WELL... THAT WAS BULLSHIT.Warning: I must be off my meds again. This shit's gonna' get real angry, rambly and up its own ass in the vaguely-analytical side of narrative. We might talk about the "game" part another day, once I've cleansed myself of anger and sorrow, but... well, Phantom Pain has a lot to answer for in the story department, and that oddly enough has an adverse effect on the gameplay itself as a result. Like I said, we may revisit this if I end up actually caring enough to come back to it.
Pictured: A scene not in the finished METAL GEAR SOLID V.
Despite two and a half years of hype from that jaw-dropping "Red Band" E3 trailer, METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN fails to deliver on the heavy promises that series creator, director, and 28 year franchise auteur Hideo KOJIMA had promised as far back as 2010. Despite rave reviews and sales topping 3 million copies sold in the first week, long term fans of the franchise have been pretty vocal with their frustrations and disappointments, not the least of which has seen websites like Eurogamer and Polygon publish soft-addenda articles, standing by their "9.9/10" "Game Of All Time" "It's Literally Better Than Sex On The Third Realm Of Consciousness" scores, while simultaneously acknowledging that something is seriously wrong. The argument that Hideo Kojima himself hasn't been given the time or NDA release to explain what "really" happened is as solid an argument as you're going to get at this point, but with Kojima having stood by this as his final game and his magnum opus for the last year, it's... well, it's fascinating to see where it all went wrong, but that doesn't actually make the game I paid $60 - plus $20 and change for the prologue, METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES - any more complete or satisfying.
I'm honestly not mad anymore about it. I was for about a weekend. At this point, I'm just disappointed on two levels - one, that Kojima could have fallen so hard in a mere decade between METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER and this abomination, and on the other, that whatever might have been salvaged from the flaming wreck of what's clearly a compromised and bashed-together narrative might have been "okay" were it not for the public-yet-mysterious breakup that happened behind the scenes between Kojima and the game's publisher, Konami. Japanese business culture suggests we'll never actually know what went down behind the scenes, but based on what little we can piece together of our own accord, it probabl goes something like this;
Kojima, who had served as Vice President of their console game division for the last 5 years, has been effectively obsessing over Metal Gear Solid V as his big going away blast. Konami in those last 5 years have been pulling away from console game production to focus on mobile development, casino games and non-video game investments like health clubs. After tallying up the money spent since the production on the Fox Engine started in 2010, Konami's top brass pushed Kojima to release the game in whatever state it was in; not wanting to compromise the entirety of it, they split the game into a "Prologue" and a "Full Game" to meet the launch of the PS4 and show off the power of the Fox Engine. Whatever was going on behind the scenes was only making Konami worry even more, which prompted Kojima to make a stand and refuse to compromise by setting a date on a project that wasn't even close to being ready. CEO Satoshi SAKAMOTO clearly wasn't amused, at which point Kojima was basically fired from his position as VP, but was kept on contract for another year to finish the sprawling project for a release date Konami themselves set - after all, if this is the state it's in now, one can guess that had Kojima and his team bailed outright, the retail release could be dramatically worse. Kojima Productions has already been disbanded, and Kojima will leave the company at the end of 2015, with this... "game" being the last project he'll work on under the banner of the ol' UUDDLRLRBAS.
Yeah, this is mostly guesswork and reading between the lines. But until either side is willing to make more than vague assurances that "Kojima is still supporting Phantom Pain, we'll see you next METAL GEAR!", that's about all we can really do.
It's not a bad game, mind you. My 150-and-counting hours with it should attest to that without issue. The general world design, stealth mechanics, gunplay and seemingly endless ways to trick, misdirect, confuse, fuck with, and straight up murder a billion Soviet and Central African PF soldiers is truly a joy to play with, and while I won't lie and pretend the game has endless variety or a lack of filler - any game this big is going to get a bit repetitive if you're digging your heels in for 100% - the fact that the game keeps track of your playstyle and then shifts the AI strategies and equipment to compensate, effectively modifying the difficulty to match you, speaks to the brilliant core of one of the finest game design crews in the industry today. As a living, breathing, beautiful piece of interactive technology, MGSV:TPP is second to none, and it's basically locked in a three-way tie by default with FALLOUT 4 and THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT as inevitable "Game Of The Year" status, though as all three of these games have dramatically different aesthetics, mechanics, concepts and goals, picking any of them will ultimately come down to the gamer's own personal preferences anyway.
That said... wow, Phantom Pain is a mess. I started writing a long-form piece, but find doing so mostly irrelevant, since George "Super Bunnyhop" Weidman covers about 90% of my biggest concerns in the following 35 minute(!) academically minded review... it should go without saying that, not only does the video itself, but the rest of this post is going to spoil not only all of the secrets that Metal Gear Solid V holds, but by extension the ending to pretty much all Metal Gear games in the seemingly endless and sprawling franchise that built up to it. It's impossible to even try to discuss what went wrong without just diving into the gory details, and so I'm going to roll up my sleeves, stick both hands deep in there, and hope the guilt from what I find doesn't drive me to madness...
While I do think Weidman's points are almost entirely valid, I'll confess there's a few things that bugged me either more, or less, than they did him - but that's to be expected from a franchise that finds appeal and love for a hundred different reasons at once. Case in point, while I adore the polished and seemingly bottomless gameplay - and was more than willing to keep going after 150 hours, until the code decided I could eat a back of dicks for daring to test of a fucking internet rumor was true - somehow the game still feels... well, not only incomplete, but wholly lacking in obvious thematic and narrative structure. Such basic and simple beats in storytelling that I'm, quite frankly, shocked that Hideo Kojima was capable of missing them. Meticulous, overwrought melodrama propelled by reactions the players are naturally drawn to take part in is kind of Kojima's "thing" so the problems on display seem to be two fold; not only is a big chunk of the narrative simply not present, but the remains of what wasn't jettisoned were hastily re-arranged in a rough, skeletal manner that gives the vague appearance of closure without actually closing anything.
While Weidman does a damn fine job explaining the biggest leaps of faith in Kojima's final chapter in what's easily the medium's most important and unique attempt at serialized story telling - drawing as much from American superhero comic continuities as it does American-pop action cinema, Japanese science fiction absurdity and random scientific texts digested, understood, and then promptly disregarded for maximum dramatic effect - there's a few things he didn't touch on that have left me with no choice but to consider their odd and, in some cases, galling absences that I'm sure are largely being overlooked less because they aren't an issue, and more because... well, when the publisher sells you the first act separately and then cuts half of the third act completely, it's easy for the smaller things to fall through the cracks, I guess.
I can't stress this enough, but MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Not only will this ruin any surprise the game might have had, but odds are it won't make much sense unless you've already played it - and most (if not all) of the games in the series before it, anyway.
I feel like I shouldn't have to explain that, but y'know. If you wanted to be surprised by any Metal Gear game, don't read any more. Also, if you haven't played the actual games, odds are none of this will make sense anyway. "Explain Metal Gear" is such an impossible feat it's a meme unto itself. Hell, I've played through METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS and even I'm not convinced I have a clue what's going on.
THE PAZ PARADOX
One of the more intriguing things that the trailers hinted at - well, one of those intriguing things that are actually in the finished game, anyway - is the reappearance of Paz Ortega Andrade, aka Pacifica Oceana, a double agent who infiltrated Militaires Sans Frontieres at the start of the "Peace Walker Incident" in 1974, and eventually took control of Metal Gear Zeke with the intent to bring it to her true master, Major Zero. In meta context it's clear that Paz was an excuse for Kojima to include a cute blond "teenage" girl on Mother Base without it feeling as inappropriate as it should have - let's face it, METAL GEAR SOLID: PEACE WALKER was, despite decent gameplay, largely waifu bait PSP bullshit, there's no other excuse for Cécile Cosima Caminades to exist - but, narrative wise, it was about right; Big Boss wouldn't trust a Soviet scientist, but if he came bearing a literal symbol of war-torn atrocity to distract him, why would Boss suspect the cute kid who just wants to sunbathe and play with the base kitten of being the real mole? (Not that she was the "real" mole, but... well, Miller's complicated relationship with Cipher is irrelevant for the time being.)
