MGSV‘s twist ending isn’t a problem at all. It’s the fact it’s unfinished that’s left us unfulfilled. Spoilers ahead.
Every MGS game has beats it always hits, but the twist ending that reveals that you were being manipulated the whole time is the biggest one. In 1, it turns out you were cannon fodder for the government to secure a nuclear weapon. In 2, Raiden was really being moulded into becoming the next Solid Snake. 3 has you killing America’s greatest hero and erasing her from public knowledge, just as an ass-kiss to another government. In 4, Snake is really being guided by the Patriots to ensure Liquid Ocelot doesn’t overthrow them. And in Peace Walker, you were really a pawn for both the Soviets, and later a potential non-national army for Cipher’s new world order.
In each game the final boss turns out to be a lot more sympathetic than you’re initially led to believe. Liquid Snake, Solidus and Liquid Ocelot are trying to free themselves from Patriot control. The Boss dreams of a world without boarders but sacrifices herself out of loyalty or love for Snake. Even the Peace Walker AI turns out to be more empathetic and human than the people testing it as it sacrifices itself to stop nuclear war. Hell, your support unit tends to double-cross you in some way too, leaving you to question who the “good guys” and “bad guys” were at all.
Each game has a single overarching theme:
- MGS1 talks about genes; are we bound by birth? Are we limited by a genetic fate?
- MGS2 talks about memes; is it the bubble of ideas we’re raised in that make us who we are? How do we know our identity is really our own?
- MGS3‘s theme is “scene“, or “the times and place”; can visionaries survive in scenes that aren’t ready for them? Can you leave a legacy in a world that doesn’t want you?
- 4 talks about “sense“, or an individual’s perspective of the world that they can’t pass on. What happens when your understanding of the world or how the world should be is in conflict with someone else’s? Can you truly pass on an understanding of something or do you have to let it go?
- Peace Walker brings up peace via war and deterrence. How can we talk of non-violence when the world is forever aiming rockets at each other? Is it possible to live in a truly peaceful time, or are we just hypocrites ignoring certain types of violence?
Beyond that, MGS is a series that punches the fourth-wall to make a commentary about you, the player, and what you’re doing or what your expectations are.
- 1 destroys the notion of heroics, accusing the player of enjoying violence and conflict, despite any altruistic posturing. It says that the reason Snake even exists is to serve as a killer, and that there’s nothing about him that should be admired. He’s there to indulge something we know is wrong, but have a fetish for anyway. Maybe we’re messed up for it…
- 2 plays on our expectation for the big sequel. We’re told that “it’s just a game” and that by playing it, you’re playing into someone else’s ideas. It ends much more hopeful with a message that implores us to create our own story rather than following the one laid down for us. It was open-ended for that purpose, Kojima’s intent being one that lets us decide for ourselves.
- 3 is an indictment of hyper-masculinity and following an expectation. It invites you to act like John Bond Rambo then makes you feel horrible for doing so. Naked Snake outright says he hates Bond and rolls his eyes at Para-Medic’s gushing over silly escapist b-movies. Yet by the end he’s blowing up a 7 foot electric Russian like a firework and escaping with the Bond-girl who was obviously trying to seduce him the entire time. All the while us players who could see how cheesy it was buy into it too, only to have it all revealed to be a tragedy and told off for falling for it.
- 4 comments on nostalgia and an inability to escape our need for more Metal Gear Solid. Kojima said all that needed saying in 2, but we evidentially didn’t listen or didn’t have his same “sense” about what it meant. It drags our love for the past three games through the ringer with a fatalist attitude and tells us we’re torturing him/Snake by bringing him back. It utterly breaks it’s own canon to give us a happy ending though, trying to finally put MGS to bed so we can all move on.
- Peace Walker builds up Big Boss’ legend because we all love him so much despite knowing he’s ultimately a war criminal. It sugars up real-life conflicts with more Metal Gears and kawaii girls than you can shake a stick at, invoking Che Guevara (everyone’s favourite t-shirt) before ending on a cliff-hanger that was set to put us in the shoes of the demon, and give us the horror we asked for.
….only that horror never really came. Did it?
