Those that know me will recognize me as a rabid, if late-blooming fan of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. My first exposure to it wasn’t until the Xbox 360 HD remaster came out in 2011 and even then I definitely played the series out of order, and possibly in the order most guaranteed to leave me baffled and confused (2, 3, 1, Peace Walker, 4, 5). Since then, however, I’ve played the entire series (excepting 5) too many times to count and reveled in the marriage of melodramatic seriousness with blatant absurdity that marks the entire franchise. Given my love of the series it may surprise people to learn that I absolutely despise the inclusion of the series-favorite tranquilizer pistol in last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
You would think that by now I’d be used to Metal Gear’s penchant for lamenting the necessity of lethal violence with one hand and handing you the keys to nonviolently solving all your problems with the other. Ever since Sons of Liberty, these games have provided the player with a tranquilizer pistol as an alternative method for incapacitating foes. However, until Peace Walker, using it was optional. Once Peace Walker introduced the core gameplay mechanic of kidnapping enemy combatants alive and shanghaiing them into service at Mother Base, that changed.
Suddenly, the enemy soldiers encountered in the field weren’t simple obstacles but potential assets as well. Killing them came with an opportunity cost and using the tranqulizer pistol was the most reliable method for bringing them in unharmed. Since recruiting pretty much everyone you come across is vitally necessary to advance the plot and unlock the game’s secret, true ending, that pretty much meant Big Boss spent his time gleefully shooting people in the feet with tranquilizer darts and strapping them to the now-famous Fulton balloons.
Even then, I didn’t mind so much. Peace Walker’s story and themes justified this sort of behavior (mostly). The central theme of the entire game was peace and whether it was ever truly achievable. Big Boss’s character arc and motivations in Peace Walker saw him optimistically hoping to build a place where the disenfranchised and disrespected denizens of the battlefield could find a new home and a purpose. Thus, it made a lot of sense that he’d rather win over the grunts of the other side as allies than simply kill them.
Not so with The Phantom Pain, however. Gone is the optimistic, hopeful protagonist of Peace Walker and in his place we have the Phantom of the man he used to be, Venom Snake, who counts “I’m already a demon,” among the first things he says after the opening credits. Cutscenes constantly remind us of the guilt he feels and the blood on his hands. He frequently sees himself in mirrors as a man drenched in blood with a devil’s horn sprouting from his head. But the man I played in my first trek through The Phantom Pain had no reason for guilt, no Demon inside him. He could have had a Nobel Peace Prize if the cutscenes hadn’t forced him to kill a few people.
Unlike the previous entries in the series, The Phantom Pain’s gameplay comes into stark conflict with the main themes of its story. It carries over Peace Walker’s insistence on capturing enemies alive without that game’s hopeful tone and tacks on a protagonist haunted by the ghosts of people he hasn’t actually harmed. When I first played through The Phantom Pain, I rarely if ever used any weapon that wasn’t the tranquilizer pistol. The game rewards you for no-kill, no-detection playthroughs of missions and further incentivizes non-lethal gameplay with its hidden morality system, the usefulness of captured soldiers, and the ease with which the tranquilizer incapacitates enemies when compared with lethal options.
I didn’t even really recognize this disconnect when I first played (my mind was occupied with other, twist-ending related things) but recently I decided to give the game another go and see how I felt about the twist a year later. I wanted a fresh experience so I actually deleted my old save data and booted the game up completely new. Fortunately for me at least, knowing about its hidden secret ending in advance made the game far more enjoyable but I also found myself realizing how much the tranquilizer’s presence in the game allowed me to sidestep the central moral questions raised by the plot.
Unbeknownst to me, most of my Mother Base staff were saved on Konami’s servers, so after completing the first mission after unlocking Mother Base some 70+ highly ranked soldiers re-enlisted and sent my base scores soaring. At first I was annoyed. I wanted the climb out of obscurity to be part of my game experience. If I’d wanted to start with all my cool toys and staff members I wouldn’t have deleted my save data. But, after a few minutes I realized this freed me from The Phantom Pain’s insistence that I use the tranquilizer gun. I didn’t have to kidnap every single enemy soldier, just plot specific ones or people who had useful skills like translators.
This time around, then, I never allow myself to take tranq guns. If I need to capture someone, it needs to be appreciably more difficult than the choice to kill. Whether or not to use lethal force has become the actual moral conundrum the plot portrays it as and the internal struggle Venom Snake faces as he feels himself more and more falling into the role of a demon feels believable and real. It also means that sneaking around feels more rewarding since I can no longer just pop someone in the leg and check back later to see if they’ve fallen asleep. Shots matter and accuracy is paramount to success.
After hours of playing The Phantom Pain freed from the tranq pistol, I feel that this is the way I should have always been playing Metal Gear. All the speeches and moralizing about death and the trauma experienced by perpetrators of battlefield violence the series is famous for feel justified and earned when I as the player have actually had moments where killing someone was my only option. My second time through, MGSV feels like the game it was sold as, the game I always wanted it to be.
And all thanks to ignoring that damn tranquilizer pistol.