Sons of Big Bucks: Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Video Game Economy


Despite its reputation for over-delivery, Metal Gear Solid 4 challenges the player precisely because of what it leaves unsaid. Previous MGS games provided contradictions in message and action that created an exciting tension. They vilified war while valorizing warriors, told the player to kill and then dispensed rewards for not killing, required sneaking only to force discovery through cutscenes.

MGS4 falls mostly silent on these fronts. It offers few, if any, opposites to reconcile. While we have no way to know whether or not these silences are deliberate, we find suggestions in MGS4’s reliance upon a “war economy” context that the omissions have a purpose. This purpose is hardly insular or navel-gazing but relates uncomfortably close to the conversations about ultraviolence stemming from this year’s E3 as well as the trend toward the “gamification” of non-game activities.

Let’s take a closer look.

Substance -> Subsistence -> Indifference

The Metal Gear series prides itself on its unique flavor of stealth gameplay, and its approach to Stealth Espionage Action has evolved over the past 25 years. Action games rarely teach us to handle enemies with subtlety, so each game has had to train its players to sneak rather than to fight.

Earlier Metal Gear games use punishment to enforce stealth. Get seen in the original Metal Gear, and Snake won’t be coming home. Remaining unseen here does not imply a pacifist’s touch. The first three games in the series don’t care too much if you kill… only if you kill too loudly. Metal Gear Solid comes closest to acknowledging a bloodless run in its end-game ranking system, as the highest rank in the game, Big Boss, only becomes available with minimal kills.

Metal Gear Solid 2 changes this formula by rewarding the player for non-lethal stealth rather than enforcing stealth through punishment. End-game goodies such as the stealth suit and infinite ammo items require holdups rather than simple game completion, and you can’t holdup a corpse. To this end, it gives the player the M9 Beretta tranquilizer gun which puts enemies to sleep temporarily rather than permanently.

Metal Gear Solid 3 adds to this reward-based enforcement of stealth by giving the player more non-lethal tools, most notably CQC. By joining MGS2 and incorporating non-lethal stealth into its game design, it effectively creates a double game. Both MGS2 and MGS3 require different strategies depending on how lethally you play, thereby creating the sense that lethal Snake and non-lethal Snake actually have distinct characteristic differences.

Narratively, thematically, and interactively, then, non-lethal gameplay has become a heavily consequential element of the Metal Gear Solid experience. The choice between different playstyles contributes to the sense of contradiction and tension noted before. The games are exciting because they are not merely pacifistic or hawkish but both at the same time.

Spot ArtMGS4 dispenses with this contradiction entirely. Throwing back to MGS1’s sole recognition of pacifism via end-game rank, MGS4 offers fewer clear rewards for playing non-lethally. Each player can acquire almost any end-game goodie through other means, whether through the password system or by merely purchasing them from Drebin. MGS4 is also the first game to supply players with a catalog of emblems unlocked for different playstyles, diverging from previous games by encouraging violent and non-violent playstyles equally.

More disturbingly, though, it offers no clear punishment for killing either. MGS4 communicates its ambivalence to the player almost from the start. After surviving a tutorial sequence that sees Old Snake equipped with a pilfered AK and a Stun Knife, the player encounters Otacon’s Metal Gear Mk2. MGS2 and MGS3 opened by equipping the player solely with non-lethal sidearms; MGS4 presents both options at once as Otacon gives Snake both a lethal Operator handgun and Mk22 tranquilizer. When fighting the Praying Mantis PMC soldiers during the following action sequence, Old Snake’s choice of firearm does not matter. The battle is just as easily won by killing at it is by knocking out enemies.

A third option exists, of course. Old Snake can forego the moral question and slip through combat unnoticed, but this creates extra difficulty when encountering resistance and militia fighters. If Old Snake doesn’t participate in combat, they won’t trust him, making his forward movement more difficult. Through these means, MGS4 doesn’t punish players for lethal combat, yet it does punish players for avoiding conflict entirely. It doesn’t matter what you do to the PMC soldiers, but you’d better do something.

MGS4 renders Snake’s handling of the BB Unit bosses moot as well. Players can receive the Solar Gun, an easter egg from Kojima Productions’ Boktai/Lunar Knights series, after non-lethally defeating the BB Unit’s Beast forms. However, the individual soldiers still die whether Snake finishes their human forms lethally or not.

