After years of speculation, hype, internal drama, and a series of incredibly well made trailers, the final installment of the Metal Gear saga is here. I discussed the drama and the first part of the game in my review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, an hour and a half long prelude (sold separately) leading into the events of the full game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and won’t rehash them here.
Phantom Pain has its own issues; a couple of major plot points get dropped towards the end, including the entire conclusion of a major character’s arc (don’t watch this if you haven’t played the game), while other major conversations are stuck in optional tapes instead of into the game’s nicely directed cutscenes. Save/retry checkpoints are often inconveniently placed. Travel across large areas can be tedious, thanks to a fairly sloppy fast travel system that requires you to return to your mobile command center more often than I’d like, and the online base defense/invasion system feels half-baked. And in spite of all these things: This is my favorite game of 2015.
Click here for a Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain screen shot gallery
This review contains spoilers, which will be marked as they become more and more major. If you don’t want to know a single thing, you shouldn’t be reading a review/criticism of the game yet anyway. The first two paragraphs cover the game’s insane opening hour, but after that, spoilers will be limited as gameplay is discussed. After that, we’re on our way to crazy town.
Awakening: V Has Come To
The year is 1984. Nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes, the legendary soldier Snake/Big Boss awakens from a coma to the sound of Midge Ure’s 1982 cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. His Military Without Borders has been destroyed, his friends are gone, and he’s left disfigured, with a scarred up face, a missing arm, and a giant piece of shrapnel sticking out of his skull. Once his enemies find out he’s alive and awake, a murder squad is sent to the hospital to take him out, leading to a nightmarish escape sequence with the aid of a faceless friend and under the pursuit of both an enemy army and a burning, undead husk with a grudge. Accompanying The Man on Fire is a young psychic who will later grow up to be Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis. The young Mantis plays a major role in a lot of the game’s most surreal moments.
This whole sequence serves as a basic tutorial for the game’s combat, stealth, and movement. At about an hour long, it’s probably the best prologue sequence I’ve seen in a game, and does a phenomenal job thrusting you into the confused, damaged madness of Big Boss’s mind. While I don’t think Ground Zeroes should have been sold as a separate $30 title, its content wouldn’t have made nearly as strong of an opening as the hospital prologue does here. It’s pretty, intense, and horrific, and ends with Big Boss Fan Boy #1 Revolver Ocelot playing the role of the knight in shining armor, saving Big Boss and spiriting him off to safety aboard his noble steed. Between this episode, a brilliantly upsetting late-game mission involving infected soldiers, and the now dead P.T. project, I’d love nothing more than to see writer/director Hideo Kojima’s next title be a full horror game.
After pumping some iron with Ocelot and getting a flashy new robot arm, Big Boss gets back into action, heading into Afghanistan to rescue his former second in command, Kazuhira Miller. This large, open countryside serves as the location for the majority of the game’s episodes, with a detour into Africa later on. Players can approach objectives from any direction, and with a huge variety of options. From non-lethal weapons to loud guns and air-dropped tanks to perfect stealth to a variety of traps (including inflatable balloon Snakes) to fighting with only your macho fists, Phantom Pain offers more variety and solutions than any prior Metal Gear title.
There’s a lot of story present here, but don’t expect the hour long cutscenes of the previous Metal Gear Solid titles. The movies are mostly kept short, and are tightly written and framed. Phantom Pain’s cinematography is a massive step up from previous games in the series, and stands above almost anything else in the medium right now. My only issue with it is that far too much crucial story information is hidden away in tapes you unlock after completing missions. Some of them are quite good, and I’d love to see them fully acted out! Whether these scenes were relegated to audio-only as a budget, time, or creative choice is unknown, but it’s a let down, especially since this game’s facial-captured acting is actually extremely impressive. It’s also unfortunate that a major side story is hidden behind a door on your base’s Medical Platform, where most players wouldn’t look since almost no other doors on the base are accessible.
Snake In: Afghanistan’s a Big Place
This isn’t an “open world” game in the sense of a Grand Theft Auto or Fallout title; you’re not wandering around an immense landscape with hundreds of doodads to collect or minigames to screw around with or hidden stories to uncover. Collectibles (the best being 80’s pop/new wave song tapes) are kept entirely inside of the outposts you visit and the only thing you’ll find in the wilderness are animals to capture for your zoo. The open environment is fairly barren, but is there for atmosphere and for allowing you to properly plan out infiltration missions from numerous directions. Don’t go into it expecting a meaty, open world experience. Instead, think of the land itself as a weapon in your arsenal.
