Compared to the early releases, new video games have improved in terms of plot and character development. The psychology and personalities of the characters – hero, villain, and recurring figure alike are now just as important as how the game plays.
However, like in the early days of comic books before Stan Lee’s “Spider-Man,” video game characters tend to be flat caricatures of real people, with flaws like social anxiety, fragile mental health, and depression being traits reserved for antagonists. Yet, even in such a climate, there are still maverick character designers who have made heroes that are difficult to fit into the traditional definition of the “hero” role. Among the best examples of such games is Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear Solid” series.
Being a game that both embraces the psychology of war and carries a strong pacifist undercurrent, there is a complexity in the cast of characters that is necessary. To an extent, all of the characters have some form of mental health disorder, which is appropriate for a game that relies heavily on the personalities of its characters. While some might initially see them as extreme responses to their situations, Kojima has gone to great lengths to present his characters as possibilities present when war meets psychology. The characters of the MGS series can be taken to represent the various effects of war on a person’s mental health, whether they are soldiers, commanders, or bystanders. He shows this through their personalities and the conversations that they have with the protagonist, making them more than just an obstacle to overcome to complete the game.
Among the most long-standing favorites of Kojima’s multitude of antagonists is the woman known only as Sniper Wolf. She may appear perfectly sane at first glance, but some have analyzed her personality as a potential consequence of growing up in a war zone. The experience of living in war-torn Iraq has left scars that damaged her mental health and emotional development . For children who were born and raised in a war zone, the typical response is to find a way out of the chaos and destruction. For Sniper Wolf, even after her rescue, her mental health was so marked by her experiences that the only real way she could overcome her prolonged trauma was to become part of it. Yet, perhaps due to some sort of anxiety disorder, she also longed to distance herself from it. As a soldier, she became part of the very thing that terrorized her as a child. As a sniper, she perhaps relieved her fear and anxiety as a child by distancing herself from the front lines, taking lives from behind the scope of her rifle. This theme of a person becoming part of what scarred them in their youth is repeated in the “Beauty and the Beast” military unit in the upcoming finale of the MGS series, albeit with a more literal interpretation.
Liquid Snake, one of the series’ primary antagonists, also exhibits a number of psychological disorders. His initial goal appeared to have been little more than the “world conquest” standard, but as the plot progresses, it is revealed to be much deeper. As the genetically-altered “twin brother” to the protagonist, Solid Snake, Liquid exhibits signs of sibling-caused status anxiety. Altered to be the inferior of the two brothers, Liquid pushed himself to perform in every aspect of his military life to prove that his inferior genetics were not going to define him. His status anxiety also pushed him to lead an insurrection of soldiers in an attempt to outdo his father and form a utopia for soldiers. His murderous competition with his brother is also driven by status anxiety, as he subconsciously desires to kill his brother to prove that he is better than both his brother and his father. This desire to outdo both his brother and father is a consistent factor in his appearances in the series. He also exhibits a slight Messiah complex in his desire to fulfill his father’s dream, as he expanded the plan to not only create a haven for soldiers, but also to destroy the governments that would use and discard them.
The problem of status anxiety also manifests slightly in the goals of Big Boss, Liquid and Solid Snake’s “father.” A man deemed to be the “perfect soldier,” his genetic material was used to create his “sons,” even as he had one of them modified to be inferior to the other. As a solider, he quickly realized that the time would come when men like him would no longer be needed and would be discarded by the governments they served like obsolete trash. His own status anxiety, combined with his disillusionment at how the US government betrayed his mentor to save their reputation, forged the idea of a soldier’s utopia in his mind. It was during his second attempt to establish such a utopia – which he termed “Outer Heaven” – that he was slain in battle by Solid Snake, his genetic son. His adamant refusal to be referred to by his codename of “Big Boss” also reflects his status anxiety towards the events that earned him the name. He resents the fact that he was awarded that codename because he killed his mentor, “The Boss,” for a government that discarded and abandoned her – despite her loyal service – simply because it was politically convenient to do so. The bitter irony of the name has not escaped him.
However, perhaps the most psychologically compelling case among the MGS series cast would be the chief protagonist himself, Solid Snake. According to records spread throughout the games, Snake exhibited signs of social anxiety at an early age. Trained to be the perfect killer and the ultimate stealth soldier, he was raised to dislike emotional attachments and view closeness with other people as a potential weakness. This social anxiety was reinforced by his second major mission, where he had to kill both his best friend and his father to fulfill his mission objectives. The fight with Gray Fox, his best friend, was also an instance where he showed performance anxiety, being extremely unwilling to fight a man he considered his friend and combat superior. His traces of status anxiety also plays a role in his character, though not in the way most would expect. He views himself not as the hero the people around him believe he is, but simply as “an old killer, hired to do some wet work.” He constantly seems to wish to prove that he is more than just the soldier he believes himself to be, but inevitably cannot distance himself from the battlefield. His conflicted status anxiety sometimes plays out subtly, as he no longer wishes to engage in fighting and just live out his life in isolation. However, he understands that he is a soldier and he will always be a soldier, with his only home being the chaos of a battlefield.
A common trait among the front line soldier characters of the MGS series is their inability to feel grief over loss. The explanation was that, as they were exposed more and more to the horrors of war, they began to lose the ability to grieve over lost comrades and family. This has been portrayed as a side effect of the horrors of war upon a soldier’s mental health, particularly in the cases of Big Boss and Solid Snake, who both had to endure the trauma of killing someone that they were emotionally attached to.