“War has changed.”
There is not a single video game that opens as profoundly, or as appropriately, as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots does with Solid Snake’s “War has changed” monologue. In less than five minutes, not only is the game’s tone established, so is a new direction for the franchise as a whole. War has changed, yes, and so has Metal Gear. Where Portable Ops signified the coming of a new identity, Guns of the Patriots solidified it. In telling no one but the player that war has changed, the audience knows to expect something completely different from this point on. This is made all the clearer when, roughly fifteen minutes later, a title card with the words “Act 1: Liquid Sun” comes up on screen.
Along with war, Metal Gear Solid’s narrative structure has changed as well. This isn’t the first time a Metal Gear title has split itself into two; both Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater divided themselves into sections featuring a prologue and a main game, but those prologues served to set up the core narrative. While there certainly is an overarching plot to Metal Gear Solid 4, each act does have its own story and themes to give it an individuality it otherwise wouldn’t have. They all connect to one another in the end, but Kojima injects so much identity into each act that analyzing MGS4’s narrative without taking the act structure into account feels misguided. Every act has its own narrative and thematic purpose in the context of Guns of the Patriots.
Before diving into act analysis, it is important to establish what Metal Gear Solid 4 is about at its core: Solid Snake. The series has never shied away from character stories, with Raiden and Big Boss both starring in rather character driven games, but it also never stopped to critically analyze Snake as intensely as it would Raiden or Big Boss. The original Metal Gear Solid did put Snake in a position of philosophical reevaluation, while also giving him a traditional character arc, but it never truly criticized what it meant to be Solid Snake. Snake had to bare the burden of committing patricide, and whether or not he enjoyed killing, but his arc was more focused in Snake carving an identity of his own and generally defrosting as a person. For a game so focused on family, Snake never even gets a chance to muse over ending the game by committing fratricide.
Come Metal Gear Solid 2, and there genuinely is nowhere for Snake’s character to go as an individual. As a result, Raiden becomes the protagonist and Snake takes on a mentor position. By the time Metal Gear Solid 3 ends, the only real thread left to explore is a deconstruction of Solid Snake in the same vein as Raiden and Big Boss. Of course, doing said deconstruction would require setting a game after Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that ended in such a way where a sequel would be thematically impossible. Needless to say, this puts Metal Gear Solid 4 in a predicament- it can’t be a sequel in order to preserve MGS2’s legacy, but it needs to be a sequel because the only natural plot thread left involves analyzing Solid Snake as a character. Coupled with Hideo Kojima’s intense disinterest with the series by the mid-2000s, MGS4’s script not only deconstructed Solid Snake, it destroyed everything that came before it to make a point. Guns of the Patriots is about Solid Snake, but it’s about a Solid Snake who’s going to be broken alongside the world around him; and neither are repairable.
Every single event in the first act serves to establish the annihilation the Metal Gear canon is about to undergo. Solid Snake is dying of a manufactured version of Werner Syndrome; his code name is changed to “Old Snake;” Meryl is introduced only to look at her once hero with nothing but pity; Metal Gear Solid 3’s stamina meter is replaced with a psyche meter that goes down during cutscenes depending on how Snake is treated; Naomi is formally working with Liquid; and Ocelot undergoes a complete personality death after Snake Eater went through such great lengths to develop him. Liquid Sun is a cold, cruel, introduction of an act and it deserves all the praise in the world for how much damage it does.
The only way to deconstruct Solid Snake so late the series truly is to destroy the lore around him. Better yet, act one’s approach to following up Sons of Liberty is everything it should have been: nothing. There is not a single major reference made to MGS2’s plot save for an acknowledgement that the Patriots do exist in some capacity. Otherwise, the resolution to Metal Gear Solid 2’s themes and plots are left up to the imagination. This, of course, doesn’t last as the second act immediately makes it clear that MGS4 is a direct sequel to MGS2, but act one serves as a reminder of how good a sequel Guns of the Patriots could have been without hurting Sons of Liberty.
Act one’s strength as an opening is also, sadly, its greatest weakness. Liquid Sun is the promise of a story of sacrifice, and that simply isn’t what Metal Gear Solid 4 is going to end up being. It has elements of sacrifice, especially within Snake’s and Raiden’s character arc, but the narrative is mainly about the passage of time. Outside of a tenuous connection to Liquid Ocelot, there is no logical reason for Snake to be a part of the fight. He’s old, he’s dying, and the next generation is leaving him in the dust. At the same time, though, there is worth in his age. He’s experienced, he’s smart, and he has something the next generation lacks: strength of will. Time marches on, and it’s important to realize when your time is up so the next generation can take the reins, but it’s just as important for the next generation to look back on the time gone by to take from the previous generation.