As if MGS4’s moral silence on killing weren’t troubling enough, the game also makes the gains from helping resistance fighters dubious at best. Helping rebels in the Middle East and South America does little more than convince them not to shoot Snake. This is more to Snake’s benefit than theirs since most players, when entering the resistance fighters’ ranks, take the opportunity to help themselves to the militia’s ammo and healing items.

MGS4 makes Old Snake’s alliance with the militias further one-sided when PMC platoons repeatedly destroy the groups whom Snake helps. In Act I, Snake helps the resistance fighters gain ground slowly, the sounds of flak and shrapnel ribboned with group cheers of “We did it!” Ultimately, however, they are decisively murdered by the BB Unit, after which a nursery-like corporate chime announces that the proxy battle has been settled.

In Act II, Snake contributes more dramatically to the militia’s cause as he rescues POWs, infiltrates enemy bases, and sabotages communications equipment crucial to the PMC’s operation. Snake and the resistance fighters part ways during the militia’s assault on the PMC’s main base. The outcome of that fight becomes clear during Snake’s escape atop Drebin’s APC. As our heroes gun through the areas previously traversed, we see not a single resistance fighter — only PMCs remaining in their roost.

Spot ArtMGS4 complements its narrative tones of futility with Drebin’s role as representative of the “war economy.” Drebin himself is a morally indifferent figure, in his words “neither enemy nor friend.” He sells arms to PMCs and resistance fighters alike, and he acts anonymously, not even owning his name. Hundreds of near identical “Drebins” across the world share his occupation and identity. His only distinguishing feature is his license number, 893. He is a “green collar,” one who profits off war without having a stake in the outcome, and he rightly identifies Old Snake as a green collar in turn.

Drebin and Old Snake cement their relationship in a Faustian deal. Drebin will outfit Snake with ever more powerful weapons in exchange for Snake’s footwork in retrieving guns from the battlefield. Snake scavenges; Drebin profits; Snake gets paid in materiel.

Through Drebin Points, MGS4 further enforces its indifference toward player choices between life and death. It doesn’t matter whether a PMC soldier falls dead or chemically dosed; what matters is that he drops his gun for Snake to collect. Likewise, though Snake must aid the militia for his safe passage through their territories, Drebin Points decrease the value of an individual soldier’s life. Even though Snake needs the militia itself for his mission, individual militia troops are worth more to him dead than alive because he can harvest their hardware. MGS4 communicates this element most powerfully after the BB Unit erases the militia near the end of Act I. Snake and the player are not invited to mourn their late comrades’ passing; rather, they are invited to trundle over the corpses and gather guns.

The sum of these parts gives MGS4 a moral texture very different from previous games in the series. It doesn’t matter whether or not Snake kills, but he should fight PMCs for his own advantage. The causes that he aids while fighting the PMCs are ultimately lost causes, while Snake has even less attachment to the humanity of individual soldiers since their deaths are literally his profit.

Spot ArtIt is an uphill struggle that ends not at a summit but a drop-off cliff. There’s no way out of the fight, and there’s no way to preserve the illusion offered in earlier games that Old Snake — or the player — is a killer with a heart of gold. MGS4 reduces us beyond soldiers to something worse, something we cannot truly respect: mercenary graverobbers.

Drebin and the Video Game Economy

Many players note (with displeasure) the changed pacing that occurs during Act III. The adrenaline combat highs of Acts I and II disappear in favor of the softer visual tones of humid Eastern European nights, after which the human power struggles disappear completely. PMCs and resistance fighters alike fade away, leaving behind inhuman Dwarf Gekko and less-than-human Haven troopers. This design decision becomes more intelligible when considered in the context of MGS4’s theme of indifference and the “video game economy.”

Little is more characteristic of a Metal Gear Solid title than turning game content into a commentary on video games themselves. In this regard, at least, MGS4 is no different from its forebears. Its design choices become more consequential when they feed into MGS4’s meta-commentary on video games. MGS4 uses Drebin Points to establish a “video game economy” in order to manifest, through game design, the narrative’s “war economy.”

We recognize this “video game economy” intuitively. We receive points as rewards for specific actions, and we exchange these points for further access to the video game. It’s the same system of exchange that underlies games as diverse as Final Fantasy 12 (with its License Grid) and Resident Evil 4 (with its weapon upgrades).

