The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Part 1

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Part 1: The Rise of a Legend

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Who is Big Boss? 

Take a step back and consider who Big Boss actually is at the start of Metal Gear Solid V.

Yes, he’s the protagonist of MGS3, PO, and PW. He’s a legendary hero, soldier, and leader. He’s the ultimate mentee of the Boss and seeks to carry on his interpretation of her will. It’s so easy to see Big Boss in this way because it’s the way everyone in the Metal Gear series sees him.

I’d like to suggest that there is another way of looking at Big Boss. In fact, I’d say that Big Boss’s legacy by MGSV is a dangerous legend which is in reality a toxic mixture of genuine heroisms and corrosive demagoguery.

Kojima’s cleverest trick of the last three Metal Gear games was to completely contain the player within Big Boss’s self-created world view. The player may know that Big Boss will eventually be the series’ primary antagonist, but when playing through MGS3, PO, and PW, those days seem so distant and abstract that it can be easy to forget them. In these games Big Boss is not just the protagonist, he also represents the only force standing between the world and nuclear annihilation and/or abject tyranny under Cipher. He is the gruff, charismatic leader of men who stands tall while malicious forces lurk in the background trying to manipulate and undermine peace and liberty. Big Boss is the world’s savior.

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Now take a second and consider what you would think of a real life individual who took the same actions as Big Boss throughout those games.

Imagine there was a real life individual who used to work for the US government on lots of super shady, covert operations, but then he left the US government and created his own private army.

Ok, that’s not that unusual; there are plenty of mercenary companies in the world and some of them were actually started by former spec ops soldiers from national armies.

But what if the soldiers within this army are no ordinary mercenaries working for pay, rather, they are fanatically loyal to their leader. That’s because their boss created and cultivated a cult of personality which framed himself as a visionary leader of marginalized, downtrodden military personnel throughout the world.

Ok, a guy with his own personal army might be kind of scary. But whatever, that just makes him the head of a kooky mercenary company.

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What if some of the soldiers in this kooky mercenary company were formally under the employ of the Soviet Union, terrorist groups (like the Contra), and various oppressive dictatorships?

Ok, that’s bad, but as long they aren’t still fighting for those immoral organizations, it’s not too bad.

What if this guy is willing to work with child soldiers? I mean, he doesn’t go out of his way to recruit them (at least not yet), but if children are fighting on his side in a conflict, he doesn’t mind using them.

Ok, that’s really bad. No children should ever be put in a situation like that. At least it seems like this organization only operates on a small scale…

What if this kooky mercenary company assembles its own private stock pile of armored personnel carriers (APCs), attack choppers, tanks, and modern artillery?

What if it acquires multiple metal gears? Keep in mind that metal gears are de facto WMDs on the battlefield. They are the most combat effective military unit in existence. They are so technologically advanced that only the US and USSR can build them. Some models are even capable of launching nuclear weapons. Speaking of which…

What if this guy’s mercenary company acquires its own nuclear weapons?

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Well shit, that’s a really big deal. The entire world is afraid of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Iran and North Korea have been trying to develop nukes for decades over the protests of the entire international community. Nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a dedicated terrorist group like ISIS or Al Queida is pretty much a worst-case-scenario for basically everyone in the world. And here we have this de facto war lord with his private army getting its very own nuclear weapons? I don’t think the rest of the world would be too happy about that…

Also, this guy’s mercenary company is headquartered on a massive structure off the coast of South America in international waters. So the guy and his army aren’t actually within any country’s jurisdiction. This means that legally no one can tell him what to do with his massive military stockpile. He’s not elected, or even appointed. There is literally no oversight over him, either within our outside of his organization.

It’s a good thing there’s the United Nations to enforce international law…

Well, nobody could actually prove that this guy and his private army had nuclear weapons, though everyone strongly suspected it. So the UN did try to send an investigation to this guy’s off-shore headquarters, but he refused to allow inspectors for a long time, which only amplified international concerns. Eventually, the guy accepted that the UN wasn’t going to just go away, so he allowed for an inspection.

