Part 5 – What does it All Mean?
The Nature of Legends
Metal Gear Solid V is the ultimate display of a theme commonly found throughout the Metal Gear franchise: legends are inherently distortionary.
All the way back at the start of the series with Metal Gear 1 and 2, Kojima subverted expectations with the surprise twist that the main antagonist of the games was none other than Solid Snake’s commander, Big Boss.
Then in MGS1, Solid Snake is a world renowned hero amongst soldiers and covert ops personnel. His legendary feats inspired Meryl, a rookie soldier with no real world experience, to try to become an elite fighter. Throughout the game, Snake consistently dispels the legends surrounding his past and chastises Meryl for believing in them. To Snake, his legend is more myth than reality, unfortunate exaggerations of his actions which gloss over real moral ambiguities and give him more moral credit then he’s due. In his words, “The real me is no match for the legend.”
MGS2 not only continued this theme, but brought it to a meta-narrative level as well. Within the story, Solid Snake is again the subject of distortionary legends which are copied and borderline worshiped by Raiden. Outside of the game, Kojima used this same paradigm to manipulate player expectations. He promoted Solid Snake as the protagonist of MGS2 (Solid Snake is a legendary video game hero of sorts) only to subvert expectations by secretly putting the player in control of Raiden for the vast majority of the game. Being the diametric opposite of Snake both physically and mentally, Raiden served to deconstruct the nature of Snake as a video game legend.
As a prequel, MGS3 took the series back before its earliest chronological period to portray the origin of many of the legendary individuals and ideas in the series. In this sense, MGS3 is something like mythology within the Metal Gear series. We got to see the origin of legendary villain Big Boss, the Patriots, Ocelot, covert operations within the series timeline, and even the origin of the titular metal gear weapon. In doing so, MGS3 offered a different perspective on many existing components of the series which helped to clarify their true nature, for good and ill.
MGS4 is about the end of legends. As the chronologically final game in the series timeline, pretty much all of the major characters, events, and operations of the previous games were legends of sorts within the Metal Gear universe. By which I mean, MGS4 takes place eight years after MGS2, over a decade after MGS1, and multiple decades after every other game in the canon. So the likes of Big Boss, his sons, the Patriots, and the various revolts against them had faded into the Patriots’ GOP system’s new world order. To most of the characters in the present, the events of the other games were distant memories, and anyone or anything still left alive/around was, well, old.
Thus MGS4 showed us “Old Snake,” an 80 year old Ocelot, a weirdly mature Meryl, a crumbling Shadow Moses, Metal Gear Rex as a pile of rubble, and Zero as a decrepit vegetable. Thematically, MGS4 demonstrated what happens when legends stick around for long enough. Legends are inherently distortionary, and the static nature of legends in comparison to the natural entropy of passing time tends to cause legends to further diverge from reality the longer they last. Thus the unstoppable legendary soldier Solid Snake ends up as a wheezing old man who keeps throwing out his back.
Finally we come to MGSV, which I would argue takes the most comprehensive look at the nature of legends of all the games in the Metal Gear series.
As with Portable Ops and Peace Walker, much of MGSV is based around the legend of Big Boss. The tales of his past deeds and combat ability enable to him to inspire soldiers and build an army with ease, at least by the standards of any normal person. When Venom Snake wakes up in 1984 and begins his quest to take down Skull Face, the greatest asset at his disposal is simply the possession of Big Boss’s reputation. As Ocelot says to Venom upon arriving in Afghanistan:
“You’re a legend in the eyes of those who live on the battlefield. That’s why you have to handle this mission yourself. How and where you make it, well that’s up to you. Now go! Let the legend come back to life.”
A wonderfully subtle touch in MGSV is how Venom manages to rapidly build up a private army to go after Skull Face despite not doing or saying much of anything.
You would think that it would take a lot of effort to convince soldiers to abandon their country or organization to work for a private military company, especially when the company is directly opposed to their old organization. Yet Venom effortlessly recruits hundreds of ex-Soviet, PF, and even XOF soldiers to his cause. In Portable Ops Big Boss originally made the conversions by personally engaging in philosophical debates with his POWs. It’s implied that he kept doing that for a while, until eventually he could delegate the conversion tasks to subordinates and also rely on the momentum of his reputation. But even if Big Boss wasn’t personally sitting down and speaking to his every recruit, he was still maintaining his popularity through his decision making and charisma.
Venom Snake is many things, but he is not classically charismatic. Throughout much of the game, he barely says anything even when someone else is talking directly to him. Yet this new army rises around him simply because the legend of Big Boss had grown so strong in the world, especially since his mysterious disappearance nine years prior to the start of MGSV.
