First off, it must be said that The Phantom Pain was fraught with an incredibly troubled development which is almost as intriguing as the game itself. We still don't have all the details, but a sketch of the events which transpired has developed over time, which I will briefly recount here. Shortly after the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, it was revealed that Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus had been brought together to create Silent Hills, an announcement which people discovered after exploring the mysterious, acclaimed tech demo P.T. Fans of that series thought that this was a sign of a return to glory for Silent Hill, which had been languishing for 2 console generations by then after a long string of bad-to-mediocre releases.
However, only a few months after the announcement of Silent Hills, disaster struck. After a corporate restructuring Konami had begun to scale back its AAA gaming publishing, choosing to instead focus on less-risky mobile games and licensed slot and pachinko machines. While we don't know the details of what happened, this caused a rift to grow between Konami and Kojima. The red flags started rising when "A Hideo Kojima game" was removed from all Metal Gear promotional art for The Phantom Pain and on previous Metal Gear games. Soon, Kojima announced that he would be leaving the company following the completion of The Phantom Pain, which instantly caused panics over the status of The Phantom Pain and Silent Hills. Ultimately, Silent Hills was cancelled after an agonizing couple of weeks of silence, with P.T. being pulled from PSN shortly thereafter in spite of massive backlash, while Konami insisted that The Phantom Pain would be unaffected.
The exact causes of the split between Konami and Kojima are uncertain, but it can be inferred that money was a prime factor. Perhaps due to Konami's desire to downsize their console gaming presence, there have been many reports that they were uncomfortable with the high budget on The Phantom Pain, which reportedly surpassed $80 million. This might also have been a major contributing factor to Ground Zeroes' separate release, in an effort to recoup costs quickly. On a related note, timing was also likely an issue - Konami likely wanted the game to be released within a certain budgeted timeframe, and Kojima's vision was too ambitious to fit comfortably into these restrictions. Ultimately though, this lack of transparency on Konami's part has damned them in the eyes of the public, even if they do potentially have reasonable motives (I mean, if Kojima Productions had become too expensive for them to maintain then fair enough, but if you don't say a damn thing to us about it then we're going to side with the creative auteur behind our favourite games).
The game's plot picks up 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes as Venom Snake (aka Big Boss) wakes up from a coma to find himself in a dangerous new world. His muscles have atrophied, his body is embedded with shrapnel and his left arm has been amputated. Before Snake can be fully rehabilitated, the hospital comes under attack by XOF forces and a mysterious psychic boy and a deadly, flaming phantom. Snake barely escapes, thanks to the guidance of an unknown man calling himself Ishmael and a timely get-away courtesy of Revolver Ocelot.
From there, Snake heads into Afghanistan to rescue former comrade Kazuhira Miller, who has spent the last decade building a PMC named Diamond Dogs to seek revenge on Cipher for the destruction of Mother Base. Along the way, they uncover a plot by the rogue XOF commander, Skull Face, who has rebelled against Zero and has effectively brought much of Cipher under his control. The hate-filled rogue has decided that Zero's ambitions of world unity through information control are doomed to failure, and that the only way to unite and control humanity is through fear and revenge. In order to achieve this, he intends to spread chaos by constructing a new Metal Gear, Sahelanthropus, and by distributing inexpensive nuclear weapons to PMCs and smaller nations, stopping nuclear-equipped nations from strong-arming others (while also retaining control of these nuclear weapons as a fail safe). Secondly, he intends to eliminate the English language as a form of revenge for the loss of his own mother tongue - with English as the world's dominant language, all other languages (and therefore cultural understandings and viewpoints) are under threat of singular control, all as part of Cipher's intention for global unity. To do this, he has weaponized an ancient species of parasites which reproduces when it recognizes distinct vocal patterns.
In his time building Diamond Dogs, Kaz discovers that Huey Emmerich was responsible for the attack on Mother Base 9 years earlier. Huey has been working for Skull Face and is responsible for the construction of Sahelanthropus. Snake captures Huey and puts him to work developing a new Walker Gear for Diamond Dogs, but is kept under surveillance. They also discover a mysterious, mute sniper named Quiet, who has incredible powers mirroring XOF's SKULL unit. Kaz immediately distrusts her, but Snake and Ocelot allow her to join Diamond Dogs and provide Snake with support on missions.
Diamond Dogs begins hunting Skull Face in Angola, but in the process Mother Base becomes afflicted with an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites after Snake brings back contaminated materials. The outbreak runs rampant until Venom Snake rescues Code Talker, the man who developed the parasites under duress from Skull Face. A young boy named Eli, suspected to be one of Les Enfants Terrible, is also captured and brought to Mother Base, where he constantly flaunts Snake's authority.
Snake then goes to attack Skull Face head-on, but is captured and taken to Sahelanthropus, where Skull Face tries to get The Man on Fire (revealed to be a phantom of Colonel Volgin) to kill Snake. However, the nearby presence of Eli causes a young Psycho Mantis (Volgin's puppeteer) to switch allegiances and unleash Sahelanthropus on Snake and the XOF troops. Much of XOF is destroyed and Skull Face is mortally wounded, but Snake manages to take down the Metal Gear after an epic battle. He and Kaz then gloat over Skull Face's dying body, mutilating him in retribution before Huey puts him down for good. Diamond Dogs retrieve the remains of Sahelanthropus, putting it on display at Mother Base as a symbol of their victory as Eli and Psycho Mantis look upon it with their own nefarious designs.
