There’s spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in this article. Sorry.
In nature there is no such thing as boundless slaughter, there is always an end to it. But you, Snake, are different. The paths you walk on have no end, each step you take is paved with the corpses of your enemies. Their spirits will haunt you forever. You shall have no peace.
– Vulcan Raven, Metal Gear Solid
Huey Emmerich is screaming at the Diamond Dogs as they put him on trial. He’s yelling that he’s one of them. We know that Kazuhira Miller and Revolver Ocelot are torturers, murderers, wet work mercenaries for the highest bidder, international operators beyond the law, and every kind of Soldier of Fortune fantasy that one could have during the height of the Reagan era. They’re bad people. They’re our heroes. Huey Emmerich is screaming that he’s one of them, but that doesn’t do him any favors.
The Metal Gear Solid games used to be separated up into screens. They had doors in and doors out, and whatever happened in the middle added up to something like a puzzle that you had to solve with stealth, gadgets, or guns. As the games went on, those screens got larger, and you had more room to sneak or shoot around enemies with AI routines that became more complex as the series proceeded.
The open world of Metal Gear Solid V drops the puzzle screen structure, and it gives us what every gamer wants these days. It’s an open world where you can do anything you want. Following the pattern of Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 4, you can do whatever you want in this open world. You are beyond the law, fully immersed in an experience where doing the goofiest things the simulation will allow while also pulling off lethal headshots on mercenaries is the name of the game. You can look at YouTube and see thousands of hours of it if you happen to get bored of it yourself.
Unbounded from the past screen-based structures of the designer-god, you can do whatever the hell you want in war-torn countries during their tailspin out of colonial control. You’ve been given the playground you’ve always wanted. Unshackled by morality, you can live life the way you see fit. Watch it happen in slow motion. You’re one of the good guys.
There’s a lot of rage in Metal Gear Solid V. Volgin, resurrected from the grave that Big Boss put him in, is controlled by a literal child. He takes everything that can be thrown at him (bullets, an RPG rocket, tank shell, more) and throws it right back out in a horrifying blast of fire. The child manipulates him like a puppet. The Third Boy, young Psycho Mantis, the pathos-spewing psychic literally scarred by the oppressive world outside his own head, directs Volgin around. We never find out quite how direct that control is.
Is he merely a puppet controlled by a faceless child?
The Metal Gear games play in a middle space of showing you everything and hiding it all. Is there any other series that has inspired critics, forumgoers, and people at bars to attempt to clarify and elucidate things that are directly told to them in the game? I can’t tell you how many criticism pieces I have read about the series that have literally just stated what happened, in what order, and what the game says that those things mean. The game is complex enough that the act of just laying it all out feels like a challenge, but it draws us into a necessary conclusion: the game does the work. What’s the point of doing critical work on an object that does the work for you? Worse yet, what does it mean when the thing does the work better than you could in the first place?
Hideo Kojima, David Cronenberg, Michael Bay.
This game wants to knit the series up, and it’s been a terminal problem that nearly every game in the series has done the work of knitting it up. Kojima’s team always proliferates threads. The knitting never goes quite right. An answer never quite feels like a proper one.
After you wade through hell and complete the game, you’re presented with an audio tape of “The Truth.” It features one of the primary movers of the series, Major Zero, talking to various characters from the series’ history. You figure out their place, or you figure it out a little better, and that’s it.
It feels better that it’s an audio log. There’s no room for artifice here, or at least Kojima and his team and much worse at being artful within the pure audio format. The big budget filmmaking mimicry and the slick camera movement doesn’t translate to a text-based locked room scenario, and it feels more real because of it. You’re being given The Truth. Everyone is hooked into everyone else. In the future, forty years from now, the systems that Zero, Ocelot, Big Boss, and Kaz put into motion will have lives of their own, and Ocelot’s efforts to interpret his mother’s dying wishes in relation to those systems with turn him into a worse villain than his is already. Or we’ll treat him like the villain he already is.
It feels like things are more wrapped up this time.
Quiet is the most competently plotted and written character in the Metal Gear Solid series. It’s purely an effect of how she functions in the plot. She cannot speak English for fear of infecting everyone. She sacrifices herself. She puts herself in harm’s way for Big Boss. She understands the global stakes of the conflicts at hand, and she makes a choice not to embrace the Diamond Dogs’ military apparatus, but instead to care about Big Boss as a person.
There’s an erotic tension between Big Boss, Kaz, and Ocelot. The latter two are constantly at odds, and in the long arc of the series the latter has the former killed, but you feel that it’s almost structured as a jealous dyad. They need the Big Boss’s attention because that attention gives them access to the dreams of the dead Boss–they can build a new world if only they have the right amount of super soldier muscle.
It seems like that’s the story for Big Boss. He’s a vehicle for a verbal meme, a dying wish, and Quiet is the only person who cannot speak her interpretation of that meme. Her story does not need him, and yet she chooses to be involved. Short of the Boss, she might be the only person who generally cares for the man named John in his entire life after the Virtuous Mission.
Brendan Keogh highlights “magical militarism” in the game. He explains that the game infuses a weird occultism of psychics, pseudobiological explanations, and military logistic implementation in a weird synthesis, and that it might be a cornerstone of the series.
On the other end, I might argue that the games are meant to show that the military form can adapt to anything. The very way that an atom bomb functions is basically magical to the average person, doubly so for the people alive when it was being developed, and the magical quality of the series gestures at just that thing. We live in a world of escalating technology sometimes indistinguishable from magic, and so much of it is geared at killing us. The United States can pinpoint the location of people from around the world, and it’s mostly for extralegally killing them from a mile above the surface of the planet.
CIA tests, Nazi occultism, and chemical investigation into the structure of human bodies. The military apparatus will eat anything to produce death, and if there was a psychic child in a mask that could control a giant weapons platform, you can be damned certain that we’d police the world with it.
The Mother Base gets blown up? You make a new one. The ideology of where you are doesn’t suit you? You make a different kind of heaven. The government you work for is escalating the world toward death? You deescalate the conflict with trickery. Can’t recreate a supersoldier? Generate a system for generating supersoldiers. Can’t solve the conflicts of the world? Override it all.
Metal Gear Solid has always been about management, or managing what appears to be unmanageable, and that stretches from spreadsheets to nanomachines to language itself. It’s about attempting to control things on your own terms before things begin to control themselves, and the long 20th century of the games suggests that the things of the world, the networks and information systems, have a much easier time of control than even the most super of soldiers.
If we wrangle it, if we control it, if we set it up the way we want to, what does that do to us? Kazuhira Miller says a lot of horrible words, but they’re words that could have been put in the mouths of lots of different characters in the series. They aren’t only his.
“I chose the language of gratitude instead, and go back to silence.”