Metal Gear Solid V: My Key to Understanding Kojima
Written by Kev (Originally posted: 9/11/17)
I’m going to start off by saying this… I love Metal Gear Solid V. It’s not an ironic love either, I just legitimately think it’s incredible as a stealth game, a Metal Gear Solid game, and even in its narrative. I couldn’t always say that though. It’s been a long road to arrive at my current understanding of the game and appreciation for it. This article is meant to look at MGSV itself, Kojima’s thought process while making the game (as if you can ever know what anyone is thinking, trying to decipher Metal Gear Solid games is inseparable from deciphering Kojima’s mind), and how I fell victim to the internet’s depiction of the game.
***Spoilers*** Do not continue if you haven’t played or seen through the game’s ending.
Also, before going any further I want to link some articles that helped shape my feelings on the game. If you haven’t played the game in a while, or are fuzzy on the narrative, then I definitely recommend reading these before continuing. This article: metal-gear-solid-v-the-boldfaced-lie/ breaks down the twist-ending and the character of Venom-Snake. This article: mgs5-unfinished-s-entirely-point/ analyzes whether the game was truly unfinished and looks at the larger context of the player’s relationship to the series. I aim to bring something new to the conversation about this game, but I can be honest that accomplishing my goal will be building on the concepts those authors put forward. If it seems like this is a lot of work to understand a game, it’s because it is. But frankly, understanding an MGS game takes work. One playthrough is often not enough, neither is one take on its themes. To be honest though, this aspect of MGS games is one that I only recently began to realize.
Watching my older brother play the first Metal Gear Solid when I was 6 years old was fascinating, but to be sure I understood very little of what I was seeing. Playing through Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 my freshman year of high school was even more fascinating, but little did I know I was still only grasping a portion of what Kojima was conveying. I was as confused as anyone about the convoluted plots MGS is famous for, and I thought the fun was in unraveling said plots. And there certainly is fun to be had doing that, but the political intrigue and beat to beat story sequence has never been the point of MGS games. The plot details are not the point, because they are not what Kojima is interested in (I know you’re about to bring up 90 minute cutscenes, novels worth of codec dialogue, and nanomachines… but Kojima’s contradictory nature is a big part of what makes him compelling. If you’re not on board with it, his games probably aren’t for you.) Rather, Kojima’s interest is in conveying themes and broader concepts to the player. I believe he first chooses the theme he’s trying to communicate, then fits all of his characters and plot in place to depict that theme. This is why retcons and bewildering character motivations don’t seem to bother him: they’re worth it if he feels like they build on the theme he’s communicating for THAT SINGULAR game.
Now, Kojima utilizing thematic storytelling is not news. But it was to me, in the sense that I had never prioritized the thematic angle when sitting down to think about his games. Furthermore, I had to learn this before I could find my current appreciation and attitude towards MGSV. If you, like me, were unfamiliar with the themes in these games, this article: legacyofmgs2/ I think gives a concise summary of the core theme of MGS2. If you want an extremely deep dive, look here: MGS2/DOTM. To be sure, these are the kinds of things Kojima thinks about when designing his games, and I think he gives them priority over plot details. So, what are the themes in MGSV then? In my estimation they are REVENGE and PAIN (although to be certain there are more, like LANGUAGE and IDENTITY, but they will not be my focus).
I, like so many, bought into the notion that MGSV would depict Big Boss’ turn to the dark side in an epic and conclusive fashion. We would see something SO messed up happen to him that he would have no choice but to *SNAP* and go full on totalitarian mode. Oddly, we wanted to be able to sympathize with his fall and say, “well of course he had to turn evil, didn’t you see what Skull Face did to him!?” Then we could go on a murderous rampage, blow away Skull Face & anyone who complied with his plan, and ride off into the sunset guilt free. The blame for the evil we commit as the players would be placed on Big Boss as the bad guy, and Kojima for making us play as the bad guy. Easy, peasy, fresh, and breezy… and man would it have felt satisfying. There would be a few problems if Kojima had taken the game that route though. It would have given a very shallow and dishonest depiction of revenge. Rarely does bloody revenge make things simple, and even more rarely does it actually leave the one carrying it out with lasting satisfaction.