In the game's second chapter, Kaz begins a witch hunt within Diamond Dogs' ranks, hoping to root out all within their ranks that he deems dangerous. Particular targets of his wrath include Quiet and Huey Emmerich, who is revealed to be a pathological liar the more he is interrogated. After a second, more serious, outbreak of a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasite ravages Mother Base, it is discovered that Huey was responsible. He is banished by Snake just before Quiet goes missing. Snake tracks her down to a Soviet base, where he discovers that she has been infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasites. Skull Face had intended for her to infect Diamond Dogs with it, but she had turned against XOF and taken a vow of silence. However, after witnessing the mutation of the infection on Mother Base, she had realized that she was too dangerous to remain there. After an intense battle with the Soviet army, Snake is injured and Quiet is forced to break her vow of silence to call in helicopter support to save his life, damning herself to death from the infection. After Snake is rescued, she wanders into the desert to die alone.
Some time after this, Venom Snake receives a tape which reveals that he is not the "real" Big Boss, but rather the helicopter medic from Ground Zeroes. After the helicopter crash, Cipher conspired with Ocelot and (eventually) Big Boss to create a decoy to draw the attention of XOF while the real Big Boss set about creating his own nation of soldiers in secret. Kaz is incensed by this revelation, denouncing Big Boss as a traitor and pledging to support Venom Snake and the sons of Big Boss to bring him down. Ocelot remarks that a time will soon come when these two Big Bosses will be at war with one another, just as the sons of Big Boss will clash.
In post-game recordings, we also receive some plot revelations. While Kaz is furious at Big Boss for betraying his trust, he is also angry with Cipher, which he had been working in concert with to help establish the beginnings of the war economy. He had followed their instructions under the belief that they were going to reunite him with his old friend, making the reveal Big Boss's decoy sting all the worse. We also hear recordings from Zero himself. Following the unauthorized attack on Mother Base, Zero had been acting to get XOF under control, but Skull Face infected him with a lethal parasite, throwing his ambitions into disarray. A rapidly-deteriorating Zero orders Donald Anderson (aka, SIGNIT) and Strangelove to create the AI network that would come to be known as the Patriots. In his last recording, Zero visits a comatose Big Boss in hospital, revealing that despite their differences, he is still quite fond of his foe. His system thrives on conflict, and therefore he needs someone like Big Boss to cause it.
GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
The Phantom Pain opens with a very intense and harrowing hour-long introduction into this brave new world. This sequence works very well for two reasons - it takes its time to draw you into the scenario and then, when it lets loose, you have absolutely no idea what is happening or why. It's deliberately uninformative, but this just makes the horrifying events which happen here more impactful. I definitely got some Silent Hills vibes here and think that Kojima was dying to try his hand at a horror experience.
Once this sequence is complete, The Phantom Pain truly begins in earnest. While Ground Zeroes offered us a tantalizing taste of what an open world Metal Gear game would look like, that game absolutely pales in comparison to the freedom that The Phantom Pain offers*. The second that you get thrown into the expansive Afghanistan map, you feel a little overwhelmed with how much freedom the game has given you to approach missions, and where exactly to focus your efforts. The maps are dotted with all sorts of enemy outposts for you to approach or avoid at your discretion, while dozens of unique items, weapons, gameplay systems and AI buddies open up entirely new gameplay styles and practically guarantee a different experience for everyone. This also can lead to some incredibly intense moments where you end up in an extremely tight situation and find yourself improvising a solution on the fly which miraculously ends up working... whether due to your skill or the overwhelming force you choose to bear down on enemies, it's up to you.
The game features two open world maps in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border, both of which are rather unique. Afghanistan is dotted with cliffs and covered in desert, its action mainly centered around the roads controlled by Soviet troops. As a result, this map is actually surprisingly linear, with mountains forcing the player through series of choke points and making confrontation a regular affair. This is moderately disappointing, and can make traversal a real chore as the game wears on. However, Angola-Zaire is far more open, with the majority of the map traversable however the player wishes and roads being little more than an enemy-filled suggestion. This map is mainly covered in plains and swampland, with some jungles and villages offering a wide variety of ways to sneak about.
The game also features the most recent version of the base management meta-game which was pioneered in Portable Ops and Peace Walker. The Phantom Pain's base management is extremely similar to Peace Walker's, with troops captured in the field being assigned to various positions based on their skills to unlock new weapons and items. Going hand-in-hand with base management is the improved fulton extraction system. Fulton is one of the game's strongest assets and is better and more convenient than ever. Instead of being limited to a handful of extractions as you were in Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain will quickly give you access to dozens of balloons to snatch enemy troops, supplies and eventually even vehicles as it pleases you (and if you run out of balloons, then just send a supply request for some more). My only complaint with this is that the fulton system is almost too good now - until your base gets completely filled up, there's basically no reason to kill enemies when you can just fly them away with your balloon and make them join you. It also makes the numerous tank battle side-ops in the game a complete joke when you can just fulton the tank away without a fight and then take out the oblivious escorts (and fulton them too to boot). Still though, this is a rather minor quibble, as extracting enemies is one of the defining aspects of the game.
