Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is basically the polar opposite of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Agonizing detail was put into the design of the compact but iconic levels of MGS4, and it was all wrapped up in a layer of story so dense and yet simultaneously elongated that you were basically watching the game more than you were playing it. Meanwhile, MGSV dumps you into a massive open world with only a few rules to follow, resulting in level design where very little stands out, but there is always so much to do, and the story is often almost nonexistent. In this way, MGSV actually makes for a rather harsh departure from any other numbered game in the series, and consequently makes for a strange swansong. I would like to do something different from my usual reviews, and instead merely discuss what I find to be the high and low points of this wildly different Metal Gear experience.
*Massive Spoilers Ahead*
Grenade Launchers for Every Occasion
I would be remiss not to begin by reflecting on the sheer scope of gameplay present in The Phantom Pain. Almost right away, you get to develop weapons, select your own loadouts, and start building Mother Base. However, unlike just about every other person on the planet who has played this game, I initially reacted to this newfound freedom with abject disgust. I was genuinely appalled at what I perceived to be generic, cookie-cutter environments (“Okay, drop some buildings in the sand here. Put a satellite dish here. Shove some materials over here. Have a guy stand in this watchtower and never let him turn around.”), exacerbated by the fact that numerous missions take place repeatedly in the same areas. I expected and did not mind such design in the portable-minded Peace Walker, but after the painstakingly crafted levels of Guns of the Patriots, The Phantom Pain felt initially like a massive step back. Perhaps I was just deeply disturbed at the proposition that Kojima had succumbed to the allure of the Assassin’s Creed crowd and had abandoned eastern game design philosophy altogether.
Another negative reaction I had to the “too much freedom too quickly” proposition in which I placed myself was that it seemed like gathering materials would take an eternity–an annoying, mandatory waste of time that padded the length of the game right in the middle of missions. I had to play the game several hours before I realized material collection was ultimately going to automate itself regardless of how much effort I put into it. The same was true of soldier management, which also seemed to be introduced in a way that made it sound much more convoluted than it really was. Between the big, seemingly generic world and the threat of endless resource management, I couldn’t find anything to like about the game at first.
But, after a brief hiatus, I pressed on, and eventually I realized the vision Kojima and crew had for the game. The Phantom Pain does not mean to discard the detail of Guns of the Patriots; The Phantom Pain merely redirects where its details are placed. There is an enormous number of ways to navigate levels and challenges, which is basically the benefit of vanilla level design as seen here. I brought the tranquilizer gun and tranquilizer sniper rifle into each mission, but I also always brought a grenade launcher in case things went south. Another person might bring in a setup of machine guns and call in for liberal air strikes. A third person might just start the mission in a tank and drop all pretense. My point is, even if there are only a handful of really terrifically designed spaces in the game, it is still admirable to know that there are dozens of unique ways to have fun with it. In other words, The Phantom Pain is exactly as interesting to play as you want it to be. It just took me too long to realize it.
And, to be fair, the variety of details exhibited in The Phantom Pain go far beyond weapon loadout. Consider the number of soldier conversations that were recorded across various languages, or the fact that you can play a pooping sound on your cassette player while inside a bathroom in order to deter soldiers from approaching. Plus, yes, even the level design that I (perhaps somewhat unfairly) deride has a few great details hidden in there. For instance, when I realized that I could shoot a silenced bullet through the small gap between the wall and the roof of a building in order to capture mission targets, it elicited a moment of genuine and powerful satisfaction. That is the kind of Metal Gear I know and expect.
More like ‘The Phantom Plot’
I am not going to mince words here. The plot of The Phantom Pain is paper-thin, and yet when it can be bothered to show up at all, it still tries to present itself as grandly obtuse. Ostensibly, this game is supposed to bridge the gap between Peace Walker and 1987’s Metal Gear, to show how Big Boss ultimately becomes a “villain.” Instead, you play the entire game as just some dude whom Zero convinced he was Big Boss, and it adds virtually nothing to the Metal Gear canon except for one more convoluted wrinkle. Outside of a Kojima-helmed remake of Metal Gear, which seems extremely unlikely, that means there will never be a tidy resolution to the series canon now. Oops.
