Part 4: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V’s subtitle, “The Phantom Pain” has a few prominent reference points throughout the game. Most notably, Big Boss and Kaz both lost limbs when MSF was destroyed in Ground Zeroes. Thus during the events of MGSV, they both contend with literal physical phantom pain where their limbs once existed. Kaz even refuses to use prosthetic limbs as a means of maintaining his phantom pain. This phantom pain also exists in a metaphorical mental form as the grief these characters feel for their lost comrades. Similarly, nearly every character in the game is motivated by some form of revenge and feels metaphorical phantom pain for their losses.
While these references are meaningful, I think they miss the single most important meaning of the game’s subtitle.
“The Phantom Pain” refers to The Phantom’s Pain. And the Phantom is Venom Snake.
Throughout MGSV, Venom is repeatedly referred to, and represented as, a Demon. Consider the following:
- The “Demon Points” system, wherein Snake receives Demon points for performing evil acts (killing people, developing nukes, etc.) and loses Demon points for good acts (capturing soldiers, saving animals, etc.). If the player receives enough points, Venom Snake’s “horn” grows in increments. At the maximum point level, Venom is permanently drenched in blood and becomes “Demon Snake.”
- Venom is seen as “Demon Snake” during two key cutscenes, including the end of “Shining Lights, even in Death” after he kills his own men to prevent the vocal cord parasite from spreading, and at the end of the “Truth” mission when he punches the reflection of himself.
- This conversation between Kaz and Big Boss shortly after Venom awoke from his coma:
KAZ – “Cipher sent us to a hell but we are going even deeper. Take back everything that we have lost.”
VENOM – “Kaz, I’m already a demon.”
- Various Skull Face quotes:
- “You look well-rested, Big Boss… My, my, how you’ve changed. You became a demon for such little weapons as that?”– In reference to the Honey Bee in “Where do the Bees Sleep?”
- “You too have known loss, and that loss torments you still. You hope hatred might someday replace the pain, but it never goes away. It makes a man hideous, inside and out. Wouldn’t you agree? We both are demons. Our humanity won’t return. You. Me. We’ve no place to run, nowhere to hide. And that’s why I’ll show you my demon.”– Upon Skull Face meeting Venom in the “Skull Face” mission.
- Venom Snake’s speech in the secret “Disarm all Nukes” ending -.
- “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 farther 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 Demon is Big Boss’s persona in Venom Snake. It is the metaphorical representation of Big Boss’s hateful, destructive personality, in contrast to Venom Snake’s levelheaded, benevolent personality.
The Demon points system keeps track of the death and destruction caused by Venom as a result of becoming Big Boss’s phantom. The player gains demon points by killing people (enemy or friendly soldiers, hostages, etc.) and especially by developing nuclear weapons. The player loses Demon points by capturing soldiers, saving wounded soldiers, rescuing animals, and disarming nukes. Essentially, the player becomes more of a Demon by causing destruction and reduces his Demon by doing the opposite.
Most players will likely find themselves drifting into Demon territory throughout their games. The implicit suggestion is that the destructive activities are natural products of Big Boss’s endeavor (ie. building a private army and engaging in endless warfare) while only particularly willful attempts to go against this tendency can produce good outcomes.
We see the Demon incarnate only twice throughout the game, but both times are instances when Venom is experiencing the greatest heights of pain and destruction caused (either directly or indirectly) by his actions as a phantom Big Boss.
The first instance occurs after Venom he has just finished executing the last of the vocal cord parasite victims on the quarantine platform on Mother Base in the “Shining Lights, Even in Death” mission. Though we don’t know much about Venom’s life prior to MGSV, we can infer that he never imagined being thrust into a position like this. The entire level is played more as a horror game than as a stealth/action game, with dark lighting, eerie sound effects, and mournful music. The quarantine platform really is a metaphorical hell for Venom Snake, and the horrifying process of dragging himself through it makes him a Demon.
We know that the infection must be prevented from spreading and that therefore killing the Diamond Dog soldiers in the right thing to do. But that probably doesn’t make it much easier for Venom in the heat of the moment. He still has to see his men suffer, lose their minds, and die at his own hands. In a story which largely consists of Venom Snake fighting through a torturous mental anguish thrust on him by Big Boss, this level represents the apex of his pain. Venom becomes a Demon here because that’s how he sees himself after massacring his own men. In other words, Venom associates the horrors of this event with Big Boss, whose personality Venom is unfortunately burdened with.
