The following assumes the reader has played through the entirety of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Back in the “old days,” if you were a fan of stealth games, you had two choices: Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. There was a third in the form of Syphon Filter, but after the fifth generation, this series kind of drifted to the background, never really enjoying the popularity of the other two. Metal Gear was the obvious choice when it came to great gameplay and a phenomenal story. Splinter Cell, however, was more about the hardcore stealth mechanics—even more so than the VR missions that often accompanied other Metal Gear titles. The stories in Splinter Cell weren’t terrible, but I think most fans of the first three games would find it a bit difficult to describe them after so many years have passed. Splinter Cell lost its way, I would argue, starting with the fourth game: Double Agent. It tried to be too plot driven for its own good and actually appeared to have cut out a few key features. This was pretty disappointing to me as I found the third game, Chaos Theory, to be the best of the original trilogy. Conviction failed to grab my attention for more than a mission or two, and I have yet to give Blacklist a try.
As Splinter Cell’s popularity diminished, Metal Gear continued to get more advanced. Snake Eater introduced camouflage and survival mechanics such as healing wounds and the need to eat in order to stay alive in a one-man operation throughout a dense jungle. Guns of the Patriots embraced the new camera perspective that was tested out in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, and added some additional mechanics to make the shooting feel more real-time and tactical. Whether the pressure was on as a result of the direct competition Splinter Cell created, or just an overall desire to keep innovating, Metal Gear was always on a path toward deeper complexity in its gameplay. Though I have a few issues with the mechanics of Metal Gear Solid V, the fifth entry represents some of the most advanced gameplay elements the series has ever seen. It also saw a huge shakeup in the form of an open-world setting instead of the traditional linear structure.
A single playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain might lead you to the conclusion that all these changes robbed the game of a more rich narrative experience—and there’s some truth to that statement. After jumping into The Phantom Pain again, I get the feeling, however, that there actually is a bit more going on here than most realize. Don’t get me wrong: This still is a drastically different Metal Gear experience—even more so than Ground Zeroes was. But I’m convinced there’s some logic here to its structure and approach to storytelling—and it’s something I’m not totally sure can be really understood until the final plot twist is revealed.
It is almost impossible to fire up the opening sequence and experience it in the same way after learning that your entire identity was a lie in The Phantom Pain. I haven’t done too much research into how people felt about this twist, but I have heard more than aa few negative things from some. I’ll state this now to clear the air in regards to my opinion on it: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s ending is perfectly in tune with everything that makes up Metal Gear Solid. There have been countless themes concerning the manipulation of an individual to become the perfect soldier by controlling what they think. Solid Snake was a part of a project to clone and create more of the legendary soldier Big Boss. Raiden too was a part of an experiment designed to replicate the experiences necessary to create a copy not just of Big Boss, but the more contemporary Solid Snake. Venom Snake is no different, and I will continue to explore the ways in which this ending was, in fact, genius on behalf of Kojima. How we arrive at the ultimate plot twist, however, that’s a different issue—and one that will be explored deeply, starting with this article.
Returning back to the opening sequence in The Phantom Pain’s prologue: “Awakening,” I found this to be a completely different experience from anything I had experienced Metal Gear before (even Ground Zeroes). It’s one that both demonstrates the movement toward a more advanced and realistic Metal Gear, while still remaining aware of the conflict it’s creating with its legacy. There are some heavy themes present in this mission and it is way more deep than a simple “escape from a burning hospital” scenario.
The sole act of firing up the game immediately demonstrates how different of an experience Metal Gear Solid V really is. To perfectly illustrate my point, check out this opening title sequence from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
To a 13-year old me, this was the coolest damn thing I had ever seen. Shit, it’s still awesome. This was the world of Metal Gear Solid. It was epic: The characters were larger than life, the bad guys seemed unstoppable and there were hints of other, more greater forces behind the scenes. The music soars high and instantly lets you know that you’re about to go on one hell of a wild ride. Flash forward 14 years, and Metal Gear Solid now opens like this:
It couldn’t be more clear that V represents an overwhelmingly different approach to showing this world. Before we even get to the hospital, we’re provided with a quote from Emile M. Cioran putting forth the idea that our true national identity, our true home, is found within our respective languages—not our geography. More on that topic later, as it becomes central to the overall plot specific to The Phantom Pain, but what’s really compelling is that before this quote we hear someone talking in English before waking up in the hospital, it then fades to “The Man Who Sold The World,” by David Bowie, before we’re introduced to characters who aren’t speaking English. It’s as if we are being taken away from what was once comfortable—from our own lingual home. Big Boss may not have much of a national identity anymore, but if we’re to run with the quote that prefaces this experience, his language remains the only thing left of his homeland, and in these waking moments it seems to disappear. The use of “The Man Who Sold the World” works great here. Not only is it one hell of a trippy song to hear waking up, disoriented and immobile in a hospital in a foreign country, but it’s interesting to note that this is an English song playing in a place where English is not the native tongue. The music is intruding, stirring Snake out of his coma and filling the air before the nurses realize he has come to.
