An old staple of video games (well, older video games), was the high score list. Upon getting a decent high score, you were given the chance to sign your name to it. Upon dying or winning or whatever, others would see your name up there. It was remarkable, really. You could beat a game and for years your name would be there. And while many (most, even) used this as an opportunity to leave swear words and the like (and as you were often only given three characters [presumably for your initials], this forced you to get creative) for your opponents. Seeing “ASS” occupying the top spot wasn’t uncommon.
Older games that were more simplistic and less story-driven often required this; as games became more complex, the focus seemed to shift from the player’s name to the character’s name. So often games ask you for the character’s name. You can default, of course, and pick “LINK” or “RED” or whatever you want, or you can decide that you and the character share the same name; that when Link tools Ganon at the end of A Link to the Past, it is in fact you that tools him. It’s an interesting experience.
Earthbound did something really interesting with this: while you could input different names for all the main characters (or select “Don’t Care!”, which would give you the default name), what was even cooler was a question Tony asked you.
About halfway through the game, Tony phones you and asks for the player’s name. It’s really novel. He is specifically asking for your name. And he double-checks that he got it right more than once. You quickly forget about this odd moment until the end of the game. At the end, everyone is fighting Gigyas and the fight isn’t going well (usually). You get Paula to start praying, and you get short cut-scenes of people all over Eagleland — your friends and so on — praying for you, and it’s pretty touching. Cut between this are instances where a name that is blanked out is praying, eg “Paula and her friends calls touched the heart of *****”. As the turns continue, Gigyas begins taking more and more damage and getting hit by abnormal status effects. More friends pray and the blanked out name gets clearer, turning eventually into the player name. ***** becomes “*a***”, for example, and you eventually read “*a*** prayed for the kids, having never met them before.” Eventually you get something like “James kept praying”, and you defeat Gigyas.
And there is this very weird sensation because 1) you don’t immediately remember giving Earthbound your name, and 2) well, you kind of are praying. Speaking from personal experience, when I play a game and things are right on the wire, I find myself crossing my fingers and hoping that I can pull out all the stops to win. There’s equal parts luck and skill involved. In Earthbound, the last fight is super dicey. Odds are one, if not three, of your party members are dead. What’s worse is that even before reaching Gigyas, you’re informed that there is no way to come back from the fight. You’re turned into robots and it is a suicide mission. But you make that sacrifice. And you find yourself on the raggedy edge, hoping against hope you can win. You’re praying, in the game and out of it. And it is your prayer that defeats Gigyas. It isn’t Ness or Paula or Jeff or Poo that beats Gigyas, it really is the player. It is an incredible and, I think, unparalleled moment in videogame storytelling.
Metal Gear Solid 2’s obsession with names is something slightly comparable, I think. There are moments when names aren’t exactly what they seem, especially in the Plant chapter (there are several moments in the Tanker chapter where names matter [RAY, the La-le-lu-li-lo, Shalashaska, the NGO Philanthropy, to name a few], but none quite as significant). Right from the get-go, we meet Raiden/Jack as “Snake”. Raiden, who admires Snake, took on the name, but Colonel Campbell changes the code-name because the leader of the terrorists is Solid Snake.
Later, we meet the actual Solid Snake, who is going by Iroquois Pliskin, a Navy Seal. The name “Iroquois” has a long and storied history, but is taken to mean, in some part “Snake”. Plissken (pronounced the same way as “Pliskin”) is the last name of Kurt Russell’s character Snake Plisskin from the Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. movies and is, interestingly enough, very similar to Solid Snake (rather, Solid Snake is similar to him). The name, “Iroquois Pliskin”, then, is extremely loaded and does refer to an outside medium and, presumably, one that doesn’t exist in Solid Snake’s actual world. Raiden has his doubts about Pliskin’s true identity, but for the moment all he has is the name. Weird names begin popping up, like when they begin talking about Otacon and so on — ghosts from Shadow Moses.
Later, when the terrorist leader “Solid Snake” confronts Raiden, Pliskin flies into the scene in a Kasatka (not the military version but the civilian, we’re told) and shouts “NO! That is NOT Solid Snake!” and, like any true hero, fires a grenade launcher at the terrorist leader. Raiden learns then that the man in the chopper is in fact Solid Snake, and we learn for realsies that the terrorist leader is Solidus Snake. The two added letters makes him a completely different person. He then jumps on and boards a Harrier jet (Harrier both being a jet and a noun for someone who “engages in attacks on others or incursions into their land”), and hell breaks loose.
