“After the end of World War II, the world was split into two – East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War.”
Metal Gear Solid 2’s ambiguous nature, lack of resolution and all, was meant to signify the definitive end to the franchise’s overarching narrative, and nothing proves that more than the very existence of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In establishing the next game in the series as a prequel, Hideo Kojima effectively told audiences that there was no story left to be told in a post-MGS2 world. At the same time, however, Kojima took this opportunity to bookend the Metal Gear saga by going back to the series’ previously unexplored roots: the rise of Big Boss. While already deceased by the start of the original Metal Gear Solid, his presence loomed over Snake, Liquid, Ocelot, Solidus, and Raiden like a shadow, framing their character arcs and driving the central conflict of the story at all times. It was Big Boss’ legacy that defined the series, and MGS3 went back to his beginnings not only to impart the origin of the most influential man in the franchise, but also to recontextualize Metal Gear Solid as a whole. Although Metal Gear Solid 3 would inevitably be followed by a direct sequel to Sons of Liberty, and a myriad of games chronicling Big Boss’ life post-MGS3, Snake Eater, to this day, still presents itself as an alternative end to the franchise; one that reflects on a definitive beginning to contrast MGS2’s definitive end.
At its core, at least up until Metal Gear Solid 3’s release, Metal Gear was a series that focused on the conflict between Solid Snake and Big Boss’ legacy. The first two games, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, saw Snake confronting Big Boss directly. Both games capped off with Snake presumably killing Big Boss and going into retirement. While the pair certainly had an intimate dynamic, that of a soldier and his commanding officer, it wouldn’t be until Metal Gear Solid where Kojima would add in the father-son angle that would redefine their relationship for the Solid titles. With one small edit, Snake’s war against Big Boss’ legacy took on new meaning. It was his own heritage that he was now fighting. Along with his new parentage, the revelation that Snake was a clone of Big Boss likewise added a new layer to their rivalry. Snake wasn’t just rejecting his legacy and heritage, he was diametrically opposed to his own birthright. Even with Big Boss dead, Liquid and Solidus attempt to carry out his will, giving Snake something to fight against. By the end of Sons of Liberty, Liquid is still alive through Ocelot, ensuring that the eternal struggle between Solid Snake and Big Boss remains as such. As a prequel to the entire franchise, one that takes place eight years before Solid Snake is even born, Snake Eater naturally cannot tell a story revolving around the conflict between Snake and Big Boss. What it can do, however, is establish where Big Boss’s ideologies came from, the kind of man he truly was, and why Snake would go on to become the one man capable of stopping his father.
“You’re not a snake, and I’m not an ocelot. We’re men with names.”
Given Ocelot’s role in the previous Solid entries, especially considering his ultimate fate as the host for Liquid’s persona in MGS2, it’s only natural Snake Eater take the time to explore his origins alongside Big Boss. Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 saw Ocelot becoming a rival of sorts for Solid Snake. He’s the villain players interact with the most in the first game, and the antagonist for Snake’s portion of MGS2. In that sense, it’s fitting and quite poetic that Big Boss and Ocelot find themselves rivals throughout the course of MGS3. In both MGS1 and 3, Ocelot serves as the first true boss fight and reveals his role as a traitor in the post-credits stinger; while in MGS2 and 3, he vanishes but not without the promise of a future altercation. Ocelot’s role in Snake Eater is effectively an amalgamation of his role in the two preceding Solid titles. Even concerning the games released after MGS3, Ocelot’s role here is by far his most complete. Snake Eater stands out as the only entry to give Ocelot a full character arc. Ocelot begins the game as a naive rookie who slowly develops an appreciation for revolvers, torture, and Big Boss. While Ocelot finds himself in direct opposition to Big Boss many times in the narrative, he is very blatantly infatuated with him. There are many moments within the story where Kojima depicts more chemistry between Ocelot and Big Boss than between Big Boss and his actual love interest, EVA.
In that regard, the relationship between Big Boss and Ocelot parallels the relationship between Solid Snake and Meryl from the first Metal Gear Solid. Where there was a mutual attraction in the latter, the former takes a mostly one sided approach from Ocelot’s perspective; where Snake’s advice to Meryl was often gruff and dismissive, Big Boss’ advice to Ocelot is patient and kind hearted; and where it’s implied through MGS2 that Snake and Meryl ultimately didn’t work together as a couple, a look back on the series with MGS3’s context strongly implies that Ocelot inevitably found himself working closely together with Big Boss, even without confirmation from later installments. What would be considered the more “traditional” relationship, the one between Snake and Meryl, ends up falling apart whereas the relationship between Big Boss and Ocelot is implied to, at the very least, continue. Through Ocelot, Kojima is continuing the theme of love established in Metal Gear Solid with the same, exact context. Otacon asks Snake if love can bloom on the battlefield, and Snake Eater proves that, not only can love bloom, love blooms with a fervor. More importantly, through Ocelot, audiences get to see Big Boss in his most natural state. He’s confident, sensitive, and almost lighthearted. In many ways, he’s depicted as a less damaged version of his son; but that damage is still to come.
“One must die and one must live. No victory, no defeat. The survivor will carry on the fight. It is our destiny… The one who survives will inherit the title of Boss. And the one who inherits the title of Boss will face an existence of endless battle.”
