Having struck pay dirt with the influential Metal Gear Solid and it’s subversive sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, video game auteur Hideo Kojima took a huge chance with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. If you really think about it, MGS3 had every opportunity to fall flat on its face upon release. It was a follow up to two of the best video games ever made, and it was refining — or outright changing — almost everything about it. Gone were the tight steel corridors in exchange for a more open jungle setting. The time period of the series went from the not-so-distant future back to the pinnacle of the Cold War in the 1960’s. Instead of following up on Sons of Liberty’s big reveal that a shadow agency known as ‘The Patriots’ (or La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo to us mere mortals) has been pulling the strings with every major conflict over the past half century, Kojima decided to go back in time and have the player experience the sequence of events that made the entire series possible.
The final product became what many consider to be the crown jewel of the MGS series. Whether it be its elaborate story, open-ended boss fights, survival elements, or it’s legendary soundtrack, Snake Eater was head and shoulders better than its peers (and predecessors). Furthermore, it has an incredibly layered ending that induces head scratching just as much it does illumination. Throughout the ending and all of its poignant reveals, Snake Eater is sure to illicit a strong emotional response as you unpack a narrative riddled with heroism, self-sacrifice, and disillusionment.
But before we take a deep dive into MGS3’s convoluted ending, it’s important that we describe exactly how we got here to begin with. Spoilers are ahead. And if you haven’t had the chance to experience this groundbreaking game for yourself already, now would be the best time for you to close your browser and get on that. You’ve been warned.
The year is 1964 and tension between the USA and the Soviet Union is heating up. The Cold War between the world’s two most prominent nuclear powers is in full gear and in turn, treason and defection is rampant. A former Soviet scientist by the name of Nikolai Sokolov is being held captive by the KGB in Tselinoyarsk two years after he formally defected to the United States and the CIA has tasked FOX operative Naked Snake with a black op to end all black ops: retrieve Sokolov from behind enemy lines in an effort dubbed the Virtuous Mission.
But the CIA and KGB aren’t the only forces vying for Sokolov’s scientific services. Another Soviet faction, the GRU, are also attempting to retrieve the defector. Turns out, Sokolov has developed plans for a walking tank with nuclear capabilities, known as the ‘Shagohod.’ And any nation with access to such a weapon will immediately gain the upper hand in the world’s arms race.
While breaking Sokolov out of KGB custody, Snake encounters a young Revolver Ocelot, known at this time as Major Ocelot of the GRU, who is the leader of a Spetsnaz spec ops group called the Ocelot Unit. Ocelot easily dispatches of the KGB forces guarding Sokolov with some nifty tricks that even the most seasoned firearms users wouldn’t dare try to pull off. But the young gunslinger and his unit are no match for Snake and his advanced knowledge of close quarters combat.
But Snake isn’t out of the woods (pun only slightly intended) just yet.
Having almost led Sokolov to the rendezvous point where they are to be extracted via the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, Snake comes face-to-face with The Boss, a legendary US soldier and Snake’s mentor, on a draw bridge. She reveals to Snake that she and the Cobra Unit — a group of eccentric soldiers with supernatural powers led by The Boss — is defecting to the Soviet Union and as a sign of good faith, she is providing Colonel Volgin, the GRU leader, with Sokolov and an M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear missile to assist him in overthrowing Nikita Khrushchev. Heartbroken and shocked beyond belief, Snake is overpowered by his former mentor and left to die. To make matters worse, a bloodthirsty Volgin fires one of the Davy Crockett missiles at Sokolov’s research facility to frame the U.S. and stoke the flames between them and the Soviet Union.
A week passes and in the time between, Volgin has pushed the development of the Shagohod into full gear. President Lyndon B. Johnson has been contacted by Khrushchev and, in order to prevent all-out war, has denied any U.S. involvement in the nuclear attack on Sokolov’s research facility, blaming the entire ordeal on The Boss and her defection. In order to absolve the U.S. of any responsibility, Johnson agrees to kill The Boss and disrupt anything and everything having to do with the Shagohod’s development.
Despite still recovering both physically and emotionally from the fallout of the Virtuous Mission’s failure, Snake is assigned the task of killing his mentor and eliminating the looming threat of the Shagohod in a mission codenamed Operation Snake Eater. And only moments after touching back down in Tselinoyarsk, Snake again encounter The Boss. After some light hand-to-hand combat in which Snake is again handily defeated, Boss gives her protégé one last warning to leave and go home. But like any good dealer of death, Snake continues on his mission.
