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A Song of Metal Gear Solid: Photographing ‘The Phantom Pain’

Framing the scenes that make Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear goodbye so memorable.

by Steve Haske
Sep 10 2015, 8:40pm

All screenshots taken by the author

You might take the zoom feature in Metal Gear Solid V for granted. It's an easy thing not to pay any mind to, despite being impossible to miss in either Ground Zeroes or The Phantom Pain; a weird and relatively unexplained trick that lets you quickly push the camera in on Snake no matter what you're doing, complete with fourth-wall lens whirring. It takes a steady hand to use it while doing much of anything outside of standing still.

At a glance, that this is included in MGSV's controls (and serves as the only type of "interaction" in Hideo Kojima's defunct Silent Hills teaser P.T., for that matter) is funny. Outside of the occasional peek past a corner, zooming in doesn't really add much to the act of infiltration—though The Phantom Pain will half-heartedly try to argue this point—and yet it's so emblematic of Kojima's creative sensibilities it's a wonder the idea wasn't added to active gameplay years ago. (Besides the director's unmistakable love of cinema, you've been able to zoom during cutscenes in every Metal Gear since MGS2.)

It's a great addition, and not just as a Kojima signature. The close-ups and depth of field made it possible to take worthwhile pictures in the absence of a true photo mode, for one. There's nothing quite like orchestrating a memorable situation by manipulating the game's design (much harder than you might think), then hitting the PS4's share button to save it at just the right moment.

There's another way to look at it: as Kojima giving you control over the camera. Letting you be your own director. He initially relinquished this in the relatively scant enclosure of Ground Zeroes' Camp Omega, where replays and experimentation were encouraged by necessity of it being a single level, and The Phantom Pain is 200 times the stealth space Omega was. Its wide landscapes and deep design provide the perfect backdrop for your off-script experiences.

Of course, Kojima has his own unshakeable vision that can butt up against your choices. It's this unexpected duality that runs throughout MGSV, proving to be an itch I couldn't quite figure out how to scratch when I returned to the former Kojima Productions LA studio last month. I've been reflecting on it ever since. As it turns out, documenting that dichotomy makes for some interesting departures.

MGSV's mainstream approach is one of the most notably strange things about it. Default settings dot the screen in video game-y UI bits, markers and waypoints, surrounding players in a shroud of open-world information. Narrative is delivered through short-ish (for MGS) sporadic cutscenes, with Kiefer Sutherland's take on Snake often little more than a cipher.

You get used to it—Kiefer is a different Snake because The Phantom Pain is built as something else. It both is and is not Metal Gear Solid; its non-linear, episodic mission structure favors a form much closer to noted free-roam design than the series' aggressive take-it-or-leave it linearity of the past.

It's a paradox. There are a number of established elements you expect from MGS, from experimental tweaks for sneaking to Kojima's bizarre, self-aware sense of humor. Emphasizing the broad array of player choices makes MGSV simultaneously the purest, most complex stealth sim and the least identifiably Kojima-styled entry ever.

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Yet nearly the first image of The Phantom Pain commands authorial intent. On a small shelf of what looks like a washing station, a Sony cassette tape is sitting alongside pills, medical tools, and other assorted items you might find on a military base. (And is that a tiny FOX-emblazoned PS4 on the left?)

The cassette, whose label reads "From the Man Who Sold the World," is taken from the shelf and placed in a Walkman smudged with blood. The camera pulls in to the player as the distant sounds of war are drowned out by recorded silence. Fade to black, to Midge Ure's cover of Bowie's original track playing to opening credits to first-person framed narrative with Snake waking from a nine-year coma.

It's the kind of controlled narrative set-up that MGS is known for, Kojima's imprint all over it. The context of the cassette, bloody stereo, and framing device create mysteries straight away. Transitional editing and audio makes the Fox Engine appear more like a movie camera. There's a subtle joke here, too—is Kojima, always the trickster, hinting at a plot point with the tape's label, or is its description no more than a wink to the track's origin on Bowie's 1970 album of almost the same name?