Although Metal Gear Solid 4 would go on to wreck MGS2’s ending in the next act, this theme of time actually does make Sons of Liberty stronger in hindsight. While Raiden taking over Snake’s role already had narrative and thematic weight, Guns of the Patriots conceptually recontextualizes it so that it’s a formal passing of the torch between two generations when control switches over to Raiden. It’s a detail like this, that feels so appropriate with Metal Gear, that makes act one so bittersweet. Kojima had done the impossible and made a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 2 that actually made sense; and then he utterly ruined it.
“Snake, the only thing keeping you together is the strength of your will.”
Act 2: Solid Sun is, quite possibly, the single worst narrative stretch in the entire Metal Gear franchise. Not because the content is poor, it’s actually quite inoffensive in its own bubble, but because it tramples over everything Metal Gear Solid 2 stood for. Where the first act took a conscious approach to ensuring MGS2 was left untouched, the second makes it a goal to reference every detail from Sons of Liberty so the audience knows that none of that thematic weight as the credits rolled actually mattered. While the mere inclusion of Rosemary and Vamp, characters who have no purpose existing outside of MGS2’s context, certainly damage their home game, it’s what Kojima does to Raiden that makes the second act such a narrative disappointment.
At the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, Snake tells Raiden that he needs to find something to believe in. On a narrative level, this is a way of resolving Raiden’s character arc by having him reevaluate his life up to this point. On a thematic level, this is Snake’s way of telling the audience, through Raiden, that it’s up to them to decide what actually happened during the events of Sons of Liberty. More than anything, this is a sentiment meant to leave players critically thinking as they reflect on the end of the series’ narrative. Come Solid Sun, however, and Raiden is back; not as his old self, nor a progression of himself, but as a cyborg ninja whose very presence contradicts everything Raiden as a character once embodied.
Raiden’s role as a cyborg ninja only makes sense by under-analyzing his character, which is especially frustrating considering Metal Gear Solid 4 is the first Kojima directed MGS not to have a co-writer. Kojima is entirely responsible for Raiden’s shift as a character. He used a sword at the end of MGS2, he was a child soldier, and he had a serious problem with emotional detachment. In Sons of Liberty, his backstory serves as commentary on the average gamer while also contrasting him to Solid Snake. In Guns of the Patriots, his backstory is a flimsy justification for why he’s now doing back flips and cutting down bipedal tanks with a katana.
If that weren’t enough, Raiden’s entire personality undergoes a psychological shift. While he was already at his breaking point by the end of MGS2, he was able to hold in together in the hopes of rescuing Olga’s daughter and finding his own truth. He was naive, but he was determined to do what he believed was right, and he had a strong sense of justice. He was lonelier than he lead on, and made sure he was seldom vulnerable, but he was still able to open up under the right circumstances and never rejected camaraderie. In MGS4, he’s a jaded, alcoholic, stoic who refuses to let a single person in and even abandons his family in order to finish a fight that doesn’t concern him.
In that last respect, and that last respect alone, Raiden does come off slightly compelling. For all his flaws, he does contrast Snake appropriately. Snake is the past generation while Raiden is the next, and both are fighting battles they have no reason fighting. In hunting down Liquid Ocelot, Snake is fighting a war designed for the next generation. By trying to kill Vamp, Raiden is forcing himself into a battle that the past generation should have finished. They are both out of place, and they suffer immensely for it. More importantly, the states of their bodies are in direct opposition. Snake is dying because of what the world did to him. Raiden is dying because of what he did to himself. The latter survives only through augmentations. The former through strength of will alone.
Conceptually, breaking Raiden down so mechanically only serves to benefit Snake’s character arc which is simply the problem with telling a story like Guns of the Patriots. For a deconstruction of Solid Snake to work so well, it needs an element like Raiden, a character audiences care about. At the same time, though, including Raiden means dismantling Metal Gear Solid 2 to the point where it’s no longer recognizable. Solid Sun shows that Metal Gear Solid 4 is a sequel in name alone, and the unfortunate truth is that it had to be this way.
