Metal Gear Solid 3 is an odd game; on the one hand, it opens up with a thirty minute faux-history lesson submerging players into the dark world of fictionalized politics, subterfuge, and nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it also features the appearance of hovercrafts, a woman who talks movies with you whenever you save the game, and an extended sequence in which players can choke out the much-maligned star of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. When taken in as a list, none of the elements of this game should work well together. However, when the controller is in hand (or, as frequently happens, on the coffee table while you enjoy a cutscene), everything just *clicks* and the game’s unique flavor profile takes root. In no place is this more apparent than the game’s final hour; join me as I dive into what is perhaps my favorite sequence in any game ever, pointing out some of my favorite aspects of the final fight and cutscenes and doing some analysis while I’m at it.
Full spoilers ahead…
The most important element of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’s masterful finale is the setting. After trampling through lush forests, barren mountains, and hostile research facilities for ten hours, one might expect the final battle to take place in a similar locale. However, upon escorting EVA to our escape point, players are greeted with a change of scenery. The dark deciduous trees give way to open air: a lake, and, next to it, a field of white flowers. There are tree trunks bordering the field, but, in stark contrast to the vegetation of the forest we just escaped from, the trees have no leaves on them. They’re dead. The flowers, however, are still alive, whipping around restlessly, the Boss’ black overcoat standing stark against their white petals. This theming carries throughout the scene and, as the Boss begins her mournful monologue, it’s only expanded upon.
Juxtaposition like this is present throughout Snake Eater and, on a larger scale, the Metal Gear series in general. Everything about the setting and The Boss’ words are built around juxtaposition; her black coat over her white jumpsuit, her motherly role contrasting her infertility, a trip to outer-space fueling her idealism, when it filled The Fury with rage. Above all else, however, is the duality of life and death. Just as the trees exist with the flowers, just as the Sorrow was killed by the Boss, one must live and one must die. It is this concept that grants the ending of Snake Eater its incredibly poignancy. Whereas the destruction of the Shagohod and Volgin with it were accompanied with a thundering score befitting a video game boss fight, the battle between Snake and The Boss is scored with the faint rustling of flowers, punctuated by ostinatos of gunfire. There is nothing noble about what Snake and, by extension, the player is about to do, and the game makes sure that you know it. The Boss commences the fight with “Let’s make this the best ten minutes of our lives,” and players feel every word of it; the contrast of life with the inevitably of one of these characters’ deaths imparts this moment with a heavy sense of solemnity and players with full knowledge as to the emotional gut punch that is quickly approaching. If they would like to see the end of the game that they have poured so much time in, they need to beat the Boss in both senses of the word.
It’s fitting and cruel, then, that even after players have pounded the life out of The Boss, the game delivers another twist of the dagger. Her mission completed, The Boss grants snake her Patriot. The camera pans out, a sorrowful French Horn begins to play, and players have to press X. Not content at merely killing off a much-loved character, the game makes players an accomplice in her murder, robbing Snake of his mentor, mother-figure, and friend.
The flowers, in addition to acting as a great visual hook for the whole scene, have a peculiar property that’ll force players to think. After the final shot is fired, the petals collectively pulse outward from The Boss’ corpse (or, alternatively, Naked Snake) and turn from white into a deep, blood-red. This transformation certainly lends the scene some visual panache, but just a few minutes later it’s made clear that the flowers are not permanently stained with The Boss’ blood; when flying over the scene of the battle in the WIG, we see that the flowers have all returned to their natural white color with the exception of a lone blossom clutched in the hand of Snake. Looking down, he releases his grip and the petal floats away, its deep red turning to a soft white.
The particular significance of the changing colors is decided by the lens the player is viewing through; the game doesn’t give us much to go off of. The way that I interpreted the coloration of the flowers is that it’s a representation of the emotional state of the characters. At the beginning of the battle, The Boss says that “there is nothing inside [her], no hatred, not even regret.” It’s hardly a coincidence that she is the only soldier among the Cobra Unit that isn’t named after an emotion (though she used to go by “The Joy”, she adopted the moniker of Boss after World War II while her comrades kept their old code names), and the whiteness of the flowers helps bring that home. She is totally and completely at peace. A few minutes later, when Snake kills The Boss, the flowers turn a deep red to show a shift. From the contentment of the boss, free from any emotional baggage, to the heaviness weighing down on a Snake going forward with the knowledge that he has killed his mentor. Then, as he lets go of the petal from the side of the WIG, the redness drains. This is indicative both of Snake letting go of The Boss and, in a funny way, continuing to follow her orders; earlier in the game, she admonished him for wearing her Bandana, citing it as an example of his inability to let go of the past. In letting go of the flower, Snake begins to fulfill the mantra that “emotions have no place on the battlefield” and in doing so lives up to the boss’ memory, though the addendum to this story forces Snake to carry on with even more painful barbs in his heart.
