Stealth games love to challenge you. Avoiding getting seen, quietly taking out enemies, and rationing your ammo are three such ways, but what makes those challenges even more interesting is doing it without taking a single life. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was the first game in the Metal Gear series that allowed you to clear the game, bosses and all, non-lethally. This went on to be a series’ staple, and within the community, completing a non-lethal run is often worn as a badge of honor.
But perhaps the most interesting implementation of this literal choice between life and death of nameless, masked NPCs is included in 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In some ways, Snake Eater is a very heavy-handed tribute to the likes of the 007 series, but at times, it also serves as a damning condemnation of certain tropes that the spy-fiction genre exhibits. One such trope is that of the protagonist recklessly mowing down hordes of enemies in cold-blood, with nary a lost soul weighing heavily on their conscience.
Snake Eater subverts this trope by introducing us to The Sorrow — the game’s eighth boss encounter. In a daring escape from an enemy prison, Snake leaps down a waterfall flowing into a river. He quickly finds himself trudging through waist-high water as trees burn around him, before the ghostly apparition of The Sorrow douses the flames, revealing himself in the process. Immediately before the battle begins, The Sorrow exclaims “Now you will know the sorrow of those whose lives you have ended.”
You are now being judged. The ghosts of every life you’ve taken follow you upstream, draining your life should you come into contact with them. They don’t just remind you of how many people you’ve killed, but also of the ways in which you’ve killed. Slice someone’s neck open, and their ghost will approach you with their head grotesquely near-perpendicular to their body as blood sprays out of their neck. Set a guard on fire, and you’ll hear painful screams as they presumably relive their final moments being burnt alive. There’s no way to fight back, either. Snake’s weapons are useless against The Sorrow, and his comrades won’t pick up any radio calls. It all coalesces into a truly eerie experience, but the most haunting aspect of it all arises when applying the context of the scene prior.
During Snake’s escape, he finds a friend in Johnny, who may seem like just a callback to the constipated comic-relief character from the original Metal Gear Solid, but is so much more than that. The two bond over a meal, after which Johnny confides his disdain for the Cold War to Snake. The war led him to leave behind his wife and child in America, making him lonely in the process. He further laments “Why do we have a Cold War, anyway…our two countries used to be such good friends.” Having lost his mentor, and more recently his right eye as a result of the war, Snake can’t help but agree with Johnny as the two find a common ground that paints the enemy in a new light.
Up to this point, enemy forces are viewed as little more than an obstacle, just like in any other video-game. But after this exchange, it doesn’t feel that simple anymore. Surely Johnny can’t be the only one who feels this way; his words beget questions of what other enemy guards are motivated by; Do they hate the war? Do they wish there was peace? Why are they fighting, and what have they lost in the process?
Snake Eater has no answers; there’s no way to know who in this game is fundamentally good or evil. In the genre that Snake Eater occupies, the assumption is generally that everyone that isn’t on the protagonist’s side is evil, and thus, the protagonist can morally justify killing scores of people in pursuit of their goals. But Johnny’s presence rejects this binary notion. Thanks to him, any Bond-esque murder spree that the player may have embarked on now has a shadow of moral ambiguity cast over it, further adding to the sorrow of the subsequent boss fight, when you’re faced with those lost souls again.
Boss fights are typically used as tests of power, but The Sorrow feels more akin to sitting down with your professor to discuss the results of your test; it temporarily strips you of your power to explore whether you’ve handled it responsibly or abused it. This moment isn’t an exciting, stylish moment like so many others in the Metal Gear series, but rather a quiet one of self-reflection that handles player choice in a manner that’s smart, elegant, and above all else, sorrowful.