What follows is a frank and honest discussion of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It includes intimate details of its woeful and misguided ending.
Big Boss. The clue is in the name I suppose. The greatest warrior of the 20th century, trained by the previous greatest warrior of the 20th century. Bloke with a mullet and an eye patch. Physical carbon copy of his own clone—thanks entirely to Metal Gear Solid’s protagonist, Solid Snake, being hugely popular and existing in a 3D form long before Big Boss. He’s worked for the US government. He’s been betrayed by the US government. Now he operates for himself, seeking to set up an independent state made up entirely of men who fight wars, presumably as a way of thumbing his nose at the notion of nuanced geopolitics. He’s a madman, by all accounts. But he’s also the flawed protagonist of a few video games, making his tortuous way to becoming the antagonist of a few other video games. He’s sort of a big deal ‘round here.
Metal Gear is weird. It’s weird in a wonderful way that only comes about through a giddy Frankenstein's Monster approach to crafting a narrative, where layers upon layers of increasingly unrelated story are held together with chicken wire and staples. I love the Saw films for this very reason, because it takes a special sort of madness to keep writing, and indeed rewriting, yourself further into your own stories. Those films started out relatively benignly, with a bad guy called Jigsaw making people suffer for their apparent lack of gratitude for being alive. But then he died at the end of the third film—in one of the series’ many, many swerving plot twists—which posed the question of where everything would go next. Many successful horror series have fallen back on the easy route of just bringing the bad man back to life; he, after all, tending to be little more than a physical embodiment of our fears, and thus it mattering almost nothing that he exist within the realm of scientific feasibility. But them Saw films are different. They went in another direction altogether, transforming the typical nature of the the horror franchise into something unhinged and beautiful. All seven films exist—and I’m not even joking—as a continuous whole that should be enjoyed in one sitting. After the demise of Jigsaw, previously incidental characters resurface as it is revealed they were part of a bigger plan from the start. Lengthy flashbacks pepper the remaining four films, reconfiguring our understanding of previous events as the filmmakers attempt to write themselves out of prematurely killing off the most compelling player in their opera of moralising carnal voyeurism. Clues are planted in one film, for their true meaning to only be uncovered two or three films later. Scenes are replayed multiple times in multiple films from multiple characters’ perspectives, as the overarching Saw story is written and rewritten and then rewritten again before our eyes. And in the middle of it all is Jigsaw. A man who died less than half way into the series, controlling years of machinations from beyond, or more accurately before, the grave.
Big Boss is at least as smart as Jigsaw, so we’re told by the games he’s in. He is, remember, the greatest warrior of the 20th century, and with that title comes the necessity for a good deal of forward thinking. At the outset of MGS V: The Phantom Pain, Big Boss has been shafted in every imaginable way. During the events of MGS V: Ground Zeroes nine years earlier, this titan of military planning let himself be hoodwinked into taking his eye off the ball, distracted by the promise of rescuing two on/off allies. While he was out on one of his customary sneaking missions, all hell went and broke loose on his oil rig home of Mother Base, as a paramilitary force masquerading as a UN inspection team did a big old number on his massive private army.
Incidentally, Mother Base is again itself a direct copy of something from an earlier game, in this case MGS 2’s Big Shell, a place that wouldn’t exist in the series’ fiction for another 30 years. But, because MGS 2 was released 15 years before V, any such inspiration relationships must be inverted for the sake of canon, as the series ducks and weaves attempting to create something resembling a complete thematic entity.
Taken by surprise, and without their figurehead and tactical lynchpin, his well armed, well trained, well disciplined, well motivated, well effective fighting force was left to just stand about getting shot and blown up like a right bunch of lumps. When Big Boss—also sometimes known as Snake for purely revisionist canonical reasons—finally did turn up it was all but too late, so he just grabbed his bro and the only other named character hanging about at the time, Kazuhira ‘Master’ Miller, and legged it in a chopper. Shortly after, that too blew up, because a lady riding in it happened to have a bomb in her fanny—read: vagina/or/womb, maybe the single most unnecessary plot detail to have ever existed—and everyone landed in the sea and was presumed dead. Cut nine years into the future—it being nine years later is referenced at least once in almost every conversation—and Big Boss awakes from a coma with a chip on his shoulder, a foul temper and a new codename, Punished ‘Venom’ Snake, to cement the whole deal.
