No matter how many video games one completes, there are always going to be blind-spots; those series that inevitably pass them by despite positive word-of-mouth and consistent critical praise. There are plenty of reasons, be they that people simply don’t have the time or money, are suffering from significant backlogs, or their lives just get in the way. It doesn’t matter if they might know that they would likely love what they’re missing out on – for one reason or another, it’s just completely passed them by.
For me, that series, until last week, was Metal Gear.
This isn’t down to lack of interest – rather, my complete and utter ignorance to all things Metal Gear came about as a result of timing and inconvenience. I was born at the close of the fourth generation of consoles, and the Nintendo 64 served as my introduction into video games as a medium. This meant that I was not only born well after Metal Gear and Solid Snake were released in the late 1980’s, but that I completely and utterly missed the boat on Metal Gear Solid, the PS1 classic that took the series polygonal and brought it into the mainstream gaming lexicon.
As I matured, and my gaming tastes along with me, my dad bought a PS2 as our next home console experience, which increased the wide range of titles and genres that I enjoyed by a significant margin. It was around this time that I became vaguely aware of Metal Gear as a franchise, thanks in large part to the discourse caused by Sons of Liberty’s change in protagonist as well as Snake Eater’s massive critical acclaim. However, it was also around this time that I developed a cognizance of narrative in games, and the problem became not that I wasn’t interested in the franchise, but that I couldn’t bring myself to justify jumping into the middle of an ongoing story without some familiarity with the overarching narrative.
Then our paths diverged once again, as I moved on to the Xbox 360, devoid of Metal Gear until the launches of Revengeance and the HD Collection, while the PS3 saw the launch of Guns of the Patriots, once again released to significant critical buzz. The HD Collection should have been the perfect opportunity for me to jump onboard the franchise, but for some inexplicable reason, the original Metal Gear Solid was left out of the package. Once again, I bade my time. (And yes, for those of you who are curious, I had no idea until relatively recently that Snake Eater was a prequel to the entire series that I could have jumped into without an issue.)
Konami eventually released a Legacy Collection comprising the entirety of the Metal Gear saga in 2013 – but only for the PS3, as it was the only console at the time that could run Guns of the Patriots. Finally able to afford and choose my own console for the first time, I stuck with Xbox at the start of this generation, driven by a love for Microsoft’s first-party IP. While I was more than satisfied with my purchase, there was a part of me that assumed that Konami would eventually simply port the Legacy Collection over to other consoles now that there had been a boost in power and all games were running on Blu-Ray disks. That never happened.
It was at the start of the generation that the hype cycle began for The Phantom Pain, the presumed final chapter in the Metal Gear saga. Being only vaguely acquainted with the franchise through second-hand sources, I was initially confused, because I had assumed that Guns of the Patriots was the final chapter, but I didn’t pay it much mind. The game looked gorgeous – but there was no way on earth I was going to jump into a franchise at the moment of its supposed conclusion. Ground Zeroes was released for free via Games with Gold in the lead-up to the Phantom Pain’s launch. I played it, and I liked what I played, but the narrative seemed to be as obtuse as I had feared, depending entirely on the player’s relationship to characters from one of the handheld titles, Peace Walker. After I finished Ground Zeroes, in awe of the presentation but left cold by the narrative turns, I paid it little mind.
And then came the Kojima controversy, which took the simmering conversation around The Phantom Pain’s launch and brought it to a fever pitch. Having begun consuming gaming podcasts on the regular during college, I had just begun to develop a passion for potentially working in the industry that had defined so much of my life up to this point.
So it struck me when the biggest story in games media began to revolve around a single man – usually, within the broader scheme of games discourse, we think of studios or indies, very rarely discussing singular visionaries. And yet here was Hideo Kojima inspiring a level of discussion usually only ascribed to film directors or novelists as journalists, friends, and fans alike rushed to his defense in the wake of revelations of power struggles between Kojima and Konami. Before the Kojima-Konami discourse became the talk of 2015, I mostly associated the man’s name with P.T., the tech demo for the game that would become known as Silent Hills that would then be cancelled following Kojima’s dismissal from Konami.
Watching Kojima’s rise from game developer to nigh-mythical figure over the course of the past few years has been fascinating. One second, a director of a long-running franchise who was fired from his company due to workplace disagreements, the next, a veritable hero standing on stage at the Game Awards in 2016 to rapturous applause. Ever since his grand return to the public eye, there’s been something inherently amusing in following the man’s creative process.
Now, here he is, having lunch with Norman Reedus! Is Silent Hills alive? Oh, they’re making a brand new IP. Wait, what’s he doing with Mads Mikkelsen? HE’S in the game too? Oh, that’s funny, they all seem like best friends. Look! It’s Lea Seydoux and Lindsay Wagner! And the director of Kong: Skull Island’s passion project is a Metal Gear movie with Kojima’s blessing!
