Raiden is a character for whom conflict seems to be impossible to escape. By the time we meet him for the third time in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, he has already tried to escape it twice; once after the Big Shell incident in which he was thoroughly manipulated to act in the exact manner that Solid Snake before him had on Shadow Moses, and again after the Guns of the Patriots incident in which, after being converted into a cyborg, he was ostracized from civilian life due to his appearance and forced back into conflict. Despite the fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 ends on a positive note, having ended the stranglehold of the Boss’ legacy over the world, Revengeance‘s post-Patriots world has become a much more libertarian dystopia, where in place of one overarching privatised military monopoly is an entire market of competing PMC forces, all vying for the attention of national governments and anyone with enough money. Having fought his whole life, Raiden slips back into conflict under the employment of Maverick Security Counseling, hoping that he can use his abilities for good this time.
While MGS4 was a far more sombre game, dealing with Snake at the end of his life fighting a war he had no choice but to fight, Revengeance is (as the incredible subtitle implies) near-infamously bombastic in the same way that many of PlatinumGames’ other developed titles are. This switch in tone works extremely well in its favor – while MGS4 used Snake to question the legitimacy of heroic war narratives, Revengeance is focused heavily on the question of violence itself in a video-game context. Raiden is specifically a video game hero – in his first appearance in MGS2 his entire purpose was to Do The Same As The Last Guy, he had no real personality to call his own, he was shackled to the control and identity of the player through his nametags. By Revengeance he has a life and a personality but he has to shelf it in order to participate – his son along with his wife, Rose, are delegated to being background characters who never appear, ensured safety in civilian life and kept separate from his duties as a private armed contractor. The only thing at stake is himself and his own body – parallel with the responsibility a player has in progressing the story of a character-focused video game by evading the possibilities of death and defeat.
In his first encounter with his rival Jetstream Sam, Raiden describes his weapon as “a tool of justice” – not an actual sword per se but rather the necessity that he must live with in order to better the world as he sees fit. The problem with this is that, as an employee of Maverick, his ‘justice’ is open to the highest bidder, determined by powers outside his own. Raiden adopts the ideology of his employers, believing that his side is always in the right regardless of what it is he’s actually doing, and that as long as he can prove that he’s the stronger then ‘his’ ideology will always be the right one. This gets reflected in his theme ‘Rules of Nature’ which, as the name and the hook might imply, shows that Raiden sees conflict as a constant in the world and that his only choice is to prove his side as the strongest.
Sam calls him out on his bullshit before he’s even declared it; “Your sword yearns to bathe in the blood of its enemies, but you hold it back!” Since he’s sold out his ‘justice’, the only thing Raiden really fights for is to be the prevailing power. Violence therefore has no purpose – Raiden himself is a tool for someone else’s ideology, but he projects this state downwards onto his sword to feel he has his own conviction. It’s a common theme in the Metal Gear games to characterise soldiers as pawns in a grander scheme that they have no control over, and Revengeance is no exception. Raiden wants to fight for a perceived greater good; Sam wants him to fight for his own values.
Another fault in Raiden’s philosophy is his assumption that people can always choose their employers – something that he, as a former child soldier, is surely more than familiar with, and an illusion that quickly gets shattered for him. In a facility in Mexico he discovers that World Marshal are harvesting the brains of orphans in order to train them into the next generation of armed cyborg soldiers, using VR training to do so (something also used on Raiden in MGS2). This specific discovery, and its proximity to his own experience, pushes Raiden from pursuing World Marshal for the benefit of Maverick to hastily resigning under the guise of ‘protecting the company’ when he starts raiding World Marshal headquarters.
In the courtyard outside the headquarters, Sam taunts Raiden with the terrified voices of his enemies, trying to get a rise out of him and to force him to confront the fact that it’s not only the vulnerable who are exploited in war like children, but consenting adults as well. Raiden tries to shrugs this off – “they’re adults, they made their choice” – but ultimately finds it impossible to reject the fact that he was simply deflecting the truth to make himself feel better (“is your cause just, or is that “just” what you tell yourself?”). With Raiden broken down by this experience, Monsoon gets a free pass to lecture him on the nature of violence, regurgitating Raiden’s own opinions back at him within the oh-so-fucking-annoying language of Dawkins-esque determinism. “Free will is a myth, religion is a joke. We are all pawns, controlled by something greater: memes, the DNA of the soul”. War is a constant and an inevitability, and we’re all ‘infected’ by it eventually. The act of killing is also, itself, a natural thing, and Raiden denying his nature as a killer is only holding him back. Raiden himself believes this all too (or at least, he did), but an important thing to note in this scene is that Sam and Monsoon, despite being on the same side, do not agree with each other.
In fact, Sam getting to give Raiden the first jab with his parlor trick has the opposite effect to what Monsoon wants; before Monsoon’s speech Raiden is able to snap back with “of course they get hurt when you set them up as your human shield!” Suddenly he’s able to see conflict not from the perspective of the soldier with a righteous cause, but as a soldier caught in a much larger game. The pawns are exploited by those above them – conflict isn’t a natural state like Monsoon suggests but a manufactured one. Monsoon’s final line is “you have no choices to make, nothing to answer for. You can die with a clear conscience.” This gets interpreted in two very different ways; for Monsoon, nature is the ruler of humans. For Raiden (and Sam), suddenly confronted with the continuing cruelty of war, it’s other humans that rule them, and the lack of real choice is because it was robbed from them.
