On Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

(I have avoided explicit spoilers through this essay, but I do mention moments from within the game and suggest themes and topics that emerge during play. If you are yet to play the game and would prefer to go in blind so that every little thing is a surprise, you probably shouldn’t read this.)

There is no denying it: the second of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s two chapters is an unfinished mess. The intent was clearly that after chapter one concludes what has until that point been the main plot (while leaving various other threads open), chapter two was intended to feel like a return to normality for Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs private military company. The intent was clearly to feel not like a story was progressing but like everyday life was just going on while this or that plot thread resolves itself. In reality, though, the progression of this second chapter is inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Majority of the missions are not new but repeats of earlier missions with harsher conditions; they feel like the kind of tasks you would unlock post-completion, which was perhaps the point. Plot progresses with occasional cutscenes rarely connected to any particular mission: you’ve played for long enough to see the next story bit. These story bits do not conclude, however, as the final mission that would conclude them never made it into the game. The ending we do get is one I found satisfying, but it has no connection to anything the player is doing at the time. It has no connection to anything the player has done at all, really, since the game’s prologue. Everything the player does in the game is ultimately pointless, a distraction. But, then again, perhaps that was the point. 

From the video that shows what would have happened in that final, abandoned mission, it seems Hideo Kojima’s ambitions got ahead of him. It would have required a massive new area to be created on top the game’s existing two huge environments and the immaculately detailed hospital of the prologue. It’s through chapter two—both what is present and what is absent—that the tensions between Kojima and Konami that ultimately led to Kojima leaving the company can be seen most clearly. Kojima wanted to make his epic bigger and bigger to an absurd and (from a capitalist perspective) irrational scale. Kojima wanted more time and money for a whole third chapter, if rumours are to be believed; Konami wanted this game to just hurry up and ship already. I can’t really be angry at either party for this.

Ultimately, I find The Phantom Pain’s unfinished state charming. This does not feel like a lazy sort of unfinished but an overly-ambitious sort of unfinished. It feels like a modern day equivalent of one of those huge cathedrals the architect was never really going to finish in their lifetime. I want to make comparisons to Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Hugo’s Les Misérables or Wyler’s Ben Hur. It’s a work that impresses through its sheer, intimidating size. By this I don’t just mean how big the map is (but this as well) or how many dozens of hours it takes to see the story through (but this as well). There is an audacious attention to detail in every single moment of The Phantom Pain that marks a confidently inefficient use of a production budget. I think this tweet of Matthew Yaeger about Quiet’s armpit and these tweets by Robert Yang about animations only appearing once in the game are great examples of this. Phantom Pain is wasteful in its enthusiasm, its inefficiency. It’s a heightened level of enthusiasm for itself that I can’t help but find infectious. The game is an incomplete mess, there is no denying it; but it is the very clear ambition that I find truly exciting.

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The Metal Gear Solid series is difficult to talk about in the nuanced manner it deserves. The discourse around them is polarised between those who think Hideo Kojima is a genius who can do nothing wrong and those who think they are overwrought games that should be movies because they are not interactive enough. The particular blend of gritty realism and whacky fantasy, of complex systems and tightly linear progression, of historical attention and conspiracy theories, of camp and misogyny that is the Metal Gear Solid series makes it difficult to pin down as it always seems to evade any attempt to define it.

For my part, I think the Metal Gear Solid is a fascinating and important series if only because it is one of the few massive blockbuster series that truly permeates the vision (or at least, the personality) of its auteur creator. Auteurs are overly celebrated in videogame development (and I have criticised them in the past) but I believe Metal Gear Solid is the exception of the rule. While it is no less the product of many many people than any other blockbuster game (and Phantom Pain recognises this with its credits roll after each of its fifty missions), every aspect of each titles feels like it was hand-placed by Kojima. Talking about an aspect of a Metal Gear Solid game as though it was Kojima who did it seems about as justifiable as talking about an aspect of a film as though it was placed their by its director—a claim that is provably false but seems like a justifiable claim all the same.