While much of the world remains mesmerized by Big Boss’s legend, Venom Snake grapples with it within his own mind. As mentioned before, the conflict between Venom Snake’s own personality and Big Boss’s implanted self form the basis of much of the conflict in the game. From another perspective, it can be seen as a contest between Venom’s natural inclinations and externally imposed expectations fueled by Big Boss’s legend. This doesn’t apply to every divergence between Venom’s actions and Big Boss’s as listed in Part 2, but it applies to a few of them.
For instance, Kaz and the rest of Diamond Dogs expect Venom to execute Huey Emmerich, in part because they expect the legendary Big Boss to embrace his incarnate greatness and dispense judgement like the strongman he is. Clearly Venom struggles with his decision for a bit, before ultimately sentencing Huey to exile, leaving a raging Kaz to scream in Venom’s face while being watched by a speechless Diamond Dogs mob.
But the most important clash of Big Boss’s legend and Venom’s personality occurs at the very end of the game during the Truth mission reveal.
Once again, here is Big Boss’s message for Venom Snake:
“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.”
I know I’ve repeated this quote numerous times throughout this piece, but that’s because it’s so important. It’s a great encapsulation of the way Big Boss sees the world and deals with others. Big Boss frames his appeal to Venom as a heroic call to action, a request for assistance. He simultaneously aggrandizes his own place in history while explicitly elevating Venom to his own level. At the same time, he paradoxically further elevates his status by grounding his appeal in familiar language; by personally thanking Venom and referring to him as a “friend” Big Boss makes his request all the more emotionally resonant. It really is a beautifully written bit of persuasive speaking from Big Boss.
Of course it’s also nothing more than a collection of sleight-of-hand manipulations and lies.
Big Boss recklessly disregards all concerns for Venom’s will and life for the sake of his own elaborate plot. Venom is reduced to nothing more than a pawn, and an entirely ignorant and unwilling one at that. It’s unclear exactly why (or when) Big Boss sent the “Man Who Sold the World Tape” to Venom, but based on its contents, it’s clearly meant as a rallying call to shore up Venom’s loyalty for Big Boss’s future plans.
Big Boss does this by appealing to his legend, and extending the prestige and power attached to it to Venom. In doing so, he enhances Venom’s loyalty, pride, and sense of purpose, thereby clouding Venom’s sense of context. The obvious crimes Big Boss committed against Venom – the kidnapping, brainwashing, manipulation, and literal physical mutilation – are forgotten. Venom accepts his role and dives head-first into a mission to spread Big Boss’s destruction to the world, proudly carrying out the will of an awful individual who betrayed his most scared principles.
As great as all of this is on a thematic and plotting level, the true genius underlying it all is that what Big Boss does to Venom Snake, is exactly what Hideo Kojima does to the player in Metal Gear Solid V.
The Raiden Gambit
The protagonist fake-out in MGSV is essentially a revamped version of Kojima’s “Raiden Gambit” in Metal Gear Solid 2, but with a different goal in mind. To recap:
Kojima marketed MGS2 to make it seem like the protagonist was everybody’s favorite video game legend, Solid Snake. In reality, Solid Snake was only the player-character for the first tenth of the game, at which point he was replaced by Raiden, an entirely new character that was the opposite of Solid Snake in pretty much every way imaginable. Solid Snake is dark, stoic, muscular, has a deep voice, is a loner, is a legendary combat vetern, doesn’t speak much, and generally represents all things bad ass. Raiden has flowing white hair, is angsty, has a high pitched voice, has a girlfriend in mission support, is a rookie, constantly asks questions, and more resembles a Final Fantasy character (especially Tidus) than a classic Western hero.
The point of Kojima’s twist was to reinforce the core thematic elements of the game on a meta-narrative level. MGS2’s plot concerned the Patriots building a new AI tasked with processing (ie. censoring) digital information to create a global information context conducive to controlling the population in accordance with the Patriots’ will. It is eventually revealed that Raiden’s entire mission was actually a part of an elaborate experiment conducted by the Patriots to test their information control thesis. They wanted to see if they could craft a rookie soldier into an obedient, but effective agent, in the mold of the legendary Solid Snake, despite being put under immense mental stress. The experiment was a success, partially because of Patriot manipulation, but also because of Raiden’s naïve emulation of Solid Snake.
On a meta-narrative level, Kojima took on the role of the Patriots and the players were surrogate Raidens. Kojima carefully crafted a narrative about what MGS2 would look like by producing purposefully inaccurate marketing that made Solid Snake appear to be the protagonist in a straight-forward action-adventure game. The players fully bought into this story, lured not just by Kojima’s manipulation but also by the emotional appeal of once more playing as fan-favorite Solid Snake.
Upon realizing the true nature of MGS2’s story and protagonist, players universally felt sucker punched. The rug was pulled out from under their expectations. The carefully-constructed context of elaborate manipulations came crashing down, and players perceptive enough to grasp the full extent of Kojima’s vision gained a sophisticated understanding of the nature of information control, context-building, and manipulation.
