The following assumes the reader has played through the entirety of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and is aware of all plot twists.
Writing about Metal Gear Solid V isn’t very straightforward. It isn’t just getting through the themes and dense plot this series is known for, by and large it has to do with the structure of this game. While I spent the last week and a half focusing on missions one through six, I have been spending most of my time in The Phantom Pain not directly dealing with the plot. This, essentially is a major part of this entry to the series—and pretty much lines up with what I’ve spoken about previously in regards to this game joining the two opposing worlds of Metal Gear Solid: core gameplay (most often through “VR missions”) and the plot of the story. I fully intend to dedicate a piece to covering just the gameplay of this entry, as I feel it deserves as such. This, however, I’ll have more to say about once I’ve gotten further in the game, have unlocked all the “Buddies” and more weapons, etc.
Overall I’m going to spend this article focusing on one of the big expectations of Metal Gear Solid V, Big Boss’s transformation into a war criminal—and ultimately as the antagonist for a large portion of the series. This is critical, as unpacking this speaks to the greater nature of Metal Gear’s plot, but it also deals with a serious topic in regards to this very installment.
Here’s the deal with Metal Gear and its story. You can never, at any point, take what you’re seeing at face value when it comes to these games. Those who hated the The Phantom Pain’s plot twist are ultimately missing the greater picture. You must keep one very important thing in mind: You are never guaranteed the truth in Metal Gear. Virtually everybody lies.
At no point should we ever trust what we are told in a Metal Gear game. Not from the characters—most of which have always had more than one lie to spin—and certainly not from the marketing of the games either. While misleading marketing has caused a lot of trouble for games before (Halo 5: Guardians and No Man’s Sky are some recent examples), Metal Gear Solid’s marketing was almost always purposeful. There was a reason we never saw Raiden in the advertisements for Sons of Liberty, and there was a reason why we were led to believe that Snake might kill himself in Guns of the Patriots. There was purpose behind why we weren’t told right away why Snake was in a damn jungle when we saw the very first footage of Snake Eater. We have forever had our expectations toyed with when it comes to these games. Time and time again we assume we’re going to get a specific experience when, in fact, we often get something radically different. In some ways this can be seen as a play on the concept of a video game sequel to begin with, after all Metal Gear Solid has yet to have a predictable or even traditional one. Only the first Metal Gear Solid itself can arguably be a true sequel to the previous games. Sons of Liberty forced us to play as a character we had no prior knowledge of and weren’t expecting—all while unloading a thesis paper’s worth of information about simulations, reality, data, artificial intelligence and so much more. Snake Eater brought us back to where it all started and had us play as Big Boss himself in a brand new setting, while Guns of the Patriots saw a rapidly aging Solid Snake trying to live through a landscape perpetually drenched in warfare, facing his own annihilation and potentially all of humanity.
Most of what the early moments of The Phantom Pain does is solidify, in our heads at least, that this game is what we expected it to be. This is what makes Metal Gear Solid so genius: We’re not just lead to believe the story, but the game’s presentation takes into consideration that we are in the real world (IRL) playing a sequel to a series we collectively adore. On a meta level it crafts this lie: Here you are, playing the fifth installment to this epic series, you are once again taking on the role of one of the many Snakes, and are fighting against unstoppable forces, be it Fox Hound, The Patriots, The Philosophers or Cypher. This time around the mechanics are different, it’s an open world game, and we believe we’re going to see something happen in this game that we have yet to really see: The transformation of Big Boss from renegade soldier to full on war criminal—as Solid Snake once described him in Guns of the Patriots. This expectation, however, is inherently problematic.
It’s a situation not too different from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and it’s something that causes a bit of trouble for this film in particular. Showing a character’s moral transformation in a sincere and honest way requires, at a minimum, two ingredients: Time and nuance. Nothing can be rushed, and at the same time, there are a number of very intricate details, as well as contextual relevance that can never be skimmed over or ignored. These two ingredients must be delivered in an organic way that is fundamentally pure and dedicated to the bigger picture if we are to expect a realistic portrayal of character growth—as opposed to some kind of avant garde approach to storytelling (something valid in its own way.) I’m going to stick with Star Wars for a second because I think it illustrates my point well. I also think it’s vital to keep it in mind as we proceed through the remainder of The Phantom Pain.