Metal Gear Solid is exciting because it is so clearly the stubborn vision of one person in a way that is so rarely able to exist in the blockbuster industry. From David Bowie references to charmingly hamfisted symbolism to movie-credit roll-calls for branded sunglasses and fictional characters. These are the things that Kojima values. Metal Gear Solid manages to feel personal, in both its strengths and its flaws, and I think that is something special.

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So what is Kojima’s ‘Kojima-ness’ that I enjoy about a Metal Gear Solid game? For me, it is that Kojima has a very clear and very confident notion of what he wants to achieve with the videogame form, and he does so confidently. Early in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, one character says to Snake that perhaps one day they will make movies where the audience moves the character around themselves. I can think of no other moment in the series where Kojima’s philosophy is so explicit.

But it’s not that the Metal Gear Solid games are simply ‘interactive movies’. It’s more complicated than that. Kojima sees videogames as a hybridity of audiovisual media (like cinema) and movement (or interactivity, if you prefer). His games are an unholy smashing together of these things. He sees looking and listening as crucial to the videogame form (not to be mistaken for the game form) as pressing buttons, and he is not afraid to embrace this. He is content to have the player just sit there and watch two barely-animated faces have a conversation about a film for twenty-minutes. For a cutscene to go forever for no real reason. But at the same time his games are unabashedly ‘gamey’ in a way few videogames embrace. They break the fourth-wall so casually. Not in an intellectual ‘game about a game’ kind of way, but in an earnest not-pretending-to-not-be-a-videogame kind of way. This is demonstrated most clearly in moments like the Psycho Mantis fight of Metal Gear Solid (using the player two controller to avoid having your mind read) or getting Meryl’s codec number of the back cover of the game case, but is present in a much more banal fashion in the intertextual references between games, boss battles, reliance of HUD elements to communicate story elements, etc. Even in Phantom Pain, a secondary character will tell Snake to “press the action button” without missing a beat. A return to the game’s opening tutorial segments later in the game includes tutorial prompts as the form of that early tutorial is as important to repeating it as its content. The Metal Gear Solid games lean into their own artificiality and audacity where most videogames would suppress that in a desire for some sort of ‘immersiveness’, and that is something I truly appreciate and enjoy.

But then this is immediately countered by the sheer systemic playfulness of the series. While each Metal Gear Solid title before Ground Zeroes was strictly linear, each had a huge number of items and actors that could influence each other in different ways. I remember spending ages with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty just playing with the game’s systems: holding up soldiers, shooting out their radios before they can call for help, shooting out their radios while they are calling for help, sending Otacon photos of idol posters instead of Metal Gear Ray, pointing the directional mike in the wrong direction (remember how the subtitles would get smaller or bigger?), trying to roll upstairs, slipping in bird poo, doing pull ups to increase my grip level. Most of these systems were always entirely superfluous (all you needed to ‘beat’ the game was a silenced pistol, really) but were so fun to play with. It’s this aspect of the series that really finds a home in Phantom Pain’s open world. As you are encouraged to replay missions over and over you are encouraged to embrace your full arsenal of stuff that previously was only ever able to be secondary.

That is the milieu of a Kojima game: confidently artificial, confidently personal, and confidently videogame-y.

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The tonal shift of previous Metal Gear Solid games to Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain is explicit. These are the Anakin-Skywalker-becoming-Darth-Vader years of Metal Gear Solid where Big Boss shifts from protagonist to antagonist.

(Side note for those unfamiliar with the series: in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, Solid Snake kills Big Boss, who is the bad guy of those games. In Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake finds out he is a clone of Big Boss. Solid Snake’s story ends in Metal Gear Solid 4. Metal Gear Solid 3 returns to the 1970s to tell the story of the ‘real’ Big Boss that Solid Snake is a clone of, and how he becomes disillusioned with the US Government and goes off to create his own private army. Metal Gear Solid 5 continues the story of the real Big Boss to link back to Metal Gear (imperfectly) and completing the chain (until Konami decides to make a Metal Gear Solid 6)).