Big Boss’ goal throughout the original series, which would later be adopted by Liquid in Metal Gear Solid and transposed onto Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 2, was to establish a world of perpetual warfare: Outer Heaven. In Outer Heaven, soldiers would always have a place and always have a purpose. While Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid took a grey approach to the concept, forcing players to question whether or not Big Boss’ paradise truly was the den of evil it was implied to be, it wouldn’t be until Metal Gear Solid 3 that the philosophy behind Outer Heaven would be explored more in-depth. To fully understand what Outer Heaven represents, however, requires an understanding of The Boss’ role in the franchise. Present in only Metal Gear Solid 3, The Boss is the Big Boss to Big Boss’ Solid Snake. To further parallel the dynamic, Kojima sets Snake Eater before Big Boss earns his title. For the majority of the game, he’s known only as Naked Snake. When The Boss seemingly betrays the United States, Naked Snake is tasked with infiltrating Russia, putting a stop to her plans, and ultimately killing her. Up and through their final confrontation, Snake questions how a patriot like The Boss could betray her country. She led America to victory in World War II; she was the first human ever to reach outer space; and she sacrificed everything she ever loved for the benefit of what she believed to be a better tomorrow. By the time Snake discovers the truth, that she was framed but had to die regardless, Naked Snake becoming Big Boss signals more than the adoption of his mentor’s former title: it signifies the moment Big Boss’ life is divided between before and after.
Disillusioned with his country and the very notion of patriotism, Big Boss inevitably defects and establishes Outer Heaven, a safe haven for soldiers like The Boss; soldiers who have been deemed “purposeless.” While Big Boss’ desire for Outer Heaven makes sense given the context, and is almost sympathetic, it does stem from a place of misunderstanding. During their final battle, The Boss says that whoever “inherits the title of Boss will face an existence of endless battle.” While The Boss is clearly trying to warn Snake of the life he’ll lead as Big Boss, it’s the notion of “endless battle” that he ends up latching onto for the rest of his life. It certainly doesn’t help his misunderstanding that The Boss takes a rather poetic approach to their final battle, referring to it as the “greatest ten minutes” of their lives. Given the life Big Boss ends up leading after The Boss’ death, it is entirely possible that his final moments fighting The Boss truly were the greatest he ever experienced leading to an almost psychological need for Outer Heaven. The real tragedy of their battle, though, as sad as it for Snake to become Big Boss through a ritualistic killing of his mentor, comes from the message The Boss tries to impart, a message that ends up disregarded in its entirety.
“Is there such a thing as an absolute, timeless enemy? There is no such thing, and never has been. And the reason is that our enemies are human beings like us. They can only be our enemies in relative terms. The world must be made whole again.”
With the constant shifting of political contexts, the enemies of today aren’t necessarily the enemies of tomorrow, nor do they have to be. What matters most is preventing cultural division and ensuring the world remain “whole.” It’s no coincidence that The Boss states her desire for a united world in a game that begins by explicitly informing audiences of the division caused by World War II. Unfortunately, Big Boss doesn’t so much as pay any mind to The Boss’ desire for a complete world. Instead, it’s Solid Snake who carries out her legacy. Even to his present enemies, Snake shows them respect. He is a man who takes time to listen to the parting words of Psycho Mantis, Sniper Wolf, and Vulcan Raven in Metal Gear Solid; still considers Frank Jaeger his best friend despite meeting each other for the last time on opposite sides of the battlefield; and even shows Big Boss a level of respect despite their strained history. Along with recognizing his enemies as enemies through circumstance, Snake’s desire is “to let the world be,” as evidenced by the motto of his anti-Metal Gear organization in MGS2, Philanthropy. Without so much as knowing her, Solid Snake embodies the manifestation of The Boss’ will.
Big Boss rejecting The Boss’ true message only for Snake to come upon it on his own harkens back to Snake’s message to Raiden at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: the future is only decided by what’s passed on. The Boss genuinely does attempt to pass on her legacy, but Big Boss misinterprets it, instead putting his faith in a world where war has no end. Metal Gear Solid 2 ended on a note of ambiguity, with passing on one’s message as a critical element for social advancement. Metal Gear Solid 3 takes that message and uses it to demonstrate what happens when someone carries out a passed upon message. The Boss was not clear, or perhaps even misguided, in her parting words to Big Boss, and the world suffered for it. Her mistake was trying to pass on an unclear message to an unstable man. Snake, at the end of Sons of Liberty, doesn’t pass on any such message to Raiden. Instead, he passes on the concept of passing on one’s legacy. That, in itself, lets the world be while also ensuring a better tomorrow. Much like how Snake had to come to the conclusion of letting the world be and keeping it whole on his own, Raiden has to discover a message to impart without guidance. With The Boss, and with Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima recontextualizes the entire Metal Gear narrative to tie into Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending. In that sense, the series also becomes a story that was always leading to an ending like MGS2’s. Metal Gear becomes a perfect circle.
No, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is not a story about the conflict between Solid Snake and Big Boss, but it is one that sets up their relationship, and the course of the series, in a complete sense. Without stepping on the toes of Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending, MGS3 offers an answer to the identity of the Patriots, chronicles Big Boss’ downfall, establishes Ocelot’s role in the story, and re-explores themes from both MGS and MGS2 in order to weave a cohesive line throughout all three games. MGS3 is everything a prequel should be. Its existence only enhances the previous games and ties the entire narrative together without resorting to the convoluted retcons future games in the series would become known for. While it would be possible to set an MGS before the events of Snake Eater, Metal Gear Solid 3 establishes itself so powerfully as the starting point of the franchise that any amendment to its status would likely do the same damage towards it that Metal Gear Solid 4 did for Metal Gear Solid 2. When a story has a definitive beginning and end, it’s best to let the world be.