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Metal Gear Solid Has Always Been About The Busywork of War

The world of Metal Gear repeats, over and over again, with minimal differences.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Jul 20 2018, 9:32pm

All images courtesy Konami

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise has always played with repetition and recreation in weird ways. Whether it’s the VR missions simulating the Shadow Moses events of Metal Gear Solid, the real-life simulation that is Metal Gear Solid 2, and the repeated character types and individual characters who just keep managing to show up. All of this is couched in pseudo-philosophical debates about what it means to repeat the past. Is it in our genes? Can we truly swerve from the past to create something new? What is handed down to us? What do we make ourselves?

I’ve been replaying Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain very slowly over the past several weeks. It is a game that is strangely positioned in this cycle of repetition. It is the bridge point between the postwar story about Big Boss that began with Metal Gear Solid III: Snake Eater and the contemporary, Solid Snake-centered, Metal Gear Solid. From the perspective of the series, this is the point where time becomes cyclical, establishing Revolver Ocelot, Big Boss, and his clone children as the figures that this entire universe pivots around.

The world of Metal Gear repeats, over and over again, with minimal differences, and Metal Gear Solid V is the first game in the series that delivers on the promise of repetition as a way of interacting with the world. To put it bluntly, Metal Gear Solid V understands that repetition is drudgery, that it is soul-sucking, that it saps you of energy and enthusiasm, and then it demands that you dig down into that muck and live there.

The missions are the muck. In MGSV, you’re presented with a list of possible things for Big Boss to do. Some of them are story missions, and others are side content that is meant to build up your base, give you more soldiers, or to put pressure on your enemies in the regions that you are fighting in. All of this is in service to increasing the power and capability of Mother Base, the staging platform from which your private military operation can do clandestine military operations around the world.

These missions plop you into one of two open worlds: Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region in central Africa. In these open worlds, the game takes a design stance that is closer to an immersive sim than it is something like an Ubisoft open world game. Big Boss has his equipment and your skills, and each mission is solved with your own personal application of that equipment to the world around you.

Want to run and gun? Make it happen. Want to be completely sneaky and never seen? Crawl on your belly, buster. Want to do the silliest things imaginable like riding a cardboard box down a mountain and into an enemy base? This is within the realm of possibility.

At first, the variability of approaches makes repeating missions and going to the same locations feel novel. Main story missions often have Big Boss heading to the same villages, huts, and small bergs along the dirt roads of Afghanistan, and you slowly begin to learn the routes that enemies might take and what buildings they might be gathered around. Similarly, the side missions take those same locations and place extractable soldiers, collectable resources, blueprints, and taking out tanks and heavily armed guards. There’s nothing surprising about this, of course, because this is exactly how open world games tend to work.

It’s all repetition, but it’s slight. Helicopter in, see the same village you’ve been to a dozen times, and then extract yourself from the hot zone.

The real replicative action comes from the side missions. They are cleanly labeled: “Prisoner Extraction 02” or “Eliminate the Tank Unit 11.” The locales change, but the tasks stay the same, a rote list of things that Big Boss has to do in order to keep the operations at Mother Base continuing onward and upward.

More brilliantly, though, is that the game offers these side operations more than once. After completing “Prisoner Extraction 02,” for example, the mission is greyed out. You extracted that prisoner. But a couple of gameplay hours later, that mission becomes available again. The mission area is the same, the prisoner is in the same place, and the guards are in the same place. Playing this mission is pure repetition. There are no differences. You are doing this content again.

To the game’s credit, this is the narrative about secret warfare and contracted military groups that it is trying to tell. The work of military operations is repetitive. It is the same set of conditions and rules applied to different operations. Big Boss is someone doing a job; he is not heroic. To read him as a hero who somehow goes beyond himself into the world of legend is to misread him in the same way that his children and the rest of the world do in the games beyond Metal Gear Solid.

The magical and nanomachine-infused story of the Metal Gear franchise is often about spectacle, but if there is something in the series that transcends its roots as an action movie worship franchise, then it is these moments of recognition that what is being depicted is not actually great, important, helpful, or good. In basically all analysis, Big Boss and every other member of the Mother Base collective are terrible people who are functionally making the world worse in lots of ways.

The way they enact their plans, build themselves up, and gather the basic resources to deploy their plans is through work. It’s repetition, that drudgery of soldier collection and resource extraction, that enables that to happen. And unlike Peace Walker, where that was abstracted out into some menus without much context, the open world of Metal Gear Solid V allows the game to sell that repetitive work as something for Big Boss and the player to sit through and weather.

It is heartening to me that what we’ve seen of Death Stranding so far focuses on work.

Delivering packages, balancing above chasms, and avoiding enemies that might kill you all ride that edge between repetitive labor and the thrill of doing new things in a world you’re unfamiliar with. If Hideo Kojima and his team used work as leverage to show the repetitive nature of Big Boss’s political project in Metal Gear Solid V, then maybe we’ll get to see it operating in a similar way in their upcoming and enigmatic work.

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