“Don’t waste the life you have left fighting,” Big Boss tells an aged Solid Snake with his dying breath. Boss, the protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 3, has given up his whole life to war. He’s killed friends because he was ordered to and endured torture because he had to. He’s seen his friends lose their eyesight, their arms, their legs. He watched as a medic pulled a bomb out of his friend’s guts, as all the men who pledged their loyalty to him died, bloody and engulfed in flames. From the shadows, he watches his son (well, his clone, but in MGS that’s basically the same thing), Solid Snake, suffer the same defeats and the same futile victories, and in his last moments, Big Boss offers Snake the advice that he himself desperately needed to hear.
The Metal Gear Solid series has encompassed such sci-fi themes as nanotechnology, cloning, artificial intelligence, robotics, and telekinesis. But the games have always been carried by their espionage-centric plots, and it’s that geopolitically nuanced focus on conflict that the line “Don’t waste the life you have left fighting” serves as a crescendo to.
ECHOES OF TRAUMA
The series, which began with 1987’s Metal Gear, now composes more than a dozen games. The most recent, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, seemingly concludes a storyline that sought to unpack, explore, and explain all of the series’ complex machinations. While some have felt let down by the abrupt ending, MGS V is inarguably the apex of the series’ most ardent theme, as well as an encyclopedia of that theme’s manifestations throughout the series.
The “Phantom” in The Phantom Pain is deeply tied to the game’s twist ending, so I won’t spoil it. But there is a literal phantom pain that runs through the narrative. Each character has lost something that they desperately want back. But all of them learn that lusting after that pain only intensifies it.
Punished Snake, this installment’s protagonist, loses his hand some time before the opening credits, and as the game progresses, he learns that he is the titular “Phantom;” hypnotized into believing he was someone else entirely, he has had his whole life stolen from him. The loss of his hand mirrors the lost hand of Revolver Ocelot, a man who has appeared throughout the series as both a friend and a foe. Punished Snake’s psychological wounds echoes Raiden’s, the former child soldier and protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty who, during that game, learns that his entire life too was a lie.
However, Punished Snake is not the only one in The Phantom Pain to suffer loss, and the game opens with a mission to rescue Benedict “Kazuhira” Miller, a friend who has lost a leg, an arm, and his eyesight to torture. This loss recalls the eye Big Boss had shot out when he was tortured in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, much the same way that game’s fatal conclusion between Big Boss and his mentor would be paid homage to in the climax of Metal Gear Solid 4: The Guns of the Patriots.
Quiet, Metal Gear Solid V’s controversial bikini-clad sniper, lost her humanity and her ability to speak to a parasite, and her story is not dissimilar from Metal Gear Solid protagonist Solid Snake’s, a clone of Big Boss who suffers from rapid aging and is forced to kill his brother and father (three times). The Phantom Pain’s villain, a Lone Ranger-esque man named Skull Face, whose face was physically deformed by his work, laments the loss of his culture, his “mother tongue.” He serves as Punished Snake’s foil, and he goes so far as to describe them both as “demons” whose “humanity will not return.”
WAR NEVER CHANGES
The game underscores these unfortunate effects of war with its mechanics and design. The Phantom Pain is structured in episodic chunks, and your performance in each mission is scored independently. The scores are largely irrelevant, but games are designed to be played as well as they can be, and this particular game rewards players for minimizing the number of casualties they incur. This is writ clearly in The Phantom Pain, wherein players can receive a self-explanatory “perfect stealth, no kill” bonus.
This isn’t the only way, or even a guaranteed way, to earn the game’s best rating—an “S,” in true video game fashion—but it does come with a hefty bonus that can certainly make the difference. It is possible to get high marks and kill all of your enemies, but there is no bonus that accompanies killing and, with very few exceptions, doing so makes simply completing the missions more difficult; you will start to lose points for alerting them to your presence or by being seen, for example. This mechanic doesn’t necessarily incentivize non-violent solutions, but it does incentivize non-lethal gameplay.
While the narrative-driven separation of limbs from bodies and an incentive to find non-lethal solutions have long been a staple of the Metal Gear games, Hideo Kojima, the series’ creator, adds a new wrinkle to his anti-war argument in this conclusion. In The Phantom Pain, he expands the scope of who and what are effected by war, and he vehemently argues that armed conflict debilitates the planet’s ecology.
As Punished Snake is shipped to the Angola-Zaire border for the first time, you’re treated to the damage that war and conflict have brought to the region. Pollution has seeped into the ground and turned it a deathly black. Revolver Ocelot puts the blame on Big Boss, the man who revolutionized the idea of a privatized military and created an industry that has completely decimated the planet. The result is acid rain and a water table as black as crude oil.
Kojima relates environmentalism and pacifism, and he argues that a devastated environment, as much as Big Boss’s missing eye and Punished Snake’s missing hand, is the result of war, the result of conflict. This resonates with David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which plays over the opening credits of The Phantom Pain. “I thought you died alone/ a long, long time ago,” Bowie sings, recalling the story of Big Boss, who had disappeared for nine years and, as Ocelot alleges, sold the world.
“Don’t waste the life you have left fighting,” Big Boss says. This is him reflecting on a life of loss and pain, warning the audience as much as he is his son. This life, as well as the lives of all of the series’ characters, has been ravaged by conflicts that have left them physically dismembered and mentally scarred. Nearly every character in the series’ history has been marred by loss—they have lost childhoods, they have lost family, they have lost lovers, they have lost limbs. And in the end, that loss ends up being for nothing.
As Big Boss explains in the climax of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, war begets war in a vicious cycle that cannot break itself. The only way to win the game is to refuse to play. That’s the message that Kojima finally drives home in the series’ climax, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain—one game you definitely should play.
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