The Metal Gear Solid series is a well-loved series for a reason. Every entry has defied expectations in multiple different ways. Metal Gear Solid was one of the first games to have a true “cinematic” story. MGS 2 had a postmodern story that broke the fourth wall in multiple ways. The third entry was a straightforward story about the difference between friends and enemies in wartime. Metal Gear Solid 4 tied up several perceived loose ends that were never meant to be tied up. Each of these games has their defenders and those that think that each entry was the one that exposed series creator Hideo Kojima as the hack writer he is.
The latest numbered entry into the series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, doesn’t seem to have the same number of defenders as the rest of the series due to a perceived incomplete development cycle and a story that didn’t quite live up to the previous entries in the series. Thinking The Phantom Pain is incomplete though is a knee-jerk reaction to a game that is trying something new. Whether MGS V is successful at its goals is left up to the individual player, however.
[ED NOTE]: I know it goes without saying, but full spoilers for all Metal Gear games will be discussed. Reader discretion is advised if spoiler adverse.
A Straightforward Story?
The pre-release of any Metal Gear Solid game since MGS 2: Sons of Liberty has been a time of rampant speculation for fans of the series. Sons of Liberty had a twist that was so well hidden from the audience, each of the other games has had the expectation to have the same level of twist. It is a thrill that fans love and helps to pass the long wait between entries. For The Phantom Pain, much of the intrigue ended being rather straightforward.
The story was known in the broadest strokes not long after the prologue entry Ground Zeroes was released. It was speculated that the player character was not the Big Boss that players were expecting, but a body double. The characters that were speculated were anything from Grey Fox (who had previously only been a character in the semi-canonical Portable Ops) to a version of Decoy Octopus (whose earliest entry in the timeline had been the original Metal Gear Solid). By the end of the story, players were told that the medic from Ground Zeroes who tried to remove explosives from inside Paz (a character from Peace Walker) was unable to, resulting in the destruction of the helicopter that was carrying Big Boss and Kaz Miller.
This twist was handled in an awkward way, forcing players to play an extended version of the tutorial from the beginning hour of the game. Being forced to replay the tutorial after up to 80 hours of gameplay (complete with tutorial prompts, strangely) was a strange decision. It seemed as if time had run out and needing an ending, Kojima just used what was already finished to show the twist he wanted to convey.
Phantom Limb Syndrome
The title of the game, The Phantom Pain, is not coincidental. Phantom Limb Syndrome is a condition befalling an amputee patient where the amputated limb hurts. It’s a psychological condition where the limb still seems to be attached to the body thanks to being used to having said limb. For players, the typical twists and turns in a Metal Gear Solid game is a limb in the expected experience. The pain that is felt by its absence is akin to Phantom Limb Syndrome.
The expected story of a Metal Gear Solid game is as follows: a lone spy is sent into an impossible mission with just his wits, uncovering a vast conspiracy (involving nuclear weapons – a major motif of the series). Along the way, the player character interacts with a group of bosses who are fleshed out characters, giving the world a lived-in quality and gives players a reason to continue. Each of these stories has two levels, the textual and the subtextual, allowing an analysis still rare in the gaming community.
Players expecting the story of The Phantom Pain to follow the same format would be disappointed after completion. The first three-quarters of the game would at least have an antagonist, albeit a flat, uninspired character only existing to continue stringing players along through the sandbox the game had created. The interesting bosses from the previous entries were replaced with the “Skulls,” a group of modified enemies that were tougher to kill but were just as defined as the typical enemies the player encountered in most missions. The lived-in quality of the previous games had been replaced with an empty open world for players to explore. All of these things are well-known facets of modern games, but out of place in a Metal Gear Solid game.
Modern Game Design and Metal Gear Solid V
The influence of the typical AAA game design in Metal Gear Solid V is apparent. Based on the history of Hideo Kojima, this influence is intentional. This generation of consoles more than any other has had a fascination with the way a game looks and performs, but not the content of the game. Many games are large, beautiful open worlds with a “to-do” list of boring chores to do. Metal Gear Solid V eschews the traditional series objectives of “rescue the president” or “stop Metal Gear (the titular walking battle tank)” with a large list of “take out the tank unit” or “take out the communication array.” It’s obvious that the objectives the player is tasked with have taken a steep dive in quality.