During Operation Snake Eater, the player embarks upon a journey that takes numerous twists and turns. Despite being instructed to engage with ADAM — one of two American whistleblowers who defected to the Soviet Union in 1960 — in order to develop an escape route upon the mission’s completion, Snake instead is greeted by ADAM’s alleged KGB cohort EVA. Having infiltrated the Spetsnaz’s ranks while posing as Sokolov’s captive wife and Volgin’s unwitting servant, EVA agrees to continuously provide information regarding Groznyj Grad, the base where Sokolov and his research team are being forced to develop the Shagohod.
Snake also encounters several iconic boss battles with Boss’ Cobra Unit which include a breakneck paced fight with The Fear— a soldier well versed in psychological warfare and has an affinity for poison — and a grueling game of cat-and-mouse with an aging sniper known as The End, among others. What makes all of these boss fights so special and iconic is the multitude of ways the player can approach them. Instead of The Fear only being a bullet sponge and absorbing copious amounts of damage, the player can instead take a completely non-lethal route by attacking him with tranquilizer rounds or poisoning him. And if a long battle of attrition with The End isn’t exactly your style, you can save your game, fast-forward your time settings on your console by a few weeks, and return to the game only to find out that The End has literally died of old age.
Enemy soldiers and nightmarish bosses aren’t the only dangers in the Soviet forests, though. Due to Snake not being able carry all that much equipment with him upon arrival, Snake Eater places an emphasis on a survival element that includes Snake needing to hunt wild animals for food and tending to wounds sustained in battle to keep his health and stamina levels at peak conditions. And don’t think that these animals will go quietly into the void, either. Some wildlife, most notably snakes and alligators, will fight back to severe effect if one isn’t paying attention to their surroundings.
On top of all of that, MGS’s iconic stealth mechanics take center stage with an all-new camouflage system that requires you to fit Snake with the most appropriate set of fatigues and face paint to match the surrounding terrain; terrain that is constantly changing over the various stages of the game.
Towards the latter stages of Snake Eater, the deeper conspiracy about Snake’s mission begin to be revealed. Not only does Volgin have a near-completed Shagohod, he also possesses a microfilm that contains the Philosophers’ Legacy, a slush fund worth $100 billion (equivalent to over $1 trillion today when adjusted for inflation) that was cached by a secret collective called ‘The Philosophers’ towards the end of World War II. Such immense wealth and the possession of such is key to who controls the power in the war economy. After finding EVA attempting to steal the Legacy in the underground bunker of Groznyj Grad, Volgin hands the microfilm to Boss for safekeeping.
Eventually, after hours upon hours of buildup, you kill Volgin and destroy the Shagohod. But the biggest goal of Operation Snake Eater remains to be done — killing The Boss.
After escorting a wounded EVA through the jungle, Snake has a final showdown with The Boss in a beautiful field laden with white roses. His former mentor goes on a monologue explaining the motives behind her defection, among them being her involvement with a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba under the guise of bringing Cuban exiles back to the country — instead of defending the exiles, U.S. forces were forced sit back and idly watch as the Cuban government murdered them. The final straw before Boss’ defection came when she was ordered by the Philosophers to murder The Sorrow, a former member of her Cobra Unit and father to her only child.
After her lengthy monologue, The Boss thanks Snake for listening.
I raised you, and loved you, I’ve given you weapons, taught you techniques, endowed you with knowledge. There’s nothing more for me to give you. All that’s left for you to take is my life… by your own hand. One must die and one must live.
Snake and Boss have one final showdown in what is by far the most impactful, emotional, and difficult part of the game. Of course, after several re-do’s, the player eventually defeats Boss. In her defeat, Boss gives Snake the microfilm for the Philosophers’ Legacy and orders him to finish her. In a player-controlled moment, Snake solemnly kills Boss with her own weapon as the white roses in the field gradually turn to red.
Snake leaves enemy territory on a WIG vehicle with EVA, but not before having one last duel with Ocelot that involves choosing between two revolver pistols— one that has a round in the cylinder and another that does not. Regardless of the outcome of the duel, neither is killed. They respectfully part ways with Snake and EVA headed back to friendly soil in Alaska. The two’s romantic tension boils over and becomes a full-blown affair and Snake is due to receive a medal for his heroism from the Director of the CIA and President Johnson himself. The pieces are all set for one big happy ending.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for Snake in this adventure.
