The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Part 3

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EDIT – Since I wrote Part 3 last, it shows up first on my Blog’s feed.

Part 3: The Philosophy of Venom Snake

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A Different Path

As has already been stated, revenge is a prominent theme in Metal Gear Solid V. Kojima suggests that the quest for revenge leads to endless cycles of transgression and retaliation. When a person, organization, or country is wronged, it gains a desire for revenge and strikes back against the offender, which subsequently produces a desire for revenge in the original offender, which causes it to strike back, etc. This creates “an endless seesaw of blood and violence,” as Kaz calls it. Hence, Big Boss/Kaz and Cypher, the USSR and the US, the Soviet army and the Mujahedeen, Skull Face and the world, and all of the PFs in the war economy are locked in endless cycles of revenge-fueled violence.

This process represents an obstacle to the Boss’s dream of a unified world. If it is taken as a given that people fight, and that fighting is naturally divisive, how can unity be achieved?

Zero’s solution to this problem is to manage the chronic cycle of violence by controlling the context in which the fighting occurs. This initially takes the form of Cypher’s presence as a shadow government in the United States, which later evolves into the AIs’ control over information flow, and finally plateaus with MGS4’s war economy.

Big Boss’s solution is to embrace the fighting by accepting it as a natural form of stability. This is essentially the thesis of Outer Heaven. War as a constant. War as a way of life. There will always be wars and soldiers to fight them, so these soldiers should dictate how and why such wars are fought. As one such soldier, Big Boss figures that he may as well accumulate as much power as he can and usher in the era of chronic warfare.

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As a philosophical follower of Big Boss, Kaz espouses this philosophy throughout most of MGSV. Due to the loss of MSF and his limbs, Kaz is gripped with a desire for revenge against Skull Face that plunges him into a nihilistic rage, ironically not unlike Skull Face.

“We pull in money, recruits, just to combat Cipher. Rubbing our noses in bloody battlefield dirt… All for revenge.”

“The world calls for wet-work, and we answer! No greater good. No just cause!”

“We hold our rifles in missing hands. We stand tall on missing legs. We stride forward on the bones of our fallen. Then, and only then, are we alive. This pain… is ours. And no one else’s. The secret weapon we wield. Out of sight. We will be stronger than ever for our peace… Sahelanthropus will unleash that thirst onto the future. Those were his last words. Pretentious to the end. Still…doesn’t feel like this is over. And I’ll never be whole again.”

Skull Face’s goal is similar, albeit more immediately destructive. As he describes it:

“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.”

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This reference to George Orwell’s 1984 is Big Boss’s philosophy incarnate. The “peace” in “war is peace” is not the absence of violence, but a reference to a form of stability through persistent violence. To Big Boss, it is the elusive and inherently temporary stretches of peace which ultimately lead to the subjugation of noble soldiers at the hands of distant politicians. It was the desire for peace between the US and USSR which incentivized the US government to sacrifice the Boss in MGS3. It was the desire for eternal peace (under the threat of nuclear annihilation) which incentivized Hot Coldman to use Peace Walker to nuke the USSR. As Liquid Snake would later express in MGS1, it is peace which leaves soldiers with nothing to do, no purpose, no guidance, no reason to live.

War may be bloody and cruel, but it is stable. While at war, the enemy and the ally are clearly demarcated. The Soviet and Mujahedeen soldiers who fought and died during the Afghan war may have been tragic, but they all knew what they signed up for. Likewise for the African PFs and the various private armies and militias locked in eternal conflict in MGS4. These warriors had a goal, a purpose. They knew who they were, what they were doing, and why. Without war, they would be nothing.

This is why Big Boss wants war for the sake of war. Warfare for the sake of no greater goals than some sort of immediate emotional catharsis, which only produces a reciprocal need for violence, which leads to a never ending cycle of war. Zero understood this idea and his AIs would base their “war economy” on it. But while Zero subjugated the soldiers of the world to his endless conflicts for the sake of total control over all humanity, Big Boss wanted endless war for the sake of soldiers (and especially for the sake of himself).