This is the tragedy of Metal Gear Solid 4. For it to exist, it needs to break down what came before it. Act two goes relatively easy on Snake as a character, because the audience now has Raiden as a comparison point. At the same time, the situation is all the worse for Snake because Raiden is a creation of his own making. It’s ultimately Snake telling Raiden to find something to believe in that causes Raiden to break. Even if it’s in complete opposition to Metal Gear Solid 2’s message, it’s nonetheless a necessary addition for Snake’s arc. Raiden is the reason that act two is the worst stretch in Metal Gear history, because he’s explicit proof that he couldn’t be ignored if the series were to continue. It’s a sad realization, because it’s also a realization that Metal Gear Solid did not end when it needed to. In continuing past Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it was obvious those games needed to be damaged for the series to continue. While Guns of the Patriots certainly does more damage to Metal Gear Solid 2, it doesn’t let Metal Gear Solid 3 get out unscathed.
“So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.”
As the effective midpoint of Metal Gear Solid 4, Act 3: Third Sun has quite an important job of setting up all the pieces for the finale while also breaking Snake down to his lowest point. Up to the start of act three, Snake has managed to overcome most obstacles thrown in his way with relative ease. While the subject of age is certainly a somber one, the inevitably of his death lingers only in the background. In an act as retrospective as Third Sun, it’s only fitting that Kojima choose to finally break Snake down now. It’s made all the more fitting when taking into account that this is the act that focuses on the events of Snake Eater the most. Snake’s lowest point comes to him when confronted with his father’s past. It should be noted that while the Snake Eater references aren’t as egregious as the Sons of Liberty references were in act two, they still damage Metal Gear Solid 3. Where the problem with act two was that the MGS2 inclusions simply couldn’t be reconciled with the type of story it told, the MGS3 inclusions in act three are either poorly written or poorly implemented.
Raiden’s inclusion can’t be justified, but it can be understood because it has literary merit in regards to Snake’s character arc. The Snake Eater nods are atmospherically appropriate for what Snake undergoes this act, but they often feel forced in and low quality compared to everything else Kojima has written for the series. They also reveal an unfortunate implication about Metal Gear Solid 4’s relationship with the rest of the series: it always needed to reference MGS2, but it clearly never needed to reference MGS3. Most of act three just goes to show how little of events in Snake Eater actually mattered in the context of the rest of the series. Kojima tries to force these deep connections by explicitly revealing Big Boss’ codec team as the Patriots all along, but this kind of twist has no basis existing. Snake Eater was about Big Boss’ downfall, it wasn’t about the events that happened. Third Sun flips the narrative and prioritizes the events over the meaning. In turn, Snake’s greatest defeat is appropriately dressed, but awkwardly shoved into an act too eager to romanticize Metal Gear Solid 3 to the point of pandering.
Perhaps the biggest narrative fumble in act three is the revelation that Big Boss’ one-time romantic interest, EVA, now code named Big Mama, was Snake’s birth mother all along. Conceptually, this is an interesting idea ripe with potential. Snake killed his father and his twin brother, and now he meets his mother. For the first time in his life, Snake has a family member who isn’t working in direct opposition to his goals. Unfortunately, Kojima makes this one of the only moments in the entire game where the audience doesn’t get a glimpse into Snake’s psyche. Rather, he remains uncharacteristically quiet as Big Mama reveals his parentage and the identity of the Patriots. Snake has always had a habit of shutting up during exposition dumps, but never to the point where he’d neglect commenting on intimate information directed at him.
Snake’s silence isn’t what makes the whole interaction so poor, though. Big Mama’s dialogue is seriously lacking compared to other characters in the game, let alone the rest of the series. She spouts off biblical references for little to no reason, and the Judeo-Christian imagery feels painfully out of place. Snake Eater had references to the Garden of Eden, but they were always just references meant to be endear players to Big Boss and EVA. EVA joked that he, Naked Snake, was tempting her, when in truth it was EVA who tempted him the entire time. That’s the extent of the reference, but Metal Gear Solid 4 romanticizes to the point where it becomes Big Mama’s character painting a wildly inconsistent picture of who EVA is.
As for Snake’s character arc, Third Sun actually does a surprisingly great job with gradually breaking him down. The act begins with him using his OctoCamo to replicate his younger face only for Meryl to disregard his youthful appearance as soon as she sees him. This is an important moment for Snake as it establishes that he can’t go back to who he was. A younger face is just a disguise for the body that’s slowly dying. This moment is paralleled at the end of the act when Snake and Big Mama get caught in an explosion and Snake ends up with a burn scar across his face.