Well that’s good-

But the guy ordered his subordinates to engage in “document destruction” and “hangar decontamination” and to hide his nuclear weapon and metal gear so the UN couldn’t find it. Meanwhile, the guy infiltrated an American military base to kidnap one of its prisoners so he could personally interrogate her for information.

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So this (hypothetical) amazing soldier quits the CIA, builds his own army (AKA becomes a war lord), moves to a doom fortress on the ocean, recruits a massive army which partially consists of soldiers from disreputable organizations and children, uses his charisma to create a cult of personality to ensure loyalty, assembles a massive stockpile of modern military weapons at a technological level more advanced than even the most powerful nations on earth, gets his own metal gear, gets his own nuclear weapon, refuses any oversight whatsoever from any official government body, refuses UN inspections for a while, eventually allows UN inspections, but hides all of his illicit activities from them.

(And I haven’t even brought up all of the evil things Big Boss does after Ground Zeroes yet.)

What do you think of this guy?

That is Big Boss in a nutshell. Behind all the heroics, speeches, and bad-assery is a single man with an undeniably scary amount of power. He accepts no checks on what he can do. If any real person acted anything remotely like Big Boss does, he would rightfully be condemned by the entire world as a warlord/terrorist who should immediately dismantle his organization, or at least surrender to some significant form of scrutiny.

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But What about Cipher?

Counter argument: Everything Big Boss did was necessary to fight Cipher. However dangerous Big Boss may be, Cipher is undoubtedly worse!

Maybe that’s true, but… well… How bad is Cipher really?

(Keep in mind that we’re talking about Zero’s Cipher, not Skull Face’s Cipher, because Big Boss didn’t even know Skull Face existed before Ground Zeroes.)

Yes, Cipher is definitely bad, I’m not denying that. But exactly how bad are they?

Cipher was founded in the early 1970s by Zero (its de facto leader), Dr. Clark, Sigint, Eva, and Ocelot, and would later include Big Boss as a member for a brief time. Zero’s interpretation of the Boss’s will was to forge a unified world of stability. He believed that mankind was naturally prone to stupid, petty, animalistic squabbles which lead to needless chaos and destruction. Zero saw the heroic Boss’s death as a consequence of such conflict since she was sacrificed to maintain an uneasy peace between the world’s two great super powers. Thus Zero set out to unify the world under a single organization capable of controlling the natural violent impulses of the common man.

After Big Boss’s departure in the mid-1970s, Cipher’s power rapidly grew until they became a full-fledged shadow government with more real power than the United States government. Aside from Skull Face’s reign over Cipher between (roughly) 1975 and 1984, Zero’s Cipher was the most powerful organization in the world from (about) 1970 to 2014, a 44 year stretch in total. Throughout this entire time period, Cipher would consistently expand its scope of command over the world until it reached literal 1984 levels of control in the 2000s.

During this time Cipher undoubtedly did a lot of shady shit.

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It more or less took control of American foreign affairs, it accelerated weapons research technology to create ever more powerful metal gears, stronger nuclear weapons, the vocal cord parasite, Les Enfentes Terribles, and the Genome Soldier project. It also oversaw the development of sophisticated AIs which would eventually run the entire organization after the incapacitation of Zero. As manipulative and controlling as Zero was, the AIs brought their level of totalitarian dominance to a whole new level through GW’s information control. Although details on the extent of Cipher’s power is sketchy, we know that by the early 2000s they had the ability to completely control the US government (including hand-picking the president) and even to micromanage the flow of digital information on the internet.

The final manifestation of Zero’s plan was the “war economy” in MGS4, wherein the entire world fed into an endless cycle of pointless proxy wars as a means of consuming resources and directing aggression to maintain a balance of power and a peaceful world stage.

So Cipher undoubtedly did a lot of horrible things, but dare I say it also did some good things.

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At the very least, Cipher should be credited with crushing quite a few terrorist operations which had the potential to cause untold death and destruction. Actually, you can look at most of the Metal Gear series as a sequence of instances of Cipher stopping some maniac from blowing up the world.

