Part 2: Venom Snake vs. Big Boss
Phantoms and Parasites
The nature of parasites is a prominent theme throughout MGSV. In the game, Kojima posits multiple ways of thinking about the relationships between parasites and their hosts. XOF is described as a parasite of Cipher (since it survived and prospered by cleaning up Fox’s and Cipher’s messes) which eventually ended up not just consuming its host, but taking its place. Skull Face described the English language as a sort of “conqueror’s parasite” which latched onto lesser languages and weakened them into obsolescence. Code Talker describes (at length) how an ancient parasite infected human beings and was initially a detriment to their health, but adapted into a symbiotic relationship with humans by giving us the ability to speak.
In Metal Gear Solid V, phantoms are essentially psychological parasites.
Kaz’s loss of MSF and his limbs drive him into a blind, vengeful rage in MGSV. Rather than attempt to quell his feelings, Kaz feeds them, embraces them as a part of himself. He lets the “phantom pain” caused by the anguish of losing his comrades control his mind and drive him against Skull Face. This relationship between Kaz and his pain becomes just as important as the relationship between any host and its parasite.
Likewise, Skull Face suffered immense trauma as a youth, having lost his family, homeland, language, and even his own face (via burning and torture). This trauma hardened in his mind over time and became an enormous source of phantom pain that manifested as a sort of extremist nihilism. Eventually this phantom drives skull face to want to use the English parasite to kill all English speakers (because he blames the United States for his childhood) to bring the world into a bizarre state of egalitarianism based on mutual pain and suffering.
Venom Snake is repeatedly referred to as a Phantom of Big Boss in the post-Truth mission cassette tapes between Big Boss, Zero, Ocelot, and Kaz. The implication is that Venom is a parasite living off of Big Boss. Not in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical or even spiritual sense. Venom is put into Big Boss’s life to live and fight as Big Boss. Big Boss made himself into a legend through his own actions and will throughout his life, and then Venom was granted custody of this legend to continue to Big Boss’s legacy.
In reality, the exact opposite is true. Big Boss is the parasite on Venom Snake.
It is Big Boss who lives off of the efforts and accomplishments of Venom Snake, not nice versa. Venom Snake is forced against his will to do Big Boss’s work and then is disposed of at Big Boss’s discretion.
This is the Phantom Pain. It’s the pain Venom Snake feels when he is forced to live as Big Boss. It’s the pain we see throughout the events of MGSV when he is manipulated by his situation, his subordinates, and by his own mind to act against his nature.
Make no mistake about it, Venom Snake is in pain throughout Metal Gear Solid V.
Revenge is the primary motivating factor for nearly every character in Metal Gear Solid V:
- Big Boss (the real one) wanted revenge on Skull Face and Cipher for destroying MSF, so he goes along with the PBBP.
- Kaz wanted revenge on Skull Face for destroying MSF so he goes along with the PBBP and works with Venom Snake to destroy Cipher.
- Skull Face wants revenge on America for (metaphorically) destroying his native land, language, and family, so he seeks to eradicate the English language with the vocal cord parasite.
- Quiet wanted revenge on Big Boss for maiming her at the hospital in Cyprus (maybe, I’ll discuss her more later), so she goes undercover in his army with the intention of spreading the English vocal cord parasite.
- Code Talker wanted revenge on the US government for destroying the Navajo people, so he invented the vocal cord parasite. It might also be argued that he eventually joined Diamond Dogs to get revenge on Skull Face for stealing the vocal cord parasite and using it for evil and/or for holding the Navajo people hostage to coerce Code Talker into continuing his research.
- Huey’s motivations are a bit more difficult to decipher since he seems to be a compulsive liar. But even still, he ostensibly wanted revenge against Skull Face for destroying MSF, holding him hostage for nine years, and for stealing his metal gear designs, thus he assisted Diamond Dogs. Huey also may have wanted revenge against Snake, Kaz, and/or Diamond Dogs for their general mistreatment of him, so he helped Eli and supporters steal Sahelanthropus, and he triggered the second vocal cord parasite outbreak on Mother Base.
- Eli wanted revenge against Big Boss for his perceived abandonment of Eli as a child and for supposedly building Eli out of weaker, recessive genes (which is not only not true, but also based on a bad understanding of genetics). Later Eli wanted revenge against Big Boss for essentially kidnapping and disarming him.
- The Man on Fire, AKA Colonel Volgin, wanted revenge against Big Boss for de facto killing him during the events of MGS3.
- The Floating Boy didn’t technically have any desire for revenge himself, but apparently he psychically fed off of individuals he came in contact with who had strong desires for revenge. Hence, control over the Floating Boy jumped between The Man on Fire, Skull Face, and Eli.
There are two major characters who are conspicuously not motivated by a desire for revenge.
