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Metal Gear Solid's David Hayter Reflects on the Legacy of Snake

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Wise Member
Aug 25, 2020
This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. June is Icons Month, where we’re profiling iconic video game industry figures, characters, series, and themes.

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In 1998, Metal Gear Solid launched on the PlayStation to massive acclaim. A mechanically unique stealth game with (at the time) cutting-edge visuals, MGS1’s complex cinematic narrative also helped redefine the industry’s approach to storytelling in video games. This is due, in no small part, to its iconic antihero, Solid Snake, and the nuanced performance of the role from voice actor David Hayter.

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Over the next two decades, Hayter would go on to voice Snake - in one incarnation or another - across eight franchise games and a handful of guest appearances, digital comics, and goofy internet videos (and, on more than one occasion, helpful ones, too). We recently sat down with the actor-turned-writer/director to talk about his work on the Metal Gear series, the process of “finding” Snake’s iconic voice, and the impact that the character still has to this day.

What’s At the Heart of Snake

“The key to Snake, for me,” Hayter says, speaking with us over a webcam from his home in southern California, “Was the fact that he had retired, he'd moved to Alaska, he really didn't want to come back, but when it was time to go in, he can't help it himself. He's driven to the right thing. And he's driven to do the right thing beyond the parameters of his orders... and he tries to play it off and he tries to play tough but he just can't help himself.”


He brings up the first meeting of Snake and his eventual lifelong bestie Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, and how despite the scientist’s whole personality boiling down to “anxious nerd,” Snake can’t help but become attached to someone who so clearly needs help, particularly when it’s clear they’ve been betrayed by their own government. The same goes for Meryl, and his compassion even extends to his opponents, who he shows respect for. It eventually becomes his life’s work after the Shadow Moses incident. “This was a guy who had been cast in the role of a super soldier but, at the same time, he was just all heart – and the world kept trying to beat that out of him, but it just couldn't 'cause his heart is enduring. He's gonna risk his life and go toe-to-toe with a walking battle tank to stop nuclear Armageddon because that's just who he is, he can't help it.”

Finding Snake’s Voice

“I auditioned with my voice, which sounded pretty much like this,” Hayter says, speaking in a light baritone that one might recognize across a room as almost Snake. “And then I got the script and I started reading it, and I realized that he had already become a legend as a special forces guy, he had already quit, and retired, and he was bitter,” he says, gradually dropping into the gravelly register that can trigger a flashback to middle-school with a single Colonel! before pitching back to normal. “And I started to feel like my voice was too young for him, too unphased by the world so far because my life has been pretty awesome… I just didn't feel right doing my natural voice, even though it was the voice that got me the part.”

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But while it was his own talent that inevitably landed him the role, there’s apparently some debate as to who, exactly, got him in the door. Hayter says he was asked to audition and that he did, but over the years more than a couple of people have tried to claim credit for finding “The Voice of Snake,” including multiple casting directors and fellow voice actors. But even with all of those potential benefactors, Hayter suspects that it ultimately came down to where so much of Metal Gear (and subsequently, Death Stranding) is born from: Kojima’s fandom. “I don't know this for a fact, but I think that Hideo Kojima knew me from a movie I was in called Guyver: Dark Hero, which was an anime adaptation in '93 and I think he was a fan of that movie and, really, I think that's what got me the part.”

Performing The Two Snakes

Over the course of five games - the four core entries and Peacewalker - players took up the mantle of not just Solid Snake, originally named David, but also his genetic forbear and former commander-turned-nemesis Big Boss, aka John/Jack. While it might have been easy to not bother altering his performance between the two - David is a clone of Jack, after all - Hayter found distinct ways to differentiate the two Snakes.


“For me, it’s really about where everybody is in their lives,” Hayter explains. “‘David Snake’ is a pretty good guy who's been trained to be a soldier and he genuinely cares about people and just feels used by the military, and by the people that have lied to him his whole life. He's very much a tragic figure, whereas, in Metal Gear 3, I felt like Jack was just starting out. You know, he's young, and he's at the height of his powers and he's gonna go out and kick ass and take names and so he's got a lighter kind of [attitude]... And through the course of that game he gets the hell beat out of him and learns some really serious lessons about life, and becomes more disillusioned. So in Peace Walker he's a lot more calculating, a lot less empathic, although he's still feeling the pain of the Boss’ loss.”

The Staying Power of Snake and the "Raiden Controversy"

Hayter thinks the series owes some of its best moments to its willingness to put “the cost of war” front and center for players; it’s unafraid to get properly dark. From the heartwrenching death of Sniper Wolf in the original to the brutal end of Snake Eater - which Hayter considers “possibly the most emotionally devastating and beautiful climaxes to a game” ever - he considers the series’ commitment to focusing on its characters’ humanity (and occasionally the loss thereof) part of its lasting appeal, even from the beginning.