After this touching scene, players see something of an oddity. The ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 features three distinct parts, and this middle section acts as a bizarrely humorous interlude sandwiched between two great, interconnected tragedies. Revolver Ocelot, our harasser throughout the game, decides to interrupt Snake’s time of reflection by jumping off of his hoverboard (!) onto Snake and Eva’s aircraft and challenging Snake to a game of Russian Roullette. I suppose that it’s only fitting, given the setting of the game. There are four possible outcomes for this deadly game to have, but it matters not. All of them end with Ocelot describing his hard-earned respect for Snake and asking for his name. When Snake responds with “Snake”, Ocelot asks for his real name, citing the fact that they’re “not animals. I’m not an Ocelot, and you’re not a Snake.”
This line does a great job at tying together one of the main thematic threads woven into Snake Eater. When describing her motivations for fighting, The Boss emphatically states that “our enemies are human beings like us. They can only be our enemies on relative terms”. Ocelot asking for Snake’s real name not only gives this idea one last, hardly-subtle push towards players, but sets up his character’s relationship for Snake later on in the series. And, as far as throwaway lines go, Ocelot’s screaming of “SNAKE! THIS ISN’T OVER YET!” prior to boarding the WIG is a funny little addendum to the story, hinting at things to come.
After this short, slightly off-kilter scene, it’s back to the political intrigue and forceful tugs at the heartstrings. Players are treated to the revelation that (surprise!) EVA was actually a Chinese agent this entire time but, though she may have been working for the PRC politically, she owed completion of a more emotional mission to The Boss and Snake by extension. Through a self-destructing tape, she tells Snake of The Boss’ final mission. This scene and those that follow are the closest to conventional prequel fare that the game gets, but that is by no means a bad thing. If Snake let go of The Boss as a person while in the skies over Russia, his new knowledge of how she died will drive him forward in all future endeavors. His disillusionment with the country that he fought for is shown when that very nation attempts to honor him for his heroic actions. His reluctant handshake with President Johnson and blatant disdain for various members of cabinet make it quite clear that he is not who he was at the beginning of the Virtuous Mission. He no longer views his mission as virtuous, if you will. It is important then that we cut directly from Snake blowing off some of the most influential men in the world to him in Arlington Cemetery, paying his respects to “A True Patriot Who Saved the World”.
Interestingly enough, it is in the way that the newly branded Big Boss honors his namesake that we see him begin to distance himself from her ideals; though he may have loosened his grip on his emotions towards the boss in the WIG, the way in which she died was simply too heinous for him to forgive. Big Boss salutes a fallen hero, and leaves two things at the unmarked grave: a bundle of white flowers, and his mentors Patriot. The salute and these two items have their own symbolic meanings, but their use in conjunction is what truly signals Big Boss’ shift towards where he would go in later games. This scene uses the salute as an acknowledgement that Big Boss respects his mentor and will carry on with her memory, but he follows it by leaving certain things behind with her, both figuratively and literally. The white flowers show the state of peace that The Boss died in, while her weapon, The Patriot, explains itself as a representation of the loyalty The Boss held towards her country. In adopting the title of Boss, Snake also adopts “an existence of endless battle” as was outlined by the names previous holder. His battles, however, are to be very different from The Boss’. While her devotion to her nation ran as deeply within her as her very life, Big Boss gives that up, just as he leaves The Patriot in Arlington. Whether this is an instance of dramatic irony in which the player is more aware of his future endeavors than Big Boss is, or Big Boss is fully conscious of the symbolic resonance of his actions is unclear. Regardless, this is a great nod towards where we all know Big Boss will end up. While he left The Boss in Rokovoj Bereg, he abandons peace and patriotism in the cemetery.
What are your thoughts on the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater? Do you love it as much as I do, or do you have more tempered feelings? If you have any disagreements with my interpretation of the game, I’d love to hear about it; multiple opinions make for interesting reading.