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This is the legacy Big Boss left for Venom Snake when he agreed to use Venom in the Phantom Big Boss Project. Venom was meant to continue Big Boss’s work in creating an Outer Heaven-like organization to fight Cipher’s world dominance and push the world closer to a state of chronic warfare for the sake of its soldiers.

And yet, Venom Snake chose a different path.

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Here is Venom’s speech in the secret “dispose all nukes” ending again (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 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 “Boss” Venom refers to here is not Big Boss, but the Boss. This speech represents Venom’s clearest statement of his interpretation of the Boss’s will. To Venom, the Boss didn’t want to unify the world through totalitarian control like Zero, nor through mutual tragedy like Skull Face, nor even through endless soldier-centric warfare like Big Boss. Rather, the Boss wanted to unify the world through peace.

The bolded section is extremely important in the quote. Venom is fighting for his own obsolescence. He wants to create a world in which heroic men don’t need to create powerful armies outside the boundaries of organized nations to fight scary global shadow governments and continue endless wars for their own sakes. He doesn’t want people to have to collect metal gears and nuclear weapons to survive.

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Now compare Venom’s speech to Big Boss’s speech at the end 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.”

Notice how Big Boss has the same sense of historical awareness as Venom. Like Venom, Big Boss believes the existence of a force like MSF is a product of the times, in the sense that fighting (whether in the form of revolution, criminality, or terrorism) is a necessary function of survival in the modern world. Both men basically agree on this premise.

4 MONTH LATE EDIT (since I somehow missed this crucial conversation at the end of Peace Walker):

Kazuhira Miller: Snake? you still here? C’mon, let’s go back.

Naked Snake: I’m not going back.

Kazuhira Miller: Huh?

Naked Snake: I’m done.

Kazuhira Miller: Snake you don’t mean…

Naked Snake: I’m done looking for the truth.

Kazuhira Miller: What are you saying, Snake?

Naked Snake: I was wrong.

Kazuhira Miller: C’mon boss, everybody’s waiting for you.

Naked Snake: …she betrayed me, Kaz

Kazuhira Miller: she what?

Naked Snake: in the end, she put down her gun… and when she did… she rejected everything in her life up to that point, including me.

Kazuhira Miller: what do you mean?

Naked Snake: in giving up her life she abandoned everything she was as a soldier…

Kazuhira Miller: and you consider that betrayal…

Naked Snake: I won’t make the same choice as her, my future’s going to be different…

Kazuhira Miller: then…

Naked Snake: yeah, that’s right… from now on… call me BIG BOSS!

END OF EDIT…

But Venom’s fighting has an endpoint. He sees himself and his role in the world as a temporary necessity given the times (ie. the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, Cipher, etc.) but fights to make the world peaceful so warriors like himself are no longer needed. Venom wants to break the endless cycles of violence which plague seemingly every aspect of the Metal Gear world. He wants to see an age when he and all other soldiers can lay down their guns because there will be no need to fight anymore.

In other words, Big Boss fights for the sake of fighting, Venom Snake fights for peace. This explains the divergence in Big Boss’s and Venom Snake’s actions and ideas described throughout this analysis.

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Big Boss builds his own private army to launch endless wars. Venom builds his own army only to fight Skull Face and later the remnants of Cipher. Big Boss sets himself up as a strongman whose judgments are above the considerations of all other individuals and institutions. Venom refuses to set up or enact laws, choosing only to use his military power in reaction to threats posed by others. Big Boss acquires his own metal gear and nuke to destabilize the world and cause conflict. Venom chooses not to use a metal gear or nukes to do the opposite. Big Boss uses child soldiers because chronic military conflict is a valid way of life, so why shouldn’t children be introduced to warfare? Venom rejects the use of child soldiers so they can live life in peace, away from the battlefield. Big Boss will sacrifice his soldiers for his greater goals because war will always cause death and carnage, so what’s one more soldier fed to the grinder? Venom will do everything he can to save his soldiers because he ultimately wants a world of peace where everyone can live free of the threats to life and sanity posed by war.