The Phantom Pain also contains a very fun buddy system, in which a very useful AI companion will join you in missions and follow commands. This system functions flawlessly and is an unexpectedly great addition. You start off with a horse named D-Horse who helps you traverse terrain easier and who can allow you to shoot while on the move (something that you can't do while in a jeep or truck, probably so that D-Horse stays useful in the mid-to-late game). However, as you play, you can gain access to a wolf named D-Dog, a supernatural sniper named Quiet and a Gekko-like walker named D-Walker. Taking them on missions increases their bond with Snake and opens up powerful new abilities for them to unleash on enemies. All of them have their uses, but for my money D-Dog is the best - having 100% situational awareness is incredible for someone like me who doesn't need a lot of help taking down a base silently. However, Quiet is also very good. She's arguably overpowered, but she's an incredible asset to have in missions backing you up... and can provide a fantastic distraction if the enemy's defences are just a little too organized for your liking.
Returning in an expanded form from Ground Zeroes is driveable vehicles. Unfortunately, they're not all that big a deal on the whole. The jeeps are the most useful of them since they help you traverse the maps far quicker than on foot (which is going to quickly become a problem once you inevitably swap out D-Horse for D-Dog or Quiet). However, the other vehicles are pretty useless for most of the game. The trucks are too slow to use effectively, and you still get spotted when driving them far too easily. The LAVs and tanks are funny to use on an enemy base once or twice, but aside from that they're practically useless aside from a very small handful of boss battles, but even then they take a ridiculous number of shots to take out most enemies. For example, in one side-op I needed to shoot down a chopper but didn't want to bring a missile launcher for the task. As a result, I took the heaviest tank to destroy it, but the chopper ended up taking more than 6 shots without an issue before it blew up my tank with its machine gun. Driveable vehicles are definitely a cool addition to the series, but it's too bad that they're just not all that useful outside of getting from place to place in less time.
The enemy AI is also definitely the best that the series has ever seen in my opinion. Sons of Liberty's AI was relentless when they were on alert, but The Phantom Pain's AI feel like geniuses sometimes. They call for help from nearby allies. If they see something suspicious more than a couple times, they'll call in an alert which will put everyone in the area on edge. They also will warn other outposts of your presence and call in for backup if you reveal yourself. If they spot you, they're not going to ease up until you neutralize everyone or until nearly a day of in-game time goes by, which is miles ahead of the goldfish-memory enemies we've seen in the past. Their vision cones are also fairly reasonable - they're still rather near-sighted, generally needing to be within about 50-75m to spot you if you're running, but if it was any closer then that the game would likely be far more frustrating. If anything, they're far more reasonable than the laughably blind enemies in Portable Ops or Peace Walker. What all this adds up to is enemies who are actually rather thrilling to outwit, while remaining predictable enough that a skilled player will be able to take advantage of their routines as they get better at the game. It also makes me feel kind of bad when I kill enemies, especially when they get so badly wounded that they're left bleeding out - I end up wondering if they have families back home and why I am killing them. This, of course, incentivizes non-lethal attacks and fulton even more.
It's also worth noting that there are in-game counters to some of the tools that you will use on the enemy, and vice versa. If you go for a lot of headshots, enemies will soon be wearing helmets. If you use smoke grenades, they'll wear gas masks. If you use decoys to fool enemies, you might soon find yourself the fool when an enemy decoy psyches out your plan of attack. These counters can make enemy encounters very challenging as a form of emergent gameplay (especially the riot suits that show up late in the game, which are the bane of my existence and make my stealthy playthroughs incredibly challenging). However, they can be countered by your combat units, by sending them out on missions to destroy enemy supplies. Doing so though costs you opportunities to gather resources and GMP, feeding into the game's infinite strategic possibilities.
Ideally, the game should have just given you the option to ride your helicopter to different landing zones without having to exit the map every time you climb on board. It already does this when you visit Mother Base, why can't it do the same in the main maps? This would also disincentivize overuse and over-reliance on fast travel, since calling the helicopter costs GMP.
Also, the mission "Truth: The Man Who Sold the World" is a particularly egregious offender in this regard and bears extra mention. Billed as a proper story mission with an actual impact on the game's narrative, this mission is little more than a straight replay of the game's opening mission with only a small change near the beginning and a slightly shorter ending to differentiate it. Other than that, you're forced to replay the whole opening hour all over again, but this time with full knowledge of what's going on. This sequence fails for a number of reasons. First of all, knowing exactly what's happening robs the scene of the impact and horror which it had the first time you play. Secondly, making its completion a requirement to reach the game's true ending turns it into a slog and highlights just how on rails this whole segment is. Aside from a couple of short moments, there are almost no changes here from the original opening - hell, even the tutorials have been kept in place, making this section feel incredibly contrived. You think that they could have at least cut down most of this sequence or changed more things to keep it from dragging on and becoming incredibly tedious.
As you can probably tell though, Konami seems to have created many of the biggest issues in The Phantom Pain. The game just feels unfinished on the whole. While cutting features is a necessity in nearly every game's development, the corporate restructuring of Konami late in development seems to have caused the company's leadership to give Kojima a firm deadline to release the game and less support to complete his vision. This likely caused Kojima to heavily compromise and ditch a ton of features that he had been planning on including until this time and is likely the source of the split between Kojima and Konami. Since release, fans have discovered a massive amount of planned content was cut, including 3 new (likely smaller) maps, Snake Eater-style guard dogs and even a whole third chapter. It can also be deduced that Chapter 2 was likely heavily stifled by these cuts as well, with the plot thread about Eli stealing Sahelanthropus being dropped entirely, Kaz suddenly going blind and the game's ending appearing with no narrative explanation whatsoever. Furthermore, the presence of "The Kingdom of the Flies" on the collector's edition bonus disc suggests to me that this mission is intended to be canon but was not given the proper time to be included. While Konami may have declared that The Phantom Pain's development was not affected by the friction between the company and Kojima, I have an extremely hard time believing this, and the unfinished nature of the final product goes a long way to reinforcing these notions.
STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
Before I dive into the game's themes, I have to say that the game's story is incredibly confusing if you don't listen to the supplementary audio tapes (and, to be honest, it can still be confusing even with the tapes, particularly in regard to the vocal cord parasites). These tapes generally fulfill the roles which exposition dumps would have in previous Metal Gear games, explaining every concept, the setting and characters' histories. Considering the time that you have to spend getting from place to place, there should be plenty of opportunity to listen to the tapes, and they do a great job of keeping you interested as they convey fascinating insights into Afghan War history or the I can't imagine trying to understand the game's story without the aid of these tapes; it would be a completely different experience.
The tapes also really flesh out many of the characters. Code Talker in particular is a rather unimportant side-character after he cures the parasite outbreak, but when you listen to the dozens of tapes about his research and motivations, he becomes extremely sympathetic. Hell, he might be my favourite character in the game and that comes down entirely to the numerous recordings he has made explaining his life and the tragedies that have befallen him (plus I don't think I'll ever be able to get the way that he says "DA VOKUL CORD PARASYTES" out of my head).
Also, the secret post-game tapes are crucial to understanding the game and assuage some peoples' complaints about how Guns of the Patriots revealed that Zero was the force behind the Patriots. These tapes give us our first clear glimpse at Zero's motivations since his very brief cameo in Portable Ops, and bows out the series with a very sympathetic look at arguably the biggest villain in the whole series. Since Guns of the Patriots, Kojima has seemed to be trying to hammer home the idea that there are no true villains in the Metal Gear saga, only flawed individuals with the noblest intentions. Zero's characterization fits into this idea very well - in creating Cipher, he is attempting to bring about world unity through information control. Unfortunately, Cipher has become quite unwieldy, necessitating the invention of AIs to control his system without having to worry about figures such as Skull Face overthrowing him. His friendly demeanour towards Big Boss also stands in sharp contrast to Kaz and Big Boss' own murderous, revenge-fueled motivations.
And speaking of revenge, this is the first theme of the game and the one most clearly foreshadowed by Ground Zeroes. Also worth noting are the game's frequent allusions to Moby Dick. These not-so-subtle references underscore The Phantom Pain's analysis of revenge, since Moby Dick's Captain Ahab is famous for allowing his desire for revenge consume and destroy him. Revenge is the driving motivation of nearly every character in the game - Kaz and (to a lesser extent) Venom Snake are both principally concerned with exacting revenge on Skull Face for destroying Mother Base 9 years ago, while also reserving a future desire to get back at Zero. Huey Emmerich seeks his own petty vengeance against Diamond Dogs and Cipher. Quiet is torn over whether she should complete her own mission and get revenge on Venom Snake for her immolation. Skull Face's evil plan is entirely focused around a ploy to exact revenge on the English language for stealing away his mother tongue and for robbing him of his identity. Colonel Volgin's desire for revenge is so strong that it turns him into a literal demon. Eli's thirst for vengeance against Big Boss is so strong that he becomes a conduit for Psycho Mantis. Hell, Code Talker even expounds that the vocal cord parasites are, in essence, exacting revenge for their near extinction by ancient humans. So yeah, as you can see, there's a shitload of revenge-plots at play in The Phantom Pain.
If that were where the exploration ended, then it would be a rather shallow, well-trodden theme for the game to tackle (although Taken comes to mind as a legitimately good example of the shallow side of revenge fantasy). However, The Phantom Pain is more interested in what revenge does to a person. As a general rule, every character who is motivated by revenge either relents or has it destroy them in the end. Kaz goes from a charismatic, likeable leader to a paranoid, cold-hearted, xenophobic bastard who sees insubordination at every corner and loses his friendship with Big Boss as a result. Huey's bumbling attempts at revenge alienate him from everyone around him and nearly get him killed, turning him from a well-meaning person into a monstrous villain. Skull Face is defeated only because he underestimates his desire for revenge and loses control of Psycho Mantis, causing his plans to literally come crashing down around him. In "The Kingdom of the Flies", it is also revealed that Eli is nearly killed when he refuses to stand down in the face of Cipher and Venom Snake, surviving only because of the timely intervention of Psycho Mantis.
On the other end of the scale though, Quiet and Venom Snake's journeys are far different. Quiet is horrifically disfigured by Venom Snake during the hospital escape and is only saved when Skull Face implants her with parasites to be used as a biological weapon to exact her revenge. She initially goes along with this plan, but at some point her perspective changes. Perhaps because Venom Snake spares her life when he had the chance to kill her, she decides not to carry through with her mission, despite still wrestling with desires for vengeance. It is also implied that she starts to develop some feelings towards Venom Snake in spite of their rocky history. In the end, she sacrifices her own life in order to save his in an ultimate display of forgiveness. It's a rather beautiful demonstration of the hollowness of revenge, while forgiveness leads to redemption.