MGS4 uses cues typical of the video game medium to signal when we have performed rewarded actions. Prior to meeting Drebin, the player sees a tally of acquired ammunition on-screen whenever Old Snake picks up a weapon; as well, the player hears the traditional item pick-up sound effect. However, this interface changes after meeting Drebin. We see notifications not only of the type of ammo collected but of how many points that pickup earns. The item-pickup sound effect is augmented with extra chimes, as well, as MGS4 happily chirps every time we complete an action that earns points. We even get a special extended chime when we acquire an especially valuable weapon.

Spot ArtThese elements reinforce the correlation between the video game and war economies. While we immediately recognize the point ticker and sound effects as video game communications, we also recognize the point ticker as a Receipt of Good Exchanged. We hear, in the reward chime, a cash register’s jingle.

MGS4 truly begins its meta-commentary on video games after Act III when Liquid Ocelot takes the Sons of the Patriots nanomachine system offline. When he does so, state soldiers, militia troopers, and PMC employees literally cannot fire their guns. Without the SOP system, there is no war. Without war, there is no war economy. Yet the video game economy remains. Drebin’s narrative role as a weapons supplier should logically disappear since no one can buy weapons. His only customer is Old Snake — the player — whose line of credit comes not from the narrative but from the “video game economy” itself.

MGS titles prior to MGS4 use video games as a mediator between the player and their narrative universe. Sometimes, as in MGS2, the distinction between the video game and the narrative — the window and what we see through the window — collapses. We see such a collapse midway through MGS4.

Spot ArtMGS4 makes this transition with a clever sleight of hand. Act IV is an extended meditation on the fact that the MGS series is, at base, a video game. We open with an emulated return to MGS1’s Shadow Moses Island. By identifying this emulation as Old Snake’s dream, MGS4 suggests the onset of self-awareness through subconscious means.

Through flashback sequences back in the main game, MGS4 begins rewarding Drebin Points for actions that are more clearly interactions with the video game rather than with the fictional world. When Old Snake picks up weapons from the battlefield and sells them to Drebin using the Metal Gear Mk2 as courier, MGS4 dispenses Drebin Points for interacting with the virtual reality. Logically, Old Snake should receive no payment for remembering experiences from MGS1 during his return to the Shadow Moses heliport, yet MGS4 rewards the player Drebin Points simply for enjoying a reminiscence about an older video game within the current video game. The rationale of currency exchange through a “war economy” more overtly becomes the exchange rate of a “video game economy.”

Act IV’s combat also detaches from the established war economy. Dwarf Gekko replace human PMCs as Snake’s primary enemies. These targets are decidedly more video game-like than the PMC or militia troops. Dwarf Gekko are ciphers without personality, little vectors of movement that the player needs to gun down. They are stripped down video game fodder reminiscent of the crystal targets from MGS1’s and MGS2’s VR Missions. Haven Troopers likewise predominate as video game-like enemies. Before Act IV, they appeared previously as targets to take down indiscriminately during Act I’s ambush in the hotel, Act II’s stalking sequence, and Act III’s bike-and-gun chase. Each sequence forces the player to confront them as targets that must be taken down without the same kind of equivocation as is possible toward PMC and militia troopers. They serve the same role during the fight against Crying Wolf in Act IV and during the entire Outer Haven sequence.

Spot ArtAs cyborgs, their nanomachines force an immediate disintegration of their bodies and armor upon death. While this design choice fits their narrative role, it also emphasizes their identity as video game rather than narrative targets. Traditionally, video games do not waste memory space by preserving the on-screen representations of destroyed targets. While the bodies of dead human characters during previous acts ultimately disappeared, they did so subtly in order not to break the illusion of corpses heaped upon a battlefield. Haven Troopers disappear with more flamboyance. They flare blue, catching our eye’s attention, and making us more aware of them as video game targets that disappear after defeat as is traditional.

MGS4 continues this trajectory until its climax fistfight atop Outer Haven. Following the Screaming Mantis fight, a ghostly projection of Psycho Mantis calls attention to the player’s physical hardware. He observes the lack of a memory card and even comments on whether or not the player uses a DualShock3 or Sixaxis controller. Old Snake becomes overwhelmed with Dwarf Gekko, cipher enemies, right before Otacon destroys the architecture for the video game economy itself.

