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. Continue reading