Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was released at the start of September after a wait of over seven years, and to universal acclaim. This will be my first ever post about a video game or video games generally and, in the interest of discretion, that is because generally, I’m not a huge gamer. By this I mean I don’t keep up with most of the zeitgeist of the industry and don’t actually own many games. There are several games and game franchises, though, that I adore and really admire, as well as seeing near limitless potential in the medium for great entertainment and meaningful societal and artistic contributions. The games I adore are the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the Fallout franchise, LA Noire, Madden NFL, and perhaps my first real gaming ‘crush’, the Metal Gear Solid franchise.
When I think of Metal Gear Solid, I am rushed with memories of intense, atmospheric, almost intimidating gameplay, incredible boss-fights with wonderfully cartoonish characters, lengthy cinematic cut-scenes, clever fourth-wall breaking set pieces, a confusing but immersive universe to get (very) lost in, and the tactical joy of stealthy infiltration. It is with this extensive baggage that this and any MGS games enter the fray. So far, The Phantom Pain has not only survived this but flourished critically by addressing what many people view as some of the more tiresome hallmarks of the series; and while this will serve as a game review, it will focus especially on one trademark aspect of the series: narrative and storytelling.
As generally happens with waves of millennial opinion, the initial and overwhelming critical success of the game has been met with a retaliatory wave of negativity about several aspects of the game which list it as far less than perfect. As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. As with everything Metal Gear Solid, there is a huge amount to consider and talk about, so I want to start with a very simple but damning complaint.
Metal Gear Episodes
The Phantom Pain is lauded as the franchise’s first foray in to open world gaming, and that is something I will discuss later, but within that world, you progress as Venom Snake through a series of ‘episodes’. Hideo Kojima is well known for producing a cinematic experience full of long (many would say bloated and overlong) cut-scenes between action. As hinted before, this has always been something I’ve viewed as charming, unique and frequently beautiful. However, in this title Kojima takes this charming pretention too far to a near delusional and certainly short-sighted pretention with his ‘episodes’ and ‘chapters’.
The most egregious aspect of this is the television-style credits before each mission which tells you who will be ‘starring’ in the episode as well as the various enemy combatants and the tech they will be using. This is a decision which benefits nothing other than empty style but detracts greatly from the narrative and the game playing experience as it plainly spoils what is about to happen. You get the shock and fear of The Skulls or the Man On Fire while you’re still in the ACC chopper approaching the mission zone. For such a minor, near non-existent point of egotistical style, the drama of the game and the narrative beats and progression are completely trampled on; it’s a decision that beggars belief and it’s unbelievable that the structure was maintained throughout the development process.
Similarly, at the end of each mission, you are given end credits to bookend the mission. This indeed gives the game the feel of an episodic TV show which must have been something like their intention, but again, this is to the detriment of the actual narrative experience, completely taking you out of the situational drama of the game. You feel safe and relieved like it’s all over, which is a fine emotion to feel during a game, but not as much in a Metal Gear game, the atmosphere of which is always about you being one man alone, surrounded by threats with the only safe direction being to go further in to the belly of the beast.
Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with Kojima and his team altering the setting of the game, but it becomes problematic when it is framed with constant reminders that it’s all just a game and you’ve progressed another level. I certainly don’t want to ‘fantasy book’ the game too much, but surely it would have felt more like an ‘open world’ if you were dropped in Afghanistan with a list of changing objectives, having to travel to Mother Base and Central Africa when you choose or as necessary. In a sense, you can already do that of course, but for a sandbox game, it is really quite linear, unlocking missions usually one at a time. This is interrupted by having to go home to the ACC or Mother Base, where there is very little to actually do.
Metal Gear Freedom
One of the main talking points about the game, especially in the overwhelmingly complimentary press, is that Metal Gear has entered the realm of open world games and flourished. While you are certainly presented with an open world, there is rarely any incentive to really explore. Only the most avid looters would travel around taking on small outposts when you get plenty of opportunities to infiltrate bases in and around missions. There is very little (almost nothing) to see and do between outposts, and as one reviewer accurately pointed out, especially in Afghanistan, much of the map is inaccessible hills and mountains, restricting you to valleys and corridors, Basically, the idea of it being an open world is an illusion.