This discourse surrounding Kojima, Konami and Metal Gear took my interest in the franchise from “maybe I’ll get to that one day” to “this seems like an essential part of the all-time gaming lexicon that I need to experience to understand”. However, I still couldn’t get over my neuroses regarding jumping into an ongoing narrative with no context. There was a part of me that hoped that Konami would capitalize on the conclusion of the franchise and release another collection for the current generation of consoles (I now own all three). I’m still amazed that they haven’t capitalized on the fact that Metal Gear Solid, as a franchise, is now (apparently) truly complete.
Alas, my hopes for a new collection went unsatisfied, and so I went without Metal Gear, choosing instead to follow Kojima’s development of Death Stranding with great interest. After all, I could never make the choice to push past my own fears of a narrative that I thought would be, at worst, incomprehensible to me.
Fortunately, I had that choice taken away from me.
I recently celebrated my 23rd birthday, and my best friend, a die-hard Metal Gear devotee who’s been begging me to embrace the franchise for years, decided that the only way I was ever going to experience The Phantom Pain was if she simply bought it for me. Suddenly, there I was with Metal Gear Solid V: The Definitive Experience sitting on my PS4, awaiting completion. With little hesitation, we kicked off my birthday weekend with a quick run-through of Ground Zeroes before starting The Phantom Pain.
And now I am fundamentally enraged, primarily at two parties.
The first of these parties is, perhaps not shockingly, myself: by the conclusion of the game’s opening mission, I found myself ruing every decision I had made not to jump into Metal Gear sooner. The depressing reality is that The Phantom Pain, as a game, appeals to me on every possible level humanly imaginable:
There’s a deeply intricate plot with decades worth of lore so fleshed-out that it makes Kingdom Hearts look simplistic. And, contrary to my worst fears, The Phantom Pain makes it fairly easy for you to pick up: cassette tapes given to you at the start of the game fill you in on the essential plot points of Snake Eater and Peace Walker, allowing you to catch up on the particulars of Big Boss’ story in no time at all. I still lack the emotional investment in members of the supporting cast, but they’re quickly endearing themselves to me on their own merits.
There are systems on top of systems – if you get bored doing story missions, go back to Mother Base and play Military Sims as you attempt to form the world’s most powerful group of independent mercenaries. If you get bored doing that, go strap balloons to a bunch of wild animals and make a zoo! Or, if you’d rather, you can just run around and troll the collective Soviet Army stationed in Afghanistan from the comfort of a cardboard box. (This game features one of the only open worlds I actually like, which is also shocking to me.)
There’s a soundtrack filled with ‘80’s classics that you can play at literally any moment, transforming a combat situation from a tense standoff to an amusing comedic interlude. The amount of times I’ve been pinned down in an enemy hot zone only to be saved by a support helicopter blasting Europe’s The Final Countdown is too plentiful to count.
I could go on. I do have some issues with the game thus far: the pacing of the first mission in the hospital is nigh-torturous, the storyline takes a while to get moving after your initial arrival in Afghanistan, and so far, the game’s failed to capitalize on Kiefer Sutherland’s talents in the lead role. Additionally, Quiet’s outfit is absolutely ridiculous for a woman in a combat zone, and I find it excessively difficult to swallow “photosynthesis” as an excuse. Sorry, guys.
The second party that I find myself taking umbrage with in the wake of starting this game is, also predictably, Konami. I can understand if, from a business perspective, Kojima’s development process often ended up proving too costly and time-consuming to justify his continued employment at the company. But the complete and utter shuttering of his entire studio, removal of his name from the game’s marketing and refusal to allow him to attend the 2015 Game Awards only seem so much more egregious having now experienced more than twenty hours of The Phantom Pain.
The opening of The Phantom Pain is phenomenal, as Big Boss slowly emerges from a coma to the backing of Midge Ure’s cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. The cover is haunting, the synth instrumentals creating a sinister aura that pervades the game for the remainder of its opening mission. Immediately, you know what the situation is: you’ve awoken from nine years in a coma, riddled with shrapnel and missing an arm. Your home has sunk into the ocean, your group of mercenaries disbanded. Your enemies have flourished for almost a decade, and your return is their worst nightmare. That pervasive sinister aura? It has nothing to do with them.
No. It’s emanating from you.
Kojima’s sense of visual and auditory storytelling is well-honed after more than thirty years in this industry. Kazuhira Miller and Revolver Ocelot are two characters I had no familiarity with – yet I understood who they were in seconds. This sense of precision translates to the actual minute-to-minute gameplay as well: it’s stunning to me that an open world so shaped by your decisions also feels so methodically constructed. Every obstacle in your way feels engineered to allow the player as much agency as possible. This results in moments of crushing disappointment when you fail, but unbelievable highs when you succeed. It’s very hard not to feel like a hero straight out of the ‘80’s action films from which The Phantom Pain clearly takes inspiration. Yet, at the same time, The Phantom Pain is always holding you responsible for your actions – when you succeed, you’re a legend. When you fail, it’s no one’s fault but your own.
I’m not very far into The Phantom Pain (I’ve only just finished Mission 18), so I highly doubt that this will be the last time I write about this game. I look forward to seeing if the game’s supposedly “unfinished” nature is readily apparent to me considering that I lack the context of previous titles in the franchise.
Either way, I cannot wait to see what Kojima does next.