Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Ambition of Absence in MGSV: The Phantom Pain

This entire post is a spoiler, as it analyses themes and concepts in MGSV that hinge upon a pivotal moment that will not be apparent to players who have not cleared all of the missions in the main story. Please proceed with caution.

Update: This article is also available as a video on youtube, if you'd prefer to digest it that way.

It’s been a fair while now since I saw the end of Metal Gear Solid 5. The final mission appeared unceremoniously on the iDroid checklist, but it wasn’t a surprise. I already knew it existed. I suspected the scenes it contained from glimpses I’d snatched on forums and social media feeds.
After the final revelation: a smirking imposter smashing a mirror and walking back into the fog of a war without end, there was an absence. Something was missing... a sensation that all prior Metal Gear games had delivered, even up to and including Ground Zeroes. Despite feeling burnt out from playing over the course of a few days, I was left with a lingering feeling of absence and loss.
Part of that is the final twist, the frisson of realisation that everything I’d experienced had been facts permitted to me rather than facts unbound. The Man Who Sold The World - a perfect name for a mission that posited to “Bridge the Gap” between V and MG, the story of how a man became a demon -well it turned out that narrative bridge didn’t exist. Players were left grasping for meaning as Venom Snake was left grasping in the intro: a one-eyed amputee, lacking depth perception, groggy from a 9 year coma, trying to grab a petal of the Star of Jerusalem with the claw of a prosthetic arm.

Kojima spoke about his intent to make the player feel a sense of ‘Phantom Pain’ with MGSV. He wanted to evoke the dissatisfaction of revenge, to make Skull Face a villain without a Hollywood ending: a Phantom in the periphery of the story that left the player feeling cheated. Hideo’s legacy makes it hard to feel like anything in his games isn’t deliberate, despite each entry being an exercise in further muddying an already swollen tapestry of retcons and crossed wires. The acrimonious split with Konami and the decidedly rushed feeling of the second Chapter of MGSV further serve to render all declarations subjective and speculative.

Like Venom, we're reaching for something that can't be grasped.

Ardently naming this entry Metal Gear Solid V instead of Metal Gear Solid 5 - i’m aware that V is the roman numeral for 5, and that GTA5 also used this numeral, but I feel like it has at least a little more significance here - Afterall, V stands for Venom, for Vic Boss, the forked path and dual nature of its ultimate hero - the revelation that from one name, one legend, one individual, sprung two branches.  It’s the kind of authorial decision that feels hard not to attribute to Kojima: a motif not unlike those he has filled his previous games with.

It’s because of this motif that I have faith in the overarching message of V. Regardless of the perceived success of the twist, or the failure, I am ambivalent. MGSV is ambitious, both thematically and on a systems level. As the third most expensive Japanese game ever made (adjusted for inflation) it’s no surprise that the resultant product doesn’t mean expectations, but I am more interested in trying to unpack the idea of how much of this is deliberate.
The concept of the Phantom Pain is shot through the whole game like the shrapnel shot through the body of the Boss. Let’s look at these foreign bodies, these elements that just don’t quite feel like they belong in a blockbuster Metal Gear Solid:
A protagonist that is essentially mute - much consternation was made over the decision to replace David Hayter with Kiefer Sutherland, but in the final game, Kiefer is oddly absent. It’s partially to do with his more restrained, nuance delivery, but there are many instances where Snake simply appears to be the missing half of a conversation.
Next, the abandonment of series staples such as experimental inventory item uses and gimmicky boss fights. Whilst MGSV is no stranger to the amusing and considered outcomes of bizarre overlaps of disparate items and systems, something that the series has always featured, there are fewer instances of pure novelty in V. It’s possible to chalk up some of it to streamlining or reinvention, but it’s interesting to observe the thinning of Boss’s inventory from 3 and Peace Walker to V. More importantly, the memorable boss fights of the series history are now incredibly sparse. The SKULLS Squad and The Man on Fire honour tradition, but they don’t come close to the personality and invention of FOXHOUND, Dead Cell or The Cobra Unit.

Finally, there’s the the removal of the lengthy cutscene and codec support for the story. Delivery of exposition in MGSV is largely restrained to terse, tautly edited cutscenes, or punchy monologues in various tapes that can be listened to as and when the player wishes. Whilst this is a fitting method for an open world game, it also feels like a reaction to criticisms of the previous’ games methods of story delivery. Satisfaction with either approach is always going be largely subjective, but to go from such heavyhanded, forced exposition, to something far more elective, a narrative pushed to the fringes of the core experience - that’s either an impressive aboutface of prior intent, or a considered thematic choice.

None more Metal Gear
These differences from past games can easily be chalked up to iteration and re-invention, or as previously stated, a response to critical complaints. Or, perhaps they are authored decisions that are used to subvert or direct player expectations? After all, over the course of its 28 year long series, the story of Big Boss seems to see the character shift sharply from plucky young protege to a tyrannical military mastermind.
Kojima’s initial promise of a chapter to bridge the gap from Peace walker to Metal Gear seems to be a deliberate choice to invoke a sense of dissatisfaction in players who miss the point where Big Boss’s begins downfall - an arc that has its roots in his decision to build a private military force that answered to no nation, no government, and no ideology. In V the farcical catch-all co nclusions of 4 are abandoned for a far more elusive story, one open to player interpretation and investigation, creating a decidedly more mature atmosphere.
“How did we get to here from there?” is a question that players are asking themselves after kidnapping hundreds of soldiers into their employ, forcing them to work for Venom’s PMC, sending them on mercenary missions and arming them with enough weapons to make them a worry for any small, resource rich country. Other commentators have elucidated these points perfectly well, Big Boss, is already a villain - someone willing to disappear and sacrifice the world, sell out his own friends to create an illusion, all to further his own monomaniacal pursual of what he believes to be The Boss’s legacy. These are all great narrative ideas, but they hide in shadows and spectres, refusing to flesh themselves out into something corporeal.