So those familiar with the series know that Big Boss is a bad guy, so that allows the game a grittier and darker feel than others in the series. There is a sense through the game that these characters are not good people, regardless of what they think of themselves. They think they are working towards world peace or whatever and that the proliferation of profiteering private military companies following in their wake isn’t their fault but other people misunderstanding their intentions. The game never says ‘these people are wrong’ but neither does it have to as the two characters who are present in later games (Big Boss and Ocelot) are explicitly bad guys. Their use of torture among other behaviours clearly marks them as Not Good.

Also, Big Boss has a piece of shrapnel sticking out of his head that looks like a demon’s horn. So, y’know.

The Metal Gear Solid series has always been as anti-war as any military-themed videogame could be while still allowing the player to ‘enjoy’ militarised activities. While they are often (fairly) judged against a very American military-entertainment complex in the same style as Call of Duty or Splinter Cell, that they have very Japanese anxieties towards nuclear disarmament is less often discussed. Metal Gear Solid, in 1998, ended by telling the player how many nuclear warheads still exist in the world. Metal Gear Solid 2 explicitly (if somewhat incoherently) voices anxieties towards the virtualisation of war and its depiction in  videogames. Metal Gear Solid 3 expresses a disillusionment with both sides of the Cold War while Metal Gear Solid 4 seems to have more or less given up on the future of the world. The series general obsession with the Cold War, from a Western perspective, almost seems archaic. But its concern with nuclear devastation marks it as a very Japanese game (despite its constant focus on American characters and Western conflicts). Little has influenced post-war Japanese culture as much as two atomic bombs being dropped on your country. Nuclear disarmament is something the games very much care about.

With this in mind, that at the end of Peace Walker Big Boss obtains his own nuclear warhead is a clear marker that the game does not consider this man to be a good guy. This warhead leads to the destruction of Big Boss’s base at the end of Ground Zeroes and the nine year coma before Phantom Pain. All of this is to say: Big Boss simply being ambivalent towards nuclear weaponry is all the game needs in the series internal logic to flag this character and his deeds as problematic and to throw the entire game into a darker light.

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On the subject of Phantom Pain’s very Japanese anxieties is the game’s major theme of language. Without going into details, the game’s antagonist wishes to wipe English off the face of the Earth. His reasons for wanting this are explicitly a result of his own suffering through both colonialism and globalisation. Skull Face and Code Talker (a native American character) in particular speak to their anxieties about their own cultures disappearing in the face of English spreading across the world. There are interesting metaphors of language as an ‘ethnic cleanser’ that is spread through colonialism and globalisation. The need to know English to engage on the world stage is an anxiety facing every non-English speaking culture, and Japan is no exception. Although the characters in the game are concerned about Native American tribes, it feels as though the game is speaking to Kojima’s own anxieties towards the loss of Japanese culture post World War 2.

While the ways in which language is introduced as a theme of the game is somewhat corny (not necessarily a bad thing), it allows the game to approach many interesting topics that are themselves offshoots of colonialism. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a discussion of a civil war in an African nation where the blame was squarely placed on Western intervention in the region.    

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Grittiness isn’t the only way Phantom Pain and Ground Zeroes wish to differentiate themselves from the previous games in the series. The shift to an open-world setup with a list of missions is a dramatic restructure from the previous numbered titles in the series (though is a familiar framing for those who played Portable Ops or Peace Walker).

There is not a lot I wish to say about the game’s open-world structure as I think it is largely self-explanatory. Only that it is exquisitely executed in such a way that different missions can play out in a variety of ways. The breathing space provided for Things To Go Wrong can be clearly seen in every mission. In particular, simply having to exfil from every mission (usually in a helicopter) affords (and sometimes ensures) an entirely emergent dramatic scenes as I am running for the chopper under fire and diving onto the gatling gun as we flee. It was never not satisfying.

