The following is an analysis of The Phantom Pain containing spoilers.
The narrative gap between Snake Eater and Metal Gear was not a huge one. Snake Eater depicted an inciting event that could push Big Boss down his dark path and players could fill in the gaps. Then Peace Walker filled in the gaps anyway, showing him building a guns-for-hire group and amassing weapons of mass destruction, essentially the reason for Solid Snake’s infiltration of Outer Heaven in the very first game.
Big Boss’ darkness only needed to be pushed a tiny bit further and that tiny bit is Ground Zeroes. His life’s work is annihilated, two innocent kids are blown to pieces and part of his own life is stolen. Players are Big Boss in Ground Zeroes, but they lose him at the end. Big Boss’ fall is fully illustrated and so, with The Phantom Pain, Kojima just does it again. He creates a second Big Boss to go through different trials and tribulations, becoming another broken and dangerous man.
A tragic downfall can be passively observed in a movie or a book, but this consistency is impossible in games. All players put their own skew on the narrative. The Snake who didn’t break a sweat making a no-kill stealthy run through Shadow Moses is a different one to my Snake who struggled and gunned his way through. A friend of mine even said, not knowing the ending: “I don’t like Big Boss. He’s a huge idiot the way I play it”. In order to continue Big Boss’ downfall further, in a way that is set in stone, where no heart of gold player could play it or interpret it differently, he needed to be a secondary character.
At the same time, the game uses the character and name you inserted at the beginning as the true identity of Venom Snake, and the aim seems to be to literalise the connection between the player and the Snakes of every game in the series.
Many players feel robbed, but Naked Snake and Solid Snake only needed one game to win most fans over. However, Venom speaks so little that he doesn’t even have as much time to charm and establish himself as Raiden did in Sons of Liberty. On the other hand, being chatty would have made him less of a blank slate representation of the player and could have made fans even angrier, feeling that all the character development had been robbed from Big Boss.
It is hard to describe Venom as anything other than quiet, making him very suited to romance with the character of the same name. With two almost mute characters, it is up to actions and audience imagination to construct the relationship. Successful execution comes down to the player’s own feelings about Quiet, which is appropriate, since Venom represents the player. The scene of the two splashing around in the rain could be touching, or it could be distasteful, but either way, the attempt to portray love without words is interesting.
Rather than not speaking because of emotional or physical trauma, which is an over-represented theme in media, Quiet’s reason for silence is satisfyingly heroic. Her kidnapping late in the game could undermine her strength as a character and turn her into a damsel, but Snake literally stands there, helpless and in awe, as she rips her assailants to shreds. It is instead Miller who is the subject of rescue in The Phantom Pain (as well as hundreds of other random prisoners including Hideo Kojima himself), though damsels don’t usually get their lust for revenge and trauma illustrated to quite the same extent.
Unfinished cutscenes showcased in bonus content of the game has led to some uproar, with players suggesting that the game is incomplete. However, defeating Sahelanthropus for a third time would be the opposite of besting a recurring, terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe. Though it seems right for a videogame to end with a big flashy action scene and a huge boss, that already happens twice throughout the game and both times that giant Metal Gear is defeated by one man with some guns. If you want to fight Sahelanthropus again, there is a harder version of that final fight and if you think that isn’t fun then why would it be in mission 51? Even if you do feel that the game should end with a climactic action sequence, Quiet’s final scene at the close of the game is an explosive affair with an army of tanks closing in on the two protagonists.
It is true that Eli’s inclusion in The Phantom Pain is quite strange considering that there is no pay off, but to say it built up to some conclusion would be misleading. The first time he says an elaborate sentence is just before he makes a run for it. Eli’s lust for revenge powers Sahelanthropus, making him a candidate for the true villain of the game, but there are no great verbal clashes between him and Snake, no thorough exploration of what makes him hate him so much and a final cutscene with a few more lines would not have fixed that. At the end of the deleted cutscene, Eli and the third child are left alone after being beaten by Snake, which is exactly the same position they are in at the end of the actual game.
On the flip-side, there is one character in the game who very much does justify their inclusion, unexpectedly. Otacon’s father, Huey, could have been a very contrived addition, first appearing in the portable games. In the Peace Walker he seemed to be pretty much a proto-Otacon, but his characterisation in The Phantom Pain completely subverts expectations. A pathological liar with murderous tendencies, Huey ends up being a very different character to his son. His inclusion gives his son’s story context and enhances it, elaborating on his family’s dark legacy of violence and warmongering that he must escape.
The Phantom Pain doesn’t feel like the perfect send off for the series, but Kojima has already given fans the crowd pleasing end with Guns of the Patriots. Metal Gear Solid V is a final display of the sneaky director’s knack of subverting expectations, even if he alienates people in the process. For some, the wounds are fresh and deep, with the blade pushed in deeper due to heaps of hype. The Phantom Pain does not follow the logical path of where the franchise seemed to be heading, narratively and stylistically, but it is a credit to the series that it did not stagnate and is always evolving.
The series feels like it is aching for a remake of Metal Gear 1 and 2. It does not feel right for the character who was fleshed out in Snake Eater, Peace walker and V to be defeated by Solid Snake in 8-bit. Could it be told by Hideo Kojima? Would it be possible or wanted without him? Only time will tell.
Painting by Thomas Mahon