“Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” is the final entry in Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear” series. Oh, one could argue with that statement, citing “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” as the “true” ending, since it was the latest game chronologically and was clearly conceived as the ending of the series (”Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance” is set chronologically later, but is of dubious canonicity, and wasn’t directed by series director Hideo Kojima). Kojima and Konami, the company that Kojima worked at for decades and home of the “Metal Gear” series, parted ways after the release of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, for reasons that remain somewhat murky even today. They are continuing the series with both a co-op survival action game featuring zombies in a parallel dimension, called “Metal Gear Survive”, and a pachislot (Japanese gambling arcade game) modern adaptation of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”. So in the strictest of senses, one could very well argue “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” wasn’t the final entry in the series, that it wasn’t the ending in the strictest sense. But for Kojima, and for the mainline series formed solely of the entries he directed, it undoubtedly was.
This review/analysis is going to be a bit different from my other entries on this series. After this introduction section, there will be a non-spoiler review mostly of the gameplay of the game, without analysing the game in a thematic or literary sense in the way I approached the other reviews.
Then, there will be an “Extracts” section, full of spoilers. This is inspired by the “Extracts” section that opens “Moby Dick”, the novel Kojima drew from in the writing and development of the game. This section, just like the same section in “Moby Dick”, will consist of quotations of various sources set out sequentially in an order that suggests a certain arc, narrative, development of thought – the same thought that I argue in the third section as being the thesis, the statement of the game. It draws from games of the series, works the series has explicitly referenced, and some other works I found relevant. This section is rather long, but the key parts are in bold, so don’t feel you need to read it all if it seems daunting or tiresome – just stick to the emboldened parts in that case.
The third and final section will be full of spoilers, and be the same kind of thematic and literary breakdown of the game that most of my other reviews of games in the series were.
Stealth Gameplay and the Open World
As with “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes”, the other game that constitutes the “Metal Gear Solid V” experience, the gameplay here is exquisite. It feels like the pinnacle of what Kojima has been trying to achieve gameplay-wise since he arguably began the stealth video game genre in 1987 with “Metal Gear”; it feels like the organic endpoint, the apotheosis of what that genre can achieve.
In bringing the series to an open-world structure, player freedom has been expanded massively. All the gameplay improvements and iterations present in “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” – the extremely natural-feeling movement and player control, the vast array of items and weaponry, the advanced AI of enemy combatants – become even more significant when transposed to an open-world setting, where player freedom is virtually limitless.
It’s not even a matter of offering so many different ways to, say, infiltrate an enemy compound – it’s the fact that the entire infiltration can now be subverted in multiple ways, like by having protagonist Punished “Venom” Snake and his sniper buddy Quiet pick off every enemy from atop a mountain, or by calling in a player-upgraded support helicopter to deliver devastation to the compound from above, or by sneaking into a vehicle scheduled to arrive at the compound and planting explosives in appropriate places before sneaking out the same way.
The game also “fixes” a common problem of the stealth genre – why pay so much care and attention to being stealthy, when stealth games offer such a wide range of very non-stealthy weaponry? Games like “Deus Ex” and “Dishonored” face such criticism often, and some players feel like playing stealthily in stealth games becomes a chore, as so many non-stealthy options seem compelling and more fun than the potentially tedious stealth playstyle. Kojima addresses this with the fulton system first introduced in “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”. Sure, the player could go into a compound guns blazing, but you can’t fulton a corpse, you can’t brainwash a corpse, you can’t recruit a corpse and use it to further your own ends. Sneakily fulton-ing enemy soldiers and weaponry gives the player gameplay benefits, offering incentive to play stealthily, but can be ignored by more direct combat-focused players, who would probably appreciate the increased challenge not committing fully to the base-building metagame provides.
One of my few complaints with the open-world setting of the game is that it feels undeveloped in certain ways. We’re told constantly by cassette tapes and Ocelot and Miller’s radio calls that the primary settings of the game are besieged by warfare, such as main hub area Afghanistan being in the middle of a war between Russian occupying forces and the guerrilla forces of the Mujahideen. Yet, we literally never witness such fighting. This is particularly egregious when “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” had quite an advanced system of zones where multiple armies were fighting each other, and protagonist Solid Snake could either sneak through, assist once side, or attack both. While there is plenty filling the open worlds of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, such as the various wild animals that the player can fulton to recruit to their animal conversation centre financially supported by invested environmentalist NGOs, it occasionally feels oddly lifeless because of curious oddities like the absence of much-discussed warfare in the regions.
World Reactivity to Player Choice
While “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” provides such gameplay freedom in a way that few other games do, it is not peerless. Kojima himself expressed despair when he saw footage of “Grand Theft Auto V”, stunned by its enormous open-world gameplay canvas. Bethesda RPGs like “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and “Fallout 3” are often cited as extraordinary open-world RPG experiences. “Red Dead Redemption” was nearly universally lauded for its extraordinary open-world experience, gameplay, and narrative.
However, “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” delivers something those games, and many other similarly lauded open-world games, don’t – legitimate reactivity. If you consistently headshot enemy combatants in “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, they will begin to wear helmets. If you partake primarily in night-time infiltrations, they’ll start equipping themselves with night-vision goggles. If you often rely on your helicopter, Pequod (named after the ship in “Moby Dick”), enemies will start carrying rocket launchers suitable to bringing helicopters down.
Even supposed RPGs like the aforementioned Bethesda games, barely offer reactivity in such a directly observable gameplay context. A few often-repeated static lines acknowledging wide-scale player choices isn’t as immersive as NPCs consistently and organically adapting to player’s gameplay choices.
Mother Base and the Base-Building Metagame
I criticised “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” for its base-building gameplay, as I found it lifeless, and more akin to a spreadsheet simulator than an integral or immersive part of a “Metal Gear” game. It felt present for its own sake, with its metagame goals and gameplay consequences never satisfying enough for me to commit fully to it. While I don’t find the similar metagame in “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” perfect, or even particularly compelling, I do find it very much improved.
This is largely, but not entirely, due to the results of the metagame being directly observable and explorable. The player can actually walk around Mother Base, it actually serves as the player’s home and base, and its physical layout corresponds to the developments the player invests in. If the player invests in expanding Mother Base, they can explore the new and expanded sections.
While this is a huge improvement over “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, it still could have been done better. The vast majority of the time, the other principal characters present on the base are not actually present outside of cutscenes, and if they are, they’re not available for conversations. This makes Mother Base feel somewhat cold and sterile, a far cry from welcoming and inviting player homes like the Normandy ship in the “Mass Effect” series, or Skyhold in “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, where characters logically present at the player bases are actually there and can be interacted with, and talked to.
Still, there are some things that take Mother Base from feeling just like an exhibit to be explored. A very compelling side-quest can only be triggered and continued by exploring around Mother Base and encountering a certain character present. Taking showers at Mother Base is very much appreciated by Venom Snake’s colleagues, and has some gameplay effects. Returning to Mother Base after missions or exploring usually triggers a cutscene of some kind.
If the player plays particular attention to the various base-building and mercenary-management options, they can make the game a lot easier or more interesting for them, as it offers a lot of customisability. The game’s guidebook states “this interdependence between the various systems [of Mother Base] has one fascinating side effect: you can effectively use it to manually adjust the difficulty of main missions to suit your personal preference….Conversely, neglecting the metagame can make missions and side ops much, much harder”.
The Visual Direction and Acting in the Cutscenes
The game continues upon, and refines, the visual style established in “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes”, that of long take/single shot cutscenes, where the camera never “cuts”, it maintains a single take/shot for the duration of the cutscene. It’s a very kinetic, dynamic style that keeps visual happenings very clear and understandable from a framing standpoint. It’s a very logical and consistent visual style in that sense, but it also has a handheld-camera vibe in the game as the camera shifts and shakes at certain times as if an unseen cameraman is controlling it, which gives the cutscenes a sort of natural, organic feeling, as if the player is a present, but silent, observer right there in the action amongst the characters. Kojima invested in the cinematography of the game, and it paid off.
