These pictures are from Snatcher, Policenauts, Metal Gear 2, and Metal Gear Solid 1 as well as 2. Hideo Kojima, chief writer of these games, consistently makes an effort to make his main characters comment on women in his hyper-masculine narratives. As a result, women are portrayed as beautiful, seductive, and duplicitous throughout Kojima’s ludography. Kojima has declared that “every character betrays someone once”, but being betrayed by men isn’t singled out in his games like it is with women. Characters in the games tell us that a woman’s duplicity cannot be helped because it is in her nature to be untrustworthy.
With 1988’s Snatcher, Kojima essentially makes his protagonist’s robot partner, Metal Gear, a misogynist (and a racist). When this misogynistic character is linked to your most popular videogame series through its namesake, some things that didn’t seem problematic before can definitely seem problematic now.
Videogame culture is rife with sexism, misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, as well as murder and rape imagery, jokes, and threats. To see these aspects bleed into writings about videogames, online interactions, and—worst of all—videogames themselves, is disheartening and disconcerting. These harmful forms of expression are not merely endemic to videogame culture; they’re part of culture at large. They’re part of society.
This problematic content that rears its head in videogames is there because it’s made by, obviously, real people. People we’ve met, people we might personally know, people who live in and move through this world with us. The bigotry inherited from the world we live in is internalized, and it can bleed into our works, the problematic content therein being left to be osmosed by others who may then create, completing the cycle of handed-down prejudice.
It’s one thing to challenge a misogynist for being a misogynist, but it’s an entirely different thing to challenge the spreading of misogyny through fictional works. Whether the hypothetical misogynist agrees with you and sees error in their ways or not, the misogynistic aspects of fictional works are still out there, unwittingly and subliminally reinforcing these and other cultural views. It’s much more feasible and fruitful to criticize works of which many people may partake, wherein the misogyny is evident, than it is to criticize a specific person. Sexist and misogynistic undercurrents in certain fictional works can be propagandistic in their delivery and influence, yet there is no discernible political purpose behind these messages, and so, in effect, we have the harm propaganda can bring without the purpose.
The consistency of the portrayal of women in Kojima’s works as well as the popularity of several of the videogames he’s helped create make his ludography epitomic of what I’ve described in the paragraphs above. All of what follows is not necessarily a polemic meant to attack Kojima; rather, if it is indeed a polemic, it is meant to attack ideas Kojima expresses in his works, which are a product of the world he lives in as much as he is, as much as all of us are.
To challenge problematic aspects of the works of this particular creator, I am creating, too; that is, my writing here is a list of nutritional facts, a supplement, a detoxification, a contraceptive to those that have consumed this media and savored it while it was assimilated. I’m the culture doctor that’s knocking on your upstairs door to tell you what it was that you just let into your body and mind, in case you didn’t notice. You can ignore me just like you would a doctor, but I don’t recommend it.
The Bechdel-Kojima Test
/bech·del test/ n.
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
It’s worth noting that nearly every Kojima game fails the Bechdel Test. There are only two instances where women exchange dialogue with one another in all of Kojima’s games, and these only occur in the Metal Gear series.
One scene is in MGS4, wherein Naomi notices Sunny cooking eggs and reciting the periodic table. Naomi proceeds to awkwardly patronize Sunny, telling her how to look and cook. “The secret to good cooking is to keep who’s going to eat it in mind,” Naomi says, referring to Snake and Otacon. Sunny groans depressedly, as no one is ever seen eating her eggs. Later in the scene, Naomi places a flower behind Sunny’s ear, chiming, “See, Sunny, us girls have to look our best” as they both gaze in the mirror. Gender roles properly reinforced, girls have to look pretty (for the boys), and they should actively work toward this end by sticking flowers in their hair, mission complete.
Sunny then mentions her mother by name, as if Kojima was thinking about the Bechdel test while writing the scene. Kojima’s having his first female-to-female interaction in his twenty-plus-year videogame career and doesn’t want to mess it up. This scene just barely passes the test, yes, but its sexist failings don’t make it much of a success, especially when the camera can’t seem to stay away from Naomi’s exposed cleavage.
The other instance where two female characters sort of speak to one another is in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, wherein Dr. Strangelove gives The Boss AI module an interview similar to a Voigt-Kampff Test. Audio books are mediums of communication, and in a series with radio conversations, this passes. However, I need to point out that, again, it contains a female character leading another on in conversation, this time in a Q&A format. Also, I want to just write this off and say The Boss AI isn’t a female character because she’s an AI, but if in the distant future there’s an AI that identifies as female, I don’t want to be one of the people that challenge that. Anyway, The Boss herself is already a representation of a woman on a screen; an AI representation of a representation still passes with me.