Players get around by calling in a helicopter, which can also be used for combat support, though doing so is costly and keeps you from getting perfect marks on a mission. Once you’re up in the air, you can manage resources, plan your next mission, or return to Mother Base, an off-shore platform where Big Boss’s new mercenary unit, the Diamond Dogs, is rapidly growing. By capturing (and presumably brainwashing) enemy soldiers, taking in volunteers, and rescuing POWs, Diamond Dogs grows in size and strength, and players can choose which department each soldier gets assigned to, how to expand the base, and which weapons and items to devote resources to researching.
There’s some wait time on developing top level weapons, but most others can be developed instantly, as long as you’ve gathered enough resources/earned enough money on missions to afford them. Soldiers can be sent on automated combat missions to earn you resources, but be careful sending groups of fresh, low ranking soldiers into dangerous situations. The base management is simple, but more satisfying than the previous game, Peace Walker’s, since you can walk around it freely and listen in on all of your comrades’ weird conversations.
Players can also swap in a combat team soldier to take Big Boss’s place on missions, but it’s mostly an aesthetic choice. The dialogue still treats the character as Big Boss, and his regular model replaces them in major cutscenes anyway. Still, it’s nice for variety every now and then. These soldiers have unique stats and abilities, but they don’t really make too big of a difference.
Guns of the Patriots
I found it incredibly satisfying to carefully scout the area, mark each guard (allowing their position to be seen from anywhere nearby,) sneak through outposts, abduct everyone, and send them sailing back home to my floating funny farm full of weirdos and goats. The game is very playable as a pure shooter, but if you’re not sticking Fulton Recovery balloons on the back of everything that isn’t nailed down, you’re missing out on a ton of resources and leaving behind plenty of evidence of your intrusion. That said, I definitely went lethal when I was cornered and had no other hope of getting out alive, or when fighting helicopters and tanks (until I got good enough to sneak up on and balloon those back to base for later use too.)
The boss fights in this game are good, though I would have liked a few more. They’re a huge step up from the tedious tank bosses of Peace Walker, but not quite as weird and fun as the bosses of Metal Gear Solid 3. There’s a couple of great encounters with enemy snipers, the mandatory giant mecha fight, and several run-ins with the Skull Unit, a sort of combination cyber-zombie/Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Skulls are a horrifying enemy when first encountered, and when you finally learn how to properly take them out and time your hand-to-hand counter attacks it’s remarkably satisfying. A fun fact about the Skulls is that they travel in mist and fog, a sort of Silent Hill-meets-Metal Gear form of relentless horror. As Davis Bowie says in 1974’s Diamond Dogs: “You’ll catch your death in the fog.”
You’ve got plenty of options, and it’s fun to freely change your strategy on the fly as the situation demands. If you need different weapons, take them from a guard or call in a supply drop. If you use the same tactics too often (infiltrating at night, sniping headshots, shotgunning everything) enemy soldiers will adapt and switch up their own gear. You can counter this by practicing a variety of infiltration styles, or by sending your troops out to sabotage enemy supply centers.
Your play style also changes as you meet and recruit a couple of combat buddies. Big Boss begins with a faithful horse who can thankfully teleport to you when whistled to, and the horse is great for crossing open terrain quickly. Soon after the game opens up, you can find a lost wolf cub who grows into the lovable D. Dog, an excellent companion for marking enemies from a distance (and later, taking on a combat role of his own.) A mechanical Walker Gear vehicle/weapon can be developed which speeds around making funny sounds, but is expensive and not as useful as the other buddies.
Tactical Internet Action
Later in the game, players can defend their optional Forward Operating Base from other players online or invade other players’ bases. It’s a fascinating system; you can rob players of soldiers, resources, and weapons, but doing so opens you up to a direct retaliation from that player. Your base can be attacked any time; if you’re currently playing a mission, you can fly home to defend it, but otherwise, you’re reliant on your recruits and the gear you’ve developed for them. Similarly, you can rush to defend bases of players you’ve formed a partnership with (stupidly, you cannot use your Playstation friends list for this, and rely on a separate, in-game list.)