As Big Mama lay dying in the aftermath, she similarly disregards him in the same vein as Meryl, “So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.” This echoes back to Liquid calling himself and Snake the brothers and light and darkness near the end of Metal Gear Solid. If Snake is going to kill Liquid Ocelot, he needs to be prepared to die as well. This also means that the most meaningful dialogue Snake has with his mother is her essentially telling him that he needs to die. Snake begins and ends the act with a face that isn’t his, rejected by two women who should have important roles in his life but don’t.
“An cuimhin leat an grá”
After two acts spent tearing apart Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it’s surprising to step foot on Shadow Moses once more and realize that Act 4: Twin Suns might just be the greatest conceptual moment in all of Metal Gear Solid. For once in Guns of the Patriots, dismantling a game’s legacy feels appropriate. In fact, what Kojima does to Shadow Moses doesn’t even hurt Metal Gear Solid’s legacy. Rather, it makes it stronger. Shadow Moses now exists in these two very specific moments in time: the past, where Snake lived out his golden age- and the present, where Snake succumbs to old age as Shadow Moses sinks into the ocean. Every hallway, every room, and every moment is a living eulogy for the original Metal Gear Solid. For an instant, it genuinely feels as if Snake is his old self again.
Act four is a reminder that at the center of Metal Gear’s themes were characters living, dying, and growing in benefit of a greater narrative. It’s here where Snake is forced to confront the passage of time directly. Once Shadow Moses sinks, it’s over. Once the disease catches up to Snake, it’s over. Once the credits roll, the Metal Gear saga is over. Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 both presented themselves as definitive ends to the series, but for all of Metal Gear Solid 4’s faults, it truly made it feel like this was genuinely the last time. Even with the knowledge that Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V exist, it’s hard not to look at Twin Suns and believe, just for a moment, that Metal Gear really was going to come to an end right then and there.
Raiden does return in this act to fight Vamp once and for all, but his inclusion here isn’t as grating as in act two. There’s an emotional weight to Raiden’s arc here, and he finally starts to show some of his old vulnerability. More importantly, Raiden does not get to kill Vamp here. Rather, he gets mercy killed by Naomi. Vamp’s death is unsatisfying and gives Raiden absolutely no closure, but that’s exactly what it should have been. Raiden was fighting a battle that wasn’t really his and he’s left once again lost without a purpose. There’s one particularly powerful moment at the end of the act where Raiden seemingly gives his life to save Snake. As he’s crushed to death, he thinks back to an old conversation with Rosemary while his consciousness fades away. Act five immediately take away from the sacrifice by revealing that Raiden had lived, but, in that brief moment, Raiden was his true self again. There was a flicker of the Raiden from Sons of Liberty. At its core, act four is about the relationship between identity and the passage of time.
Time has changed Snake, Raiden, and Shadow Moses, but not to the point where they’re unrecognizable. Snake is older, harder, and slower. He is a man past his prime in every regard. At the same time, he still embodies that iron will only humans can possess. He fights not because he has to, but because he wants to. He fights to keep the world together. This isn’t his battle, but what matters most to him is ensuring there are no more battles left to fight. Raiden is broken, jaded, and psychologically shattered yet he maintains his sense of justice and puts his life on the line to save the one man who genuinely tried to give him a future. He fought a battle that wasn’t his and got nothing out of it, so he decides to pass on his life so Snake can keep his. Shadow Moses is sinking, covered in ice, and abandoned. It is a relic in every sense of the word, but it’s still home to one of the greatest stories in video game history. It is a museum of what has come and what is about to go. It is a plea for the audience to take the past as it was and move on.
Act four is a moment for players to truly sit down and evaluate who Snake was and is in retrospection. Following a physical and psychological scarring in act three, Twin Suns puts Snake in a place of familiarity so he can regain some of his essence. He muses on the past, shares memories with Otacon, fights Ocelot while piloting a Metal Gear, and watches Raiden finally take his lesson from Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending to heart. It’s a somber act meant to elicit introspection, and it stands out as one of the few moments in Guns of the Patriots that feels genuinely Metal Gear Solid. It’s easy to forget that just two acts ago, Kojima essentially ruined Metal Gear Solid 2 out of what felt like obligation. Here, nobody would be held at fault for just accepting Metal Gear Solid 4 for what it was.