The name game continues: Vamp is a vampire, Fortune is “lucky in war and nothing else” (even Fatman is named after a nuke), etcetera. We learn that Solidus used to be George Sears, President of the US during Shadow Moses. No one is really who they seem with all these name changes and shifts. Names signify certain things and serve as deceptions. Vamp isn’t really a vampire (well, he kind of is), and Fortune isn’t really lucky — she just has Ocelot’s “cutting edge technology” (and later, we find out, she really is lucky — or is she!?).
Things reach a head when you’re confronting George Sears / Solidus Snake on top of Federal Hall in New York; “Rosemary” and “Campbell” lay things out for you:
The designations for Metal Gears REX and RAY are both names that were used as nicknames for Japanese fighter planes during WW2 (the Mitsubishi Type 1 Fighter and the Kawanishi N1K1 Kyofu respectively, if this website is at all accurate). Raiden was also the name for a Japanese fighter plane — the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden. It’s nickname was “Jack” — which itself is Raiden’s real name.
Raiden, we’re meant to realise, is a weapon. So often in the game the signifier and the signified match and here it is no different. His name — his very identity — is a weapon’s, and for awhile, that is too much for Raiden to take. And this applies to a lot of characters too: their name describes who and/or what they are. Their names are who they are.
After defeating Solidus, a strange thing happens. Standing in the streets of New York (while countless pedestrians carry on about their day, ignoring the massive machine that’s wedged itself into the Federal Building, or the two men decked out in military gear), Snake notices the dog tags hanging around Raiden’s neck and asks him a question: “by the way, what is that?”
“Dog tags?” Raiden asks, glaring down at them. And we see what’s on them — the player’s name, D.O.B., and country of origin. Way back at the start of the Plant chapter, if you accessed one of the nodes, it asks you for all this information. And there it is, on the screen. The dog tags that Raiden is wearing are in fact your dog tags. Moments before Raiden asked Snake what he should do, and Snake told him to pick a new name and start fresh.
“Anyone you know?” Snake asks Raiden.
“No,” Raiden responds. “Never seen the name before.” And then he pitches the dog tags away.
The moment is interesting and strange. Last month I argued that in MGS2 you and Raiden are pretty much the same person in terms of experience, and this still kind of applies. You both share this heritage and so on, but at this point, at the end of the game, you go your separate ways. It’s really cool because, well, you really are. The next twenty minutes or so are just cut-scene and credits; the game is over, and your role is finished. You’ve gone from spectator-as-actor to just plain old spectator. And that’s really cool. It also forces us into the game, in a way. Raiden’s answer, “never seen the name before,” does also leave some room for doubt. While on the one hand, Raiden’s answer could be more metaphoric than anything else, it could also be taken as being somewhat literal: “James” and Raiden have never met (though I’ve played as him for all these hours), so no, he has never seen the name before. This forces an evaluation on our own part as an actor — even as a voyeur — in this whole damn video game. Raiden says at one point “you can take your simulation and… ! We’re out here, we bleed, we die!” and while his comment is directed at Campbell, we also have to acknowledge that every time we cartwheel off of a pipe down into the water trying to get a stupid AK suppressor that we are really killing Raiden. One of the Snake Tales, External Gazer, toys with this. In that tale, Otacon develops a VR system that’s super-realistic. It turns out that each time it is turned on, it creates a reality and it populates that reality with people from other realities. Every time you kill a guard in the VR, you’re killing an actual guard. It’s cool, and that just seems to be taking the idea from MGS2 several steps forward. For us, it’s a game, but the game is, for Raiden, real life.
Metal Gear Solid 2’s meta-game (like Earthbound’s), is super cool and forces the player to consider their own relation to the character. It widens the room for possible interpretation, and makes the player him/herself an interpretable actor in the course of things. It forces a re-evaluation of what is actually going on, and while it doesn’t go as far as to make us say, culpable in murder or any of the wacky things that happen in these games, it definitely allows for us to explore a game beyond the scope of the game.