The bases aren’t well designed, so it’s not a ton of fun to play long-term, but it’s not a bad distraction and the rewards can be pretty huge. What’s more interesting is the thematic value of these missions; the online mechanics make a better argument about deterrents in war than
the game’s actual story does, and I love that. As a player, I’m extremely hesitant to
attack a base of someone with a high level of skill or defense, because if I fail I’m
terrified of them retaliating and ruining me. It’s a perfect marriage of game play and story themes, and while it’s probably the weakest part of the game, it does a great job eliminating play/story disconnect.
A complete Metal Gear Online game is coming at some point in October as a free content patch. I loved the PS2 and PS3 versions of Metal Gear Online, so I’m excited to check it out, but at the same time I’m worried about it getting much post-launch support. Still, it’s all just a nice bonus on top of an incredibly good single-player game.
Here come the spoilers: I’ll be discussing each major character one by one and how I felt they contributed to the story. I’m saving the biggest (Big Boss himself) for the end.
The final buddy who assists you in combat is Quiet, a sniper whose costume (or lack thereof) has been an issue of controversy. Her costume is dumb (just putting her in an actual bikini would look less ridiculous), she unfortunately gets leered at by the camera more than necessary, and the reason for her nudity is a dumb-funny bit of pseudoscience written to ensure that she has to be almost naked. Just outright saying, “She won’t keep her clothes on, no one knows why” and making it more the character’s choice would probably be better. If you’re curious: It’s because she’s photosynthetic, just like The End in Metal Gear Solid 3, an old man sniper who didn’t need to be naked all the time.
But ultimately, in spite of the controversy and her outfit, she’s sexualized less than many female game characters. There are almost no suggestive comments, and instead, she’s feared by the crew for her deadly sniping/camouflage abilities and her refusal to speak. You don’t hear anything like the idiotic sexual threats the enemy thugs throw at Catwoman in Batman: Arkham City. Quiet’s a powerful person, equally feared and respected, and has good chemistry with the often silent Big Boss. She’s stuck in a dumb suit, but Quiet still gets a hell of a lot more respect as a character than, say, the women of the Mass Effect games, with their bizarre sex-as-a-reward dialogue puzzles, or the “everyone in the world wants to sleep with the hero” women of the Witcher games.
Quiet is no one’s prize, and while she does assert herself through violence, it feels like a natural part of how Big Boss and his clan of psychopaths assert themselves, rather than a dumb, misguided attempt at feminism as seen in characters like Black Widow in Joss Whedon’s Avengers, who shows she’s tough by Kicking Men Hard (while tied to a chair in a cute dress.) There’s more to writing a strong woman than just having her hit larger men, and while Quiet isn’t revolutionary, she’s absolutely a compelling character, and one of the best realized in this story. It’s a big step up from the embarrassment of Paz in Metal Gear Peace Walker and the dull Beauty and the Beast unit in Metal Gear Solid 4. Quiet’s blend of sexual and death imagery works well for the story this game’s trying to tell.
The topic of death brings us to the game’s villain, the aptly named Skull Face. A burned up man in a fancy suit and a Zorro mask, Skull Face was a top officer working for Cipher, a secret military organization founded by Major Zero, Big Boss’s commanding officer in Metal Gear Solid 3. Zero and Big Boss went their separate ways, Zero is mysteriously absent, and Skull Face is on the rampage, using science and magic to rule/destroy as he sees fit. He’s an amazingly hammy character, full of theatrical flourishes and campy monologues. He’s also very different from the dark, scary man he’s introduced as in Ground Zeroes, though he still does get one or two creepy moments.
Skull Face is both Big Boss’s doppelganger and his opposite. Both men got their start working for Zero, and both operate their own private armies in the shadows of world conflict. While Big Boss fights to maintain his own heaven for soldiers separate from the world’s nations, Skull Face schemes to unite the world under a nutty, nutty plan involving language control. The generally silent Big Boss (played by Keifer Sutherland this time, replacing series veteran David Hayter. Sutherland does a good job, but doesn’t have a ton of dialogue to work with) is shown in stark contrast to the wordy, scene-chewing skeleton man from Transylvania.
Nowhere is this more evident (or funnier) than a long jeep ride the two take together, where Skull Face monologues out his evil plan to a Big Boss who stares off into the distance, barely listening. Skull Face expects a response from Big Boss; instead, he gets silence, and the two share an awkward, uncomfortable ride the rest of the way. No “you’ll never get away with this,” no “you’re insane,” no “your philosophy stinks, dracula-mummy-zombie man.” Just a bored stare. Sorry, Skull Face, Boss just isn’t into you.