The Long Con
It’s easy to mistake the Big Boss fake-out in MGSV for a pointless retread of the Raiden Gambit. Indeed, the new twist has a lot of similarities with the old one and certainly reinforces a lot of the same themes MGS2 addressed regarding the nature of information control and psychological manipulation. But I also think it takes the protagonist switch to a whole new level, by elevating these themes beyond the confines of a single entry in the Metal Gear series to the entire series.
In MGS2, the relationship between Raiden and the Patriots is mirrored by the relationship between the player and Kojima. In MGSV, the relationship between Venom Snake and Big Boss is mirrored by the relationship between the player and Big Boss (and indirectly with Kojima). The key difference is that Kojima’s manipulation in MGS2 occurred primarily outside of the actual game, via marketing. On the other hand, the primary manipulations in MGSV not only occur within the game, but within the cumulative narratives of MGS3, PO, PW, and GZ.
The narrative structure at play within the in-universe chronological first-half of the Metal Gear series is similar to that of a lot of David Fincher and Martin Scorsese movies (ie. Fight Club, Social Network, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, etc.). All of these movies follow a character, movement, or organization which the viewer knows to be evil or misguided in some way, but finds likable and compelling anyway due to some mixture of charisma and raw emotional appeal. For instance, it’s easy to get caught up in the magnetic personality of Tyler Durden and raw emotional catharsis of Project Mayhem in Fight Club even though the viewer should realize that Tyler’s whole movement is self-destructive nonsense.
The key to the success of these stories is to complete enwrap the audience with contextual information which overwhelms the more measured, rational appraisals of the people and issues at play. This is why nine tenths of Fight Club consists of the watching the mopey narrator live vicariously through Tyler Durden, the coolest guy in the world.
Likewise, all of the Metal Gear games starring Big Boss as the protagonist bring the player through the same process. From MGS3 to GZ the player never leaves the perspective of Big Boss. We see the world of Metal Gear entirely through the lens of the legendary solider and his proto-Outer Heaven movement, with little concern for how an impartial spectator might view his actions.
Kojima builds up this narrative with deafening skill. The player knows that Big Boss will eventually become the primary antagonist in the entire series, yet we can’t help but fall in love with the handsome, rugged, swarthy, charismatic bad ass who fights the good fight against evil forces of tyranny for the sake of the poor and disenfranchised. We know his motivations. We have felt his losses. We saw the Boss’s death and the reasons for it. We watched as callous governments disregarded the lives of heroes. We completely sympathized with Big Boss’s pain and anger.
So of course we cheered Big Boss as he amassed an unaccountable private army. The vast majority of players still probably supported him when he became a nuclear power, hid from UN nuclear inspectors, and more or less became a fugitive war lord. Every action seemed to be perfectly justified in the moment. Big Boss needed to create an army to protect himself and his comrades. He needed to keep making it stronger to oppose Cipher. He needed to lie to the international community for the sake of survival. All of the major powers of the world are hopelessly corrupt or being actively manipulated by a creepy shadow government, Big Boss is the only force for justice out there!
Kojima advertised MGSV as the game which showed the final moral downfall of Big Boss, but that was a just another sleight-of-hand manipulation. Big Boss was already a villain. He may have been fighting other villains, but that doesn’t make him a hero. This would be apparent to any impartial observer, but to die-hard Metal Gear fans who had followed Big Boss’s adventures since MGS3, he was a beloved hero.
One interesting difference between the twists in MGS2 and MGSV is that while Raiden certainly emulated Solid Snake, he was obviously still his own, independent person. But in MGSV Venom Snake literally thinks he is Big Boss, just like the player. And the player-protagonist connection doesn’t end there.
Though we know very little about Venom Snake’s background, we can infer that he had a similar relationship with Big Boss as the player. Venom wasn’t a part of the events of MGS3 but he joined up with Big Boss’s mercenary band some time during the events of PO and PW, presumably for the same reason all of the other recruits did: he was inspired by Big Boss’s charisma and legend. So both Venom and the player are locked into a tunnel-vision perspective of Big Boss’s legacy which exaggerates his good qualities while downplaying or entirely ignoring his bad qualities (as is the nature of legends according to the overarching narrative of the Metal Gear series).
This puts both the player and Venom Snake in the same bizarre mindset throughout MGSV of constantly trying to rationalize Big Boss’s behavior.
We are Big Boss
From the player’s perspective, the alleged Big Boss of MGSV acts nothing like he does as the player-protagonist of MGS3, PO, PW, and GZ. He barely speaks (at first), and even when he does utter a few words here and there, it’s in a passive manner to ask for clarification or answer specific prompts. He doesn’t really make decisions (at first), despite his code name literally referring to his authoritative decision making ability. Instead of acting like the grizzled, charismatic legend we expect, Big Boss spends much of the game stoically watching as Kaz and Ocelot give speeches, fight, wax poetically about the nature of warfare, and generally hog all of the obvious personality.