While a number of small oddities always cast the canon status of Ground Zeroes into doubt - Chico freaking out and not recognizing Snake for no real reason, captive MSF agents being shown Skull Face's horrifying visage but not being able to remember it, Miller playing dumb about knowing that Paz was a Cipher infiltrator, the bizarre lack of Big Boss' typical banter or affinity for cardboard box loving - a pet theory of mine was that the Camp Omega mission was real in some capacity, but that the mission we saw was "wrong" in some fundamental way; maybe the whole thing was a propaganda film produced by Cipher. Or maybe this was Chico's incomplete, PTSD-worsened recollection of the events. Or even in the context of Phantom Pain, perhaps this is the hypno-therapy "memory" of Venom Snake, itself both incomplete and based on second-hand testimony of how the events went down by the limited survivors of MSF. Any of these explanations would have been enough to explain why Paz - despite having had two bombs inserted into her body, with organs removed to make room(!) - could have "died" during the events of Ground Zeroes, but come back in The Phantom Pain, looking essentially the same but still bearing the large "V" shaped scar.
"V", as we later learn, was a code name given to Big Boss' body double, a plan that wasn't even put into motion until after the events of Ground Zeroes took place. In other words, the shape of the scar itself was a meta-textual hint that Ground Zeroes wasn't what we thought it was. Simply put, there's too many unexplained coincidences for Ground Zeroes to be anything BUT a fantasy... or, more accurately, a nightmare.
Phantom Pain warms us up to the idea that Ground Zeroes went down differently than we (the player - ie; Venom Snake) remember it, and send us on a quest to find not only the surviving MSF soldiers who haven't completely lost their minds, but return with photos of happier times, each photo giving us a pleasant visit with Paz... who's stuck in a temporal loop of recessive memory and amnesia, waiting for Peace Day, which will clearly never come. Once you collect all 10 photos, the final photo is waiting outside of Paz' room... and once you give it to her, she tears herself apart in a bizarre moment of body horror, with Venom Snake waking up on an unfinished platform, grasping at a ghostly butterfly that was never really there. Comparisons made to Silent Hill are perfectly valid here, and more importantly, even the final tape Paz "gives" you establishes that she's gone, and nothing you can do will bring him back.
Junji ITO himself was going to be working on Silent Hills.
FUCK YOU, FUCK ME, AND FUCK EVERYTHING.
In a sense, this might be the one instance of Venom Snake getting some legitimate character development that isn't him silently reacting to Miller and Ocelot railroading him on a quest for revenge he seems oddly distant to; Venom Snake was an MSF medic before Mother Base was razed by XOF, and the guilt he felt for failing to save Paz haunted him, even with his memories having mostly been erased through a combination of brain damage and hypnosis. It's the only time in the finished game that Venom Snake is shown to react to anything resembling guilt or the effects of PTSD, and while it's heavy handed... it works. You feel awful realizing that Paz is just a phantom of Peace Walker's distant memory, and seeing the one cute, good natured thing on Mother Base turn out to be a lie only justifies the distant, cold tone that flows through characters like Miller and Emmerich.
So where does the paradox kick in? The biggest issue is that Ocelot and Miller INTRODUCE Paz to Snake. Ocelot has been known to experiment with hypnotherapy to trick himself from revealing his true goal in MGS4, and it's implied in "Episode 46" (we'll get back to that later) that he's doing the same here. Could Ocelot have planted those seeds in his subconscious, knowing that Venom would react? Maybe. I guess. I mean that's a stretch, even for Metal Gear, but this is the guy who hypnotized himself to believe he was possessed by the soul of Big Boss' dead clone by grafting an arm onto his body, so sure, fuck it, whatever. The issue is that Miller is a patsy in all of this - he was never brain washed, and if Paz were really alive, he'd demand answers.
This leaves us with two possibilities, neither of which make a lot of sense:
1) Miller and Ocelot were never in the non-existent room with Snake. The whole thing was a hallucination on the part of a man suffering from memory loss, PTSD and mental conditioning. This is the most likely answer, I admit... but it opens up a whole new can of worms, which we'll get into momentarily.
2) Paz was real, and this was all meant to tie back into content removed during production that would allow you to bring her memories back full circle, at which point Paz would join your Mother Base crew. It isn't as good a fit, thematically speaking, but it's what I'm willing to wager was the original plan. Otherwise why bother having Ocelot or Miller there in the first place? Let Venom figure it out on his own terms.
If we assume "1", that leaves us with the notion of an unreliable narrator... and holy shit, does that open up the flood gates in regards to Quiet.
Quiet is a badass, the blatant sexualization only becomes borderline parody if you choose to spend time with her and get your Buddy Level up to 100% (meaning you're the creep, you rascal you!), and while I admit the camera zooming in on her bazongas which are bare because of
Let the sort of people who are legit mad over this shit get triggered into a coma. Maybe they'll finally stop bitching about George Kamitani being good at drawing sexy girls, moaning that nobody bought a mediocre game with a largely wasted memory-rewind function, and stop blindly donating to Kickstarter charlatans who are literally giving speeches at the UN about how arguing with subjective criticism is not only harassment, but that legal measures should be taken to stop them, while quoting 15 year old reports that call Pokemon "Satanic" and argue that violent action games turns young boys into "killing zombies". I fucking wish I was joking about any of this.
Anyway. The bigger issue here isn't the fact that Quiet can't speak, or doesn't wear pants: It's actually a small detail that took me a while to put my finger on. During Chapter 45, Quiet speaks English to save Big Boss - releasing the English Parasite and rendering her a danger to Mother Base and the entire English speaking world as a result - and then she wanders into the desert, never to be seen in the game again. Much like Aerith in Final Fantasy VII or Magus in Chrono Trigger, once she's gone, she's fucking gone. Considering this is end-of-game stuff, it means that clearing out the remaining Side-Ops without your sniper backup is going to be a bitch, so you'll feel the sting through gameplay as much as you will cut scenes. Much like the whole Paz "twist", it's actually a nice touch and is one of the few successful times the game communicates the loss that Venom - and, by proxy, the player - must feel despite having rebuilt Mother Base from scratch.
But what was that small detail? The simple fact that once Quiet leaves, the photo of her in the ACC (Air Command Center - or "Pequod") disappears. Keep in mind that every other photo, including those of Huey Emmerich - a literal traitor who's responsible for the deaths of countless Outer Heaven soldiers in two separate bases - remain where they were. That's odd, isn't it? That Boss would take down the photos of his best sniper and even potential love interest, but would keep the scumbag who knowingly rebuilt a nuclear death machine so a bunch of crazy kids could steal it, and mutated a parasite on Mother Base with the intent to sell it back to your enemies, forcing you to kill your own men - and then tries to make you feel bad about it? What kind of sick, self-hating sociopath would keep photos of THAT dingle berry and ditch the pictures of the sexy lady who could kill an entire platoon in 10 seconds flat?
The logical explanation is so simple, it's literally all over her face:
Must... Resist... Obvious... Bukkake... Joke...!