The first is Revolver Ocelot. He may be a key player at Diamond Dogs who helps Venom and Kaz fight Skull Face, but he was never a part of MSF, and therefore was not intimately connected to its downfall and has no specific impetus for hating Skull Face, let alone wanting to get revenge on him. We eventually learn that Zero asked Ocelot to protect Big Boss during his coma and to support the PBBP. Beyond a general loyalty to Big Boss, unfortunately we never get any deeper characterization or a better explanation for his motivations in MGSV. Ultimately, I think this was a mistake on Kojima’s part.
Of course the second character is Venom Snake.
Venom’s ostensible motivations throughout the game are the same as Kaz’s: revenge against Skull Face, XOF, and Cipher for destroying MSF. But there are two problems with this motivation. First, we know it only exists due to the implanted memories and personality of Big Boss. Second, despite the fact that the MGSV trailers, Kaz, and pretty much everything else in the entire game say that this is Venom’s motivation… we don’t actually even see Venom say anything about it.
Seriously, Venom never once expresses an iota of anger or desire for revenge against Skull Face, XOF, or Cipher. The player constantly sees Kaz ranting and raving about all he’s lost and his lust for destruction. He purposefully refuses to use a prosthetic arm or leg to maintain the pain from his lost limbs to keep his desire for revenge at a heightened visceral level. He brutally tortures Huey and Quiet in fits of rage. The once measured, calculating man who carefully supported Big Boss during his ascension in Peace Walker is reduced to a cruel maniac in The Phantom Pain who constantly clashes with the more level-headed Ocelot and stoic Venom Snake, even to the point of threatening to murder the latter when he tried to bring Quiet to Mother Base.
And yet Venom never says or does anything to indicate his personal feelings on the matter.
Recall Skull Face’s death. He loses control over his own metal gear and ends up pitifully trapped under a steel beam with an encroaching fire nearby. Venom, Kaz, and Huey find Skull Face in this position and they naturally offer Venom the opportunity to finish Skull Face off and finally fulfill his supposedly burning lust for revenge. The player ends up in nearly the exact same position from the end of MGS3 when Big Boss stands over the critically wounded Boss and points a gun at her head. In the case of MGS3 the player has no choice but to fire and complete both the Boss and Big Boss’s respective missions.
But in the case of MGSV, the player as Venom is given the choice of whether or not to finish Skull Face off. Note that in the scene (video here), Venom is just as stoic and calm as ever. He doesn’t appear angry, confused, excited, or to have any other emotion one would typically associate with revenge. If the player chooses not to shoot Skull Face, then Kaz grabs Venom’s hand and forces Venom to shoot him anyway. And Kaz doesn’t just execute Skull Face quickly, rather, Kaz forces Venom to shoot off Skull Face’s arm and leg in a cruel reciprocation of Kaz’s own injuries. They end up shooting Skull Face seven times before leaving him to burn to death (though Huey ends up executing Skull Face anyway).
This is a metaphor for Venom Snake’s character throughout the entire game.
We don’t exactly how the true Venom Snake would feel about Skull Face, XOF, and Cipher if hadn’t gone through the PBBP. What we do know is that the real Big Boss has every reason to be as vengeful as Kaz. Because of Skull Face and Cipher, Big Boss lost MSF, lost all of his soldiers, lost nine years of his life to a coma, lost Paz and Chico, and lost his ability to realize the Boss’s vision by changing the world in her image. It’s evident that Big Boss is so enraged by what happened to him in Ground Zeroes that he goes along with Zero’s insane PBBP scheme and proceeds to brainwash and manipulate “one of his best men” for the purpose of unknowingly serving as Big Boss’s human shield just to take a shot at Cipher.
In other word’s Big Boss’s means of revenge were to wipe Venom Snake’s personality, implanted his own personality in Venom Snake, and then unleashed this new “Phantom Big Boss” against Skull Face, with the support of ace soldiers Kaz and Ocelot, while Big Boss himself worked covertly behind the scenes to destroy Cipher once and for all. This is the PBBP.
I think the most ingenious aspect of all of MGSV is that unbeknownst to Zero, Big Boss, Kaz, Ocelot, or anyone else (with the possible exception of Quiet, as I’ll describe later), there happens to be an unexpected twist in the PBBP:
Big Boss’s personality never completely overrides Venom Snake’s personality.
One of the most common complaints from players about MGSV is that Big Boss seemingly reverts from this charismatic, larger-than-life legend, to this border-line mute stoic who, despite ostensibly being the leader of Diamond Dogs, rarely actually makes any decisions. In George Weidman’s analysis of the game, he suggests that this character change was done by Kojima as a means of merging the player with the protagonist, in a similar vein as most silent protagonists in video games, or even the personality-deficient Solid Snake in the early Metal Gear games. As an example, Weidman points to the end of the “Truth” mission when Venom looks at the mirror and sees his reflection as the avatar designed by the player at the beginning of the game.
I think this is a bad misreading of what Kojima intended to do with Venom.