The other time the Demon appears is at the very end of the “Truth” mission, which I’ll describe in its own section.
Skull Face brings up Demons multiple times, both in reference to Venom and to himself. This is actually a really clever way to elaborate on Skull Face’s character and reinforce the Demon-Big Boss connection.
Since Skull Face doesn’t know that the Big Boss pursuing him is actually Venom Snake, he reinforces the idea that Big Boss is the Demon. Recall that Skull Face’s job prior to Ground Zeroes was to clean up after Big Boss’s operations at FOX (and also probably at San Hieronymo in Portable Ops). Thus, Skull Face has a detailed understanding of Big Boss’s past and everything he went through, including his relationship with the Boss and the true nature of her mission in MGS3.
Thus Skull Face knows Big Boss well. Skull Face knows what Big Boss has gone through, the betrayals he has faced, the pain and loss he has felt, and ultimately what all of those experiences made him become: a Demon.
Then there’s Venom’s reference to “this demon inside me” during his speech to the Boss in the nuclear disarmament ending. This is one of the most direct instances of contrast between Venom and Big Boss throughout the entire game. Big Boss chose to use nuclear weapons for his own ends in accordance with his strongman outlook. In contrast, Venom ultimately pursued complete global nuclear disarmament, the success of which is treated as the ultimate ending to MGSV. And though Venom celebrates this ending, he also recognizes that his job is not done because the influence of Big Boss (ie. the Demon) still exists within him.
This Demon is Venom’s ultimate enemy. It is the drive for power implanted in Venom by Big Boss which causes untold death and destruction.
Skull Face’s primary relevance in MGSV was more or less laid out in this launch trailer.
At the 2:20 mark there’s a great shot of Big Boss walking down a hallway towards the camera. He morphs between his different appearances in each of his games until he becomes Venom Snake in his Demonic form, complete with his elongated horn and blood-drenched outfit. At that point, a fire starts at the bottom of the screen which becomes more and more intense. With a final flare, the flames recede to show a skinless Venom Snake still with his horn. Eventually this form morphs into Skull Face and the sequence is ended with a title screen reading Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Skull Face is a representation of what Venom Snake could become if he is destroyed by his Demon (that is, if his mind is broken by Big Boss’s will).
Skull Face and Venom Snake have weirdly similar backgrounds.
Skull Face was born in a rural area of Romania which was controlled by Romania, Hungary, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union at various points throughout his childhood. These transitions and the violence that accompanied them left a strong impression on Skull Face:
“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders, I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed, too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong. Words can kill.”
His parents were killed in an Allied bombing raid that also resulted in Skull Face being badly burned by rapeseed oil. His injuries would scar him for life and be further exasperated while being tortured by various foreign governments. Skull Face eventually became an assassin and bounced between numerous factions until being recruited by Zero at the SAS. He would later follow Zero to the CIA and run XOF.
According to Skull Face, his entire life and sense of being were irreplaceably destroyed in his childhood. Ownership over his land was constantly changing hands, the language he had to learn kept changing, the culture he had to adapt to kept changing, his family was eliminated, and even his face was forever removed from existence.
Does that sound like any other character in MGSV?
Ok, it’s not an exact comparison, but still, Venom Snake’s transition into Big Boss’s phantom is similar to Skull Face’s childhood. Like Skull Face, Venom loses most of his personality due to external factors forced upon him. He may keep his language, but like Skull Face dealing with different languages and cultures, Venom’s view of the world and morality are greatly altered. Likewise, Venom loses his face and his proverbial invader gives him a new face of his own choosing.
Skull Face’s response to losing his entire sense of being as a child was to develop an insatiable hatred for the conquerors of the world who use language imposition as a basis for control over conquered populations (since this is what Skull Face believed happened to him). He saw the United States as the ultimate practitioner of this strategy. Thus:
“I will exterminate the English language. With this, I’ll rid the world of infestation. All men will breathe free again – reclaim their past, present, and future. This is no ethnic cleanser. It is a “liberator,” to free the world from Zero. Let the world be. Sans lingua franca, the world will be torn asunder. And then, it shall be free. People will suffer, of course – a phantom pain. The world will need a new common tongue. A language of nukes. My Metal Gears shall be the thread by which all countries are bound together, in equality. No words will be needed. Every man will be forced to recognize his neighbor. People will swallow their pain. They will link lost hands. And the world will become one. This war is peace.”
