Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - Let's Get Critical
NOTE: This is intended to follow my previous piece, Metal Gear Solid V: In Loving Memory of Rabid Heron. If you haven't read that yet, I strongly suggest you do so before continuing. :)
I'm a fan of Penn & Teller. The way they approach the performance of magic is fascinating to me. I have a good time watching their more famous tricks, where they do what all of the best magicians do and seemingly pull off the impossible, but I think I have a better time watching them do classic magic, the tricks we've all seen before. Because we've all seen them before, that affords Penn and Teller the opportunity to show you how they're achieved. We're not really losing anything by seeing the man behind the curtain if we all knew he was there in the first place, right? But the joy doesn't come from seeing how the magic trick was achieved, no. It comes from seeing how the magic trick was achieved, but still being amazed that it's possible. That's the brilliance of Penn & Teller. While Penn plays a double-bass and walks you through the basic principles of sleight of hand, Teller stands side-on to the audience and demonstrates those principles with a white pencil and a lit cigarette. It's all so simple when it's laid out for you, but could you do it? Probably not. And in spite of all you now know about how the cigarette got lit, you still have no idea how Teller, right at the end, made the fucking thing disappear. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that you can see that it isn't real, but you don't care. That's magic.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain consistently reminds you that it's watching you, and that it's taking notes. At the close of every mission is a roster of statistics. At any point, you can open the Options menu and delve deeper. You can find out how many tanks you've sequestered. You can find out exactly how many kilometers you've walked, to the meter. It ensures that you know that it has its eye on you.
It is a game that wants to be seen as limitless. It isn't, of course; as a tangible product of our known existence, it must have borders. But obfuscation can be a powerful tool, and the game utilises it without prejudice. There are a lot (a lot) of things you can do in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but the game offers up these possibilities with a reluctant sparseness, for it would much rather you discover them on your own. There are few scenarios in which you can imagine yourself settling on playing a recorded tape of a soldier with violent diarrhea whilst hiding in a portable toilet so as to deter the curious guard on the other side of the door from investigating the suspicious noise further. And yet, it can be done. And it works. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain doesn't seem to care if you ever find this out, for it draws satisfaction just from knowing that it exists, and that one day, you might find it.
A man is the main character of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. The particulars of their genetic structure differ from entry to entry, but bar a couple, you play as an iteration of a man named Snake. That changed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. While you still sneak around bases, killing or knocking out baddies in between extended periods of intense political, philosophical, and supernatural melodrama, you also manage a base of operations. You run a company, and that company needs personnel, which you acquire by abducting enemy soldiers and prisoners of war with magic balloons throughout your time on the ground. It's here that we find another instance of the game withholding its possibilities, as you can play any mission as any one of these personnel. You can affect the tremendous change that the game's story walks you down as someone other than Snake. The only instances in which you are reminded that this story belongs to the man with the eye-patch is during the cutscenes, which understandably, couldn't be rendered for every possible facial permutation.
Here's the really interesting part, though: there are women in this game. I mean, if you're reading this with any familiarity towards Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, then you likely already know that there is a woman in the game, and that there are as many pieces trying to dissect her appearance and treatment as subtle criticism to the way straight men choose to see these characters as there are pieces using common sense to cut the shit. Depiction of a thing is not always endorsement of a thing, but by the same token, nor is it always opposition of a thing. But I digress. There are women in this game. Of the soldiers and POWs that you can recruit, a small percentage are female. And, like all of the men, you can play as them.
It's important to note the labour required to achieve this. To successfully execute play as a woman, Kojima Productions needed to model, rig, texture and animate a character controller for a different body type, and record voice acting. The games industry is regularly questioned on its absence of anybody other than men as playable characters in games with self-identification as a selling point, and often the excuse is that games take a lot of time and effort, and cuts need to be made somewhere. In other words, "Your identity is not a priority to us." With that in mind, not only did Kojima Productions do the work that's reportedly one for the too-hard basket, but it fell into the pile of things not to directly tell you about. Playing as other characters, including women, is not spoken of until you stumble upon it. I'm not about to discredit the herculean amount of work that went into the making of this product, from a large amount of people no less, but if something so often labelled as too much work can be silently slipped into the margins fully formed, isn't that the last nail in the coffin of that bullshit argument?
Being able to play as a woman is important to me, because diversification of representation is important to me. As such, as soon as I discovered its possibility, I went through my personnel menu, found Rabid Heron, and made her my sole operative for field work that didn't directly require Snake's narrative involvement. The game didn't once balk or make comment on my choice. It was one possibility in its limitless pool, and more than anything, it was happy I'd found it.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain let me play as Rabid Heron. It also made me kill her. She was the soldier I had spent the highest amount of hours playing as, besides Snake himself. Before calling it a day on the game, I had clocked north of 100 hours. That's a lot of content, and this moment was but a blip as far as time measurement goes. But to me, that blip sent humongous ripples through what had come before it, and what would after. It was singular, and encompassing, but most importantly, it was mine. You didn't spend hours upon hours exploring Afghanistan and Angola with Rabid Heron. Only I did. And only I put a bullet in her head.
In my previous post, I spoke of how I replaced Rabid Heron at the game's halfway point. That wasn't a lie. One of your rewards for finishing the first section of the game was a series of super duper recruits, in case you'd let the organisational rope slack. One of them was a woman with a high combat rating, and with Rabid Heron still possessing a higher statistical advantage in the Intelligence department, the thought of the swap barely crossed my mind. The realistic implications of my virtual actions were not made apparent until the game took time to grab me by the shoulders and pivot me head on towards my consequence.