Either way, in this teaser and beyond, cassettes are The Phantom Pain's soul.

In the old days, a great deal of exposition was handled through codec calls. A lot of it was optional and a lot wasn't (at least insofar as you had to skip through it). Quietly stripped away, beginning with 2008's MGS4 (and further reduced in 2010's Peace Walker), it's since been replaced by cassettes.

Past the first hour—a tightly choreographed, hallucinatory nightmare in a veteran's hospital—Kojima's directorial hand seemingly falls away. You're calling the shots now, moment-to-moment and in how you approach an area of operations. If you want, you can blaze through without listening to any of the cassettes fleshing out the plot, often culled from major cutscenes and awarded after watching chopped-down versions at turning points in various story missions.

It strikes as a bit off-kilter to long-time fans who expect a certain grandeur and cadence in Kojima's storytelling to have to go outside of The Phantom Pain's linear path to find that crucial bit of MGS flavor, almost like deleted scenes that KojiPro doesn't expect the majority of players to really bother with. At least here (unlike in Peace Walker) you can choose to soak in conversation on everything from the chemical make-up of yellowcake uranium to Kaz's thoughts on hamburgers at just about any time outside of a cutscene.

And yes, it's true: Kojima's name is plastered all over the opening television-like credits of every mission in The Phantom Pain. It's further bookended during at the end of each episode by KojiPro's logo, previously slated for removal from the final product.

In some ways it feels like a reminder: "I'm still here." Kojima won't let us leave MGS for the last time without remembering him (as if we ever could forget—no game creator has ever been so autobiographically tangled up in his own series). He's especially present in episodes where he's given writing credit, and in fairness when it comes to the major narrative flow he maintains that control throughout.

It all comes back to the cassettes: if the sheer volume of The Phantom Pain is a deterrent to finding Kojima amidst the countless hours spent simply exploring and fighting in the field, the fastest way to make MGSV a more "proper" Metal Gear is to pull out your iDroid and take a listen. I only wish there were more.

This shouldn't keep anyone—let alone an MGS vet—from playing The Phantom Pain. More than most, Metal Gear Solid has been a series that significantly evolves and changes over time, introducing new ideas and concepts into how you slither through battle zones as console technology has continually improved.

Running down the series, the list of improvements and changes that have marked its progress is impressive. Squad-based AI and tactics, interchangeable camo patterns, OctoCamo (maybe one of the most fascinating and frustratingly underused ideas ever to appear in a stealth game), robot scouts and Fulton extraction, to name just a few. With each passing entry these have felt like the missing piece. How could you ever have played MGS before without this?

It makes MGSV's R&D closet a Pandora's Box—a kitchen-sink monstrosity bursting with new toys, special uniforms (which can make Snake look oddly like an egg) and other equipment, including some new developments for your comically versatile cardboard box.

"Afghanistan is a big place," Ocelot remarks when The Phantom Pain drops you into vast mountainous region for your first real open-ended mission. To his point (and with your R&D), it's in these tracts of land that you'll lose track of Kojima, often for hours on end.

There's just too much ground to cover. The Phantom Pain's evolution isn't so much that it takes place in open environments—it's how its soldiers act and react within them. Guards adapt to your tactics, switching up gear and behavior depending on your preferred method of confrontation. They radio in the slightest deviation from the norm. They work in divisional teams, flank, call in reinforcements and vary unit specialties.

Every MGS player knows the pain of making a small mistake deep inside some enemy stronghold, and then having to gun their way out before limping on to the next objective. It's not these parts that we typically remember so much. Instead, MGSV's systems make experimenting and discovering its many hidden elements, activities, and permutations the main narrative course, such as it is. There's so much that KojiPro would have had to record a hundred hours of voice work for cassettes to balance things out.

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It is admittedly the best kind of problem to have, but even it comes at a price: making your own memories versus remembering great moments from an auteur's hand. Directing your own story rather than watching one Kojima crafted. Creating an album of hundreds of snapshots.