Cipher’s first major operation was the San Hieronymo incident (Portable Ops) where they helped prevent Gene, a crazed warlord, from seizing the rest of the philosopher’s legacy and launching his own metal gear and nuclear armed private state. Next Cipher assisted Big Boss in stopping Hot Coldman in Costa Rica (Peace Walker) from launching a nuke and potentially igniting the Cold War. Even after Zero lost control over Cipher during the next nine years, he initiated the Phantom Big Boss Project to jump-start a copy of Big Boss to stop Skull Face from using the vocal cord parasite to annihilate every English speaker on earth (MGSV). Then with Zero’s AIs in control, Cipher stopped Big Boss’s insurrections twice via Solid Snake (Metal Gear 1 and 2, I’ll discuss these more later on), followed by two copycat revolutions lead by Liquid Snake (MGS1) and Solidus Snake respectively (MGS2).

It is undoubtedly true that Cipher played a significant role in creating these revolutions through its own actions (ex. creating Liquid Snake and Solidus Snake to begin with). But even still, Cipher did play a considerable role in keeping the world relatively safe and stable for over forty years while various maniacs kept trying to blow it up. And speaking of one of those maniacs…

I think there’s a good case to be made that Big Boss’s vision of the world is actually worse than Cipher. Yes, Zero’s Cipher sought to create an Orwellian system of political, economic, and eventually information control to limit people’s freedom in order to preserve order through tyranny, and that is definitely not a good thing. But what does Big Boss offer as an alternative?

Outer Heaven.

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What is Outer Heaven?

Outer Heaven is Big Boss’s interpretation of the Boss’s will. Big Boss killed the Boss with his own hands at the behest of distant government officials who saw fit to carelessly dispatch one of their greatest heroes for the sake of political convenience. In response, Big Boss sought to create a world where soldiers are given the highest priority and are never subjugated to the arbitrary whims of other forces.

After the defeat of Gene at San Hieronymo, Big Boss took the remnants of his resources and created Militaires Sans Frontieres, the first manifestation of Outer Heaven, albeit on a small scale. MSF wasn’t just a mercenary company, it was an organization run by and for the sake of its soldiers completely outside the bounds of the world’s governments, including the US and USSR. It’s at this time that Big Boss’s already existing cult of personality warps him into a living legend; the true successor of the Boss in the hearts of the world’s soldiers.

At the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss sums up his philosophy in the following speech:

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.”

(Note the mention of “hell,” a reoccurring motif in MGSV I’ll talk about later).

Again, put aside all of the heroics, pageantry, and the completely legitimate acknowledgement that Big Boss fights the evil Cipher and a lot of other really bad forces and think about what the hell Outer Heaven really is.

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As far as I can tell based on the actions and words of Big Boss, Outer Heaven is the philosophy of a military-centric dictatorship with a reverent attitude towards chronic warfare as a way of life. Yes, it’s admirable that Big Boss wants to protect innocent soldiers from the cold calculus of politics, but the alternative Big Boss offers is to basically hand control of all politics over to the soldiers. Basically Big Boss wanted to replace the world’s conniving politicians and the civilian nations they run with mercenary companies operated by charismatic warlords like himself (and equally unhinged loons like Kaz, Ocelot, etc.)

So Big Boss wanted to put all of the world’s military power under the control of unaccountable soldiers with the explicit intention of using their power to continue fighting the world’s wars for their own personal benefit. This arrangement should supposedly ensure that the type of situation which lead to the Boss’s death can never happen again.

On the other hand, Zero wanted to put the world’s power under the control of a secretive shadow government which would pull the strings behind the scenes to maintain a balance of power and manipulate every individual down to the informational level to prevent the type of divisions that lead to the Boss’s death.

Is Big Boss’s philosophy really any better than Zero’s? Again, Cipher is undoubtedly not a morally good organization, but neither is Outer Heaven. And in retrospect, whatever Cipher’s faults may be, its global multi-decade reign of relative peace seemed a hell of a lot better than letting Big Boss become the single most powerful guy on earth so he can run his metal gear/nuclear armed military fantasy.

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Big Boss is not a good guy. He may fight lots of bad people, and he definitely accomplishes some good things, but his ultimate goal is just as bad, if not worse than Cipher’s objective.