As the level carries on, Venom Snake learns of what has happened to his body. Shrapnel, interestingly described as foreign bodies, are embedded within him, some of which can never be removed. There’s also a very interesting positioning of the UK flag over the x-ray showing Snake’s missing arm. It’s interesting when viewed at from the perspective of knowing what role England has played throughout history: Conquest, imperialism, the slave trade, empire and colonization, it almost felt to me like it was pointing out how the British empire once robbed people of their very identities—especially through the intrusive and stubborn English language, a theme resonating with the remainder of the game—and how Snake must come face to face with the fact that he has lost something of his own—a literal piece of who he once was.
Shortly after this we’re given the trickery of assuming Big Boss’s face will be changed to hide his identity, as Quiet enters the scene to murder the nurse, doctor and make an attempt on Ishmael and Ahab’s life. From here out I’ll use those two names to refer to these characters to avoid confusion.
After a few playthroughs, I’ve started to see this very moment in the level as a representation of man rising up from nothing to conquer the world—over nature, other men and, in fact, women as well—more on that when Quiet returns later in the game. Quiet has all the power in the world. She’s in top health, has a weapon and could easily end Ishmael and Ahab’s lives—but she is defeated. At first Ishmael frantically throws just about anything at her, and it’s fruitless until he’s able to throw a bottle of alcohol and set her on fire. This gives Ishmael power—power over his environment, just as early man used fire to light the dark, heat the cold and cook food to satisfy our appetites. To go from weak, naked creatures, to beings of power, fire is the first step. Without it we are nothing more than primates barely fighting to survive just one more day. This theme of a struggling humanity is present throughout the remainder of the level: Ahab himself must crawl on his hands and knees, receiving no help aside from the one thing humanity has been able to use to control our own minds: Drugs. Ishmael gives Ahab an injection to help fight through the atrophy and pain, but it takes time. Ahab must continue to crawl until what’s left of his strength returns and rises as a man who has conquered his surroundings—eventually taking on the next step: Becoming the ultimate creature in the form of a perfect soldier. Big Boss. And it’s not enough for an existing soldier to just decide to become better. No, in order to truly become Big Boss, one must start over—beaten to near death and be forced to crawl back to his feet and become this living legend.
Further on in the level, the fire begins to take on a more radical role: It begins to destroy the hospital. While it is not entirely clear as to whether or not this fire has anything to do with the one used to defeat Quiet (a curtain was left burning), or if it’s from the rampaging specter of Volgin, the fire’s presence still delivers an important message. Even though humanity can wield fire for our own uses, it still is wildly unpredictable, and can lead to our demise. This, essentially, has always been common theme in Metal Gear when it comes to super weapons—particularly of the nuclear kind. We as humans are always capable of using great power to shape the universe as we see it, but there always comes the risk that it can escape our grasp and, literally, set the world ablaze.
As a quick aside, there’s an interesting item hanging off the wall in the corridor outside the hospital room. It is in fact a poster advertising Kojima Productions, and it’s about ready to fall off. Make of that what you will, but I can’t help but feel it has something to do with the closing of Kojima Productions and Kojima himself leaving both Konami and Metal Gear Solid behind.
When this footage was first shown in early trailers, many assumed Ishmael to be a figment of Ahab’s imagination. At the start of it all, aside from giving him an injection, he doesn’t do a whole lot and, it seems, walks straight passed a wheelchair that could’ve been used to help Ahab who is completely unable to walk. Since we know this not to be the case, many might assume the wheelchair to be nothing more than a set piece, but this specific set piece does seem to show up a few times in key areas. It’s almost as if it’s suggesting that Ahab cannot, under any circumstances, use something that would help him physically. He must do it on his own. He has to gain the strength and pull himself up to his feet—struggling through incredible odds as Big Boss once did in Snake Eater. By getting in the wheelchair he would give up the potential power that would come from standing on his own—and having to experience the struggle of crawling like an infant. In fact after Volgin appears, we do see the wheelchair yet again, but this time it has been knocked on its side, as if to suggest that it would serve no purpose in the world Ahab has found himself in.