Both instances have the older female character taking the reins in each conversation, which I notice happens in other fiction outside of videogames. It’s a weird occurrence that really only seems to ease the difficulty writers face when constructing a scene in which the only characters are female.
In fact, let’s see to what lengths Kojima games will go to ensure women never interact.
Snatcher, wherein Gillian Seed meets up with three women at the game’s end. There is only one line of dialogue where the women seem to interact, and it’s to tell Gillian they’ve talked many times on the phone. The woman don’t actually talk to one another and all pay close attention to Gillian. It’s as if the scene was written to give the illusion of women interacting but without having to actually write it.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake encounters Holly White, who has infiltrated Zanzibar Land as a journalist, and Natasha Markova, an escaped captive who masquerades as a Zanzibar Land soldier. These two women never meet. Snake always meets Holly and Natasha separately and, to ensure they will never meet in the endgame, Natasha is killed.
Metal Gear Solid: Every female character is introduced to Solid Snake and the player by Colonel Campbell. Consider Campbell’s introduction of Mei Ling: Naomi Hunter is also talking to Solid Snake in this four-way exchange, but the two women completely ignore one another in favor of trading flirtations or banter with Snake. Nastasha Romanenko seems to exist in a vacuum, as only Campbell will reference her Codec frequency number, and no one but Snake ever speaks to her. Her entire appearance in the game is optional. Meryl’s closest interaction with another female character is when she is shot by Sniper Wolf.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Emma Emmerich dies minutes before Olga Gurlukovich drops from the ceiling as the Ninja. Later, Olga is shot in the face directly above the room where Solid Snake is fighting Fortune, the sole female member of Dead Cell. Fortune soon appears in the room where Olga had died mere minutes before, her body having completely disappeared. To ensure its divine edict that two living women will never be seen near one another, Fortune dies while saving three men before Rose appears as the sole female character left alive at the game’s end. Rather than tortoises, MGS2’s world is dead women all the way down.
Metal Gear Solid 3: The Boss and Para-Medic are both initially on the radio team, but don’t acknowledge one another’s existence. Once The Boss apparently betrays you, EVA joins the radio team, but her and Para-Medic never interact. The only words seen being said to another woman are those of The Boss carries EVA away from the Shagohod’s housing area after Naked Snake and EVA are captured. The Boss pulls EVA to her feet, telling her, “Leave everything to me.” EVA doesn’t respond as she is carried away, so her and The Boss are never seen speaking to one another.
Metal Gear Solid 4: FROGs coordinate during alerts and evasions, but they’re unnamed and always on the lookout for Old Snake. During the endgame cutscene when Meryl marries Johnny, Mei Ling exclaims to Meryl that she “looks amazing”. Can this be it? Can Meryl respond and make it a dialogue? No, Campbell walks up after Mei Ling speaks. He’s not allowing two women to speak on his time. At least Meryl points her gun at him.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, in the fifth entry of Paz’s audio diary. Dr. Strangelove apparently catches Paz sunbathing and, being a possibly queer character in a Kojima game, allegedly flirts with Paz, pressuring her to the point where she submits to Strangelove. Strangelove then applies suntan lotion to Paz’s “entire body” and between her “bikini-clad breasts”. This doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test for me, even though it’s a first-person recounting of an event wherein two women talk. That’s exactly why I don’t give it a pass; even if I defend it by saying it’s a vocal interaction, it’s not direct; it’s one woman talking about talking to another woman yet again.
Mei Ling Shouldn’t Exist
Snake can’t resist flirting with Mei Ling as soon as he meets her. “I didn’t expect a world-class designer of military technology to be so…cute,” he says. What a thing to acknowledge a woman’s life’s work, everything she’s accomplished, and then sweep it all under the rug to hit on her because she is, first and foremost, no matter what she does, an attractive woman. The women in Metal Gear Solid are depicted as highly intelligent, competent, and capable, but, above all, they are also beautiful, and must acknowledge men’s attractions and flirtations without indignation or offense.
So, how does Mei Ling respond to Snake’s flirtations? “You’re just flattering me…,” Mei Ling says shyly. “No, I’m serious.” Snake smiles, adding, “Well, I know I won’t be bored for the next eighteen hours.” Mei Ling chirps, “I can’t believe I’m being hit on by the famous Solid Snake!” Mei Ling’s reaction is that of a giddy schoolgirl near hysterics because the rock ’n‘ roll idol up onstage thrusted his crotch at her. Somehow, Kojima forgot he wasn’t writing dialogue for Tokimeki Memorial Drama anymore and terrorists in his story are going to launch a nuclear missile in eighteen hours.