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The real reason I bring up the game’s open-world structure is because I want to talk about the camera work of the cutscenes. This camera work makes explicit claims as to how the game thinks about spatiality. Instead of the traditional cinematic cuts, Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain’s camera is fluid and consistent. The opening of Ground Zeroes is exemplary of this. The camera pans across the jail cells and follows Skull Face in through the door. It looks to the left and the right to give the player the lay of the land and show other characters. After Skull Face finishes talking to Chico, the camera follows Skull Face back to his jeep and across the compound and into his chopper before following the tossed-out XOF badges down to Snake’s hiding position for the HUD elements to appear and the game to start.

It’s this remarkable fluidity that holds the action together and gives this heightened sense of tension as that split-second cut the player/viewer is unconsciously waiting for never comes. There’s obvious comparisons to be made to Children of Men, but there is something more frantic here in how the camera swings around and seamless shifts between being the perspective of an embodied cameraperson and the first-person perspective of the characters themselves.

Phantom Pain continues this camera style with its (sadly sparse) cutscenes, and it works to convey a consistency of space with the open-world playing. It’s a clever aesthetic choice that reinforces the player’s engagement with the game in a really satisfying fashion. I don’t think it would be an understatement to say the camera work is my favourite aspect of the game.

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I was concerned that Phantom Pain would lack the absurd elements of earlier Metal Gear Solid titles: the mystical and magical aspects. The shift to a grittier ‘open-world’ setting looked less likely to support that. Indeed, any one baddie in previous titles has more personality than all the baddies of Phantom Pain combined. Characters like The End, Sniper Wolf, Grey Fox, and Fortune each had an extensive backstory and pronounced characterisation. Skull Face is almost boring in his impossibility (whoa he has a scarred face) and his backstory is fed to us in drips and drabs. The Man On Fire and the kid who is clearly a young Psychomantis are never explored in much detail, and neither have much of a chance to introduce themselves. Most of the boss fights are with nameless members of the Skulls, no more individualised than the countless Soviet soldiers.

But still, the absurdity is present and hardly downplayed. Quiet is a mostly exceptional character with obvious flaws (I’ll get to that) who has specific superpowers and the opportunities to use them. The entire opening hospital prologue is magnificent in its audacity, and is really the only place that The Man On Fire and Psychomantis come into their own. Driving away with flaming firetrucks plummeting out of the sky is pretty special. (Also of note is that the entire opening, from bedridden to horseback chase is a fantastic continuation of Ground Zeroes fluid camera work and gives this almost Katamari Damacy sense of space as the world becomes bigger and bigger).

In the moment-to-moment play, the absurd elements are present and proud. Equipping the series-trademarked cardboard box has it fly down out of the sky onto Snake’s back. Fulton extractions never stop being funny. If anything, the mixture of gritty ‘realism’ and magical elements is even more pronounced in Phantom Pain than any previous title, even with a lack of strong magical characters.

A term I’ve been toying with to describe the particular blend of self-serious militarism and weird wackiness that is Metal Gear Solid (and which is at its most pronounced in Phantom Pain) is ‘Magical Militarism’. I mean to evoke the term Magical Realism here, obviously, but with the important change that instead of saying something about the ‘real’ social world, it is a militaristic world view that Metal Gear Solid both embraces and skews. In one world we have tanks and rifles modelled in excruciating detail alongside soldiers using complex jargon and moving in squad formation. We have long monologues on the Life of a Soldier as though soldiers have an urge to fight detached from any sense of nationalism or personal relations. We have this very distinct (and very jingoistically American) view of both war and society through a military lens. That in itself is pretty typical across videogames. But fused with this we have floating psychics, an invincible woman, a vampire, absurd conspiracy theories, cyborg ninjas, whales made of fire, fulton extracted sheep, pop songs, a river of everyone you killed. Importantly, many of these phenomena aren’t explained through technology but through paranormality. Psychomantis simply is a floating magical kid capable of telekinesis and reading minds.