But that’s all just surface level details of Big Boss’s character; the most significant divergence from player expectations was Big Boss’s arc. Before starting MGSV, every player already knew that Big Boss becomes a villain. Actually they knew this well before starting MGSV. They knew it whenever they played through their first Metal Gear game, whether it was in 1987 with Metal Gear 1 or in 2010 with Peace Walker. And even if they hadn’t been following the story or had forgotten it, Kojima made it explicitly clear in MGSV’s marketing that the game would show Big Boss’s moral downfall. On top of all of that, the marketing gave away most of the core plot, gave Big Boss an obvious evil motivation, and more or less spelled out a direct character arc – “Big Boss is so consumed by a desire for revenge that he betrays the Boss’s legacy” – before any player even started the game.
Yet nothing like that showed up in MGSV. The guy we thought was Big Boss not only didn’t follow down the expected character arc, he actually went in the complete opposite direction. Instead of raging against Cypher and Skull Face, Big Boss solemnly committed to his mission while constantly calming Kaz during his conniptions. Instead of debasing himself in evil acts, Big Boss goes out of his way to be benevolent by rescuing animals and child soldiers, protecting his subordinates at all costs, and refusing to use a metal gear.
All the players were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell was going on. My theory while playing through MGSV for the first time was that Big Boss’s injuries had left him brain damaged in some typically elaborate Metal Gear way that severely altered his personality. But of course that still didn’t answer the question of why Big Boss was written this way in a narrative sense.
From Venom Snake’s perspective, Big Boss’s behavior was… even more bizarre. As already stated, we can speculate that Venom spends the entirety of MGSV locked in a mental battle between his “natural self” and the imposed Big Boss personality. Not only is this implied by many of Venom’s unexpected decisions throughout the plot, but also by Venom’s character progression. He starts the game as an entirely passive borderline mute, but slowly becomes more talkative and authoritative until he actually makes legitimate speeches at the end of the game.
Another way to think of this conflict is as Venom’s attempts to reconcile his expectations of Big Boss’s behavior with his own inclinations. This explains Venom’s arc from passivity to leadership. At the start of MGSV, Venom is still trying to figure out how to act under the pressure of social, environmental, and psychological expectations for him to be Big Boss. His response is to passively go along with whatever is suggested of him by his advisers. But as the plot progresses, Venom apparently realizes the discrepancy between Big Boss’s view of the world and his own, and therefore begins to follow his own path. It’s important to note that this arc is not just psychological, but also ideological, as indicated by the consistency of Venom Snake’s choices with his own unique view of the world (as outlined in Part 3).
In other words, both the player and Venom Snake are caught in a process of trying to rationalize the discrepancies between the legend of Big Boss and his manifestation in MGSV.
I think this is the core thematic essence of Metal Gear Solid V.
MGSV is about a lot of things: the nature of cycles, revenge, parasites, language, culture, violence, mercenaries, the Cold War, WMDs, deterrence, child soldiers, biological warfare, genetic legacies, etc. But Hideo Kojima purposefully centered the story around a particular character and plot twist which overshadows everything else.
Kojima created Venom Snake to provide MGSV with a character who was simultaneously a player-surrogate and his very own unique character in the Metal Gear series. As a play-surrogate, Venom is initially enamored by the legend of Big Boss, has had similar experiences with Big Boss as the player, and literally believes he is Big Boss. As his own character, Venom develops his own interpretation of the Boss’s will which greatly diverges from Big Boss’s and stands as perhaps the only legitimate alternative to widespread death and destruction offered by the many claimants to the Boss’s legacy in the Metal Gear series.
Combined, these two elements of his character enable Venom to act as a huge thematic nexus within Metal Gear Solid V. His character design and progression throughout the game is the ultimate representation of the folly of legends. Kojima asserts that legends are dangerous because they inherently distort the true nature of their subjects – an idea which Venom constantly has to grapple with.
Venom and the player thinks they are literally a legend (Big Boss) but they are not. Other characters and the player expect Venom to act in accordance with his legend, but he doesn’t. Even apart from Big Boss’s legacy, Venom’s accomplishments appear to be building up their own legendary figure, but he ultimately ends up erased from history.
And just like Venom’s relationship with legends, players expected the protagonist of MGSV to abide by the narrative expectations set by legendary video game creator, Hideo Kojima, but it didn’t.
But that’s ok. Kojima did something else instead. He created one of the boldest, most subversive narratives in video games history (again). He created a work which deserves to be endlessly analyzed and studied to get to the bottom of its meanings and purpose. I don’t claim that this analysis is the be-all-end-all explanation for Metal Gear Solid V, but I hope it will provide a valuable contribution to players who continue to pour over this masterpiece.