(Earlier this week, I posted a review of Metal Gear Solid V in which I avoided spoilers. Here, I’ll discuss the story and it’s surprises in far more depth. This post will contain significant spoilers for the game, and is recommended only for people who are aware of its secrets)
Metal Gear Solid V’s story is a complete mess of disparate plotlines. Series director Hideo Kojima was likely well-aware that this would be his final Metal Gear title, so he engaged with every major idea he could. The power of language, English as a symbol of assimilation, the formation of private military forces, the origin of the Les Enfants Terrible project (the one that birthed Solid and Liquid Snake), early Metal Gears, the dilemma of what to do with child soldiers, the futility of revenge; all are focuses of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, yet rarely do they cross over into anything coherent.
Cassette tapes try to make sense of how selling remote-triggered nuclear warheads to foreign nations has anything to do with a planned attack on cultural assimilation via a plague of English-language attacking lung parasites, but try as the writers might, they never truly make the ideas come together into a cohesive plan. Nor does Skullface’s existence have anything to do with child soldier Eli, or how he’s a clone of player character Big Boss (or IS he?…more on that below), or the psychokinetic Third Child, or the reanimated fiery corpse of Metal Gear Solid 3 antagonist Volgin, or the ridiculous twist ending.
Honestly, in most cases, I’d be willing to give the lack of cohesion a pass, given the game’s episodic structure.The Phantom Pain’s story is broken up into roughly 35 pieces that are slightly more digestible on their own. Because of this, there is less burden on the whole and more of a focus on individual moments. A lot of these story threads, particularly Skullface’s nationalist rationale, resonate in the same way that many of Kojima’s high-concept real-world-inspired musings do. Even ideas as silly as throat parasites, which copulate and spread when they feel the vibrations of specific languages, lead to some phenomenal moments.
One example is a mission in which Snake is forced to murder every single recruit in his quarantine zone to prevent mutated parasites from spreading to the outside world. It’s a harrowing and crushing sequence. Each soldier is somebody you’ve personally recruited in your missions, and despite a prompt to spare anybody who is not symptomatic, they’re ALL symptomatic, and they all must die. Meanwhile, the game continues with its mission text pop-ups, informing you with each headshot that you’re losing “heroism points” for the deaths of your soldiers. There is no alternative to your actions, but when your recruits stand by and salute you, loyal to their very last moments, you can’t help but feel like you’ve betrayed them. A similarly great moment comes later, when Quiet has to call in a helicopter to evacuate you as you lie dying. Since she is infected with the English parasite strain, every word out of her mouth is damning her further. A simple radio command becomes an ultimate sacrifice.
This is great, great stuff in a game jam-packed with fantastic gameplay. But the fact is, a lot of these disparate threads WERE meant to come together. Konami just didn’t let Kojima Productions finish it.
The most egregiously unfinished plotline in the game revolves around Eli and the child soldiers. The main crux of “Chapter 2,” which was intended to be a middle chapter but functions more as an epilogue after Chapter 3 wasn’t finished, is that Eli is dissatisfied at Big Boss’ Mother Base. He rallies the other child soldiers and spearheads a rebellion. Finally, they steal Sahelanthropus (the game’s proto-Metal Gear), escape…and are never seen again.
However, those with the game’s collector’s edition can watch this “Phantom Episode” that was cut somewhere in development. In most cases, cut content is material that was created for a piece of entertainment but was decided to be superfluous or structurally problematic. But this isn’t some random piece cut from the game, it’s the ACTUAL CONCLUSION OF THE STORY. Instead of shrugging off a nation of child soldiers with access to a walking nuclear-equipped tank, Snake goes after Eli and has a heart-to-heart with him which is paramount to his development into Liquid Snake. It also manages to tie together the parasites, Sahelanthropus, the Third Child, and Eli in a way that the rest of the game fails to. It’s not just a deleted scene, it’s the smoking gun that proves that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was released unfinished. Somehow a game with 80+ hours of content is startlingly incomplete.
However, the final disappointing piece of the narrative cannot be blamed entirely on Konami’s decision to release the game unfinished. Without the actual climax and conclusion to the overarching narrative, The Phantom Pain instead relies on a twist ending via a replay of the game’s very first mission, titled “THE TRUTH.” Here, we find out that we have not been playing as legendary soldier Big Boss at all, but instead a medic who also fell into a coma nine years before and was transformed, via surgery and memory implants, into a “Phantom” Big Boss.
There are many possible issues with such a twist in what is essentially the middle of the Metal Gear saga, the most likely being the logic of it. Given how much of the story rests on Big Boss’s legacy and his “death” by the hands of Solid Snake, does it hang together whatsoever if Big Boss were replaced in the 1980s? Surprisingly, yeah, it kind of does, thanks to 45 minutes of cassette tape exposition and two on-screen timelines (for the interested, the “real” Big Boss ordered Snake to attack Outer Heaven in MG1, Snake killed the “Phantom” Big Boss in that game, and then he went after the “real” Big Boss in MG2). Kojima and his writers jump through a lot of hoops, but it seems to hold up fairly well to scrutiny
The next biggest potential pitfall is with character development. Since Metal Gear Solid V is ostensibly the story about how Big Boss became the villain of the series, wouldn’t the information that you were a fake and the “real” Big Boss were out there trying to achieve something good ruin the arc of the game? Well, it would, if MGSV had succeeded at all in presenting some kind of character development for the Boss. Instead, he’s the same dubiously-good man at the end of the game as he is the beginning, running a scary nuclear-equipped private military force but ultimately saving the world and fighting for unity. In a way, the twist is protected by the game’s own ineptitude.
But the ultimate problem with the twist is that it’s fucking meaningless. It’s a huge complication to the story which adds absolutely nothing of value. In terms of the events of the game, the only people who knew you weren’t Big Boss, aside from the Boss himself, are dead or brainwashed. You thought you were Big Boss the whole time, and your memories/personality were his, so your decisions and actions are ostensibly the same as they would have been had the “real” Boss been in charge. It feels like something grafted onto the “end” (which, again, is just the first mission replayed), meant to feel earth-shattering while having no real impact on the story.
In the end, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has something in common with its protagonist. It looks and feels like a complete, AAA title, but like Phantom Boss’s hand, there’s something missing, a “Phantom Pain” of what would exist had MGSV been finished in its entirety. And any future games will also share a bond with Phantom Boss: they’ll look and play like Metal Gear titles, and they’ll have the same memories, but without Kojima behind the wheel, they’ll never be the real thing.