’s a clever parody of existentialist hi-tech conspiracy thrillers (ah, that old chestnut!). Whichever it is, the game is a weirdly compelling guilty pleasure. But yes, the writing makes Final Fantasy X seem a masterpiece of subtlety.

In part, the game is obviously tongue-in-cheek; the absurd conversations with Otacon when you save the game, or scenes like the one where you have to sneak across a walkway underneath a guard answering the call of nature make that clear. But what about the bathos of Otacon’s relevations concerning his quasi-incestuous relationship with his stepmother? And what about Peter Stillman (Paul Auster fans note the name!), the anti-demolitions expert who faked having a fake leg for years in order to gain sympathy? While the latter reads like bizarre black comedy, the game plays it absolutely straight-faced.

I can’t say I ‘get’ MGS2, nor can I gauge its tone most of the time, but I definitely want to know how it ends – even if people have it that it’s the sort of ending that makes you want to throw your Playstation out the window. But, dagnabit, did they have to make the cutscenes that long? I feel like I should take a day or two off in anticipation of an ending cinematic that’s bound to be (or at least feel) as long as Peter Jackson’s King Kong.