Butterflies in Metal Gear lore were tied specifically to the Peace Walker incident. For those who don't remember, Peace Walker was a story in which Big Boss - a man who was given that title for killing The Boss, and rejected it for the guilt and shame he felt having had to pull the trigger on his own mentor - and the excuse he uses for being in South America is that he's looking for something; a blue morpho butterfly. This all ties back to MGS3: Snake Eater, when - after losing his eyes to Volgin's torture - Naked Snake tries to "catch" a butterfly, realizing that losing his eye has permanently fucked his depth perception. Even his eye was a minor loss.
Tying this all together, the last photo you get for the Paz storyline is... wait for it... the elusive blue morpho. See a pattern emerging?
When Quiet is angry and ready to get her blood on, the skin on her face changes tone, and a butterfly "appears" on her face, like adorable war paint. The only way to prevent Chapter 45 from appearing in your Missions List - and thus, Quiet from leaving Mother Base - is to customize your PF's emblem using the butterfly as your centerpiece. All of Quiet's weapons are named after butterflies. You get the point, I'm sure. Quiet has replaced The Boss as that elusive force that drives Snake to his inevitable fate, and if Paz and The Boss are anything to go by, butterflies are something you can't catch... far more than the Skulls, they are truly "those who don't exist".
So what the fuck is up with the scene where Miller is torturing Quiet, much to Ocelot's chagrin? This is such a clear, important moment that I'd say it's impossible for it to be non-canon... but the Paz Paradox complicates this, doesn't it? Either Venom is an unreliable narrator and everything he witnesses is open to debate as being "real", or what we see is what we get, and both Miller and Ocelot were capable of seeing Paz's phantom, too. In short, the Paz Paradox makes Quiet's very existence a potential figment of Venom Snake's retrofitted memory, and if she really WAS a fantasy, that actually explains the leering camera and the fact that despite not appearing to be an ethnic Navajo, she's able to speak it fluently with Code Talker; these logical leaps are literally made for you, the player, not for the literal, contextual narrative.
I hate to play that pretentious game in a narrative as clearly compromised as this - but obvious problems with the game aside, it's not an entirely unfair question. Metal Gear Solid 2 was literally a game *ABOUT* the pointlessness of sequels, and spent its entire final act breaking the fourth wall asking the player if wasting their life away playing simulations and letting your "real" life pass you by until you have nothing else to show the world you existed. Metal Gear Solid V seems to be a direct inversion to this confrontational and somewhat pointed commentary - the game lets you quite literally make yourself in Big Boss' image, with the legend telling you in the game's final cut scene that you are as much responsible for his legacy as he is - but the fact that the game even has that obvious, tangible layer of memetic commentary means we can't rule the use of well-established symbols from the series out as trying to tell us something bigger.
In short, either Paz was supposed to be real or Quiet wasn't. Nothing in the game contradicts this notion, and until Kojima's NDA's break and he's allowed to tell us what the fuck happened behind the scenes between Konami and Kojima Productions, I'm unwilling to consider this oddity anything but intentional.
Pictured: A scene also not in the finished METAL GEAR SOLID V.
HE NEVER LOST CONTROL
(AND THAT'S... DISAPPOINTING)
Rumor and speculation is still largely what we have to go on, but one thing is clear; a decent chunk of the footage shown off in the various pre-release trailers released by Konami starting in 2013 are simply not present in the game. Off the top of my head:
* Venom Snake wanders through a burned out village full of child soldiers, and later is shown falling to his knees and crying out in anguish. The village with charred corpses is in the game, but it's not actually a set piece.
* A scene at Masa Village in the trailer shows a fully grown soldier training the child soldiers how to use automatic weapons. Again, this is present in theory, but much like the "burned village" its presence is hardly worth noting in actuality.
* Boss covered in blood and standing in front of a wall of fire, his face slowly growing sad, is one of the most iconic shots in the "Nuclear" trailer. It's also nowhere in the finished game.
* Several POW's are shown being mocked, waterboarded, and executed at Camp Omega, an area that you were supposed to return to in Phantom Pain if you owned the prologue. Never happened.
There's also various "alternate" takes of Big Boss in the chopper from Ground Zeroes, as well as two extended versions of the "Hallway Walk" from the Diamond Dogs quarantine platform (including some amazing body-horror animation). With no more Camp Omega missions to speak of now, it's hard to say if this was hinting at something bigger or if they just re-framed/tweaked the final footage. I'm trying to give Kojima the benefit of the doubt here - I know "cut" content often finds its way into marketing materials since it's all edited and finalized long after they've sold it - but the overall lack of anything even resembling the tone on display here is what confounds me so much.
...except when they... don't?
This is also ignoring a veritable TON of "missing" dialogue tracks still hidden in the game data, such as Code Talker and Huey Emmerich singing birthday songs and additional dialogue from Skull Face implying that you could have potentially fucked with him during the now infamously awkward jeep ride, and even some straight up goofy bullshit like The Suth screaming "Yer' FIARD!!" and "CONSECUTIVE! C! Q! C!!!" Whether the implementation was cut as a conscious decision or due to a lack of time and resources, or they're just hanging out for some hilarity in MGO3 is really anyone's guess, but it's bizarre to see what should have been absolutely basic things, like menu sounds, somehow dropped for no concrete reason...
While I have little doubt that "Chapter 1: Revenge" was mostly finished - it has an actual arc, a journey unto itself, a couple of twists and turns along the way - it's still kind of a nasty mess. Those 30 Episodes (plus the hour-long "prologue" - which I loved, by the way, even if it ran just a little too long) have quite a bit of filler content and some big leaps in logic, but overall they feel like a complete, cohesive, if slightly underwhelming piece of entertainment. Phantom Pain Chapter 1 is still weak as far as stories go, ranking somewhere between "smarter than Peace Walker but not as substantial as Guns of the Patriots" - both of which are on the lower end of the Metal Gear writing cycle, as I'm sure we'd all agree - but it's self-contained enough that if this is what I'd gotten, no more and no less... I'd sigh, shrug, and think, fuck it, at least I had fun right?
The problem is that after the credits roll we get a preview for "Chapter 2: Race". This is where the game doubles down on feeling rushed and broken and becomes a literal work-in-progress; the "19" missions presented in Chapter 2 are actually 6 new story missions, a dozen "Hard Mode" repeats of missions from Chapter 1, and a 'remix' of the prologue, which is as much an interactive cut-scene as it is anything else. It feels like a sampling of unfinished demo tracks rather than a full album, and while both Huey and Quiet get something resembling closure and resolution to their individual stories, Eli, The Third Child, Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, Code Talker and The Boss (in the form of the reconstructed Peace Walker AI Pod) simply do not. Zero and Strangelove appear in the form of audio tapes, but their loss is such an insult that I... honestly wish they hadn't been, to a large degree.
Exactly how much of the game was jettisoned during production is still up in the air, but the literal final boss battle - Eli piloting Metal Gear Sahelanthropus in the English Parasite infected island dubbed "Kingdom of the Flies" - was the narrative finale the game was begging for. The actual battle with Sahelanthropus in Afghanistan is pretty fucking underwhelming, and letting Eli fight his "Father" - while forcing Diamond Dogs to drop napalm on, and I can't stress this enough, an island full of live children - was exactly the big, dramatic gut punch that this whole storyline had been building up to. It was the next, logical extension after "Shining Lights" - arguably the one truly good thing about Chapter 2 - in which, having already had no choice but to put down his own men, Venom Snake has to extend that same nihilistic realism to the very people he tried to save from a life that was much like his own.
THE PHANTOM FINALE
You can argue how much content and what context is missing, but make no mistake; the fact that the "Premium Edition" of the game comes with an 18 minute(!) summation of the "Phantom Chapter" is proof that Kojima wanted us all to see how the game was supposed to end, knowing this is all bullshit...
