Beware: Spoilers Ahead!

The METAL GEAR SOLID V (MGSV) project (GROUND ZEROES and THE PHANTOM PAIN) was billed as the apex of the series; a perfect conclusion to a practically perfect series. What we got is one of the most frustrating and challenging finales to a franchise in recent memory. The game was simultaneously a marvel of playability and a total failure in keeping with the idiosyncrasies so often tied to the Metal Gear series. Quite simply, it’s a great game but a terrible Metal Gear installment; a detrimental binary compounded by its nature as the very last game in this series led by famed creator, Hideo Kojima.

Disclaimer: Most, if not all, articles that address MGSV end up focusing on the acrimonious split between Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami. This is not the focus of this piece. This article will focus on the actual content of the games in question, specifically their nebulous plots, contradictory presentation and ambiguous narrative goals.

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The frustration generated by MGSV is amplified when we take into account the history of the Metal Gear franchise. Its genesis was humble and contained. Its rise was stratospheric, full of promise for what video games could achieve as a medium. And so it was for nearly two decades. Many publications exalted METAL GEAR SOLID as one of the greatest video games ever made due to its cinematic gameplay and presentation. Kojima became the industry’s first superstar creator overnight.

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Its sequel, METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY, is a postmodern video game that is occasionally uttered in the same breath as the word “art.” The third installment in the Solid series, METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER (MGS3), has similarly been hailed as an action and stealth masterpiece and as a high point of the series. One could throw praise in the direction of any of the games in the series. However, as all good things are wont to do, Metal Gear came to an end.

Language games

So what happened? Metal Gear ended incomplete, broken and divorced from the essence of its legacy. To talk about the bittersweet finale of MGSV, it is necessary to acknowledge certain aspects of the previous installment, namely its gameplay and narrative structure.

The Ghost of Gameplay’s Past

Developed for the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), METAL GEAR SOLID: PEACE WALKER (MGS:PW) was a massive game constricted by the technical limitations of the platform. The overall approach to this game would serve as the blueprint for the entire MGSV project.

David and Goliath: MGS Edition.

One notable aspect of the gameplay that merits observation is how MGS:PW approached storytelling. Due to the limitations of the PSP, each campaign is accessed via chapters in a menu, not loaded into one massive area to wander around.

The gameplay of the MGSV installments adopted the same chapter format with nary a good reason – there were no technical limitations that forbade elaborate cut scenes. If anything, the sky was the limit. Although we got got three massive open world playgrounds in both GROUND ZEROES and THE PHANTOM PAIN, the beautiful landscape was full of uninspired content.

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Some Plot Threads are Better Left Alone

The plot of MGS:PW takes place 10 years after the events of the previous chronological installment (MGS3). Big Boss and his new mercenary group are recruited by an undercover KGB agent and a young girl named Paz to investigate a group called the Peace Sentinels in Costa Rica that has been making use of radically advanced weapons technology.

By the end of the game, a nuclear disaster is adverted, but Big Boss, having misinterpreted his mentor’s dying wish, discards his bandana and, symbolically, her teachings in an ominous and heartbreaking conclusion.

Hoping for the illusion we call peace…

This should have been the real ending, as Big Boss’ mercenary army in MGS:PW would eventually christen themselves Outer Heaven, the antagonistic organization from the very first METAL GEAR game. This would have taken the narrative full circle and end the game on a proper note. Instead, developers unveiled a major unresolved plot thread as a set up for MGSV.

Double the Game, Half the Plot

At the end of MGS:PW, it is revealed that Paz is actually an undercover agent for an organization named Cipher. She steals the Metal Gear ZEKE unit and the true final battle of the game begins. After the battle, ZEKE is left heavily damaged and Paz escapes out to sea, leaving the situation unresolved. This is where the subsequent installments pick up from.

GROUND ZEROES (GZ) is a direct continuation of this dangling plot thread from MGS:PW, and, being the first part of the MGSV project,  comes across as a prologue rather than a fully-developed game. The main mission of the game is to infiltrate a Cuban prison camp run by the U.S. military. The objective: extract Chico, a supporting character, and Paz.

Big Boss overlooks his final playable appearance.