And yet, Big Boss’s greatest sin was not building an unaccountable army, lying to the United Nations, or even acquiring nuclear weapons. Rather, Big Boss’s greatest crime was something he did to a single man…

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The Phantom Big Boss Plan

During the events of Ground Zeroes, Big Boss falls into a coma (for the second of three times in his life somehow) as does the MSF medic who shielded Big Boss from an explosion. The MSF medic, who later becomes known as Venom Snake, wakes up nine years later, while Big Boss wakes up at some unspecified time before Venom. While both men were unconscious, Zero was poisoned by Skull Face with the English strain of the vocal cord parasite. Zero assumed he would die or at least become incapacitated, so he launched the Phantom Big Boss Plan (PBBP) as a means of striking back against Skull Face and of preserving the life of Big Boss, who, despite their immense differences, Zero still admired.

The PBBP was an operation designed to provide cover for Big Boss while he recovered from his coma and the loss of MSF by setting up an identical “phantom Big Boss” to draw the attention of Big Boss’s global enemies, especially Skull Face.

While unconscious, Venom Snake’s body would be altered by surgery and his personality would be transformed into Big Boss’s through hypnotherapy. In an audiotape Big Boss mentions that Venom was “was always the best man we had” in all of MSF, and therefore probably one of the best soldiers in the world. Add a little bit of the canonically established S3 phenomenon in there (“given the right situation, the right story, anyone can be shaped into Snake”), and it’s entirely plausible (within the rules of the Metal Gear universe) that a soldier could adapt to the personal capability requirements of embodying Big Boss. To support the Phantom and ensure his success, Zero also recruited Kaz and Ocelot into the operation. Ocelot was in on the operation from the beginning but would undergo hypnotherapy so he wouldn’t know Venom’s true identity, while Kaz would merely be mislead by Zero.

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Imagine you had the opportunity to get the same treatment as Venom Snake. Forget about becoming a copy of Big Boss for now, and just focus on the nature of the transition.

Imagine that your entire psychological being was eliminated from existence. Whatever personality you have developed over the 20, 30, 40, etc. years of life you’ve lived up until this point is gone. It is no more. Your parents, siblings, children, friends, spouse, partner, pet, etc. will never hear from you again. And you will never remember they existed.

All you are, all you’ve done, everyone you know, all you could be or could have been, is gone.

This is what happens to Venom Snake through the PBBP. We (the players) may not have known anything about Venom before the events of MGSV but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a real person within the Metal Gear universe. He had a life, a personality, people he knew, ambitions, ideas, virtues, vices, and every other facet of consciousness known to man.

And Big Boss lets it all end.

Venom Snake survived as the Phantom Big Boss from 1984 to 1995. During that time, he builds Diamond Dogs up from nothing to the most powerful mercenary company in the world. Venom defeats XOF and stops Skull Face from slaughtering hundreds of millions of people with the English vocal cord parasite. Venom stops Skull Face from selling hundreds of nuclear weapons to various terrorist groups, failed states, and warlords who could terrorize or destroy the world. Venom destroys Metal Gear Sahelanthropus (multiple times) and makes sure it stays in a state of disrepair so no other force can use it for evil. He rescues child soldiers, supports environmental NGOs, and generally runs a productive, benevolent private military company.

Then Venom is killed by Solid Snake, a rookie soldier working for the covert US military organization, FOXHOUND. Big Boss was the commander of FOXHOUND.

During that same time frame, Big Boss wandered around the world playing bit parts in various conflicts and infiltrated the US government to run FOXHOUND. From this position of power, Big Boss covertly built up a secret private army in Zanzibarland, where he would eventually form Outer Heaven and stage his coup against the Patriots.