The reason Venom is so quiet and often passive throughout the game is because there is a constant war in his mind raging between his own natural personality and Big Boss’s implanted personality.
A Different Boss
Kojima promoted MGSV as the Metal Gear game in which we would finally see Big Boss become a villain. He delivered on that promise. But he did so in such a way as to purposefully obfuscate the process. Everyone expected to see Big Boss’s lust for revenge turn him into a madman who would do anything for his cause. Instead Big Boss was already at that point prior to MGSV and the game’s ultimate twist revealed his moral corruption in its most distilled form: the sacrifice of Venom Snake.
But with that being said, what’s the point of MGSV’s plot? I mean, if the PBBP was really all that mattered to story, why did we need to watch Venom build Diamond Dogs and chase Skull Face for 80 hours?
The entirety of MGSV’s plot was designed to demonstrate Big Boss’s evil by contrast to Venom’s actions. Venom looks like Big Boss, talks like Big Boss, and fights like Big Boss, but he doesn’t act like Big Boss.
MGSV is remarkably subtle in this regard. The game masterfully plays with player expectations to obscure how strangely Venom behaves compared to the Big Boss we saw in the previous games. I, for one, remember constantly rationalizing Venom’s actions throughout my first playthrough to try to fit them into my understanding of Big Boss. I thought maybe Big Boss had suffered some sort of head trauma from his injuries, or maybe his defeat in Ground Zeroes had irrevocably humbled him.
Consider this speech the real Big Boss makes to his army at the triumphant conclusion of Peace Walker (video here):
“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.”
Does this sound anything like the stoic, contemplative Venom Snake of MGSV? It certainly sounds like the stuff Kaz was saying throughout most of the game. It even kind of sounds like an optimistically mirrored version of what Skull Face would say. But it sounds absolutely nothing like Venom.
Compare Big Boss’s big endgame speech to his soldiers at the end of Peace Walker to two of Venom’s speeches in MGSV.
First, Venom speaking to his deceased men after stopping the second vocal cord outbreak in the “Shining Lights, Even in Death” mission (video here):
“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea… I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me… I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”
Second, Venom’s speech to the Boss in the secret, “all nukes disposed” ending (video here):
“I haven’t forgotten what you told me, Boss. We have no tomorrow, but there’s still hope for the future. In our struggle to survive the present, we push the future further away. Will I see it in my lifetime? Probably not. Which means there’s no time to waste. Someday the world will no longer need us. No need for the gun, or the hand to pull the trigger. I have to drive out this demon inside me – build a better future. That’s what I – what we – will leave as our legacy. Another mission, right Boss?”
The two men may look, speak, and fight the same way, and they might even have the same memories and comrades, but they are not the same. Their goals, motivations, and most noticeably, their tones, are drastically different.
Venom may have been surgically and mentally broken down and rebuilt by Zero, but his soul remains beneath the façade. Metal Gear Solid V is all about the surviving aspects of Venom’s self struggling to exist underneath the stifling presence of Big Boss’s artificially imposed personality.
Big Boss as the Strongman
Big Boss is a classic strongman: an individual who proclaims the moral right to rule in an authoritarian manner due to his own particularly virtues.
Consider all of Big Boss’s actions I listed in the Who is Big Boss? section of Part 1. Throughout his career, Big Boss amasses an extraordinarily powerful private military force, armed with modern military equipment, metal gears, and even a nuclear weapon, and then refuses to accept any oversight over his operations. From an outsider’s perspective, the obvious problem with this is that if Big Boss has malevolent intentions he could destabilize the political world order, cause untold destruction, and kill a whole lot of people.
Sure, Big Boss claims that evil powers throughout the world are trying to kill him and destroy his virtuous haven for disenfranchised soldiers, and that therefore he amassed all of his power for self-defense. But how do we know he’s telling the truth? How do we know he won’t change his mind later and decide to use his military arsenal for extortion? Or to invade another country? Maybe he’s a good guy now but he could become unhinged later for any number of reasons and lash out. Maybe he dies or becomes incapacitated and his successor is a more malevolent and dishonest individual like the borderline psychotic Kaz, or habitual master manipulator, Ocelot.
A million different things could potentially change or go wrong and suddenly this allegedly defensive haven for the oppressed becomes the greatest military threat the free world has ever seen.
If somehow a reporter managed to sit Big Boss down in 1975, after the events of Peace Walker but before Ground Zeroes, and ask Big Boss how he can possibly justify his actions, what would Big Boss say in his own defense?
Really. That’s it. That’s basically the only argument Big Boss has on his side. In today’s world, most people don’t trust the governments of Iran, North Korea, or ISIS to possess nukes, but we should totally trust this disgruntled ex-CIA agent with a dark past and a cult of personality to possess the most powerful weapons on earth with no oversight whatsoever.
Why should we trust Big Boss?