Kojima ultimately presents us with a narrative of absence, a text that actively courts player dissatisfaction via its story beats and system choices. To try and pull this off in any medium is incredibly ambitious at best, and awfully risky at worst. Kojima isn’t the first to try this, and he certainly won’t be the last. There are many texts that feature similar ideas, but the game itself explicitly references one in particular, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. If you’ve not read it, and I don’t blame you for having not gotten around to it yet (but I highly recommend you do) it’s a sprawling novel. At once an encyclopaedic explanation of the sea, the act of whaling, the life of a sailor, but also the biology and habitats of whales, as well as an observation of the dark path revenge, and how a singular obsession with it can consume people, and those around them. The spectre of Moby Dick haunts Ahab, and over the course of the novel it escapes him at every turn. The final encounter with the leviathan is unexpectedly abrupt and anticlimactic. In three short chapters, the whale has been found, fought, and Ahab’s journey ends in a cruel and curt encounter.

Beyond Moby Dick, MGSV also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s vast, magnificent post-modern comedy, Infinite Jest, which features a narrative constructed to feel like a circular narrative. It starts in the present moment, and then spends the whole novel in a flashback which feels as though it is building to a logical conclusion which will explain exactly how Hal finds himself screaming on the floor of a Dean’s office despite his deep internal composure and inability to process why this is happening.

Crucially, in Infinite Jest, the chunk of story that bridges the end and the beginning is missing, and it is purposeful because to fill in that gap is no more interesting than to leave it blank. Supposition and suggestion litter the novel, and only the most attentive and studios of readers will be able to trace elements that explain what happens in the absence, yet like Moby Dick it cannot help but feel partially unsatisfactory - although in both cases this appears to be a deliberate choice, and most importantly a choice that is supported and reinforced by other elements of the story.

The Phantom Pain is also littered with nods and winks at its grand reveal, from the use of The Man Who Sold the World, to the speech and attitude of Ishmael in the opening scenes. Adding further evidence is the fact that Eli, quite obviously Liquid, fails a genetics test; The Mammal Pod from Peace Walker doesn’t recognise you; the retconning of the helicopter explosion in the optional Paz video scenes puts a heavy focus on showing two people in the helicopter in a reversal of what we saw in Ground Zeroes. These hints don’t build to a satisfying conclusion for me, because of the absence of any real weight to Chapter 2. However, I can’t help but feel like this is all deliberate.

Another element that is missing in The Phantom Pain is that feeling of a it being a heavily authored work by Kojima. His narrative stylistics often feel restrained, and the twist in the tail that’s often expected from his work is conspicuous in their absence . The trace elements echoes throughout the game, inchoate and vestigial. Sahelanthropus is a ludicrous creation that could only exist in a Metal Gear game, a towering mech that hoots and hollers like a child that doesn’t know its own strength as it attempts to crush Venom… which turns out to be incredibly pertinent as it is being powered by the a young Psycho Mantis who feeds on the rage of an inarticulate and petulant young child soldier who feels locked into the legacy of his father. Add to that mix a the charred remains of Volgin who simply refuses to die, and at times this game feels like Kojima at his most absurd: V is frequently operating at peak Koj.

It’s through the inclusion of these elements, these highly focused and uniquely Metal Gear particles that feel abandoned and adrift in an episodic open world game, that the feeling of the Phantom Pain manifests itself. The series hallmarks were there and we can feel them moving as we enter commands to dodge a teleporting parasitic supersoldier, yet by the time the curtain closes the limb isn’t there, the muscular metatextual arm of a story writing team that has plunged into the surreal and the absurd to pull out the poignant and pertinent is missing, a spectre that sends us phantom sensations.
This could well be Kojima at his most devilish. In an attempt to convey this feeling, the very absence of what his games are known for is invoked. The deliberate attempt to remove Metal Gear from V has instead caused it to grasp at ideas on a par with MGS2. To delineate where Konami’s meddling and Kojima’s editing begin and end is fruitless, and will likely remain shrouded in mystery for years.It’s also not particularly useful, straying into objective accounts and value judgements on the game. How can we accurately articulate our feelings with a text that attempts to elude? A text that actively pushes back at those who attempt to unpack it by creating a sense of disappointment.
This attempt to craft a story entirely rooted in the aim of dissatisfaction, shrouded in Phantoms, permitted truths, and absences is absolutely his most mature narrative work to date. Cut content and trailers that promised more than was delivered can even be seen as an extension of the philosophy of absence. After he gave players all the answers in MGS4 and failing to deliver, the it’s ra startling evolution to create a game that explained that the answers didn’t always need to be there, that reading between the lines and understanding that stories don’t always satisfy due to, is far more affecting than the contrived catharsis that became the downfall of Solid Snake’s finale.
Unpicking the whys and wherefores of the Phantom Pain will never lead anyone to an absolute and unqualified truth, and it is in this that Kojima hits on something exemplary. Allowing the player to forge Boss’s legacy, inhabit the body of an illusion crafted to realise Boss's single-minded vision  is both an thank you to the player for nearly three decades of  support, and the ultimate betrayal: covertly turning the player into the villain they so desperately  wanted to see follow a traditional descent into cold and bitter revenge. To give the player over one hundred hours of content in a market where fulfillment and satisfaction is the number one goal is a simple task. but to do so with the deliberate aim of invoking the absence, actively trying to rob the player of the ultimate achievement of pointing out the cliche moment when their hero becomes a cackling villain, that is the true achievement, that is the true Phantom Pain.

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