The gameplay itself is the best in the series, allowing players an overwhelming amount of freedom in how they can tackle said objectives. Moving from A to B is a joy, and when the alarms start to sound the toolbox is full of viable options not present in the previous games. Shooting in a Metal Gear Solid game has never felt good, but in The Phantom Pain, the gunplay is fun and thrilling. The use of the proprietary Fox Engine makes everything move smooth and the animation of characters realistic. Unfortunately, this overhaul in the gameplay systems reduces the effort put into the story. Or was the story sacrificed to service the gameplay?
One of the most famous characters in video game history is Solid/Naked Snake, the two protagonists of the Metal Gear Solid series. The protagonist of The Phantom Pain (for the purposes of clarity, I will be referring to the protagonist as Venom Snake and the real character as Big Boss) is for all intents and purposes a silent protagonist completely different than any other protagonist from the previous games. It is jarring to be sure but underlines the problems that the characters, especially characters that have been in other games, have in MGS V. There simply isn’t much there to latch on to. The other protagonists (and strangely Big Boss in the tapes at the end of The Phantom Pain and in Ground Zeroes) have always talked, sometimes a little too much. Venom Snake just stares off into space in most of the cutscenes where dialogue should be.
Perhaps the most problematic of the characters is Revolver Ocelot (perhaps the second most important character in the series) who eschews his previous over the top personality that players had come to expect, and settles into the role of the boring information man. Kazuhura “Master” Miller has also replaced his personality with an uncharacteristic whiny, angry personality that clashes with the rest of his appearances in the series.
The villain is not immune from this problem of no characterization. For a series which has had such classic villains as Liquid Snake, Volgin, and Vamp, Skull Face is not only a boring name for a character, but I struggle even now to remember anything interesting about him. I guess he spent his career cleaning up after Big Boss and wanted to have his own fame? He’s dealt with right before the Act 1 ending, allowing for there to be effectively no antagonist for the final Act of the game. Just like the story, the characters seem to be another amputated limb that the player still feels should be there.
Moby Dick Studios
When The Phantom Pain was first announced, it was not announced as a Metal Gear Solid game. It was the first game from new studio Moby Dick Studios. The lead designer who was in every interview was an enigmatic man with a bandaged face named Joakim Mogren. Immediately, Metal Gear Solid fans pointed out the similarities between what the main character looked like and Naked Snake. There had previously been an announcement of a Metal Gear Solid game that was called Ground Zeroes (which would eventually become the prologue to the whole Metal Gear Solid V).
Mogren looked almost fake, as if he was CGI, but looked real enough to cause many people to believe that he may be a real person. Of course, not long after the announcement, it was revealed to be Hideo Kojima under the mask and the previous appearances of Mogren had been a tech demo for the Fox Engine.
The motif of Moby Dick permeates The Phantom Pain. After the closing scene of Ground Zeroes and the resulting 8-year coma, the “white whale” of Big Boss is made clear. The overarching goal of Big Boss has always been to create a nation where soldiers would always be in demand. Recent games have refocused this goal as what Big Boss and Major Zero saw as the “will of the Boss,” the main antagonist of the third entry of the series. This “nation,” which would eventually become Outer Heaven, would eventually happen but at the cost of Big Boss’s humanity, becoming a villain for much of the series. This mirrors Ahab’s obsession for the titular white whale leading to any humanity or empathy being sacrificed. This motif is the most important one to understand when looking at The Phantom Pain’s story.
Keeping Your Humanity
Venom Snake’s journey is that of Ishmael. According to Wikipedia:
Both Ahab and Ishmael are fascinated by the whale, but whereas Ahab perceives him exclusively as evil, Ishmael keeps an open mind. Ahab has a static worldview, blind to new information, but Ishmael’s worldview is constantly in flux as new insights and realizations occur. “And flux in turn … is the chief characteristic of Ishmael himself.”
Venom sees the desire for Outer Heaven as a fascinating idea, but not as an obsession. He sees the soldiers that he brings back to Mother Base (the main headquarters for the operations of Venom) as more than just pawns with which to throw away, as Big Boss has been shown to view his soldiers. This is shown in the mission where Venom is tasked with executing the soldiers who have succumbed to the parasites. There is a look of sadness on the face of the man who was a medic in the service of Big Boss. Taking a life is a difficult decision for a man who has defined his life by saving lives.