The acting of the game is also a great step up from previous entries in the series, entries previous to “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” that is. While I greatly enjoyed David Hayter’s performances as Solid Snake and Big Boss, and find his absence in this game jarring when he was a mainstay for the entirety of the series in the English translations, Kiefer Sutherland’s talents are undeniable. Not only does he deliver an excellent, nuanced vocal performance, he also brings his best to the facial motion capture as well.
Kojima expressed a desire to utilise motion capture technology in such a way that it would supplant the need for the vast amounts of exposition and dialogue his games usually featured. Rather than have Snake say “Kaz, calm down”, the idea was to limit dialogue – just have Snake say “Kaz” – and express “calm down” through implications drawn from Snake’s facial expressions. Sutherland does strong work with both sides of the performance, vocal and facial, as do many of the other actors, particularly Robin Atkin Downes as Benedict “Kazuhira” Miller, delivering a particularly pained and impassioned performance. Time Winters also delivered a fantastic, deeply emotional performance, but in a role that would be a spoiler to disclose, so I’ll get to that in the spoiler sections.
Some feel the idea of facial acting supplanting dialogue was taken too far, resulting in some awkward and stilted scenes where Venom Snake remains oddly silent while it would seem natural for him to respond or make some comment. I can think of story justifications for this, and judging by some of Kojima’s comments and cut vocal lines found by datamining the game, it would seem a lot of dialogue was actually intentionally cut out, to make Venom Snake more of a “silent badass” figure, akin to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, or George Miller and Mel Gibson’s (and now Tom Hardy’s) “Mad Max”. Whether that works for players will remain a subjective judgement.
The Music of 1984
The game’s soundtrack is primarily composed by Ludvig Forrsell, and it is a wonderful mixture of 1980s-styled synth music, along with modern ambient elements found in video games of similar genres, matching the neo-1980s tone of the game really well. The game also features collectible cassette tapes of various 1980s tracks, including some personal favourites like Joy Division’s “Love Will Always Tear Us Apart” and A-Ha’s “Take On Me”. The player can even equip these cassette tapes in their helicopter, then request them blasted out at high volume when calling in the helicopter for support. Calling in the helicopter, Pequod, in the middle of an intense firefight, then hearing a favourite song steadily increase in volume as help comes closer and closer…it’s moments like that which really stick with you. The music of the game is an integral part of the experience.
There are some odd exclusions of 1980s songs that woudl have been extremely suitable for the game, most notably David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”, but also Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” (would have went perfectly with fulton-ing enemies!), and Toto’s “Africa”, but the PC version of the game does allow the player to import custom songs of their own choosing, which I took great advantage of.
Multiple original songs were created for the game. “Sins of the Father” is a powerful rock ballad sang by Donna Burke (who also sang “Heavens Divide” for “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” and was heavily involved in marketing the game along with fellow singer, and actress for Quiet, Stefanie Joosten) and composed by Akihiro Honda, with lyrics by Ludvig Forrsell. Like “Snake Eater”, its lyrics are related to the concept of the game, and the song itself plays at a memorable moment in the game. The “whoa-OH” refrain is particularly memorable.
“Quiet’s Theme” is an emotional vocal ballad performed by Stefanie Joosten, the actress for Quiet. It is probably the best known original song from the game, and featured in the excellent launch trailer for the game, embedded below, where it played to a series of clips from across the entirety of the “Metal Gear” series. The music for “Quiet’s Theme” was composed by Akihiro Honda, and the lyrics were written by Ludvig Forrsell.
“A Phantom Pain” is an underrated and often-overlooked original piece for the game, a piece by Ludvig Forssell absolutely drenched in 1980s synth. The vocals relate conceptually to the game, and the track feels sort of like what the theme tune for the game would be if it actually was a television show, as it often portrays itself as.
“Behind the Drapery” is another 1980s-style original song for the game, by Ludvig Forssell. The vocals are drenched in even heavier reverb than in “A Phantom Pain” and, curiously, the lyrics have never been officially released, after Forssell revealed on Twitter that Konami hadn’t allowed him to release them.
“Defiance” is another 1980s style original track, with vocals, for the game by Ludvig Forssell, with lyrics also quite hard to decipher beneath the 1980s stylings.
The Episodic TV-Style Structure of the Game
Where most of the “Metal Gear Solid” games modelled themselves after films, with “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” most blatantly modelling itself after James Bond films, “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” models itself after television shows. The guidebook for the game explicitly states “If previous instalments were each a movie, Metal Gear Solid V is an epidosic TV series”.
Each and every mission of the game – over forty! – have individual opening and closing credits. Virtually every mission starts by crediting “Punished ‘Venom’ Snake”, “Benedict ‘Kazuhira’ Miller”, and “Revolver ‘Shalashaska’ Ocelot”, before moving on to “guest stars”, “enemy combatants”, “featured mechas”, and the like.
Amusingly, these opening credits often outright spoil what would otherwise be surprises in the missions/episodes. Some are bothered by this, but I chalk it up as another Kojima metatextual oddity, and enjoy the dramatic irony and tension I get when I get notified of a guest star that’s a particularly difficult enemy to fight.
My issue with the TV-style structure of the game is that it’s sometimes inconsistent. The game is split into main missions/episodes and side ops. Yet many of the main missions feature barely any story content and are the exact same type of busywork the side ops purport to be, while there’s a specific “important side ops” category for side ops that have story relevancy. Why does a category exist, when the main mission/episode category is literally for that very thing? It becomes even more frustrating in a later stage of the game, where main mission/episodes suddenly, without rhyme, reason, or any hint of an in-story explanation, become repeats of earlier missions but at custom difficulty settings.
Overall Thoughts on the Gameplay
While there are a few niggling flaws and inconsistencies – a sometimes lifeless open world, an often-lifeless Mother Base, inconsistency in the direction and format of the performances, the baffling categorical inconsistencies in the structure of the game – the game easily, in my view, offers the best gameplay of the series.
[That concludes the gameplay review, the non-spoiler section. I will now add a load of space below this section, so nobody accidentally sees the spoilers that are in the next two sections.]
“It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.”
– Emil Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations, 1987
“Nor would difference of country make any very essential difference; that is, so long as both parties speak one language…”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
“Whales in the sea /
God’s voice obey.”
– The New England Primer, 1777
“This world will become one; I have found the way. Race, tribal affiliations, national borders – even our faces will be irrelevant. The world that the Boss envisioned will finally become a reality, and it will make mankind whole again.”
– Major Zero, “Secret Recording of Skull Face and Zero”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! Then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
“Every age is the same. A ruler’s first order of business after conquering new land is to force his tongue on its people. Ancient Rome, Napoleon, and now Zero, English is wreaking havoc around the world right now. The British Empire tilled the land with war as its hoe, then began planting the seed that is English. Eventually, American capitalism became the new instrument. To play its game of wealth, you only have to abide by one rule – English. By exploiting people’s desires, English has become a leash that people gladly wear around their necks…”
– Code Talker, “Skull Face’s Objective : Rulers and Language”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“But for its minorities to function in society, a common ground is needed – language. Even if the country is not one – no, because it is not one – a lingua franca is necessary. English. American hegemonism was born from the illusion that English could unite diverse ethnicities. In taking in people from around the globe, America became a microcosm of it. Now the boundaries between it and the rest of the world have become blurred. However different our neighbours may be, English enables us to create a symbiotic relationship with each other. If English can bring unacquainted neighbours together in America, this should hold true for the world. The salad bowl that is the world can also become one.”
– Revolver Ocelot, “Skull Face’s Objective : Mutliethnicity in the United States”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, 2015
“Since ancient times, every civilisation’s ruler has had the same idea – when people unite under one will, they become stronger than the sum of their parts, and the one will is the ruler’s will. And what do rulers use to bring people together? Language.”
