“There are no heroes in war.” Snake’s voice echoes off the cold, tiled walls of the bathroom despite speaking at barely above a whisper. “The only heroes I know are either dead or in prison.” A light goes out in Meryl’s eyes and her brow furrows in confusion. “But Snake… you’re a hero, aren’t you?” Snake turns away. “I’m just a man who’s good at what he does. Killing.”
When we first meet Solid Snake, he already seems like a legend. It’s not every man who pilots a solo submersible into an isolated terrorist base armed with nothing but a pair of binoculars. Snake is presented to us as we expect; he’s the best of the best, a hardened and experienced soldier. He’s grumpy, sarcastic, and flirts with every woman he sees. He’s John McClane, Rambo and James Bond. He even shares a name with Escape from New York‘s Snake Plissken, which is not a coincidence. Solid Snake is set up as a completely traditional, archetypal action hero, kidnapped from his home by a shadowy government agency and pulled out of retirement for One Last Mission©.
This isn’t Snake’s first rodeo, or his first video game, previously starring in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Neither of which most players are likely to have come across. Snake has so far spent his life killing dozens of men with his bare hands, witnessing the deaths of friends and innocents, battling several giant robots and mechanical deathmobiles, murdering his boss, fist-fighting his best friend to the death in a minefield, then finding out his boss isn’t dead and also that he’s his father before killing him again. Snake has seen terrible things. Terrorists hijacking nuclear weapons and holding the world hostage is just another day at the office for him.
Early on in Snake’s mission, we’re introduced to wide-eyed rookie Meryl Silverburgh. Although Snake is the player’s avatar, the vessel through which they interact with the game world, Meryl is meant to be the audience surrogate, a physical representation of the player’s mindset. Like the player, she isn’t an experienced soldier herself, but Meryl is aware of the legend that is Solid Snake, and she idolizes him. She’s heard stories about Snake’s exploits, about how he single-handedly took down colossal walking super-tanks, or overthrew corrupt leaders and defeated larger-than-life villains. Meryl thinks Snake is cool, and heroic, and wants to be just like him. She wants to be a legendary soldier who can slay armies; and we do, as well, that’s why we crouched in front of our TV in the first place.
Much is made of Snake’s status as a legend. Not only does Meryl gush over him like a teenage girl to Chris Hemsworth, but even members of his support team treat him like a celebrity. The team’s data analyst Mei Ling says it’s “an honour to speak to a living legend” like Snake. It’s clear he’s a heroic figure, almost mythologized in his field. Snake, however, tends to brush aside the praise from his compatriots, or ignore it completely. A couple of times, he responds to someone complimenting his abilities as a killer with nothing but silence, or his trademark throaty grunt.
Shortly after meeting, Snake and Meryl are forced into a violent confrontation, the first time Meryl has seen combat. She tenses up and freezes, unable to pull the trigger and almost gets them both killed. Snake shouts at her to snap out of it or they’re both dead, and Meryl screams in a combination of rage and terror as she lets fly with a hail of bullets, killing three men. Later, when Snake asks her about the incident, Meryl explains that she never had any problem firing her weapon in training, it was only when she thought about “[her] bullets tearing through those soldiers’ bodies…” that she hesitated. Snake explains to her that shooting at living, breathing people isn’t like shooting at targets, and that killing another human being will irrevocably change a person. “Unfortunately, killing is one of those things that gets easier the more you do it.” This is when we see the hardened veneer start to peel off and see the Snake beneath the legend. He’s haunted by his past and his actions. His life of constant battle has left his soul permanently scarred.
