Dawn is breaking over the Kungenga diamond mine, a crude pit of conflict capitalism and child slavery hacked into the jungle straddling the lawless border of Angola and Zaire. The place is thick with gunmen — irregular forces loyal to the ruling Buta tribe — so I took my time infiltrating, carefully picking the best route through the sprawling camp. I put to sleep the guards I couldn’t risk sneaking past, either via my tranquilizer pistol or a chokehold, and dragged their bodies into the brush to cover my trail.
The mission — to eliminate a handful of prisoners being held by the Butas before they could be interrogated and give up any intel — was uncomplicated. I anticipated stealing away from Kungenga with hours of darkness left to cover my escape. But things have changed. And now here I am, the sky getting brighter by the minute, shepherding a handful of children — one of whom I have to carry because he’s too weak to walk — through a hornet’s nest of gunmen.
Using my iDroid handheld, I check a map and call in an escape chopper. We follow the stream and then head slightly right, over a couple of hills to the landing zone, a rocky clearing about half-a-kilometer away. When I put my iDroid away, I see them — three mercenaries. Why are they here and who are these guys working for? They’re coming up the streambed toward us. My heart is pounding so hard that my ears are pumping against my headphones. My hands, slicked with sweat, can barely grip the video-game controller.
“Wait,” I whisper to the kids. I lay the weakened boy down behind a bush and steal forward, taking aim with my silenced assault rifle. I put a round into each merc’s head. Can’t risk these guys waking up.
The sun is shining now. I’m waving the children forward when I see more mercenaries in the streambed and on the hills on either side. I move as fast as I dare without breaking cover and snap rounds at mercenaries, trying to punch a hole to freedom. Then the alarm goes up over enemy radio; either someone found the unconscious guards back at the camp or the tranquilizer drugs simply wore off. Either way, it doesn’t matter, because now I can hear the helicopter whup-whup-whupping in the distance and so can everyone else.
I’m firing my assault rifle on full auto now, the children running right behind me. We’re less than 200 meters from the LZ — we’re going to make it — and I’m weighing the pros and cons of having us break into a dead sprint for the chopper when the realization hits me like a hard slap to the face: the boy! I put him down and I forgot about him. Oh my god, the boy. (It is worth mentioning that if you find this scenario to mirror so many of the real-life atrocities we see in the news at home and abroad, you’re not alone. Part of the power of this game is that it places the player within situations that decreasingly seem fictional.)
Thumb holding down the sprint button so hard that my hand shakes, I run back, all pretense of stealth out the window. I find the boy, scoop him up, and double back toward the children, but the mercenaries find them instead, defenseless and alone, and mercilessly gun them down.
The late Roger Ebert once said about video games that “the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.” I wonder what he might’ve said after playing through Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain mission I just described. Leaving aside the fact that the definition of art constantly shifts along with changes in the culture at large, developer/auteur Hideo Kojima’s nearly three-decade-spanning Metal Gear series — because of the way it floats free from the moorings of its technical and textual details to shape moments of surprising power that emerge not wholly from the script but from how the player plays the game — deserves to be analyzed in the same way that we analyze the arts. It’s a game that is in turns brilliant and stupid, shockingly emotionally affecting and shamefully sexist, confusing and super confusing, dead serious and comically absurd. It’s a game about global warfare and nukes and genetic experimentation that lets you hide, and run around, inside a cardboard box. And it is somehow still a great game.
The Metal Gear series is famed among fans and critics alike for the labyrinthine nature of its narrative. To paraphrase Looper, if we start talking about what Metal Gear is about, then we could be here all day and next thing you know we’d be making diagrams with straws. The narrative story, which is nearly impossible to summarize, follows numerous characters who have similar names, some of whom are in fact clones of each other, who have switched allegiances several times over the course of a series that spans nearly six fictional decades. Just when you think you find an edge in the story to hold on to, the tale folds in on itself.
