On July 27, Metal Gear Solid V’s PlayStation 3 community deactivated its final nuclear weapon, briefly achieving nuclear zero and triggering a secret cutscene for the game. It took five years of coordinated effort, but the PlayStation 3 Metal Gear players briefly achieved what Steam and the other consoles couldn’t: a world without nuclear weapons. Moments after achieving nuclear zero around thirty new nukes rushed to fill the vacuum of power.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen The Phantom Pain’s secret ending. Data miners rooting through the games files found it shortly after the game’s release in 2015. A bug caused the cutscene to roll for PC players in 2018 despite the thousands of active nuclear weapons in the game. The July 27 zero nuclear achievement is the first time players have legitimately triggered the cutscene during the five years since the game’s release.
It’s a remarkable achievement. The Hideo Kojima-led development team of Metal Gear Solid V designed an incentive structure that so closely mirrors the Cold War logic of deterrence that ridding the game of all nuclear weapons always felt as impossible as decommissioning the nuclear threat in the real world.
In Phantom Pain, players build a freelance military force in the middle of the ocean. Players who take their base online can compete with other players for resources and prestige. Going online comes with rewards, but opens your base up to raids from other players. Unless you build a nuke. Only a player with a nuke can raid a base with a nuke, but the offended players can always launch their nuke and destroy your base.
If that seems crude and terrible, that’s the point. On a basic level, it’s the logic that underpins the world’s nuclear deterrence strategy. It’s why North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un recently praised himself for achieving world peace. “With our reliable and effective self-defensive nuclear deterrent, there will be no more war on this earth, and our country’s safety and future will be secured forever,” Kim said in a speech. That’s why nuclear weapons exist. The theory goes that the implicit threat of their use keeps the world safe.
In the world of Metal Gear Solid V, why raid the base of a nuclear power and risk the complete destruction of your own? “Our fear of nuclear arms drove us to bear them ourselves,” Kazuhira Miller, the player’s right hand man in Metal Gear Solid V, says in the secret cutscene. “We thought deterrence would be our defense. These weapons are costing us our future. A future we sold to ease the pain of the present.”
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an ambitious game with lots of big themes. Those themes don’t always land. But its anti-nuclear politics work, and they drive home the problems of deterrence and Cold War logic in a way that only a video game can. Deterrence theory requires rational actors, a commitment to nuclear war, the encouragement of proliferation, and the acknowledgement that failure could lead to millions dead and a ruined world.
In Metal Gear Solid V the incentives aren’t different because no lives are on the line, but gamers have proved willing to use the threat of the total destruction of another’s hard work to avoid invasions. The system has encouraged proliferation—the players have already built dozens of new nukes to keep themselves safe—and not everyone playing a video game online is acting rationally.
“The message is anti-nuclear weapons,” developer Hideo Kojima told The Guardian ahead of the games release in 2014. “Through the game, the player is motivated to make a base and build up their military centre. But at some point, when it reaches a certain size, the world begins to take notice and, in that sense, you become the threat. Countries begin to attack you. At this point I give the player the option to think about acquiring a nuclear weapon, in order to deter these attacks, a kind of threat. It illustrates the cycle of nuclear weapons, what inspires people and nations to enter into that system. It’s something that you can only really do in video games.”