In a way, that’s what Twin Suns is trying to do. The act opens with Snake reliving the literal PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. He can walk around, get caught, and walk in the snow. It is a reminder that, while MGS4 might change the lore of the series, the previous games cannot be altered. Metal Gear Solid is there, Metal Gear Solid 2 still works in its own context, and Metal Gear Solid 3 can be enjoyed without thinking about what comes next. Act four is about learning to accept what has come and what is gone.
“This is it, brother; our final moment. The battle has ended, but we are not yet free! The war is over, but… You and I still have a score to settle.”
As the last proper chapter of the game, Act 5: Old Sun has to tie up every loose end not directly focusing on Solid Snake. There’s an air of finality to each moment as it becomes clearer that, now more than ever, Kojima wants to end Metal Gear Solid. As Snake makes his way through Outer Haven, it truly feels like he’s coming face to face with Big Boss’ ideologies for the last time. After two games of trying to prevent his legacy from resurfacing, Snake has to put the rebirth down in what he knows will be the last mission of his life. Coming off the high of Twin Suns, it’s only natural to expect that same quality going into the finale. All the pieces are set for a satisfying conclusion, after all. Snake is going in alone, Meryl is getting in on the action, Otacon has a master plan to take down the Patriots, and Kojima will surely justify keeping Raiden alive in an incredibly moment. Unfortunately, while some loose ends wrap up rather nicely, there are a two in particular that conclude terribly. Old Sun has a lot on its plate, and it balances everything surprisingly well, but the quality is as inconsistent as act three.
By far, Naomi and Meryl have the two worst endings in Metal Gear history. Even though Naomi died in the fourth act, she returns in the form of a recorded message right before the final boss effectively taking credit for the defeat of the Patriots. In a way, this mirrors Raiden’s inability to finish off Vamp himself in act four, but the lack of satisfaction here feels out of place since the narrative pieces aren’t where they need to be for this to come off a clever literary move. Instead, it just feels like a last minute twist with little emotional weight to it.
Meryl’s ending is certainly more inoffensive in regards to the Metal Gear narrative, but her wrap-up feels much worse than Naomi’s. In an action-comedy sequence after an incredibly tense act, she and comic relief Johnny, a character previously known only for pooping his pants, vow to marry one another should they survive. It is a moment that defies all storytelling logic and stands out as the single worst written and directed cutscene in the Metal Gear canon up to this point. What’s particularly jarring about Naomi’s and Meryl’s endings is that they don’t tie into the overarching narrative of the passage of time. This is a problem Metal Gear Solid 4 has all throughout. It has this central theme, but it’s so obsessed with its nature as the tentative last game in the franchise that it desperately tries to tie up any loose end it can. Act five ends up feeling incohesive thanks to these moments, which is a shame considering how strong the other two main wrap-ups are.
Although keeping him alive isn’t completely justified given the content, Kojima does do a surprisingly good job in bringing Raiden back for the last act. In a moment heavily reminiscent of their time in Arsenal Gear, Raiden shows up to defend Snake as he powers through to the end of the game. Just like in his “death” scene during act four, Raiden feels like himself. He’s still jaded, but the essence of his personality is back. In an inversion of MGS4’s message, the next generation comes to help the past. Even though him sacrificing himself for Snake in act four effectively would have conveyed the same message, it’s made more explicit here because Raiden isn’t trying to die to save Snake. Rather, now he’s simply saving him so the both of them can live. Raiden realizes the value of life through the past generation, meaning Snake passed on a genuine message to the next, making his words from Sons of Liberty ring all the truer.
Similarly, Ocelot’s ending stands out as particularly strong. With the Patriots defeated and the world essentially saved, Snake and Liquid Ocelot both realize that the only thing left to do is kill one another. As the two trade blows, it becomes abundantly clear that this fight has no greater meaning. It’s two men simply fighting to the death. At the same time, this is a fight with all the meaning in the world. For Snake, and the audience, it is the definitive end of a chapter. When Snake kills Ocelot, it’ll mean that he, too, has to die. Even in the face of death, Snake does what he needs to do in order to finally wipe out a generation that’s only caused damage for the next. The more Snake fights Liquid Ocelot, the more the Ocelot personality comes back. By the end of the battle, Liquid has been fully beaten out and Ocelot dies as himself, knowing the son of the man he loved most came out victorious.