You want to ignore that critical mission so that you can capture bears? You can. Would you rather see how, as Kojima has personally encouraged, taking a different buddy on an op changes the situation? Please do. Just keep in mind at some point—if you're not careful—it can feel like you've swapped KojiPro for Rockstar. The Phantom Pain, unlike so many games these days, is best taken on slowly. It's something to be savored. There won't be another.

No matter the year, MGS has always felt like Kojima's personal vision of the future. 1998's Metal Gear Solid is set in 2005 and acts more like actual sci-fi; Peace Walker's 1974 featured a host of nuclear deterrence AI robots that likewise will probably remain impossible for at least another decade or two. This has never been an issue. To wholly enjoy MGS is to accept Kojima's fiction on its own terms, and MGSV proudly continues in that tradition. This isn't 1984 as much as it's the year it says it is with an asterisk.

You get the feeling that The Phantom Pain is more of an era than other entries because of Kojima's age. No doubt you've heard about his splashy playlist of early 1980s favorites hidden throughout Soviet base camps and the like. That's just one part of it—just look at his fondness for Joy Division.

Snake also wears an LCD Seiko watch around his bionic arm, modeled after the one that Kojima himself wore in 1984, right down to the design of the display. The supporting character Dr. Huey Emmerich (who played a small role in Ground Zeroes after constructing Metal Gear ZEKE in Peace Walker) uses an "I ♥ Diamond Dogs" mug, after Milton Glaser's iconic 1977 logo made for New York City, which somehow doesn't seem like a stretch to picture tacked up in Hideo's room as a young man.

And think about Diamond Dogs itself. The name of Big Boss' military organization is a straight-up pop homage to the title track from David Bowie's 1974 concept album (partially about Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, no less)—Kojima has stated he originally wanted the game to open with it. In any case, much of The Phantom Pain's essence may essentially be a love letter from the director to his youth.

MGS has flirted with evidence of the "real world" in the past, mostly with product placement (Apple, Sony, and Playboy have all made cameos) that's rarely felt like more than a meta-injection of the present. Even MGS3's plot was built around gaps in the Cold War.

Here you're dropped into thick of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which saw Russia attempting to maintain a socialist presence in the region. It lasted a decade, beginning in 1979. Tensions in West Africa come into play later as well, though Kojima's theme of "race" isn't so wholly localized.

Still, when you're fighting Russian soldiers that aren't part of some fictional outfit and then escaping by a chopper blaring A-ha, you're reminded The Phantom Pain is Kojima's game, too.

There are some narrative chokepoints embedded in The Phantom Pain. Usually they're identifiable by you suddenly getting funneled into places with more immediately detailed set direction.

It's frequently a good sign. These scenes can rival the best MGSV memories you've made out on your own, and it's satisfying to let Kojima (and art director Yoji Shinkawa) take back control every so often as the game's plot gradually thickens.

A surprisingly horrific incident some 20-25 hours in will likely linger, leaving you wondering what could have been had Kojima been able to finish the ill-fated Silent Hills (at least P.T. lives on in a cameo). Any appearance from Skull Face works in a similar fashion.

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A kind of character vestige of MGS's old guard and a great foil to Snake, his performance is punctuated by that combination of dramaturgical delivery, menace, and elocution that's propelled so many of the series' villains into the pantheon of video game history. You might argue he's Kojima's last hurrah. And if you don't love how over the top that mask is, you're probably playing the wrong series.

Thanks to his own meta-admission hidden in Ground Zeroes, we now know that Kojima was well aware that MGSV would finally mark the end of Metal Gear Solid. There may be a good chance he realized it even earlier. He knew he wouldn't be around any longer to carry on the series.

It makes sense, in a way, that he would want to go out on such a brazen, audacious, ambitious note as The Phantom Pain—to give players a chance to make their own stories, individually woven into the fibers of the one he shot. Perhaps he thought that easing out of the director's chair for Snake's final mission might somehow make it easier to cope. To say goodbye. Kojima will undoubtedly return, but MGS will live on only in memory.

Our own phantom. You're the Boss, now.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is out now. Read more about the game and the series here.

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