Seriously, why is Mei Ling on the radio team? Yes, she is the inventor of the Soliton radar and Codec radio systems, but these are both presented as rudimentary and easy-to-grasp mediums that pretty much appeared in previous Metal Gear games. Mei Ling is said to be the “visual and data processing specialist”, but all she does is save the player’s game, read off quotes to Snake, and save all the Codec conversation data at the end of the game. It’s not like no one else can discern what Snake’s doing—Roy Campbell and Naomi are shown interpreting Snake’s movements back at the command post. “We’ll be monitoring your movements by radar,” Campbell says.
It is shown in MGS4 that Naomi knows how to send encrypted messages in Soliton radar format, which may provide details on the method of her betrayal in MGS1: Roy Campbell tells Snake that they’ve caught Naomi and that, “She was sending coded messages towards the Alaskan base.” Even after her treachery is discovered and she is subdued, Naomi contacts Snake “on a different Codec”, so she certainly knows how to use the Codec.
The player never has to call Mei Ling to save their game, and she’ll only chime in to tell Snake what the dots on the radar are, or to give a simple explanation as to why the radar isn’t working. Campbell even adds to these Mei Ling tutorial monologues sometimes, as if he could explain the radar’s functions himself. And he can, because he explained the radar to Snake himself at the beginning of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. So even Snake knows how to use the radar. The only major difference with this new radar designed by Mei Ling is that the player can see the lines of sight of soldiers and cameras. So literally all Roy Campbell has to do is say, “The red dots are your enemies, and the blue cone shape represents their field of vision.” Then Mei Ling becomes pointless.
If Mei Ling is still a teenager, in school, and is a valued, world-class inventor who has made a system that many people in MGS’s world can effectively and easily utilize, why is she brought along on a dangerous mission in a submarine? The answer is Mei Ling is a doll meant to appease Snake, and, to a larger extent, the player. She only exists to be a girl. Her youthful, attractive, unintimidating appearance; the flirting; the fact she and Naomi share crying duty when the player loses and sees the game-over screen; all are there to provide appeasement and motivation to the player. Metal Gear Solid’s development team couldn’t just have an old man raspily belting Snake’s name as he dies—that would be too lonely and unsatisfying. The player needs cheerleaders, women who have only known Snake for a matter of hours and already love him to the point where they will break down into hysterics at his passing.
Mei Ling is a cookie-cutter creation, a half-baked product of the words “beautiful, intelligent, zestful young Chinese woman”, with her most prominent characterization being that of a mouthpiece prone to expulsions of fortune-cookie wisdom culled from the writings of dead men.
Perhaps Mei Ling only achieved satori when an otaku nearly touched her ass in MGS4.
Let’s Talk About Vamp
I notice people keep coming back to Vamp. Namely, that his name meaning “bisexual” doesn’t make sense. The answer, ugly as it is, has been staring us in the face for years. It all leads back to one Codec conversation in MGS2:
Solid Snake tells Raiden of Vamp: “Vamp isn’t for ‘vampire’. It’s because he’s bisexual. Rumor has it that Vamp was the lover of Scott Dolph, the Marine Commandant who accidentally died two years ago.”
The noun “vamp” does not mean “bisexual male”; it means “seductive, sexually exploitative woman.” The term originated from the 1915 silent movie, A Fool There Was, which has been credited as the first “vampire” movie. The film is about a predatory woman—listed in the credits as “The Vampire”—who seduces a Wall Street lawyer in an attempt to destroy his life, just as she has done to other men. Considering Hideo Kojima’s own admission that he is “seventy-percent movies”, it’s quite likely he is aware of this film.
If Kojima is aware that “vamp” means “seductive woman”, why would he write that one of his male characters, being bisexual, decided to call himself Vamp? It’s a joke at Vamp’s expense; he’s a male character that has had sex with men, so he must be like a woman. This is offensive in a way similar to people in Japan’s recent past calling trans women “gay boy” or “Mr. Lady”; it’s deliberate misgendering that also mocks another’s sexuality.
There is no subtlety to Vamp’s bisexuality; it’s treated with all the nuance and sensitivity of children whispering in the schoolyard. The reason Kojima’s queer characters are abysmal is because he writes them as doing things because of their homosexuality and not as doing things while having homosexual aspects to their character.
Vamp’s name somehow being what it is because he’s bisexual is so convolutedly offensive and incongruous with how actual people behave that it’s quite obvious that, at some point, a god-like hand grasping a pen came down from MGS2’s firmament and wrote Vamp’s codename on his forehead.
The seemingly oblivious offensiveness at the heart of Vamp’s name is reminiscent of that of Peace Walker’s Dr. Strangelove. Like Vamp, she is named in reference to a movie, but the name is also as a comment on her sexuality: Homosexuality is strange.
