Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Legends and Men

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I initially intended to write a very long and dense analysis of the entirety of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but after writing the first section, I decided to stop. The Metal Gear series is my favorite piece of art of all time. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the genesis of my appreciation of stories and aesthetics, and still underlies many of my artistic standards to this day. TTP is such an enormous game and my love for it is so obvious, that I could never write an all-encompassing analysis shorter than the combined lengths of every single other post I have written for this blog. I may periodically write more about TTP as I feel like it in the future, but for now, I will describe what I consider to be the game’s most important aspect: its aesthetic and thematic core.

Needless to say, there are major spoilers ahead.

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In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the player does not control Big Boss. Or rather, the player does not control the person known as Big Boss. What the player does control is the legend of Big Boss. The player-character is eventually revealed to be a random soldier working for Militaires Sans Frontières who happened to be on Big Boss’s helicopter during the attack on Mother Base at the end of the events of Ground Zeroes. After becoming grievously wounded from shielding Big Boss from an explosion, the soldier then fell into a coma for nine years, during which time he was physically and (somehow) mentally altered to be a near-perfect copy of Big Boss. Thus the Big Boss who builds a new mother base, recruits an enormous private army, defeats XOF, saves the world, and sets the stage for the creation of Outer Heaven during the events of TPP… is actually a body double, known as Venom Snake.

And I loved it.

From all the way back in 1998, with the release of the first Metal Gear Solid, up to 2008, with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima has been criticized for his storytelling. It’s not that Kojima doesn’t create interesting narratives with compelling characters… it’s that he does so with some of the most byzantine story structures, tonal inconsistencies, and lopsided delivery systems imaginable. While all of the Metal Gear games are dear to my heart, I cannot deny the validity of such criticisms. Kojima’s cutscenes can be endless, his dialogue needless verbose, and his plots obsessively convoluted. While Kojima is undoubtedly a visionary with an extraordinary eye for cinematography and storytelling, his personal style is so divergent from anything else seen in video games, or any artistic medium for that matter, that only a miniscule subset of individuals who play his games will fall in love with their unique sensibilities.

With TTP, Kojima has gone in a completely different direction, yet he has created yet another product which defies traditional analysis. The style and transmission of his narrative is so unlike anything that Kojima has made before that the game’s narrative will undoubtedly alienate traditional fans and newcomers alike. Gone are Kojima’s trade-mark lengthy cutscenes, and his wordy, exposition-intensive dialogue has been pushed onto in-game cassette tapes which are meant to be listened to in the background during regular gameplay. TTP is not interested in telling the typical Metal Gear story filled with a thousand characters, a dozen factions, innumerable motivations, and an endless string of game-changing plot twists.

Instead, TTP strives to be a mood piece. The game conveys an intense and omnipresent atmosphere through every mission and cutscene, which is arguably stronger than that of any other Metal Gear game, or at the very least, feels distinct from them. After finishing TTP, the game’s lasting legacy in my mind is not its lore or characters, but its imagery, visuals, and sounds. Converting one of the densest narrative series ever into a sparse, quiet piece is exactly the type of daring task that only a creator like Kojima could even hope to attempt. All I can say is that I’m glad he did, because I loved every second of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

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The Phantom Pain continues the series’ thematic focus on the nature of legends. The Metal Gear games have always asked the player what being a legend means, how others perceive legends, and how it affects the individuals who are considered to be legendary. The status of being “legendary” hanged over multiple key characters throughout the games, most notably including Solid Snake, the Boss, and of course, Big Boss. While all three of these characters experienced different effects from developing such a lofty reputation, TTP focuses on the divergence between the actual individual and his popular perception. The game suggests that once an individual gains a sufficiently high, yet abstract status in the minds of others, the legend takes on a life of its own, and the actual person becomes almost entirely irrelevant.

Venom Snake is referred to as the “phantom Big Boss” during the reveal of his true identity. Just as a ghost is the soul of an individual without its carnal form, Venom embodies the essence of Big Boss without actually being the man. From the moment he awakens in the hospital at the start of the game, Venom has Big Boss’s face, his memories (via hypnotherapy), his advisers (Ocelot and Miller), and most importantly of all, his reputation. Without even saying a word, Venom is worshiped by most of the soldiers of the world as a legendary figure capable of leading them to a better world. Just as with the S3 Plan in Metal Gear Solid 2, a random man is made into a legend with just the right context and cues.

Though Venom had been crafted to resemble Big Boss, the process had not perfectly replicated the man. Based on Snake Eater, Portable Ops, Peace Walker, and even the brief glimpses of him we get at the beginning of TTP, the player knows that Big Boss is a charismatic leader with such a tremendous presence that he had been known to convince soldiers to turn against their commanders in single conversations. But the Big Boss doppelgänger we see in TPP is a far different man from the legendary figure who would someday try to remake the world.