Well, because he’s Big Boss. He’s a legendary soldier known throughout the military world not just for his combat skills, but for his part in helping downtrodden people in various conflict zones (or at least San Hieronymo and Costa Rica). We can see that he is utterly beloved by his subordinates, seemingly all of whom would (and some of whom already have) take a bullet for him without hesitation. His history of contact with the CIA, the KGB, FOX, the philosophers, and all those other incredibly interesting Metal Gear characters gives him a unique insight into the political nature of the world and how it should be changed. And of course, Big Boss was the ultimate protégée and killer of the Boss, a practically mythical figure amongst the world’s military personnel. By extension, Big Boss has the most obvious moral claim of being the Boss’s spiritual successor (which is literally reflected in his name) and therefore has the right to claim a mantle of immense power in the world of the Metal Gear series.
In other words, Big Boss should get the unique right to personally control one of the most powerful military forces with absolute authority because he’s just so damn special. Checks and balances, a balance of power, consent of the governed, transparency, democracy, diplomatic cooperation, the United Nations, and everything else like that is rendered utterly irrelevant because Big Boss is such an amazing individual. He’s too noble, too important, too strong to bear the normal societal restraints of mere mortals.
Power and Authority
Now compare the strongman Big Boss to Venom Snake.
During the events of Peace Walker, Big Boss decides that MSF needs its own metal gear. Colonel Volgin had had his own metal gear, Gene had his own metal gear, Hot Coldman had his own metal gear, and Cipher was in the process of building its own metal gear. Big Boss was tired of being the weaker party in his conflicts. He felt that MSF needed an equalizer on the battlefield, a weapon which could undoubtedly defeat any foe in conventional combat. So he used his resources to develop his very own Metal Gear ZEKE to make MSF a true force on a global scale.
At the conclusion of Act 1 of MGSV, Venom recovers a damaged, yet potentially functional Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Not only was it the most advanced metal gear to date, but it also had the power to deploy metallic archaea, a revolutionary weapon developed by Skull Face which rendered all metals and nuclear materials unusable. Venom could have easily had Sahelanthropus repaired and used it as his very own anti-nuclear weapon. Regardless of the strength of Diamond Dogs, this single weapon would have made Venom’s army one of the most formidable forces on the planet.
Check out the cutscene here. Note the crescendo at 2:48, when the captured metal gear stands at attention in front of Venom and his lieutenants. Right there we see that Sahelanthropus is at Venom’s beck and call. All this strength, all this power in the hands of one great man who can use it however he pleases.
And yet Venom doesn’t rebuild Sahelanthropus. Instead he claims it as a symbol, or really a monument, for the success of Diamond Dogs. As Venom says in a cassette tape, “Sahelanthropus is a symbol that the likes of us brought at least one crisis to its end.” It’s not a narcissistic trophy of victory, but a piece of evidence of a great and powerful weapon which Diamond Dogs stopped from being unleashed on the world.
A similar pattern exists between Big Boss and Venom with nuclear weapons.
At the conclusion of Peace Walker, Big Boss recovers Hot Coldman’s nuclear bomb and adds it to his arsenal. Of course, he rationalizes this action with the same argument he used to build Metal Gear ZEKE: MSF needs the best possible weapons to ensure its own survival. MSF’s possession of the nuke was eventually leaked by Cipher to the United Nations, thereby encouraging an inspection of MSF. Of course, Big Boss decided to hide the nuke and ZEKE, preferring to lie to the UN rather than risk conflict with the rest of the world’s nations which (not unreasonably) would be extremely troubled at the thought of a rogue private army possessing WMDs.
Venom Snake’s relationship with nuclear weapons is somewhat more difficult to ascertain. Venom can either build or steal nukes, but only at the player’s discretion via the FOB online mode. Kojima used this online system as a means of putting the player into a simulation of the effects of nuclear weapons on international diplomacy. Players with nukes can launch them at aggressive opponents to cause devastating effects. Of course, this incentivizes other players to get their own nukes as a means of deterrence via Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But sometimes two players with nukes attack each other anyway and both end up sustaining enormous damage to neither’s benefit.
However, I think we can infer that the player’s choice to acquire nukes is essentially a semi-canonical manifestation of Big Boss’s personality in Venom Snake. After all, there is no action in the game which comes close to producing as many Demon Points (which I will explain later is a representation of Big Boss’s influence on Venom) as building a nuke, and no action which eliminates as many points as disposing of a nuke. Meanwhile, if enough players work together to dispose of all of the nukes in the online world, the game triggers the secret ending in which Venom speaks to the Boss about building a better future for the world.
So if the player builds nukes, he turns Venom Snake into the bloody personification of Big Boss. If he dismantles enough nukes, he provokes the ultimate ending of the game in which Venom describes his heartfelt desire for world peace (as I’ll explain fully in Part 3).
As with metal gears, Big Boss arms himself with nukes because he believes himself to be uniquely morally qualified to possess extraordinarily dangerous weapons, while Venom supports disposing of all nukes because he believes no man should possess such immense power.