THE PHANTOM CHAPTER:
Imagine, for a moment, if RETURN OF THE JEDI featured the first half of the film exactly as-is, up until the explanation that HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS, THERE'S A DEATH STAR 2: SITH BOOGOLO... but then we never get to see it. Nor do we ever get to Endor. No speeder bikes, no Ewok religious idols, no Lando Calrissen and Wedge Antilles bromancing up until the big ass cathartic explosion - literally none of that happens. Instead we just abruptly cut to Luke Skywalker on the Star Destroyer without ever getting back to the sub Rebel Alliance has a fucking Death Star to blow to smithereens. That total lack of closure, of anything resembling a grand finale is the only way I can begin to describe how this game ends, and any excuse to shrug all of this off as intentional - as giving the player a "Phantom Pain" by not fulfilling their basic desires for cohesive storytelling - is just wrapping themselves in needless layers of pretension and hopes of hidden meanings to excuse a fundamental failure to deliver a finished product.
To continue the torturous analogy, maybe a couple scenes get swapped around in the middle, so we still see Yoda die, we still get clarification that Leia is Luke's sister - you know, clarity for a few of the less important subplots - but instead of the catharsis the film actually ends on between Luke Skywalker surpassing his father and the Rebel Alliance working together to destroy the ultimate death machine, it just cuts from Palpatine taunting Luke to that whole "I am a jedi, like my father before me!" line with no final Vader duel... and then, hey, rolls credits. No redemption for Darth Vader, no thrilling escape as the Death Star implodes, no getting shitfaced and making poor decisions with mongoloid teddy bears; nothing. It reaches the thematic conclusion of heroism, but the narrative just... stops. There is no actual resolution at all. That's what The Phantom Pain does. It's fucking INFURIATING, and while you can talk for hours about all of the ideas that didn't make it into Metal Gear games going back to the first MGS, all of those games were at least organized to minimize these losses. MGS2 ends on a giant "WTF?!", sure, but even that was a carefully weighted risk that tied up the actual meta-narrative as much as was necessary. MGSV? Shit is as unfinished as it gets. It's like a movie just missing the final reel with the credits awkwardly pasted back in. It's fucking sad.
Not trailer related, I know, but it's also worth noting that the endless cut scenes showing off Battle Gear were intended to culminate in him being Phantom Pain's equivalent to Metal Gear Zeke - a customizable and upgradeable mech that, unlike Zeke, you were meant to take out into the field. All the time hyping this four-legged floating abomination turns out to be a tiny logo to send on "Dispatch Missions", which you can't even watch unfold via cutout figures like in Peace Walker. I honestly can't think of a more underwhelming waste for a literal flying tank. Kojima swears this was cut "because it made the game too easy", but considering the Chicken Hat and "A Rank or Lower" items still exist, I'm calling bullshit. It was cut because it didn't work yet, and they figured jettisoning the fun so they could try and cobble what little of Chapter 2 was in a usable state seemed like the lesser of two evils when the Konami Crunch left them with no more wiggle room to delay the game another month, let alone the year it likely would have taken them.
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
(BUT NOT THE DAVID BOWIE VERSION)
So let's get this out of the way: I don't mind the big twist about Venom Snake being
What I DON'T like is how pointless and jarring the presentation all is. It's clear that the "big twist" was in the cards since Ground Zeroes has Kiefer Sutherland also playing the medic, who's face was very, very carefully hidden from view. This is all fine. The only issue I have is that, it just... appears. Out of nowhere. Done all the "Important" Side Ops? Cool, congrats, here's the true, super-secret ending for no fucking reason. PTSD and hallucinations were once promised to be a big part of the game, and are even a key component in the prologue, but they barely appear in practice otherwise. Could this have, I dunno, been tied to a bigger story mission that cuts back and fourth between a repeat of the fucking hour long prologue? The fact that this happens at "Chapter 46" - and isn't even treated as a 'Final Mission' is telling of how randomly this was pushed back into the unfinished Chapter 2 mold with little regard for how it all fit together with the rest of the game. Kojima admits there is no end by the very checklist you select missions from... I can't tell if that's incredibly honest or douchey. Maybe it's both.
But my biggest question is... well, why? Why now? What brought on Venom to remember that "Vic Boss" is really just Ishmael? The game has no narrative, or even thematic explanation; they've simply run out of game for you to play otherwise and already took Quiet away without really warning you about it, so fuck it, here kid. Have your big, shocking twist ending 4chan figured out a year prior. You've earned it... somehow, maybe, I guess...
Not to use Tumblr's favorite word in vain or anything, but couldn't this all be triggered at Mother Base by someone - maybe even Ocelot, the lovable rascal - playing "The Man Who Sold the World"? It literally opens the game, and stimuli - such as music, smells and sensations - are known factors in triggering things like flashbacks in PTSD patients, which the Paz Paradox suggests Venom likely is.
Shit, if there was no narrative explanation anyway, couldn't it have been worked into the mechanics? Maybe you got the tape after all of the other missions and then just listening to it on the iDroid actually triggers a cut scene? Could we do literally anything to make me feel like I'm part of the experience instead of just watching it unfold in the background while I wait for it to be ready for more actual gameplay? Imagine if the game opens with the Midge Ure cover and "The Truth" is only revealed if you hear the Bowie original... oh, what could have been...
Making this insanely important epilogue fit back into the broader game structure would have helped my good will by a bunch, and the fact that once you finish it, the game just kinda' shrugs and dumps a dozen unexplained, effectively impossible-to-be-real tapes in your lap. It's not all about Miller making a fast food resturaunt at Mother Base, either (which, by the way, is the best fucking thing ABOUT the game): It's stuff about Zero, Skull Face and Paz, long, rambling monologues hastily explaining all the deep seated lore away like it realized it had a bunch of scenes to show but just started reading the full script verbatim as a radio play and hoped that'd be "good enough" to satisfy... anyone. It just smacks of this all having been shuffled back into the game at the 11th hour hoping to salvage something resembling closure.
It doesn't work. The last reel is gone in this movie, and they've simply cut the build-up to it, hoping we wouldn't notice.
RHODESIA IS NO MORE
Another thing that's been irking me for a while is the fact that the Diamond Dogs logo, which hasn't changed since the initial Yoji Shinkawa art for Big Boss, feature none other than a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Data mining suggest that the brief appearance these pups make in Ground Zeroes - barking at Skull Face as he walks to Chico's cell - would have been a part of a larger gameplay mechanic, but like so many things it was removed before the game could be finished. Guard dogs were a feature in both Metal Gear on the MSX and MGS3: Snake Eater, so not having them in MGSV - particularly when they could have changed the whole dynamic of bringing DD, or in how enemies can track you during an alert status - is really a shame. There's even a QTE for tossing off wolves, so it doesn't seem like including them would have been that much more work... but I'm getting away from my point, which was narrative rather than mechanical.
Why is the Rhodesian Ridgeback important? Because Kojima stated, when the game had just been confirmed to be Metal Gear Gear Solid V, that race, culture and language - all as separate concepts - would be the driving theme behind The Phantom Pain, specifically quoting "Race and Revenge" as the game's two core themes. The last third of the game are under the banner "Chapter 2: Race", but "race" itself - skin color, the one thing that embracing a new culture can't change until a few generations of breeding happen - never actually factors in to anything.
Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, a country to the north of South Africa, but one that up until 1980 had a very similar British founded "White Government" that, despite only making up about 3% of the country's population, treated the native black citizens as a second class, enforcing apartheid laws that literally prevented blacks from entering "White Areas". The country was embroiled in some pretty nasty combat through the 70s and 80s, culminating in Zimbabwe declaring independence from their previous government that had ruled since the 1930s. Meanwhile, South Africa maintained their forced racial segregation and generally shitty treatment of black citizens until 1994, presumably due to South Africa having a nearly 9% white populace, plus a similar number of what the official government calls "coloured" - which, basically, implies that they're not anglo-white, but aren't necessarily african-native in origin, either. (How much things have actually improved in South Africa since, I can't say, and is getting off track anyhow. Learning about South Africa from Die Antwoord is about as useful as learning about Japan through Tsukamoto Shinya: Awesome, yes, but not especially useful.)