In a broader thematic sense, Skull Face can be seen as an individual who was ruthlessly oppressed and manipulated by individuals until his very sense of being was lost, and as a result he just “snapped.” The Skull Face we see in MGSV is a nihilistic mad man who uses the tools taught to him by his oppressors (covert and military skills) to destroy his oppressors.
Imagine that Venom Snake has three possible paths to take after waking up in 1984 at the start of MGSV:
- Path 1 – Embrace the Demon (Big Boss’s will)
- Venom becomes a perfect phantom of Big Boss, does everything that Big Boss would have done in the same situation, and works towards building Outer Heaven.
- Path 2 – Resists the Demon
- Venom retains as much of his old self as possible, acts differently from Big Boss whenever possible, avoids becoming a strongman, and builds Diamond Dogs in accordance with his own vision as a benevolent haven for soldiers rather than as Outer Heaven.
- Path 3 – Mental Collapse (Skull Face’s path)
- Venom’s mind rejects Big Boss’s will but also forgets his old self. He is left as a nihilistic madman filled with hatred but with no valid outlet for his anger, so he turns against the world.
Within this paradigm, Skull Face represents (arguably) the worst case scenario for Venom Snake. In a series filled with villains who use manipulation to achieve their ends, Skull Face represents the ultimate backfiring of such designs.
So MGSV is all about how Big Boss kidnaps and brainwashes Venom Snake so he can use Venom as a phantom to build up his legacy and a human shield to distract Cipher. Big Boss is the ultimate villain of the story because he betrays his best soldier and metaphorically does to Venom what the US government did to the Boss, which was the event which catalyzed the creation of Cipher and Big Boss’s plans for Outer Heaven in the first place.
In Mission 47- Truth, Venom receives a cassette tape from Big Boss which reveals the entire operation. Big Boss’s message (full video here):
“Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do? I cheated death, thanks to you. And thanks to you I’ve left my mark. You have too – you’ve written your own history. You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too… No… He’s the two of us. Together. Where we are today? We built it. This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world – and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you, wherever you go. Thank you… my friend. From here on out, you’re Big Boss.”
There is a lot of crucial information packed into this short scene. I think it’s possibly one of the most brilliantly subtle scenes Kojima has ever made, but if it has one problem, it’s that it might be a bit too subtle for its own good. My supposition is that the vast majority of players misinterpreted what actually happens here. Or more accurately, they only understood half of what really happened.
Most players got two messages from this ending:
First, Kojima is passing the narrative torch from his own hands to the player. He is saying that the player is just as in control of the Metal Gear saga as he is. Thus Big Boss is revealed to be the avatar the player created at the beginning of the game. The true protagonist, Venom, is a blank slate embodiment of the player rather than a typically flamboyant, fleshed out Metal Gear character, like the real Big Boss. Given that MGSV is supposedly the final Metal Gear game (at least under Kojima’s direction), this is a farewell thank you from Hideo Kojima and his team to the fans who have supported the series over all these years.
Second, upon hearing the truth of his origin, Venom Snake smiles, thereby signifying his acceptance of his fate as Big Boss’s phantom and willingness to continue Big Boss’s legacy. Thus the long standing canonical plot hole of Big Boss dying at the end of Metal Gear 1 is rectified since we now know that Venom Snake was the real antagonist of the game that got killed by Solid Snake.
The first point is probably true, but is of relatively little importance since it doesn’t deal with the game’s plot and themes.
The second point is half true but misses crucial information.
Let’s start from the beginning cutscene…
The scene takes place after all of the events of the previous missions in MGSV. This means that the second vocal cord outbreak has already occurred, Huey is already exiled, Quiet is already gone, etc. Venom walks into a bathroom somewhere on Diamond Dog’s Mother Base. He examines and feels his face in the mirror from multiple angles. He then opens his cassette player to reveal the “Man Who Sold the World” cassette tape, which he received from Big Boss (by mail?). This reveals that he has already heard the tape, though likely not long ago (perhaps right before entering the bathroom? Maybe that’s why he went there, to be alone and get to a mirror). He has been examining his face to see if he can remember his old appearance but apparently can’t.