Big Boss is a strongman because he believes the standard rules of conduct do not apply to him. Venom repudiates this outlook with his handling of a metal gear and nukes, but the ultimate manifestation of his viewpoint isn’t revealed until the trial of Huey Emmerich.
(As an aside, I think Huey is an absolutely brilliant character in MGSV. He is an example of an ingenious inversion of expectations and reality. Up until MGSV, Metal Gear fans have been conditioned to associate the Emmerich characters [Huey, Hal, and Emma] with physical and often emotional weakness but also moral goodness, empathy, and compassion. Kojima used Huey as a foil to this trend, not only in a broad narrative sense, but even Huey himself uses his weak outward apperence to curry sympathy and pity from his various captors. I may eventually get around to writing an entire separate piece about Huey Emmerich.)
Near the end of Act II, Huey is apprehended by Diamond Dog personnel and placed on “trial” for a litany of charges: conspiring with Skull Face to destroy MSF, working with Skull Face on Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Killing Dr. Strangelove, helping Eli repair and steal Sahelanthropus, and altering the wolbachia to trigger another vocal cord parasite outbreak on Mother Base. That’s a lot of bad shit. Fortunately for Huey, with the arguably exception of Dr. Strangelove’s murder, there is no smoking gun evidence for any of the charges. Unfortunately for Huey, there is nearly overwhelming circumstantial evidence of his guilt on all counts.
Enraged by the death of their comrades, Kaz and Ocelot lead a mob of Diamond Dog soldiers to restrain Huey, hold a perfunctory trial, and call for his death at the hands of Venom Snake. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game (video here), where the camera is always left near Huey’s perspective so we can see the dangerous position he’s in. The soldiers look like they’re ready to literally tear him apart, and only the stoic presence of Venom Snake stands in their way of doing so. Ocelot silences the crowd with a gunshot and Kaz turns to Venom:
KAZ – “We exist outside the law. What do we do Boss? Just give the order, we’ll handle the rest.” (Here Kaz is siding with the real Big Boss’s view of their place in the world, as individuals with unique qualities which put them above the ordinary restraints of most men.) Venom pauses to consider the situation.
VENOM – “Prepare a life raft. Big enough for one. Food and water too.”
KAZ – “Boss…?”
VENOM – “He’s leaving.”
KAZ – “You… He’s responsible for… all of this! Think of all the men! He didn’t lose a damn thing! This is the enemy! And he’s here on his knees!
VENOM – “Kaz. You are right, he is not one of us. But we are not responsible to judge an enemy. He leaves Mother Base and that will be the end of it.”
So Venom has a guy in front of him who has probably done incalculable damage to MSF, Diamond Dogs, and Big Boss’s mission. All of Venom’s men want this guy dead and are screaming for his blood. This guy has no known family, friends, or associates who would care if he died, let alone would do anything about it. There is pretty much nothing stopping Venom from executing Huey on the spot, right then and there. It would be the easy, popular, and arguably right thing to do.
And yet Venom lets Huey go because he believes that Diamond Dogs is not in a position to dispense judgement. Big Boss thinks he alone is wise enough to amass the most dangerous weapons in the world and rule as an unrestrained military dictator, while Venom doesn’t think he has the right to punish a single individual despite the overwhelming evidence against him.
Sure, Venom kills plenty of people throughout the game in Afghanistan and Africa, and has no problem trying to kill Skull Face. But all of these encounters happen on the battlefield where the rules of conduct are distinct. Huey is not a combatant, let alone a soldier. He had surrendered and was incapacitated. He was nothing more than a prisoner living by the mercy of his captors. Venom realized that he is not a judge, jury, nor an executioner, no matter how much Kaz and Diamond Dogs wanted him to be one.
Venom had the wisdom to recognize the distinction between how one should act while in war and how one shall act while at peace, while Big Boss seemed to view the entire world as a perpetual battlefield, where all of his actions are morally permissible by the standard of self-defense.
Big Boss is open to using child soldiers. Venom Snake is not.
This is a more minor point of distinction between Big Boss and Venom compared to how they use their power or what their ultimate goals are, but it’s still an interesting point of contrast between the two men which indicates how they view the world.
I’m sure the vast majority of people agree that forcing or even allowing an individual to kill and risk being killed before he reaches a certain state of maturity is an immoral action. The inherent psychological corrosion of child soldiery is a motif throughout the Metal Gear series. For instance, Solid Snake and Liquid Snake discussed the destructive effects of being born and raised for the sole purpose of combat in MGS1 (“You enjoy all the killing”). Raiden’s history as a child soldier leaves him suffering from PTSD, an inability to express himself emotionally, and a general fear of intimacy in MGS2. Sniper Wolf, Psycho Mantis, and Grey Fox are also all former child soldiers who are psychologically damaged by their past.
