War in a Time of Games: Drudgery and Despair in Metal Gear Solid V
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a pretty piss poor game in terms of the overarching story of the Metal Gear Solid series. But it’s a great game about war. Repetition is a factor in every game ever made. From gameplay to level design to story repetition is the spine of video games. Repetition is also a key part of war especially in terms of the so-called Forever Wars that dominated the latter half of the 20th Century and continued into the 21st Century.
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen were all wars slowed down by the drudgery and despair that is so commonplace in warfare now. The determined rebel force, the occupying invader, the foreign observers all contribute to the push and pull of these wars that stretch on for decades. Metal Gear Solid V takes place slap bang in the middle of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1984. Nine years after a bomb buried in his friend’s stomach put him in a coma Big Boss aka “Punished” Venom Snake wakes up and with the aid of old comrades Revolver Ocelot and Kazuhira Miller sets up a new mercenary company, the Diamond Dogs. From there Big Boss sets out for revenge against those that wronged him.
Despite being the leader of an eventually massive force of highly trained soldiers Big Boss does a lot of the heavy lifting. Mere days after being fitted with a prosthetic arm he’s in the shit rescuing Miller and sabotaging Soviet outposts throughout Afghanistan. Soon he’s stealing money and raw materials from both the Soviets in Afghanistan and from various factions during the Angola-Zaire Civil War so that he can further expand the Diamond Dogs’ oil rig base in the Seychelles. For a game where you’re essentially put in charge of a small nation you end up doing basically all the busywork.
MGS V might be a bad Metal Gear Solid story but it’s an incredible management simulator. The thing is the country you manage is in a constant state of total war. Whether it’s building new platforms so that your R&D department can build bigger and better weapons or attaching small balloons to whisk captured soldiers away or building a goddamn zoo The Phantom Pain has it all. Though the story of the game deals with imperialism, languages and nuclear weapons very few of the game’s missions are based in the story. Instead “optional” side missions make up the bulk of the game.
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These missions often take the form of rescuing prisoners, eliminating enemy battalions, stealing resources or finding blueprints. The Diamond Dogs can’t fight a direct conflict with the likes of the USSR or the well-equipped mercenaries in Africa so they begin a long, slow war of attrition. These side missions are fun for a while. They take you to interesting places and have you meet interesting people. They then make you blow up these places and shoot or abduct the people. But after the fifteenth “Eliminate the Soviet Commander” mission it can get very tiring. But that’s life in Metal Gear Solid V. More importantly that’s war in Metal Gear Solid V.
In fairness to Metal Gear Solid V the variety of play styles open to players is so varied that it could be a long time before you play two missions the same way. But that doesn’t stop two missions from being nearly exactly the same. It’s that push-and-pull of “I have to rescue another botanist?!” versus “But what if I went HAM with a tank this time?”
There are always at least two ways to complete an objective, sometimes there are ten. “Eliminate the Platoon” doesn’t necessarily mean blow the shit out of those goons patrolling the desert. You could tranq them all and add them to your ever-expanding army. You could call in an artillery strike and be done with the whole thing in 10 seconds. Big Boss could mount up on D-Horse, roll with the name, and ride in guns blazing. He could also do nothing at all and have bikini-clad sniper Quiet do the work for him. You get the picture.
Metal Gear Solid V is a long, long game. I often had to take a few days off from playing it so grim was the busywork of war. Weeks of being (OK playing) in the mud and the blood and the shit takes a toll and that’s reflected in the game. As Venom Snake you can literally spend all your time in the field, returning only to Mother Base when absolutely necessary. Of course spending all that time either in the desert or the jungle takes a toll. Snake gets dirty when he’s away from Mother Base for too long. It can get to the point where flies swarm him, his own soldiers turn away in disgust and, eventually, Revolver Ocelot throws a bucket of water on him.
All of these moments, both big and small, add up to a game obsessed with the endless, mindless repetition of war. One of Metal Gear Solid V’s grimmest moments comes just before one of it’s arbitrary and dreadful boss fights. Big Boss has snuck into a field hospital high in the Angolan mountains. The place is empty except for tens of comatose patients infected with a parasite that not only renders them mute but strips away the very idea of language. It’s rare that the game shows us the cost of war. The game world is basically empty except for soldiers, prisoners and animals. It’s in rare moments like these that the game reminds us why we’re fighting or rather why we should be fighting.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever get another Metal Gear Solid game. It’s creator Hideo Kojima is in charge of another studio hard at work on Death Stranding after his bitter split with MGS publisher Konami. Konami itself is unlikely to produce further MGS games due to their own business model and future plans. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was a poor ending to the story that was nearly 30 years old by its end but where so many games try and often fail to look at the why of warfare MGS V instead turned its gaze successfully on the how of warfare.