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As I noted in my first impression of TPP, Venom barely speaks in most cutscenes, and when he does, it’s usually to ask for clarification or to quickly answer a question. When the player thinks he is controlling the real Big Boss, this seems like a vexing design decision, but when he realizes the player-character’s true identity, it makes perfect sense. Considering that Venom woke up from a nine-year coma, underwent hypnotherapy to convince him he was another person, discovered he lost his arm, and suffers from both physical and mental phantom pain from his injuries and the loss of his comrades on Mother Base, Venom was likely a mental basket case at the start of the events of TTP. And then on top of all of that, he goes from being a medic in a mercenary company to becoming a word-famous legend tasked with building a whole new mercenary company so he can take down an evil rogue government agency and save the world. Thus in most cutscenes, rather than seeing a confident, legendary leader decisively taking charge, the player instead watches a very confused, and wisely cautious doppelgänger keep his mouth shut and hope this crazy situation he finds himself in plays out the right way.

If a normal individual in a leadership role said as little and made as few decisions as Venom does throughout TTP (or at least the first half of the game), he would probably be considered awkward, if not shy. Yet with the façade of Big Boss, Venom’s silence takes on an air of stoic confidence. In many scenes, Ocelot and Miller debate a course of action, while Venom does nothing but assent at the end. Or Venom will stand in the background while Ocelot and Miller will brutally torture a suspected enemy, and all three other individuals (Ocelot, Miller, and the victim) will cry out for Venom’s support. In a weird way, Venom’s near constant silence actually enhances his status, as it makes the few words that he does say have such tremendous weight. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I myself felt a significant amount of anticipation to hear Venom speak each time, if only to gain another rare insight into the will of the supposed legend.

(Also, Keifer Sutherland does a fantastic job as Venom and Big Boss. David Hayter may be the iconic Snake in the Metal Gear series, but I always found his voice to be too cartoonishly gruff. Sutherland hits the perfect note of understated power and toughness. I was sad he was so underused throughout the game until the big reveal at the end.)

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The ultimate display of Big Boss’s power comes near the end of the game at Mission 45: Shining Lights, Even in Death. After a second outbreak of a deadly parasite leaves a group of Diamond Dogs stranded in a quarantine zone, Venom enters the zone alone to try to end the disease. After walking through blood soaked hallways and stepping over dozens of his bleeding men, Venom discovers a means of detecting the parasite in others, at which point he resolves to stop the spread by executing all infected personnel.

I’ve never seen a video game attempt anything like this before. After singlehandedly travelling throughout the game world and recruiting these soldiers on battlefields, the player via Venom proceeds to slaughter is own (largely) defenseless men, one by one. Some of the soldiers are too sick to resist, some beg for their lives, and a few even try to futilely defend themselves.

Then in the final section of the quarantine zone, Venom discovers eight soldiers locked in a room who seem relatively less infected by the parasite. As he enters, they appear to be trying to figure out who among them is infected, with two soldiers holding another at gunpoint. But when Venom enters, they stop what they are doing, salute, and one says “let’s let the boss decide.” It turns out that they are all infected. The player must shoot every soldier. As each is shot, the others continue to stand in formation and stare straight ahead, waiting for Venom to end their lives.

Such a display of loyalty and sacrifice would normally never be seen outside of Jonestown or North Korea. It’s a shocking, brutal scene, which bookends a relatively easy-going game (at least by Metal Gear standards). It’s also a magnificent use of interactivity to evoke a theme. It would have been so much easier thematically (and on the player) to make a cutscene showing Venom killing his own men, or even just bombing the quarantine facility, but instead the player must manually pull the trigger which ends his men’s lives. I even used a pistol for the scene, instead of my usual assault rifle, so I could be more precise with my aim and feel the weight of every shot.

Again, no video game has ever created a scene like this.

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The reverence for Big Boss is front and center throughout the entire game. It is a glaring and inescapable component of its narrative and presentation alike. Unlike every other Metal Gear game before it, the protagonist of TTP is in every single gameplay segment and cutscene, during which there are no cuts to distant conversations or slide-show exposition dumps. Instead Venom is the consummate focus of every scene.

TTP’s cutscenes are far more subtle than the usual Metal Gear fare. Every component of them is delicately crafted to showcase Big Boss’s legendary status. Most scenes start with Venom entering a room or disembarking from his helicopter to find his subordinates waiting for him. Often soldiers will be lined up to either side of Venom, rarely looking in his direction, yet standing at attention, ready to receive his commands. Ocelot, Miller, or whoever else the scene may concern are always there to speak with Venom. He is the focus of their jobs, of their passions, really of their lives. Scenes typically end with Venom and his companions silently staring into the distance or overlooking Mother Base with the sunset in the background, as the music rises and the legend’s blank features seemingly strike an effortlessly heroic pose. These stoic gazes will always be my most memorable images of TTP.

