Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the concluding chapter of a series that was singularly shepherded by Hideo Kojima for three decades, opens on a moment of stark, sobering reality. In the distance, the player hears the muffled gunfire and explosive action they’re typically responsible for, but the camera’s focus is entirely on the central character of Big Boss. He stands alone in a small dimly lit bathroom surrounded on all sides by enough weapons and ammunition to induce claustrophobia. A brief caption appears in the corner of the screen capturing the mundane indifference of the scene:
“Just another day in a war that never ends.”
It’s an unconventional opening for an unconventional game. The Metal Gear Solid saga spans 50 years of war, from the Cold War espionage of the 1960s to the privatized military industry of the 2010s, and one already knows how that story begins and ends when The Phantom Pain opens. An epic family tragedy tonally akin to Tom Clancy adapting William Shakespeare has already played out depicting the rise and fall of disillusioned soldier Big Boss and the son cloned from his DNA who fought to redeem the sins of his father.
Metal Gear Solid V therefore takes on the role of epilogue, a subdued comedown following the climax of the story to provide thematic closure not only for the characters in the story but for Hideo Kojima and the players who have stuck with him for 30 years, actively participating in and perpetuating this endless cycle of war.
While Metal Gear Solid V lacks any traditional narrative endpoint, this seemingly banal opening sequence is revisited late in the game to close the thematic loop that players will need to wrestle with upon reflection of the series. Big Boss is once again standing in that isolating bathroom as war rages on outside, but this time, when he begins to play a cassette tape labeled “From The Man Who Sold The World,” he hears his own voice speaking revelations back to him.
The player has not, as assumed, been inhabiting the role of Big Boss throughout the game. They are in fact playing as a no-name medic who shielded the real Big Boss from an explosive blast and has been reshaped physically and mentally to become his doppelgänger. It’s an absurd twist when taken on a literal level, but its real significance to communicate to the player that they are culpable for the cycle of violence at the heart of the series. The player is this inessential, no-name avatar, manipulated into believing that they’ve been inhabiting the character of Big Boss and thus never questioning their own violent contributions to this endless war.
“You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too. No… he’s the two of us. Together. Where we are today? We built it. This story—this ‘legend’—it’s ours,” the real Big Boss says on the tape, in a moment that clearly doubles as a message from Hideo Kojima to the player. He is both praising the player’s commitment to his 30-year narrative while also asking them to take a harder look at the things it has asked them to do.
This scene closes the cycle that began when the very first Metal Gear released in 1987. The player has become the very villain that they themselves killed as cloned son Solid Snake in that initial game, 30 years prior. The Metal Gear Solid saga quite literally becomes an Ouroboros: a Snake eating its own tail.
When The Phantom Pain was released, it was greeted in equal measures with rave reviews and criticisms that it was unfinished and compromised. It’s easy to find an endless parade of angry articles, forum posts and social media rants from the past four years which echo the same sentiments again and again—the discovery of deleted material which means the game was rushed to release, conspiracy theories that attempt to paint the game as some intentionally sabotaged jab at Kojima’s disintegrated relationship with Konami, or even petitions to have a satisfying conclusive ending added to what is assumed to be an unfinished game.
It’s fascinating to see the idea at the heart of the game—an attempt to portray the unending need to regain something which can never be regained—reflected in so many of the reactions to it. The internal struggle within these characters trapped in an infinite loop of war seeps into the subconscious of any player that has spent hours—if not years—with them, and it’s near impossible to not feel those same pangs of melancholic dissatisfaction that they do. An impossible desire for deleted cut content or a manufactured ending which provides be-all, end-all closure is a phantom pain as real as those plaguing the characters in the game.
The one measure of peace to be found in the game is, appropriately enough, found with the character named for it. Paz—Spanish for “peace”—is a late addition to the Metal Gear series, having not been introduced until 2010’s Peace Walker.
Paz enters the story as an apparently innocent student. Eventually, through a series of increasingly ludicrous double crosses (which aren’t so ludicrous in the context of the Metal Gear canon), she’s revealed to be both a deep undercover KGB agent and an even deeper, undercover-er Illuminati agent who infiltrated the KGB.
Paz’s biggest role in series is played in the brief Phantom Pain prologue Ground Zeroes, in which her imprisonment in a military blacksite is used to lure Big Boss into a trap. After being rescued from the facility by helicopter, it is discovered that she’s been implanted with a bomb. She sacrifices herself by leaping from the aircraft, which triggers the explosion, wounds your medic character, and leads to the brainwashing/reconstruction surgery shenanigans Phantom Pain reveals in its final hours.
Despite her very conclusive death-by-explosion in the prologue, Paz miraculously returns in Phantom Pain, having somehow survived but now stricken with convenient amnesia. She’s reverted her back to the innocent she first appeared to be at her introduction into the series. Even by Metal Gear standards, this is an implausible twist. It quickly becomes apparent that this Paz isn’t real but is instead a mental manifestation of the gnawing guilt and loss at the heart of the series—the titular Phantom Pain.
None of this is essential to finishing the game. It’s very possible that a player could play through 50-plus hours of the campaign without ever triggering the subplot with Paz or seeing it through to its resolution. This is somewhat of a shame, as it’s here where the player finds the emotional catharsis which frees them—and even Hideo Kojima—from this cycle of war that’s been necessary to keep driving this story forward for three decades.
Upon realization that this Paz is an illusion of guilt, the player receives a final cassette tape to listen to recorded in her voice.
“Peace Day never came.” Those are the words, spoken in a melancholic sigh, that open this final tape and they instantly establish that the narrative closure many expect from Metal Gear Solid V will not be provided. There is no peace.
Paz continues. “You can kill Skull Face, murder Huey, slaughter Zero… burn the whole world down, and it still won’t bring me back. Me or any of the dead.” The kill-the-bad-guy-and-save-the-world formula which has been used as the basis for nearly every Metal Gear game is almost mocked here, held up as an exercise in futility that simply serves as a catalyst for further violence. Even if there were a Metal Gear Solid 6, 7, 8, there’s no satisfaction they could provide. There will always be loss.
At this point, it becomes apparent that through this internal monologue Hideo Kojima is once again directly addressing the player. “This tape is the last one. Once you are done listening to it, I am one phantom limb that will be gone for good.”
The final words spoken by Kojima, through Paz, ask the player to reflect on the legacy of the series not as one of violence but of the empathy and understanding that its characters could never find. “As long as you remember me, I will always live within you. Not a phantom limb or a phantom anything. As part of your heart. I will always be your angel of peace. So I know exactly how to finish. Say peace!”
Before those words are spoken, Kojima uses surrealism akin to what David Lynch and Mark Frost would later employ near the end of Twin Peaks: The Return to blur the line between reality and fiction. The Paz-as-Kojima avatar signals the end of this creative endeavor with a few cryptic words:
“It is all a dream. I am in it, and you are in it too. I am the dreamer but you are having my dream.”
Metal Gear is over. It’s time to wake up.
Header image credited to Konami
Mel Stefaniuk is a freelance writer whose lifelong love for video games and film is a result of a childhood spent roaming the aisles of his parent’s video store. You can find him on Twitter @MelFreelance.