There are spoilers from Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater strewn in this feature.
In what is essentially the origins story of Big Boss under his initial CO, Naked Snake, Metal Gear Solid’s third entry is often considered an evocative watermark of the series. Hideo Kojima’s follow up to the divisive socio-political themes in Sons of Liberty was something completely left field. Snake Eater dialled down philosophical exposition on science and technology in favour of presenting a deceptive pastiche of a 60s Cold War spy thriller with a winking homage to James Bond. While providing self-deprecating anachronisms of Sons of Liberty’s weirdness, Snake Eater winningly opts for a more straightforward approach to storytelling. It’s incredible fun but slyly moving. There’s also an aching throb of a plot twist — and it’s among the most devastating in video game herstory.
Setting the stage.
Similarly structured like its predecessor, Snake Eater unfolds in two parts. In Virtuous Mission during the year of 1964, Naked Snake infiltrates the Soviet jungle to extract a hostaged scientist from pioneering a new brand of experimental weapon. His mission is intercepted by the sudden presence of his mentor, an elite soldier whose vast war achievements have established her as an American icon. Known as The Boss, she inexplicably announces her defection to the Soviet Union by brutally attacking Snake and leaving him for dead. Her Russian benefactor, Colonel Volgin, then detonates two Davy Crockett nuclear shells that she presented as gestures of her allegiance, destroying a Russian nuclear site to cover up the theft. Soon thereafter, the US government’s rebuttal is Operation Snake Eater: Snake is dispatched to assassinate his former mentor.
From its seamless action sequences and caricature sub-villains; interludes of Silent Hill-esque horror; and the cat-and-mouse tension of characters switching sides; Snake Eater is breathlessly paced. It has everything you’ve come to expect from the series up until that point, but executed more exquisitely than ever. We’re also treated to a significant backdrop for the mysterious group known as the Philosophers (later referred to as the Patriots in Sons of Liberty) who are revealed to be the real insidious enemy. The main focus here, however, never strays too far away from Snake’s psychological process of hunting down The Boss. In a symbolic way that would later define the exploits of Solid Snake’s relationship with Big Boss, Snake’s mission is the making of the soldier he would become.
Kojima conveys this process with his presentation of two women who have wildly different but strikingly profound influences on Snake’s evolution.
First there was the charismatic KGB agent, EVA. An obvious stylisation of a vampy Bond siren, she spends a reasonable amount of time being misogynistically fetishised — and that’s a bit of a shame. When you look beneath the superficial need to have her pant suit unbuttoned, or the upfront sexual pursuit of Snake, you notice how subversively disarming her feminine powers are. Though she clearly operates with an ulterior motive, we fall into the orbit of EVA’s magnetism because she’s a humanised take on the femme fatale trope, and the many demonstrably self-empowering, kickass moments she has onscreen. Helpless damsel in distress? Nope: EVA gets the upper hand when Revolver Ocelot holds her at knifepoint, leaving him entirely at her mercy. She refrains from executing him only at Snake’s empathetic behest.
Sure, Kojima provides the facility to take advantage of EVA’s overt sexuality through constant invitation to ogle her, but this contrasts with the trepidation in Snake’s reaction to her advances: his sexual nervousness is the antithesis of what would normally occur in any given James Bond script. It’s atypical to what we would expect from a masculine action hero. On a few occasions during the game, Snake actually rebuffs the opportunity for casual sex; his eventual endgame tryst with EVA occurs after an established trust, relief and perhaps even a shared sense of loss — even if she abandons Snake come the morning after. That final moment when she chooses fulfilling her own mission over the man she’s fallen in love with sums up the triumph of the character: Kojima deftly overturns every perception that she is ultimately submissive to the idea of being fulfilled or redeemed by a man. After all, in those classic Bond films, those sexual politics and power dynamics are usually depicted the other way around. Characters like EVA are usually treated as disposable objects of desire or emotionality, being denied the function to impact the story beyond their relationship to the protagonist.
Then, we have the spiritual bedrock of the game and, arguably, the entire lore of Metal Gear Solid itself: The Boss. A fascinating entity who serves as the blueprint for which Big Boss and his genetically engineered offspring would aspire to colour in. It’s a telling — and inspired — design choice that she is modelled on Charlotte Rampling, an actress who emits a certain enigmatic aura. That’s a quality which elegantly applies to The Boss’s unmistakable ambiguity throughout Snake Eater.
Her adventures are described as legendary. We find out that she was the founding member of the original Fox unit, whom she led to victory at the Battle of Normandy; and that she’s actually the daughter of one of the Philosophers; she tells us that contrary to what has been documented in history, she was actually part of a mission which made her the first woman to enter space. We discover, through smart subtext, that she’s the biological Mother of Revolver Ocelot.