But after looking at the tape for a few seconds and placing it on the counter in front of him, he looks back at the mirror and sees his real face in the reflection. This is Venom remembering his old appearance. Again, he examines his face from multiple angles, touching it at different points to remember how it used to be. Then he flashes back to the events on the helicopter during the aftermath of the attack on MSF’s Mother Base, during which time he operated on Paz to remove a bomb from her body and then shielded Big Boss from the second bomb’s explosion.
Venom then puts the cassette tape back in the cassette player to listen to it again. While Big Boss is talking, Venom stares directly at himself in the mirror and later puts his head down. When Big Boss says, “You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too…”, Venom lifts his head and looks at himself with attention. He stands up straight. Then when Big Boss says, “This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world”, Venom even gives a subtle nod. This indicates that he understands what Big Boss did and why. The implication is that hearing this tape suddenly makes a whole lot things make sense for Venom Snake. His mind has been at war with itself throughout the events of MGSV and here he finally gets some clarification as to why.
Finally, at the conclusion of the tape we hear Big Boss say, “From here on out… you’re Big Boss.”
Venom’s half smile is jarring. It’s one of the few times in the entire game that we see him outwardly emote, let alone with a smile. But it’s not a joyful smile. It doesn’t signify happiness or levity. It’s what I would call a “darkly triumphant” smile. Venom realizes the full scope of what Big Boss has done and the power that has been given to him. As Big Boss says, Venom has the ability to change history, to alter the world in accordance with his will. Thoughts of Venom’s true identity and what he has lost fade into the background as the allure of what Big Boss has given him comes into focus.
This is the final takeaway that most players got from this cutscene. They believed that once Venom knew of his role in Big Boss’s plot, he accepted it and played out his part until his death in Metal Gear 1. The rest of the scene tells a different story.
Venom flips over the cassette tape to reveal “Operation Intrude N313.” He puts the tape in a nearby Sony Walkman (I think) and plays it, though we don’t hear what’s actually on the tape.
Then a subtle time shift occurs. Prior to this moment, we could see a Diamond Dogs logo on the wall behind Venom. Now it’s an Outer Heaven logo. This indicates a ten (or eleven) year jump to 1995, the year of the Outer Heaven uprising in Metal Gear 1. From that game, we know that “Operation Intrude N313” is the code name for the operation and therefore we can infer that on the other side of the cassette tape is instructions from Big Boss on how to build up and launch an Outer Heaven rebellion against Cipher.
The camera pulls back from the Walkman and reveals Venom Snake once more entering the bathroom. This time he is completely drenched in blood and his horn is at full size. Venom Snake is in full Demon form. He turns to the mirror and stares at himself. He looks miserable, enraged, defeated. In his sole display of anger in the entire game, Venom strikes the mirror with his mechanical arm (which is his non-dominant left arm, so not a natural physical action) and shatters it to reveal his non-Demonic early Big Boss form. The Venom behind the mirror turns around with dismay and walks away into a smoky, dark oblivion.
What does this all mean?
At the end of the events of MGSV, Big Boss sends Venom a cassette tape with two sides. One side reveals his true identity (“The Man Who Sold the World”) while the other side gives Venom instructions on what to do over the next ten years, including the final step of launching an Outer Heaven revolt (“Operation Intrude N313”). Venom accepts the role given him by Big Boss and follows the tape’s instructions. Ten years later, Venom is in the midst of his rebellion orchestrated by Big Boss when he realizes that he has become the Demon he always feared.
Remember that the Demon is the symbol of Big Boss’s personality inside Venom. Apparently despite all of the ways Venom resisted Big Boss’s influence throughout MGSV by making decisions which diverge from what we would expect of Big Boss, Venom ultimately succumbed to Big Boss’s will and became the Demon after all. In this moment, likely a pause between battles in the midst of his (literally) bloody rebellion, Venom truly sees what he has become. He realizes what he has given up, what he has lost, all that he has destroyed, all of the lives he has ended, and all in the ultimate service of a hypocrite who sacrificed his best soldier’s being and life for the sake of some convoluted scheme.