Skull Face intends to unite the world by destroying the English language. As a child, he moved from country to country, each new home destroyed by war, each new destination the home of a new language. Business and the war economy is controlled by people speaking the English language, and he attempts to strike down the language itself through the use of magical Vocal Cord Parasites which infest hosts and trigger death when specific languages are used. Years of experiments in Africa have led him to finally develop an English-language kill strain. With the collapse of major languages, the world’s people would unite not through their words, but by their actions. No more in-group speak that identifies you as part of the clique, no more hateful slurs, no more verbal manipulation. And in a way, the silent bond between Big Boss and Quiet suggests that maybe on some level, he’s not entirely wrong. His fury at American hegemony is misguided, but not misplaced, and the game flows with this bitterness.
The parasite plan presumably mutates into Metal Gear Solid’s FOXDIE, perfected to the point of being able to target and kill specific individuals rather than ethnic groups.
Of course it’s a crazy plan; it’s being howled by a living corpse-man who loves hamming it up and doesn’t realize the irony of destroying language while loving nothing more than monologuing. But this series isn’t focused on realism, and the abstraction of Skull Face’s plans does have decent meaning behind it. He’s absolutely a monster, but he lashes out from the pain of rejection, alienation, and isolation he’s felt over the decades of his life as a result of his own native tongue being robbed from him. Within the madness of this world, he’s a very believable man who does entice some degree of sympathy. At the same time, he’s also had a giant, nuclear robot built and plans on selling miniature nukes worldwide that he’ll secretly control the triggers to. He’s not a stable guy.
Another man robbed of his language as a child, Code Talker is an unnaturally long-lived Navajo scientist who was forced to learn English and adopt the ways of white culture. He bears much of the same resentment as Skull Face, and takes a great deal of interest in the Vocal Cord Parasites. However, he’s a more humane figure, and while he’s driven to develop a horrible biological weapon both by force and by pure curiosity, he doesn’t want to see any language or ethnic groups cleansed from the Earth. He helps Big Boss stop the spread of the parasites among his own men, and is crucial in the defeat of Skull Face’s plans.
Code Talked defies media Native American stereotypes, which is especially rare to see in a video game. He doesn’t speak in broken English, he focuses on both spirituality and science, and isn’t there to make any grand “nature is better than technology” statement. Like Quiet, he has his own motivations and doesn’t really need saving. He signs a deal with the devil to protect his own culture, but doesn’t ever rely on a White Savior figure. He’s a subtle man, simultaneously angry and determined. He also really loves hamburgers and gives Miller a ton of crap for being a bad chef.
On the other side of the Mad Scientist coin is Dr. Emmerich, the father of a young boy who will grow up to be Otacon, Solid Snake’s awkward buddy in Metal Gear Solid 1/2/4. Like Code Talker, Emmerich talks a big game about not wanting his inventions to be used for war. However, he’s absolutely in love with building deadly war machines. The only time he’s truly happy is when he’s working on mechanical horrors, and while Skull Face forced him to work, he’s incredibly proud of the massive new Metal Gear, Sahelanthropus.
The construction of Sahelanthropus itself is a bit of a joke. American military waste is a well studied, but continuously unresolved, topic, and Emmerich’s giant machine feels like a commentary on America’s military bravado. Sahelanthropus is gigantic, flashy, intimidating; and ultimately useless. It can’t move properly and neither an AI system nor a live pilot can figure out how to use it in any worthwhile way. It is, in effect, a hundred-foot tall, billion dollar pile of scrap, at least until Skull Face finds a secret weapon: He takes in the young Psycho Mantis and uses him to pilot the machine telekinetically, kicking Emmerich to the curb. This enormous time and money sink is so preposterous that the only possible way to even get it working is to invoke literal magic.
Emmerich is played sympathetically, but is an absolute weasel. Nine years ago, Emmerich welcomed a UN nuclear inspection of the original Mother Base, which ended up being a ruse by Skull Face to wreck up the joint and kill everyone, with the exception of Emmerich himself, who was kept quite safe. Miller blames him entirely for what happened, but the player is, at first, left to wonder whether it was all just a big misunderstanding. Later, it becomes more and more obvious that Emmerich really only cares about his own self-preservation, and will do and say whatever it takes to look out for himself. He’s not a villain, but he’s a scumbag.
