Quantcast
The Final Word on ‘The Phantom Pain,’ a Video Game About Video Games

It's one of 2015's greatest commercial and critical hits. Leigh Alexander unpicks what makes 'Metal Gear Solid V' work, and where it goes wrong.

All screenshots captured by Steve Haske, for VICE Gaming's A Song of Metal Gear Solid

This article contains what might be considered plot spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Don't say we didn't warn you.

The prologue of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is grueling. You are a legendary soldier, woken from a nine-year coma with your arm missing and your muscles turned to jelly. You crawl along the hospital floor not for stealth, as is tradition, but because at first you cannot stand, bare skin squeaking helplessly along a blood-slicked floor.

The building is concussed by unknown invaders, and while you uselessly hide, you see staff members coldly gunned down right before your eyes, helpless teams of workers hitting the floor. You flop wetly over their mangled bodies—at one point crawling right past a wheelchair which you cannot seem to interact with or use, placed there almost like a taunt.

In the nine years you've been in the coma, your own employees, the soldiers of a rogue mercenary group called Militaires Sans Frontières, have been struggling to rebuild after the attack that left you disabled. The original purpose of their mission is now lost, muddled in revenge fantasies and their longing for your return. You must rebuild your base and its forces, alone in the middle of the sea, answering to no government, only to the higher call of combat.

One of your first tasks as a player is to learn the spread sheet-like interface by which you will manage your base and its private forces for the duration of the game. STAFF MANAGEMENT, it's called.

In the months before Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain launched, widespread news reports alleged deplorable working conditions at Konami, the massive veteran Japanese corporation that has long published the Metal Gear games—and employed their auteur, Hideo Kojima. Staff were said to be severely disciplined for innocuous social media activity, worked under continuous surveillance, and could be reassigned from office work to cleaning and factory jobs if they were deemed noncompliant or useless.

Since the very first Metal Gear of 1987, the series has been preoccupied with the idea of a sacred base of operations. Almost all its plot threads—which sustain admirably right up through the latest game in 2015—lead to the formation of a stateless mercenary body that lives and operates in isolation, obeying only the pure law of the battlefield. The series has several variations on this theme ("Outer Heaven," "Outer Haven," "Zanzibar Land," "Mother Base,") and episodes always include units of highly specialized, potentially even supernaturally gifted soldiers devoted to their own stateless codes.

In the games, the foundation of these sacred spaces is always a response to the betrayal of these specialized soldiers by their leadership or their nation of origin, and often both. Players are always led through Metal Gear games by a trusted advisor whose true nature or motives are later revealed to have been treacherous, and the characters are as decimated by acts of war as they are by these breaches of faith.

The themes of Kojima's work have always suggested he has worn the implicit obligation to "save" the traditional Japanese console industry at times proudly, and at times uneasily.

In 2005 Kojima formed his own studio, Kojima Productions, as a subsidiary of Konami. While Metal Gear Solid V, a game about managing and nurturing staff on a "Mother Base" in the middle of the ocean, was being made, 2015 Nikkei reports said Kojima Productions employees were being isolated: their computers were disconnected from the internet, with only internal messages allowed.

On some level, Kojima's games have always been plaintive messages in a bottle from inside the world of video game development. 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was the absurd story of a prematurely aged super-soldier, groaning and joint-cracking through a desert hellscape of automated soldiers and international technology arms races. It was also the jewel in Sony's PlayStation 3 launch plans, which were troubled by the meteoric rise of the Western Xbox brand and the smooth Gulf War first-person shooters that were its vanguard. Japan's long-held console market edge was being eaten alive by auto-aim and American military realism. The character of "Old Snake" in Metal Gear Solid 4, a self-conscious, ailing relic masochistically compelled to one "final" mission in a world that had forgotten him, could have been a stand-in for Kojima himself. The themes of his work have always suggested he has worn the implicit obligation to "save" the traditional Japanese console industry at times proudly, and at times uneasily.

