Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an interesting failure. Or at least its greatness is inextricably tangled up in its badness. Its ambition and craftsmanship is as breathtaking as its vices are frustrating. True to the game’s subtitle and themes, by the end of it all I was left with a kind of haunted, phantom pain feeling. And I can’t decide if that’s a feature or a bug.
Indeed, even the circumstances surrounding the game seemed to have conspired in this direction. Although series creator Hideo Kojima hitherto had (unusual for the triple A gaming industry) an almost George Lucas level of control over his franchise, the development of TPP saw Konami giving him the pink slip and cutting the project short. The result is that what was released was a stitched together torso acting as an unexpected swan song for Kojima, Metal Gear and Konami as a whole (as their firing of Kojima has been part of their movement away from the gaming scene to more lucrative markets).
Nevertheless, TPP released to rave reviews from both the gaming and mainstream press, being hailed as the magnum opus of the franchise. And this helped convince me to give it a try: although Metal Gear and I go way back, 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots had convinced me that the franchise had taken an Evel Knievel leap over an entire row of sharks.
Trying to explain the premise of TPP in a completely perspicuous manner is an exercise in futility, as the game is so awash in Metal Gear canon and mythos that even I had to bring myself up to speed on some things in order to follow along. But to put it into perspective, TPP has the same function that Revenge of the Sith had for the Star Wars franchise – it acts as a segue from the world of the prequel games to the original 1987 Metal Gear game. The Star Wars comparison is even more apt when one considers that the prequel games are the origin story of Big Boss, the original series villain.
Anyway, TPP begins with Big Boss waking up from a nine year coma in 1984. Said coma was due to an assassination attempt by a terrorist called Skull Face, who also wiped out the Boss’ mother base (events which were covered in Ground Zeroes, which I have not played). After a nightmarish escape from a hospital, Big Boss begins rebuilding his forces under the moniker of Diamond Dogs, with the eventual aim of avenging himself on Skull Face.
At this point the game proper begins, and you find yourself doing a lot of missions in large, exquisitely designed sandbox environments. All of the standard Metal Gear stealth mechanics are present, albeit streamlined into a far more accessible form. On the other side of things is a business sim that consists of building Mother Base. In almost RPG fashion the game requires you to farm manpower and resources in order to build up new equipment for Big Boss to use, among other things.
The mission objectives are pretty repetitive, often boiling down to, “rescue the x” or “destroy the x” This would, in itself, be enough to condemn the game. But the real inspiration is in how the massive world, combined with the polished stealth mechanics and the RPG elements makes these missions feel unique and nonlinear, prompting players to develop their own improvisatory strategies for making it to the finish line. Even something like a simple change of locale can make one rescue operation feel completely different from another, given how much care was put into making each area of the game world unique in its design. To sweeten the deal are cassette tapes containing 80s music that you can find and play. You haven’t lived if you’ve never destroyed a caravan of tanks to the synth-laden tunes of, “The Final Countdown.”
That said, some of these missions are just poorly designed, and the majority of the side missions (which might as well be mandatory if you want your tech to remain current) are just busywork. The boss battles are often frustrating, feeling like they’ve been dropped in from a different, more twitchy game.
Most of these missions are tangential to the main plot about Skull Face, which is doled out in small quantities over the course of many hours. And while it is an enjoyable (if a bit pedestrian and mean spirited) bit of spy fiction, it never really becomes the operatic revenge tragedy that the introduction promises. The characters never undergo any real coherent arcs, and the story-gameplay disconnect never goes away. And this is from a series that once revolutionized the industry by producing the first truly, ‘cinematic’ video game
And then you unlock Chapter Two.
TPP’s incomplete status becomes transparent at this point, as the vast majority of missions here are actually just missions from Chapter One on higher difficulty settings. It’s a testament to the strength of the core gameplay that this doesn’t wreck the game. I was still having enough fun that I was more than willing to revisit older missions from a different perspective.
Still, the entire final third of the game feels increasingly disjointed and fragmented as it progresses. And this is mirrored by the plot, which begins to meander along aimlessly (in spite of featuring some individual moments that I found to be moving and tragic) until it finally comes to a total standstill. If you muck around enough, you eventually unlock a mission that reveals, a “True Ending” which doesn’t provide any dramatic closure but instead gives a Hitchcockian twist that recontextualizes the game.
The end result is the feeling that you’ve been spending the past forty hours or so on a wild goose chase, that the entire game was some massive red herring that you were cajoled into playing. Again, I was left with a lingering phantom pain.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I love this game.
I’ve complained before about how Star Wars has encouraged a lot of pop franchises to become pointlessly convoluted, serialized sagas. Metal Gear is a case in point, and Metal Gear Solid 4 (the final game, chronologically speaking) is a specific example of a work so entangled in its predecessor’s continuity issues, and so insistent in its desire to tie everything together into a grand finale, that it became a tiresome spectacle lacking any sort of unique identity.
The Phantom Pain, whether intentionally or not, acts as a metaphor for how this approach to storytelling more often than not just leads to frustration and expectations that cannot be kept. While individual games in the series may have interesting stories in their own right, the overarching plot of the series is a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. TPP’s fragmentation indicates how the attempt to tell an epic saga was just a red herring that was doomed to failure. And paradoxically this ends the series on a more satisfying note than any Revenge of the Sith style attempt to Tie It All Together would have been.
TPP’s choice of Moby-Dick is thus ironically fitting, as that was a novel whose opening chapters promise an epic adventure story about one man’s crazy revenge scheme, and which deliberately subverts those expectations by becoming an encyclopedia of whaling lore, with disjointed scenes suggesting a Miltonic tragedy that never really emerges. In spite of Metal Gear Solid 2 revealing Kojima’s love for cajoling his audience, I doubt that TPP’s approach was entirely deliberate (given the project’s circumstances). Still, the fact that it promises an epic tragedy, only to become lost in its own sandbox-stealth mechanics, military arcana, weird sci-fi theories and 80s nostalgia is not without its interesting parallels.
(The really heinous aspect of the game has already been almost universally condemned: Quiet’s character design. It’s not just that the only major female character is skimpily dressed – it’s how much the game wants to fetishize her, and leer over her. It’s a juvenile attempt to titillate the audience which comes across as creepy and awkward. Although her character was genuinely interesting, it was a bit hard to take her seriously when the game was so intent on shoving her breasts and her butt in my face as much as possible. [I also heard a lot of people complaining that Ground Zeroes’ content went too far in its desire to be shocking, and, from what I’ve read, it sounds pretty unpleasant. Transgressiveness is a poor artistic substitute for originality.])
Anyway, at the end of it all we’re left with the paradox of The Phantom Pain being a laundry list of game-breaking gripes that nevertheless managed to keep me engrossed for an absurd number of hours. Its narrative was hollow, but kept me gripped and even moved me at times. According to the game’s own counter, I’ve still only seen about half of the game’s total content. Perhaps someday I’ll hit 100%, but until then it’ll linger – like a phantom pain (har, har).