Emmerich’s a man with no convictions, motivated entirely by a love of death. He talks about peace, but joins Diamond Dogs (against Miller’s wishes) and quickly builds a new weapon platform, the Battle Gear (which sadly never gets used in the plot, even once,) while calling everyone else a hypocrite. We learn that he years prior, he used his infant son in the testing of the Sahelanthropus drive system, to the horror of his partner/Otacon’s mother, Peace Walker’s Dr. Stangelove. Strangelove conveniently turns up dead inside an AI pod in Emmerich’s lab shortly thereafter. On a later acquired tape, Strangelove gets a ten minute, one-woman show, recording her final thoughts inside the pod. It’s one of the best moments of acting in the game. We don’t get all the details of what happened, but suffice it to say, Emmerich’s the most easy to loathe madman in a world filled with lunatics; Skull Face and Big Boss may be crazy, but at least they know they’re monsters.
Props to Kojima this time around for writing Emmerich Sr. as a very, very different character from his son, Otacon. His story in Peace Walker did a poor job at that.
Miller and Ocelot
Much of Phantom Pain is Kazuhira Miller’s story. After being captured by Skull Face’s army before the events of the game, Miller is tortured to near death, losing both an arm and a leg. He refuses to wear prosthetics, choosing instead to endure his suffering and allow it to boil into the vengeance that drives his every move within Diamond Dogs. He’s been driven to the brink, and is liable to snap at any moment, and plays the devil on Big Boss’s shoulder, leading him towards doom. A desperate “Kaz, tell me what to do” from Big Boss early on after rescuing Miller cements his place in Boss’s psyche. When they finally confront and kill Skull Face, Big Boss hesitated; Miller then grabs his arm and guides it back in Skull Face’s direction.
Ocelot, who we first met in Metal Gear Solid 3 as an arrogant youth who loved to meow and show off his sick gun juggling skills, returns to Big Boss’s side 20 years later as an older, wiser man, who we know from the other games will later become a buffoonish, torture-happy cowboy. He still treats torture as an art here, but does so with no glee. He’s all business, and doesn’t let emotion get in the way; not his desire for vengeance, and not his love for Big Boss. He plays the role of the angel on Big Boss’s shoulder, pushing him to show mercy and think things through instead of rushing in guns blazing. It’s funny that a character known in the other Metal Gear titles as a notorious double (and sometimes triple) crosser is the most honest character in the game. He does live one big lie that we’ll get to in Big Boss’s section, but he never for a second betrays Big Boss, or even considers it.
Miller has more of a complete plot arc than Ocelot, and after Skull Face’s defeat becomes even more paranoid and broken, putting up BIG BOSS IS WATCHING signs all over base and being a general fear-mongering nut, spreading distrust among the men. It’s a blunt “revenge solves nothing” message, but it’s played out well. More than just Big Boss, Miller and Ocelot’s attitudes infect every soldier on Mother Base, with some showing level-headed behavior while others call for the death of anyone whose trust is in doubt. Aside from Ocelot, everyone in Diamond Dogs, from Quiet to Miller to the grunts to Big Boss himself, feels like they’re on the verge of a mental breakdown, and need their private war to keep going in order to stay sane. Miller embodies the rage of the brainwashed, beaten soldiers that inhabit Mother Base, while Ocelot does as much as humanly possible to keep that rage in check. The two make a good pair.
Eli and Mantis
The two children most central to Phantom Pain’s story are Eli, a child soldier who has taken control of a small group in Africa, and The Third Child, the psychic boy who grows up to be the telekinetic Psycho Mantis. Both are kids without a family, filled with rage; Eli lashes out constantly (and feebly) while Mantis absorbs the anger of those around him, using it to create physical manifestations of their hate and fear. When Skull Face uses his powers to control the Sahelanthropus, Mantis doesn’t seem to take pleasure in it, nor does he resent it; he just seems otherworldly.
It’s not surprising that Eli turns out to be Liquid Snake, one of the two clones of Big Boss created by Major Zero’s organization. He’s an angry blonde child who won’t give up no matter how many times he gets punched out, he forms his own Lord of the Flies society in the image of Big Boss’s Outer Heaven ideal, and he has a snake-themed nickname, The White Mamba. Eli’s futile rage is frustrating in a funny way as the kid just gets relentlessly defeated every time he tries something stupid.