Venom Snake on the other hand does not seem to be quite so gung-ho about revenge as Kaz. On the one hand, he does want to seek him out, but he does not seem to get a gleeful satisfaction out of it like Kaz. Furthermore, he also seems to be just as motivated by the evils that Skull Face perpetrates (if not more), rather than just seeking to settle his personal vendetta. He also is demonstrably merciful to people who do him wrong, such as Huey Emmerich, Eli and Quiet (although this is player-determinate, depending on how people play, he might end up being a vicious monster outside of cutscenes). This changes in the game's ending though, when the truth about Big Boss and Venom Snake is revealed. Venom Snake is portrayed here in his demonic form, suggesting that the truth that Big Boss forcibly stole away his own identity drives him to become evil. The parallels between Venom Snake and Skull Face are so clear here that I'm basically convinced that this is supposed to be the intended interpretation of the ending, and it also helps to explain some of the logical gaps that this twist creates. There's a fantastic essay that you can read here which goes into greater detail which I would recommend reading.
Also, before I move on to the next theme, I must say that this analysis of revenge retroactively makes Metal Gear Rising even more of a red-headed stepchild of the Metal Gear franchise. That game is basically the definition of the shallow revenge fantasy, which puts it greatly at odds with this game's message that revenge is a desire which destroys people and can literally turn them into a monstrous figure. I know that Rising is intended to be dumb fun, but this just makes it even more of an inconsistent issue within the series canon.
The second, and perhaps most important, theme in the game is the power of words and language, and their place in the formation of identity. Having done studies in communication, language and colonialism, these themes resonated with me quite a bit and might have actually made this particular aspect of the game even more profound for me. Caliban's famous lines in Shakespeare's The Tempest came rushing back to me many times due to the game's themes:
The power of language is an extremely under-appreciated force, so it's heartening to see it highlighted in a video game of all places. As a side note, I think that a major reason why the Planet of the Apes remake sucked so bad was because it underestimated the power of language. By having the humans and apes able to communicate with one another from the outset, the entire idea of humans being a subjugated, inferior species just goes out the window, because if the apes didn't sympathize with them then the humans would just organize and fight back."You taught me language, and my profit on’tIs I know how to curse. The red plague rid youFor learning me your language!" (I.ii.366–368)
The least-subtle example of the power of words in The Phantom Pain is the vocal cord parasites. When they first showed up in the game, I thought that having seemingly supernatural parasites all of a sudden showing up was a ridiculous plot development on par with the overuse of nanomachines in Guns of the Patriots. The existence of weaponized, supernatural parasites would probably be something that would have been useful in subsequent evil plots, but having something so over the top exist for only one entry strains credulity. While they may still be rather ridiculous in a lot of ways, their inclusion actually makes some sense... if you listen to Code Talker's cassette tapes, that is.
In essence, Code Talker reveals that mankind evolved in symbiosis with a strain of parasites which initiated vocalizations as a mating call. Over time, the influence of the parasites caused early humans to evolve the ability to produce complex speech patterns without requiring the parasites to do this for them. As a result, humans began to use these vocalizations for their own purposes, meaning that the vocal cord parasites were no longer able to make their mating calls, while a retrovirus transcribed the ability to speak right into man's genes. I believe I have actually heard parasites cited as a possible explanation for what might have caused humans to gain the power of speech, so there seems to be a precedent for this plot development, and one which ties into the game's themes quite naturally when you look into it. While it's a rather blunt way to incorporate this theme and the parasites' abilities can be rather ridiculous, with the contextualization of the audio tapes I actually warmed up to them somewhat (although the more supernatural parasites have to be one of the biggest credibility stretches in the entire franchise).
The two characters who most clearly exemplify this theme are Code Talker and Skull Face (although there are others who tie in a little more loosely). Code Talker is a Navajo (or Diné) biologist who is terrified that his culture is going to be erased. After centuries of American imperialism, the Diné way of life is at risk of going extinct as his people are forced into residential schools, where their culture and language was systematically and insidiously stripped away from them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, English's worldwide dominance has put the very existence of smaller languages at considerable risk. Code Talker watches as his peoples' language is exploited in World War II as a cipher, while the discovery of uranium deposits in Navajo lands causes many Diné to begin mining it to fuel the Cold War - with deadly consequences. These injustices cause Code Talker to delve into his research of parasites, which Skull Face exploits to become ethnic cleansers under threat of wiping out the Diné if he fails to comply. To Code Talker, language arguably the key factor of his peoples' identity:
"To erase our words was like erasing our people. Their 'education' was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Over time, the overt persecution of our language stopped. But to this day it continues to be eaten away by the lingua franca that is English. Many of the Diné outside the reservations can speak nothing else. It isn't just our language. Across the world, minority languages are being destroyed by dominant languages. Many are on the verge of extinction."Similarly, Skull Face is a living embodiment of the dehumanizing effects that cultural imperialism can have on a person. As a child, his mother tongue was robbed from him by foreign invaders who forced him to adopt their language. During World War II, he was caught in a factory bombing, stripping him of even more of his identity as his body was covered in horrific burns. As he was passed from nation to nation, Skull Face's languages were in constant flux and he began to understand the under-appreciated powers of language:
"I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are... peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong... War changed me - and not only my visage. Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me."In Skull Face's view, Code Talker's discovery and development of vocal cord parasites presented him with the perfect vector by which to extract his revenge. Skull Face seems to have a very skewed take on "The Boss's will", emphasizing her desire to "let the world be". However, in order to do so, he believes that the answer is through chaos rather than control. English will have to be eradicated because of the homogenizing threat it poses to cultures the world over, and also conveniently helps him to get back at another target of his vengeance (conversely, Zero's plan is to use English to unite the world as part of his conflicting interpretation of The Boss's will).
