‘at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.’ – Albert Camus
“Listen. I’m not exaggerating when I say the success of your mission hinges on how you use that cardboard box” – Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2
On the deck of a huge military tanker, still breathless from a recent gunfight, the greatest spy in the world finds a wet Cardboard Box, folds it up, and slips it into his bottomless pockets. The Metal Gear Solid series spans countless tragedies. This may be the greatest of them all.
Sons of Liberty is a game based on subversion. A middle finger to expectations of heroism, and a clandestine act of fan betrayal on the part of its auteur to rival any twist in the series’ convoluted narrative. What symbol is more fitting for the flimsiness of fame and renown? What greater mascot for the effortless dismantling of a legend than a distortion of his most iconic tool? Forget Raiden. There is no insult to Snake’s memory comparable to a wet Cardboard Box. The box is Snake’s greatest superpower, and without it, the verisimilitude of Metal Gear Solid‘s universe would flatten, and crumble.
The Cardboard Box (which I have chosen to capitalize throughout, and will not be argued with on my decision), is significant not only because of what it represents to us, but what it represents to Snake. Both George Weidman of SuperBunnyhop, and Ashly and Anthony Burch, have wrote on Snake’s near-constant bafflement at his surroundings. Weidman points out Snake’s habit of having “conversations by asking questions within complete sentences”. Anthony Burch writes;
“Moving past the corpse, I see a surveillance camera.
I can tell it is a surveillance camera because it is a surveillance camera.
‘A surveillance camera?’ I say incredulously.
I am Solid Snake. I am the stupidest man in the world”
Snake’s cunning bamboozlement extends to plot revelations, too. You would think, after three games, the Metal Gear mechs would have lost their ability to surprise him. Yet, the franchise’s iconic soundbite (Metal Gear?!) is spoken not with heroic abandon at a confrontation with an old adversary – or knowing exhaustion at sisyphean inevitability – but shock. It’s a special kind of shock though. A tremor that shakes the paintings from the fourth wall but leaves the plaster intact. It’s into these fissures created by an ironic, almost violent dissociation between Metal Gear Solid‘s fiction and paratext, that we find our entry point as players.
As audience, we need Snake’s naivety, just as we need his expertise. He’s a world-weary child. Just gruff and cynical enough that the ease of button presses and emptying bullet cases correlate harmoniously. Just vacant enough to require frequent codec tutorials to explain to him how to do the one thing he’s supposed to be an expert at. It’s a paradox, yes, but where’s the drama in competence? His verbal transcriptions of MGS‘s brash punctuation marks let us know that cool and capable Snake is just enough of an idiot to accept his vulnerabilities.
But how does this man, who becomes stupefied at the sight of basic security measures at a secret military camp, feel about his Cardboard Box? Does the incongruity of his corrugated Trojan horses even occur to him? Let’s ask him…
“So” Natasha inquires, after one hell of a Wikipedia entry “What’s with the box?”
“Oh….nothing” he who exists in perpetual amazement replies, “No big deal”
But they are a big deal. Perhaps, in a universe of burly shamans and nuclear mechs, the biggest deal there is. The boxes are Snake’s superpower. The one item that allows him to transcend the boundaries of his environment and become fully autonomous. Less snake, more postmodern chameleon. One who utilizes the symbols of an industrial age to traverse its spaces unseen.
In a script where realism is stretched to breaking point, where real world organisations like DARPA and the American government are re-purposed as grand conspirators in plots involving cyborg ninjas and psychic warfare, the Cardboard Box remains our most steadfast companion. Our only truly recognizable reference point amidst the insanity of Kojima’s pastiche. Psycho Mantis reads our memory cards and vibrates our controllers. A spectral hand that reaches through the screen, but never manages to get further than objects we have already wholly associated with the game’s fictional space to begin with. Push the action button, Snake. Call Mei Ling to save your game. Mantis’s manipulations are subliminal novelty – the Cardboard Boxes are sublime comedy.
By stretching the limits of how we accept such everyday objects to function, Metal Gear Solid imbues The Cardboard Box with a mundane absurdism to match the magical realism that infiltrates the rest of its universe. They provide Camus’ ‘lucidity’ by acting as the toe we dip into the waters of Kojima’s fiction to test its temperature. Knowing what we know about how this universe deals with the Cardboard Box, we can go on to accept whatever else it might throw our way. For all the lengths Kojima goes to draw attention to the controller, the Cardboard Boxes remain the strongest point of connection between Snake and the player.
Like Camus’ Sisyphus, we must imagine Snake happy. Curled up underneath his soggy, corrugated cube. A wry smile curling just above his stubbled chin as genetically engineered super soldiers search frantically for this fearless master of espionage. The greatest spy who ever was or will be, his pockets stuffed with cigarettes and porno mags like a teenager run wild with a fake ID, giggling to himself in a voice like rusty razor blades. Peeking out at a world that is at once sublime and mundane, realist and ridiculous, from the inside of Cardbox Box.