For the development of Metal Gear Solid V, Kojima Productions ran a hiring campaign beginning in 2012 called "Development Without Borders," reaching out to the international game-making community for resumes. It was a gentle concession to the struggles Japanese developers faced on the console market; financial analysts and the game press alike continually urged teams like Konami's to "Westernize," to work more closely with North American and European studios and adopt their ideals and methods in order to survive. Kojima Productions recorded all MGS V's facial and voice performances in English first, divorcing the series from its native Japanese for the first time.

The resulting game is about the Militaires Sans Frontières, a scrappy solo mercenary group that ultimately takes the name "Diamond Dogs." As staff abuses allegedly went on behind Konami's curtain of silence, each mission in MGS V was given its own individual credits sequence, including each person who worked on the episode, as if to address the industry's on-going tendency to attribute massive projects to single individuals—a particular issue with Metal Gear Solid titles, where Kojima's name is given an unprecedented primacy (even in this article).

Ultimately, however, The Phantom Pain's major plot thread turns out to concern a virus that affects only English speakers, and the primary antagonist, "Skull Face," is driven by a deep, principled aversion to Western imperialism. He fears that any concept of international "world peace" would be culturally American—and therefore undesirable.

Whatever you make of that, MGS V, perhaps even more than MGS 4, is a video game about video games. This article comparing Kojima to author Jonathan Franzen says the staff management sections "might be fun if you were expecting Metal Gear to be a human resources simulator from hell"—but of course you should have expected that. When you shunt troublesome staff away from specialized units and into quarantines, or when you logically begin to treat low-grade "D rank" personnel as disposable cannon fodder, how can you not draw an analogue with what the director and his staff may have endured if those workplace reports are true?

That The Phantom Pain is absolutely Kojima's "best" work—eminently playable, open, graceful, funny, efficiently relegating most of the director's self-indulgent quirks to optional territory—almost feels like a triumphant last laugh. It is defiantly massive, eating up hours of playtime only to inform you that you're merely some marginal percent closer to completion. At the game's opening screen, that completion percentage hangs prominently next to a distinctly exhausted and disillusioned-looking hero, as if to casually toss the consumer demand for "hours and hours of gameplay" back into its thoughtless, open mouth.

Time itself is a mechanic, in-game days and hours ticking and yawning into some forever-maw while you wait for it to be night so that you can attack. You are sometimes forced to halt your advance, lying on a hillside in the shadows, until some component has been created or some supply drop has arrived. This is a game so expansive and so impeccable that you know it swallowed nearly every spare hour of a good few hundred people's lives to get made. You can see the chasm of its ambition in all of the pieces of the story that are unglued, unfinished, bare struts, and scaffolding. You feel complicit.

Article continues after the video below

Is your team called the "Diamond Dogs" because you have to mindlessly hunt for wild gems that will make your resources increase by numbers that start to feel meaningless the longer you play? Ruefully you become keyed to onscreen sparkles, just like in the blingy, touchable, free-to-play mobile games that Konami is counting on to sustain its business. Or is a "Diamond Dog" a staff member hardened by trauma, excellence wrung from it in a crucible of inconceivable pressure?

The way you greet your employees on Mother Base is to hit them, or to knock them to the ground. They like it. It increases their morale.

Kojima has famously and repeatedly threatened to stop making Metal Gear Solid games over the years, but for some reason has been unable. Each one seems to eke just a little closer to what we the audience assume must be his grand vision, repeating the same characters, memes, touchstones, and call signs with an inexplicable determination (MGS V is full of self-aware references to Moby Dick). He has been accused of hating his fans, closing down Metal Gear Solid 4 with a non-interactive cutscene some 90 minutes long during a time when such scenes were enjoying peak derision in design circles; he is assumed to be grotesquely self-indulgent, trapped in a memetic loop of his own ideas he can't escape.