While this is an act that tends to take a backseat to Snake’s character arc, it isn’t without one key moment: the microwave. Before Snake can enter the heart of Outer Haven and purge the Patriots, he has to crawl through a microwave corridor. The further he goes, the more he burns up. Snake screams and he falls, but he keeps crawling. The screen is split in two at this point, with images of the supporting cast slowly failing while their only hope burns himself alive to save them. As all this is happening, the player is forced to mash the triangle button to keep Snake alive.
This is a genuinely painful and enduring act, a physical reminder of everything Snake has endured up to this point. Walking through the microwave is a moment of pure sacrifice on Snake’s part. Even though Raiden could have easily done it himself, Snake undergoes the task to show the next generation that life is worth fighting for. It is a symbolic act that signifies the end of the past, and one that symbolizes the crux of Snake’s entire character arc. He has always fought to let the world be as it is, and now he’s showing the world the lengths he’ll go to ensure that he leaves the human race intact. After five acts of living just to die, Snake embodies the value of human life at death’s door.
“This is good… isn’t it?”
The grand finale to Solid Snake’s saga, Naked Sin/Naked Son is simultaneously the epilogue Metal Gear Solid 4 did and did not need. By the end of Old Sun, there’s still one last thing Snake has to do: die. Having killed Ocelot, passed on his message to the next generation, and saved the world, Snake heads to the grave of Big Boss so he may take his life and kill the last remnants of a generation gone by. As he kneels in front of his father’s headstone, Snake places his gun in his mouth and the camera pans into the sky. All players are left with is the sound of a gunshot as the screen fades to black.
From the moment Guns of the Patriots began, Snake’s death was an inevitability. He was rapidly aging, the FOXDIE in his body was mutating, and it had become clear that he simply had no place in the modern world. In taking his own life, Snake sacrifices himself from the pain of dying, from the pain of turning into a biological weapon, and from the pain of being made redundant. It’s an almost defeatist end to one of gaming’s most legendary heroes, but that’s exactly what makes the act so powerful. Snake’s suicide is a moment of genuine vulnerability, a reminder to the audience that he has always been just another man. In a sense, Snake reaches an enlightenment that neither Raiden or Big Boss do at the end of their respective games. All three characters have been deconstructed over the course of the past three Kojima directed games, but only Snake ends his game understanding who he is and what he must do. There is no misunderstanding, there is no confusion- Solid Snake has to die.
At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero.
Which makes it incredibly awkward when the ending credits cut back to the game to reveal that, not only did Snake not kill himself, Big Boss is alive and ready to confront his son. Just like with Raiden in act two, Big Boss’ inclusion in the epilogue is counterproductive to the essence of his character. He was corrupted by his country, tried to create a world of perpetual warfare, and was killed by his son in turn. He was a hero who fell from grace and died a pathetic death in Central Asia. Big Boss returning for the epilogue belittles Liquid’s, Solidus’, and Ocelot’s character arcs. All three characters do what they do in an attempt to carry about what they believe is Big Boss’ legacy. His death triggers a chain reaction in the world where his sons are pit against one another while his closest ally desperately tries to make Outer Heaven a reality. In the end, they all fail because Big Boss never truly passed on a legacy.
To begin with, Outer Heaven was born out of a perversion of The Boss’ dying words, giving an air of illegitimacy to everything Big Boss did over the course of the series. When he dies, Solid Snake is the only person with him and he chooses to live his life independent of Big Boss’ philosophies. Liquid, Solidus, and Ocelot weren’t with Big Boss when he died, but they still try to give his death meaning in order to fit their agendas. Each character has their own version of Outer Heaven they want to see realized, but they’re all inconsistent with one another. Big Boss suddenly returning from the dead removes much of the weight from their misinterpretations as he was seemingly always there to pass on his legacy. Big Boss was a warlord, but there was tragedy in the fact he died alone with a son who wanted nothing to do with him. Him never actually dying hurts the series when looking back on it with a Metal Gear Solid 4 context.
Another issue with Big Boss’ return is what it represents for Solid Snake’s character arc. After an entire narrative of being told that Snake has to, and will, die, it’s hard to see an outcome where he survives as narratively satisfying. After all, Guns of the Patriots presented itself as the ultimate character deconstruction for Solid Snake, a genuine end to the series’ protagonist. From a pure plot perspective, Snake failing to kill himself is not a poor move on Kojima’s part. As already established, Snake is just a man. He is vulnerable and he has moments of weakness. In a way, him pulling the gun away at the last moment is an endearing moment that shows a considerable amount of humanity. No amount of self introspection and resolution could prepare Snake for suicide.