Even when considering the story strictly on its own merits, it is very poorly crafted. Nearly all of the characters in The Phantom Pain are obsessed with revenge, and the problem with that is revenge is a very single-minded, uninteresting emotion. Revenge is usually a motivation reserved strictly for villains in fiction (or the occasional anti-hero), because you want the villain to be viciously single-minded in order to make him or her appear more threatening. However, when Snake, Ocelot, and especially Miller are all obsessed with revenge, they just come across as three angry, rough ‘n tough dudes–and not even three well-acted dudes.
Miller sounds like he is ready to snap the neck of the first person who buys him the wrong flavor of soda. Ocelot, voiced by an uncharacteristically boring Troy Baker, sounds nothing like neither the Snake Eater rendition nor the classic rendition of Ocelot, and he is given almost nothing to do in the story except provide exposition. Then there is Snake himself, the veritable middle finger of the whole situation. He is practically a mute from start to finish, with hardly a thought to offer about anything, reducing Keifer Sutherland’s inclusion in the project to little more than an exercise in star-studded name-dropping on Kojima’s part. Although honestly, if not for the fact that you do not truly play as Big Boss at all, I would have been outraged that David Hayter got replaced regardless.
The villains, against all odds, manage to be even more generic. Skullface’s motivation is that he… wants revenge, and his face is very skull-like. Yes, there is the philosophical discussion of language, nation, and population accompanying him, but when you frame it all in the context of a killer vocal chord parasite, it gets a little difficult to take seriously. However, in my mind, the most fundamentally damning failure of the plot is that it turns the arbitrarily included kid Psycho Mantis into a critical driver of the plot for no reason.
Without Psycho Mantis (and his completely superfluous, vengeance-personified Volgin/Man on Fire), there would be no wild fire whale opening cinematic, nobody to pilot Sahelanthropus, and nobody to rescue Eli. In other words, the beginning, middle, and end of the game all depend on a silent, mindless kid with psychic powers to keep the story going. Any competent writer could have whipped up a rendition of The Phantom Pain that did not demand a freaking psychic kid in order for the story to make sense. Even more bothersome, this game basically retcons Metal Gear Solid when it depicts Psycho Mantis as an unkillable, hyper-fast, corpse-reanimating bosom buddy of Eli. If Mantis is that impossibly powerful, it makes no sense at all that Solid Snake is able to take him down with one handgun. I just do not understand why Kojima decided to dedicate so much of The Phantom Pain to making a one-off character into a much more important force than he ever needed to be. It goes far beyond a Frank Jaeger or Chewbacca cameo, and in a way that no one ever wanted.
Lastly, let’s not forget that The Phantom Pain does not even have a proper ending. The missing Mission 51 robs us of closure with Eli, though even that ending requires the moronic intervention of Mantis, not to mention this ending is riddled with questions of its own. Prior to that, Skullface gets killed halfway into the game with little fanfare, and he practically commits suicide with how he eggs Sahelanthropus on to kill him. You never even get a boss fight out of it! Heck, Volgin never even gets a proper boss fight; that lame affair of spraying some water on him hardly counts. The closest thing you get to a real final battle is not even Sahelanthropus. Rather, it is the battalion of tanks that comes after you during the final Quiet mission. It just feels like Kojima wanted to do too many things with the story, and the purposely open design philosophy of the gameplay ended up seeping in a negative way into the crafting of the unfocused plot.
I mean, yes, Kojima comes up with lots of clever and pretty metaphors for “phantom pain” throughout the game, but when every one of them is contrived and pulled out of thin air, what good are they? It is a design flaw that plagues the story in its entirety, much like the vocal chord virus.