As the game goes on, we learn more and more about Snake’s life between Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid. In the six years hence, he has moved to middle-of-nowhere, Alaska, as far away from other people as possible. At the beginning of the game, Snake admits to the two people he was closest to–Master Miller and Colonel Campbell–that it’s been years since he’s spoken to either of them. We learn that Snake has begun keeping dogs, referring to himself as a musher. This is especially important, as Snake compares himself and mercenaries like him to dogs several times through the course of the story, specifically noting their loyalty and submission to whoever feeds them. His life of endless conflict and violence has made it difficult for Snake to relate or associate with other people. Snake, at this point, has probably killed more people than he’s had a conversation with. He now more easily relates to, and sees more of himself in, dogs and wolves than other human beings. While he sees canines as friends and kin, Snake tends to see people as either adversaries, masters or resources, only able to categorise them as pieces of the current mission.
In a conversation with Meryl, part of which I mentioned above, she explains to Snake how she idolizes him, how he inspired her to become a soldier. Snake is uncomfortable with the idea, decrying the life of so-called heroics as grim, messy, selfish and ultimately self-destructive.
“I’ve never fought for anyone but myself. I’ve got no purpose in life, no ultimate goal. It’s only when I’m cheating death on the battlefield, the only time I feel truly alive. […] There are no heroes or heroines. If you lose, you’re worm food.”
All Snake has ever known is violence and his mission, and it’s left him ill-equipped to handle anything else. Snake’s charisma and flirtations with Naomi and Mei Ling at the beginning of the game turn out to simply be a front he puts on when put into a situation where he has to interact with other people. Much like a person with social anxiety will learn to mirror small-talk in order to get through daily life, Snake has learned to act his part, to buy into his own legend a little bit and play the role of the charismatic hero. He presents himself as the hero people want him to be in order to keep them at arm’s length, to prevent them from getting closer to the real Snake. This is especially clear in his interactions with Meryl. When Snake sees Meryl trying to become closer with him, he responds by becoming more distant and dismissive, and refusing to answer her questions about his personal life. When she asks him what his real name is he answers that on the battlefield there is no use for a name, in an attempt to disassociate the soldier Solid Snake from the real human underneath, but also to make the conversation a lesson for the rookie instead of a personal chat.
Over the course of Metal Gear Solid, there are signs of Snake beginning to recover, and we see the scars start to heal. He admits to caring deeply for Meryl, even falling in love with her. He opens up to his support team, calling Roy Campbell one of his only friends and having a heart-to-heart with Naomi about family and his relationship to Gray Fox. He genuinely cares for Otacon, and strikes up a powerful friendship with him. By the end of the game, Snake reveals his real name to Meryl (or Otacon, depending on which ending you see), a symbol of his humanity and showing a level of trust and personal closeness that he so far hasn’t let himself achieve. Before the closing credits, Snake says he’s ready for a new life, ready to trust and care for people again. He seems happier, and willing to open himself up to closer relationships and leave the life of a soldier behind.
Does it last? Not really, which is, perhaps the sad point the series makes in this regard. A change in focus and an emphasis on the unreliability of information in Metal Gear Solid 2 means Meryl gets little more than a passing mention. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Meryl tells Snake he “hasn’t changed at all” when he begins referring to himself as “just an old killer” again. He was also never able to leave his life of violence behind; when he begins suffering from accelerated ageing, he wears a high-tech muscle suit that allows him to continue fighting, because it’s still the only thing he knows how to do. Snake has opened up to at least a few people by this time, notably Otacon and Raiden, but overall the years have seemed to make him even more distant and isolated.
It is not difficult to read Snake as having some kind of social condition, or even being a sociopath. Snake says himself that he’s never had any interest in other people’s lives, and he clearly has few, if any, friends besides his generally amicable interactions with former comrades. It is less clear, though, if this is a result of his abilities and past as a killer and mercenary, or if his condition is pre-existing, and it’s that which enables him to be such an effective assassin. Has Snake’s life of constant violence and brutality broken him and caused him to disassociate himself from the rest of humanity? Or does one need to already be broken in the first place in order to so competently engage in such activity? Metal Gear Solid makes no statement either way, but the result is the same. The game asks what kind of man it would take to be such an accomplished and legendary murderer, and provides an answer in the broken-down dog that is Solid Snake.