Snake, then, is in a pretty unenviable position. He has two things he must do: rebuild his army and serve up retribution. His main bent is to seek revenge on those who darked him out, the paramilitary group XOF. XOF is itself, no surprises, a very literally inverted, evil version of his old unit, FOX, from back when he worked for the US government (but how do we know the government isn’t evil?) in previous games. FOX, though, is itself another canonical progenitor written into the series to tie people, places and events neatly together across a sea of games depicting things wildly out of order. In this case, FOX is the team that supposedly birthed FOXHOUND, the elite special forces unit Solid Snake and Big Boss were a part of in the original Metal Gear, and the same team that went on to house the bad guys in Metal Gear Solid. The self-referentiality of Metal Gear knows no bounds, and it’s wonderful that so many lineages have been written into the series. I’m drawing so much attention to it because of the cheapening effect of reusing very specific visual and thematic motifs ad nauseam. The odd nod to where an organisation or character will go in the future is a wonderfully solidifying thing, and with Metal Gear especially, it has the ability to unify all the strands of a story spanning five decades. I think the XOF/FOX thing is pretty emblematic of how over the years this referentiality has become a runaway train; where fathers and sons are essentially identical characters, the same individuals happen to bump into one another time and time again all over the world, and where individual plot points are more like recurring characters themselves. It’s a bit messy.
Anyway, to relise his vengeance he must understandably first sort out the staffing problems inherent in all your soldiers being dead. This forces the greatest warrior of the 20th century into scrambling about by himself, taking on lucrative but demeaning contracts from all sorts of shifty organisations, illegal governments and groups of wrong ‘uns. He spends lots of the game doing this, sneaking about in abandoned villages, abandoned industrial facilities and abandoned sites of historical significance, all of which have been commandeered by ‘the enemy’ so they can stand about watching out for him, should he decide to approach ‘pon bended, sneaking knee. He’s normally tasked with rescuing prisoners, or removing high ranking officers, or blowing up tanks, and it is on these missions where he primarily sources his new ‘recruits’.
The process is not quite as simple as him going up to a group of soldiers, introducing himself with a handshake and then calling in a giant chopper to take everyone back to Mother Base. Big Boss, Punished ‘Venom’ Snake–the greatest warrior of the 20th century, celebrity among all the men and all the children who, through personal choice or otherwise, hold guns and kill people, you see, is actually more of an idea than a bona fide MVP. As it turns out, for various narrative and mechanical reasons, nobody really knows what Punished ‘Venom’ Snake, actually looks like. Except, of course, for the massive group of soldiers who tried to murder him the minute he woke from his coma at the game’s outset (nine years after the attack on Mother Base), all the game’s main antagonists, and people who have themselves just awoken from their own nine year comas. But really, almost nobody else knows what he looks like, and so bolstering his army becomes more a process of outright abduction and indoctrination than anything related to professional respect among colleagues.
Whenever Snake encounters an enemy he essentially has two choices. He can murder them in some fantastic way, or he can boringly knock them out and kidnap them with a big balloon. Obviously, a load of corpses does not an effective army make, so all those lovely guns, and rocket launchers, and landmines, and head-exploding rays Snake keeps in his bag of tricks begin rapidly gathering dust, as his only real course of action in many of the given situations is to incapacitate and then steal human beings—despite what large parts of the game’s design and marketing would have the player believe. Once back at Mother Base, these soldiers, all of whom are Russian, or Guatemalan, or Zimbabwean, are all sat down with a glass of milk and told they are now under the care of Snake. Learning of this, they all willingly join the cause without question (greatest warrior of the 20th century), and become entirely friendly. They also, for wholly unexplained reasons, all become American, and will forevermore salute Snake and say ‘howdy’ whenever he gets within ten feet of them.
And that’s about it really. Snake does his sneaking missions and keeps kidnaping soldiers, and they keep instantly joining his cause upon arrival at his in no way moustache-twirlingly evil deep sea fortress. There are a couple of little cosmetic things, like if Snake goes around saluting his troops a lot they’ll maybe train harder and get stronger, likewise if he does well on his solo soldier sneaking sojourns, but that stuff is all very nebulous and the game itself doesn't tell the player that anything of the sort is happening. He can also send his boys out on little missions of their own, though only if they’ve been playing nicely while he’s been out doing the proper work. These, though, are about as impersonal as they come, driven, as they are, entirely through the menus on Snake’s chunky ‘80s iPad. He never flies back to Mother Base to see them off with a rousing speech, never salutes them upon their heroic return; he just sits behind his little computer analysing statistical likelihoods of success and pressing buttons like a chump. The worst part of it all is how the outcomes of these assignments are quantified. Whoever designed the UI of his computer is as uninvested as Snake, for all post-mission statistical information—Snake’s favourite type of statistical information—is collated together under a single screen named ‘Rewards’—it’s even got an icon of a little rosette for good measure. It displays how much cash the mission netted Snake’s army, as well all the things his soldiers nabbed from the battlefield: generally stuff like plants, rocks and even more kidnapped soldiers. But it also slings dead operatives up there as well, albeit with their names highlighted in red, so they can mingle in with the 200 grand, 50 bunches of roses and that tonne of clay somebody said they wanted.