Let’s look at this another way…

The heroic Big Boss’s best soldier, Venom Snake, is essentially kidnapped, brainwashed, and surgically altered entirely against his will just so he can serve as a long term human shield for Big Boss. Big Boss wakes up from his coma, finds out about this plan and goes along with it. For nine years, Big Boss lets Venom stop Skull Face and take the heat from Cipher, during which time Venom goes through indescribable physical and emotional anguish as he carries the mantle of leadership created by Big Boss, which includes but is not limited to, constantly engaging in warfare, seeing subordinates suffer and die under his command, and fearing for his life every single day. Meanwhile, Big Boss sits in the background of international affairs safety and slowly accumulates power without attracting the Patriot’s attention since they were too busy dealing with Venom. Finally, once Big Boss feels like he is strong enough to launch his revolution, he kills Venom, reassumes command over the Outer Heaven Movement, and more or less steals the reputational and moral credit accumulated by Venom over the preceding nine years to bolster his own coup. 

This is the heart of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This is the moral downfall built up by Kojima throughout the game’s marketing.

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Betrayal

The entirety of Metal Gear Solid V, its themes, characters, place in the overall canon, and the very purpose of its existence, rests on what Big Boss does to Venom Snake. And it’s really the only important plot point that Metal Gear fans didn’t know before starting the game.

MGSV’s numerous trailers leading up to launch reveal just about every major event in the game that relates to the overall Metal Gear canon. Seriously, the trailers prominently feature clips from throughout the mid to late game missions, including quite a bit from “Shining Lights, Even in Death” (Snake walking down a hallway filled with the corpses of his comrades, burning bodies, Snake rubbing ashes over his face, etc.), which is literally the second to last story mission in the entire game. Before the game was even released, an avid Metal Gear fan would have known that MGSV was about Big Boss’s turn to darkness, Big Boss rebuilding his army to get revenge on Skull Face, the rise of a new metal gear (which is entirely revealed in the trailers, a series first to my knowledge), and the existence of every single significant character in the game (Eli, Code Talker, Quiet, Huey, Psycho Mantis, and Volgin all show up in the trailers). Sure, the trailers don’t reveal the full extent of Skull Face’s plans, or Snake’s dealing with a bunch of random African PFs, but these are relatively unimportant plot elements within the grand Metal Gear canon.

Really, the only significant plot point the player didn’t know before starting the game was the final twist: the protagonist of MGSV is not Big Boss.

The key to understanding MGSV is to grasp that the presence of Venom Snake is the only thing that really matters in the story. Sure, there are some interesting (for a long-time Metal Gear fan) details about the backstories of popular characters like Liquid Snake, Psycho Mantis, and Volgin, but those are just amusing asides.

All that really matters is what happened to Venom Snake and how he behaves throughout the story. And to understand the significance of this, the player has to understand one simple, incredibly vital fact:

What Big Boss did to Venom Snake is unforgivably evil.

Ok, technically Big Boss was not the architect of the “Phantom Big Boss Plan,” Zero was. But once Big Boss awoke from his coma and learned of the PBBP, he not only went along with it, but made it an integral component of his long term plans.

This action by Big Boss was not just wrong, it constituted a complete repudiation of all of the principles for which he had stood throughout his life. It was an abjectly monstrous act. It was a betrayal of the ideals he had fought for throughout MGS3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker. It was the singular event which irrevocably corrupted the soul of Big Boss.

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At the heart of the great series-spanning conflict in the Metal Gear universe is an on-going war over the correct interpretation of the Boss’s will. Big Boss may be the more enduring and active character in the series, but the Boss represents the grand narrative’s soul.

Not only was the Boss considered one of the greatest soldiers of all time, she was the greatest military and covert asset the United States had ever possessed. She was the “Mother of Special Forces,” a hero of World War II who stormed the beaches of D-Day and more or less won the entire operation for the Allies. She was also Big Boss’s personal mentor, surrogate mother, and even lover. She taught Big Boss everything he knew about combat and made him the greatest soldier in history.

By the time the player meets the Boss in MGS3, she is a sage, but world-weary individual. Because of her history, the Boss is well aware of the nature of politics, warfare, and the unfortunate results of soldiers caught in the intersection of the two. Thus after an unexpected turn of events (Volgin launching a nuke in the Soviet Union), the Boss is ordered by her country to make the ultimate sacrifice; to end her life at the hands of her mentee for the sake of maintaining the precarious balance of international diplomacy. Thus the most heroic soldier who ever lived was sacrificed on the alter of politics, to be forever remembered as a terrorist and historical villain rather than as the paragon of virtue she truly was.

