What I Thought of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
This piece is intended for people who are familiar with the Metal Gear (MG) series and have completed Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV). There will be relentless spoilers, as a lot of what I want to discuss has to do with the twists and the endings. I also want to talk about how it fits in with the other MG games, so if you haven’t played those, consider this piece to spoil those too. Just go play them, they are very good. That includes MGSV.
I was really worried when it was announced that Kiefer Sutherland would be replacing David Hayter as the voice actor for Snake. I happen to really like Sutherland (The Lost Boys, man), I just couldn’t imagine him being a good voice for Snake. I’d grown up with Hayter voicing Snake and couldn’t think of a good reason for the change, even if Hayter’s delivery had developed a noticeable roughness over the years, which wouldn’t have been too incongruous in the first place if it wasn’t for the backwards/forwards “I am your long lost brother/father/son” messiness of a non-linear saga. Before the release, I was hoping it would all be a ruse, and Hayter would still be there, asking if he’d kept me waiting. Then I hoped Hayter would have a bit part. My favourite fan theory was that the final boss battle of MGSV would be an unwinnable one, you as Big Boss against your son, a Hayter voiced Solid Snake. None of this came to pass and it didn’t turn out to be a very big deal, for various reasons.
I mention this largely to underscore that MGSV is a very different game to all the other MG titles before it, even regarding things as comfortable and solidified as Hayter voicing Snake. There are two reasons Sutherland voicing Snake isn’t a big deal. The first is that Sutherland is actually a pretty good Snake, which was a pleasant surprise. If Kojima really couldn’t go with Hayter, he could have made much worse choices. The second reason is that Snake doesn’t talk much, not only because he doesn’t have many scripted lines but because this is the most gameplay weighted MG game by far. This was more of a shock to me than the change in voice actor. I loved Hideo Kojima’s films that happened to have interactive elements. I love the melodrama, the camp, and the philosophical arguments. I spent a lot more time actually playing the game than I expected to, which made me kinda sad. It’s entirely possible that MGSV will be the last MG game, and in some pretty core aspects it is not an MG game.
Fortunately, the game is actually really damn fun.
I haven’t played much Assassins Creed, or any Red Dead Redemption, two common points of comparison when it comes to MGSV, but I do know a thing or two about stealth games in general. MGSV reminds me pleasantly of Deus Ex, in so far as each enemy base is not so much a puzzle as it is a canvas. There tends to be more than one goal, and you tend to have multiple decisions to make as to how to complete those goals. You’ve always had an element of choice in the MG games, like whether you are willing to kill people not, but MGSV takes it to a level not seen before in the series, and it is immensely satisfying to pick your strategy and execute it. Do you want to be a ghost, not getting spotted and leaving no trace? You can. Do you want to go in loud, riding a miniature walking battle tank? You can. Do you want to order Quiet to clear out the base first, then sneak past the terrified survivors? You can.
Unfortunately, these fantastic infiltration segments sit within a framework of open world boredom. Kojima’s strength has always been in minutely detailing and directing what the player experiences. Hell, MGS2 entirely revolves around the player being manipulated into engaging with a very specific, very limited scenario, with choice revealed to be a cleverly crafted illusion. MGSV, on the other hand, eschews this direction in favour of player freedom, which is great when it works, but these interesting choices take place in a bland, empty world. You can run, which takes ages and is boring. You can ride a horse, which is kinda fun but quickly gets boring. Or, you can navigate some menus and access an immersion breaking and tedious loading screen disguised as a fast travel system. Boring. Between the bases, between the story segments, there is nothing to divert your attention, just blandness, expanses of brown and green. Realistic, yeah probably; engaging, no.
It shows that this is Kojima’s first attempt at an open world game. He has learned none of the lessons about designing a world that can feel both expansive and yet minutely detailed. This might be more difficult in an environment like Aghanistan, or an African jungle, but all the same it is a failure worth raking over. To my mind, the best open worlds yet seen in video games are the cities from the PS2 GTA games, particularly Liberty City from GTA3. Though small by today’s standards, it feels vast and allows the player the freedom to explore and to take some of the game out of sequence. The player doesn’t feel overwhelmed because the city is split over three islands that unlock over the course of the game. Portland gets to feel a lot smaller by the time one has spent enough hours driving around it to have progressed to Staunton, which then seems even vaster. Despite being large, each island is packed with detail, from landmarks and advertising that help you find your way around, to the fact that down almost every alleyway there is something to do or find, whether it be a rampage missions, or a secret package, or a weapon pickup. Every single bit of space is used. This is not the case in MGSV, where the environments just feel bigger and bigger as you realise that there is so much dead ground to cover before you get to where something interesting might happen. By the time you start recognising parts of the environment, you are largely just recognising that you are in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.