All things related to the quality of the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas’s writing and directing and Hayden Christensen’s acting aside, the prequels simultaneously succeed and fail at showing Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side. The ultimate problem is related to the fact that there was an expectation—either from the fans or Lucas himself (or both)—that we would see the very exact moment that Anakin would fall. That expectation was met in the following scene:
If you enjoyed that, I’m sorry. I’ll be blunt: It sucks, it’s awful, it’s lame, it’s cringe-worthy, it’s a million wrong things but most importantly it is entirely, entirely, an irrelevant and unnecessary scene—not the attempt to arrest Palpatine or the death of Mace Windu, but the actual moment which Anakin gets down on his knees and attempts to please those who wanted to see the exact moment he becomes Darth Vader. This scene singlehandedly destroys a number of other critical and well-done moments in the Star Wars universe. It is utterly unrealistic. It feels forced and I don’t believe for a minute that the decision to go from a powerful Jedi warrior with doubts about his life and role in the galaxy, to the evil, child-slaying monster that is Darth Vader pivots on just this brief exchange. George Lucas himself might as well have walked on set, stopped the action, and proclaimed to the audience: “See! He becomes EVIL!” It spells out something that does not need to be spelled out. We all know he becomes Darth Vader since we have the collective knowledge of what occurs in episodes IV through VI. We get it, he will become Darth Vader as a result of the frail nature of the galactic political structure, his distrust of the Jedi, the issue surrounding his broken celibacy, his love for Padme, the influence of Palpatine and how all of this comes crushing down around him until he is left with nothing else, gradually growing colder, hateful and more distrustful than he ever was. And here’s the thing with Episode III, and a little bit of both Episode I and II, we actually do see all of this happen in the following scenes:
and, yup, this thing:
And as a side note, I really wish they would’ve just called them children. “Younglings” sounds like some strange mythical elf creature from a planet that likely rhymes with Vhra. And also, while Anakin technically did not see Qui Gon die, he still finds out about it. Anakin, who once believed that “no one can kill a Jedi,” must’ve been devastated to learn that the person who would be his master was killed by a Sith—further casting doubt on the true power of the Jedi in his mind.
(Yes, the It’s Always Sunny music must always follow this scene from now on.)
All of this does in fact explain very well why Anakin fell to the Dark Side. His would-be master was killed, he held his dying mother in his arms—and then slaughtered those who matched the description of those took her away (that’s familiar…), etcetera, etcetera. Now this isn’t an analysis of Star Wars (something I have zero desire to do), but it illustrates my point: We saw enough to understand the violence, emotional gravity and chaos that caused Anakin to turn. Why the hell, in that case, do we need yet another scene that just repeats and sums up everything we already know—and does so in such a clumsy way? Mostly these kind of approaches to storytelling serves a purpose for people who aren’t paying attention—or literalists (those who will always struggle when it comes to something like Metal Gear) who need to see EVERY SINGLE DETAIL AND SENTENCE EVER SPOKEN PERFORMED RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. I, and I’m sure many others, would’ve preferred to see Anakin’s fall portrayed in a more realistic and gradual fashion—not shoveled into a scene where he cries like a child and just hands over all of his willpower at the drop of a hat in an almost pornographic setup. In fact, what separates porn from erotica, or anything that portrays intimacy and love, are the details: Actually seeing nothing more than the physical act of sex is different from showing two humans embrace each other. One of these is designed to just get people off, while the other is intended to move you. The scene with Anakin would’ve been far more compelling if he stormed out of the room when Palpatine offered him a chance to join the Dark Side. It would’ve been one last futile stand for Anakin before he would later realize that he has no control over anything. The galaxy is tearing apart at the seams, he has broken vows to the Jedi order and has never truly come to terms with the death of his mother or Qui Gon, nor the actions he took directly after. He also is given knowledge that, somehow, Padme will die (this specifically was unnecessary. Thanks George.) The option would be there for him, in a moment where he would likely contemplate everything that has led him to this point, at the end of which he would give into the Dark Side and let it consume him. And since Anakin is not an antagonist of independence and power, but rather one of dependence, he would’ve come running to Palpatine as a result—playing right into the Emperor’s hand. His fall would have to be a literal fall, he would give into all the gravity that is pulling him downward. Like this:
Right, this is supposed to be about Metal Gear Solid V. But wait, one more:
Why does the scene with Joker and Harvey Dent work so beautifully? Because it feels real. Dent is struggling with who he is at this point. He has changed, both inside and outside. The Joker doesn’t even have to be in the scene. This could technically all be in Dent’s head, because that’s what this is about: Dent is at a crossroads. He either tries to repair what’s left of his life and maybe do what he can to save Gotham, or he allows all the bad that has happened to take control and become Two Face. This is why Heath Ledger’s Joker is so goddamn compelling: He exists on multiple planes, as a physical force of destruction, and a mental force of corruption. Harvey Dent is, if anything, completely bewildered and confused by his situation as a result—all of this is seen in a stellar performance on behalf of Aaron Echkart. Rage, sadness, confusion—helplessness, it’s all there, fueled and agitated by The Joker. He cannot decide. He can’t make sense of what to do and so leaves it up to fate by flipping a coin. He says it has to do with killing the Joker, but this isn’t the case. “You live…you die” doesn’t have to with the Joker: This is whether Two Face lives or dies. He can’t make that call and the mysterious forces of fate, whether they be subconscious or not, are what push him in this direction. He surrenders all power and control. What’s left is an exponential descent into chaos. We don’t know precise second that this moment happens in his mind—so much of the scene here has very little dialogue from Dent, as it should be. This is an internal battle with a level of nuance that cannot be conveyed to the viewer by means of literally saying “I am now a bad guy.” When a movie does do this, however, it looks like the scene I first referenced from Episode III. Now of course it goes without saying that Two Face and Darth Vader are two different types of villains. Two Face, though still a tragic character, is far more independent. The Joker may launch him off into madness, but he no longer needs him once this decision has been made. But the key element here is the fact that both types of villains must arrive at their decision in ways that make sense for their characters. Dent was given the opportunity to act on his anger and take control, while Anakin needed to allow the weight of the galaxy to push him down into submission—the issue of course being that Star Wars takes an additional and unnecessary step by trying to explain this literally in the scene that follows Mace Windu’s very silly death. For what it’s worth, I do think there’s some possibility for such a literal moment to be conveyed in a novel, since writing offers a different perspective of the inner workings of one’s mind. And, I should say, it might be possible in a game. If any game has ever accomplished this task, it, believe it or not, is possibly Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But I won’t get ahead of myself here.