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Kaz The Convert

Consider how unusual Venom’s drive for peace is in MGSV. As already described, just about every character in the game is motivated by a desire for revenge, which is thematically linked to a never-ending cycle of violence. Big Boss, Zero, Skull Face, and Kaz are all well-aware of this phenomenon and actively encourage it in some form. Only Venom has a different philosophical outlook from these characters. However, the character arc of Kaz is based on a revenge-driven character realizing the error of his ways and embracing Venom’s peace-oriented philosophy.

Kaz initially represents the most archetypical example of a tragic revenge narrative in MGSV. His pain and hatred are visceral in nearly every scene, especially when compared to his rather jovial disposition in Peace Walker. He spends nearly all of MGSV ranting and raving about Cipher, Skull Face, and all that he has lost, even while Venom Snake stoically stands by, seemingly not consumed by the same anguish. Kaz’s rage drives him to disregard all motives for fighting or even living besides revenge. Again, two key quotes:

“We pull in money, recruits, just to combat Cipher. Rubbing our noses in bloody battlefield dirt… All for revenge.”

“The world calls for wet-work, and we answer! No greater good. No just cause!”

In this sense, Kaz represents Big Boss’s philosophy incarnate. He is locked into the never-ending cycle of violence fueled by a raw emotional desire for catharsis. He doesn’t care about justice, helping people, or accomplishing any greater good through warfare, he only cares about satisfying the burning hatred in his heart. In turn, this philosophy will only inspire other individuals, both those who follow or are harmed by men like Kaz, to continue the cycle of violence with no end in sight.

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But near the very end of the game, right after “Shining Lights, Even in Death,” Kaz changes his tune. The turning point in this arc is somewhat underemphasized because it doesn’t happen in a cutscene or even a cassette tape, but rather while Venom is sitting in his helicopter in between missions. Yet, it is one of the most crucially important lines of dialogue in the entire game from a character and thematic perspective (full video here at, starting at 30:15):

“Boss, I don’t know how you do it. I… all I could do was obsess over revenge, dragging my comrades along the way. But even after all we’ve accomplished, the phantom pain… never let up. If anything, it just got worse… But you understood that from the start, didn’t you? From the moment you opened your eyes in that hospital you knew it wouldn’t go away. You’ve been fighting the pain and confronting your phantoms the whole time, knowing full well the battle would never end, not till the day you died… I respect that now, more than ever. It’s an honor and a privilege Big Boss.”

The bolded section is another concise description of Venom Snake’s character conflict throughout MGSV. From the moment he opened his eyes in the hospital, Venom struggled between the influences of Big Boss imposed upon him and his own personal philosophy. For the most part it seemed that Venom’s own mind won out in that conflict, leading to Venom constantly acting differently than characters in the game and we (the players) would expect Big Boss to act in the same situations (as described in Part 2).

But the presence of Big Boss still lingered in Venom’s mind. The drive for revenge, for mindless, endless violence, was always there. As will be described in Part 4, this presence manifested as a Demon, which Venom saw himself as whenever he committed great acts of destruction for the sake of the position Big Boss thrust him into. If Venom chose to succumb to the Demon, then he would become another pawn of Big Boss and continue building a world fit for the horrors of Outer Heaven. But instead Venom chose his own path and accomplished an enormous level of good during the events of MGSV.

(Unfortunately, I do think that eventually Venom does surrender to Big Boss at the end of the game, as I’ll describe later on.)

For Kaz, this statement is a repudiation of Big Boss’s philosophy that he had so consummately embraced throughout MGSV. This occurs not just because Kaz gets revenge on Skull Face and finds that the emotional victory doesn’t relieve his pain (as stated in his speech when Sahelanthropus is delivered to Mother Base), but because Kaz notices Venom’s similar emotional struggle throughout the entirety of MGSV. Granted, Kaz doesn’t know the truth behind Venom’s identity, but he does know that Venom has just as much of a reason to desire revenge as he himself does, yet despite its dark allure, Venom decides not to succumb to this desire.

It is no coincidence that Kaz’s arc completes its turn after the events of “Shining Lights, Even in Death.” This mission and its aftermath brought the full consequences of Big Boss’s philosophy to a visceral point for Kaz. Seeing his soldiers brutally and pointlessly killed by the vocal cord parasite and then executed by their commander was a wake-up call for Kaz about the true consequences of pursuing a never-ending cycle of violence fueled by the emotional pain which Kaz so coveted throughout the story.