If this sounds extremely simple, that’s because it is. Referring to this game as a prologue or an overpriced demo is hardly an exaggeration. There are speed runs that take less than five minutes. That’s neglecting the few cut scenes but, all the same, the game is not very long.

There are plenty side operations of the non-canonical variety, such as gathering intelligence, carrying out assassinations, and sabotaging enemy missions. These missions, however, are a lackluster attempt to fill a void left by the phantom of a narrative. This would be a recurring theme in the subsequent installment, THE PHANTOM PAIN (TPP).

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Having said that, the game is undeniably fun. As far as stealth mechanics are concerned, the MGSV games perfected the formula that Kojima had been constantly refining since the first game. But the triumph of the mechanics is counteracted by the vacuity of actual content.

Double the Game, Half the Character

Hardly any of the thoughtful idiosyncrasies that made most Metal Gear Solid games fun are present in GZ.

Series staples like rations are gone. The health bar is omitted in favor of time-sensitive mechanics far more at home in a CALL OF DUTY installment. A generic yet authentic realism replaces the usual sci-fi aesthetic of the series. This could be forgiven if there was any actual plot to support a shift of aesthetic, but outside of a few trailers, this is hardly the case.

The joy of base building and management from MGS:PW is also completely omitted, and to add insult to injury, the Mother Base is annihilated in the final cut scene by a mysterious unit run by Skull Face, a new character.

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Making matters even worse was the lack of David Hayter, famed voice actor for Solid Snake and Naked Snake/Big Boss, who was replaced by actor Kiefer Sutherland.

All of these decisions fed the rhetoric that GZ was little more than an overpriced demo. The game lacked the cinematic drive of the previous installments and the gameplay depth of its direct predecessor. There was a sense of disregard for legacy.

GZ ends in practical clickbait fashion. After the attack on Mother Base, Paz is blown up by a bomb surgically planted inside her. This leaves Big Boss maimed and critically injured, setting up fans for the inevitable follow-up.

 

The work of the great Yoji Shinkawa

Fake News, Real Game

A fake studio and fake lead developer, Moby Dick Studio and Joakim Mogren respectively, were announced as the developers of a mysterious new game titled THE PHANTOM PAIN (TPP). The trailer featured a protagonist who, while mostly obscured, seemed to resemble Big Boss, and was complete with bizarre visuals of flaming whales in the sky and little levitating boys wearing gas masks. As time passed, more evidence was obtained that this was, in fact, a new Metal Gear game.

Little did we know that players would feel exactly this after it was all finished.

One of the first giveaways was the realization that the name “Joakim” was actually an anagram of “Kojima.” Another giveaways was that the title METAL GEAR SOLID V could fit into the negative space and indentations of the game’s logo. Finally, there was the suspicious nature of the screenshots from the game sporting the FOX engine logo, an engine that Kojima Productions had been working on specifically for the development of the new MGS installment.

At the fever pitch of this promotional hoax campaign, METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN (TPP) was announced and, though it was not known at the time, it would be the last game in the series.

That Which is Lost

Once the game was released,  it was second nature to praise it as a masterpiece. The game was certainly fun from a mechanical point of view. If GZ had been a teaser of what was to come, then, gameplay wise, TPP game more than delivered.

The game presented two massive open-world environments which were replete with side missions that involved search and rescue, sabotage, assassination, intelligence gathering and, of course, the main narrative, which centered on revenge on Skull Face for blowing up the Mother Base.

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The player could access missions from a menu or  by simply roaming the open worlds. The options available to the player seemed nearly limitless. For example, the new buddy system opened new ways of playing missions.

The buddy that stood out the most was Quiet, a mute sniper with super-powered capabilities. She could easily tip the balance of a mission’s success rate and is actually instrumental to the plot of this game. Although she almost never speaks, I couldn’t help but bond with her. She also ends up saving Big Boss, but, in doing so, seals her fate. So Quiet exits the narrative and is never seen again.

Scouting out the terrain

As for Paz?

Although she was last seen jumping out of a helicopter and exploding in midair, the character magically reappears on Mother Base.