I believe the classic revenge trope has skewed the perception of revenge for many of us who have never truly experienced it, or been directly affected by its consequences. In most revenge movies, once the hero whose family (or dog) was murdered has finished wiping the last of the evil men who did it from the planet, they begin walking away while a FAT guitar riff starts playing. In the best revenge films, they rigged the bad guy’s compound to blow so they can continue to walk away without looking at the immense explosion behind them. Then the credits roll, and we as the audience feel good since the bad guys, “got what they deserved!” Django Unchained is one my favorite movies, but since Tarantino intended it as a classic revenge flick, its depiction of revenge is very shallow. Django and the audience get to ride off with our conscience in-tact, since the bad guys DEFINITELY deserved what they got. But, would killing off all the people who wronged you, truly heal your wounds and leave you off for the better? Did Russia’s treatment of Germany in the decades after World War II repair all the atrocities Germany commit in Russia during the war? Did it truly help the Russians who carried out that revenge in the long run, or their children who they would pass that baggage onto? The desire for revenge is natural and understandable, but it’s debatable if successful revenge can truly bring healing to those seeking it.
I believe Kojima wanted to present a more nuanced examination of revenge than the one we get in movies like Django. MGS games are over-the-top to say the least, but Kojima is always trying to impart his players with some principal that applies to their actual worldview. In my opinion, I don’t think Kojima would allow his game to communicate that revenge is a desirable and healthy end goal. Satisfying revenge requires a bad guy who deserves it, but Kojima has rarely depicted his villains in that straight forward a manner. His bad guys usually have shades of grey, often with commendable goals, but sought after in misguided ways. Just as healing from tragedy is a commendable goal, with revenge being a misguided way of reaching that goal. After all, if you dig into the audio files, you’ll find that Skull Face had totally valid reasons for his fall. Growing up in Eastern Europe during and after WW2, his family and culture were intentionally obliterated by both the Nazis and Soviets. Then, he was forever disfigured when the factory he worked in was bombed by the Allies. This gave him good reason to hate both the East & the West. His language, face, and identity were all taken from him. Did the evil course this led him to, truly heal all that damage? Would eradicating the English language give him back his native language and the culture he lost? Of course not, but Skull Face became proficient at wreaking havoc he deemed justified none the less. He is the clear example of what happens when revenge is sought above all else, justified or not. From the players perspective, Kojima laid the foundation for seemingly justified revenge in Ground Zeroes. I don’t know many people who weren’t ready to stick it to Skull Face after that game. I know I certainly was. Kojima had to pull the rug out from under us though to get us to reflect on what that revenge would mean. What it would mean not only for Skull Face (who would be dead) or his men (who will likely be killed in the crossfire), but also for Big Boss’ soul and the fate of the men he is leading (who will also likely be killed in the crossfire, or persuaded by their legendary leader into a belief that revenge is a worthwhile pursuit). Most importantly of all, what would this mean for us as the player as we rabidly seek revenge? Kojima doesn’t want us to be able to pin all this killing on Big Boss and Skull Face, and that is where the twist regarding Venom Snake comes becomes integral.