Spot Art


Taken as a whole, MGS4 uses its remarkable departures from traditional series themes to achieve ends that are entirely characteristic of the Metal Gear Solid series. It denies players the usual tension underlying the decision to kill or not to kill, and it couples this omission thematically with the “war economy.” It uses game design to express the “war economy” through the “video game economy” by giving both the same form: Drebin Points. Finally, it strips away the war economy altogether, leaving the player only the “video game economy” of scored points until the shell that houses the video game economy — the AI system — dissolves.

MGS4 does not merely advance an indifference to the value of human life. It calls attention to the means by which we become indifferent to human life.

Parting Shots

We come, then, to the hardest question: so what? How do these observations, however close or distanced from creative intention, apply beyond the virtual world of their birth?

The way that MGS4 encourages gun-lust echoes a dominant face of contemporary game design: “gamification.” Gamification refers to the decision to reinforce people’s actions with piecemeal rewards that produce a feeling of artificial accomplishment. It is a Pavlovian trap — one that we love to fall into.

Gamification appears well outside video games. Organizations assign point systems on everything from commission-based sales to improving an individual’s health to buying soft drinks. Walk into any gas station convenience store, and you’ll likely encounter dozens of instances of gamification from purchase reward points that you’ll register online to social gaming perks that accompany snack sales. This is gamification. It gets people to participate in activities that they otherwise wouldn’t. The rewarders generally don’t care about your hoard of points, however, and they’re more interested in what your participation in the “game” creates — revenue.

It is easiest to observe what others do, though, without seeing how we rhyme the same actions. Video games themselves become gamified when we add secondary prizes on top of whatever metric the game uses within its own code. Achievements and player Trophies act as incentives to get players to complete games they otherwise wouldn’t touch twice. It works, too! Don’t think that I earned a Platinum trophy for Shadows of the Damned because I was having a good time. Several of my friends will buy video games specifically to plump their Gamerscore, will play ultimately forgettable games like Burger King’s Sneak King simply for the Achievement points alone.

Spot ArtGamification gets people to buy games that they otherwise probably wouldn’t buy. Drebin points get MGS4’s players to kill and betray NPCs that they otherwise wouldn’t notice. Both, in parallel ways, fuel a “video game economy.”

During this year’s E3, Warren Spector gave increased legitimacy to concerns that video games have become not overly violent, but overly cruel. Violence in video games does not necessarily correlate with violent actions, but something seems off when video games offer scenes of sadism and cruelty as a reward for playing well. These concerns only focus on what these video games feature. The conversation does not yet consider that the gamification of games — the gamification of virtual cruelty — will be how we, as gamers, agree to participate and make those goals our own. Hunting Trophies and Achievements, we can look away from both the experience and the representations of violence that video games provide, much as Old Snake and MGS4’s players set aside prior concerns of the morality of killing in the search for Drebin Points.

To wrap up: Sigmund Freud, looking at the rich hoarders who created wealth disparity in Victorian Europe, famously identified the hoarding instinct as “anal retentive.” The desire to grab and keep money, in other words, was the adult version of an infant’s refusal to poop. This suggests more than the idea that the discontent of the 99% could be assuaged by providing the 1% with laxatives. It openly calls the stuff we hoard waste, filth, merde.

In gaming and consumer cultures increasingly defined by Gamerscores and Trophies — invented incentives to keep us chugging through MMOs and mediocre games — we might do well to ask ourselves what Old Snake does not: why are we hoarding and to what consequence?   James Clinton Howell

James Clinton Howell is an insurance customer support specialist with a variety of passions. He has an MA in Poetry from the University of Southern Mississippi, owns and runs the Japanese-English translation company DELTAHEAD Translation Group LLC, and serves as editor for the online literary journal Town Creek Poetry. His poems have appeared in the Journal of Truth and Consequences as well as The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol II. He has written extensively on the Metal Gear Solid series for PlayStation: the Official Magazine and provided localization support for MGS4 and MGS2: Digital Graphic Novel. He translates German, Old English, and Old Norse, and he is a Cisco certified network engineer.

His current video game projects include an annotated video walkthrough for earning the FOXHOUND Rank in Metal Gear Solid 3 as well as a farewell vidcast to Metal Gear Online. He publishes on YouTube under the username ShockleyHaynes. He lives in Chattanooga, TN.


About jedionston

Gavin "Dirk" Jedionston the "N" in "In N Out"

Posted on July 10, 2012, in LATEST ARTICLES and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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