Lots of people even think his success is entirely accidental, stitched haphazardly together from scenes he stole from action movies like Escape from New York and Mission: Impossible. This could be the case; I've used the phrase "the hero" throughout this piece because I cannot expect any reader to take fiction that names its characters "Big Boss" and "Solid Snake" seriously without context. Kojima is also, assuredly, a leering pervert who puts unnecessary breast physics, nude scenes, and first-person ogle cameras in all his games.

In the latter regard, MGS V's Quiet is his worst offense yet. A pneumatic, mostly naked sniper who is either unwilling to speak or incapable of speech—presumably designed to sell action figures and desk models—her character design drew pointed critique right from its first reveal. Modern audiences no longer tolerate commercialistic sexual objectification in video games, not even with the "cultural differences" clause once applied to forgive Japanese developers—but even worse was Kojima's teasing tweet about how critics will be ashamed of [their] words and deeds upon learning Quiet's reason for eschewing clothes.

Spoiler alert: Quiet cannot wear clothes because she breathes through her skin, a stupid magical fiction mutation on par with Metal Gear characters who dodge bullets or control bees. This is hardly a shame-inducing revelation.

At the same time, it's tough to believe that Kojima, whose work acts as shrewd, delicate metafiction just as often as it acts as a vehicle for boob jokes, truly thought it would be. Despite the fact he cannot stop creeping, at times seriously problematically, on his women characters, he has nonetheless drawn some of big commercial video games' most diverse and striking anti-heroines. With Quiet, intentionally or otherwise, he created the fascinating circumstance whereby a slew of editorial, some of it published long before the game's actual launch, self-righteously dissected the body, sexuality, and purpose of a woman who had no literal voice; no means of reply or self-explication.

Not even Metal Gear Solid V seems to know who its hero really is, its final act punctuated by infighting, duplicity, and more lectures on the perils of trusting your leaders.

As a long-suffering feminist in video games, the experience of being bombarded online by men eager to cover this woman up—and then to explain to me, unsolicited, what "objectification" meant and why it was bad—has been uniquely disconcerting. People wanted to know more about why Quiet was naked than why she was silent, which is fascinating when it occurs to you that its well-documented culture of silence is what allows labor abuses in game development to go unchecked.

I might be reaching. I must be. We can notice these things, but we cannot say for sure that they are purposeful. Is Kojima a traumatized creative, a canny participant in the exploitation engine, or just a grinning idiot? Naive film fanatic, master manipulator, slavering creep, martyr for the Japanese industry's heyday, or a quiet leader who wants an island for himself and his staff to achieve their purest vision?

Not even Metal Gear Solid V seems to know who its hero really is, its final act punctuated by infighting, duplicity, and more lectures on the perils of trusting your leaders. Your very identity as the hero comes into doubt. Maybe your legend, your reputation, can be passed around as easily as a job title after all—the first glimpses of MGS V were teased by a completely made-up person of Kojima's own invention. You spend the game extracting gifted personnel from imprisonment and human rights violations; in one unlockable mission, an undeniable bit of commentary, you rescue Kojima himself.

Related, on Motherboard: The Technological Alt-History of Metal Gear Solid

My favorite game in the Metal Gear canon is Metal Gear Solid 3. At the end, the hero has assassinated his rogue mentor, The Boss, as part of a grand conspiracy to de-escalate the Cold War. You learn, to your horror, that The Boss was complicit in your plot, and that she sacrificed herself to the success of your mission and to the larger cause of world peace. You are welcomed into the US president's office and applauded for your success. But when the president extends his hand, you refuse to shake it.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain made $179 million on the day of its launch, a rarefied performance by modern standards. Attempts had been made to scrub Kojima's very name from the marketing materials. According to Simon Parkin's report in the New Yorker, neither Konami president Hideki Hayakawa nor its CEO, Sadaaki Kaneyoshi, were seen at Kojima's farewell party. The company continues to deny Kojima's departure, or that his studio will be shut down.

Follow Leigh on Twitter.