Big Boss seems to agree with the majority that using child soldiers is wrong if someone else is drafting child soldiers, but is fine with it as long as he is the one training and using the children. This is because, again, Big Boss is a classic strongman who believes that his own unique virtues and qualities put him above the restraints under which all others operate. Only he has the brilliance and good intentions to raise a child through warfare without damaging or destroying the child’s life.
In Peace Walker, Big Boss incorporated Chico, who was twelve years old, and Paz, who was actually twenty-five but pretends to be high school aged, into MSF to fight Hot Coldman. As with many of Big Boss’s immoral actions, the game cleverly frames Chico and Paz’s roles in a positive light, as motivations for Big Boss and MSF. Paz is the ultimate symbol of innocence and goodness who asks Big Boss to liberate her country, while the rapscallion Chico develops an adorable crush on Paz and plays revolutionary. All of this doesn’t change the fact that Big Boss knowingly used children in his military operations.
This actually becomes a trend for Big Boss during the events between MGSV and Metal Gear 2. While he did save some child soldiers from conflict zones and attempt to reintegrate them into ordinary society (See “Later Career” here), when he finally became the leader of Zanzibarland in anticipation of his grand rebellion, Big Boss launched an ambitious program to recruit disaffected war orphans around the world to train them to be child soldiers in his service.
Meanwhile, in MGSV Venom Snake is contracted to find and kill a group of child soldiers, but instead he decides to bring them back to Mother Base (Venom and Kaz initially give the impression that they will complete the contract by killing the children, but only so they can trick their client with an audio recording which makes it seem like Venom executed the child soldiers). Upon arrival, Venom actually does consider retraining the children to serve as soldiers in Diamond Dogs (I think he’s tougher than he looks. A little training and he’ll make himself useful”). Given Big Boss’s views on the subject, this could arguably be considered a product of Big Boss’s personality in Venom.
But instead (video here):
KAZ – “You probably noticed on the way in we’ve expanded housing. They’ll have their own quarters, separate from ours. Won’t be counted as staff. (The player could literally control Chico and Paz as staff members in Peace Walker.)
VENOM – “So, what, we’re running a daycare now?”
KAZ – “They’ll learn how to read and write, do basic jobs.
VENOM – “A chance at a real life… Just not from behind a gun.”
KAZ – “Being behind a gun’s what we do Boss. There’s not room for angels in our heaven.”
(First, note the irony that Venom’s chance at a normal life had been permanently stolen from him by Big Boss, but now Venom is trying to give what he could never have to others.)
In a broad sense, Big Boss’s willingness to use child soldiers and Venom’s unwillingness relate to the way each character views his role in the world, as described in the Power and Authority section. Though Venom doesn’t explicitly say much on the matter, we can infer that he has the same qualms as most people about child soldiers. Only people should choose to fight should do so, and children are too young to responsibly decide if they should kill people and risk being killed, especially given the grave psychological repercussions typically associated with sustained combat. Meanwhile, Big Boss may seek to rehabilitate common child soldiers, but he apparently believes his own abilities and world view permit him the unique privilege of recruiting and training his own child soldiers.
This section is a bit more speculative. The problem is that we simply don’t know that much about Quiet. But even still, there is some evidence that Quiet’s character arc is predicated on the difference between Big Boss and Venom Snake.
What we do know about Quiet is that she was a XOF assassin sent into the Cypress Hospital to kill Big Boss (who was really Venom Snake). But the real Big Boss successfully defended Venom by setting Quiet on fire (twice) until she jumped out a window. Quiet’s injuries would have killed her, but she was saved by a parasite treatment which gave her the abilities she uses throughout the game. Quiet was then purposefully infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasite by Skull Face and deployed to Afghanistan to purposefully get captured by Venom so she could be brought back to Mother Base and spread the infection. But after meeting Venom she apparently changed her mind, and then later become quite enamored with him, before eventually sacrificing her own life to save his.
Where things get hazy is trying to determine exactly what Quiet was thinking and why. First of all, there’s the question of why she agreed to a suicide mission for Skull Face in the first place. In her final monologue, Quiet herself says (recording here), “Vengeance is what drove me to them… the only language left to me, revenge.” Also, Code Talker states in a cassette tape (recording here) that “part of her still wanted revenge… against you [Venom].” The implication seems to be that Quiet chose to go on a suicide mission to kill Venom out of a mighty desire for revenge, but it’s not clear what for. Was it because of the injuries she sustained while trying to kill Venom in Cypress? If so, shouldn’t she have noticed that it wasn’t Venom that set her on fire (she wouldn’t have known the real Big Boss did it, but that doesn’t matter)? And why would she blame Venom for hurting her when Quiet was trying to kill him? It’s pure self-defense.