All of this is a long way of saying that, as flawed of a writer that Kojima, he’s a thorough one. His games get batshit crazy and contradictory of themselves, and his grand ideas don’t always translate well, but he’s not a man of half-measures. Even something as largely criticised as MGS4 with it’s movie-length cutscenes manage to pull off satisfying heart-pulls and gut-punches.
MGSV: The Phantom Pain doesn’t for the most part.
On the one hand a 120+ hour long game is more than enough for me and aside from repeating Side-Ops, it never felt padded. Only giving snippets of the story at a time was mostly fine and, up until Mother Bass is infected, the sense that Diamond Dog’s revenge quest was happening in the background of contract work felt fine. The building of Mother Base came first, using it for revenge came second.
That being said, some of the story missions do feel like filler in hindsight, were only a snippet of it was relevant to finding Skull Face. I thought they were a load of fun, make no mistake, but they barely advanced the plot. Come the last four missions of Chapter 1, the story just shifts into overdrive and it’s over before you know it.
Between getting Code Talker back to base, watching the cutscene were Mother Base is treated, and Ocelot interrogating Huey again… everything about the parasites is explained, Skull Face’s plan is revealed and the gang track him down. Most of this exposition is dumped in unlocked tapes you may not have listened to until after completing the next mission. I don’t blame you, because Kaz and Ocelot urge you to get in the copper right away.
I didn’t so I had time to digest them in between Side-Ops. And I’m glad, because those tapes were the theme of the story really starts to come to the forefront.
While has MGSV has multiple over-arching themes per chapter (Revenge, Race and evidentially Peace), in reality there’s more that span the entire game. Parasites, phantom limbs and loss, identity, hallucinations, a budding society, all of these things are themes within the game. That’s on top of numerous allusions to Moby Dick, 1984, Bowie, the Bible, and so on. Every topic from the previous instalments is revisited too. There is far too much to cover in this article alone and sorting through it all is going to take a long time.
Outside the game, in the meta-narrative, the usual topic of manipulation and player expectation is brought up again, but this time in a way that is a complete mind-fuck on the level of 2‘s ending. Without the execution it deserved, unfortunately…
Right from the beginning, from the first few trailers, people had already speculated that we weren’t playing as Big Boss. Some thought it was Decoy Octopus, some thought it was hallucination, others said it was someone else entirely. Even Ishmael was treated with suspicion; he could have been Frank “Grey Fox” Jaegar, he could have been a hallucination, or another clone.
Personally, I thought it was another post-modern job of the game telling us it’s not real. The in-game camera worked like a film camera; with lens flares, shake when you run, overexposure problems when you go from a darkness into light, chromatic aberration, slow motion speeds, celluloid burn when you take damage and movements in cutscenes that suggest it’s a steadycam. These are things I picked up on from the trailers alone and they all subtly said “this is all staged”.
So when I started the game and it told me to create my own face, it was confirmed. Other little telling details clarified it; no camera effects happen until after you see your reflection/Big Boss’ face (prior to then, it functions like a human eye with an eyelid and all), if you shoot Ishmael you get a “Time Paradox” but any time you die you simply get a “Mission Failed”, and details like Big Boss still having both eyes made it clear that it wasn’t really him. Even the references to Moby Dick say it; Captain Ahab isn’t the main character despite being the iconic one in the story, Ishmael is and it’s told from his perspective.
Even how Ocelot calls you “the legend” or refers to you as an icon says it. It’s not his life that’s vital to running Diamond Dogs and inspiring his men. It’s his role.
You, the player, fill that role. While the true ending reveals that in-universe it was a random medic that was secretly filling Big Boss’ boots, it’s really you. You swap names and the real Big Boss slips from Cipher’s grasp to build his own future. Meanwhile, we’re building Big Boss’ legend.
The medic doesn’t have a future of his own. He’s trapped into playing the role of Big Boss, and the fact that both he and the player know it’s all fake doesn’t matter.
The reveal that it didn’t matter is what blew my mind. For some it was a cool twist, for others it was a frustrating “and then I woke up” ending You played up to 120 hours as “Big Boss” regardless though. If you saw through the game’s deception or not, you still played into it. It’s akin to the moment at the end of V for Vendetta were Evey realises that it doesn’t matter who is beneath V’s mask, just so long as the mask exists. To quote Chico in Peace Walker, Skull Face in the extracted audio files, and Che Guevara whom they pulled it from; “Shoot. You are only going to kill a man.”