Plus, Sahelanthropus has a skull painted on its big, ugly head. The fucking obvious "final battle" after Skull Face escapes with Sahelanthropus would be chasing him down to an armored fortress on the South African border with the defeated Sahelanthropus' mechanical head as the keep's centerpiece. Throw a couple more skulls up and the "founding" of Outer Heaven comes full circle. But that's not the issue... well, it is ultimately, but it's not why I think it got mangled and re-written so heavily during production, at the very least.
I think a certain word is really blame. Ironic, considering the context of it all...
YOU WILL BE ASHAMED
OF YOUR WORDS AND DEEDS
For what it's worth, I personally don't know shit beyond the absolute basics about apartheid Africa. Heck, most of why I know about it came directly from me being fascinated by Neil Blombkamp's sci-fi treatment of the concept in District 9. This isn't all meant to be getting into the political implications I'm largely unfamiliar with, merely point out that - much like the Jewish Holocaust - there's a lot of fertile ground for using it in a fictional context to draw attention and parallels to current events.
Ground Zeroes had the stones to use a fictional "black site" to openly show how brutal and unjustified the real-life events at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq from the last decade have been, and while admittedly fictionalizing these events with the convoluted plot of a story of a cloned super soldier who fights nuclear bomb launching robots is probably not the most "mature" way to handle it, at least there was a legitimate attempt to focus on torture and giving the military limitless power over "non-combatants".
Phantom Pain stands on the edge of apartheid down to its very core, and refuses to directly acknowledge any part of racism in Africa despite that supposedly being the whole fucking theme of the game. If you're paying attention, you'll note that every victim of Skull Face's experiments in Angola-Zaire is black, poor, skinny and absolutely miserable. Skull Face himself seems to show no direct distaste for human ethnicity - merely their nationality, the fact that they're so willing to conqueror and manipulate those around them on unfair terms. Skull Face doesn't give a shit about blacks... but I'm willing to bet a lot of those predominantly white PF groups do, or at least the people hiring them. I wouldn't be shocked if one of the earlier focuses in the story was on Skull Face being backed by someone - likely someone not even in the game, at this point - who was willing to fund XOF's research on the premise that he develop Kikongo Parasites, and similar parasites that would specifically wipe out local tribal groups that they held responsible for the violence through Rhodesia and surrounding areas. Skull Face isn't racist, but with even Ocelot calling these parasites "Ethnic Cleansers" - and the obvious parallels between Code Talker's childhood to ongoing ethnic homogenization - it feels like a game that's never had trouble courting controversy is trying so hard to say it without saying it that it's painful.
So let me say it, Kojima: At one point your English script had some white asshole say something like "But who cares if we kill all the niggers?" This freaked someone high up in the chain at Konami the fuck out - perhaps not without reason, considering how absurdly PC the American and general English language media has become over the last several years - and this subplot got scrapped. Nothing else even begins to make sense, and considering everything *ELSE* we know got cut, suddenly removing a bunch of cut scenes from the early missions in Africa starts to hold a more intriguing implication. For one thing, this is a shame, since - while I'm of the personal opinion that hating anyone for their ethnicity, gender and religious or political beliefs over their behavior and personality is fucking stupid - tribalism and distrust of the "other" is very much a part of human nature, and an evolutionary necessity at that. People who grow up around what they see as their own kind are inherently suspicious, wary, fearful or angry as what they as something wholly separate, be those lines around race, language, class, even sex or political affiliation.
Sports are seen as a catharsis for so many people because it lets one group's "tean" go to battle with the other's, which - in centuries prior - would likely have just been an outright skirmish. Kojima clearly wanted to touch on some dark subject matter in this project, but after Ground Zeroes - by far the darkest chapter in Metal Gear history - he seemed content to cut any and all controversial elements that weren't Quiet's massive bewbs, leaving a game that feels like it's just on the edge of striking a nerve... and then never does. For fuck's sake, even The Last of Us felt more like a taboo breaker than this.
But there's a second reason this drives me crazy, and that's the fact that Rhodesia is - again - just north of South Africa. Why is South Africa important? Because that's where Outer Heaven is located! The logical conclusion here would have been Venom Snake invading a massive XOF stronghold on the Zimbabwe/South African border, conquering the shit out of it, and replacing one of their flags or something with the Diamond Dogs emblem. That's all it would have taken to make it clear that Phantom Pain really had come full circle with the founding of Outer Heaven, particularly with the novel version of MGS4 - which is more of a "rewrite" than a typical novelization, keep in mind - implying that Big Boss returned to Groznyj Grad in the late 80s to found Zanzibar Land in the ruins of Volgin's old stomping grounds. This would have legitimately brought the founding of Big Boss' empire full circle, but instead the game seemingly forgets its own continuity and just says, fuck it, Diamond Dogs in the Seychelles = Outer Heaven in South Africa eventually. 'Cause why the hell not.
HERE'S TO YOU,
CHICO AND BOSS
In and of itself, this isn't such a big deal; Chapter 2 may be a bloody mess, but with Skull Face having been virtually a tape-only presence in Ground Zeroes, it's hard to say if this was always by design or out of desperation once larger sections of the game had to be abandoned. In any case, the whole Strangelove subplot is just... bizarre. Huey was a lovable goofball in Peace Walker - effectively just Otacon in a wheelchair, when you get down to it - so while Phantom Pain's promise to show men becoming demons was ultimately fulfilled... it was by the one character who had every reason to not be a bastard. Ground Zeroes presented Huey as a twitchy liar who sold MSF out to Skull Face, but with a throw-away like about Strangelove having "left" not long before the XOF invasion, it seemed like they were setting it all up that Huey traded Big Boss' army for Strangelove's life. A crime of passion where the needs of one were seen as justifying the loss of many. In more focused and sensible hands, Huey's betrayal of Outer Heaven would have been tragic, romantic, even...
And in Phantom Pain he freaks out when she takes Hal away as he becomes Gendou IKARI 2.0, locks her away in The Boss' AI pod, and lets her starve to death like a dog. They discover her corpse which slumps out of the pod in a cassette tape. What the actual fuck, Kojima?! There's no way this was as it was written, and the more I think about it, the more I question if Huey's "betrayal" was scrapped and re-written entirely in the 11th hour. The whole thing just feels "off", and it's such a disappointing end to one of the more interesting Peace Walker characters I can't help but wonder if this was all ultimately done - if only in part - just to spite Konami's chance to use her in later games.
Even holding aside how shitty a treatment this subplot is to both characters, it's also a total squandering of the fact that - beyond all rational expectations - THE BOSS LIVES! ...well, her AI pod - which, as Peace Walker established, isn't quite the same as the real thing - is still there, still remembers "Jack", and no matter how you slice it, could have been a valuable asset to the Diamond Dogs. They use her as a witness, and then just kinda'... forget she exists. If you wander around the RD platform she simply sits there, repeating bits and pieces of her final moments forever... locked in a living, infinite hell. Thanks, Venom! To be fair he does talk to the pod exactly once in the hidden "Final Ending" that's still locked behind the FOB stupidity that sounds like more fun than it actually is - but that's such a pointless after thought it actually makes Venom's character even more confusing than if they'd left it out entirely.
