Mainstream video games are a media dominated by masculine heterosexuality. Whether it’s muscular, stoic gun-slinging heroes or scantily clad heroines, the main audience of large, industry-leading developers is straight men. Among other games with high levels of success, Metal Gear Solid is a series that aims to subvert traditional video game tropes in many different ways, including in its portrayal of male intimacy. Two of the male leads, codenamed Solid Snake and Otacon, are never stated as anything but straight friends, but their relationship parallels a healthy queer relationship. The textually queer characters, however, are frequently sexually and romantically unhealthy, are villains, and eventually die. It is safe to name villains as queer because their identity does not challenge the heterosexual audience, but the protagonists, even when they are in healthy and loving homosocial friendships, never end up having a queer romance.
Looking at the homosocial relations of protagonists, the queerness in them is conferred to the “knowing” player. Often, when playing MGS, it is the “keen and artful presence of a certain absence in the texts—and the accompanying logic of undecidability, incongruity, and allusion—that seems to mark them as somehow queer” (Joyrich 30). Nearly all heterosexuality is in the form of short-lived romances (often quite literally; the majority of female characters end up dead). What replaces romance is deep, meaningful, same-gender friendships.
Of course, for the knowing player, these relationships are barely platonic. The subtext is overwhelming. Solid Snake and Otacon live together for about 10 years and adopt and raise a daughter. Kaz and Big Boss get in a naked wrestling match and, in an unlockable Easter egg, can go on a date. Ocelot was confirmed in a commentary track to be in love with Big Boss. But these things never quite show up in the main narratives of the game.
There is plenty of queerness that does show up, but it is of a much less healthy nature. Vamp (named such because he is bisexual) is a major villain and makes unwanted advances on the protagonist, Raiden. Vamp’s lover, Scott Dolph, is not evil, but is killed within the first hour of the game. Volgin and Raikov are lovers, but they are the main villains of MGS3, and Volgin sexually assaults Naked Snake. Ocelot is one of the main villains of the series and is never quite explicitly queer. Strangelove, for once, is not a villain nor does she die, but she has no female love interest (and her subtextual one dies) and is heavily implied to end up with a man.
The problem with Metal Gear Solid is not that it lacks queer characters—in fact, it has an overabundance of them in comparison to other video games at its level of success. The problem is that when a character is outright stated to be queer, they are almost guaranteed to be a villain or to be killed off. Reading protagonists as queer is not hard; sometimes the subtext is just too much to ignore. But none of the many intimate homosocial relationships (Solid Snake and Otacon, Big Boss and Ocelot, Big Boss and Kaz, Strangelove and The Boss, and many more) have been stated in-text to be romantic and/or sexual.
Interestingly, where canon queer characters are villains or dead, the subtextual queerness is of an amazingly healthy variety. Solid Snake and Otacon’s overarching narratives are, in a large part, about losing and finding family. Solid Snake was a clone who killed his own father and brother (the original he was cloned from and his twin) and goes to self medicate his PTSD in Alaska with dog sledding and alcohol. Otacon was sexually abused by his stepmother which led to his father committing suicide, after which Otacon ran away and had no contact with his family for years. But after they meet and become best friends, both of them enter a narrative about learning how to love and be loved. Otacon explicitly says in MGS2 that after he met Snake, he “realized you can’t wish for happiness, you have to make it happen” and he “learned that [he] could love”. Otacon has no significant relationships with women between MGS1 and 2; he could only be talking about Snake.
The tension in queer representation in MGS arises in the problematic nature of these explicitly queer characters and the positive subtextual queerness. The problem with these forms of queer knowledge, where villains and victims are explicitly queer and heroes are only implicitly, is that it does next to nothing to challenge the heteronormativity of video game culture. There is a long tradition in films and other media, as seen in The Celluloid Closet, of implying or even stating queerness in villains. This otherness, their strange sexuality, is used as a way to mark them as outsiders and untrustworthy. At no point in the Metal Gear Solid series does anyone say there’s anything wrong with queerness; if anything, homophobic reactions are frowned upon. But the fact that the heroes of the stories can be almost, but never quite, in a queer romantic relationship still enforces the idea of queerness as other.
When queer knowledge is inferred or conferred, even if it is still present, it is still putting queerness as something that must be kept quiet and only implied. If MGS were a revolutionary queer series, there would be no subtext, only text. The fact of having queer representation is not just about having characters identified as queer, but having queerness and queer identities portrayed in a variety of places, characters, and moral alignments.
This is not to gloss over the importance of the positive, healthy homosocial and implicitly queer relationships. These are rare, especially in video games. There is hardly ever a “no homo” moment to push the characters into strict heterosexuality, only the emphasis that these (supposed) friendships are the most important things in their lives.
The problem with Metal Gear Solid, interestingly, comes not from a lack of queer characters, or a lack of positive queer subtext, but from a tension between textual queer villainy and death and subtextual queer love and romance. The obvious solution to this problem is to make the subtext into text, to explicitly confirm the queerness of the protagonists. Given the state of the video game industry and the fact that MGS is drawing to a close as a series, this is unlikely, but perhaps other games can learn and improve on this model of queer representation.
Joyrich, Lynne. “Epistemology of the Console.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. London: Routledge, 2009. n.p. Pdf.