The way one chooses to display mission outcomes via a custom firmware is not a big thing, but I think it’s emblematic of the problems with Snake and his management style. Because that’s what it is: management—he isn’t a leader worth his salt. But it’s not really his fault. He’s the protagonist of an action game, and action games haven’t thus far figured out how to be anything but self-centered. You run Snake around and shoot people with tranquilizer guns as your main form of interaction, and there’s not a great deal of room given over to much else. For all the smarts displayed by the enemy AI, and it is very varied and convincing, there’s still not the sense that that intelligence could be mapped decently onto friendly soldiers. Patrol routes aren’t just simple straight lines like they used to be, and it does appear that adversaries are walking about with a bit of self-defined purpose, but that’s only good for the bad guys really. They are there to make infiltrations tense affairs filled with variables and not simple pattern recognition, but they are, at the end of the day, still just walking about to give the player something to avoid. Because of this limitation, there’s no real option but for Snake to go it alone as he always has, and the alternative would necessitate a whole load of scripting, linear environments and essentially making the game into something else entirely. As it stands, MGS V is a wonderful clockwork world for Snake and the player to shuffle about in. The breadth of environments alone—villages, hilltop forts, airports, compounds and more—makes every infiltration somewhat unique. Add in the litany of non-lethal gadgets used to distract and confuse your foes—honestly, killing is almost always the worst option—and you’ve got yourself a very large stealth toy box. The ancillary base building and staff management aspects on the periphery are well realised to an extent, but they are distanced from Snake to such a degree, essentially just gateing off mechanics for the large part, that you can't in good conscience say they make up anything but a small part of the game and Snake’s role within it. Almost all the focus is still placed on solo sneaking missions.
It’s strange then, that given MGS V seems to know exactly where its own strengths lie, that there is such a gulf between who Snake is and what the game wants us to think he is. He is, just like all the other Snakes in all the other Metal Gears, just a bloke with a mullet who crawls around on the floor a lot. There’s no shame in that: the amorphous, interchangeable character of Snake is one of the more compelling blokes in all of contemporary video games. But that isn’t enough for MGS V. It wants us to see him not only as the greatest warrior of the 20th century, but also as the greatest man to have ever lived. General. Tactician. Visionary. Father. Philosopher. But he’s none of these things. He’s simply really good at solo sneaking missions, just like his cloned son before him.
This is the biggest of all MGS V’s confusions. The game makes all of these bizarre and forceful narrative claims over Big Boss, Punished ‘Venom’ Snake–the greatest warrior of the 20th century, so that he’ll fit into the series’ twisted cannon where he will eventually become all the things he needs to be—General. Tactician. etc. etc.—even though the character and the design of the whole game that surrounds him clearly state otherwise. AND AND AND it’s not even Big Boss at all, which makes the whole thing, which hardly made sense to begin with, stray even further away from possibly ever making any sense. The destructiveness of the game's violently unnecessary twist cannot be overstated. It turns out that all along you’ve been playing as simply Punished ‘Venom’ Snake, who is not simply Big Boss with a fancy new name. This Snake is actually another man entirely, one who received plastic surgery and hypnosis in order for him to believe that he’s the greatest warrior of the 20th century. It is he who will eventually go on to be the antagonist of the very first Metal Gear, while the real Big Boss will still be the bad guy in Metal Gear 2.
It is unfathomable that this is the case. The whole point of MGS V being a story about Big Boss in the ‘80s is that it is meant to show the downfall of a great man—to bridge the gap between his earlier self as a poster boy for elite soldiers everywhere and his ultimate role as the evil general of his own private army. The game fumbles this transition in every way imaginable, both mechanically and narratively, in delivering a fantastic stealth action game with a juvenile about-face ending. The character you play as is not Big Boss, nor is he is in any believable way a leader of men. He is simply what the protagonists of all Metal Gear games have always been: a bloke called Snake who sneaks about. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, but the game seems to think there is. What it doesn’t do, and what the Saw films did so brilliantly, is harness the ability to rewrite stories to create a somewhat coherent whole. As it stands, MGS V does the exact opposite, and takes what was an already almost incomprehensible mess and makes it even murkier—and for absolutely no reason other than because it can. It’s a massive achievement that it does so, and it baffles me that this is what constitutes the sorrowful downfall of the greatest warrior of the 20th century. It would appear that the only person Big Boss is ever truly the Big Boss of is himself, and even then he manages to fail miserably at times.
The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:
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