– Code Talker, “Skull Face’s Objective : Rulers and Language”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“The medium is the message.”
– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964
“Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“KAZ: Snake, you familiar with the Japanese word ‘kotodama’?
BIG BOSS: Kotodama…?
KAZ: Unfortunately, there’s no direct equivalent in English. But to keep it simple, let’s call it a sort of ‘battle cry’.
BIG BOSS: ‘Battle cry’, huh?
KAZ: Right. But, kotodama is actually a deep Japanese concept. ‘Koto’ means word, and ‘dama’ means spirit. It signifies that words have power that affect our reality.
BIG BOSS: Ah…you feeling okay?
KAZ: Guess I made it sound kind of mumbo-jumbo huh? Seriously though, haven’t you ever felt energised when a teammate cheered you on? Or, the other way around – ever had your legs cut out from under you by a thoughtless remark?
BIG BOSS: I know the feeling. Words can have a powerful mental effect on people.
KAZ: Same goes for CO-OPS Comms. Offering praise to somebody could make them run faster than usual. Or make somebody who thinks they’re done for get up and fight again. See what I’m saying?
BIG BOSS: I get the picture. So it works in reverse, too.
KAZ: The power of words are many and varied. Try using them for yourself.”
– Big Boss and Benedict ‘Kazuhira’ Miller, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Hideo Kojima, 2010
“In his eyes, the greatest symbiotic parasite the world’s ever known isn’t microbial – it’s linguistic. Words are what keep civilisation – our world – alive. Free the world, not by taking men’s lives, but by taking their tongues.”
– Revolver Ocelot, “Skull Face’s Objective : Skull Face 9 Years Ago”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“Once you create a character and put it out there in the public mind, it warps and twists with every baseless rumour. And before you know it, all people see are phantoms.”
– Revolver Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“Meaningless words: In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.
Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.
When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,’ while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,’ the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.
Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive.
Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“America is a country of liberty. A meeting of immigrants. Instead of simply assimilating, its citizens live alongside others. So the Major sought a system that used information – words – to control the subconscious.”
– Skull Face, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.
This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.
To give a single example: the word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”
– “Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak”, George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949
“If we’re to unite the world, literacy must be suppressed.”
– Major Zero, “Secret Recording of Skull Face and Zero”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“’We’re getting the language into its final shape – the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050….
‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonym’s; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simple the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning; or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use the forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?….
‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed in exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak. Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?….
’By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’”
– Syme, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949
“GALVEZ: This is my student. She came to me to study peace. Her name is Paz, Paz Ortega.
BIG BOSS: Paz…? ‘Peace’?
KAZ: No kidding? That’s my name too! Kazuhira – it’s Japanese for ‘peace.’”
– Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Hideo Kojima, 2010
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash – as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot – it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking….People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning – they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another – but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying…. You can shirk it by simple throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“My name is Paz, and I will do anything to protect my namesake. It is my one and only purpose.”
– Paz Ortega Andrade, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Hideo Kojima, 2010
“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“Diamond Dogs is different. Everyone here believes in you. Regardless of where they came from, or why they’re here, they revere you, and they’re fighting because it was their choice….That’s our reality here, whether it’s real or not. If there’s another truth, I don’t want to know it. All that matters is, that’s the concept that’s taken shape in their heads. The traces of a group ideology, or superstructure, to put it in Marxist terms.”
– Revolver Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“RAIDEN: We’re not just pawns in some simulation game, you know!
ROSE: Yes, you are. You’re nothing but mere weapons. No different from fighter jets or tanks.
RAIDEN: What the-?
COLONEL: The old model destroyed four years ago was ‘REX’…
ROSE: The new amphibious model is ‘RAY’…
COLONEL: Both of these are the same as the code names used by the U.S. Armed Forces to refer to Japanese war planes during World War II.
ROSE: Your code name, ‘Raiden’, too, comes from the Japanese navy’s name for one of its interceptors.
RAIDEN: Stop it! I’m not a weapon!
COLONEL: Oh really? Do you know the code name the U.S. Armed Forces used for the Japanese fighter ‘Raiden’?
ROSE: It was ‘Jack’.
COLONEL: Both of you are just weapons to be used and thrown away.
ROSE: Just weapons to be used on the battlefield. Just pawns in a game – exactly as you said.
COLONEL: And a weapon has no right to think for itself.”
– Raiden and the AI Colonel and Rose, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Hideo Kojima, 2001
“’When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed. History had already been rewritten, but fragments of the literature of the past survived here and there, imperfectly censored, and so long as one retained one’s knowledge of Oldspeak it was possible to read them. In the future such fragments, even if they chanced to survive, would be unintelligible and untranslatable. It was impossible to translate any passage of Oldspeak into Newspeak unless it either referred to some technical process or some very simple everyday action, or was already orthodox (goodthinkful would be the Newspeak expression) in tendency. In practice this meant that no book written before approximately i960 could be translated as a whole. Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation – that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…
It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.’”
– “Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak”, George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949
“You say you’re an army free from governments, you talk big about being a nation unto yourselves, but from the outside you’re just thugs, rebels, a militia! You’re terrorists! An unhinged threat to society….
What do you think you’re doing? Go ahead and execute me, it’ll be murder in the eyes of the world! You’ve lost your minds!
Don’t you get it? You’re seeing phantoms. Just look at that dog. No, you named him D-Dog, but it’s obvious, anyone could see that’s a wolf!
Because you’re all a bunch of wild dogs. You wanted to believe he was too, to feel some connection, to fight your loneliness. You wanted something to cling to, to prove you deserved to be alive. You wanted to forget the death, your sins, so you cling on to dogs, or wolves, or even Big Boss…the Boss is the same. Isn’t he?
Every one of you is alone, and that’s why you suspect your own. I know, because I’d do the same. I’m one of you. Alone….
Open your eyes! What you’re doing is murder, plain and simple. All you ever create is war.
War and violence can never lead to peace.”
– Huey Emmerich, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
– George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
“Words that kill /
Would you speak them to me?”
– Ludvig Forssell, “Sins of the Father”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“We only have his word to go on, but Skull Face’s goal was revenge against those who’d use language to subjugate people. Those corrupting a people’s identity by forcing a new tongue on them. Those using the power of language to control information.
Naturally, that set his sights on Zero. To Zero, English was simply the most convenient code, but to Skull Face, English was a parasite – and by eradicating it, he’d stop the world from being eaten away.
If that didn’t work, he was ready to see the world scorched by nuclear fire. To save language, culture, and race from annihilation, he was willing to overstep the hands of the Doomsday Clock.
That is, of course, if you believe anything he had to say.”
– Revolver Ocelot, “Skull Face’s Objective : The Target of Skull Face’s Revenge”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, 2015
“When my time came calling I didn’t die. My family died, my country died, but they didn’t take me with them. All Hell took from me was this skin, this outer peel that marked me ‘human.’
My village had an oilseed field and a fine factory. Every day my friends and I would see our parents at work in that factory. That’s all I had. All the world I knew.
Then one day, aircraft came droning in from some far-off sky. The factory was bombed. Some… ‘spies’ had told them we were making weapons. The building burned. We tried to flee outside. The crowd blocked the exit. The crowd of people. Hot. So hot.
I tried to push through their legs and get ahead, but a boot in my stomach put me on the ground. The smoke of them burning filled me up. I heard my name called… but not for long.
At the infirmary they carried me to, a nurse in the corner saw me and remarked, as if it happened every day: ‘They should let the poor thing die.’
Those are the only words of my mother tongue I remember. It was the language of my village. Until foreign troops invaded. Then the last identity I had left – the words I spoke – were pulled from me.
My skin would never feel anything again. This face would be burned again, in torture, at foreign hands, but I, I still writhe in that burning factory. Doused in scalding rapeseed oil.
That’s all I have to feel, that pain – all I have to remind me I exist here.”