Phantom Nostalgia

Turns out she’s a figment of the player’s guilt at being unable to save her at the end of GZ.  This is the big *gasp* moment… you are not Big Boss. All this time, you’ve been playing some other character. You are the medic featured in the final cut scene from GROUND ZEROES who has been surgically made to look like Big Boss. The player receives a final codec transmission from the real Big Boss, explaining everything.

A Noble Disappointment

This is how the game ends.

Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. Just with radio talk that leads nowhere.

There is no catharsis. No great relief at all.

As a fan of the Metal Gear franchise, I was more than excited when the trailers for MGSV dropped. The postmodernist themes regarding identity, culture and language that made MGS2 such a masterpiece seemed to be making a comeback… except they never really did.

None of this would ever be seen in-game.

I played TPP for over 120 hours, but I never saw an ounce more than what was shown in the trailers.

That being said, what this game lacked in cut scenes, it made up for in cassette tapes. These were audio recordings from key characters, explaining the story which the player could access at any time. Kojima argued that it was a way for the player to experience the story at their pace. Seems like he forgot about MGS: PW.

So maybe all this criticism is unfair. A story was told, just in a way I was unfamiliar with and liked a lot less. It was a noble sentiment and somewhat novel in its freedom, but surely the technical capabilities of the FOX engine, along with the reported 80 million dollar budget, could have given us a little more. By the end of the game, one could easily sense that Kojima had taken criticisms leveled at MGS4 – that it was more a movie than a game – a little too close to heart.

He relinquished narrative to bolster gameplay, and, along the way, lost his way. MGSV was an ambitious project that ultimately felt detached from the rest of the series. As the title of the game indicates, MGSV was but a phantom of its predecessors.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

As time has passed, I keep thinking about the title of the game, THE PHANTOM PAIN. The game does use the term “phantom pain” in many figurative and literal ways, but I keep thinking that Kojima’s final metafiction was to induce a phantom pain in his fans with this final installment. As players, we progress through what should be a simple quest for revenge but in the end find absolutely no joy in its conclusion.

Was all this by design or simply a happy accident? I honestly can’t begin to figure it out. If indeed it was by design, then Kojima clearly earns his much recognized status as a game-design genius. However, what if it was simply serendipitous, nothing more than perfectly timed coincidences?

What played out between Kojima and Konami could certainly have played a part, but I like to think that the titular phantom pain is meant as a metaphor for the player’s experience. Nevertheless, the experience remains bittersweet and maybe that was the point all along.

 

2 Comments

  1. thebrotherscaged

    April 28, 2017 at 3:13 am

    Game was not incomplete. Did you forget that it’s a pre-sequel smack-dab in the middle of the whole series? Yeesh some “Metal Gear” fan.

    Reply

  2. Carter

    April 27, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    With all due respect, sir, you’re not saying anything that hundreds and hundreds of irate fans haven’t already expressed to death. And just like every one of them, you’re looking at things through a very narrow perspective.

    “METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY, is a postmodern video game that is occasionally uttered in the same breath as the word “art.””

    Postmodernism doesn’t automatically mean the execution of something is perfect. And Sons of Liberty is also uttered in the same breath as “convoluted, confusing, and pretentious.” I’m going to come back to that point very soon.

    “The third installment in the Solid series, METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER (MGS3), has similarly been hailed as an action and stealth masterpiece and as a high point of the series.”

    It was the first Metal Gear game to actually put being a game first in line, with a simplistic plot. But its’ plot is devoid of any emotional investment because its’ full of underdeveloped characters whom we have zero reason to are about, especially Snake and The Boss. It was also mired with horrible mechanics that crippled immersion, such as the not particularly intuitive menu design, the survival aspects that just mean you have to repeatedly pause the game, and a camo index that was all but worthless. And that’s even getting into how badly some things didn’t translate well from MGS2’s gameplay into MGS3, namely crawling, the open levels making the Mk22 break all sense of challenge, and the terrible gunplay that still wasn’t addressed nearly enough.

    “Although we got got three massive open world playgrounds in both GROUND ZEROES and THE PHANTOM PAIN, the beautiful landscape was full of uninspired content.”

