I am not a Metal Gear Solid fan. In general, I find the series overwrought, overrated and occasionally offensive (looking at you, Quiet). But I suspect that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, released just last week, may be the last great video game of its kind, and that terrifies me.
A friend planted the seed of this thought in my mind. We were playing the game’s very first mission, wherein Big Boss—the series’ sometimes protagonist, sometimes antagonist—awakens in a hospital after a 9-year coma just as shock troopers and a literal demon arrive and start murdering everyone in sight. As BB, you spend the better part of an hour crawling through sick wards and operating rooms at a snail’s pace, always a single deus ex machina away from having your brains replaced by bullets. This whole intro is graphic and tedious, not to mention incredibly indulgent.
In any other video game, it would have been a two-minute cutscene that you’d watch but not have to play. But not in a Hideo Kojima game. That’s what makes it so incredible, and it’s why Metal Gear Solid V might be the last of its kind.
FAREWELL TO TRANSPLANTED DEMON ARMS
Kojima’s split with Metal Gear Solid publisher Konami was not exactly swept under the rug, much as Konami would have preferred it that way. It’s been discussed and speculated on endlessly since it happened earlier this year. Still, the details have yet to be fully revealed.
All we really know is that after decades of working together, the creator and the company had some sort of falling out, possibly related to Konami’s newly professed focus on small, profitable mobile games over the kinds of sprawling, years-in-development blockbusters that Kojima specializes in. One casualty of this breakup was Kojima’s Norman Reedus-starring, Guillermo del Toro-collaborated-on Silent Hills, which could have maybe reinvigorated that aging horror game franchise. The other is any future Metal Gear Solid games (which Konami may make—but without Kojima) and, by extension, the future of video games as a medium.
The Metal Gear series has always been weird. The first Metal Gear Solid game, released on the original PlayStation in 1998, featured a villain who “read players’ minds” by listing off other video games they had saved on their systems’ memory cards, and forced them to disconnect their controllers to defeat him. Metal Gear Solid 4, the series’ PlayStation 3 entry, opened with several minutes of fake TV channels that players could flip between using their controllers. One prominent MGS character, Liquid Ocelot, used to be two separate characters, until one’s arm was grafted onto the other’s body and their two personalities merged.
But Metal Gear Solid is more than just “weird.” Over the hundreds of hours players can amass playing these games, including the soap opera drama featuring dozens of characters who turn out to be clones of one another, other characters’ parents or literally vampires; the nuclear terrorism plots orchestrated by little girls and half-cyborgs; the dozens of hours of politically and philosophically charged but borderline nonsensical dialogue; over all this, you get the singular vision of one deeply flawed but incredibly inspired auteur.
ONE BY ONE THEY FALL
Hideo Kojima’s obsession with Western film culture, particularly the action films of the ‘80s, is well known. And it comes across in every aspect of his flagship series. “Snake,” a name worn by multiple characters over the course of the series, is a reference to Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken. MGS 4 features enough cutscene videos to fit a half dozen action films, including one 71-minute scene at the very end. That’s basically an entire film right there.
I can count the number of video game auteurs whose influences and ideas are as clearly, obviously imprinted on their works as Kojima’s are on one hand. And one by one, these visionaries have been forced to work on smaller and smaller projects or edited into oblivion as big game development becomes more about focus testing and less about artistry. Every other company that’s making games of this scale and budget is playing it safe, something no one can possibly accuse Kojima of.
Take Peter Molyneux, the creator of “god games” like Populous and Black and White, not to mention Microsoft’s Fable series. Say what you want about his games, but every one of them has felt like it couldn’t have been made by anyone else. And now, following a split from Microsoft, he’s making gimmicky phone games and failed Kickstarter games.
Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, Zelda and many other Nintendo franchises—arguably the most iconic game developer of all time—has taken more of a backseat at Nintendo, focusing on producing games in the many series he originally created decades ago. When I’m playing those old classics, I can recognize Miyamoto’s hands pulling the strings at every sword swing and mushroom power-up, but now you’d be hard-pressed to sense his influence on any Nintendo games as anything but that—his legacy, a torch carried onward by others as today’s Nintendo continues to milk its most popular game series while only occasionally making something that’s actually new and original (see: Splatoon).
It seems like all the biggest games these days are just that—massive, in every way. From Call of Duty to Destiny, they span countless hours, can be replayed endlessly for ever greater rewards, and are worked on by hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s impossible to point to anything in these games and say, “I know exactly who’s responsible for that.” Unlike with Metal Gear Solid V, there’s no singular artistic vision, but a combination of influences and imprints that’s impossible to quantify, recognize or analyze.
Metal Gear Solid V is unrepentantly strange. In writing and direction, it seems like a game that was never edited, as if Kojima showed up to work on the first day of development with the whole thing already storyboarded out—and no one dared take a red pen to it. And in gameplay, it feels like a real gamer’s game, with huge, open environments that let players accomplish various goals using almost limitless tools and methods.
I’m not totally certain that I like Metal Gear Solid V so far, but I am 100% confident that it could not have been made—would not have been made—by anyone other than Hideo Kojima. And I’m afraid it will be a long time before we see anything like it again.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games and probably too concerned about building his Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door Pamela Horton shows off her cosplay chops