On the other hand though, Quiet is basically a living counterpoint to this theme. By choosing to remain silent, she cannot construct her identity through speech. Her actions are the only things which "speak" for her, and so people project their own prejudices onto her. Kaz in particular wants her dead when he discovers that her abilities are the same as the SKULLs, whereas Venom Snake and Ocelot are simply cautious, interpreting her actions as an attempt to help them.
It must be said though that this theme links back to Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty really well, since those games are all about "genes" and "memes" - the role of fate and identity in the formation of an individual. I imagine that Kojima intentionally added this little bit of connective tissue to link The Phantom Pain to the subsequent Metal Gear games, although it would have been nice if it had been set up even a little bit in Ground Zeroes.
"I won't scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you; plant your roots in me. I won't see you end as ashes. You're all diamonds..."Instead of giving them a burial at sea, Venom Snake turns their ashes into diamonds to give his men a visual reminder of the dead. In essence, the soldiers of Diamond Dogs have become an extension of Big Boss himself, and he cannot simply give them a funeral and then move on. To me, this scene seems to represent Snake's attempts to reclaim a small part of the men who he has lost. The ending can also be seen as a an attempt to show that Venom Snake is going to be swallowed up in the identity of Big Boss when he dies, meaning that no one is going to even know he existed and will just attribute his actions to someone else.
A similar scenario plays out in the secret Paz storyline if you discover a hidden room on the medical platform. Inside this room, Venom Snake discovers Paz who suspiciously survived the seemingly fatal explosion in Ground Zeroes. However, as the player progresses through this storyline, it becomes increasingly clearer that this is not the real Paz, but only a figment of Snake's imagination - a phantom from the past. At the culmination of this storyline, we come to realize that this is a visualization of Snake trying to come to grips with her death, especially since he only remembers her as the innocent child she had been portraying herself as throughout most of Peace Walker. While it may seem like a bit of a stretch to call this "phantom pain", you must also remember that Venom Snake is not the real Big Boss, but rather the medic on the chopper who extracted the bomb from her stomach in the first place. He feels so much guilt for failing to save his patient and for indirectly causing the deaths of many of those around him that it penetrates the hypnotically-induced mind wipe that he has undergone to turn him into Big Boss. This guilt is a lingering phantom pain of a life and an identity which has been lost, and is a crack in his otherwise complete facade.
Finally, we come to elements of "phantom pain" which have been injected into the gameplay by Kojima. The most obvious and affecting example is the culmination of Quiet's storyline. Following "A Quiet Exit", Quiet is no longer able to be taken as a buddy (until the November 2015 patch, which will allow her to be recruited again when you complete "Cloaked in Silence" 7 times). Considering how useful (and arguably overpowered) she is, this can make some missions much harder and you find yourself missing Quiet constantly. I'd catch myself heading into "Sahelanthropus (Extreme)" and "Code Talker (Extreme)", two missions where Quiet's really the best buddy to take, and then catching myself in the thought. It's a rather sombre moment every time it comes up. For my money, this is easily the most effective use of phantom pain in the game, and one which I encourage players to actually go through with - there are far too many people complaining about this decision, but as an artistic choice I find that it works quite well, even if it stings constantly.
Aside from Quiet's ending, there are other gameplay and narrative elements which more dubiously tie into the idea of phantom pain. I believe that Kojima himself has said that he intentionally omitted a boss battle with Skull Face because he wanted the player to feel a lack of catharsis for having his defeat snatched away. This disappointment has caused some people to say that Skull Face was an awful villain, although I would have to disagree. He is quite charismatic and imposing and drives the player's actions forward - we just don't get to off him ourselves, and that seems to rub some people the wrong way. However, between such intentionally-subversive narrative elements and the clearly unfinished state of the game, it becomes an exercise in futility to try to figure out what was meant to cause "phantom pain" and what wasn't. Many people have pointed out their dissatisfaction with the game's ending, especially the lack of conclusion for Eli's storyline, is just Kojima trolling us through the titular phantom pain. I personally don't think that this was the intended case though - by digging through the game's files, the community has found that quite a few elements, including a whole additional chapter, were dropped from the final product. If anything, I believe that Kojima had a conclusion planned, but when he discovered that he wasn't going to get to implement it, he might have compensated and just decided to leave what they had open to this interpretation while he struggled to get the crucial elements finished in time for launch (such as "Truth: The Man Who Sold the World", which would explain why this mission/revelation suddenly happens with no narrative explanation to kick it off - I imagine that it would have been precipitated by some event in Chapter 3 that never came about).
Moving on to some character notes, you just know that I have to speak about Quiet. Way back when she was first revealed I had some choice words about her character design, but I did refrain from jumping to conclusions since it sounded like Kojima had some sort of good justification for it. However, as you are probably aware, the justification is a ridiculously paper-thin excuse to make Quiet be as close to naked as possible, as often as possible (in short, she breathes through her skin so she can't wear clothes or she'll suffocate!). Making it worse, basically every time she's on screen, Kojima subjects Quiet to a really perverted camera which focuses all its attention on her tits and ass as she waves her ass your face or her tits jiggle like a plate of Jell-o. It's fan service at the very lowest of the lowest common denominator, and it just makes me embarrassed whenever she appears on screen... and that's too bad, because she really is a cool character. She is a fantastic buddy to take on missions and you actually start to develop a legitimate bond with her as she saves your ass for the hundredth time or when she endearingly plays in the rain with a hesitant Snake (a rather cute and otherwise innocent scene which the camera tries its best to turn into a porno). The end of her storyline is also very poignant and I found myself very affected by her sacrifice. It's just... that character design. Holy shit does it ever make it difficult to take her seriously in any way.