Complicating efforts to understand the story, the sequence of the games’ release dates does not correlate to the fictional narrative timeline. Some quick examples:
1987’s Metal Gear (NES), the first release in the series, takes place in a fictional 1995. The game’s hero is novice FOXHOUND field operative Solid Snake. Snake’s mission is to infiltrate the South African breakaway military nation of Outer Heaven. Eventually, it’s revealed that Snake’s commanding officer in FOXHOUND, named Big Boss, is actually the founder of Outer Heaven and thus the game’s villain.
In the groundbreaking Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 (PS1), the year is 2005 . The terrorist leader Liquid Snake leads a reconstituted FOXHOUND to seize an Alaskan nuclear weapons facility. Liquid Snake reveals to Solid Snake that they are both products of the shadowy Les Enfants Terrible project, which created clones using DNA harvested from Big Boss. Meaning Liquid and Solid are “brothers” and also the “sons” of Big Boss.
2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2) is the “first” story in the series. Set in 1964 against the backdrop of the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it tells the story of a young U.S. special forces operative code-named “Naked Snake” who is tasked with, among other things, rescuing a kidnapped weapons designer. Naked Snake’s commanding officer/mentor/mother figure is a woman named The Boss. Naked Snake succeeds in his mission — defeating The Boss, who, as it happened, was a double agent — and is given the title “Big Boss.”
Kojima told Game Informer in 2014 that “having a complex story is not my intention at all. It’s nothing I ever shoot for or try to do. Ideally what I want to do is, for example, make a story that seems very simple, it’s very easy to understand on the surface, and once you zoom in there’s a lot of details and a lot of things that you can see there. But overall, ideally I try to stay within a story that once you zoom out the main story is rather simple.” We’ll agree to disagree on that one.
What makes Metal Gear games interesting, though, is not what they’re about. What makes them interesting is what the games are About. Some of the themes that The Phantom Pain (which takes place in a fictional 1984, 11 years before the events of the original Metal Gear game) touches on are nuclear proliferation, the morality of warfare in a democracy, child soldiers, genetic experimentation, biological warfare, and cultural hegemony. Those numerous, often contradictory elements contained within games conspire (sometimes accidentally) to create a holistic experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The aforementioned mission to Kungenga mine is a perfect example. Intentional or not, confusion — about the plot, about who the characters are and what they want, about which shadowy group is ultimately THE group behind THE overarching conspiracy against peace and democracy — is central to the experience of playing these games. Often, the player is sure of nothing more than the set of instructions given in the briefing screen before each mission. At Kungenga, my play, and the time I chose to infiltrate the mine, were based on what I thought was a simple hit job. But when I finally got into the mine and discovered that my targets were children, rendered with virtuosic fidelity by the game engine as if from the far side of the Uncanny Valley, my mind reeled. Do I still have to kill them? I thought, panicking. When I realized I didn’t, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the accrued weight of the game experience fell on me at once: The amount of time I’d invested in this mission, the way the cutscene revealing the children was framed and shot, the way the game let me tell the kids to wait or go but only if I was close enough to them to hear me — all those details conspired to arouse some primal instinct to not let those (virtual!) children come to harm and amplified my devastation when I failed.
The experience of playing that mission, and failing in the way I did, is personal, individualized. The way I played the mission created the story.
Kojima once said of his ambitions: “When you actually play my games, I don’t want people to play them just for fun or because they have nothing else to do. I want the players to find something more to enrich their lives through games. Your outlook on life might change as a result of playing Metal Gear Solid.”
The mission to Kungenga mine may not have changed my outlook on life, but it did give me one of the most intense, emotionally devastating fictional experiences in recent memory. And it did so in a way that’s only possible through video games.
The Phantom Pain’s development cycle and Kojima’s relationship with his employer have been arguably as dramatic as the game itself. In July, Konami removed Kojima’s name from the finalized cover art for The Phantom Pain. This followed reports that Kojima was expected to split from Konami, for whom he has worked for nearly 30 years, as the company sought to move away from big-budget games (The Phantom Pain’s development price tag reportedly came in around the $80 million mark) to smaller, more nimble projects. Soon after Kojima’s name was removed from the box art, Kotaku published a story about the paranoid working conditions within Konami.