    MGSV might be an open world game, but it’s a METAL GEAR game, first and foremost, and what is Metal Gear, at its’ core, about? Sneaky gameplay. The open world isn’t the focus and is never made out to be. The focus is the Main Missions, and each one possesses a dynamic unmet by most games, even today. They adapt to any given playstyle, have an abundance of alternate scenarios and situations, which increases replayability tenfold, when you can replay the same mission again and again and still have a new experience. The open world only serves to complement the missions, and considering the amount of approach points each one provides, how multiple missions take place across multiple outposts, or how the open world itself factors in for convoys, targets on the move or run, and so on, I’d say that’s anything but uninspired.

    “This should have been the real ending, as Big Boss’ mercenary army in MGS:PW would eventually christen themselves Outer Heaven, the antagonistic organization from the very first METAL GEAR game. This would have taken the narrative full circle and end the game on a proper note.”

    No, it wouldn’t have, know why? Because look at how many people were disappointed that MGSV “didn’t really show Big Boss turning heel.” PW is Big Boss’ true turning point, because it shows him harboring a nuke, and abandoning The Boss in favor of extremism. But it doesn’t show the byproduct of his turn. MGSV does. We see him lying to the governments of the world in order to maintain the secret of his nuke in GZ, and TPP shows that he’s a complete hypocrite; someone who would use and abandon his own men, lets hundreds of people die in a Hospital attack, and dump all his problems on his best man, just to stay alive. And then, use his words and charisma to convince Venom Snake to keep the lie and the “dream” alive, until the day Venom died, letting Big Boss absorb Venom Snake’s entire life into his own, taking credit for all his accomplishments, even in death, and all but erasing the man from existence. MGSV is necessary because it finalizes the one thing people were blind to; Big Boss isn’t a good man. And that his turn to villainy wasn’t brought on by any one trauma, but rather, a series of events slowly corrupting him as he grew more powerful and influential.

    “Making matters even worse was the lack of David Hayter, famed voice actor for Solid Snake and Naked Snake/Big Boss, who was replaced by actor Kiefer Sutherland.”

    How does that make matters worse? David Hayter was iconic, but he was also iconically over the top, to the point where it’s literally impossible to ever truly take Big Boss or Snake seriously. His most harrowing moments in PW became a joke because Snake’s voice just sounded ridiculous. And I’ll level with you, a LOT of his line delivery is either off or emotionally flat. Like his shifting pronunciation of Kaz, the lack of emotion beyond grumbling in a lot of key lines, like when The Boss betrayed him in MGS3, and just the Grimace tone of his voice is a staple, but it’s a doubled edged staple. Sutherland is different, but he’s also naturalistic, and easy to take seriously as a result. He doesn’t have to force his voice to be present, and his delivery in the key moments of the games was spot on, as were his combat incidentals, which sounded much better than Hayter’s. His screams carry anguish and real exertion. His breathiness shows he’s physically present. And above all else, he’s just a better, more distinguished actor who possesses more emotional range, and has the ability to convey it subtly without baring all his emotions on his sleeves the way Hayter always did.

    So I ask you, is Hayter’s absence a genuine flaw? Or is it just a gripe you have because Hayter is what you were used to, and any deviation of any kind, is automatically perceived as a negative?

    “The player receives a final codec transmission from the real Big Boss, explaining everything.

    This is how the game ends.

    Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. Just with radio talk that leads nowhere.

    There is no catharsis. No great relief at all.”

    And what was the takeaway from MGS3 when Eva did the exact same thing? What was the takeaway from MGS4 where Big Boss is magically still alive because nanomachines, and spends almost half an hour explaining away everything about MGS4?

    This is, after all, an epilogue, and a true ending to the MGSV narrative, only it ends with a twist that; for once, actually informs on the game at large. Venom Snake is the way he is because he’s not who we and who HE thinks he is. He’s us; the player. And the player, who never asked to be Big Boss, became Big Boss against his will, played an entire hundred plus hour journey, fighting someone else’s fight, carrying out the burden of being someone else, and at the end of the day, is told it’s a GOOD thing. The ending is supposed to be a reflection of the journey at large, hence why we replay that Awakening Mission all over again; because now, we play it, knowing the truth, and that truth is an extension of the entire game at large. We’ve been duped. Big Boss broke the fourth wall, and used it to stab the players who have followed him since MGS3 right in the back, and all with a gentle smile.