I believe Venom Snake acts as both his own individual character AND as an avatar for us as the player. He is both nobody and somebody (again I recommend you read the article at the top as they make a compelling case for this). He makes his own decisions throughout the game that prove he is independent from Big Boss, able to carry out his own will, even if only to a limited extent. At the least, he is not the perfect body double of Big Boss that Zero/Ocelot sought to create, who would think and act exactly as Big Boss does. He is also the character we are to relate to, because we control the heroes in these games. In previous more linear installments, we may not have had as much control over what Snake did regarding the plot. So, it was easier to embody Solid or Naked Snake as the character was guiding where we ultimately ended up. Kojima doesn’t want us to identify as one of the Snakes though, he wants us to learn from them, so we can carry those lessons and make our own decisions. When Solid Snake or Big Boss make a bad decision, we need to learn from that mistake, not write it off because we are blinded by how awesome they are! In this way, Venom Snake also depicts someone we should strive to be. Despite all the ways he was manipulated and altered without his consent, he didn’t lose his identity or capability of making choices apart from the ones Big Boss would have made. In the same way, we the player are capable of making decisions apart from Big Boss. So, even if the plot thus far is trying to catalyze us into seeking bloody revenge, Kojima would like us to think for ourselves. If we assess revenge is not the best resolution, he is trying to get us to a place where we would choose not to seek it. Most players never reflected on the story to this extent though, already too outraged at the anti-climax and fact they were denied their satisfying revenge. This is where the brilliance of the PAIN concept comes into focus, specifically phantom pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Phantom pain is pain that feels like it’s coming from a body part that’s no longer there. Doctors once believed this post-amputation phenomenon was a psychological problem, but experts now recognize that these real sensations originate in the spinal cord and brain.” MGSV plays this literal phantom pain notion for all it’s worth, with Kaz constantly referring to the limbs that both he and Venom lost during Skull Face’s raid on Motherbase. Kaz believes that completing revenge on Skull Face will be the only way to relieve this phantom pain, and he tries to convince Venom of the same. In truth, the phantom pain is the fact that things will never go back to the way they were. The brotherhood of a “military without borders” (Military Sans Frontieres (MSF)) concept was what was truly lost. Motherbase was the limb taken from them, and throughout the game you replace it as Venom, but it can’t stop the continual ebb of pain. Kaz is in denial that the dream he and Big Boss tried to create is gone, because the “military without borders, allegiance, or ideology” had a faulty foundation that could never last. Killing Skull Face and creating a new Motherbase cannot change the fact that the dream has been exposed and destroyed irreparably.
Big Boss and Kaz refused to acknowledge the fact that it is impossible to truly be an army without ideology, or simply keep war to a business. If you are hired and fight for a certain government or organization with a certain agenda, you have just endorsed their ideology. You may not believe in their cause but by helping them defeat their enemies, you have just helped them further their beliefs, by their ability to instill them in the population you leave when the job is done. Big Boss genuinely attempts to be careful in which jobs he chooses to take, being conscious of the effects of his participation. Over time, this choosing inevitably gives shape to MSF’s ideology, whether they choose to accept it or not. In MGS:Peace Walker, by accepting Paz’s request to investigate the mysterious army occupying Costa Rica, it ultimately leads Big Boss/MSF to take an “anti-nuke” position (an understandable position). How can a brotherhood without ideology take a stance, such as anti-nuke? Because BB and Kaz deny this inherent flaw, they lose control of the ability to choose their ideology, instead being susceptible to the ever-changing flow of global politics. This is how by the end of Peace Walker, MSF (a group that’s anti-nuke proven by its actions) now possess their own nuclear equipped Metal Gear. The final cutscene (here it is if you need it) of Peace Walker shows BB and Kaz discussing the fact that they’ve inadvertently taken sides and an identity, but they double-down and convince themselves their inherently flawed concept is still achievable. MGSV shows them facing the harsh consequences of their denial, and by them placing the blame for MSF’s destruction on Skull Face rather than accepting their own delusions, it shows they are still lost. To reiterate, I believe the phantom pain is the loss of their dream that the killing of Skull Face cannot replace.
This is where I somehow find a way to defend the duplicated missions we’re forced to play through in MGSV’s Act 2, something I never expected myself to do. I was just as furious with the repetition as most players, and I quickly fell into the notion that these missions were re-used because the game was unfinished. A quick google search and few videos on YouTube were all it took for me to buy into the conspiracy that Konami didn’t let Kojima finish the game and rushed its release, Kojima-be-damned! And if I’m being honest, I never finished mission 46. I half-heard the twist ending, thought it was a lame Shyamalanian cop-out, and called it good. I made peace with the 75ish hours I’d put into the game. “It was fun” I thought, “and I’m content to leave it at that.” It wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally decided to return to the game and see the true ending for myself. The year and a half break from the game, combined with seeing the ending with my own eyes, gave me the perspective to appreciate the story Kojima chose to tell with MGSV and think about it in new ways.