– Skull Face, “Agent’s Recording – Secretly Recorded POW Interrogation”, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Hideo Kojima, 2014
“Time and again, the country was ruled by a foreign tongue. When he was a young boy, he lost his native language – the bedrock for any developing child. His country, his family, his face, his identity; everything was stolen from him.”
– Revolver Ocelot, “Skull Face’s Objective : Skull Face’s Origins and the XOF”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, 2015
“Whatever the Navajo told you… it’s just one possible solution derived by Cipher. My will is different.
I’ve known you since your time at Langley. I’ve long been the other side of your coin.
1964, Soviet territory. FOX’s first mission. Any mess you made, I was there to clean up. You completed your task – and admirably. The ‘information’ you returned was far more than enough to fill our pockets. With it, our futures became – more or less – set in stone.
And then the major came to me with an idea. ‘Washington doesn’t know how to spend money,’ he said. ‘I’d like to… redirect it’.
His goal was an organisation dedicated solely – covertly – to supporting America. Cipher.
You know the rest. To him, it was mourning – the loss of his friend. Or rather, an act of revenge. On the world, but America most of all.
America is a country of liberty. A meeting of immigrants. Instead of simply assimilating, its citizens live along side others.
Their roots are varied. Diverse. America’s never been made up of just one people.
But he tried to forge a single consciousness. For it, and from it. The idea that every citizen would use free will to unite behind their country… unilateralism like that can’t be entrusted to any one individual.
So the major sought a system which used information, words, to control the ‘subconscious’.
To unite America and the entire world. The major thought this was his friend’s will. But I think he never understood what she wanted.
Before he ever walked, or cried – even before he was born – his mother tongue was English. He doesn’t know the pain of losing his own language. Not yet. He cannot understand her will.
I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders, I was made to speak their language.
With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are… peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong… war changed me – and not only my visage.
Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me.
A philosopher once said, ‘It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake, our native tongue is our true fatherland.’
My fatherland – my truth was stolen from me. And so was my past. All that’s left is the future. And mine is revenge. On those who’d leech off the words of their fellow man.
This is what I learned from the major. And then it hit me. It was he who should feel my wrath. He and the code he chose as basis for control. Language codes, information codes – beamed all around us – genetic codes spanning history.
By controlling the codes, Cipher… Zero intends to unify the world. Codes implanted into our heads, sucking our minds dry as it spreads from one host to the next. A parasite upon the earth.
That is what Zero is. As one born into this world, he’s afflicted. I hold him responsible for killing my freedom. Killing all traces of my past… killing any promise of a future… we are all but dead men forced to walk upon this earth. A world reduced to Zero.
Cipher plans to use its codes to control the world. They think they can.
[He pulls out a small cannister.]
And the ‘mother tongue’ of all those codes is English.
[He opens the canister, revealing two vials, and an empty space for a third.]
The word became flesh. The final parasite.
[He raises one vial, showing it to Venom Snake.]
It knows English. An English strain of the vocal cord parasite.
[He returns the vial to the cannister.]
I will exterminate the English language.
With this, I’ll rid the world of infestation. All men will breathe free again – reclaim their past, present, and future.
This is no ethnic cleanser. It is a ‘liberator,’ to free the world from Zero.
Let the world be. Sans lingua franca, the world will be torn asunder. And then, it shall be free.
People will suffer, of course – a phantom pain. The world will need a new common tongue. A language of nukes.
My Metal Gears shall be the thread by which all countries are bound together, in equality. No words will be needed. Every man will be forced to recognise his neighbour. People will swallow their pain. They will link lost hands. And the world will become one.
This war is peace.”
– Skull Face, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2015
“PAZ: Do not call me that [Paz]! I’m Pacifica Ocean! My name, my age, mission – Cipher gave them all to me. My entire life has but one purpose – to carry out Cipher’s plan. The nasty tobacco, the ‘angel of peace’ crap, the whole ‘teen with a dream’ routine, I’m through with all of it!”
– Paz Ortega Andrade, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Hideo Kojima, 2010
“Forget everything Hollywood taught you.”
– Revolver Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima, 2014
“There’s no need for words, Snake.”
– Psycho Mantis, Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima, 1998
“A name means nothing on the battlefield. After a week, no one has a name.”
– Big Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Hideo Kojima 2004
“[I am] neither enemy nor friend. I am back from a world where such words are meaningless. I’ve removed all obstacles.”
– Gray Fox, Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima 1998
“Marv and I knew each other from the Prague academy. We didn’t speak each other’s language, but were scientific comrades, after a fashion.”
– Dr. Madnar, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Hideo Kojima, 1990
“A new friend! He lives near here. We can’t understand each other’s language, but we’re having fun.”
– Sunny, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima, 2008
“You’re not a snake, and I’m not an ocelot. We’re men, with names.”
– Revolver Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Hideo Kojima, 2004
“Listen, don’t obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide. You can find your own name. And your own future.”
– Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Hideo Kojima, 2001
Overview of the Themes and Theses of the Series
As with all the other other mainline series games directed by Kojima, “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” has a strong thematic focus. The themes and thesis statements for earlier entries in the series were much clearer, as official materials stated and elaborated upon them (such as multiplayer modes in “Metal Gear Online” being named GENE, MEME, and SCENE, after the themes of the first three “Metal Gear Solid” games). There’s also a wealth of great material online examining these earlier entries from a thematic standpoint. I noticed that started to dry up when I got to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, and found comparatively little analysis online of the games message and literary merit, compared to the material on the earlier games. For “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, I found even less again, to the point where there isn’t even broad agreement on what single word defines the main theme of the game, with different camps claiming REVENGE, RACE, or VOICE.
This is part of what inspired me to make this review/analysis longer than my other entries. There’s plenty of other fantastic examinations of the earlier games, but there are much fewer in-depth thematic examinations of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, so that, coupled with my intense fascination with the game, energised me to write more than I usually do in these posts.
To recap how I approach the series thematically, I follow the officially stated convention that each main series game directed by Kojima focuses thematically on a concept summed up in a single word, that ends in “e” in English, and is one syllable (some argue more syllables for this game, seeing “REVENGE” as the theme, but I disagree – ultimately it’s a semantic issue of little importance anyway). The very first two games of the series, the “Metal Gears” before the “Metal Gear Solids” lack these strong thematic focuses of the later games, and side-stories like “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” weren’t directed by Kojima, and also lack such focus. Following the theme of the game, which were officially stated and broadly agreed upon for all games except this one, I also write on what I read as the thesis statement of the game, the message, what Kojima and his team were trying to communicate through the game.
|Metal Gear Solid||Gene||People don’t have to be defined by their genetics; they can overcome and transcend the fate genetics and family set out for them.|
|Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty||Meme||People should take every situation, interaction, and relationship on its own terms and act accordingly as per their own will, rather than just following the conventional behaviours cultural memes would suggest one follow in a certain context.|
|Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater||Scene||Nearly every human interaction is based in transient constructs; interactions and relationships are shaped by transitive concepts that change with the cultural contexts of the time, and the only interactions that can transcend these culturally relativist constructs are moments of common humanity.|
|Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots||Sense||The unique individual qualities of a person are worth preserving against attempts to subsume them into larger group identities, and to preserve these qualities, individuals must occasionally reflect on what makes them who they are.|
|Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker||Peace||The pursuit of peace is not enough to make one truly peaceful, treating peace as an ideal does not guarantee one’s morality, as the pursuit of peace can so easily lead to conflict and the development of structures that encourage it.|
I develop my thoughts on those themes and theses in my posts on those earlier games. In this post, I’ll develop my thoughts on the theme and thesis of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”. There is much less consensus on the theme and thesis of the game among those who have played it, perhaps due to its age, the difference in how it was written and presented compared to earlier entries in the series, and the lack of official word on its writing compared to the earlier entries. I broadly consider “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” and “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” the same “Metal Gear Solid V” experience, but since the vast majority of content is in the latter, I’ll be referring to it solely for the most part. So, my interpretation of the game is as follows.
|Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain||Voice||A person’s voice, their language and the way they speak it, is not just a channel for communicating their thoughts and beliefs, but also a contextual framework that influences and determines the very thoughts they are having – but by recognising this, one can partially transcend the limitations of their voice, their language.|
I’ll spend the rest of this section exploring and explaining my interpretation of the game’s theme and thesis as presented above.