When I recognised Rabid Heron as another incurable, infected soldier, my first thought was that this was intentional. I'd already been playing in a digital sandbox bigger than most, with more than enough surprises drawn from the game's hidden treasures. Also, as mentioned, it was keeping tabs. It was not at all outside of the realm of possibility that, when it came time in the narrative to deal with the new strain of the parasite, lines of code were executed to identify the character that I had spent the most time playing as, so as to add them to the pile of people to put out of existence.
The purpose of that mission - Shining Lights, Even In Death - is to put a pin in the moment that this version of Snake went from grizzled anti-hero to grizzled antagonist. A lot of clever tricks are used to capitalise on this, most of them a direct result from how you have interacted with the game's systems up to this point. It's a long-established tradition of the Metal Gear Solid franchise that the only way to truly play is the non-lethal route. Nobody, unless the narrative trajectory calls for it, should be killed. Total avoidance is ideal, non-lethal combat is an acceptable substitute. There is no way to play by that rule book in this mission. The game upsets its long-established tradition to show you how serious this is. You must kill these people, and you must remember that they're not your enemy. They're your employees.
The game reminds you of this repeatedly, to the point of ridiculousness, by docking you of Heroism Points for every bullet successfully fired. These points are gained by performing acts that go with the title, but in this instance, the best example would be not murdering people you could have helped, or could have helped you. The incessant beeping and bottom-left text box entries serve as a persistent reminder that what you are doing is wrong, and yet the game expects you to continue. The game is telling you that this problem does not call for a hero, and believing that you ever were one was folly, if you are willing to participate in this.
It doesn't stop at scoring, though. The Metal Gear Solid franchise has never been afraid of injecting absurd levity into its drama, and one of its more outlandish incidents occurs in this mission. Towards the end of your hard slog, you enter a room of soldiers stood to attention around a boombox, blasting the theme song to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. This is not the full track, mind you, just the part of the song that ditches the anxious percussion and strings foreshadowing intense combative encounters for a grand, sweeping horn ensemble representative of what all of those intense combative encounters were for: a better world afforded by you, the hero. That's the part of the song that plays after you've murdered a bunch of sick, defenseless people, while the remaining few salute you and say they're ready for their orders, even if that order is to die. Try and call yourself a hero after that one.
But this bizarre knife isn't done twisting yet! When the game's conclusion arrives, you're offered the convoluted revelation that the character you thought you were playing as in order to witness the villainous rise of was actually off rising to villainy elsewhere, and you're just you. You - yes, you - are a character in this game, the person who had the misfortune of sleeping in the hospital bed beside Snake when shit went south. The game asks you to design Snake's face lift when it begins, his disguise from the many people that want to see him dead, before reverting to the same iconic face for its remainder, leaving you to wonder if this was a symbolic gesture to keep at the back of your mind during play; if it was another of Kojima's well-documented pranks designed to put you in fear of not being sneaky in an eye patch; or if it was your avatar for the online multiplayer components of the game made textual. Turns out it was none of the above, but who you were before you were face lifted to look like Snake so that the real Snake could disappear and get to work on the main franchise. That convoluted revelation repaints everything in the game, in some ways detracting impact, but most potent and effective within that quarantine platform, where you put so many souls to rest. These soldiers committed their lives to the ideals of an icon; a legend; a hero. All they got was you.
And there, in amongst all of this flashy, scripted nonsense, was Rabid Heron, propped up against a wall, wheezing out lines of dialogue not at all dissimilar to the countless others around her. The fact that it wasn't Snake, but me, that pulled the trigger on her cuts much, much deeper. For it was I the player that decided to act upon the opportunity afforded to me by the game, and recruit her to the Combat department. It was I the player that put in the hours with Rabid Heron to make her a statistical probability. It was I the player that committed to the choice to replace Rabid Heron in the Combat Unit, a choice that put her in the line of fire. And in its final moments, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain dropped the artifice and held up a mirror, to inform me that I did all of it not as an avatar, but as me.
Here's the thing, though: I don't know that Rabid Heron was placed in the mission intentionally. More importantly, I don't care. I know how the magic trick works, but that doesn't stop me from being wowed by magic's possibilities. I know that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was stat-tracking, but I don't know if it was tracking this stat. Rabid Heron fit the bill for being a target of the parasite, as far as I could tell, but that doesn't eschew any of the emotional turbulence of being face to face with the possibility that I was being forced to kill her as an indirect result of my neglect. All of the aforementioned chipping away at what was happening in the game's sphere of reality, and what was happening on the graphical overlay afforded solely to the player, contributed to this notion that the game knew what would hurt me the most - when hurting me was the modus operandi of that section - and placed it right in front of me. This couldn't have happened without putting in the work towards the possibility of limitless possibility by the developers, and as such, if I wanted it to work emotionally, I had to surrender a degree of certainty. But that particular surrender is freedom, and it offers its rewards. The emotional impact of me killing Rabid Heron began with me discovering that I could play as people I had recruited, and that I could play as a woman. By keeping its treats hidden, and allowing me to discover them at my own pace, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain allowed me to construct, develop, and conclude a narrative arc for a randomly-generated set of assets. It was all code. And it's all mine. And if that isn't some fucking magic, I don't know what is.
- I would have liked to talk about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain's gender politics a little more throughout these pieces, but I would prefer to keep the things I discuss positively charged, looking at the things that were done well as opposed to the other end of that spectrum. Having said that, and with that in mind, I took a game with some undeniable problems and I neglected them, opting instead to present a crafted narrative that showed an alternate path using the same ingredients, and I hope that serves as a wishful blueprint for further efforts. I may only speak of her in terms of her combat proficiency, but you still made me watch her shower.
- I would be remiss if I didn't mention this forum post I found on Giant Bomb while doing my research for these pieces. While it didn't change my story, it was certainly influential in my overall trajectory. And how cool is it that two people could have such similar experiences that could only be born of our decided courses of action? Good shit.