Naked Snipers, Mad Scientists, and Delirium
For all my complaints, there are three characters who stand out in a great way in The Phantom Pain, and the first of them is Quiet. We can probably take it at face value that Quiet was designed to be impractically sexy, and that Kojima contrived a reason for her to look like that after the fact. In spite of this though, she manages to be the most exciting character in The Phantom Pain strictly by virtue of being the only one who knows what she is doing. Quiet is death incarnate, killing jet fighters with sniper rifles. She is so lethal that it pushes logic that Big Boss can even subdue her. Any time Quiet is in a scene, she’s there to get things done (well, aside from that time that she dances mostly naked in the rain… *sigh*). Many people find her final scene to be beautiful too. Quiet is a bright spot in a dark, muddled story.
The next fascinating character is Huey. My, oh my, Huey is different from any video game character I have ever seen. In his earlier appearance in Peace Walker, Huey basically comes across as a carbon copy of his future son Hal, right down to having the same voice actor. The Phantom Pain however reveals Huey as a true monster, who betrays Snake repeatedly while taking a timeout to murder his wife. The kicker though, the thing that really separates him from the rest of the pack, is that he never fesses up to his crimes. The game provides all the evidence you need (particularly from Dr. Strangelove herself) to learn the truth for yourself, but no cinematic in the game ever spells it out. Huey is a cowardly villain to the very end, when he drowns himself and apparently tries to take his stepdaughter with him. How often do video games resort to this sort of storytelling, the kind that actually dares you to put two and two together yourself? Likely not very often is the answer.
Finally, there is my favorite part of the whole game, and it is a part you can miss entirely if you are not careful. I am talking about Paz, or rather, the version of her that brain-damaged not-Big Boss dreams up in a hospital bed. Where the main story fails so often in its symbolism, this brief side story with the imaginary Paz is so incredibly potent and emotional. Paz is plainly the “Angel of Peace,” a perfect messianic hope, the purest moral compass. But ultimately, not-Big Boss must come to terms with the fact that Paz was not the Angel of Peace, and she is certainly not alive. She hijacked a Metal Gear, and she died in the most brutal of fashions. But what is critically important is that the thing not-Big Boss wanted Paz to represent is real. Paz is the hope for a humanity reborn innocent, exonerated from the bloodshed that brought us to our current point. Some deep-rooted part of not-Big Boss’s psyche desperately desires to create this, even if he ultimately fails to live up to this dream. I enjoyed this excursion with Paz so much that it really makes me wonder why such magic (figuratively speaking) could not have been sprinkled elsewhere in the story.
The Inversion of Metal Gear
Returning to my original discussion, if you stop and think about it, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was already the perfect conclusion to the series. Not only was it contrived, but it was delightfully, spectacularly contrived, just a constantly intense rush to a final confrontation between incredible forces. It celebrated its own absurdity and grandeur at every turn, especially in the dream-come-true Metal Gear Rex versus Ray fight. That means that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain actually had a free pass to do whatever it wanted all along.
Until now, the greatest complaint anyone could ever raise against the Metal Gear Solid titles was that their stories were too intrusive and too contrived. The Phantom Pain, while still contrived (and not in a fun way like its predecessor), could never be accused of being too intrusive with its storytelling. And in the absence of hour-long cinematics, we just get more gameplay–self-inventing gameplay, where the player tells a story all by him or herself according to the actions taken to complete the mission. The result is the first external-facing Metal Gear Solid title. Where the other four Metal Gear Solid games construct an ever-growing Leaning Tower of inclusive mythology and meditations on the fatalistic nature of population wars, Metal Gear Solid V is truthfully content to just let you take whatever you want out of it. The game never stresses any aspect of itself hard enough to suggest otherwise.
Perhaps not playing as Big Boss, and yet becoming someone who very much chooses to be Big Boss anyway after learning the truth, is the game’s paradoxical way of encouraging the player to become his own man (or woman). You are who you choose to be–genes, memes, or scenes be damned. When viewed in this light, I can only accept The Phantom Pain as yet another strange and worthy game in the Hideo Kojima catalogue, but hopefully not the last.
Good night, Metal Gear. I will always hold naked cartwheeling Raiden near and dear to my heart.