Having played through the game, I do think I understand the actual logic behind her design, but it's not a pretty explanation. Since we know that Quiet will heroically sacrifice herself for Venom Snake, and that the player is intended to build a strong bond with her so that this sacrifice and its subsequent lingering pain will resonate, it is obvious that Kojima wanted to ensure that players would really like Quiet. However, instead of trusting in strong characterization and useful action, I believe that he decided to piss all over subtlety and took the most juvenile, lowest common denominator approach and just made sure that the player would lust like hell after her to form an attachment. I mean, in a sense it does kind of work, Stephanie Joosten is an undeniably gorgeous woman after all... but c'mon. It's off-putting and kind of insulting to the player's intelligence, and it becomes nearly impossible to take her character seriously due to her awful design.
Personally, I far preferred Quiet's XOF Uniform once I unlocked it. While its existence instantly throws the "she'll suffocate!!!" explanation into the wind, it simply is so much more sensible than her default outfit that it's not even funny. It actually looks like a uniform that a soldier would wear and just fits her character so much better. I was actually worried that it might look a little too bland at first, but after a couple missions it had really grown on me and it made me lament her default costume even more (although now I could actually play the game when there were others around, so bonus). Hell, this might sound odd, but I wasn't bothered at all by the cleavage-bearing Sniper Wolf costume that you can unlock by beating "Cloaked in Silence (Extreme)". I'm not even sure exactly why either... Does her default outfit make Sniper Wolf look tasteful by comparison? Or perhaps I appreciate it when even a touch of subtlety is employed rather than pornographic fan service? Or maybe Sniper Wolf just has a better character design in general, striking a nice balance between a serious uniform a soldier might wear, while making it just cheesy enough that it has a sort of comic book sense of style? I'm not really sure, but I imagine the answer is somewhere between all three of these suggestions.**
Huey Emmerich also deserves a special mention for his role in The Phantom Pain. While there were some subtle hints in Ground Zeroes that he was responsible for the attack on Mother Base, it is not until The Phantom Pain that Huey is turned into a full-blown monster. This is a jarring change from his status in Peace Walker to say the least. On the one hand, I really did not like how his relationship with Big Boss paralleled Solid Snake's relationship with Otacon so closely in Peace Walker, as it began to strain credulity (and before someone points it out, I don't care if Metal Gear's a ridiculous series; there's a difference between elements of magical realism and in having two generations of characters meeting up under the same circumstances out of sheer coincidence with absolutely no guiding force bringing this about). With that in mind, I significantly prefer Huey's portrayal here as a lying, cowardly, spiteful individual as it allows him to create his own unique mark on the franchise's story, but the justification for it is almost non-existent. The only real hints at these developments in Peace Walker that I could find are that he seems to blame his father's genes for every misfortune that befalls him (showing a lack of responsibility) and that he believes wholeheartedly in deterrence (peace through force of arms), but even these traits are subverted through other actions that Huey makes throughout that game's story (he feels strong remorse for his development of Peace Walker and doesn't actually want to see any nuclear weapons be used, respectively).
With Peace Walker taken into consideration, Huey's portrayal is problematic for a number of reasons, which is especially odd since The Phantom Pain is supposed to be a direct sequel to that game. The explanation for Huey's complete change of character is left conspicuously ambiguous, which makes it difficult to understand some of the evil things he does. At least in Kaz's case, losing Mother Base and his arm and leg are enough to understand if the guy goes over the edge. The only way I can rationalize this turn is to assume that, when Huey joined MSF, he believed that he would no longer be exploited to create machines of war. However, after Kaz acquired the nuke from Peace Walker and equipped it to Metal Gear ZEKE, Huey slowly realized that he was being used once again. As a result, he collaborated with XOF forces to bring down MSF, although this ended up being more deadly than he had expected. As a result, he is captured by Skull Face and forced to work on Sahelanthropus, pushing Huey over the edge and causing him to become a paranoid, distrustful coward who assumes that everyone is trying to exploit his talents for their own gains (which, when considering the threats and torture he endures, and that Diamond Dogs force him to work on D-Walker and Battle Gear, might not be too much of a stretch to imagine). Perhaps most difficult to justify though is his cold-blooded murder of Strangelove, who he was clearly head-over-heels in love with in Peace Walker. Obviously these feelings could have cooled somewhat in the time after she gave birth to his son, especially since (as she elaborates in her dying confessions) she did not reciprocate any love for him and simply used him as a willing sperm donor. In any case though, locking her in an AI pod to suffocate seems like a major overreaction to the fact that she secretly sent their son away to keep him from being used as a test pilot for Sahelanthropus. The only thing I can possibly infer here is that the choice of "murder weapon" is interesting - it is never directly stated, or even really implied, but perhaps Huey realized that she loved The Boss and not him, and so he left her to die with her symbolic lover in the Mammal Pod. It's too bad that there's not more justification given for Huey's actions though. I think my speculations are sufficient to explain his actions, but they're little more than my own personal theories filling in some rather large narrative gaps, since the game doesn't deign itself to even bother giving an explanation.