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With that primer, it was Venom Snake’s heartfelt speech at the end of “Shining Lights, Even in Death” which ultimately showed Kaz the error of his ways. This moment reflects a similar thematic instance at the very end of Peace Walker. Both games end with a significant set-back for Big Boss/Venom. In MGSV, it’s the second vocal cord parasite outbreak, and in Peace Walker it’s the discovery that Paz was a Cipher agent all along.

In response to his set back in Peace Walker, an enraged Big Boss vows to his soldier:

“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.”

This is Big Boss urging his soldiers to embrace on the cycle of violence. Kaz apparently completely buys into this philosophy and carries it in full force in MGSV.

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But after Venom Snake suffers an even worse set-back at the end of MGSV, he resists the call for emotional outbursts and revenge-fueled violence. Instead we get a solemn funeral where Venom initially decides to dump the deceased soldiers’ ashes into the sea, as is custom for Diamond Dogs. But at the last moment he changes his mind:

VENOM – “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.”

KAZ – “We’re not burying them at sea? What then?”

VENOM – “We’ll make diamonds from their ashes. Take them into battle with us.”

KAZ – “Shining lights to our brothers in arms… even in death.”

VENOM – “We are Diamond Dogs.”

Venom realized that dumping the ashes into the sea was symbolic of forgetting the contributions of the dead soldiers. In the world envisioned by Big Boss, soldiers would constantly fight and die for no greater purpose. Scattering ashes of the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives for Diamond Dogs’ mission to the heartless sea would be a confirmation of Big Boss’s worldview. It would reduce heroes to insignificant ash in an endless oblivion. It blows away in the wind, gets absorbed in the water, and ultimately amounts to nothing.

Rather than rouse his troops with a speech that inspires destruction, recklessness, and outward lashing, Venom focuses inward. He speaks directly to his dead comrades and vows to remember their accomplishments and keep their legacy alive by literally carrying their remains into battle. In death, these Diamond Dogs become literal diamonds, the hardest substance on earth, a beautiful material which lasts forever and whose essence never fades.

These diamonds symbolize Venom’s commitment to his own philosophy in opposition to Big Boss’s. He doesn’t want himself or his men to fight and die for nothing. He wants them to fight for good, to leave a mark on the world. He wants them to matter.

(We can also see Venom’s decision to spare Huey Emmerich’s life at his trial as a practical manifestation of his philosophy. The desire of Diamond Dogs and especially Kaz to execute Huey in retaliation for the second vocal cord parasite outbreak is directly in line with Big Boss’s view of the world as an endless cycle of emotion-fueled violence. But Venom intervenes and breaks the cycle, choosing peace and life over revenge and death.)

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Kaz witnessed both Big Boss’s speech at the end of Peace Walker and Venom Snake’s response to the second vocal cord parasite outbreak at the end of MGSV. Big Boss’s philosophy primed Kaz to become the man he was throughout MGSV but Venom’s philosophy made Kaz second guess himself. Kaz could tell that Venom had the same inclination for revenge, but actively fought against this “phantom” (or really Demon) for the sake of his own philosophy that diverged from Big Boss’s. That is, a philosophy that strives for peace instead of endless war. Then Kaz saw the true effects of Big Boss’s vision in “Shining Lights, Even in Death” followed by Venom’s measured response and commitment to honor the dead rather than mindlessly pursue destruction. This prompted Kaz to finally see the error of Big Boss’s ways and become a convert to Venom’s philosophy.

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An after-effect of this arc can be seen in the post-credits conversation between Kaz and Ocelot (full audio here). Kaz discovers the truth about Venom Snake’s true identity at some point after the events of MGSV. Ocelot explains Big Boss’s plan and Kaz’s role in it. But instead of accepting his role (the way Venom snake unfortunately eventually does), Kaz rejects it. He vows to support “the phantom” and Big Boss’s sons against Big Boss to create a worthy leader of the movement.