The confrontations between The Boss and Snake are frequent and physical, but strangely lacking in antagonism. The violence itself is muted by the intimacy of their use of the variant of hand-to-hand combat that they developed together; these mini-fight scenes are like intricate choreography, or a competitive game of human chess. The Boss comes out on top, mostly, because Snake only has half the heart to see through his orders. Rather than build to a single isolated and grand showdown, Kojima strategically uses repeated interludes to express the complicated dysfunction of this relationship: somewhat like a Mother showing tough love to a child who is longing to understand why.
Snake’s abandonment issues feel parental and deliberate.
The Boss, a revered American hero, has no feasible motive to turn on her country. She never strikes with any malice, has apparent moments of mercy (such as when she refuses Volgin’s order to cut out Snake’s eye and later saves EVA from being killed after her cover is blown) and to our knowledge she isn’t harbouring a passionate reason to side with the enemy, so the question in Snake’s mind, and ours, is what gives? The closest we come to understanding her is at the last hurdle, when she reveals her disillusionment like an existential confession:
“I could see the planet as it appeared from space. That’s when it finally hit me. Space exploration is nothing but another game in the power struggle between the US and USSR. Politics, economics, the arms race — they’re all just arenas for meaningless competition… But the Earth itself has no boundaries… And the irony of it is, the United States and the Soviet Union are spending billions on their space programs and the missile race only to arrive at the same conclusion. In the 21st century everyone will be able to see that we are all just inhabitants of a little celestial body called Earth. A world without communism and capitalism… that is the world I wanted to see. But reality continued to betray me.”
And it’s an unbearably emotional last dance, set poignantly in a field of white flowers; had Kojima prohibited the use of guns and forced the player to solely rely on melee combat, this would have been a scene airlifted straight out of a wuxia film like Hero. When it’s over and The Boss is dying, she urges you to finish her off — cruelly, the game doesn’t advance until you press a button to deliver the final bullet.
Then there’s the gutwrenching debriefing scene.
We see a suited and apathetic Snake receiving medals for successfully completing his mission. Much to the confusion of all those he worked with, he walks away from celebrating. Because while this scene is happening, we’re listening to a recording of EVA that she left for Snake on the morning he woke up to find her gone, having stolen the Philosopher’s Legacy from him. In that recording, EVA reveals that The Boss’s defection was actually a directive from the US government to covertly obtain the Legacy, but changed to prove the country’s innocence from the nuclear explosion caused by Colonel Volgin at the beginning of the game. To prevent the potential outbreak of World War 3, The Boss willingly assumed full blame and agreed to her own assassination.
Cue Snake tearfully saluting her unmarked grave and the game ends.
I remember being absolutely distraught as Starsailor’s Way to Fall played during the credits - it was a genuinely unpredictable revelation that evoked despair and respect both at once.
That she trusted EVA with relaying this tragic secret to Snake after her death is just a mere hint of insight into how The Boss might have felt about being made a scapegoat. “She wanted to live on in your heart — not as a soldier, but as a woman,” EVA tells him. But was it more than that? I’ve always suspected that The Boss exposing the stark machiavellian nature of war was yet another implicit teaching. In her haunting lament on lost Motherhood among other things, she tells Snake something I never forget: “You and I are alike. We’re both slowly being eaten away by the karma of others. We’ll never have the chance to die peacefully of old age. We have no tomorrow.”
We’ll never know how The Boss would have judged the direction Snake would ultimately take under the moniker he inherited from her. Whether it was what she prepared for or was trying to prevent. She was a serving patriot until her dying breath, at the expense of her honour and contributions being permanently erased from history. As Big Boss, Naked Snake spent the rest of his life rebelling against those very same principles, never forgiving the treachery of the native land he served. “We’re not tools of the government or anyone else,” once said Gray Fox to Solid Snake.
That defiant quote somehow sums up the enduring influence of The Boss across the Metal Gear Solid universe in perpetuity. Everything that happens after Snake Eater adopts new meaning because the events have traces of her own legacy. How she trained the greatest warrior that ever lived. How her memory sparked the mercenary revolution that escalated well into the age of free thinking and technological advancement.
It’s tricky to ascertain if Hideo Kojima intended as such, but for all the wonderful things that Snake Eater is lauded for, the most important thing is that it feels as much the spiritual story of The Boss as it is the beginning of Big Boss’s legend.
And it’s the story of one Mother soldier supreme.