Robot dogs and sombreros: decoding Metal Gear Rising’s stance on determinism

I’m on that part. You know – that part. The bit with the red-energy thing that happens to the person with the robot body. The bit that, even by the so-solid standards of its husky-voiced, hand-haunting, cigarette-smoking brethren, is a few transistors short of a microchip.

Yeah – that part.

But if we neatly slice away the weird, this particular scene invites one to splurge about the nature of determinism and freewill.

Incomprehensible splurge program initiating. 

Namely, whether or not those being killed by the the killer – the seminal ninja-pirate-cyborg hero – have a choice. Or, if any of us really have a choice.

Incomprehensible splurge program activated.

Early on in its robot-ridden narrative, Metal Gear Rising’s protagonist offers a simple, straight-forward perspective: killing is fine and dandy – as long as we’re killing the bad guys. Or, perhaps more aptly, those in service to the bad guys – the henchmen, the goons, the flying monkeys. Ergo, people who do harm to others deserve harm done to them. A robotic eye for a robotic eye.

But this stance isn’t particularly unique to Platinum’s efforts. Countless games and movies present this as their de facto moral position without question. We give a free, blood-drenched pass to the handsome, wise-cracking hero armed to the teeth and downing faceless goons like a drunk in a bowling alley.

Raiden’s stance is later challenged as he develops the ability to hear the goon army’s thoughts. People who, as their mental constructs suggest, merely want to earn a living and support their families. Men who’ve gone through hell to a land a gig going toe-to-toe with one of the deadliest dudes in the world. Men who internally profess profound regret at their decision, as Raiden chops their bits’ bits into bits.

At this point, Rising’s narrative is seemingly non-committal as the point it’s actually trying to make. Raiden is a child soldier who was raised to kill, the goons are men trying to earn a living in whatever way they can, and the artificial intelligence is programmed to obey orders – all could be seen as representations of determinism.

AI are dictated by programming; human beings are driven by DNA – the computer code of biology.

Rising, then, paints a bleak picture: all of us, human or machine, hero or flying monkey, don’t have a choice. It’s all a bit of a wash, then. What happens, happens.

What’s more, Raiden’s mind-reading revelation prompts a momentary glitch and quickly serves to revive his true nature – Jack, the child soldier. So, like the talking robot dog and the flying monkeys, Jack is merely a victim of tragic circumstance, his actions determined by previous events. A theme not-so-suitably represented by a cast of characters who blur the line between man and machine, ultimately suggesting that they are one in the same. At least on a behavioural level.

Sam Harris has spoken about the illusion of free will at great length. His argument in a nutshell: that on the spectrum of biology to circumstance, little-to-no room is left for free will. His point made clear by this: is it any surprise that the son of a dictator grows up to become a monster himself? Did such a man, once a malleable young boy, choose to be his father’s son?

This topic, Harris argues, will be as divisive as creationism and evolution once thrust into the public consciousness.

But Sam Harris seemingly rebuts Rising’s apparent stance: that it’s all a bit of a wash. Instead, the author presents a powerful argument that, despite the deck of determinism seemingly stacked against us, we should still try to change. Simply put: it matters that we attempt to modify our programming, because our programming can be changed.

A problem is still a problem, regardless of its cause.

In Rising, though, this idea is ultimately presented through its Big Bad Cyborg. But moments after presenting this point, Raiden’s regression into Jack the Killer – the soldier he was programmed to be – returns in full force, mercilessly slaughtering men who just wanted to pay the bills. Ergo, Mr. Villain was right.

The game presents a side dish to this, though. A crux of Rising’s narrative is that homeless children are kidnapped and transformed weapons. Raiden argues that the cyborg-flying-monkey-goon army chose those modifications, they chose their paths. Their subsequent deaths at the hands of Raiden, then, is an inevitable consequence of their choice.

A choice that, the antagonist argues, isn’t really a choice at all.

There’s an alternative, though. Is the antagonist talking to the player, too? We enjoy killing – and like, Jack, still do despite the mind-reading revelation. Ultimately, we can stop. We can put down the controller. Circumstance doesn’t require that we play Metal Gear Rising to survive. Perhaps, then, Mr. Villain is pointing the finger at me, at you – at us, the players.

It could be argued that levels of determinism exist in degrees. The goon squad could have chosen to simply not go to war – they could’ve found other ways to survive. The children, taken and assimilated by force, were effectively ‘more pre-determined’. They literally could not choose, as they were effectively born into homelessness.

Incomprehensible splurge program shutdown initiated.

Decoding a game about a sombrero-wearing-cyborg-pirate ninja’s stance on determinism isn’t easy. Naturally, I’m inclined to believe the protagonist’s view is one the game seeks to represent as being correct. It’s attached the hero, the saviour. “I had a choice,” Raiden cries, faced with a room full of cyborg children in training. This is despite admitting moments earlier he wants to save the children from a similar fate as his, a chain of events which led to becoming a cyborg himself.

Headaches inbound.

This invites the conclusion that Raiden in fact didn’t have a choice. A chain of events beyond his control pre-disposed him making to the decision to become not-quite-human, both mentally and physically.

But it’s only in later that scenes that Rising admits that the full breadth of the topic is perhaps beyond its narrative scope – as it is my ability to convey its seemingly endless complexity. Robot Dog admits it’s all a wash, arguing that morality is essentially a differing of view points. A point, I’m sure, Sam Harris would disagree with.

But Robot Dog also clarifies Metal Gear Rising’s stance, as he goes on to define his own path in spite of his programming. Not unlike Jack, who, despite being a merciless killer, seemingly chose to wield his pre-determined tendencies to achieve what he determines to be positive objectives.

In other words, it could be said that Metal Gear Rising – not unlike Sam Harris – fundamentally argues that it’s not about where you start, it’s about where you end up.

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