The game also seems like a metaphor for Kojima’s deteriorating relationship with Konami. One of the underlying strands of The Phantom Pain’s gameplay narrative is Big Boss’s goal to escape the web of conspiracies ensnaring him by building his own independent military operation called the “Diamond Dogs.” 1 The player accomplishes this either by rescuing highly trained people who have fallen into enemy hands or by dragooning skilled enemy soldiers. Skilled labor is extracted from the field and flown to Mother Base. One of the hostages that Big Boss can rescue — side mission 112, “Extract the Intel Team member being held captive by the enemy” — is none other than Hideo Kojima himself. Certainly, Kojima’s decision to begin and end each and every mission with a credits sequence that reads, in part, “Created and directed by Hideo Kojima,” appears nothing short of a double-barreled middle finger at Konami removing his name from the game art.
Kojima wears his influences on his sleeve throughout the Metal Gear series. In The Phantom Pain, in addition to having Boss’s mercenary group named the Diamond Dogs, the game opens with Midge Ure’s spooky 1982 cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” As Big Boss stirs from his coma, a hallucination of himself says, “Call me Ishmael,” and the helicopter that ferries Boss to and from missions is named The Pequod. The code name “Snake” and corresponding character design were lifted from John Carpenter’s white-flight-as-action-adventure-movie Escape From New York.
The game is not without its weaknesses. The Phantom Pain also features a selection of non-playable characters (NPCs) that can be selected as part of Big Boss’s field team for missions. I think it says something interesting, and not very flattering, about Kojima that the characters he created as buddies for the hero, Big Boss, are a dog, a horse, a robot, and a half-naked, super-powered woman who doesn’t speak. Her name is Quiet. She goes into battle wearing a black bikini top, torn black leggings over a black thong, and boots. When not in the field with Big Boss, she’s kept in a cage, where she takes at least one shower and generally hangs out with her top off. While riding with Big Boss in the mission chopper, she will occasionally mount her flight seat on all fours and bend over for no apparent reason. Yoga, I guess.2
“Of course, I was surprised to see Quiet’s outfit at first,” actress Stefanie Joosten (who plays Quiet in the game) said during a 2013 Q&A, and when a professional model is surprised by an outfit, that, I think, is notable. “But, you know, it fits in the Metal Gear universe, I think. I don’t think I’m allowed to say a lot about this, but, well, Mr. Kojima has his reasons for deciding why Quiet [is] wearing what she’s wearing.”
The story does provide science-y reasons involving parasites for why Quiet won’t/can’t wear clothes, but c’mon. In 2013, Kojima explained via Twitter that “I created her character as an antithesis to the women characters appeared in the past fighting game who are excessively exposed. ‘Quiet’ who doesn’t have a word will be teased in the story as well. But once you recognize the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words & deeds.” Which is a slightly different way of saying Kojima would like to have his cake and eat it, too, answering criticisms regarding the depictions of women in video games by using a sexualized depiction of a woman in a video game.
Later in the game, the player encounters a cadre of female snipers who underwent the same parasite procedure as Quiet. The cutscene that introduces them focuses so fervently on their breasts and butts that it is almost funny. Almost.
The Phantom Pain, like the Metal Gear series as a whole, is full of contradictions. It’s a game with an anti-war message that fetishizes battle. It gives the player an arsenal of weaponry then asks him not to kill. It’s critical of power and those who seek it but features a hero who is assembling a private mercenary army. It lets you control a super-solider of legendary prowess, then highlights his vulnerability. Those contradictions are what give Pain its power and are how it manages to transmit something like the feeling of mortality, of danger, of being more than a disposable entertainment.
After my failed mission to the Kungenga mine, I turned off my Xbox and took a walk. I couldn’t bear to go back and start over from some mid-mission checkpoint. Not only would I lose my progress, but the force of the narrative that had built up organically as the momentum of the mission picked up would be gone. Next time I would know what to do and the experience would just be a video game again.
But maybe that’s what I need — for it be a video game again. Maybe next time I’ll relax a little and climb into the cardboard box. In forest camo, of course.