The Voice of God
While the game opens with a litany of references to “Moby Dick” (Venon Snake being dubbed Ahab, Big Boss being dubbed Ishmael, a great whale made of fire in the sky), and continues to reference the novel throughout the game (the Diamond Dog helicopters Pequod and Queequeg, Kaz’s obsession with revenge and lack of limbs parallelling Captain Ahab, etc.), I believe the game is far more intimately connected to George Orwell’s work rather than Herman Melville’s, particularly his seminal dystopian novel about a totalitarian society where oppression is achieved through the control of language, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Both works develop the idea that language, voice, can have ungodly power when manipulated by those in power, when the “voice of God” speaks, in a sense. I do not think it’s a coincidence that game takes place in the year of 1984, and Revolver Ocelot directly references it in the Truth tapes closing out the game (referencing “doublethink” and “2+2=5” in particular). I believe the 2015 E3 trailer for the game sets out the game’s primary conceptual and thematic concerns as being very similar to those of “Nineteen Eight-Four”, and I’ve embedded it below for viewing.
Many of the quotes I emboldened in the “Extracts” section of this analysis are present in that trailer, and I believe the trailer – directed personally by Kojima – is the closest Kojima got to outright stating the theme and thesis of the game. The “voice of God”, or at least the creator, in a sense. The trailer develops the idea that also forms the backbone of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, that language is not merely a medium through which people communicate their thoughts, but a framework through which thoughts do (or do not) develop.
“The medium is the message” said philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, meaning that the medium through which one expresses a message is a message in and of itself. In the trailer, multiple characters speak on the same idea. Skull Face speaks of how being taken from his homeland as a child, and being forced to adopt a new language and forget that of his ancestors, saw his identity, personality, and framework for thinking change. Code Talker speaks of how the rulers of civilisations try to unify their peoples through language (which can be taken as the explicit suppression and promotion of certain languages, as well as the usage of propaganda and slogans, such as those seen in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”). Major Zero states his intention to nullify disparate aspects of humanity through language, unifying the world through bringing it under a sole conceptual framework (of course, this shifts into more of a memetic rather than linguistic focus when his AIs start running the show instead of him, as seen in other entries in the series). Revolver Ocelot expands on Skull Face’s plan to liberate the world by exterminating the English language.
In the “Extracts” section of this analysis, the series of quotations progress from centring around the general power and importance of language (the blue quotes), language as a medium in and of itself which forms a conceptual framework from where thoughts can or cannot stem (the red quotes), Skull Face’s specific plans relating to liberating the world through exterminating the English language (the green quotes), and communication that transcends language as we think of it in the traditional sense (the orange quotes).
The first two sets of quotations (the blue and red ones) in particular relate to the godly power of language, how it is not just a channel through which we communicate, but a context from where the very thoughts we want to communicate in the first place are unconsciously shaped. As Orwell states in his 1940s essay “Politics and the English Language”, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.
The idea of linguistic relativity, or the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” or “Whorfianism” as it’s sometimes known in its native fields of linguistics and cognitive science, was articulated at least as early as the 19th century, with philosophers like Wilhelm von Humboldt writing on language as a message in and of itself, expressing the spirit of a nation, as he put it. Linguistic relativity in this sense is thought as the concept that learned languages can alter the speaker’s mind in such a way that the specific conventions and structure of a language affect the speaker’s cognition; how they view the world, and how they express those views. Orwell and Kojima explore the notion as a deterministic framework, with some characters largely unable to act in certain ways because they lack the cognitive capacity to even think the thoughts that are the prerequisites to certain behaviours. Their language affects their cognition. Their voice is not just how they communicate, it is how they think – or how they don’t.
As Major Zero realises, language, words, voice, they can shape one’s minds, their subconscious. He sees this as the way he can follow the Boss’ will as he interprets it, uniting the world so that borders become irrelevant. As he says in the “Truth” tapes unlocked at the end of the game, “If we’re to unite the world, literacy must be suppressed”. He understood the same concept Orwell develops through his fictional language of “Newspeak” in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, that the language through which one thinks, the voice through which one speaks, affects the very thoughts their mind can develop in the first place.
Through his understanding of this concept, Zero sought to, as the guidebook to the game puts it, “impose the political, economic and social model of the United States on the rest of the world….By standardising other nations through subtle manipulation, nurturing facsimiles of their own cultural and political landscape, Zero believed he might prevent future opposition or outside threats: homogenised states should have less cause to quarrel”.
As we know from the other games, Big Boss disagreed, to put it mildly. The guidebook describes their conflict as stemming from how “While Major Zero dreamed of control over minds and information worldwide, for a greater good of his unique personal design, Big Boss set off to achieve the antithetical extreme – freedom from any form of governmental control or oversight, secret or otherwise. In 1972, Big Boss resigned from Cipher and disappeared to found his own group of independent mercenaries, a pioneering private force, while Zero further consolidated his power and influence over global affairs”, as “For Zero, freedom would be preserved by imposing a set of constraints and offering individual liberty within this context; for Big Boss, it could be assured through the absence of constraints and never-ending conflict. Both could only define freedom in relation to boundaries, to limitations, and this was the core of their betrayal of The Boss’s legacy. She saw liberty in a far more positive light, as the result of personal and collective commitment”.
In the appendix of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, it’s stated that “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable”. Major Zero sought to exploit this idea, to exhibit enormous power over the world – to essentially speak with the “voice of God” – in his efforts to unify the world.
Venom Snake and The Man Who Sold The World
Major Zero’s intentions, and the conflicts he had with Skull Face and Big Boss that form the backbone of both this game and the series as a whole, are far from the only, or even the primary, way the game explores the idea of language being not just a channel through which people communicate, but a context that determines the very thoughts they can have in the first place. No, the game primarily develops that idea through the most direct way it can, the nature of its very protagonist.
Venom Snake is not Big Boss, as the player learns in the ending of the game. He was the medic seen in the helicopter at the end of “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes”, who extracted a bomb from Paz, and attempted to shield Big Boss as another helicopter crashed into theirs. He is not really a “Snake”; he shares no genetics with Naked Snake/Big Boss or his clones Solid Snake, Liquid Snake, and Solidus Snake. He did not live through any of Big Boss’ memories. He did not shoot the Boss; he never even met her. His original appearance was dictated by the player, ostensibly modelled after the player himself, as he is in many ways meant to act as a self-insert, an avatar, for the player, rather than a character of his own. He is not Big Boss.
But he speaks with Big Boss’ voice.
He is a literal embodiment of the concept of language shaping one’s thoughts and identity. He is Newspeak made flesh. In “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, a Big Boss at the end of his life remarks “Ocelot, in order to fool the system [of the Patriot AIs] used nanomachines and psychotherapy to transplant Liquid’s personality onto his own. He used hypnotic suggestion to turn himself into Liquid’s mental doppelganger. For all our advances in nanotechnology, information, and genetic control, they’ve never managed to control people at will, let alone turn one person totally into another”, yet that is very nearly what Big Boss himself achieved in Venom Snake.
Kojima is a known fan of David Bowie, yet the game opens with a cover version of a David Bowie song (”The Man Who Sold The World”) rather than the original Bowie version. Venom Snake is a “cover version” of Big Boss, and the lyrics relate to doppelgangers and the idea of multiple selves. Similarly, the game is not actually a numbered main game of the series. It is “Metal Gear Solid V”, not “Metal Gear Solid 5”. V for Venom. A game about a proxy war, featuring a proxy Snake.