We also don’t have a clear sequence of events in Quiet’s motivations once she is captured by Venom. Her mission was just to spread the vocal cord parasite, so all she needed to do was speak to Venom, but she chose not to. Then throughout the game she formed a deep bond with Venom, somewhat reminiscent of Big Boss’s relationship with the Boss (a bond of respect and admiration rather than romance). Eventually that bond became so intense that she was willing to unleash the infection at her own expense to save Venom, thereby sacrificing her own life to save Venom’s.
Basically, Quiet’s arc isn’t well explained. We know what happens, but we don’t really know why it happens.
Regardless, my speculation is that Quiet wanted revenge against Big Boss for the injuries he had caused her. She was so enraged and consumed by vengeance that she accepted Skull Face’s plan to be used as a vector for the vocal cord parasite against Big Boss, even though it would certainly kill her. But when she met the man she thought was Big Boss, he was subtly different that she thought he would be. Her curiosity caused her not to unleash the parasite, and instead she became invested in Venom.
The two formed an odd kinship, probably based somewhat on their similar demeanors. Both Venom and Quiet are, well, quiet. They both largely communicate through subtle looks and body language instead of the grandiose speeches typical of Metal Gear characters (like Ocelot, Kaz, and Skull Face). And they were both true warriors who lived to fight on the battlefield.
My supposition is that Venom’s unique qualities endeared him to Quiet, and thus caused her character arc. Quiet expected to meet Big Boss, and that her desire for revenge would drive her to kill herself and him at the same time, but instead she met Venom and formed a deep bond.
It’s difficult to say what exactly it is about Venom that she preferred over Big Boss, but I think we can chalk it up to Venom’s stoic, more benevolent demeanor. Thus, Quiet’s arc and the preservation of Diamond Dogs from the English strain of the vocal cord parasite are yet another example of Venom’s divergence from Big Boss.
Fighting vs. Plotting
MGSV is about Big Boss’s ultimate betrayal of his own principles in the form of the Phantom Big Boss Project. Prior to this point, I would argue that Big Boss was certainly a villain of some sort, but at least he was a well-intentioned villain. Soldiers are often reduced to sacrificial pawns by distant governments concerned with more abstract matters than the lives of combatants. While Big Boss’s attempts to build a private army constituted a legitimate threat to most of the world, he was also a great ally to disaffected soldiers who needed a cause to protect their interests.
But Big Boss’s decision to go along with the Phantom Big Boss Project was a rejection of this ideal which would be continually repeated by Big Boss going forward. From that point on, Big Boss put his goals above all other considerations and had no qualms whatsoever about sacrificing the lives of others to accomplish his intended ends. This predatory outlook on the world stands in stark contrast to Venom Snake’s actions throughout MGSV as Venom consistently fights for the sake of his subordinates even at great personal risk and harm.
This trend is a continuation of a common motif seen throughout the Metal Gear series. Typically, heroic Metal Gear characters (early Big Boss, Solid Snake, Raiden, etc.) accomplish their goals through personal and direct combat. Meanwhile, Metal Gear villains (Volgin, Solidus Snake, the Patriots, Zero, later Big Boss, etc.) try to accomplish their goals through indirect means often involving absurdly elaborate manipulations and conspiracies.
Consider the plot of MGS1. Solid Snake is tasked by the US government with infiltrating Shadow Moses so he can kill Liquid Snake and the other FOXHOUND terrorists, dispose of their nuclear weapons, and stop them from extorting the US government. So with nothing but a cool suit, some cigarettes, and an off-site support team, Solid Snake singlehandedly arrives at the base and infiltrates it himself.
Meanwhile, Liquid Snake can’t figure out how to activate his captured nuclear weapons so he creates a secret plan to trick Solid Snake into doing it for him. This plan involves using Decoy Octopus to impersonate a dead hostage, killing Kaz and having Liquid impersonate him to constantly provide false information to Solid Snake, and more or less allowing Solid Snake to infiltrate Shadow Moses in select areas so he can get where he needs to go to accidentally activate the nuclear weapon.
And at the same time as that, the US Department of Defense didn’t actually send in Solid Snake to defeat the terrorists, but actually just to spread the FoxDie virus they infected Solid Snake with without his knowledge, so they can recover all of Liquid Snake’s stolen military material intact.
And at the same time as that, US DoD employee Naomi Hunter was actually secretly subverting the US government’s FoxDie plan by modifying the virus in accordance with her own plans to get revenge on Solid Snake for killing Grey Fox (who, unbeknownst to Naomi, was actually still alive).
And at the same time as that, Ocelot was actually deployed by Solidus Snake, the president of the United States, to provoke Liquid Snake’s whole operation to see if a successful revolt against the Patriots was possible and to distract the Patriots from Solidus’s own operations.
And at the same time as that, Ocelot was also really working for the Patriots and was just going along with Liquid Snake’s and Solidus Snake’s plans to maintain his cover.
And at the same time as that, Ocelot was secretly loyal to Big Boss all along and was plotting to one day launch his own Outer Heaven style insurrection, but he had to remain a Patriot spy to monitor their activities.