Hey, does anyone else remember how Kojima went to Normandy as part of the game's "location scouting"? Wouldn't that have been amazing, to see The Boss kicking ass with the Cobra Unit on D-Day through mind-jacking into the fucking AI pod? Wouldn't that have given us an actual justification to bring "The Boss" back - to see her legend, her gospel, renewed through the tragedy of seeing The Joy being an absolute fucking beast on the battle field, killing nazi's with The Sorrow and a big ol' Ocelot filled belly? Goddamn the thought of that game existing makes my dick hard... and instead she plays a bit part on a shitty episode of Law and Order.
Fuck. This. Game. But in the end, the biggest disappointment for me is, of all things, Chico. Hilarious, right? We were like a a budget extension away from VR Missions with the mother fucking Cobra Unit, and THIS is the final straw...
Don't get me wrong, nobody actually liked that annoying little shit - Ground Zeroes seemed designed solely to torture and humiliate the little bastard, and with the fact that he had a headphone jack embedded in his chest (which he could evidently listen to...?) was never explained in any way, shape or form still drives me nuts, since there's a LOT of weird and frankly interesting looking experiments going on at Camp Omega which all amount to fuck-all in the end. His Achilles tendons were destroyed, but with Phantom Pain's very title having an obsession with loss and irreconcilable damage to the self, what better character to explore this notion with did this franchise have but Chico? He never had a childhood that was free of the battlefield, and being forced to beat and even rape the girl he loved, and then still being coaxed into betraying MSF to spare them both further humiliation, puts him in the "damaged beyond fucking repair" category.
If the goal of Phantom Pain was to explore PTSD in any sort of meaningful way, to show the harrowing and miserable lives that veterans and even non-combatants have to suffer for the unbroken chain of perpetual violence. Forget Skull Face, ignore Miller, if there was ever a fucking case study for Metal Gear being an anti-war story, the 14 year old boy who was tortured, crippled, forced to engage in sexual assault to save both of them further violence and in the end sold his comrades out anyway was THE story to run with. Yes, I know a small, crippled, 20-something year old brown boy impersonating a 50ish Big Boss would have been a bit of a stretch, but goddamn, even that would have been a more fitting and interesting twist than "Big Boss is just some random brainwashed medic. Too bad those crazy kids Big Boss tried to save died or some shit".
For a year and change now I've been reminding self-important arseholes who are ready to write off Ground Zeroes as sadistic, misogynistic trash to wait until the actual fucking story was finished before pointing and making Invasion of the Body Snatcher noises as the "Women in Refrigerators" page on TVTropes. Metal Gear had a habit of not really killing characters, and considering this was the fourth mainline game to star the final boss who was killed in the original game, I had no doubt that even if Paz was gone, Chico's guilt and self-loathing would ultimately be a driving force behind Phantom Pain's raison d'être... and in the end, it's not even treated background noise. More time is spent trying to explain what the Boss' AI pod is, despite that having already gotten closure in Peace Walker.
It's really depressing when I pick this all apart and realize that despite Peace Walker being, by far, the weakest prior story for a mainline Metal Gear after the original, even that seems to understand what themes and character arcs and developments are. Peace Walker may have been Metal Gear Lite, but Phantom Pain is a bunch of sticky notes randomly shuffled together into a convoluted skeleton with no meat to speak of.
WITH QUIET DIGNITY
"The whole world wants you dead."
What, you thought Ocelot was talking about Snake?
Quiet's story is a tragedy presented as a farce: She gets barbecued by "Ishmael" in the opening, has parasites injected into her skin to replace her lungs and digestive track, survives getting her brains blown out by "Ahab" but assumes he's the former, follows him to Mother Base ready to release vengeance through her voice... and in the end, she sacrifices herself to save Venom, not only releasing the curse of the English Parasite forcing her to wander the desert alone, lest she infect the world, but is never able to come to terms with her feelings for the man who convinced her to become a gun. Not for honor, but for love. It's poetic... in a brain-dead kind of way.
It's annoying that so much focus has been put on her awesome baps because at the end of the day, she's the only character in here I wanted to spend time with. She assists you in the field, she's treated like dirt by your supposed friends, she betrays her commanding officer because she starts falling for Big Boss, same as the rest of us. Other than the whole "silent" gimmick, she fits right into the series, and the whole "dur hur paruhsites make no sense 'cause THE END" shit needs to stop. Like, now. You guys know the old man still had lungs, right? Working, not-charred like jerky lungs? That's why he fucking snores. The fact that Naked Snake gets the ability to use sunlight when wearing The End's camo snuggy doesn't suggest that Quiet could wear the same, rather it suggests that The End's clothing - rather than his entire body - was filled with the chlorophyllic parasites. And that just opens up a whole bunch of new potential retcons, doesn't it? But nah, let's all be snarky and joke about a hundred year old man in nylons instead instead of actually paying attention to the pseudo-science.
These guys also realize that Quiet's roughly as dressed as Big Boss in Naked Camo, right? And that wearing this gives you ZERO tactical advantage over putting on a shirt, right? But nah, there's no way this optional outfit is Metal Gear sneaking in a little dash of manservice, gotta be part of that adolescent male power fantasy...
Admit it: You'd let him remind you of the basics of CQC.
What's funny is that Quiet wouldn't have been so out of place in any other Metal Gear game. Metal Gear 2 had a Soviet spy who was also a figure skater who didn't realize that she was dating Frank goddamn Jaeger, because "Frank Hunter" was such a clever fucking alias. Metal Gear Solid 2 had The Fortune, a forlorn girl in a one-piece bathing suit and combat boots who couldn't get shot to end her life, and I mean that oddly literally. Metal Gear Solid 4 had the Beauty and Beast unit, and they...
Yeah. If a line was ever crossed into "...well, this is fucked up", it was the Beauty and Beast Corps. They moan seductively as you tranq them, they crawl and straddle you if you whip out the camera, and every single one of them is about as naked as you can get with a second skin of latex. They all have horrifying, tragic backstories, and the fact that they react to extreme trauma by wanting to grind on what appears to be a 70 year old Snake is... unsettling. It's not the sexuality itself, which is just silly, it's the direct connection to trauma, torture and violence that makes it so off-putting.
But that's kind of the whole point, isn't it? That you can choose to be an asshole and act like it's a Playboy shoot is entirely up to you. When I played through the boss battles I fought them for real using deadly weapons, and frankly, the battle with Laughing Octopus (above) is such a weird John Carpenter-esque nightmare that if you're getting off to this, you're probably a bad person with fetishes that make people regret looking underneath your bed.
Not that I'm not a bad person myself, or think that being a "bad person" is anything to take too seriously when we're talking the realms of fantasy. I have literally argued with people over the definition of "rape porn" because they think movies or books or what have you with graphic depictions rape - regardless of presentation and goal of the work in question - is instantly 'porn' or a celebration of sexual assault. As a dedicated connoisseur of rape porn I find that notion offensive! There's a wide range between the rape comedies of the Hong Kong CAT III period and the brutality of my favorite Chinese Cartoon Girls which are, in no uncertain terms, made exclusively to beat off to. If you want to use the words "rape porn" and don't know what Legend of the Overfiend, Raped by an Angel or Thriller: A Cruel Picture are, you really have no business talking about a varied subject you clearly know nothing about, much less projecting your personal turn-offs on a work you'd otherwise have no interest in. And there's the rub, I think. Art - or entertainment, media, whatever you think movies and games and such are - are allowed to offend and make viewers uncomfortable, if that's the story and the tone the creator wants to make.