In Snake Eater’s epilogue, EVA reveals to Snake that she was never part of the KGB nor was she a former United States whistleblower. She was actually working as an operative for China in an effort to steal the Philosophers’ Legacy and data on the Shagohod to assist them in keeping up in the arms race. EVA also reveals that she herself in an agent of the Philosophers and that she received her training by going to one of their “charm schools.” EVA is shown stealing the microfilm.
EVA had everyone fooled. All except for one person: The Boss, who one of her instructors at these Philosopher schools. Due to Boss’ leverage over EVA, she in turn revealed her true nature of defecting. It was actually an elaborate mission sanctioned by the U.S. government to obtain the Legacy. In order to facilitate this, Boss have to feign treason and get close to Volgin.
But plans took a turn for the worse when, against all logic, Volgin fired the American-made nuke Boss gave him on Soviet soil and created the threat of an international conflict. From there, the United States had to call an audible. While Boss’ plans to obtain the legacy remained intact, she also had to die at Snake’s hand as a scapegoat for Volgin’s crimes. To make matters even sadder, Boss understood this and accepted it. The Boss didn’t betray the United States. She sacrificed everything for the United States and was willing to be a historical pariah to do so.
The condition for Boss telling EVA her ultimate purpose was to request one thing — despite being ordered to kill anyone and everyone who knew the status of the Legacy, she must spare Snake in the end.
As EVA continues to lay out the conspiracy through narration, a cutscene is shown of a disillusioned and demoralized Snake receiving the Distinguished Service Cross medal from President Johnson, with the latter calling Snake a “true patriot” before bestowing upon him the title of Big Boss, the most legendary of any living soldier and a name that would become legendary throughout the MGS universe; he is the “father” of both Solid and Liquid Snake, both of whom are clones of Big Boss.
But Snake Eater has one last emotional gut punch for the player to endure. In the game’s final scene, Big Boss visits the original Boss’ unmarked grave. With him is her weapon and a bouquet of white roses. Big Boss lays the weapon and the flowers against her headstone as EVA finishes her narration.
“Snake, history will ever know what she did. No one will ever learn the truth. Her story… her debriefing, will endure only in your heart. Everything she did, she did for her country. She sacrificed her life and honor for her native land. She was a real hero. She was a true patriot.”
Big Boss salutes his mentor’s grave as tears roll down his face. The screen cuts to black.
But wait! There’s more!
In a post-credits scene, Ocelot is heard on the phone talking to a KGB Chief Officer, explaining to them that Khrushchev is “finished” and that the wiping out of Sokolov’s facility was a necessary evil in order for their faction to take full control of the nation. Ocelot assures the Chief Officer that their knowledge of the CIA’s operation and the details surrounding it could be used as blackmail against the United States in the future.
But to further muddy the waters, Ocelot then calls the CIA Director to confirm that The Boss had accomplished her mission and that half of the Legacy is now in America’s hands with the other half presumably in the possession of the KGB. Apparently, the microfilm EVA stole was actually a fake. He also reveals that the destruction of Sokolov’s research facility was actually a strategic move by the United States after all. Ocelot assures the Director that he will continue to keep tabs on the KGB’s further activities and also provides himwith blueprints for what would ultimately become the Metal Gear weapons the series is synonymous with.
Surprise! Ocelot is a triple-agent working for the United States government.
While it can be confusing and convoluted to many, MGS3’s ending hits all the right notes for those who are paying attention and invested in the series’ arc. Not only does it hit you right in the feels with the reveal that The Boss was actually a self-sacrificing patriot, but it also drives home the lonely and non-rewarding life soldiers of Big Boss’ ilk are forced to endure. The Boss sacrificed everything she had to give in order to, in her mind, keep her native land safe. And the world will never remember her for it. At least, not in that light.
It sets forth Big Boss’ mission to provide a safe and hospitable world for soldiers who aren’t satisfied with fighting proxy battles for other nations and the faulty ideologies that often come with them, which in turn inspires a series of events — such as the creation of the Patriots and Big Boss’ cloning — that destabilize the very fabric of the universe it’s set in. Without this collision course of betrayal, omittance, and heartbreak, Solid Snake — the hero we typically play as — is never born and the war economy never becomes the world’s most profitable venture as it’s shown to be when we finally return to the present-day timeline in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
If you’ve experienced this ending firsthand, it’s most likely that it’s stuck with you as a gamer and is the standard by which you compare every other game’s ending. And if you haven’t experienced the final hour of Snake Eater, you missed out big time.