Like pretty much everyone else with a gaming machine I’ve been wrapped up in a little gem called The Phantom Pain. For the uninitiated, it’s the fifth main title in the Metal Gear Solid series of games – a brand particularly famous for its groundbreaking film-esque plots. But while this game boasts a blockbuster budget, the plot has left some fans a little sour.
Heavy spoilers will follow, so please only read on if you have completed the game.
Throughout the majority of the game I found myself wondering what exactly series mastermind Hideo Kojima was trying to say. What could tempt him back to the director’s chair? Was it purely just to fill in some of Big Boss’s lost years? Because hadn’t he already accomplished that in the 2010 side title ‘Peace Walker’? Surely in a game that carries the moniker of Metal Gear Solid V there would have to be real truths explored. I believed that somehow Kojima would tie in the young clones of Big Boss – Solid and Liquid Snake, and perhaps we may even see a retelling of the famous battle between Big Boss and Solid Snake. And per chance we may even wind up playing as Big Boss during that fateful encounter.
But while Liquid Snake (Eli) does make an appearance, by the end of the game we realise that this story was never supposed to be about Big Boss and the missing years, his clones and their resentment or want for their father. No, it was about you, the player. In one of the final cutscenes we learn that we were never playing as Big Boss, but instead a medical officer who was hypnotised into believing that he was Big Boss. He received facial surgery and was able to pass off as the real thing to his comrades, both old and new alike, plus, most importantly, his enemies. While you, the player, took the heat, the real Big Boss was elsewhere, off the grid.
The revelation is a powerful moment, and who doesn’t love a good twist? But isn’t this almost akin to the ‘It was all a dream’ type of ending. OK, not quite. Everything that happened in the game really happened, but it didn’t happen to Big Boss. When we thought that Big Boss rescued his old pal, Miller, it was really us doing the rescuing. When we learned that Big Boss was hunted by the burning fire of his old enemy, Volgin, it was really us Volgin was chasing. When we felt Eli’s venom for the man responsible for his creation, it was really us that Eli was mistakenly directing his pain against. When we, as Big Boss, pulled the trigger and sacrificed our soldiers in order to contain a world destroying virus, it was really us all along taking out every last man.
All of the seminal moments that we believed may begin to shape the villain that Big Boss could become were simply just moments in the life of another man. And that is, perhaps, were some fans may feel cheated. They have followed the story of Big Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3, through Portable Ops and Peace Walker, and now were hoping for a bridge between the events of Peace Walker and the original Metal Gear. Something to help them understand how the hero became a villain.
Instead, fans learned little more than the revelation that the Big Boss killed in the original Metal Gear was the imposter (namely you, the player).
So, with that in mind, was this game necessary? Was it truly Metal Gear Solid 5? Or simply Metal Gear Solid V – an offshoot title, a way for the player to experience what it’s like to be Big Boss, for just a brief window in time, without greatly affecting the lore already established.
Take the twist out, and the storyline was already proving underwhelming for this writer. What was there to stop this game simply being called Peace Walker 2 – further continuing to patch in the missing years of Big Boss’s life. If this was a core title in the series, I wanted to see the relationship between Big Boss and his terrible children explored. I wanted a kind of ending that tied back in to the beginning of the series. But maybe that was a little too predictable for some.
I have a strong suspicion that the twist was the seed that started this process for Hideo Kojima. And that the idea proved too irresistible to ignore. In fact, it may have been the driving force that led him back to helm another major edition in the series, a world that he seemed to have been finished with many times before. Yet he had one final thing to say: In the end, it wasn’t Big Boss who made those decisions, it was you.
A pretty daring twist. Brave and bold, with some nice little clues along the way. A clever one being when Eli is administered a blood test and the results show that he’s not the clone of Big Boss. Of course it greatly confused gamers. But now we know why the blood samples didn’t match.
Yes, a pretty wild twist, up there with some of the big movie shockers. But does it make sense? To even begin to accept the ending, you have to look past the hypnosis, and the high level plastic surgery and voice alteration (pretty big things to let pass, even for Metal Gear Solid standards). And still I find myself left with questions:
If the Man on Fire awoke when Big Boss awoke from his coma, and if he’s possessed by such demonic will for revenge, then why doesn’t he sense that he’s hunting the wrong Big Boss? I’ll have to let that one slide, and just assume Volgin works on visuals alone, and has no extra sensory demonic capabilities to go along with that raving fire.
Forget that one. How about this? Why did the real Big Boss knowingly allow this imposter to become him, knowing that an assault force was en route to the hospital and would likely wipe out every doctor, nurse, patient and janitor stationed there – not to mention the fire department? This doesn’t really match up with the Big Boss from previous games.
Once he learned that enemies were inbound, couldn’t he have thrown the whole ruse out of the window, and tried to draw the soldiers away instead? Was the deception that important to him? In the bonus audio tapes provided it is revealed that Major Zero is the mastermind behind the deception game in an effort to save Snake. Big Boss could have said ‘to hell with it’ and did things his own way.
Instead, we get the following dialogue exchange between Big Boss and Ocelot (who is briefing BB on the details of the upcoming deception).
Ocelot: We’ll be putting the people in this hospital in the line of fire. They’ll be your shield, and a necessary diversion. To buy us some time.
Big Boss: And you?
Of course without Big Boss accepting things, we wouldn’t get such a cool opening, but I’m left confused by his selfish nature. Would a soldier who witnessed his mentor, The Boss, famously sacrifice herself, then willingly sacrifice all of those innocent hospital workers? Purely to save his own skin?
Sounds like Big Boss has already become the villain. That’s worse than any of the stuff I thought I was doing as him during the main story.
If we learned nothing about how Big Boss becomes the famous villain, then what was the point of the game? Well, you know why. It was to put you, the player, in the legend’s shoes, in a way that has never been done before in this series. We saw Solid Snake through Raiden’s eyes in Metal Gear Solid 2, but now we actually became a part of the Metal Gear Solid universe. For that brief window of time, we were a part of the legend. Pretty amazing idea, as a stand alone experience, without exploring Big Boss’s mindset. But for the players, like myself, who played hoping to continue the story of Big Boss, who thought all of these moments were part of Big Boss’s life, we can’t help feeling a little off.
OK, so it wasn’t all a dream. All of this stuff really happened. But, damn, I wanted them to be happening to Big Boss.
Maybe I came looking for the wrong thing. Maybe I’ll reevaluate how I feel. But usually I trust my gut. How did I feel in the moment I first watched it? A little empty. A little betrayed. A little angry. A little … like Big Boss.