Whereas Big Boss sees Outer Heaven as the ultimate war machine for professional warfighters, Venom sees Outer Heaven as a way for people to find where they belong. If Ishmael is seen as looking up to Ahab, Venom has the same awe toward Big Boss. By the end of the game, this awe has seemingly dissipated, and anger toward Big Boss has manifested. An MSX cassette with the code name of the mission from the original Metal Gear (which is a shout out to the computer that Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 released on in Japan) shows that Venom has stepped completely into the shoes of Big Boss in the eyes of Outer Heaven (as shown by the replacement of the Diamond Dogs logo with the Outer Heaven logo behind Venom).
Venom Snake is a man who has given up his whole world and life to the man who is Big Boss, but in the end, is seen as a target for Big Boss’s enemies to take out instead of Big Boss. He continues out of a sense of duty, but not out of any real awe for the man anymore. The fact that players know that this mission will end with Venom’s death is another level of foreshadowing and shows the depths of evil that Big Boss has come to.
Venom Snake the Player
Another aspect of Venom Snake is as the player’s avatar. Just as Raiden was one in MGS 2, Venom Snake is a blank slate for players to project their own personality onto. Unlike Raiden, Venom Snake does not reject this role: in the end, he remains a blank slate. This, along with the ending cinematic (where Big Boss says that his legacy is also Venom’s legacy) is the way of Kojima to say, “The legacy of the series is thanks to the players as much as the designers.” From what we know now, it is the way that Kojima chose to leave the series that has become synonymous with his career.
For a series about throwing off the shackles of fate, having a protagonist who walks blindly into his fate is a strange and dark goodbye from a man who has often seemed to be spiteful that he has not been able to move past this monolith in his life. We don’t know at what point during development he knew that Konami was letting him go, but by the tone of this ending, it seems to have informed the tone of what he was trying to do. The man who spent his career saying quoting Terminator 2’s “no fate but what we make,” is now saying “nothing matters, fate wins in the end.” It’s a strange coda to one of the best-selling series of video games in history.
“You Will Be Ashamed of Your Words and Deeds”
No analysis of Metal Gear Solid V would be complete without touching on the character of Quiet. She hasn’t been mentioned before because she is in a category on her own. There is a reason that she’s dressed in the barest definition of clothes: she’s infected with the parasites which are the main McGuffin of the game. She’s quiet because she cannot speak her language lest the parasites become activated and kill her.
The overall story with Quiet is without a doubt the most interesting part of the plot of Metal Gear Solid V. She is the most well-defined character from the moment she is introduced in the prologue through to the end of her arc. Quiet says more through her facial expressions than any other character says in the seemingly hours of dialogue that comprises the game. She is a character that is enamored with the protagonist but has done things that she is not proud of. The remorse comes through in many of the interactions the player has with her. She shows, not tells, the trauma of war on those who live it.
The main complaint about her is the way she is dressed and the leering eye of the camera when she is on screen. This complaint has some merit. Quiet is never characterized as a sexual person, but the camera is always accentuating her assets, and she is clothed to accentuate them as well. The hand-wave of “she breathes through her skin, so she must wear as little clothes as possible” is an interesting explanation, but she spends much of her screen time in compromising physical positions that the camera is all to willing to exploit.
A lot of the blame must be placed at the feet of Kojima himself. The female representation in the Metal Gear Solid series has always been one of typical eye candy. The characters themselves may be well-rounded characters, but even in the PSX version they must go through being hit on by Solid Snake. Kojima has an aversion to allowing the female characters to stand on their own, without having to resort to the puerile sex object characterization of so many other games and movies. Quiet seems to be the quintessential example of this problem.
A Misunderstood Classic
Metal Gear Solid is a worthy entry into the Metal Gear Solid series, unlike what many people would say. Is it perfect? No, far from it. It is a hard pill to swallow to think that many of the problems with the game were conscious choices made by Kojima to pick apart the tropes of the modern AAA game. The most successful stories are ones that stay with the audience long after the end, and by that metric Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a success with its story. The gameplay is fantastic, the best in the series. It’s not as thought-provoking as Metal Gear Solid 2 but is still worth analysis. Thinking that it is a shallow entry of the series is a wrong conclusion to make. MGS V should have a reversal in the industry’s thought the same way that MGS 2 was on release.