Day 100: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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There is a lot to unpack about MGSV.

For what should be obvious reasons, it was the last game that I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with; north of 70 hours last I checked. I don’t really do that much anymore. My attention span is comparable to that of an insect these days and that draw just isn’t there in most cases. My needs are different. I’m no longer the guy that would marathon JRPGs back to back. Now, it’s rare for me to devote that much time to anything, let alone a video game.

Metal Gear is different though. It felt to me like it was the last big “event” game, something to anticipate and over-analyse the same way moviegoers look forward to the next comic book film. The fact that there was so much distance between each game helped, I think. By the time the first cryptic trailer for The Phantom Pain showed up, I was more than ready to love again, even if parts of the previous games left me with an odd feeling. That’s the thing with Hideo Kojima. Regardless of how you may feel about the man, it’s impossible to deny that he makes a great sales pitch and even if he doesn’t fully deliver on the promises he makes (often intentionally so), you know that you won’t walk away feeling apathetic. In that sense, independent of anything else, the man is a success. That’s the goal of art, after all – to make us feel something, even if that feeling is outrage.

Considering I wouldn’t spend 70 hours with a game I don’t like, it should go without saying that I quite enjoyed my time with The Phantom Pain. It’s easily the best-playing Metal Gear ever, which may not be much of a compliment considering I treated the gameplay of the previous installments as that thing I needed to rush through to get to the next wacky cutscene. That was always the draw, but that’s also my own bias at work. Tell me a big dumb story and I’ll get invested in it, even if things don’t exactly come together the way I’d like them to. This is all the more ironic since I actually really liked the story revelations in MGSV, which apparently puts me in the minority. Maybe I just had different expectations of Kojima and how he weaves (or doesn’t) a narrative; the themes he choses to focus on above others. He’s always been more of a big idea guy than one for character development anyway. That’s why so much of the cast in the previous games appeared to speak with the exact same voice, from the exact same knowledge base, with the exact same opinions on genetics and/or nuclear proliferation.

That said, this homogenization may be intentional. After all, the whole series, and MGSV specifically, are about how we perceive and very often misunderstand iconic figures; how great heroes and villains were likely less interesting than we think and the idea of a symbol being more important than the person. This is one of the many instances in which Kojima gets in his own way. He crafts such memorable characters but puts them in situations where you have no choice but to ponder their futility. No one in MGSV matters because they can’t, but I had a similar feeling after 3 and 4, games that are very specifically about a sense of duty overriding emotion and heroes being completely unknown to the world they saved. We understand that Big Boss is an infamous figure in the universe, but we as players also know that he’s kind of a boring dude. That doesn’t matter when commanding an army willing to hang on every word of a legendary hero.

These are the things I consider when trying to keep up with the latest debates about Kojima. As with most arguments on the internet, I do find myself desiring a bit more nuance, less lines drawn in the sand. Either the man is a genius or a hack. Either he’s charmingly eccentric or he’s a misogynist. I imagine he’s a lot of things. From my perspective, he’s a man that’s crafted one of my favorite universes the medium has ever seen; a universe that unfortunately has a lot of toilet humor and melodrama. This is a man that designed Quiet, whose appearance and characterization are painfully discordant with one another, to exist in the same world as The Boss, a rather plain-looking woman that is undeniably worshiped by everyone that dares speak her name.

Hideo Kojima, to me, is a contradiction, much like the things he creates. I guess in that way, I can relate. No, I don’t have an unyielding desire to insert fart jokes into everything I write, but the things I create tend be the best reflection of who I am, better than any description I could come up with. I suppose that’s where things get muddled; we’ve played Kojima’s games for so long that we feel like we know him. After playing MGSV, I certainly know the books and music he’s a fan of, along with his favorite parts of the female anatomy. After playing MGS2, I felt like I knew a little too much about his love life, Rose clearly a stand-in for someone nagging him about important dates one too many times. For someone that creates stories about deception, he himself is often a little too transparent.

Maybe that’s a side-effect of telling the same story for too long. I’m certainly not trying to make excuses for the man as much as attempting to understand him; why he often assembles things that seemingly work against his own goals. I suppose the easy answer is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing, but MGSV is too good for me to believe that. You don’t accidentally direct one of the best games of the year. Instead, we simply have to acknowledge that the best can always be improved upon, whether or not those flaws are indicative of the person responsible. There’s a balance to be reached, for sure, and I feel that too often we get caught up in the idea of Kojima and what he appears to represent to us and games at large.

For all we know, he may actually be a pretty boring dude.

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