The concept of Venom Snake, the idea of turning the MSF medic into a double of Big Boss, did not originate with Big Boss, but rather with Major Zero, although the exact reasonings behind his plan are too murkier as to claim it was for the precise purpose Big Boss ended up using the medic for. The medic was brainwashed and morphed through physical surgery and therapy to resemble Big Boss both physically and mentally, to have his body, memories, and personality, or the nearest approximation that could be achieved.
Is it possible that the original plan wasn’t to use him as both an agent, decoy, and eventual ally, but rather to use him as a back-up body in case Big Boss ever needed suitable organs, or an entire body transplant? It’s possible. The doctor that treats Venom Snake at the hospital in Cyprus, the very first face seen in the game, was clearly (and controversially) modelled after Dr. Sergio Canavero, the real-world Italian neurosurgeon that has been working for years to perform the world’s very first head transplant. Dr. Canavero is an actual doctor, consistently denies he had any intentional part in the marketing of the game, and seems rather frustrated by the whole affair, so it seems it was an intentional reference by Kojima rather than a mutually beneficial publicity stunt.
Regardless of Major Zero’s original intentions for the medic, Big Boss used him as an unwitting double, trusting that by replacing the medic’s mental and physical frameworks so completely with his own, that he would naturally act in Big Boss’ interests. The thesis of this game is the logical and organic endpoint of series thematically; the general anti-war and anti-nuclear messages of “Metal Gear” and “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake” being refined in the more nuanced “Metal Gear Solid” which focused on a soldier freeing himself of the genetic and mental frameworks he found himself constrained by, leading to “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” examining how such ideas proliferate culturally in the first place, then “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” determining the very contexts so crucial to the memetics of the previous game were ultimately transient in nature – with only moments of common humanity transcending such transitory constraints -, “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” examining what constituted humanity and identity in the first place, “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” questioning whether the vast disparity amongst the identities of all members of the human race inherently stymied the establishment of peace and unity, and finally “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” examining whether the idea of self, “sense” established in “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” (and indirectly explored in “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” through its questioning of whether the many and varied “senses” of the human race could live consistently harmoniously) has inherit merit, or whether it’s just another deterministic construct.
Similarly, Venom Snake is the logical and organic endpoint and pinnacle of the game’s primary idea, that language, voice, psychological frameworks are not just channels and conduits for communication of ideas, but sources of how such ideas are or are not developed in the first place. While he still speaks English, and did not have his literal language erased like Skull Face did, his literal voice was altered to match Big Boss’, and his mental and physical identities were subsumed to conform to Big Boss’, a disturbing example of what “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” warned against; the destruction of “sense”, self, individual identity, through conforming to the standards of another. His “voice” being replaced by Big Boss was so effective that most players believed he actually was Big Boss, for the majority of the game. There are several tells for Venom Snake not being Big Boss – the fact a man with “his” own voice (Kiefer Sutherland’s, which we know by “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” to be Big Boss’) assists him in the opening, Venom Snake’s general demeanour being so different to that of Big Boss’, the reflection in the helicopter at night literally being that of the player-designed character, various characters not initially recognising him as Big Boss, etc.), but the fact he assumes the vocal, mental, and physical form is enough for most. “The medium is the message”, indeed.
If one really was brainwashed, physically altered, and treated by everyone they encounter as a separate person, would they effectively become that person? Is there a self, a “sense” that distinguishes each and every human? I believe so, and I believe Kojima does too – Venom, for all his similarities to Big Boss, does exhibit some rather notable differences, such as his attitude towards nuclear weapons, and his natural bravery and quiet charisma rather than calculated actions and bravado.
It’s fascinating that Venom Snake spends so much of the game torn, stressed, and broken over his nature as a “demon”, for the actions of his past, when the actions he remembers are not even his past. He exhibits moral reservations over a life not even his own, whereas the real Big Boss doesn’t. The game’s marketing, particularly in its earlier years, leaned heavily on selling the idea of Big Boss “going bad”, “turning evil”. Kojima, in a 2014 E3 interview with IGN, stated “So, well, everyone knows towards the end of this game, Snake will create Outer Heaven and become Big Boss as we know him afterwards. Everyone knows that’s how this game ends….In this game, Snake goes from being the hero to being the bad guy”. Players were excited to experience the so-called “missing link” explaining how the likable Naked Snake from “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” turned into the undeniably monstrous Big Boss of “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”.
But they already had witnessed that transformation. There never was any need for a “missing link”. The ending of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” gave all the necessary details for Naked Snake’s transformation, giving him the name, position, motivation, character development, incentive to lose faith in conventional morality…everything needed to justify his turn, after decades, into the monstrous Big Boss. Then “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” made it even more explicit, showing him turn to enabling and promoting war as a business (condemned very explicitly in the preceding game, “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”) and literally kidnapping and brainwashing people to force them to become soldiers in his private army. Still, people complained that they’d never been shown Big Boss transform into a villain. The fact is, people would never feel Big Boss went bad unless Kojima wrote a childishly direct and awkward transition, because the player will always empathise and identify with the player character; so long as they assume the “voice” of the player character, they will justify and look past their evils, just as the character themself would.
In “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”, Kojima realised that to develop and strengthen the character of Solid Snake, distance had to be introduced between him and the player; he had to become an NPC for at least some time. This was part of the impetus of developing Raiden and making him the player character for that game. The thinking was that there needs to be some distance between the player and a player character for character development. “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” also operates under this principle, giving the most explicit example yet of Big Boss “turning evil”, by subverting the player’s identification with the player character – in the end, the “Venom Snake” the player identified with for at least forty hours was a stooge, an innocent brainwashed, robbed of his identity, and forced to act as an unwitting double and decoy for the real Big Boss, who was meanwhile hiding, plotting, and acting in comparative safety. Kojima is showing, not telling. He is showing how far Big Boss’ character has fallen, rather than merely dictating it. There is no “missing link”, there never was, and the chronological ending of the series sees Big Boss finally realise his sins.
At the end of “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”, Solid Snake convinces Raiden to break free of the behavioural patterns societal memetics encouraged, and to both find and reclaim his own identity and individuality. Raiden embraced such liberation, throwing away dog tags with the player’s name on them.
At the end of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, Big Boss convinces the medic that they are both “Big Boss”, and Venom Snake seems to (at least initially) be delighted by the news, smiling in recognition of the praise he’s receiving by the real Big Boss. The ending of the scene, where Venom Snake punches a mirror showing a demonic reflection of himself, is more ambiguous – is he rejecting his own identity being subsumed by Big Boss? Or is he rejecting feeling like a demon for Big Boss’ past, a past he now recognises is not his own? Whatever the motivation, he ends up if not subservient to Big Boss, then at least cooperative, as he goes on to lead Outer Heaven, the independent nation that Solid Snake infiltrates in the very first game of the series, 1987’s “Metal Gear”. The entire series comes full circle, with Kojima’s last entry ending on the opening of his first entry, as the room Venom Snake stands in morphs to a room of Outer Heaven, and a cassette tape labelled “Operation Intrude N313” – the name of the mission in “Metal Gear” – is inserted into a player. So it was Venom Snake that Solid Snake killed in “Metal Gear”, not the actual Big Boss, explaining how Big Boss inexplicably appeared alive in “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, and demonstrating that the medic died with his identity completely forgotten, his “sense” subsumed, his true voice unheard.
The few individual, unique traits that Venom Snake consistently kept, such as his anti-nuclear attitudes, were overwritten by the real Big Boss in the end. In a datamined cutscene not intended to be unlocked until every player of the game’s online mode disarmed their nuclear weapons in the online multiplayer mode, Venom Snake, after ridding the in-game world of nuclear weapons, declares “I have to drag out the demon inside me, build a better future”, and goes on to name the nuclear disarmament of the world as his proud legacy, a direct contradiction of the ideology the real Big Boss put forth regarding nuclear weaponry in “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”. By the time of the first two “Metal Gear” games, the real Big Boss has hoarded nuclear weaponry in his Metal Gears, and after Venom Snake’s death, the world by the time of “Metal Gear Solid” again features widespread nuclear weaponry. What little whispers of his true voice Venom could manage, were drowned out by the shouting of the actual Big Boss.
