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