I mentioned magical militarism in my earlier, unfinished notes on the game. Some thought it a not useful term due to the fact it could be used to describe any military-themed videogame. While hesitant to create even more neologisms, I would say most military-themed videogames are more of a ‘militarist realism’ than a ‘magical militarism’. That is, they present physically possible worlds whose political nature is greatly influenced by a military-centric worldview. Metal Gear Solid has elements of this as well, but to this militarism adds its magical elements that themselves are often at the service of a militaristic worldview. But on the other hand, that magical militarism could be applied to, say Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare through the fundamental magic of the playable character’s invincibility does not I think render the term useless. On the contrary, I think it perhaps gives us a framework to consider such a games beyond a useless binary of straightup ‘realism’. But that is not something I’m sure about. I am convinced it is a fruitful term to perhaps unpack Metal Gear Solid’s particular mashing of the militaristic and the magical.

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Okay, we should discuss Quiet. Quiet is one of the only women characters in Phantom Pain, and she wears very little clothing. This is often critiqued along the lines of how impractical her clothing is, as with arguments about bikini armour. I struggle with this critique since practicality has never really been a concern for any antagonist’s clothing in Metal Gear Solid (remember Fatman’s rollerblades?). Which is not to defend Quiet’s costume, but I think that criticism can miss the point.

Most of the furore around Quiet is because Kojima foolishly tried to defend her before the game’s release, saying critics would feel ashamed and silly once they find out the reason for her lack of clothing in the game. This is typical of game devs: releasing something as part of pre-release marketing and then absolving it by saying the public has jumped to conclusions before getting to play the game. Of course, Kojima’s boast was proven false. When people found out that Quiet breathes through her skin and thus would be suffocated by clothes, they didn’t feel ashamed. It’s the kind of absurd plot justification you’d more expect to see in a b-grade porno.

In a lot of ways, if Kojima had just said ‘Yeah I like boobs and wanted to make a booby character because I like boobs’ that would be acceptable. In an ideal world with actual gender equality, people of all sexual preferences and gender would be making videogames with their ideal sex preferences in them and we’d have hunks and boob girls and everything in between and that would be fine. But we don’t live in that world, and Quiet is clearly—clearly—dressed as she is not because she breathes through her skin but to arouse a player that the game presumes to be a young, heterosexual man. It is inarguably sexist.

Perhaps most disappointingly is that Quiet’s clothing has drawn attention away from the fact that she is a pretty incredible character. She has this wonderful moment when she is first returning to Mother Base with Snake where they are attacked by a fighter jet. Snake fails to hit the jet with the helicopter’s guns. Quiet gets herself out of her handcuffs, pushes Snake out of the way, takes over the gun, and shoots a missile out of the air. She then grabs her sniper rifle and takes out the pilot of the jet. It’s this wonderful scene that I’m convinced must be a deliberate nod to Max handing the rifle to Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road that demonstrates Quiet’s entire particular skill set. Later scenes then complicate her character and explore what kind of sacrifices she has made.

It’s disappointing that her sexualisation, completely at odds at the lack of sexualisation of any other character, has distracted from what is otherwise one of the game’s most interesting characters.

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This post is much longer than I intended, but I still feel like there is much I have not said about the game. I haven’t addressed how much of the story is bottled up in audiotapes, but for some reason I am okay with that here in a way I would not be for many other games (that I can play while listening to the tapes certain helps). I haven’t discussed the whole weird base building side of the game (which I enjoyed) or the atrocious integration of the multiplayer component that sees menus take forever to load if the game is not put into offline mode. I haven’t even broached the game’s actually interesting and complex depiction of child soldiers as actors possessing agency.

Phantom Pain is an unruly mess bursting at the seams. It is not as big as it should be, but it is far bigger than any one corporately-produced videogame can sustain. It is incomplete and without Kojima at Konami I am not holding my breath for a ‘Subsistence’ version that gives the game the conclusion it deserves. I am tempted to play into the game’s hamfisted metaphor and say that the game’s phantom, what Kojima so clearly (and impossibly) wanted it to be is what is so alluring and wonderful about Phantom Pain. That game isn’t there, but if you squint you can’t help but to see it.

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