Wheelchairs show up another two more times at least. In the stairway as Ishmael and Ahab are looking for a way out, you can find a wheelchair knocked over. This is after Ahab is able to walk again. Again, it feels as if there’s a message here—a confirmation here that Ahab never needed the wheelchair to begin with, and by refusing it has become stronger in learning to stand on his own. This leads directly into a scene where with another element of Ahab needing to assume the mantle of Big Boss: Stuck in a crowded corridor of frightened people, the player has to actually push through these people, as if Ahab himself is struggling through them to become the leader that Big Boss once was. When it appears that Ishmael (who is actually Big Boss) has been shot, however, the entire scene collapses into chaos—showing that Ahab is not there yet. He cannot control these situations and is as frightened and weak as any of the other people in the hallway. Fortunately Ishmael is not dead, and is able to pull Ahab into another room before he becomes another corpse.
The chair shows up once more toward the end as the tank and a group of soldiers try to take Volgin down. This time the object is tossed aside by the tank with the rest of the debris, essentially telling Ahab and the player that they are entering a world where such objects will not help them–and further establishing why it was so critical for Ahab to learn to stand on his own.
The scenes involving both Volgin and Psycho Mantis are critical and possibly reveal much more than just the inclusion of classic characters. Psycho Mantis himself represents mind control, and in a way, trickery and deceit. This seems to work well as the entire level is a form of mind control for the player: We are being lead to believe that we are playing as the legendary Big Boss himself, when in fact that is the furthest thing from the truth. Volgin’s presence implies a few things: To start, I’ve often viewed his presence as a symbolic representation of anger that the Metal Gear series has gone on this long. These characters continue to be dragged out of their resting place in their respective games, the silent void of nostalgia and memory, and thrust into new ones. This time, however, Volgin returns as a different manifestation of himself: Full of rage and wielding fire, he chases after Ahab and Ishmael as if to end their lives before the rest of the game can continue—it’s as if Volgin is trying to stop this sequel from existing.
Volgin and Psycho Mantis both appear at times when Ahab and Ishmael nearly meet their demise—almost saving them. It almost feels like this is a reminder to the player that Metal Gear is not just your average military action game, but one of narrative and supernatural wonder. In a way it could even be suggested that it is defying the stereotype of certain game franchises to continue to duplicate the same old story, over and over again. This rage found within Volgin is a defiant establishment of the identity of Metal Gear Solid as a whole, and demonstrates what makes it so unique.
Another fascinating element of this mission is just how absolutely terrifying it is. There are a number of heavy horror themes behind every corner. To start, the entire mission takes place in a hospital. Though most of us wouldn’t prefer to be any place else if we were in desperate need of medical attention, there’s no denying the stigmas associated with hospitals: These are often seen as places of sickness and death. This is where people go to die. Even though we seek help from these places, they are always associated with major medical issues—possibly ones that can lead to death. We either receive bad news in hospitals, or travel to them with the fear that we may indeed receive a death sentence through diagnosis. Being trapped in a hospital is a common theme in horror, and has actually been a terrifying experience for countless people—especially where it concerns mental health. Hospitals also sometimes carry with them the paranoia of being watched by those who might not have your best interests at heart. Progressing through this mission, watching people get slaughtered and burnt to death in the hospital makes it impossible to ignore this. In a way it resonates with common horror themes, but it also goes well with the focus on this level representing humanity struggling through the darkness of nature. In a way not too dissimilar to the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re shown a bloody, unforgiving and brutal part of reality. Death, blood and fire fill the halls of this hospital and by the time Ahab finally escapes, he heads off to an unknown fate on a whaling vessel—with virtually no time to collect his thoughts.
Though this part may start on a lower key than that of previous Metal Gear games, “Awakening” is in fact as epic and powerful as any opening to a previous game. The Phantom Pain makes no attempt to hide its brutality, as a direct commentary on the horrors of war itself, this level does the job exceedingly well of setting up a game that will explore difficult topics, while still staying true to its own complexity through a mysteriousness narrative. The reality of the situation is much more apparent here than it ever was in a Metal Gear Solid title, and we see cracks in the surface every time a supernatural element arises—either as a form of meta-criticism of itself, or as a way to remind the player that they aren’t just consuming military propaganda in the form of a video game.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget this is part of an ongoing series of analytical articles exploring Metal Gear Solid V.