It is 1998 and my father’s nicotine-stained fingers are much more nimble than my own. I need his fingers because without them Solid Snake will die.
Metal Gear Solid is a videogame, ostensibly, about infiltration. The protagonist, Solid Snake, must access a nuclear weapons disposal facility and neutralize a nuclear threat. Eventually Snake is captured and tortured and my childlike eyes are tortured too. My hero is dying.
My childish digits are incapable of the rapid tapping required to refill Snake’s health meter. It’s difficult even for my father, and I can see there’s an option to submit but my father is ignoring it. Maybe his temperament meant he refused to be bested by mechanics, maybe he wanted Snake to survive, maybe he knew I wanted Snake to survive. It didn’t matter. All I really know is Snake survived, the game went on.
Metal Gear Solid was the first game I really loved. In 1998 I was seven years old. I couldn’t comprehend its concepts and I couldn’t appreciate its narrative. My enjoyment was solely mechanical. My dad could understand the game on a thematic level, on a conceptual level and on a mechanical level. But whether he derived enjoyment from the intricacies of the narrative, the direction of the set pieces, or the simple interaction with his son I don’t know.
On reflection, I probably thought we were playing together, that over the course of the game we had equal influence over Snake’s movements. Truthfully, I don’t know how much input I had, both over determining the course of the game and over the physical manipulation of the controller. The torture scene may be an accurate reflection of our relationship with the game, that ultimately my father kept my hero alive as I sat chewing my fingernails.
My dad regularly worked night shifts back then; he’d sleep through the day. It wasn’t often we could play the game together. The limited waking hours my father spent with Solid Snake and I were cherished. Not just because of the obvious paternal interaction but because of the progress made with Solid Snake. Not just progress but progress free from responsibility. Playing the game with my dad usually meant I could, when pressured, relinquish all responsibility and hand over control. If Snake died it wouldn’t be my fault. I could blame my dad.
Scared to move without my father’s direction, scared by the breadth of Shadow Moses, by the resolve of the guards and by the sounding of the alarms, usually I would wait for his assistance. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t play the game alone. Then one day I got impatient, one day I got brave.
Alone at the summit of a communications tower, I was attacked by a helicopter gunship piloted by Liquid Snake, Solid Snake’s brother and enemy. He hovered out of sight, hiding beyond the snow and attacking from cover. I couldn’t see him. I didn’t know what to do.
Solid Snake was alone on that tower just like I was. We could stop the game and seek advice from Colonel Campbell, Snake’s trusted advisor. Campbell could tell me what to do but there was nobody to tell me how to do it; my advisor was in bed.
Battered beneath the force of Liquid’s ship, I sat shivering behind the only available cover. How long it took me to determine a strategy I don’t remember. But through a combination of good fortune and good tactics I was able to send the ship twitching and tumbling into the white.
No sooner had the helicopter hit the ground than I sprang into my father’s room and leapt on his bed. I had done it and I wanted him to know I had done it without him. I, a seven year old boy, had beaten Metal Gear Solid’s sixth boss, the Hind D, and I had done it alone.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Son’s of Liberty was released in 2001, by which time my father had become more supervisor than controller. His interest in video games had all but waned. Metal Gear Solid was different though, be it because of his interest in Snake’s story or his interest in mine.
This time I took control. My father was there to help. There were things I couldn’t do, things I didn’t understand, but for the most part I determined the story, I pressed the buttons. Snake was less dependent on his advisors; I was less dependent on mine. We’d been through this before.
There comes a point in Metal Gear Solid 2 when the narrative becomes increasingly bizarre. Postmodernism is a concept I was not yet acquainted with. I didn’t understand. But it was fine, my dad would know. My dad knows everything.
Turning to my father I saw the same puzzled expression on his face as on mine. He didn’t seem to understand either. He couldn’t explain. My father wasn’t infallible. Maybe he did have the intelligence to discern Kojima’s most elaborate opus but he certainly didn’t have the time or the patience to explain it to a child whose only interests were guns and dinosaurs. Cursed by an insurmountable obstacle, we placed down the controller. It took a further six years for me to finally beat Metal Gear Solid 2.
My father’s position had slipped from supervisor to spectator by 2004 and the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. He took a casual interest in my story but couldn’t invest the time required to truly understand Snake’s. He didn’t work nights anymore but that didn’t matter. He knew I didn’t need his help and at age 13, perhaps I didn’t want it.
I had learned to beat Metal Gear Solid without him and he couldn’t help me through its sequel. I spent much ofMetal Gear Solid 3 completely lost inside the soviet jungle but was determined to find my own way. I guided Snake through the game without my father pressing a single button.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released in 2008. I played through the game alone in my room. When my father occasionally entered he would be greeted by a host of familiar faces — Snake, Meryl, Otacon — familiar yet different to how he remembered them. Not only were they more real than before, but block pixels had been replaced with deep wrinkles. The characters had aged.
Meryl was no longer the sassy yet soft rookie she was on Shadow Moses. She was a woman, a squad commander. Solid Snake was no longer the clean and capable veteran he once was. He was weathered, frail, old. Age, as it turns out, is the great equalizer even in the digital realm.
We were older now too. In the time that passed since my father’s last true involvement with the series, and with video games, the characters that inhabited this world had grown up and left him behind.
With each passing year my interest in fictional worlds increased as I developed the intelligence and aptitude to understand them myself, and with each passing year my father grew further away from his own childhood, and further away from mine. I was 17, and a different boy to the one that had once sat beside his father as he was guided through Shadow Moses’ blinding snowstorms and mazelike vent shafts. Back then, I welcomed it, I needed it. Now, I resented his intrusions. I was 17. I didn’t want my dad’s help. I didn’t want him in my room.
At the end of the game, Snake awakes atop the nonfunctional Outer Haven to find Liquid Ocelot, a twisted amalgamation of two of Metal Gear Solid’s most formidable antagonists standing over him. This wasn’t the first time Snake had destroyed a Gear and awoke atop it to find his brother looking down at him. We’d been through this before, in 1998.
As Snake and Ocelot wrestle and clash atop Outer Haven, their stances shift demonstrating their transformation, but also demonstrating mine. I saw incremental reminders of a childhood spent beside Snake, a childhood curated by my father, a childhood steadily lost to the mire of independence.
At the end of Metal Gear Solid I hadn’t the skill to defeat Liquid Snake in close quarters combat atop an unstable Metal Gear REX. I needed my dad. Without him Solid Snake would die. Without him I would fail. But ten years later, at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, faced with a familiar challenge atop a different Gear, I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t even ask my dad if he wanted to see the end.
Art by Will Tempest.
This feature was originally produced for and published on Pixels or Death – 19/10/2012