“I knew that it was going to be a big game,” he says of the original. “I knew that Konami and PlayStation were taking a big swing with it; they were showing me cutscenes and I could see how revolutionary it was. I read the script, and, you know… it's ridiculous and [he’s] gravelly and a tough guy, but at the same time I was able to weave in emotional heft to it and real pain into it. And there was a moment when we were recording the first game where I thought, ‘I think people are gonna get really attached to this.’”

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Of course, not every leap of faith in the series has been welcomed warmly by fans. When MGS2: Sons of Liberty released in 2001, plenty of players who had been expecting a full stealth espionage adventure with their favorite hero Solid Snake found themselves controlling the long-haired, waifish Raiden instead. Hayter himself didn’t even know about the swap until he was in the recording booth. “We recorded in order on that one,” he recalls, “So we did the tanker incident first… It was classic Metal Gear, me and Otacon, adventure, adventure, adventure. And then we switched to the Big Shell and suddenly there's this character Raiden and he was being told about the buttons that needed to be used and- and I'm like, ‘Hang on a second, why does he need to use the buttons?!’”

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And, predictably, many fans were upset with the switch. “I kind of felt like that was going to happen,” Hayter admits, adding his own theory about the evolution of Kojima’s new character.

“See my personal theory – I have no reason to believe this is true apart from just instinct – but my personal theory is that Snake is Kojima's creation; he's his interpretation of a classic American action star, whereas I think that Raiden is Kojima. It’s Kojima's personality coming through saying, ‘I can be an action hero too.’ And when people were dismissive of Raiden, you began to see that Snake started to get more and more injured, started to get older, while Raiden became, like, a lightning-fueled electric ninja. I felt like that arc was Kojima's revenge on the audience for the initial backlash. I don't know that, I haven't spoken to him about it.”

On Revisiting the Original

With plenty of rumors and theories about a remake constantly swirling around the internet (despite Konami having killed a fan remake some years back and not discussing any plans of their own), we asked Hayter his thoughts on revisiting the original in 2020. “The first Metal Gear remains one of my favorite games of all time,” he says – adding with a laugh, “I say that objectively, not because I'm in it. I just think the story, the atmosphere, the world of it, the mechanics, I think all of that holds up… I think it definitely should be remastered.”

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But the issue of a full remake may be another story. Hayter admitted that his relationship with Kojima wasn’t particularly friendly even before the role was infamously re-cast for Metal Gear Solid V (#NotMySnake), saying that “[Kojima] wasn't thrilled about me continuing to be Snake,” after Metal Gear Solid 2. Kojima famously made Hayter re-audition for the role in 2004’s Snake Eater after Kurt Russell turned it down, but even so, the voice actor admits the director’s unique sensibilities would be hard to replicate if Konami decided to give Metal Gear Solid a similar treatment to the recent Resident Evil and Final Fantasy remakes.

“Anything that anybody else did would feel different,” he says. “I don't think a studio can pull it off, I think the only way it could be pulled off is if another brilliant game maker came in and put their own stamp on it. Like Jim Cameron doing Aliens after Alien. It's not the same, but it's arguably as good, or a little better or a little worse depending on your feelings about those two movies.

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But he’s also quick to recognize that there’s a rabid fanbase that is extremely loyal to Kojima’s original vision. “I don't know why anybody would want to do that, to take on that abuse that they would receive. You're really climbing up a high hill, trying to outdo Kojima in the world of Metal Gear. So, anybody that would be in a position to do that, I don't think would want to do it. They'd want to do their own game, you know? It's a long way of saying I think it could be done but I don't think it will be done. Or, necessarily, should be done.”

The Best of Both Worlds

Regardless of where Snake eventually ends up, Hayter remains humble and grateful to players for keeping the love for Snake alive and well.

“At this point of my life, I wouldn't want to be famous - like a Harrison Ford or a Tom Cruise or anything - that's what I thought I wanted when I was 20. Now I'm glad it didn't go that way, and yet I get all of the benefit of it because I get so many thousands upon thousands of people around the world who I can make happy just by doing the voice, or I can help inspire them to take on challenges in their life and face them in way that Snake would, or that I would.

“It sounds stupid, but it really touches my heart, and I've been so grateful to see so many people made happy by this character.”

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JR is a Senior Editor at IGN who loves a good walking battle tank and also urges you to donate to the ACLU or NAACPLDF if you're able.

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