It is more philosophical than literal, but the real ‘open’ aspect of the game comes from the infiltration. One aspect of the game that pretty much everyone agrees with is that the game is brilliant, fluid, and insightful to play. You are presented with a setting, an objective, and some obstacles, but aside from that, you can approach the mission however you want – with traditional stealth, all guns glazing, sniping from afar, direct or using trickery. This is where each individual’s narrative really sets itself apart as each player really blazes their own path and creates their own memories of the missions and progression of the narrative.
That mixed with the, shall we say reserved performance of Keifer Sutherland and the fact that you name and design yourself Fallout-style at the beginning (of consequence later in the game) means that while you play as Big Boss, you can project more of yourself on to Venom Snake than any other Metal Gear character before it. That in itself is an interesting and useful approach to narrative, even if I don’t really believe it to be intentional. However, the issue of narrative in games in my personal experience is looking for the right balance of the designers telling a well-written story and personally affecting the storyline yourself. This is an issue in other games I love like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout, but my views on narrative in Metal Gear Solid are unique to the game.
Metal Gear Storytelling
In the Metal Gear solid games, I basically want to have no influence on the story. That feels strange and unintuitive to write, but Kojima has, by design and necessity, created a universe, neatly overlaying recent historical realities that is hugely complicated, shifting, and all-encompassing; just like real life. He has created this with his trademark huge themes and even huger cutscenes. I have played through the games and read up on the history several times and still find myself unable to fully comprehend the universe, but it all fits in to the overall narrative arc despite that, including what little we get in MGSV.
While people more focused on gameplay love this game, speaking for myself as someone who loves the story, characters, and atmosphere most, feel like this game is a big let-down in this respect. As I say, what we get works well – extended explanations of the spread of the concept of language and parasites (which mirror previous themes of genetics, AI’s, and the war economy from previous games), a classic sniper boss battle with Quiet, Volgin revitalised as the Man on Fire, and the cutscenes we get are a rare treat.
Admittedly, this is said in the context of it being absolutely clear that this game is unfinished, but for a game that is billed as, and really should be (given its place in the timeline) the game where Big Boss turns in to the evil heel encountered in Metal Gears 1 and 2 and completes the cycle between the Big Boss and Solid Snake eras, the story really advances barely anything in the timeline or overall narrative. Never before has a game tackled such controversial themes without capitalising at all or really saying much. There are child soldiers that are saved by Big Boss, and there is a conspiratorial attempt to cleanse the world of its language along ethnic lines which is halted by Big Boss. It must be said that the mission to save the world from the English strain of the vocal cord parasites in which you kill your own soldiers to kill the spread of the parasite is incredibly powerful, especially when they accept their fate and salute you as you do, and is a dark highlight of the experience; but that is arguably the worst thing Venom does in the game, and difficult as it is, it is infinitely justifiable. Far from being a game in which Big Boss ‘breaks bad’, he is shown as compassionate and a life-saver. Nothing has progressed from the end of Snake Eater with regards to his disillusionment with the world and the powers that be, and that is a great failing.
What we get, unfortunately, will be overshadowed by what we know we didn’t get, given the discovery of extra content and at least one extra mission that seemed to answer or tie up a lot of stories. Maybe it is in these climactic missions that we would truly have tied up Big Boss’s story, but unfortunately not. Having Liquid Snake in it as a youth with a great background story as a charismatic leader of child soldiers was a wonderful addition in theory but very disappointing given we don’t get a real conclusion to it – they escape with a Metal Gear and that’s just that. The loss of the scene of Big Boss pursuing his son would have been a huge boost to the game, the narrative, and the universe. It catches Liquid up with the Liquid of Metal Gear Solid 1 and offers a great platform for Venom to finally turn heel, taking on Big Boss’s son and finding a new motivation, a final straw to want to take on the world with a vengeance (hey, that would even have fit in with a major theme of the game!).