Venom punches the mirror with his mechanical arm. Just as the mechanical arm was supposed to replace his lost real arm, Big Boss’s will was supposed to replace Venom’s true self. Put another way, both the mechanical arm and Big Boss’s will could not replace the phantom pain Venom feels for his old self.
The broken mirror reveals Venom as he was immediately after waking up as Big Boss, not in his Demonic form. This is the Venom that existed throughout the events of MGSV. It’s the Venom who chose not to build nukes, use metal gears, execute prisoners, use child soldiers, fight from the shadows, and otherwise be the man Big Boss wanted him to be. It’s the Venom who could have been. It’s the personality that the real Venom abandoned once he heard “The Man Who Sold the World” cassette tape from Big Boss.
This Venom turns and walks off into nothingness. This symbolizes that he is lost to history. No one will ever remember who Venom Snake was or what he did, both the good and bad. His subordinates all thought he was Big Boss. Zero is braindead. The real Big Boss will never tell anyone for fear of diminishing his own legend.
The real Venom Snake ends up as nothing more than a phantom.
There is one more speculative plot point which perfectly wraps up the relationship between Big Boss and Venom Snake: Big Boss ordered Venom Snake’s death.
Admittedly, this is never explicitly stated in any Metal Gear game. All we know is that while Big Boss was the commander of FOXHOUND in 1995, he ordered Solid Snake to infiltrate Venom’s Outer Heaven base in South Africa in the midst of its global rebellion (Operation Intrude N313) and that Solid Snake succeeded in killing Venom. Then, four years later, Big Boss launched his own nearly identical rebellion from his Outer Heaven base in Zanzibarland.
We don’t know exactly what Venom and Big Boss were thinking here. In his MGSV analysis, George Weidman suggests that Big Boss sent Solid Snake after Venom because Big Boss thought Solid Snake was a rookie soldier with no support who would never succeed. But we know from the post-Truth mission cassette tapes in MGSV, as well as from Solid Snake in MGS1, that Big Boss was well of aware of his familial connection to Solid Snake and therefore knew of his extraordinary combat abilities.
A more likely explanation is that Big Boss purposefully deployed Solid Snake to kill Venom Snake because Big Boss wanted to singlehanded launch his rebellion against Cipher, but couldn’t do so while the “phantom Big Boss” was still at large.
Given that we know Big Boss conceived of Operation Intrude N313 all the way back in 1985 (or earlier) and that Venom appeared to accept his role as Big Boss’s phantom in the “Truth” mission, we can infer that Big Boss ordered Venom launch his rebellion in 1995.
One potential motivation for Big Boss here was to try out a sort of “test run” for his eventual rebellion. Perhaps he wanted to see how Cipher would respond or how he could improve upon Venom Snake’s efforts.
Another potential motivation is that Operation Intrude N313 gave Big Boss an excuse to dispose of Venom Snake via his command position at FOXHOUND. Given that Big Boss came up with Operation Intrude N313 long before he took over FOXHOUND, this might be unlikely, but it’s possible that he anticipated his rise to a position of military prominence during the eleven year period between Venom’s awakening in 1984 and the launch of Operation Intrude N313 in 1995. In this case, Big Boss essentially created a fixed timetable for his Phantom Big Boss Plan complete with an expiration date for Venom Snake.
More importantly, a thematic point which supports the argument that Big Boss purposefully killed Venom is the claim often repeated throughout the series that “There’s only room for one Boss.” Ocelot says it in MGSV’s post credits sequence (video here). Liquid and Solidus Snake likewise echo these sentiments in MGS1 and MGS2. The idea is that the title of “Boss” contains such enormous prestige and legitimacy that it cannot possibly be shared for long. The Boss lost the title to Big Boss. Big Boss shared his title with Venom Snake. Once both men were defeated, Liquid Snake, Solidus Snake, and even Ocelot (sort of) attempted to garner it for themselves.
With this understanding, Big Boss likely killed Venom Snake in 1995 as a means of clearing the field for his own ambitions. Venom had outlived his utility for Big Boss and no longer served a roll in his schemes.
Continue to Part 5.