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The Metal Gear Solid games have always been interested in history. Despite their conspiracy-littered plots and sci-fi aesthetic, each entry to Kojima Productions’ long-running stealth action series has grounded itself with references to real world events. None are as clear about this as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Set in the active warzones of Afghanistan and Angola during the final years of the Cold War, The Phantom Pain forces players to engage with and experience the history of an era.
Unfortunately, most of the game’s historical context is relegated to optional audio tapes that (if not skipped entirely) offer only brief explanations of the mid ‘80s battlefields mercenary protagonist Snake finds himself sneaking through. This is too bad, because learning the basic facts of this complex time period can help Metal Gear players better understand not just how the game’s story ties into its setting, but also why many of its messages are worth thinking about today.
The Vietnam War was the United States’ most direct and traumatic exposure to the Cold War. The Soviet-Afghan War had a similar effect on the people of the former USSR. Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, occupying soldiers found themselves engaged in a horrific and unwinnable fight against a popular Afghan uprising determined to expel them—and their newly installed Soviet-friendly ruler—from the nation.
The Phantom Pain introduces players to this setting in 1984, roughly the middle of the 9-year conflict. By this point, the Cold War maneuvering of Eastern and Western powers was having a profound impact on the shape of the war. While Soviet troops struggled to identify an enemy virtually indistinguishable from Afghanistan’s civilian population, the United States and several surrounding Arab nations were providing training and material support to the mujahideen rebels.
The country bled as the result of interference from Western and Eastern superpowers, unable to directly combat one another. The Soviet occupation portrayed in The Phantom Pain wouldn’t be the first or last time the nation would be invaded by foreign powers. Afghanistan spent the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century as a British protectorate; after the withdrawal of Soviet troops was completed in early 1989, there would be little more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks prompted a Western coalition force to invade the country yet again.
This history has positioned Afghanistan as a potent symbol of imperialist interference. When players watch Snake confront Soviet invaders, they’re meant to be reminded of the two sides who, for so many centuries, have always fought to control the nation: the occupied and the occupiers. Though they hardly sees civilians or rebel fighters, the game (in one of its most subversive choices) turns Snake into something of a stand-in for their actions. The contracts Snake takes on see him using stealth and guerilla tactics to attack the occupiers’ convoys with rocket launchers and remotely detonated explosives. He abducts high-ranking Soviet soldiers and destroys desert outposts with hit-and-run attacks. The player’s actions reflect the tactics used by the mujahideen. Through Snake, the game shows how a small opposition force was able to resist the might of the Soviet army.
More than its portrayal of how the Soviet-Afghan war was fought, The Phantom Pain uses this setting to clearly demonstrate the ruin and hopelessness that comes as the result of imperialism. Snake moves through blasted-out ghost towns and listens to Soviet troops describing the scorched earth tactics employed to demoralize their enemy. Tied to the game’s overarching plot, the war demonstrates the suffering and disenfranchisement visited upon the less powerful when larger forces use them as pawns in their own conflicts. As the West and East vied for international influence, nations like Afghanistan paid the cost.
This isn’t to mention the ways in which our recent memory of the 21st century, American-led War in Afghanistan remind players how the past resonates into the present—an enduring theme in The Phantom Pain (and Metal Gear as a series). The Cold War may have ended, but its proxy conflicts destabilized a nation to the point that it became fertile ground for the growth of new forms of international violence.
THE ANGOLA-ZAIRE BORDER, 1984
1974 and 1975 saw the gradual conclusion of the Angolan War of Independence, which resulted in the African nation freeing itself from centuries of Portuguese rule. In an echo of newly independent nations across the continent, though, Angola’s unstable post-colonial period provided opportunity for the Cold War superpowers to exert their influence.
Following the War of Independence’s end, political factions that previously fought for Angola’s independence turned on one another in a bid for power.
Among these groups were the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Understanding the need for foreign support, UNITA declared itself “anti-Communist” while the MPLA stated Communist sympathies. The United States and other capitalist nations provided aid to UNITA, Cuba and the USSR helped the MPLA cause, and the Angolan Civil War, like Afghanistan, became, in part, a conflict fuelled by the competing interests of the West and East.
The Phantom Pain sets part of its action against this backdrop in order to further reinforce its condemnation of opportunist foreign superpowers exacerbating the suffering of ordinary people. Their intervention and self-interested support of rival militant factions fanned the flames of an already tumultuous political situation, extending the war’s length and aiding its participants’ capacity for brutality.
The game highlights this by setting itself during the mid ‘80s—a time when foreign involvement in the conflict was high—and locating itself geographically on the border between Angola and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). This decision makes it easier for The Phantom Pain to show the confusing mixture of Angolan factions and international soldiers participating in a war that became intertwined with conflicts throughout an entire swath of 20th century Africa. Snake fights South African Defense Force and National Congolese Army troops alongside mercenaries from neighboring states. He encounters combatants who are fighting to either maintain their way of life or to suppress others. Most chilling of all, he encounters child soldiers that must either be rescued from the battlefield (against their will) or non-lethally dispatched as they attempt to kill the player with oversized assault rifles.
These child soldiers are a direct representation of the profound, deep-reaching devastation that characterized this period of Angolan history. Their inclusion in the story also provides a thematic throughline with The Phantom Pain’s portrayal of imperialist and ethnically motivated warfare as a never-ending, cyclical problem. Even after Snake has brought them to safety, the children are, understandably, hostile, mentally scarred by years spent inflicting and suffering violence.
Because the Angolan Civil War would continue nearly unabated until the MPLA’s final 2002 victory, the player is meant to understand that these children embody the future of the region. They, like so many from the game’s revenge-obsessed cast of heroic and villainous soldiers, are a disturbing reminder that violence impacts its participants on a level that extends past the physical. The effects of a conflict like the Angolan Civil War permanently scar its society, deeply affecting the course of its future.
Both the Soviet-Afghan War and the Angolan Civil War are incredibly complex and the events that caused—and resulted from—them are equally intricate. The Phantom Pain shows only a small part of this period of history and so this article, too, only reflects a limited dimension of the era.
All the same, even a basic understanding of its historical context shows the nuance of The Phantom Pain’s plot. More than its self-contained story of fictional spies and mercenaries, the latest (and probably last) Metal Gear Solid game is about the many ways in which our global past impacts our present-day realities. By choosing two of the late 20th century’s most terrible wars as its setting, the game asks players to pay attention to its story not just as entertainment, but as a reflection of the world in which we live today.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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