There is something telling in the way the camera treats Naomi during MGS4’s cutscenes. There are deliberate, recurring camera shots that linger on Naomi’s anatomy, particularly her breasts and legs. Whereas instances of male-gaze throughout Kojima’s games usually operate on the pretense that the player is complicit in these invasive actions, these unnecessary fetishizations of Naomi during cutscenes are done by the director’s camera alone. Kojima wants players to see this; he wants Naomi to be objectified.
One possible argument for Naomi’s eroticization could be to make the reasons for Otacon’s attraction to her more obvious, but this doesn’t explain a scene which occurs earlier in the game. During Snake’s conversation with Naomi in MGS4’s second act, Snake drops a cigarette on purpose in the hopes that this will enable him to peek under Naomi’s skirt. If the player presses L1 as prompted, Snake stoops to pick up the cigarette, and a first-person camera shot taken from Snake’s perspective reveals that he is attempting to look up her skirt.
Analogous to Naomi’s portrayal in MGS4 are the four female boss characters that make up the leaders of the Beauty and the Beast Corps. They are referred to as “Beauties” within the game. Upon besting their mechanical “beast” forms in battle, the characters’ mechanized components are stripped away to reveal their “beauty” form to the player. Freed from their mechanical suits, the Beauties crawl toward Snake like seductive quadrupeds (as EVA does in MGS3), the camera doing all it can to peruse the contours of their bodies. There are “hidden” scenes directly following these points if the player does not immediately incapacitate the bosses once they leave their suits. The scenes are non sequitur cuts to a white, ethereal void with flower petals drifting on impossible winds. A time counter in the corner of the screen counts down the time remaining before the boss battle ends. The player is meant to use their camera to take pictures of the female boss characters. The faces and bodies of the four boss characters are modeled and motion-captured after real-life female models, so somehow the developers thought it made sense for them to pose for the player so pictures may be taken.
The player is required to kill the Beauties or render them unconscious. Whether the player kills a Beauty outright or tranquilizes her, it does not matter, as a conversation with Drebin reveals a rumor that they will not survive for very long outside of their mechanical suits. Drebin also calls Snake after every Beauty’s defeat to tell him the women whose deaths he guaranteed were each intensely traumatized and driven insane by the horrors of war. One of them even went on to murder children for crying.
Suddenly it may occur to the player that taking pictures of the Beauties as they pose wasn’t very tasteful, to say the least. Images of the male-gaze camera zooming in on the Beauties’ crotches as they suffer traumatic flashbacks and psychotic episodes might be burning in the player’s skull at this point. The content of all of these scenes clashes, culminating into utterly aberrant narrative sequences wherein the player can, knowingly or not, make mentally ill mass-murderers pose for pictures before they die. Somehow, Drebin attests, this sets the four Beauties free. These atonal juxtapositions are almost undoubtedly unintentional, and the only reason we end up with such naïve, juvenile scenes is because of a total lack of creative awareness for the sake of having female characters prostrate and bend their bodies solely for the player’s amusement. The heavy-handed theme of the Beauties’ traumatic, war-torn pasts making them partly “beasts” is a ridiculously poor portrayal of those who suffer intense and lasting traumas. According to MGS4, the only way to help these characters was to take pictures of them and then kill them.
The four Beauty characters represent four different expressions of emotion in MGS4—laughter, crying, screaming, and raging—and these characters are all female. The implication is that women are more emotionally precarious than men and better represent emotional extremes; this is a sexist sentiment that is disconcertingly widespread, and a product of various cultural and societal attitudes toward women.
Using women as vehicles for emotional themes or videogame mechanics isn’t something new. In Super Princess Peach, a platformer for the Nintendo DS released in 2005, the eponymous princess that Mario always rescued now has to rescue him. The problem is that Peach has to use her four emotions—joy, rage, gloom, and calm—in the process. Of the Nintendo DS’s two screens, there’s a screen dedicated to letting the player choose which four emotions Peach is feeling. The implication of Peach willfully choosing her emotions is that women can consciously control their emotions to manipulate others. This, in the process, depicts the entirety of the female emotional spectrum as dishonest and superficial. Peach is essentially a gynoid with a switch-flipping emotion chip, a character from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turning a dial back and forth on their feelings. As a result, there is no emotional depth to Peach as a character; hers is only a façade employed to suit her own interests. This is evocative of a real-world, misogynistic view that I, personally, have seen men take many times on women, in that they could be “faking it” and there is no way to know. How can one ever take anything someone seems to feel at face value if they are perceived this way? There will always be the nagging doubt.
Like Princess Peach, there is no depth, emotional or otherwise, to the four Beauties. Each of them represent and only have one emotion, rendering them monotonous and one-dimensional. If a strong character is like a well-played solo instrument in a concerto, then MGS4’s Beauties are one note being hammered relentlessly amidst the orchestra.
— S.R. Holiwell