Sam is frequently portrayed as being something of the rogue agent within the antagonist group World Marshal. Where most other core members like Sundowner and Monsoon will talk lengthily about their world views, Sam is the only one who keeps his to himself. While we can initially assume he agrees with World Marshal’s plan to restore a constant war economy, there are plenty of moments to suspect the opposite. He rarely seems to be under any orders and has little to no respect for his superiors, more interested in finding Raiden’s true feelings than any plan for world domination. Some of his decisions seem to even set his side back a considerable amount. When preparing to strike Raiden down at the beginning of the game he acts incredibly slowly, almost purposefully so – considering the speed he’s shown so far and the fact his sheath has a gunpowder mechanism that he used it to rapidly cut off Raiden’s arm, such a deliberate action seems incredibly suspect, giving Raiden’s allies plenty of time to catch up and rescue him.
We discover the reason for this in Sam’s dedicated DLC story set two years prior. His mission trajectory heavily mirrors that of Raiden’s – break into World Marshal headquarters, find the leader and exact revenge. Unlike Raiden however, he accomplishes this entirely alone, without any assistance from colleagues or acquaintances. In an early fight against LQ-84i (a generic model Blade Wolf) he reiterates the things he tries to teach to Raiden – “you fight because you’re forced to. I fight because I choose to” – yet outside of this conviction and his desire to take down World Marshal, he has no real long-term goals in mind, only wandering the Earth looking to “dispense justice” to “outlaws and desperados”. Armstrong exploits this weakness by offering Sam employment with World Marshal (of the non-negotiable kind), arguing that they both have many things in common.
Sam’s ultimate failure is that he can’t muster the strength to change the world. In his fight with Armstrong atop World Marshal headquarters he’s able to knock him down, but his opponent doesn’t stay down very long; Sam has his dominant sword arm rendered totally useless when, in cutting Armstrong’s hand off, the Senator uses the stump reinforced by nanomachines as a sharp weapon (he easily reattaches the hand straight after). In failing to prove his own ideology as greater through sheer force alone, Armstrong is able to physically rob the choice away from Sam – he mockingly outstretches a handshake as a sign that Sam is now forced to work for him.
Which brings us to, quite possibly, the most incredible 45 minutes of any video game ever made.
Armstrong’s visual design quickly fills us in on his ideology – his incredibly muscular physique barely contained under an ill-fitting suit, his fighting style dominated by sloppy swings pulling his entire weight around, and the fact he’s literally called Armstrong (hey, it’s a Metal Gear game) all point to the fact he’s all about personal physical strength. He also frequently equates the struggles of the oppressed with his own, framing his own fight as punching up against a higher power and constantly trying to get Raiden to agree with him that since their methods are similar, they must be following the same ideological drive. This is something of a recurring theme in the game, as most of the members of World Marshal will try to compare Raiden’s mission to their own as being of similar purpose. Both sides share the desire to use their own strength to destroy the current world order of PMCs and private warfare, but they diverge greatly with why they want this: Armstrong wants absolute power unfettered by the state and a world governed by the principle of “might makes right”; Sam and Raiden want the world to be rid of people like Armstrong who see ‘weakness’ as something to be destroyed.
Raiden has already fought Armstrong once before, in the form of Solidus. The two are practically only separated by time – they desire a return to American “greatness”, a restoration of liberty and freedom, and are driven heavily by a wish to become historically great (Solidus remarks “Unlike an intron of history, I will be remembered as an exon!”, Armstrong describes his goals as “his new America”). Considering a core theme of Metal Gear Solid is the repetition of historical events, often under controlled circumstances, the return of Solidus’ ideals under a new name are hardly surprising. Likewise, Armstrong’s goals are a repetition of those of Revolver Ocelot’s – Ocelot expressed a desire to return to “the Wild West”, where law and order are maintained not by central powers but by individual soldiers fighting of their own free will. However, where Ocelot truly believed (in a naive and misguided lifelong quest) that it would bring about an equal society as the Boss envisioned, Armstrong is interested in this world largely because it would greatly benefit himself, although his forked-tongue speeches won’t mention this.
If anyone remembers anything about the period after Revengeance‘s release it’s probably the discussion around Armstrong’s character. Around that time there was a contingent of the audience furious that a muscular John Galt figure was being used as the representation of the pinnacle of evil – since then the increasingly vocal and aggressive fascist minority within video games has increasingly tried to publically dominate discourse for their own benefit. In this context, Armstrong has been the subject of continued attempts at rehabilitating his character, from a demonstrably evil and amoral scumbag to a likeminded and honest man with just the wrong idea of how to destroy the current state of Capitalism (or even the right idea depending on who you ask).