What I’m trying to convey here is the fact that in order to properly display a character’s shift in alignment, we need all the nuance and detail I mentioned earlier. Once a character says anything remotely close to “I’m now the bad guy,” we are teetering on the very edge of unbelievability by means of reminding the viewer, reader, gamer, etc. that this is nothing more than a plot with traditional mechanics. When someone stands up and confesses that they are shifting alignment, it does nothing more than tell us that we’re heading toward a transition in the plot. Jumping from the idea of a soldier who has lost trust in his country and is setting out to do right by his own morality and the world, in the case of Metal Gear, to that of a ruthless leader of a private army set on ruling the world with the threat of nuclear annihilation must be done with a transition that not only makes sense, but serves the greater picture. As a related example, check out this song by Dorje and pay attention to the part that comes around at 1:20:
This little pre-chorus part very effectively takes us out of the verse and into the chorus. The sung notes and lighter guitar work fits within the context of the song, established by the intro, but provides enough of a dynamic to make the heavier chorus that follows it stand out even more. Cut this part out and the song suffers. At the same time if the transition wasn’t as smooth, didn’t match the context of the song or was too blunt, we’d have the musical equivalent of a sobbing Anakin Skywalker.
Okay. So what does all of this mean? Plain and simple: If Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is expected to give us that moment where Big Boss turns, it needs to have a realistic portrayal that doesn’t remind the player of the plot mechanics going on behind the scenes. It should not feel like the scene with Anakin Skywalker that says nothing more than “INSERT ALIGNMENT SHIFT HERE.” It needs to have contextual relevance and purpose, like that of a great transitory piece in a song and must always make sure to demonstrate the ways in which the actions of the character, as well as the state of the world around him all combine to push the character in a direction that inevitably leads to their fall—similar to the many scenes that already demonstrated this in the Star Wars prequels as well as The Dark Knight.
For Metal Gear Solid, however, there’s an additional layer to portraying such a a moral shift in the character of Big Boss; the game, after all, deals with politics at an international level and is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to definitively declare why Big Boss would be guilty of war crimes, while the nations and organizations he’s opposed to are not in return. The United States government sending Solid Snake to take down Big Boss and his ambitions for a military organization independent of any national control is not enough to declare Big Boss the enemy. It is entirely possible that the perspective of Big Boss as an enemy is ultimately flawed—regardless of the fact that even the famous Solid Snake believes it too. We must also keep in mind the fact that the original Metal Gear does not necessarily compare with the philosophical depth and cinematic quality of the Solid series—as a result we collectively may be looking for a connection that’s inherently incongruent. From this perspective it may be more appropriate to deal with the plot elements of Metal Gear 1 & 2 as fundamentally different from all of the entries afterwards.
Another problematic element inherent to assuming Metal Gear Solid V as a portrayal Big Boss’s “fall” appropriately is the fact that we’re assuming something about the story to begin with. It is wholly and unbelievably unfair to expect Kojima and anyone else involved in the writing to give us exactly what we want. It robs them of their creative freedom. Shackling an artist with expectation is only a path toward disappointment and utter failure. While I’ll confess that I too was anticipating, even expecting this, to a certain degree, I think everyone would’ve done themselves a favor by playing The Phantom Pain with a truly open mind—the most essential quality to maintain when it comes to Metal Gear Solid to begin with.
The issue with this expectation is the following: All of the pontificating and theory-crafting I’ve done in the paragraphs above are difficult to insert into Metal Gear Solid V to begin with as we eventually learn that we’re not playing as Big Boss himself. Now to be completely honest, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve played through to the conclusion of this game and I’m still working my way through the game on a deeper, more analytical level (hence the purpose of these articles). As a result I will continue to focus largely on Venom Snake in the proceeding articles, up until the real Big Boss shows himself later in the game’s conclusion.
For now, however, I will leave you with the following. Though there are arguably moral gray areas when it comes to assessing Big Boss’s true alignment, but what does it say to his character that he seemingly was perfectly okay with taking a soldier of his, completely brainwashing him and leaving him to face insurmountable odds in combat? Was this a decision that was made to hide himself and preserve his vision, or to serve a greater good in terms of a world perspective that he believed would actually lead to a better world?
If you stuck around this long and haven’t already, check out more analysis of Metal Gear Solid V!