Ashes. That's how the E3 2014 trailer for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain opens. A slow tracking shot over the charred remnants of some terrible violence, burned corpses and blasted wood and blood all mired together in mud. Then in the corner, a credit appears: "Trailer Directed and Edited by Hideo Kojima." What follows is a five-minute, music-led montage of various scenes from the game, pulled and ordered by Kojima as much to tantalize as to depict the inevitable suffering of Snake and his burgeoning private military. Marketing or not, the presented format can't stop the director from telling a story.
Like Metal Gear Solid itself, the lead-up to The Phantom Pain has been anything but subtle. What began with a trick announcement at the 2012 VGAs under the guise of the so-called Moby Dick Studios has led all the way to this dramatic teaser, which ends with a crimson-faced Snake glistening against a background of flames as the words "Coming 1984" pop boldly on screen. No one makes trailers quite like these, in the games industry or probably anywhere else.
Rather than standard sizzle reels of gameplay (gameplay is rarely shown at all) MGS's trailers traditionally rely on film techniques. The camera work of the Fox Engine, editing, sound and music choices, juxtaposition – these are all products of Kojima's overtly cinematic ambitions. Whether he cut together any other MGSV video – before the 1984 trailer, none have made explicit mention of him doing all the legwork himself – his oversight seems assured. There's a notable pushback against typical end-of-video reminders to pre-order for exclusive skins and DLC, replaced by a sense of directorial authorship. When an MGS trailer is over, it just ends.
All of this – thoughts on ownership, Kojima's name on the 1984 trailer (as well as it being removed from MGS's online presence), the sad public unravelling at Konami, much of which continues to be a mystery – weighed heavily on me when I recently had a chance to dig into The Phantom Pain for myself. It still does. The 1984 trailer is probably the last time we'll see MGSV presented through Kojima's eyes until The Phantom Pain's September release; consequently, it felt strange to be sitting inside Konami's LA studio, a building with a conference space appropriately called the "Solidus Room", being among the first to play a game littered with Kojima's fingerprints when the director was nowhere to be found. His absence hung heavily in the room, like his ghost in MGS4. It almost felt like a mercy to keep the focus squarely on picking up a controller and digging in.
So, some conflicted feelings right from the start. At least if you're intimately familiar with standalone prologue Ground Zeroes' Camp Omega, The Phantom Pain is like a (somewhat bittersweet, considering) reunion with an old friend. Of course there are significant aspects of it that I can't discuss, and I wouldn't regardless if I could – the best part of an MGS narrative is to experience it for yourself. That just leaves one big question mark: does The Phantom Pain still feel like A Hideo Kojima Game?
Assuming plans to remove the phrase from its box art continue, yes – in everything except name. You can find Kojima's handiwork and supervision in every sortie that you deploy, each blown out like an oversized Xerox of Ground Zeroes' initial blueprint. By his own words, MGSV's compact introduction was never meant to provide players more than only the slightest taste of what was to come – and that was true enough, as Camp Omega lacked much in the way of cardboard boxes. In practical terms, it makes The Phantom Pain Kojima's fascination with open-world writ large, where riding your horse through the Afghan desert is more than a little like a stealthy Red Dead Redemption.
Yet it's not a typical open-world sandbox that is Kojima's ultimate goal in the same way it is in Far Cry or Grand Theft Auto (the latter of which he's professed to feeling depressed over, twice). Maps aren't arbitrarily limited by pointless activation tasks, nor are they playgrounds just to cause mayhem. There's a balance to be struck in weighing your own freedom against the director's grander vision. It heightens the learning curve on Metal Gear consumption just enough to make you realize that, after 15 hours ¬and more, you've probably barely scratched the surface of what The Phantom Pain is actually about. The story of Big Boss's fall unspools slowly.
Compare that to the claustrophobic enclosures of MGS4's rigid design, where ostensibly large areas often had few variations to get through and roughly half the time in-game interaction meant pressing the X button to trigger a flashback during a cutscene. Instead, open-ended solutions create a stake in ownership, something of a first for the series outside of emotional attachment to characters. Kojima's guiding hand means The Phantom Pain's disparate gameplay and story elements are funnelled into a long, cohesive whole, where narrative purpose is fused even into side ops, bringing incidental story bits and extras into the fold.
"Players will start complaining that they can't clear the game," Kojima famously said last March, when he announced that The Phantom Pain was 200 times the size Ground Zeroes. In an era where players can't be bothered to sit through the entirety of a five-hour FPS campaign, I don't think it was meant as a joke.
Think of that scope, fittingly, more as a culmination of all that Metal Gear Solid has been. Tweaks and ideas that have been forged from as early as 2006's Portable Ops come to fruition through the lens of Peace Walker. Similarly, you'll probably recognize Mother Base's bright orange paint and clean industrial design as a knowing wink to MGS2's Big Shell. Self-awareness and the meta-referential are pervasive, and Ground Zeroes had just the first hints of it. That it comes with the ability to attach wild sheep to Fulton recovery balloons is another signature – despite its seriousness, Metal Gear Solid is nothing if not a factory for ridiculous non-sequiturs.
Sometime over the course of my two days with The Phantom Pain, I almost forgot about Kojima. It wasn't through neglect or his sudden disappearance. I was just in the moment, having fun. And the more I uncovered the depth of Metal Gear Solid's swan song – for as full as MGSV is, there's no reason it shouldn't be – it became clear the game is its developers' farewell to the series, too. Drinking in all I could see, I wasn't thinking about how this was the end, I guess, because for me it isn't; not as long as I can remember it. (Besides, that's the great thing about media – you can always revisit.) Over the closing credits of MGS2, a game obsessed with legacy, Rika Muranaka sang that you can't say goodbye to yesterday, but you can. It's okay to let things end.
One more thing about Mother Base: when you take a tour around the fleshed-out grounds of your HQ after a few construction expansions, you're not just seeing Snake boosting the morale of his men. Kojima is present here too, asking you to pause for a moment to just take in all that you – he, both of you – have built up over the years. With MGSV closing the loop on the Big Boss's timeline, it's all led up to this moment. Assuredly, The Phantom Pain is full of them.
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