    You’re generalizing the entirety of the journeys end, and criticizing one perspective that lacks the variables that matter.

    More to the point, you continuously praise MGS2 for its’ take on postmodernism, without ever actually elaborating what goes down. MGS2 is a story that wanted to act smart, without ever actually being smart. It tried to have its cake and eat it too, by making the entirety of Big Shell feel like a lifeless replication of Shadow Moses, but then proceeds to immediately undo all those coincidences with that final GW Speech, revealing S3 was a Societal Simulation. Low and behold, the reasons that made the similarities work initially, no longer held up under scrutiny. Suddenly, “we chose Shadow Moses for its’ extreme circumstances” doesn’t justify having so many points play beat for beat identical to MGS1, only not as fun, because Shadow Moses is far from the most extreme of circumstances a person can be put through. More importantly, the simulation didn’t need to be set in a dull environment with no functional appeal that we didn’t already have in MGS1. It could have been a genuinely new and exciting experience, but it wasn’t. It was MGS1 again with better controls and a more convoluted plot. And any good sequel is one that takes what worked from the first installment and builds on it, not burrow back into the first installment and play it on repeat. Kojima’s commentary on the nature of sequels is lost when he’s just as guilty of subjecting us to the same repetition, whilst also charging us $70 for it, just for the sake of pretentious commentary that compromises what could have been an intelligent narrative, but ended a jumbled mess.

    And this next part is what gets me every single time I’ve ever, EVER seen this criticism laid bare.

    “That being said, what this game lacked in cut scenes, it made up for in cassette tapes. These were audio recordings from key characters, explaining the story which the player could access at any time.”

    Three key things here:

    1. MOST of what is on Cassette Tapes is exposition. I know it’s easy to get the two confused, because exposition is about 90% of the MGS series’ cutscenes, but there is a difference between plot and exposition. The Yellow Tapes are arguably the only tapes that are essential to understanding key things, but they’re incredibly minimal by comparison to the vast amount of tapes that aren’t essential.

    2. Narrative doesn’t begin and end with cutscenes, sir. And I’m not just talking Cassette Tapes either. Lest we forget, there’s a reason we are as hands on in MGSV as we are, because we are Big Boss, and as such, we are the active participants in the story development process. We’re the ones who spy on and interrogate key targets and uncover major plot details. We’re the ones who actively rescue targets and learn what’s going on straight from the horse’s mouth. And we’re the ones opting to learn this information, or just do our job because who cares? We’re Big Boss, and this could just be wetwork for us.

    3. It is PHENOMENALLY hypocritical of you, and most people who criticize the tapes to do so, when you outright praise all things MGS2 related. Because correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t HALF the actual cutscenes of MGS2 codec calls? The only difference being all that dense information being thrown at you at once, WASN’T optional. And the other half that wasn’t codec related, was pure exposition. Most of this games cutscenes consisted of people just talking at Raiden and spelling out everything that’s going bit by bit. Even when outside of the talking screens, all we have are people standing around and talking at Raiden. Not engaging with him, because that requires some actual input from Raiden, which he seldom ever provides.

    You praise MGS2, but you’re looking at through rose tinted goggles. Just because the story had some whacked out meta narrative doesn’t mean it was an immediate masterpiece of execution. The story is almost entirely TOLD at you, and often times, through needlessly wordy dialogues with interesting concepts, but uninteresting and bloated delivery. If I’m wrong, please enlighten me as to how.

    “He relinquished narrative to bolster gameplay, and, along the way, lost his way. MGSV was an ambitious project that ultimately felt detached from the rest of the series. As the title of the game indicates, MGSV was but a phantom of its predecessors.”

    So, for piece of minds sake, you’re criticizing MGSV because, unlike MGS4, it had an identity all its own and was self contained?

    “As players, we progress through what should be a simple quest for revenge but in the end find absolutely no joy in its conclusion.”

    That’s case-by-case. The ending is a polarizing pill to swallow, and some would rather spit it out. Would you expect anything less from Hideo Kojima?

    Reply

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