Moving on to a few other notes about the story, I think I personally would have preferred a more "retro" style design for Sahelanthropus. As it is, it's clearly the most powerful Metal Gear ever built, despite being smack dab in the middle of the series continuity and clearly intended to be the basis for Metal Gear REX. It's the usual sort of irritating technological inconsistency that springs up in prequels all the time, like how the galaxy of The Phantom Menace is so much more technologically developed than that of A New Hope. The iDroid is a similar sort of anachronism, but at least in its case it is a rather minor issue which can be ignored, and it's not like there's a progression of iDroids in the series, with this one suddenly being the most advanced despite being in the middle of the continuity.
Also worth noting is that The Phantom Pain ditches most of the series' signature instances of silly humour. While we get the glorious "Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller" cassette tapes and a few humourous weapons and items (such as the surprisingly useful Water Pistol or the amazing Decoys), the game's story is a very straight-faced affair... even when it is introducing parasites which coat the skin in carapace or when there's a bikini-clad sniper shooting jets from the sky with her rifle. Obviously the series' stranger elements clash with this tonal shift quite a bit, although the quirky elements remains charming enough that it still manages to hold together. The serious tone makes some of the nastier moments in the game resonate quite well, particularly "Shining Lights, Even in Death"... but considering that there are still so many over the top plot elements in place, it can still be difficult for some people to accept the narrative dissonance on display.
As for the game's narrative on the whole, it basically boils down to filling in a few of the blanks in the series continuity. In very general terms, The Phantom Pain tells the story of why Zero puts his faith in AIs to create the Patriots network, why Kaz turns on Big Boss by the time Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake rolls around, where Big Boss acquired his "legendary mercenary" reputation and how Big Boss managed to create two military nations and "survive" being "killed" by Solid Snake in Metal Gear. Contrary to the marketing and popular belief, The Phantom Pain is NOT about Big Boss' descent into villainy - it should have been pretty clear in Guns of the Patriots that Big Boss was never a straight up mega-maniacal monster. All of his "villainous" actions in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake were insurrections against the Patriots. Yes, he did some shady shit to get there, but his intentions were always understandable.
I've gone through almost 5500 words now delving into themes and character analyses in some detail without really getting to the heart of my feelings on The Phantom Pain's story... which will honestly take a small fraction of the time and space. Ultimately, the narrative of The Phantom Pain leaves a lot to be desired, being one of the weakest entries in the entire series in this regard. Perhaps it is because of the open world structure, or because the game is so clearly unfinished, but the events don't really cohere particularly well in the end. There are definitely standout moments within the story, but on the whole, most of the missions don't seem to be building up towards anything and simply feel like busywork. The lack of payoff in the end hurts matters even more, because why should we give a shit about all the stuff with Eli if he just pisses off into the sunset with Sahelanthropus and is never heard from again (outside of the collector's edition DVD of course)? Then there's the rather ridiculous elements revolving around the parasite soldiers which, again, remind me a bit too much of The Phantom Menace.
That said though, if you can untangle the twist and throw in "The Kingdom of the Flies" then The Phantom Pain acts as a pretty great mid-point for the franchise's narrative. The pieces are set for all of big showdowns which will occur from here on out as the relationships between Ocelot, Big Boss, Venom Snake, Kaz, Liquid Snake, Solid Snake and the Patriots all begin to simmer towards a boiling point. As a middle chapter, that's probably a good place to get the series to, but it's just too bad that it had to be so messy on the way.
All-in-all though, simply due to its stellar gameplay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain could easily be considered the best Metal Gear game. Its gameplay is incredibly fun and ambitious. However, while its themes are very interesting (if not particularly deep or subtle at times), its actual narrative leaves quite a bit to be desired, putting it well behind Snake Eater in that regard. It will be interesting to see how the reception for The Phantom Pain evolves over the years and whether it cools off or becomes stronger as people get over the initial sting of missing content and the twist. If Konami releases new story DLC, then this could also have a major bearing on the game, since "The Kingdom of the Flies" alone would make the game feel significantly more complete. As it is, it's an amazing game, but one can't help but wonder what it would have looked like if Kojima had gotten the opportunity to get it into a reasonably finished state...
*Much to Ground Zeroes' detriment, I might add. It would be awesome if they could retroactively unlock the gadgets and options from The Phantom Pain in Ground Zeroes to shake up that game somewhat and make it a little more open. As it is, Ground Zeroes is going to feel incredibly limiting now that we have seen what The Phantom Pain has to offer. As an interesting note, prior to release, Kojima had said that he'd allow us to explore Camp Omega again in The Phantom Pain, but this feature ended up being cut... surely due to the strained development period and time constraints.
**Also worth pointing out is one of the excuses given for Quiet's attire: "well EVA was wearing even less during Snake Eater and no one gave a shit!" This is a very weak argument on many levels. For one thing, I have always found EVA's costume to be ridiculous as well, but at least in her case she's actually trying to be seductive and the game is trying to recall cheesy 60s spy flicks so it has some narrative justification. Secondly, when the game was first released on the PS2 in 2004, game journalism was far less developed than it is now. Back then, it mainly consisted of previews and reviews, with maybe some interviews and commentary. However, in the current climate, video games are taken far more seriously, so commentary on the content of a game is far more common and, in all honesty, this is a very good development. Even then, I doubt games journalists of today would bat an eye at EVA's attire, but I can fully understand the hullabaloo that Quiet has caused.