The cinematography itself is dramatically different from the old Metal Gears as well. Kojima’s past directing skills have focused on the use of a three-dimensional space with limitless options. He seems to be one of the few video game directors who understand that shooting a scene in a video game doesn’t actually require bulky cameras, so scenes can be shot in an infinite number of manners at almost no cost.

But in TTP Kojima swings in the complete opposite direction, almost to the point of “found footage” style shooting. Nearly every scene (including the entirely of Ground Zeroes) consists of a single continuous, yet dynamic shot. The effect is dazzling; I have never played a game which so expertly made the player feel like he was in the action, even when he has no control over the characters. I would even go as far as to say TTP has the best cinematography of any Metal Gear game, which is enormous praise for such a cinematic series.

As with all of Kojima’s design decision, the new cinematography style isn’t just window dressing. If it weren’t for the fact that no character ever acknowledges it, I would have guessed that there was actually some soldier on Mother Base documenting Big Boss’s return with a hand-held camera. Even if that’s not literally the case, that is the point of the style. Just as millions of individuals pull out their phones and cameras when they see celebrities, Kojima shoots fake Big Boss as if he were a legend worthy of capturing on film at every moment of his existence. The fact that Kojima so drastically altered his style for such a subtle, yet well-crafted touch to the game’s visual aesthetic, is yet another testimony to his tremendous vision.

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To make room for a narrative focused on a single character, TTP resorts to marginalizing its central plot. I personally didn’t mind this alteration too much, but I’m sure many fans of the series will. Basically, the protagonists of the previous Metal Gear games tended to slide into the backgrounds of their plots (Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 is somewhat of an exception). It wasn’t that Solid Snake and Big Boss were unimportant to their games’ narratives, but that they both derived their narrative and thematic purposes from the events of the story itself. That is, the protagonists existed in plot-driven stories, and the best they could do is keep up with the actions of villains and third parties.

TPP’s narrative goes in the opposite direction, with the story events and primary narrative focus deriving almost entirely from the protagonist. Though Diamond Dogs spends most of the game unraveling Skull Face’s plot, the genesis of the organization and its goals are products of Big Boss’s will. While this laser focus on the protagonist creates a unique narrative style for TTP, it also crowds out the space which is normally reserved for the game’s convoluted plot.

Metal Gear plots are insane, they always have been. Everything the player is told at the beginning of every game is a lie. Everyone on the protagonist’s side is evil, a traitor, or has ulterior motives, while everyone on the villain’s side is sympathetic, misunderstood, or actually on the protagonist’s side. Every little event and character has grand implications for the greater Metal Gear continuity. Full-fledged story explanations are a must at the mind-blowing conclusion of every game.

TTP’s plot by contrast is relatively simple. Skull Face is undoubtedly the most boring and simplistic main villain of the Metal Gear console games. He’s basically a psychotic nihilist who wants to wipe out a sizeable portion of earth’s population because a lot of people happen to speak the same language as the US government, which he feels is some sort of historical villain responsible for all of the world’s ills… or something. But the vagueness of Skull Face’s grand design isn’t the problem (it’s pretty common in Metal Gear, neither I nor anyone in the Metal Gear universe seems to know what the Boss was trying to do). The problem is that he is a one-dimensional villain, and the discovery and unravelling of his plan is too straight forward by Metal Gear standards.

Yet again, I think toning down the plot insanity was a design choice by Kojima for the sake of highlighting the stature of Big Boss. To be clear, the plot isn’t that sane. There are still a bunch of characters with super powers, a sentient AI, and apparently parasites can do everything nanomachines can, but much of TTP’s craziness is pushed into the background or into the cassette tapes so it doesn’t outshine Venom Snake’s center stage.

I’m fine with that. For one thing, TTP takes place at the center of the Metal Gear timeline, and making the plot too crazy could create continuity nightmares. But more importantly, TTP is just a different beast from its predecessors. The intense Metal Gear plot is always fun, but it would distract from the quieter, contemplative tone set by TTP.

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I’m still not sure how I would rank The Phantom Pain against the rest of the Metal Gear games in terms of raw quality. It undoubtedly has the best gameplay, but its thematic focus and style are so different that it is hard to compare. That isn’t to say TTP doesn’t feel like a Metal Gear game, it’s more like TTP feels like the quietest moments of the rest of the series drawn out into their own game. Regardless, TTP stands as a marvel in video game storytelling. It’s a benchmark in innovative design and atmosphere building which could be (and has been) matched, but never replicated. Hideo Kojima tried to do something different, and not everyone will understand that, but I see his experiment as a fantastic success.

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