That’s a lot of layers of treacherous plotting overlaying Solid Snake’s relatively straightforward actions.
The commonality between all of these villainous plots is a willingness to subjugate and manipulate others for the sake of one’s goals; individuals with their own lives and wills are reduced to mere pawns on a chessboard. Whether it’s Liquid Snake manipulating Solid Snake into working against his own objective, or the Patriots creating a massive system of global information control to manipulate the entire world into operating according to their designs, Metal Gear villains virtually always operate through indirect plots.
Now compare how Big Boss’s actions differ before and after Ground Zeroes. Prior to it, Big Boss fit the traditional mold of a Metal Gear hero. In MGS3 he was deployed to stop a group of terrorist seeking to ignite the Cold War and he personally infiltrated their operations to stop them even while various secret villainous plots swirled around him (governments fighting over the Philosophers Legacy, the US government sending the Boss on a suicide mission, etc). Even when Big Boss acquired his own armies in Portable Ops and Peace Walker he still personally fought the vast majority of his battles through direct military action.
Then after Ground Zeroes Big Boss becomes just like the plotting villains he had always vowed to fight. Instead of reraising his own army to fight Skull Face directly, he goes along with Zero’s Phantom Big Boss Plan to create a phantom to fight his war for him and distract Cipher for over a decade until he was ready to launch is own insurrection. Make no mistake about it, this plan is based on widespread deception, manipulation, and even a sort of quasi-slavery. Big Boss chooses to become a classic Metal Gear villain who sticks to the shadows and achieve his goals via treachery rather than traditional heroic action.
A good example of this in practice (besides what he does to Venom Snake) is Big Boss’s treatment of the employees at the Cypress hospital. While Big Boss uses Venom as a sort of metaphorical human shield to keep Cipher’s attention, he uses the hospital employees as literal human shields. That is, Big Boss was aware that Cipher was trying to kill him yet he chose to keep Venom in a civilian hospital in an attempt to hide in public. In practice, this placed all of the hospital employees in a great deal of danger which eventually resulted in their horrifying deaths.
To clarify, the risk Big Boss forced on the hospital employees was no accident. Ocelot explicitly argues for using the employees to protect Big Boss in the “Doublethink” cassette tape, and apparently Big Boss goes along with it (full audio here):
“We’ll be putting the people in this hospital in the line of fire. They’ll be your shield, and a necessary diversion. To buy us some time.”
Thus while Cipher still deserves the lion’s share of the blame, there is no doubt that the heroic Big Boss should also be blamed for all of the horrible deaths we see at the very beginning of MGSV.
It’s an open question as to why Big Boss embraces this approach after the events of Ground Zeroes. Some players criticized MGSV for making Big Boss’s turn to villainy (though I maintain Big Boss was already a villain and just became a far worse one) so abrupt and without obvious cause. My speculation is that the events of Ground Zeroes proved to Big Boss that his old tactics couldn’t possibly be effective in the long run. No matter how famous he became, no matter how many men he attracted to his cause, Cipher could always undermine him with acts of treachery.
Thus after Big Boss watched his entire private army get destroyed by an ambush in a single evening, he decided to change his tactics. He noticed that Zero had more or less successfully created a powerful shadow government in the US entirely through secretive byzantine plots, so Big Boss embarked on his own secretive byzantine plot to destroy Cipher.
In contrast to a Big Boss who relies on treachery and (metaphorical and real) human shields, Venom Snake is a front line leader who constantly fights for the sake of his supporters. Recall that Venom never truly shared Kaz’s lust for revenge against Skull Face, but rather pursued Skull Face to prevent him from doing more damage to the world, especially his own soldiers. In the last third of Chapter 1 especially, Venom’s primary motivation was to stop the spread of the vocal cord outbreak amongst his own men.
When the second vocal cord outbreak occurred on Mother Base, Venom risked his own infection to single-handedly enter the quarantine platform to investigate. This decision unfortunately placed him in the horrifying position of having to massacre his own men. The psychological cost of this action was enough to provoke one of the few bursts of intense emotion we see from Venom in the entire game and trigger an appearance of his Demon form.
In the aftermath of the second outbreak, we saw Venom go through the funeral proceedings for his soldiers. He literally tasted one of his men’s ashes, rubbed the rest of the ashes on his face, and vowed to never forget the men who fell in his service. His de facto eulogy is (in my opinion) one of the best lines in the entire game (again, video here):
“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea… I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me… I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”
That scene truly drives home the difference between Big Boss and Venom Snake. The former will endanger the lives of dozens of innocent people so he can preserve his plan to kidnap and brainwash his “best man” (who nearly died trying to save Big Boss’s life) so he can unknowingly serve as a human shield while Big Boss lives in safety. The latter will… well, do and say everything in that cutscene.
Continue to Part 3.