It’s fascinating that, in many ways, the medic is not even a character unto himself, but rather an avatar of the player. As a very metatextual ending to the series, Kojima endorses the player themselves as the legendary Big Boss, the avatar they presumably modelled and named after themselves morphed into Big Boss and, in the ending, endorsed as the legend as much as he himself is. To me, it felt like an appreciative send-off to the fans from Kojima, and I think ending the series in a curious sort of meta message of thanks to his fans was a very Kojima thing to do.
The Boss died for her ideals. Big Boss had another die in his own place. Solid Snake convinced Raiden to choose his own destiny. Big Boss brainwashed the medic so that he never could. Solid Snake continually put others above himself and fought in their place whenever he could. Big Boss continually put himself above others and had others fight in place whenever he could. Big Boss interpreted the Boss’ will of a unified world as a world where no soldiers could be taken advantage of, yet pursued this goal by taking the greatest advantage possible of a soldier medic. Big Boss condemned his clones as a “sick” project, yet consented to the forcing of his mental and physical properties onto a man with no relation to him. Venom Snake is the sickening endpoint of the idea behind Newspeak, that the frameworks through which we think determine the very thoughts we can have in the first place.
Skull Face and the Words that can Kill
Venom Snake and Skull Face have rather similar origins. As an early trailer for the game stated, “From ‘FOX’, two Phantoms were born”. Venom Snake from FOX itself, Big Boss its lead agent, and Skull Face from its shadow-ops counterpart XOF, Major Zero’s personal secret support unit for the group. Both men were stripped of their pasts, their identities, their “voices” (Skull Face’s language, and Venom Snake’s actual voice), and both men ended up leading organisations that broke away from Cipher.
The enormous difference between them is that Venom Snake, at least to a fair extent, accepted and embraced the erasure of his own voice, and worked within the confines he was given, whereas Skull Face violently rejected the framework the erasure of his language and the enforcement of another had presented to him. Skull Face went so far as to attempt to eradicate the language he saw as the basis for oppression not only of himself, but the world.
As Revolver Ocelot put it, “Skull Face’s goal was revenge against those who’d use language to subjugate people. Those corrupting a people’s identity by forcing a new tongue on them. Those using the power of language to control information. Naturally, that set his sights on Zero. To Zero, English was simply the most convenient code, but to Skull Face, English was a parasite – and by eradicating it, he’d stop the world from being eaten away”. Skull Face aimed to undercut Zero’s attempts at globalisation, promotion of western hegemony, submission of individuality by changing the very frameworks (languages) people thought in (as Zero said, “If we’re to unite the world, literacy must be suppressed”). His efforts were a reaction against the axiomatic power of language.
These could be seen as noble goals, and Skull Face’s plans thus as a noble pursuit, in some ways. Issues surrounding globalisation and the suppression and eradication of smaller and individual cultural aspects through how globalisation enables increasing domination of cultural hegemonies, these are certainly timely issues, and ones plenty of players of the game could identify with. But, as we know from “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes”, Skull Face is a monstrous person. His plan wasn’t to offset the issues caused by Major Zero and increasing globalisation, it was a wide-scale genocide of English-speakers, and to organise a global economy around enormous amounts of widespread nuclear weaponry, controlled by himself. Skull Face’s infection of Zero with a parasite, causing Zero brain damage and leading to his catatonic state as seen in “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, was what led Zero to entrust power to the developing Patriot AIs, later ran by Sigint, which would end up suppressing individual expression, liberty, and capacity for thought in even more insidious ways than Skull Face could grasp in the 1980s.
While Venom Snake’s identity is in many ways a more subtle and cerebral exploration of the game’s theme and thesis, Skull Face and his plans are a more overt and literal exploration. In one of the game’s most memorable scenes, he delivers a long monologue to Venom Snake during a shared jeep ride, speaking on how the destruction of his childhood village and his subsequent subjugation saw the erasure of his language and identity, and dominant culture overriding his own, as well as his drive to seek vengeance on any that would attempt to similarly push their hegemonies through language, Zero being the ultimate example as he planned to unify the world through bringing it completely under one code, one language, in a manner ultimately not to different to Orwell’s Newspeak, it can be assumed.
The vocal cord parasites Skull Face tried to use as a vehicle for achieving his vengeance, his plans, are a literal example of the power of language. Numerous characters are infected with them throughout the game – Quiet (who never speaks English, so as to prevent the virus spreading), Code Talker (himself a vehicle for much exposition on the game’s theme), the Skulls, some unfortunate Diamond Dogs, and Skullface himself (his Zorro-esque mask hiding the discolouration around the eyes present in the infected).
Skull Face planned to use the metallic archaea to supply a massive amount of nukes to countries all around the world, effectively giving even the smallest of nations the ability to stand up the largest. No longer would villages like his be subject to domination, no longer would their languages be erased by the forces of cultural hegemony. Individual cultures could survive without being subsumed. “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” explored the flaws in such of an idea, of nuclear deterrence theory somehow providing stable international relations and peace, but with the trifecta of the metallic archaea for widespread development of nukes, his Metal Gear to sufficiently jolt the world, and the vocal cord parasites to eradicate the lingua franca that so plagued him and affected the smaller cultures of the world, that he could achieve his improbable aims.
Skull Face believed that through selective application of the parasites, along with economic and military manipulation, he could push the world to communicate without a lingua franca, to look beyond and above words in communication; “No words will be needed. Every man will be forced to recognise his neighbour. People will swallow their pain. They will link lost hands. And the world will become one”.
Perhaps a less monstrous man and organisation could have achieved that goal, but Skull Face was thwarted by an organisation as filled with lust for vengeance as he was, mercenaries filled with “a phantom pain”, as he’d describe it.
Revenge and Phantom Pain
Revenge and the “phantom pain” that often drives it are the most directly prominent ideas and themes in the game. Kaz in particular drives Kojima’s questioning of what revenge does to both people and organisations, whether revenge can truly be satisfied, and whether it even should be. As Kaz says to Venom Snake, referring to the state of them and their organisation following its defeat at the end of “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes”, “Why are we still here? Just to suffer? Every night, I can feel my leg, and my arm…even my fingers. The body I’ve lost, the comrades I’ve lost…won’t stop hurting. It’s like they’re all still there. You feel it too, don’t you? I’m gonna make them give back our past!”.
It’s one of the most memorable dialogues of the game, in no small part due to Robin Atkin Downes’ excellent performance of it, and speaks to the cruel nature of revenge. The past cannot be altered; Kaz will never be able to regain his past. He could regain his limbs in some sense, like Venom Snake did with his mechanical arm, but chooses not to, finding the pain and loss a more righteous reflection of his comrades who perished. The dead remain dead, and Kaz’s vain pursuit of closure and revenge drive many more deaths that will similarly drive others to the same goals, to more conflict under that same motivation.
Loss is an extremely powerful and affecting emotion, and often drives revenge, but not all those who experience great loss let themselves be consumed by revenge. Venom Snake loses a great deal more Kaz, yet never becomes warped and obsessed the way he does. Venom Snake loses his entire identity, memory, past, body, and voice. In the second chapter of the game, the few connections he’s managed to build for himself leave too – Quiet abandons him (albeit for noble ends), Paz was just a hallucination all along (Venom being the medic explaining both his odd perception of Paz lacking the details of her true identity that Big Boss would know, and the fixation on not being able to save her, which was the medic’s role), he loses a significant amount of his men by having to kill them to prevent disease overtaking Mother Base, and so on.