The biggest problem here is that we don’t get to see Eli’s story arc conclude. After the big battle’s over and Skull Face is gone, Eli and Mantis (who have become sort of friends in a weird, rage-symbiosis way, a companionship that adds more weight to seeing them still hanging out years later in Metal Gear Solid) steal the husk of Sahelanthropus and a sample of the English-language Vocal Cord Parasites and ride off into the sunset. Leaving the two most deadly weapons in the world in the hands of two angry children is an obvious recipe for disaster, but we never see what will come of it, since Mission 51 is cut from the final game.
The whole epilogue chapter (misleadingly named Chapter 2) feels rushed and incomplete, with repeat missions on harder difficulty levels filling in space where new content should go, but nothing feels more blatant than Eli’s plot being left hanging. According to the video linked at the beginning of this article, the mission was 30% complete before it was scrapped. It’s a shame to see this happen, as Konami has already said that no story-related DLC will be released.
Even bigger spoilers below, you’ve been warned!
Introduced in Peace Walker, Paz was a secret adult posing as a teenager who infiltrated and befriended Big Boss’s previous army. Players first met her in a tutorial teaching them how to zoom in during cutscenes; doing so allows you to peep at her in her undearwear. For all the beef people have with Quiet, at least she’s handled massively better than this.
At the end of Peace Walker, Paz ends up being a traitor, and “dies” in a final boss battle while piloting a giant robot in her underwear. Turns out she only sort of died, and was fished out the sea and taken to Not Guantanamo in Ground Zeroes, where a much grosser version of Skull Face tortures her for information on Mother Base. Big Boss rescues her, removes a bomb from her stomach, and then gets blown up by a second bomb, which is what lands him in his coma in the first place.
Paz shows up on Mother Base once again, hidden away in a secret room in the Medical Bay. Big Boss tries to make sense of her survival, and constructs a new story, self-retconning the end of Ground Zeroes. Paz never leaves her room, and thinks it’s still 1975; she remembers more and more as players show her pictures from Mother Base back in the day.
I found it obvious right away that Paz was a hallucination, and the fact that she never left the room was a big part of that. She’s a manifestation of Big Boss’s guilt; he let her down, and everyone else, when she died during the Ground Zeroes operation. Her “story” here is actually pretty good, and is one of Boss’s few moments of catharsis, as he desperately tries to make peace with who and what he is. It’s impressive seeing a fan-servicey character reappropriated into something sad and compelling.
Major Zero, in spite of being one of the men who sets this whole game in motion, does not show up in–game physically. He’s been stricken horribly ill by Skull Face before the game begins, but we learn a great deal from a series of tapes found after completing the final mission. For all the madness he unleashes on the world with his monstrous, global control Patriots AI system, when we finally hear Zero’s voice for the first time since Metal Gear Solid 3 he’s the same old serious-but-playful English gentleman he was when we first met him.
There’s a great sadness to Zero’s whole side story, and it benefits from the best vocal performance in the game. We learn that in spite of their philosophical animosity towards each other, he never stopped thinking of Big Boss as a friend, and is in fact one of the men who kept his location safe and secret while Boss was in his coma. The whole fall of society as we know it is a result of misunderstanding; friendships gone awry, philosophies misinterpreted, and actions taken without total consent. What’s done by both Big Boss and Major Zero is wrong, but could have been avoided by a true heart-to-heart conversation. While Skull Face acts to free the world by destroying language, a better use and understanding of the language between Zero and Boss would have gone a long way to saving it.
Biggest Boss, Biggest Spoilers. Final mission/twist spoilers.
Big Boss: Someone to Claim us, Someone to Follow
From the optimistic idiot idealist of Metal Gear Solid 3 to the bitter mercenary of Peace Walker to the raving warmonger of the original, 1987 Metal Gear, Big Boss has seen a lot of change as a person. Phantom Pain shows us a Big Boss consumed by anger, but at the same time completely lost and unsure of himself. None of his previous bravado and enthusiasm is present here. He’s a man sick of being used and thrown away, and allows his own individuality to fade away as he fully becomes a gun for Miller and Ocelot to aim at will. It’s only Quiet that he seems to treat as an equal, which is ironic considering she was the assassin sent to kill him in the hospital in the first place. In a way, their bond comes from the fact that both of their original selves died that day.