I guess if your argument is "overt and non-story centered sexualization is stupid", I can't completely argue against it. I happen to think light-hearted, eye-rolling fanservice can be fun. Sometimes it's so bad it's just cringe-worthy. Quiet straddles the line (giggidy), but when it all comes to a head (goo) it's just... dumb. It's not offensive. It's not even creepy. It's just stupid, and considering the one line from the game everyone remembers is a guy named Skull Face screaming "WHOOOOO?!" at the top of his lungs, meh, at that point I can't get too worked up over it. Metal Gear is a franchise about how ugly bipedal robots that launch nuclear weapons are the height of technological warfare and a human clone with advanced aging has to stop an AI cluster's plot to control the trigger of every major manufacturer's weapon through the use of nanomachines, who fights a different old man who only brainwashed himself to think he was possessed by the spirit of a different dead clone to try and stop a machine that's taken down by an 8 year old girl who stole the plot from Independence Day, and also there's a cyborg ninja with robo-high heels who fights a hairy chested bisexual vampire with hyperspeed boots and a 90 minute cut scene in which two old men who barely know each other dump anghsty philosophy on each other in a graveyard I SWEAR I HAVE MADE NONE OF THIS SHIT UP.
In other words, "stupid" is nothing new to Metal Gear. Either you're used to it, or you already went back to Mobile Suit Gundam and/or Splinter Cell.
If your argument is "KOJIMA IS BETTER THAN THIS!" and "PREVIOUS GAMES WEREN'T THIS DISGUSTING!" and "THINK OF THE
...you clearly haven't been paying attention for the last decade or two. Inappropriate and questionable sexual tension is part of the charm at this point, and to Kojima's credit, he's about half as liable to undress and objectify men as he is women. Bitch all you want, games media and pals, but Kojima himself stated that Raiden was specifically designed to appeal to a female audience that wasn't fold of Solid Snake, and if you decide that Big Boss is more into ruffling around Kaz' banana hammock than Paz' frilly things, hey, that's all up to you.
Is Quiet stupid, particularly the way she shoves her ass into the camera for no real reason? Of course. She is. Is she reduced to a sex object by the camera? Every chance it gets. And does that undermine her character? Nah. Not unless being crammed up Snake's ass has made him a sex-fantasy object, too. For a game where words are in short supply - both thematic and literally - Quiet's actions are almost universally stunning, If you're arguing that a character's looks are ultimately the deciding factor in how seriously you take them, you're being honest and I can respect that, but unless you constantly bitch about how non-functional the average Final Fantasy or Dynasty Warriors costume is, I also think you're just being a touch ridiculous about it.
Hell, a friend of mine - who's no prude - grumbled about the "dancing in the rain" scene. I reminded him that he adores Berserk, and the only real difference is that in Berserk the two of them didn't actually want to stuff each other's gully holes, which makes the whole scene even dumber in a sense. Not that you shouldn't love Berserk, but for fuck's sake, will I be happy when I never have to hear about Quiet's tiddies again. I'd much rather hear how she was the despised yet sweet natured badass the Diamond Dogs deserved, not the martyred matron they seemingly all needed.
Besides, the fact that the one time anything remotely sexual happens to her is A) an act of violence, and B) ends with her absolutely DESTROYING that little fucker's junk says all you need to know about Kojima's view of the world; ain't no crime rubber necking, but keep those hands where she can see them, boys. If that's too much for you to handle, fuck it, I really don't know what to tell you.
Metal Gear is fucking dumb and yet over-explains every part of its dumbness. That's why people like it. If this is news to you, I'unno what to say, dude.
WHAT IF I'M A LIE?
If the plot were a mess but the characters themselves were engaging, this may have saved to some degree. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a flaming trainwreck of an overall narrative, trying like mad to explain away the intentionally broken meta-narrative of METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY, but at least its dedication to giving all the characters their moment in the sun makes it feel... alive, by comparison. Even when MGS4 sucks, it's at least dedicated to fleshing out and walling in the rich and well-rounded characters the series had been building up to that point. By the end of it all, I find "Liquid Ocelot" just as likable and even sincere in his dedication to The Boss' will as Solid Snake is to defeating The Patriots; two sides of the same coin, violently barreling towards the same goal, despite never fully realizing it. It's sad, it's brilliant, and it's just dumb enough that I can keep rolling with it... even when we get to shit like this.
...yeah, MGS4 is pretty retarded. But somehow it's still more likable than Phantom Pain. And a big part of that is because by and large, nobody in this game has any real personality.
You remember Revolver Ocelot? The guy who convinced himself he was Liquid Snake and grafted the dead fucker's arm onto his body and then hypnotized himself into believing it was true? The guy who was shown to be an absolute nut even as a kid, twirling pistols like an old Western hero and dedicating hours of the day to creating increasingly convoluted hand gestures and mewling like a cat? Yeah. Ocelot was a fucking madman, and when he became the default antagonist of MGS2 and MGS4, he owned it. Ocelot is a back-stabbing sociopath who'd sacrifice everything to let Big Boss' interpretation of The Boss' Will come to fruition, but he was always a spastic crazy person getting there.
So who the fuck is the southern drawl cowboy played by Nolan goddamn North? 'Cause he sure as shit isn't Ocelot. He's a dull textbook of in-world information spouting off 2 minute chunks of backstory at the drop of a hat - his presence in the Paz introductions being the scene that clinched it for me; Ocelot is not the same character he's been in every other incarnation. It's not "a new take", it's "some other asshole they named Ocelot". Phantom Pain is trying so goddamn hard to emulate a po-faced Tom Clancy narrative that Ocelot simply doesn't fit within its fabric, so he's been modulated into a generic... nothing.
Benedict "Kazuhira" Miller comes off only slightly better; Robert Atkin-Downes plays his role as the bitter, vengeance driven general straight to the hilt, and I absolutely respect every ounce he poured into a role that steals every scene he appears in. Unfortunately, Generic Ocelot and you-know-who kneecap virtually every attempt Miller has at finally succumbing to the darkness that consumes him; Ocelot tortures as a necessary evil, but he's so blase about the whole thing you'd think he was simply doing it to shut Miller up. Miller, meanwhile, gets veto'd at every step of the way, being denied not only satisfaction against Skull Face, but Huey as well.
I mean, yeah, Huey winds up getting cuckolded to death by his own son. Still doesn't make up for the bullshit "punishment" he got. Miller should have cut his legs off and kept them as a trophy. Literally anything would have been better than that.
And that all filters back to the biggest void in the game: Venom Snake. I understand it, memetically speaking; Phantom Pain posits the realization that Big Boss' legend wouldn't exist without gamers being desperate and hungry for more, to see how the lovably autistic Naked Snake fell from grace as the greatest hero of all time to become the blood thirsty madman of the Outer Heaven Uprising. By making "us" Big Boss, Kojima finally rejects the fourth-wall breaking rejection of war games as anything but a waste of time in MGS2 and lets us have our power fantasy. We become Big Boss, the feared mercenary who gave birth to the War Economy. Feared by the general public, loathed by the "real" puppet masters, and beloved by those who's lives begin and end on the blood stained battle field, Phantom Pain is the ultimate realization of Peace Walker's knowing commentary of Big Boss' "downfall" being the logical conclusion of his journey towards what he always saw as The Boss' will; the monster who's sole purpose is to perpetuate violence and retaliation as a means to an end, giving every group who feels wronged or that they deserve more than they have the manpower to take lives... not for life, not for honor, but for you. Big Boss' descent into violence and villainy is your own military simulator. Always has been, and it was at the endgame of Peace Walker - when Mother Base's theme changed from the yellow of peace to the red of combat - that Kojima made everything as clear as he possibly could. Hell, the final speech in Peace Walker - the first time Big Boss says "Outer Heaven"* - has far more nuance and understanding of the morally ambiguous position that Big Boss and Mother Base hold than the entirety of the Phantom Pain.
* Yeah, yeah, he mentions "Outer Heaven" in passing METAL GEAR SOLID: PORTABLE OPS, despite presumably using Gene's money to fund The Patriots, which is why he has to start from zero (hehe... I miss laughter...) after leaving Cipher. Actually wait, is Portable Ops even canon at this point? Screw it, can I just ignore how dumb that Null stuff is and then pretend Portable Ops is The Phantom Pain?