Despite the structural and formal differences from previous MG games, MGSV is definitely an MG game in terms of tone and theme. Present and correct are the byzantine conspiracies, the Big themes, the wacky characters, the strange juxtapositions in tone. A lot of this detail is found in cassette tapes, as opposed to a barrage of cutscenes, but the people who like MG because of its sensibilities will not be disappointed. The more I think about it, Kojima is like the videogame equivalent to Thomas Pynchon. If you consider postmodernism to be typified by a blending of high and low culture, and a disregard for what details might be important or unimportant for forming a unified grand narrative, then Pynchon is the typical postmodern author. Kojima’s practices are very similar. MGSV features in-depth discussions of parasites, how they function, and what purposes they serve. It features long meditations on what it means to have lost something, and what it means to want to take revenge against those who have taken something from you. And, it includes… a discussion at length about what makes the ultimate hamburger (that is of course also about a lot more than just hamburgers). One part of the oddness in tone sticks out, though. It is Quiet.
Quiet was controversial the moment she was revealed, well before the release of the game. Upon being accused of sexism, Kojima stated that he had good reasons, and that once we learned of them, we would be ashamed. I certainly am ashamed, but more of the fact that a man whose work I very much admire could either be so bloody cynical or so outrageously stupid, “cultural differences” aside. The custscenes that feature Quiet could easily work in a film studies 101 class on how the male gaze works in film. The camera lingers and leers over her rear, over her breasts. It might surprise you to learn that this serves no narrative purpose. 95% of the time this is not from the perspective of any character but the director’s unhinged lust. You go to a Kojima game to see him let it all hang out, all his quirks and interests, his predilections and his attractions, but in this case all it is is Kojima the dirty old man. And the reason she *has* to wear such impractical clothing? Her lungs have been burned, and the parasite therapy she has undergone allows her to photosynthesise, so her skin has to be exposed to sunlight. Which makes sense, right? Except the wizened old man, Code Talker, has undergone the same process, but he is shown photosynthesising fully clothed. Go figure.
Kojima allegedly fell out with Konami during development, so it is unsurprising that MGSV feels fundamentally like an unfinished game, but that he chose to end it the way he did speaks to an apocalyptic breakdown in relations between Kojima and Konami, an upcoming DLC package, or the fact that Kojima really fucked up this time. The “Truth” ending works, but is not as sophisticated as we might expect from Kojima. It turns out that you are not really Big Boss. Plenty twisty, which is what everyone wanted, and it also has the added effect of covering up one of the bigger plotholes in the MG series, namely that Big Boss dies twice. It’s not as well planned or executed as the careful manipulation of the player leading up to the shocking revelations at the end of MGS2, but it is satisfying enough. MGS2 was an edge case anyway. Games that carefully designed don’t come along very often.
The other ending, though. Anyone familiar with the MG series is familiar with the fact that Kojima has a loose interpretation of the word “closure”, but there is normally a degree of finality and some kind of closing message. In this case, the ending literally isn’t there; you wouldn’t know the game’s story was over if it wasn’t for the credits rolling. Eli and The Third Child steal Sahelanthropus and… that’s it. Two children, one of which has psychic powers, steal a nuclear equipped walking battle tank and nothing happens. Snake and Miller don’t pursue them. The children are not heard from again. Nothing else happens, nothing else is said, and then we timewarp to the True ending. Where we have to replay the tutorial (you have to replay the UNSKIPPABLE FUCKING TUTORIAL) before the big reveal. Either Kojima has forgotten everything he knows, or something went really fucking wrong.
A lot of these gripes, though, are from the perspective of a long time MG fan who had high hopes and certain expectations. My gripes do not make MGSV any less of a game. It does mean that someone like me might well think that MGSV is not the game it could have been, and that it looks to be the last Kojima MG game leaves a very sour taste. For someone not familiar with the MG series, this is a good entry point, and it might tickle the fancies of those who couldn’t stand the rarefied nature of the other games in the series. MGSV is a very good game, and it is evident that in most aspects a lot of care and attention went in to it, but it is not a very good MG game.