The big twist of the game’s final mission, The Man Who Sold the World, is that the man we’ve spent the last dozens of hours playing as is not the original Big Boss. He’s the company medic who was with the real Big Boss when their helicopter was shot down, and both men were left in comas. The real Big Boss is actually the faceless hospital roommate of our player character, using the name Ishmael as a cover (and to set up one of the game’s many Moby Dick references.) Through assorted magic and scheming with Ocelot, it’s agreed that the medic will take Big Boss’s place, rebuilding an army while the real Big Boss safely plays the role of the manipulator from the shadows. As the song goes, he “never lost control.” Against his knowledge or will, memories are implanted in the medic before he wakes, and he really does think he’s the real deal. Cracks only start to form in the darkest, bloodiest missions, where the nature of reality and the player/Venom’s sanity comes into question, and all of these take place in hospitals, possibly triggering Venom’s latent, original personality.
Like Skull Face, the medic, who takes on the name Venom Snake, is robbed of his face, of his history, and of any possibility of going back to who he once was. With plastic surgery, false memories, enough missions, and the guidance of Ocelot, Venom truly does become Big Boss. To himself and to his men, there’s no meaningful difference. Their goals and ambitions are the same, but Venom is not the same man at heart. His quiet personality is quite different from Big Boss’s, who shows up at the very end in all his glory, talking with a still enamored Ocelot. Venom’s acts are done with a sort of rote hollowness, as he knows what he’s supposed to do and knows how he’s supposed to do it, but doesn’t truly feel the “why” of it all. Of course he’s just as angry at Skull Face as anyone else, since he really did lose nine years and part of his body to him, but he’s a phantom limb of the real Big Boss, forced to play a role.
To the world stage, Big Boss is a symbol, not a man. It doesn’t really matter who takes up his mantle, as long as he keeps the legend alive, and Venom proves himself damn good at doing so. When he finally learns the truth, the initial anger subsides into acceptance, and he determines to play out this role forever. Thus the world has two Big Bosses running around, now working in conjunction together, one maintaining the Diamond Dogs/Outer Heaven mercenary brotherhood, the other manipulating and winning his way back into the graces of the United States. Neither Jack/Naked Snake nor The Medic/Venom Snake is Big Boss alone, but together, they maintain a deep charade, allowing them to slither their way into positions of power.
The Venom Snake twist explains Big Boss dying in both of the 8-bit Metal Gear titles, and why his motivations in both games differs. The secret warmonger Big Boss in 1987’s Metal Gear was Venom Snake, a demon consumed by rage. The Big Boss we see in 1990’s Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake is a more level-headed man taking in war orphans and building a nuclear nation, rather than just building an army. Both are villains cut from the same cloth, but following different paths. In their own ways, Outer Heaven’s Venom becomes the man Miller dreamed of, while Zanzibarland’s Big Boss becomes Ocelot’s ideal.
I don’t believe that this is a cheap or unearned twist, even though I admit that at first I didn’t know how to take it. In the end, I think it was a good plot device, and an appropriate conclusion to a series focused on information control, identity, and human beings functioning as symbols. Big Boss doesn’t get one big, unifying moment where he transitions from the hero of Metal Gear Solid 3 to the villain of the 8-bit games, but it’s clear by the time he’s willing to take a man he knew and erase the person he was in order to benefit his own self interest that the hero we knew is already gone. He took Venom and brainwashed him into loving his new role, much as Venom does to the soldiers he kidnaps and brings to Mother Base. A destructive, violent, and ultimately sad cycle has been set in motion, and the age of heroes is over.
In Metal Gear Solid 2, we learn about The Patriot’s S3 Project, an attempt to replicate Solid Snake (and thus Big Boss) through virtual simulations and information control. If it worked, any man could play the role of Big Boss. The S3 project fails, and the hero, Raiden, becomes his own man, choosing his own (ultimately unhealthy) path. But in The Phantom Pain, we see Big Boss’s own version of the S3 project succeed with flying colors. The indoctrination and simulation works, and a man who was reviled at the idea of being cloned successfully creates his own double.
Venom/The Medic’s true name and face is whatever the player comes up with during the prologue, a character creation scene that feels like a big fake out until the very end. We state our identity, and it’s then promptly discarded. It’s far more subtle and insidious than anything The Patriots pull in Metal Gear Solid 2, and we play a willing part in the charade. As players of the game, we were always Big Boss, and in this final moment the player’s constructed identity and the character’s becomes one. In time, there will likely be some solid essays on what this all means, as a study of the player as accomplice, as puppet master, and as victim. It’s something completely unique to the medium of video games, and if this commentary/manipulation is Kojima’s final Metal Gear title, it’s a hell of a way to go out. I’ve enjoyed the ride and I’m sad to see it end.