Again, I don’t want to fantasy book too much, but imagine if Venom pursues Eli to Central Africa to get the Metal Gear back, only to find that Emmerich is there too and did indeed betray them (though he has a delusional justification for it), which would immediately explain how Otacon ends up with Liquid down the line, perhaps after Huey tracks down his son while working for Liquid and finding a way to get him back. Meanwhile, Liquid could have mobilised whole outposts of child soldiers and infected them with vocal cord parasites, forcing Venom to finally kill the child soldiers and take a scorched earth policy before facing Liquid, lest their sheer numbers overwhelm him and release the parasites. Having his ‘heaven’ rejected by the child soldiers in favour of war, Venom loses all faith in humanity after what he has had to do, trusts no one, and takes up for himself and ‘his men’ almost like a cult, pointing his guns at the rest of the world out of vengeance and self-preservation. Finally, it can be revealed that Ocelot is, as usual, playing all sides. While he’s loyal to Venom and in some ways, created him, it should be revealed, perhaps via classic end of credits phone call or perhaps a more satisfying closing boss battle with Ocelot after his plots are revealed, that Ocelot helped facilitate Eli’s escape and uprising because he admires Big Boss and likes the idea of his lineage being extended, and is able to get the original Big Boss to support the idea as a check and balance to the growing power of Venom, to make sure he can’t threaten Big Boss. This would also explain how Ocelot ended up with Liquid for the events of Metal Gear Solid 1, at least in the sense of there being a connection.
They’re all quite basic beats that would need to be fleshed out, but you get the idea, dramatic, canonical ways to really tie up the series. What we got achieved a small amount of that, but in a pretty underwhelming and nonsensical way.
Metal Gear Ending
I will say straight away that I actually quite liked the twist; I thought it made sense and certainly isn’t outlandish in the context of Metal Gear lore. I just didn’t like it as an ending.
Quiet’s ending after one of the harder battles felt climactic, and was certainly emotional, so for the very next mission to appear without context and presented in a way that looks similar to the notorious mission re-plays, it’s hard to even notice the mission. In fact, I believe I didn’t play the mission for a while, believing it to simply be a re-play of the first mission, and not even the last mission on the list. I had refused to play the re-plays as I believed it messed with the narrative but eventually became intrigued at the lack of progress and the fact the mission appeared somewhat different. You start it from the ACC and somehow end up back in the hospital. At best, it could be sold as a dream/memory/hallucination, but it exists entirely separately from the narrative. Effective endings are the culmination of a great story building, not just something coming from nowhere off the back of nothing. Slight fantasy booking again. If something happens to trigger the memory, be it the napalm from episode 51 or something else which brings Venom back to the hospital even as a memory, that makes it in to the story progression. Ocelot tells gives him the ‘Man Who Sold the World’ tape and explains how he saved him from the hospital, and that fits it in to the story neatly.
What is especially bad about the ‘Truth’ mission is that you have to go through the entirety of what is essentially a tutorial mission just to reach the point where the new twin snakes crash the car, leading to the identity switch. As a result, the final mission felt like a mistake or a chore – I held off that mission for a while, not recognising it as a new chapter and instead believing it to be another re-play mission. I generally like some sort of classic boss battle to finish a Metal Gear story, but if he defeats the powered up Metal Gear piloted by Liquid and Psycho Mantis, and it offers something new and cool and satisfying, an easier but powerful mission to finish the game is fine. While I was energised recognising Big Boss’s voice in the replay of the prologue, I found going through almost the entire tutorial ridiculous and frustrating – the most basic of gameplay that you had already done is the strangest way to end a story I’ve seen and certainly left it flat, despite the revelations. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the lack of cut-scenes and radio conversations were replaced by cassettes filling in narrative blanks, which I found to be a big problem throughout.
What is more is that, while the twist is certainly a change and a twist, but the problem is that it isn’t a progression, it’s a neutral or sideways step. Reviewers have been using the term ‘phantom’ ad nauseum, but what has become clear to me is that a major phantom with regards to this game is the phantom link between Peace Walker and Metal Gear 1. For me, the biggest draw of this game was the suggestion that it tied up the link between the MGS3-Peace Walker era to the Metal Gear-Metal Gear Solid era as Big Boss solidifies himself as the Big Evil. That didn’t happen, and I’m really struggling to see anything like a regression in character and progression of story. At the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss quite powerfully states his disgust with The Boss and what she came to represent as well as seemingly wanting to shut himself off, surrounded by MSF at Outer Heaven, working with anyone, good or bad, to maintain his soldier’s nation. If anything – and this is no original thought – Big Boss regresses back towards a hero; he saves child soldiers rather than use them, and he kills his own men to save the wider world from the vocal cord parasites. This is not to say that Venom should have killed the child soldiers when he had the chance, or have the player commit more serious deeds, but there is a balance to be achieved. Again, not to fantasy book, but if you were to do more questionable things, and a big reveal at the end was the selfish or evil reason behind it, that would have worked well.