So what "missing link" does Phantom Pain ultimately cover? It can't do much, because Kiefer Sutherland's silent, stoic take on Big Boss is almost completely devoid of personality, other than always being merciful and just and fucking perfect at every step. Huey betrays us a second time and forces you, the player, to murder your own troops... your judgment is to put him on a life raft with food and water and let him figure it out. You're hired to kill child soldiers by a warlord who wants them silenced; you take the injured kids back to Mother Base and open a fucking day care. The player can "Go Nuclear" by building nuclear warheads and even growing a massive oni horn if he kills people and animals on a regular basis, but so fucking what? I hate to go full anon, but let's face it:
Big Boss Did Nothing Wrong. And that's bullshit. "Kaz, I'm already a demon." What? NO. No Venom, you're NOT! Even if we consider everything you did in Portable Ops and Peace Walker to be morally questionable (and it so is), what has he done? What honest thing has Venom Snake done to show the sort of self-loathing he shows when he rescues Kaz? Every line Venom gets seems to come out of nowhere - and that's when it comes out at all...
I don't want to get into the failings of Chapter 1 because, as weak as it was, I can live with it. It's only when you introduce the avalanche of unfinished, poorly executed and nonsensical clusterfuck of Chapter 2 that it all goes wrong, but the jeep ride with Skull Face sums up the impotence and misfires of MGSV almost perfectly. You create a bookend moment with the Ground Zeroes opening while Skull Face gives his evil villainous monologue, Big Boss sitting in silence and fidgeting like a hobo on the bus, and then once the villain has said his piece and you expect a quip, a threat, a question - for the hero to say literally fucking anything - instead, we get... well, just fucking look at it...
Such a list for theme songs...
We get 2 minutes of awkward silence while Donna Burke's amazing theme song echoes softly in the distance, like an impotent firework farting musical brilliance along the ground where no one can see them. It's painful. If one moment in The Phantom Pain can sum up why the strong, silent approach was a horrible idea, and how low Hideo Kojima has fallen as an interactive storyteller, this sequence speaks louder than words ever could. And I LIKED the fucking ladder scene in Snake Eater! At least that served as an act break, and was a reprive of a theme that we already liked, not as stretching for time minutes before the final battle and blowing the Donna Burke load all over the sheets before you ever got your boxers off.
If there was a single moment where my minor doubts and frustrations turned to blackened, seething fury, Chapter 30 was it. A pity, too. Skull Face may have been a goddamn Saturday morning cartoon villain in the end, but White George Takei was more fun than anything around him. Had THIS cornball in a ten gallon hat had been the final boss of Peace Walker, maybe that game would have been the finale I always wanted and never realized.
DID YOU LIKE IT?
The saddest part in all of this is I'm starting to piece together what a desperate, angry act of bridge-burning Chapter 2 really becomes. Zero's put into a coma by the late 70s thanks to Skull Face's parasites. Paz, Chico and Strangelove are dead. Huey is a filthy traitor. The Boss is reduced to a broken record. Miller is a crippled, bitter husk. Ocelot is boring. Skull Face is killed in the least satisfying manner possible by an annoying little shit. Quiet's gone. Volgin's lust for revenge extinguished... Eli and Baby Mantis are MIA, but the Collector's Edition spoils what'll inevitably happen next, and anything that isn't properly explained in the game itself (ie: EVERYTHING) is either given an over-long audio cassette, or is brushed off as unimportant.
I'm not even going to dignify the fact that "Parasites" are the new "Nanomachines" and that, much like Midichlorians, they've retconned them back into things that were well presented enough that nobody who knows how to have fun even questioned it. Oh, that guy shoots hornets? Oh. Okay, sure. Moving on. Fucking parasites, man...
All of this was pieced together on the fly, but there's a single theme running through it all:
KOJIMA'S FINAL ACT WAS ONE OF SABOTAGE.
EVERYONE IS EITHER DEAD OR A TOTAL ASSHOLE.
You really want a game starring a bitter, unlikable Miller? How about that back-stabber, Huey? You could do a "Real Big Boss" game if you wanted to, fulfill all those hopes and dreams of seeing a loli-Sniper Wolf and a young Decoy Octopus, I guess, but who really gives a shit after Quiet effectively replaced her in all but name? Venom Snake is a blank slate, but we know what he does from here; there's only so many more convoluted shenanigans Konami can cram him into, and the plot is so convoluted and full of retcons and contradictions that the far simpler answer would just be to hit the reset button. Arguably that's long overdue anyway, but Kojima spent so much time carpet bombing his own continuity that I can't help but think some of those little details - Strangelove and Chico dead, Huey being a scumbag, Code Talker being fucking useless, Quiet running off and being infested with deadly parasites besides - that a bit part of it was Kojima giving his employers as little opportunity to continue into METAL GEAR SOLID 666: OUTER HEAVEN RISING as was humanly possible.
That won't stop them, of course. Metal Gear Solid 6 will exist, and odds are it'll suck. But after the heartbreak of watching The Phantom Pain unfold and implode on itself form 60 to 0 in about 6 chapters flat, I don't know that it could be any more crushing. Phantom Pain had the potential to show the darker side of a man fans considered a hero, to really dig deep and wallow in the pain and misery that Big Boss' bloody revolution ultimately boiled down to. Ground Zeroes seemed ready and willing to walk down that path, but something - compromise, cowardice, maybe a little of both - ultimately keep this from being anything it needed to be to have a lasting impact.
Did I like it, Kojima? No, I fear I did not. I never thought I'd look at Peace Walker and think, man, the series probably should have quit while it was ahead, but that's where I'm at with this. It's a sad, wasted potential that only makes the rest of the Metal Gear universe worse by extension, and has for the first time in about a decade left me so furious that I want to write a fucking outline for the obvious conclusion that the teasers and promotional footage promised us, rather than the lies and misdirections we've been fed this whole time. I have no doubt that were Konami still in the business of actually focusing on console games this would have been less... broken, but the damage is already done, and there's no behind the scenes drama that can convince me that massive problems with the narrative are directly at the behest of Hideo Kojima itself.
"Remember when Metal Gear was still good?"
- No one, ever, when looking at this. Until now.
It's 1:30 in the morning. I have to get up for work in 5 hours. I've re-written parts of this more times than I can count, and if I don't hit "post" now I'll probably revise it another dozen times and add another five sub-sections referencing other reviews that hit points I've only touched on. I'm sure this write-up is as big a mess as the game it's brutalizing, but this is less a "review" and more a "purging", for my own sake. To put this all into perspective, I'm playing the Mad Max game to forget The Phantom Pain exists, even though the gameplay of the latter is infinitely more appealing than the former.
I don't understand what's happened. I just know this is almost as crushing and disgusting a feeling as The Phantom Menace was about 16 years ago. It's not that bad, no, but it's as big a wasted potential, with the Outer Heaven Uprising being the one last piece of the puzzle worth exploring only for this game to reference it for literally about 30 seconds in a fucking reflection of a mirror. Again, I kinda' like the ruse, but... how is THAT the focus of the game. with zero actual build-up?!
Realistically, in terms of "how mad am I", it's Prometheus levels. There's some admirable qualities and I could probably appreciate it if I wasn't already a fanboy, but I'm too close for this to be anything but rage fuel. But if these aren't made for fanboys, who the fuck are they for? Who else would put up with this bullshit, much less actually enjoy it?!
"We'll make diamonds from their asses." - Bad Boss, 1984
You'll never hear that line as anything else now. You're welcome.
Long live the man who sold the world... and may the memory of his phantom fade into obscurity.