After the events of MGS3 and a short stint with the newly reformed Philosophers headed by Zero, Snake formed  Militaires Sans Fronteires, a private military company which was essentially designed to prevent what happened to the Boss in MGS3 from happening to any worthy soldier ever again. Big Boss proceeded to recruit hundreds of soldiers into MSF, an army without borders which promised to place the lives and livelihood of its soldiers above all other concerns. It was the sole organization in the world dedicated to treating its military defenders with dignity and honor rather than use its best and bravest men as pawns in convoluted plots to be tossed away for the slightest gain for unseen bureaucrats and politicians.

And then in MGSV, Big Boss does to Venom Snake precisely what the US government did to the Boss in MGS3. Just as the US government sacrificed the life and honor its most heroic soldier for the sake of its diplomatic goals, Big Boss sacrificed the life and mind of his best soldier for the sake of furthering his future goals.

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As bad of a person as Big Boss became between MGS3 and Ground Zeroes (though many fans of the game were too blinded by his charisma to see how evil he had become), Big Boss’s ultimate moral turning point came when he went along with Zero’s plan to use Venom Snake as a phantom.

Up until this point, Big Boss could weakly justify a lot of his actions with an “ends justify the means” argument. Yeah, maybe operating an unaccountable army outside of any official jurisdiction is dangerous, but it’s necessary to fight Cipher. Yeah, maybe collecting metal gears and nuclear weapons puts far too much power in the hands of one man, but MSF has to defend itself against Cipher and all else who threaten it.

After all, MSF was Big Boss’s early incarnation of his dream of Outer Heaven. It was a powerful organization dedicated to protecting soldiers above all else. Big Boss had seen petty politics kill his mentor, one of the most heroic individuals to ever live. And now his former comrade, Zero, was trying to create a global system of totalitarian dominance which would subject everyone, especially soldiers, to its whims. In the eyes of Big Boss and his followers, any measures were justified to combat this threat.

But when the opportunity arose, Big Boss became just like the forces he had always fought against. He betrayed his soldier for the sake of what Big Boss perceived to be more important goals. And not just any soldier, but “always the best man we had” in MSF. A man who nearly died while using his own body to shield Big Boss from an explosion.

Big Boss erased Venom’s mind, enslaved Venom’s life, coercively saddled him with the crippling responsibility to leading a war he didn’t want to lead during its most dire days. Then even after Venom somehow succeeded and thrived under all of that pressure, Big Boss killed his own man simply because he was in the way of his own personal ambitions.

Continue to Part 2.

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2 thoughts on “The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Part 1

  1. Anton

    You have to understand that

    A: Big Boss was really reluctant to have Venom as his Phantom.
    B: Venom was actually OK with being Big Boss
    C: Big Boss sent Solid Snake to get false information and then head back. He never intended for Venom to die because believe it or not both of them were close friends. A lot of people get this wrong it irritates me beyond reason.

    Like

    1. Hi Anton,

      I didn’t see evidence for any of these assertions in the game. To be more specific:

      A. BB is not reluctant in the end-game tapes to use Venom as a human shield. If anything, he seems to run with the idea very quickly. And even if he was reluctant, he still DOES it.

      B. The only evidence that Venom was ok with being BB is the smile in the “Behind the Mirror” cutscence. But of course, the smile is more than negated with the following “demon venom punches reflection in the mirror” that follows shortly afterward. And again, EVEN if Venom was ok with being BB, this is brainwashed Venom, he is not making the decision with a clear mind.

      C. I admit my “assassination thesis” is speculative, but it best fits the contextual evidence.I don’t recall any indication whatsoever that BB sent Solid Snake in Metal Gear 1 just to get false info. BB and Venom were most certainly not “close friends” given that they hadn’t seen each other in almost 20 years by that point. Given BB’s plan to emerge from hiding, he had a strong incentive to eliminate his doppleganger.

      Like

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