Ultimately, if you look at the timeline of Metal Gear lore in it’s broader terms, this game isn’t even needed, and that is a damning indictment for the story.
Metal Gear Recordings
I mentioned them earlier, but while trying to avoid every bug bear I had with the game, I can’t ignore the use of cassettes in the game. I have heard a lot of people laud this as a useful and more optional replacement for the radio/codec narrative technique. I understand that for the players who didn’t like the long expositions of previous games, but I think it really detracts from the character of it as a Metal Gear game as well as really undermining the story and the flow of the narrative. The solution is to make cutscenes and radio calls skipable, not make you catch up on narrative in an awkward way after the fact. Yes you can listen to cassettes as you play, but they are usually relevant after the fact and quite complicated in content. If you are playing the game with any sort of concentration, you can’t do that and take in the tapes. As a result, I listened to the tapes separately while inactive, sometimes listening for a very long time, staring at the iDroid screen. I found it very unsatisfying. People who enjoy the game for what it is are being penalised in favour of players who don’t care about the story, or at least don’t care as much. Things are revealed all at once in big info dumps, rather than naturally as you play, and the whole thing feels rushed and arbitrary rather than revelatory; an extension of the issues that come about as a result of the chapters and credits.
Metal Gear Characters
Thankfully, the final negative point which warrants mention is disappointing aspects of some of the major characters in the game. The most upsetting failure in the game is Ocelot. He doesn’t resemble the integral, dynamic character of Ocelot from every other main game despite passing hints at his penchant for interrogation and revolvers. From his appearance to his voice to his near total lack of motivation in the game rather than a bland association with Mother Base and the Diamond Dogs, he is sadly a non-entity. While we know of his admiration and association with Big Boss, and it is roughly explained why he is even there (revealed in the tapes), he seems to just be making up the numbers, passing on intel and, I believe, appearing so he can appear maintain his streak of appearing in all of the series’ major games.
Many people criticise Skull Face as a villain, and understandably so for his sudden and inglorious end, and those criticisms are right. While I liked his aesthetic and most of his backstory (though it should have been explained more clearly and disposed of the idea that he was trying to follow The Boss’s will without any connection established between the two), he dies about half way through the game and not even by your hand in a boss fight; something sorely lacking in a game with few memorable boss fights which were such a staple of former games. Add to that, the infamous jeep ride with Venom as the game’s theme plays; a moment which I can only assume is designed to match the magic ladder climbing moment in Snake Eater but fall short in awkwardness, despite the drama of the situation Venom is in at that stage. So despite his potential, he was ultimately a disappointment as main antagonist.
The problem with Eli, I fear largely comes from the huge chunk of game cut from the finished product, so I will show clemency on his success, and while I didn’t really enjoy Code Talker, I think his impact isn’t enough to get really upset about, so I will move on to the most enigmatic of characters, Quiet. Sticking to criticism for a while, her presentation as more than half naked, consistently finding reasons to frolic in water and having her ‘T&A’ zoomed in on at several turns is gratuitous without any satisfying explanation. Kojima overtly said her design was to sell merchandise and the in-game explanation of her requiring few clothes due to the burns she sustained holds no water given The End from Snake Eater and Code Talker in the same game have the same condition and can wear plenty of clothes without issue. It’s even more of a shame given that Quiet is actually a very successful character, and the epitome of the best of what this game seemed to be aiming for – i.e. the player’s experience building the story. Quiet instantly becomes indispensable as a buddy, saving you and making missions far more achievable through her impressive abilities and straight-up bad-assery. You build your own bond and your own stories with her and you come to have a great regard for her. While aspects are missing from her story (for instance, how did she get in to XOF initially?), the mystery behind a character who can’t or won’t speak and who seemingly can’t be trusted while seemingly having a bond with her is very intriguing, while the pathos engendered by her reasons for not talking and her ultimate sacrifice is genuinely powerful, underlined by the sense of loss experience when she has left and is no longer by your side. Her presence and her story goes a long way to making this game work on any level and is probably the best thing about the game.
