“All these thoughts…I’d rather not think anymore.”- A man’s final thoughts just before he jumps willingly to his death in Wings of Desire.
“Goddamn IED took my legs! I needed a job.”- The thoughts of a cyborg cop fighting a losing battle against Raiden in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a maximalist, hyperviolent and absurd power trip through a near-future of cyborgs, augments, cyborg ninjas, America still being a failed state, and more. It is brilliant and weird and endlessly enjoyable, it is a Platinum Games game after all. But under all of that viscera and weird humor, there lies an angry but contemplative beating heart. I could go on and on about this game, but instead of doing an essay on the game and its themes as a whole, I’ve chosen to hone in on one moment.
The moment in question is when Raiden listens to the thoughts of the people he has been cutting down with his cyber ninja blade for the past four-or-so hours. Raiden has fought his way into and through Detroit as he makes his way to an evil corporation’s building—it is America after all—and one of the game’s main villains, Jetstream Sam, (though it is more complicated than that) projects himself onto digital billboards. He goads and taunts Raiden as the cyber ninja walks through the city. They discuss why they fight, the trauma that somehow absolves them of the pain they inflict, and finally, Jetstream Sam tells Raiden to listen. Confused, Raiden yells back that he has already been through enough, that his enemies chose their way of life (which, honestly, is true) and therefore their deaths are their own.
Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) is a German film about two angels in a still-split Berlin who, in their own ways, yearn to be human and tangible rather than holy and ethereal. They float across the city, above rooftops, and through alleyways listening, always listening. People think about their commutes, about love, pain, regret—the entire human spectrum of emotion is all around the angels. They soak it in, try to relieve pain and sadness when and how they can, but mainly…they just listen.
Raiden eventually gives into Jetstream Sam’s taunts and listens to the cyborg PMCs that have circled in on him, weapons drawn. These PMCs speak aloud to Raiden with words of threatening intent, “Come on!” or “Let’s do this!”, but behind those threats their minds reel and speak their own truths. One man begs God to not let him die. Another is staggered at the violence he has seen Raiden leave in his week. One of them thinks about his wife and child’s death and how this job is all he has left. And still, another one thinks about how unfair the fight is after he and Raiden’s weapons meet.
One of the angels in Wings of Desire, Cassiel (played with subtle grace by Otto Sander) listens as a man comes to terms with killing himself. Earlier, Cassiel listened to an old man think about the loss of stories and storytellers. But every thought is a story, one only Cassiel, in those moments, can hear. The man on the ledge thinks about meaninglessness in life and about how funny the onlookers begging him to not jump look, but he jumps anyway. Cassiel knows and absorbs the narrative of this man’s final moments, and his death makes Cassiel howl in anguish. From there it is almost like Cassiel relives every story he holds close about trauma and violence and death and the ugliness of humanity. It is his burden to carry.
Raiden becomes overwhelmed by the thoughts of the PMC soldiers around him. He no longer sees his fight as a clean and just one. The moral ambiguities of life and conflict have finally caught up to him. Like Cassiel, Raiden hears all of these thoughts and stories. They too become his burden to carry. But Raiden is no omnipotent angel, the harrowing and sad thoughts of these soldiers are often brought on by Raiden’s sword and the violence he does. He is not a third-party that observes this pitiful sadness and cruelty from a reserved distance. Raiden’s feet are on the ground and his hands are slick with blood. The burden and the emotional hurricane that he has found himself at the center of becomes too much for him to carry. Raiden stops fighting. The PMCs beat the shit out of him. Jetstream Sam watches from his projected billboard screen.
The angels in Wings of Desire are infatuated by humanity and Cassiel’s angel partner, Damiel (played by the interminably brilliant Bruno Ganz), longs to become human. He wants to feel something. Whatever Earthly object an angel touch has no weight, they have no weight, and they just are. Damiel longs to be. Raiden is and in the moment of listening to his foes' thoughts, he no longer wishes to be. It is all too much for him. But Raiden is still human, if only barely, and he has no clear path to God or holiness or religion or anything of the sort. So what does Raiden do? He eventually stops listening and gets back to killing. But we, the player(s), have already heard. We cannot unhear—and while getting into the moral justifications of the doing of violence in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a circular and boring argument—so we always have that itching feeling in the back of our minds about who we are killing. We know what we are killing in the ideological sense—America, itself, really. And that is a good thing. The game (and what we bring to it as humans who experience America on a daily basis) makes that abundantly clear. It is who we are killing on the way to the what that is meant to possibly give us pause.
Damiel eventually becomes human and starts to feel, to touch, to hear, and to love. These sensations are all new and overwhelming to him. He is blissful. Raiden eventually taps into his true self, as well. Ripper Mode. Click in both thumbsticks and for a short amount of time Raiden will become an enraged, glowing red flurry of slices and stabs. Raiden’s true form is absolute violence—a human made into nothing more than an action. Damiel’s true form is based in physical sensations—an angel made into a human just by the desire to feel and to love. They both listened to others’ thoughts and they chose to stop listening for different (and simple) reasons. Damiel wants to feel. Raiden wants to feel nothing at all, he does not want any moral friction in what he does, and so he chooses to feel nothing at all when a sword is in his hand; no matter what he might say.