The structure of the game is fascinating in that it climaxes at the end of its first chapter, then its second chapter is largely more subdued and sees a lot of loss without corresponding triumphs (of course, it’s peppered with repeated missions from the first chapter, given without any context, in a maddening, immersion-breaking way). Is Kojima critiquing gamer’s lusts for completion and validation, the way gamers might rush for 100% completions and gaining all achievements while paying markedly less attention to a game’s story, let alone its themes? I’m unsure – the amount of cut content from the game (datamined content showing a title card for a third chapter, and bonus materials of the game showcasing an “Episode 51” that had significant story content) muddles things. I do think the fact the game seems to climax in its first chapter, then is followed by a chapter full of loss, is certainly intentional however, contrasting character’s various attitudes towards loss and revenge.
As Ocelot recognises, in warfare “both sides build up grudges like debt, without the foresight to see that each act of revenge just fans the flames. And then it’s too late for other nations to rush in with peace talks – the embers keep on smoldering. Each nation’s arrogance only breeds anarchy. The world is paralysed by this hunger for revenge”. Revenge is a cycle. Kojima explored peace as an unattainable goal in “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, and in “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” he explores revenge as yet another unattainable goal. The pursuit of peace or revenge with no nuance or concession inevitably leads to the creation and propulsion of more violence and conflict, which cyclically leads to more people seeking to pursue those goals.
Venom Snake is no Kaz, and recognises the futility of revenge. He regularly exhibits mercy that would be impossible to concede to if one was as singularly devoted to an unattainable ideal as Kaz. He spares Quiet, and presumably forgives her for her actions against him, as they end up in some form of relationship. He treats the traitor Huey humanely, never giving into the vengeance-led bloodlust the rest of Diamond Dogs falls into. When he finally defeats Skull Face, he doesn’t kill him. There isn’t even a boss battle, so typical to the series – Kojima denies the player any sort of revenge-driven satisfaction, instead subjecting them to the very realistic dejection and emptiness that comes in such situations.
While Kaz states early in the game that he’ll keep fighting “until I’ve gotten [his dead comrades] the vengeance they deserve”, in the end, even he comes to some understanding of the futility of seeking nought else but revenge, leaving Skull Face to die alone rather than killing him outright. In a monologue following Skull Face’s defeat, Kaz displays understanding of the hollowness of revenge in this way, realising he’ll “never be whole again”, that nothing can bring back the past. Revenge is futile because the past can never be changed; the circumstances motivating revenge can never be altered. The future is the only freedom.
In the official guidebook for the game, Kojima writes “Skull Face is the story’s villain and main antagonist yet his character is not simply about good and evil. He has lost something, which makes him suffer from the phantom pain. When he, the target of the player’s vengeance, is gone, his absence leaves a lasting phantom pain. We often see good versus evil encounters in the closing scenes of Hollywood movies, which are meant to satisfy their audience. But this game’s theme is the chain of revenge, the phantom pain – the continuous chain that you experience when the target of your vengeance is gone. It is not possible to convey the subtleties of this theme in a standard boss battle”, further contextualising why the game largely lacked the boss battles typical to the series.
Major Zero and Skull Face recognised that language is the ultimate axiom of human thought, that one’s voice isn’t merely a channel for expressing thought, but the very engine that defines what thoughts can be had in the first place. Venom Snake, Revolver Ocelot, and eventually Kaz, recognise that revenge is a motivational axiom, a motivation that in being pursued perpetuates and spreads itself like a disease, like the virus of the parasites they fought, ultimately driving situations and behaviour that define how others will act and react in the first place. Skull Face planned to supercede the English language’s world dominance through “a language of nukes”, perpetual conflict driven by endless desire for revenge. Revenge isn’t a separate theme of the game, nor is it the prime concept of the game rather than “voice”. It is instead a subset of that very theme, another example of the ways in which people communicate shaping their thoughts, rather than merely channelling them.
Quiet and Communication that Transcends one’s Voice
A literal voice is not the only channel through which one can communicate, and often not even the most revealing. Huey is voiced by the same actor as his son Otacon, Christopher Randolph, which predisposes the player to treat him similarly, to like him, see him as a likable dork-type figure, and forgive him his quirks in recognition of his essential goodness. Of course, this is a mistake, though one Kojima certainly intended players to make. Huey is untrustworthy and monstrous. While his betrayals of MSF and Diamond Dogs are murky affairs, his horrifying actions toward his wife irreversibly position him as a hateful figure.
So, the example of Huey and Venom Snake (whose voice is not his own, but rather Big Boss’) show us that one’s literal voice is not the most important, or trustworthy, channel for communication. Major Zero and Skull Face exploit how one’s language is not the most trustworthy channel either, as it can be manipulated to such an extent than one’s identity and capacity for thought can be overridden through controlling the language they think in. Can there then be communication without any language at all, thus avoiding such pitfalls?
In the strictest sense, no, as every form of communication could be construed as language of a kind – hand signals still come under a system of expression, and any such system has inherent aspects that affect how one communicates through it. Every system of communication will affect, to some extent, the thoughts that one can express through it. But methods of communication apart from languages in the traditional sense certainly have their uses and positive aspects. Quiet and Venom Snake form a strong attachment and relationship through non-verbal communication, their bond growing through physical actions and expressions of emotion through physical acts – both of them protecting each other in combat, putting themselves in dangerous situations for each other’s benefit, flirting and playing in rain together, exchanging telling looks inside helicopters.
Language is not a complete trap. The game often explores how the meanings behind communication can be eroded (an idea fully crystallised in “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”, when Zero’s Patriot AIs attempt to exploit the colossal chatter of the information age to influence behaviour by curating presentation of ceaseless content), with one of the very first cassettes the player receives for listening being “Ocelot’s Briefing : The Moniker Shalashaska”, an explanation for how Ocelot’s title was formed out of misinformation, mistranslation, and miscommunication. While the erosion of meaning can certainly be a negative in some contexts, it also speaks to how humans can transcend limitations of language, even if unwittingly. Quiet transcends language by demonstrating messages and values purely through actions, Venom rarely speaks (avoiding engaging in meaningless discourse, which would reach its zenith by the time of the Patriot AIs), and Afghani soldiers construct a name for Ocelot not based around the logic of any language. Perhaps Venom Snake lacks the capacity to truly even want to break free of the identity Big Boss forced upon him, perhaps the deterministic constraints of the “voice” he was given prevent him from ever going beyond just smashing the mirror, but all is not so bleak for the rest of humanity.
Psycho Mantis has a uniquely important viewpoint on the matter of non-language communication, given his psychic abilities, and he states in “Metal Gear Solid”, “there’s no need for words Snake”, upon his deathbed. In “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, Sunny feels immensely socially validated and relieved when making a friend outside, stating “we can’t understand each other’s language, but we’re having fun”. Near the end of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, Ocelot tells Big Boss “you’re not a snake, and I’m not an ocelot. We’re men, with names”. The ending of “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” sees Solid Snake tell Raiden to “not obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide. You can find your own name. And your own future”.
All four examples display recognition of the fact that meaning can be found outside of language; both communication and self-actualisation can take place outside the realms of formal language. This builds off the examination of an individuals self free from cultural and genetic precepts (”Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, itself building off notions introduced in “Metal Gear Solid” and “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”) and there are moments of common humanity that can transcend culturally relativist contexts (”Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”). However, it’s dubious whether “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” ends with any character coming to this conclusion – Venom Snake’s smashing of the mirror could be read as a moment of triumph related to the idea, but his actions further on in the timeline show he continued to work with Big Boss and act seemingly happily as his phantom. In this way, the game is similar to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, offering a potentially optimistic caveat to its thesis, but only through implication, the game’s story itself ending on a more subdued note.
“Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” is not a perfect game. It’s arguably not even a finished game. But it is a deeply fascinating exploration of deeply fascinating ideas, ideas I find extremely compelling personally. The game breaks away from many conventions of the series, but it very consistently upheld my favourite convention of the series – exploring big ideas in ways unique to the medium of video games. I enjoyed all the games in this series Kojima directed deeply, and found this game a very powerful, and enjoyable, ending. I give it five cassette tapes, and a mechanical arm.