This isn’t something unique to Armstrong even within the same series – The JD AI’s extended speech about its plans for the Selection of Societal Sanity, a method of controlling information (as “context”) so that they can discern the truth for the world, has been transformed in the popular discourse from a discussion about the nature of surveillance to a prophecy of the world we exist in now. However, the nuances about the dangers of information control and the ways in which powers exploit their vision of the truth are completely lost, and instead replaced by the idea that JD is simply speaking the truth – in the eyes of many JD’s arguments about the glut of trivial information and the ‘convenience’ of truth (especially in a world where “fake news” has become a right-wing buzzword) are simply correct observations, and again, like with Armstrong, it’s their solution, not their conclusion, thats the incorrect part.
So naturally with this retconning of Armstrong comes the agreement that he that Raiden are, indeed, the same. This is an opinion held by far more people than just those trying to sympathise with Armstrong, and even those who hate him and side with Raiden will often agree (leading to no end of frustration from me personally). This perhaps isn’t helped by the game’s post-credits sequence in which Raiden wearing a suit talks about soldiers “fighting in wars they don’t believe in, for causes they don’t understand”, relaying Armstrong’s dying words after he named Raiden as his successor. However, this short-sighted analysis overlooks the most crucial facet of the story: Raiden’s rivalry with Sam. After all, who was it that taught Raiden to value his own justice in the first place?
Armstrong shatters Raiden’s ‘tool of justice’ early on in their encounter, forcing him to confront Armstrong as not only a physical opponent but an ideological one (with the added symbolism of adjusting Raiden’s position to suit his own, as opposed to his bullshit about ‘common causes’). For Armstrong, Raiden’s ideals aren’t “his own” until they line up with what he himself believes: after his protracted speech he tells him “maybe you should try fighting for what you believe in some time, Jack”. He even co-opts Martin Luther King’s phrase of “I have a dream”, warping it out of context to suit his own vision of an Ayn Rand-ian America.
It’s Blade Wolf, resurfacing along with Sam’s sword, that highlights the true strength of Raiden’s pursuit. If Armstrong’s strength is derived from his own personal ability (or at least the image of it) then Raiden’s strength comes from the fact that while he fights for himself, he isn’t alone in his pursuit. Blade Wolf comes to his aid after having “established new parameters […] created my own directives”, and Sam posthumously relinquishing his blade to Raiden to help him shows that while he may fight on his own terms, his strength derives from fighting for others rather than for himself. Following his fight with Monsoon Raiden declares that, with regards to being trapped in constant conflict, “I don’t want this for anyone else”. Raiden is shouldering the burden for others, not simply looking to establish his own dominance as Armstrong does.
This collective strength is what Sam lacked when he lost to Armstrong two years prior. Trying to fight the powerful at their own game, in the language of individualism and lone power, is a losing game. The power has already been accumulated through inheritance; no matter how much of it you try to obtain in order to destroy it, a lone effort is impossible. Armstrong’s strength derives very literally from wealth, as he’s composed primarily of incredibly complex nanomachines. Raiden’s is from his allies – considering he could only arrive in the Pakistani air base with the help of Sunny, or that he could only defeat Armstrong if Blade Wolf and Sam helped, he is the antithesis of Armstrong’s ideology.
It seems odd then that Sam would choose to fight Raiden on the road out of Denver – if both sides are in agreement, then why not help him and take down Armstrong together? But this is the crucial moment for Raiden’s character, and the threshold he must cross to become a better person. If Sam has already been teaching Raiden at a distance then this is the final test – putting his own life on the line to affirm his ideals; Raiden beating him would be proof that it was all worthwhile to him, raising him up and beyond his own level to accomplish the task he never could. He never reveals his intentions – to do so would be to undermine his lesson that one should fight for what they believe in – and to the end he’s a mystery, as his wound reveals “no cybernetic enhancements”. The most important thing to him is that he’s at peace knowing Raiden believes something.
Anger and revenge are deeply personal motivators for justice, which under Raiden’s old philosophy would be selfish and at odds with the one he was pursuing – but he comes to learn that personal political motivation is what defines justice in the first place. Justice itself can mean very different things depending on your outlook: you could be an egotistical scumbag, hellbent on personal gain and on changing the entire world to fit your standards like Armstrong, or you could fight for the oppressed and downtrodden in society, reject the individual as a system of singular dominance over others and instead believe in a world where people choose to use their own strength to support each other first and foremost. As Raiden takes Sam’s place in fighting Armstrong, he chooses to fight for someone – not because his bosses or his country told him to, but because he truly believes its the right thing to do. And it’s with Sam’s sword that he’ll achieve this, replacing his ‘tool of justice’ with an actual weapon and making the fight a personal matter.
The world doesn’t change with this one act – individual action can achieve nothing on a global scale. PMCs keep fighting private wars, soldiers remain alienated, Capitalism continues to oppress the oppressed. Someone buys out World Marshal and they keep on spinning. So what if those soldiers, those workers and oppressed, stopped fighting for others or for themselves, but each other?
We could all benefit to learn something from Jetstream Sam. Shine on, you beautiful Brazilian bastard.