Metal Gear Positives
I feel my passion for the bad things about the games have made my discussion of them out of proportion with the actual quality of the game, as there are lots of positives to discuss. As mentioned earlier, the gameplay, and the varied approaches you can take to your tasks is incredible, and probably the ultimate way to play a Metal Gear Solid game.
Despite the many and serious issues of narrative that form the reasoning for this article, there are some highlights – the mission in which you rescue the child soldiers and at one point, seemingly gun them down, is among it’s most successful moments, as well as the moment where Quiet frolics with you in the rain. Despite the exploitative way it’s used with her costume, it shows a joy in her which is a nice diversion for her; and though it hints at romance with her and Venom, the story doesn’t rely on that, which is incredibly refreshing. Finally, the scene already mentioned during which you are forced to put down your saluting men is very moving and challenging and is the sort of scene and darkness the game needed much more of.
While there is a drought of bosses and boss battles, what we get is really good. Skull Face, in theory, as already mentioned, is a good antagonist, while Volgin’s return as The Man on Fire provides a unique challenge which makes sense and really fits with the longer cast of bosses from the history of the game. The Skulls are very worthy and scary foes, and we get a classic sniper battle and a challenging battle with a Metal Gear which should in some form be the final battle (and seemingly was supposed to be in the form of Mission 51).
Metal Gear Summary
The positives from the game make the flaws of the finished product all the more frustrating. Kojima still had the unique craziness in him, and aspects of what made the series great could be seen at times.
The experience of playing is a lot of fun and certainly addictive until you have finished, and so for pure gamers, I think this game really holds up. Even for MGS fans, it will be enjoyed, but the blanket critical acclaim it has enjoyed given it’s very real and obvious flaws lend credence to theories that Konami in some way influenced reviews for it, which is a shame.
It’s a fun game, and the chance to play as (a version of) Big Boss is welcomed, but the game as produced isn’t necessary to the Metal Gear story, and what it does provide is presented very poorly with characters going through no significant arcs and story beats and revelations – including the ending – revealed seemingly without thought and reason. It need not be the final Metal Gear game, and it certainly leaves gaps to be filled, but if they are going to be told in this way, I think it would be a mistake artistically if not commercially.
Metal Gear Future
This has been billed, amidst controversy, as Kojima’s last Metal Gear game, but with or without him, of course the game could continue, either through Konami, or through a more ambitious company willing to buy the licence.
I am not against the idea of another name as I think the universe and lore is such that dedicated followers of the series with the requisite skills could certainly take the deep fabric of the Metal Gear universe and continue it properly.
For the sake of a satisfying list, here are some ideas for future Metal Gear games:
- Essentially taking the events of MGSV and playing off them with a new game to realise it’s objectives. A game that would take place between MGSV and Metal Gear 1 that would truly show Big Boss break bad and set up the events of Metal Gear 1. Perhaps you could share duties between a collaborating Venom Snake and Big Boss during which, on their way to taking down a threatening organisation, both find that the other is expanding beyond the other’s knowledge, doing a lot of morally questionable things, and each of them doubling down as garrisoned, embittered arms-hoarders, leading to Big Boss blinking first and the events of Metal Gear 1.
- Remake either or both (together) of Metal Gears 1 and 2 with the latest generation and fox engine. It would mean a degree of ret-conning some of the original narrative, but providing the player with the chance to play as Solid Snake against Venom and Big Boss while weaving in characters from the lore that didn’t exist at the time of the original games would make for a very tantalising game to play.
- This is possibly my favourite. A game where we get to play as The Boss. Getting to play as a female protagonist would be a nice apology for the treatment of Quiet et al and it would be a great way of adding to the character who, in a way, started it all. Playing as The Boss would truly add some circularity to the series and would allow the player to generate their own idea of her will.
The very fact that, despite being somewhat disappointed by The Phantom Pain, my mind is still racing about the series’ possibilities is telling about the magic behind the series, and the fact that I care about the shortcomings of the game highlights that further. Metal Gear Solid is truly a special series, and will never lose that magic, and as Kojima probably heads to his own Outer Heaven away from Konami, the universe he created remains among the greatest achievements in gaming and modern media. This game fits in to that universe, it’s just a shame that it’s dwarfed by earlier efforts.