Having Big Boss appear as a physical manifestation of that concept is an interesting idea with an almost mythological presence. After an entire game filled with overtly technological explanations for the franchise’s mystical elements, Big Boss’ appearance is conceptually fresh. Unfortunately, while he does work as a representation of Snake’s humanity and his closeness to death, Big Boss spends the entire epilogue monologuing about the Patriots; how Zero, a supporting character from Snake Eater, was the main villain all along; and his misinterpretation of The Boss’ will. The only part of Big Boss’ ending monologue that truly matters is the last. Him realizing he was wrong all along is a fitting end to his character, if unnecessary. He understands through Snake’s actions that he was wrong about The Boss, but it’s too little, too late. Big Boss is about to die in his son’s place.
Big Boss dying in favor of Solid Snake is a strange way to close out the epilogue as it does give closure to Snake’s character arc, but he ends up sharing said closure with Big Boss. That said, this was a series that always revolved around the dichotomy between the pairing. Even when the father was supposedly dead, the son still had to fight his many shadows to wipe out his legacy. As Big Boss dies for the first and last time, there’s an understanding between the two previously unseen in Metal Gear Solid. They’re enemies, but they respect one another.
Big Boss never saw Snake as his son, and Snake never saw him as his father, but they nonetheless valued each others’ merits as men. Big Boss telling Snake that he can, and should, live out his final days in peace is a tender moment that makes sense for both characters. Big Boss always had this sentimental side to him as shown in Snake Eater, and Snake always had this desire to retire and live a quiet life. The father dies in the son’s place so the latter may at least live a bit longer. Considering Snake is a clone of Big Boss, as well, this does mean the past generation still dies.
All this harkens back to the passage of time present throughout Metal Gear Solid 4. Snake was a creation of the past generation, but he lived in a world of his own. He became the past, but he was stuck fighting between Ocelot’s and Raiden’s generations. Him putting the gun down and lighting one final cigar for Big Boss is a visualization of the fact he can accept the passage of time without killing himself. Were it not for the massive information dump Big Boss unloads on Snake, Naked Sin/Naked Son would be a pitch perfect epilogue. Even then, though, Snake’s character arc still comes to a fitting close. He didn’t kill himself, but he never had to. He spent the entire narrative sacrificing himself for the sake of others, and it all ends with someone sacrificing themselves for him. For the first time in his life, Snake is free to be a man.
“The world would be better off without Snakes.”
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is at times convoluted, disjointed, and inconsistent. It brings back characters for little to no reason, ends several character arcs in narratively unsatisfying manners, and tears the series’ lore to pieces in order mirror Kojima’s frustration with the franchise. At the same time, it’s a beautiful, and often genius, conclusion to Solid Snake’s character and the greater Metal Gear narrative. The passage of time is felt throughout every act, and Snake’s character truly falls to pieces only to rise as a freed man at the end. It is a game inherently about the value of life and what can be accomplished by a single individual.
At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero. Every single thing he has done was for the betterment of humanity. He was often cold and disconnected from the people around him, but he always fought for them. As much of Guns of the Patriots is a deconstruction of Solid Snake, it is a tribute to him. Even at his lowest point, Snake represents the greatest attributes of mankind. He fought a battle that wasn’t his, not because he believed the next generation couldn’t do it themselves, but because he felt responsible. Snake killing himself would have ended the story on a powerful moment with a powerful message, but him surviving is all the stronger because it’s proof that time does not divide. Generations can co-exist and, in his last days, Snake should pass on a final message: to live in peace.
All that’s known about Snake’s last days is that he spent them with Otacon and their foster daughter, Sunny. Most notably, Snake quit smoking. Cigarettes were almost synonymous with the character and, at the end of his life, he chooses to give them up in favor of a healthier goodbye. Snake quitting smoking is ultimately for the best, not due to health reason, but because it signifies a true change in his character. The world is better off without Snakes, and giving up smoking is his way of formally renouncing the code name that followed him for years. At the end of his life, at the end of a saga, Snake does not die an animal. He dies a man. War had changed. Metal Gear had changed. And Solid Snake had changed.