The ties that bind Big Boss’ legend to his men are language. Together, though they are almost all multi-lingual, their shared language and agreed upon concepts create a vision of their world and each other. This is what the theme of “race” addresses; a collection of people bound by concepts and language. Memes, genes, scenes and senses aren’t what keep them together. It’s language.
Once Code Talker is brought back to your base, he delves into details of his time at one of the boarding schools many Native Americans were forced into as children, away from their own race. They were Anglicised, forced to take English names and forbidden to speak their own tongue. Their viewpoint of the world was thus altered/restricted and they were made into new, more “civilised” people. One that was believed to be more admirable.
Quite like the medic/the player.
Unable to conceive of him as anyone else because we lack the language to do so, the men at Mother Base and the player see him as Big Boss. The medic and the player, or rather, all the men at Mother Base and every single player, are united by their belief in Big Boss. The common language between them/us is one were I can say “in MGSV:PP, use DD on Side-Ops, while you develop a Honey Bee and gather Black Carrot on Dispatch missions to make more GMP, then fulton Skull Face’s XOF commandos at OKB-0, and you’ll save time” and be understood. Anyone who hasn’t played the game hasn’t a damn clue what I just said.
But you do and that’s the point.
Our role as Big Boss, or how the medic had his role decided for him parallels Skull Face’s own story too. His thoughts, personality, how he sees right and wrong, his face, his identity; everything was stolen from him in order to play a role. He’s a dark reflection of the medic/us playing our role, down to the black scar above his right eye. He wears a mask and looks like an evil Lone Ranger, roaming the land with a warped sense of justice while his Native American side-kick makes biological weapons. Like the Lone Ranger, he has no hidden identity. He’s an icon.
His rejection of his lack of identity and his insatiable….lust for revenge against the world is what makes him a monster. He’s a cautionary glimpse at what Big Boss could become, and his influence remains long after his death. It’s why he appears in the closing cutscene of Chapter 1 were the men look at Sahelanthropus.
…right before Kaz delivers the line; “Pretentious to the end. Still, it doesn’t feel like this is over. And I’ll never be whole again“. Of all the self-aware lines I think I’ve spotted in MGSV, that’s the one that stings the most.
Despite how deceptively layered MGSV is it’ll never cover up the fact that it’s unfinished. Chapter 2 is hardly a chapter at all. So many kickers set up story archs that don’t happen. There should have been a betrayal; though he’s almost always bitter and angry, Kaz is against child soldiering, Ocelot isn’t. There should have been a fist fight; Eli, the real Big Boss, Ocelot or maybe even Solid Snake could have been candidates, and each one would be a fitting rival. There should have been a character arch; but the only character who develops is Quiet.
Ironically, she’s the only one at the base who never says “yes Boss, it’s a pleasure to serve under you Boss, we love you Boss”. She never feeds into his legend, yet she loves him the most. I don’t understand what Kojima was trying to say with that, but it might have something to do with the fact that in order to get her final mission you have to lose her forever. Her final scene is the emotional peak of the game (dampened by the fact her boobs are constantly flailing about) and only by her keeping her silence, letting her feelings on Big Boss remain a personal secret, is she able to let go and vanish. Perhaps by not feeding into his legend, she’s the only one who’s free?
There is a heartfelt message there but it’s all so fragmented that it’s either phoned in, directly stated at you, or ends before it had any right to. It literally makes a “Quiet Exit” and you’re left bewildered, trying to make sense of it and figure out what Kojima was trying to say. The devil is in the details, but there are so many details to get through and so many more to speculate on that it’s going to be a while before the plot of MGSV is fully broken down and made sense of.
As it stands, there’s a lot to ponder on. I’ve said it before in my MGS4 breakdown, but Kojima’s points and meta-commentaries are more important to him than his canon or what makes sense in-world. Those are what you should focus on if you want to really get at the heart of his games, MGSV in particular considering it’s reality is one of the slippier ones of the series.
This article has only scratched the surface. As to why it’s so impenetrable, well, that’s a whole other article. One that wants revenge against Konami…