The Metal Gear video game series is famous for both its experimental, genre-breaking gameplay as well as its rich, complex cast of characters. Series creator Hideo Kojima is well known as an avant-garde game designer, and while not all of his ideas have worked perfectly, perhaps the most effective, and by far the freakiest, combination of character and game-breaking idea was Psycho Mantis.
Psycho Mantis is, as his name implies, an extremely powerful psychic, skilled in telepathy, telekinesis, mind control, and even a bit of prophecy. The uses to which he puts these in the game are quite disturbing, especially in a setting generally devoid of supernatural powers (though I swear Liquid Snake was immortal!). Still, just having a villain who uses psionics in a video game is not innately creepy. As a player of video games, I’m used to seeing far stranger sights than a guy flinging cabinets around with his mind, so obviously it doesn’t stop there. No, Psycho Mantis doesn’t just use his psychic powers to mess with Solid Snake; instead, he uses them to mess with the player. He tells the player at one point to put their controller down (yes, he can break the 4th wall!), at which point he causes it to vibrate. He also makes comments on the way the player has gone about the game, describing them as careless or cautious, bloodthirsty or pacifistic, even commenting on how often they save their game, depending what choices have been made up to that point. Even more bizarre, he can detect other video games on the memory card, and point out that the player likes them. I remember playing Metal Gear Solid for the first time and being extremely freaked out by this. When he finally confronts Snake in battle, under normal circumstances he cannot be hit, because he detects what movements are being made on the controller. The only way to beat him is to switch controller ports, which drives him mad with frustration. Once a player learns this secret, Mantis isn’t a huge threat, but up to that point, he’s unstoppable and absolutely terrifying.
Like most villains in the Metal Gear series, Psycho Mantis tells his life story as he lays dying. More than anything, the powers that make him so formidable are his curse. He wears his trademark gas mask because it helps to filter out the endless flood of human thoughts which pour unbidden into his head. His whole life, he has heard the thoughts of everyone around him, and it drove him to a severe sense of nihilism and hatred for humanity. Given what passes through the heads of most people in a given day, this is probably understandable. In particular, he despises the biological imperative humans have for procreating and passing on their DNA, which he describes as being omnipresent in their thoughts. Indeed, he joined up with boss villain Liquid Snake not out of a sense of idealism, but because he wanted to kill as many humans as possible. It’s ironic that such a horrible motivation can become oddly sympathetic in the character of Psycho Mantis. He was a monster, to be sure, but a monster made, not born. In his last moments, Solid Snake takes pity on him, and allows him to die with his mask on, so he can at least enjoy some silence before the end. In return, Mantis does Snake a favor, allowing him to pass into another portion of the base. He tells Snake it is the first time he has used his powers to genuinely help another person, and that it felt nice to do so. This leaves us to wonder what he could have been if not for his tragic life.
While we tend to be desensitized to them as a result of constant exposure in various genres and media, psychic powers, were they real, would have almost endlessly frightening implications. Most people take some solace in the fact that the mind is the one place where they can be truly safe and free, and where no one besides them can go. Most of us have thoughts we would never want others to hear, and selfish urges we (hopefully) never act upon. We also value our free will. If, however, someone else can traverse our minds more easily than we can traverse a neighbor’s lawn, and strip us of that will with minimal effort, there is truly no safe place for any of us. Psycho Mantis represents the double-edged sword of such power. It’s true that no one is safe from him, but likewise he is safe from no one. Everyone else’s thoughts are daggers in his own mind. While this might seem to be punishment enough, Mantis has the power and the hatred to use his formidable abilities against everyone, and if he could have, he would have murdered every person on the planet just for the peace and silence it would bring him.