Kaz never gives an explicit reason why he makes this choice. Undoubtedly, Big Boss’s manipulations played a major role in alienating Kaz, which reflects the way the player should feel about Big Boss as well. But Venom’s actions throughout MGSV and their effects on Kaz also likely encouraged Kaz to reject his former idol.

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The Possibility of Peace

Venom Snake is a wholly unique character in Metal Gear Solid V, and arguably a unique character in the entire series. After all, the Metal Gear series is all about war. Nearly all of the (many many) characters are soldiers or connected to fighting in some way. The nature of being a solider and what it does to an individual is one of the central themes deliberated in every game, from Liquid Snake’s suggestion that soldiers learn to love killing in MGS1, to the emotional destruction of Raiden in MGS2. The Metal Gear series takes place on battlefields, from the perspective of soldiers who know little about the world outside of soldiering, and truly have warfare as a way of life.

The point is that Venom’s philosophy is an aberration in the Metal Gear series. Lots of different Metal Gear characters have lots of different goals, but in one way or another, their goals tend to feed into a consistent cycle of violence upon which the Metal Gear world is built. Characters like Big Boss, Zero, and Skull Face merely recognize this natural cycle as a constant and try to steer it in a favorable direction. In opposition, Venom tried to end the cycle entirely.

This is an incredibly ambitious goal for Venom, even if he’s probably not entirely consciously aware of it. With so much of the world lined up against Venom, it’s easy to see his goal as a pipe dream. Afghanistan and Africa are still locked in endless proxy wars. Eli, despite the best efforts of Venom to put their conflict aside, constantly wages a war against Venom (though it’s possible that the cut content implies a conclusion to the fight). Psycho Mantis is still flying around, psychically enflaming grudges. Cipher is still out there in an alternative form fomenting the cycle.

But the narrative of MGSV also suggests that an end to the cycle is possible. Kaz is a die-hard proponent of the cycle of violence who renounces his old ways. Likewise, Quiet goes through a similar arc of desiring revenge only to completely reverse course as a result of her interactions with Venom. With the power of Diamond Dogs, Venom manages to put an end to Skull Face’s plans, which by Skull Face’s own admission, are purely a product of the cycle. Venom also honors the memories of his dead soldiers instead of “scattering” them to the “heartless sea” and spares the life of Huey Emmerich. Above all, the “nuclear disarmament” ending suggests the possibility of relative global peace, or at least a reprieve from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The only characters in the Metal Gear series with a similar philosophy to Venom are Solid Snake, Otacon, and arguably the Boss. Solid Snake and Otacon work together after MGS1 in Philanthropy to stop the proliferation of metal gears and hopefully avoid future global conflicts. Eventually they fight Liquid Ocelot’s GOP system in MGS4 and succeed in accomplishing Venom Snake’s ultimate mission of creating a world where soldiers are no longer needed, at least for the purposes of chronic, global warfare.

Thus, one way of looking at MGSV is as the series’ thematic proclamation that peace is difficult to achieve, but it is possible. Venom Snake was put in an extraordinarily precarious position where it would have been extremely easy for him to continue and perpetuate the cycle of violence, but he chose another path. He wasn’t entirely successful in his efforts to create peace, but he still managed to achieve a lot of good during his time as Big Boss’s phantom. And just as Venom Snake fought a (mental, internal) war against Big Boss, it would be the man who went on to kill Big Boss who would ultimately carry on Venom’s legacy and complete his mission for peace.

Part 4

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3 thoughts on “The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Part 3

  1. Pingback: The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Introduction – Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

  2. Pingback: The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Part 2 – Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

  3. Skooma Joe

    OMFG, so the way the story was told in TTP had been intentional all along. It’s just I didn’t do the work of analyzing it the way u did and mistaken it to be ‘unfinished’ or ‘foreign’. The way Kojima portrayed Venom Snake the way he did is not to represent the player who control it but The Boss. Which by recalling the monologue she had in MGS3 before the last fight with Naked Snake, and the one Big Boss had before passing away in front of The Boss’ grave in MGS4, it’s exactly how it should be. Venom Snake didn’t become a villain. Big Boss was the villain after Peace Walker and the final nail in the coffin is when he robbed Venom Snake of his own identity and manipulate Venom for his own gains.

    Like

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