Or I should say, to think about the game for myself, rather than finding myself lost in the rip-tide of the internet’s meme concerning the game. What I mean is that I acknowledge this is just my read on the game, and it may or may not have been Kojima’s intent. Ultimately though, I believe Kojima makes many elements of his game ambiguous, to force his players to make their own reads and take their own stances on them. So this is mine… Mission 51 was obviously unfinished and cut from the game, but that doesn’t mean Act 2 was also unfinished. Rather, the duplicated missions in Act 2 were intended to convey monotony and dissatisfaction, because the revenge on Skull Face could never fix what haunted Venom Snake, Big Boss, and Kaz. Skull Face was never their demon, they were their own demons. His actions merely made them face the reality of their flawed interpretation of The Boss’ will. After re-creating their dream through Act 1, we now find them carrying on business as usual, left as disappointed as we the players are, that killing Skull Face didn’t achieve anything substantial. But that can’t truly be what Kojima intended right? He wouldn’t pull a stunt like this, potentially sacrificing some of the fun of his own game, just to convey a theme right? To answer those questions, simply remind yourself of MGS2… doesn’t it become a little more clear in that context? Kojima is absolutely willing to take chances, because he wants to create strong reactions in his players, even if they’re unhappy ones. It’s safe to say that Act 2 created a strong reaction, and re-assessing my reaction, as well as that of the fanbase, was the only way I came to my understanding of the game.
And there lies Kojima’s genius. He’s powerfully communicated the themes of PAIN and REVENGE to me in a memorable way, even though I’ve already largely forgotten the specifics of MGSV’s plot. We, the players, truly experienced phantom pain even though many of us have never lost a limb. We built up these expectations of what Big Boss’ bloody revenge and fall to the dark side would look like. We fantasized about it and created epic scenarios in our head that would close the book on MGS and tie up all loose ends. In some ways it’s fair to blame trailers for the game like THIS ONE, for hyping up the game’s narrative unrealistically (although who knows how much input Kojima had on the direction for those trailers... EDITORS NOTE: Since writing the article, Kev learned Kojima famously edits all his trailers, so it technically is Kojima's fault...) But in other ways, we need to be honest that we didn’t need a trailer to hype us up unrealistically for a new Metal Gear Solid game. We already expected an epic conclusion before a trailer could create an expectation for one. To blame the game’s marketing for our issues with it, is like BB & Kaz blaming Skull Face for the issues with MSF that were always there. I encourage every MGS fan who hates MGSV to reconsider it. Now that you’ve had time away and some room to breathe, you may be surprised at what you find when you return.
Now, understand I’m not trying to minimize the game’s flaws. Yes, those helicopter loading sequences take entirely too long. Yes, the inclusion of Psycho Mantis is forced and preposterous. Yes, Quiet’s character design is despicable (which personally meant I didn’t feel comfortable taking her on missions. D-Dog is dope though, so I never felt underpowered, even if Quiet is possibly the stronger ally) and the pseudo-scientific explanation justifying her lewd design is extremely dumb, but she’s actually an empowering character from a purely narrative perspective. She’s the one character who chose not to take revenge, and through her actions proved that your identity can be determined without language. Maybe that’s enough to bring you around on the character, or maybe not. I’m not saying all the game’s issues were intentional, rather, maybe the issues were worth what we got. The point is, the game has proven to be endlessly rewarding for me… but I almost missed it.
To end this loquacious and overlong analysis (if you made it this far, you can make it through Phantom Pain again), this game was the key that I feel helped me finally understand Kojima. He’s one of the few game creators willing to say something with his games. Even more rare, he’s willing to put you at odds with a game so you’ll have to reflect on what he’s trying to say. Ever since MGS1, he’s been trying to teach his players to think for themselves (for instance: “what’s important is that you choose life…and then live!”) I believe this is the #1 overall message he’s tried to impart to his players throughout all his games. Maybe MGSV: The Phantom Pain is a bad game… I think Kojima would defend your right to think that. When I think about it for myself though, here’s my take…
MGSV has greatness, and I was wrong when I didn’t see that.
To read the article where it was originally published: https://letsgetfrivolous.tumblr.com