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The Phantom Plain: Storytelling through Landscape in MGSV

I’ve recently come to the ending (such as it is) of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’d been putting it off for a while, with a whole range of reasonable excuses. I need to play Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance first! I need to make more progress in Peace Walker - sure, I’ve made it to both endings, but not the Monster Hunter missions! I can’t hog the PS3, it’s our main household media device! And I don’t have the time for a game that size, anyway… Maybe I was scared by the reviews and references I had come across - did I want to delve into the final installment of my all-time favorite game series and be disappointed? One by one, though, they all fizzled. We got a PS4, so I was able to spirit its predecessor off to my desk for solo gaming whenever I have a chance… which meant I was able to play Revengeance... and plow away at Peace Walker until I got sick of failing to take out that damn Attack Chopper (Custom) over and over. And finally… there was COVID.

I should mention an additional factor here: Hideo Kojima’s first post-Metal Gear project, Death Stranding, which I had received for my birthday just before the lockdowns started. This one, though, seemed to be garnering a much more positive response - I saw people who had been disappointed with MGSV calling Death Stranding the “perfect game for the COVID era.” But I couldn’t very well start that until I’d finished his previous game, could I? Especially with all comparisons between the two I was seeing as well. The time had come, then. I did a second runthrough of the “teaser” game Ground Zeroes (along with its bonus missions), and, on Memorial Day 2020, I started The Phantom Pain.


I need not have worried, the game ended up being an excellent match for my both my playstyle and narrative sensibilities, even the crazier story elements. I ended up putting many, many hours into Phantom Pain, holding off on each main storyline mission until I’d caught up on the Side Ops. As a result, I spent a lot of time in the much-maligned open world. A big part of why Metal Gear is my favorite series are its environments, and the way each game uses every available resource to create them for the player, from the feeling of sneaking through a dark, concrete, underground facility conveyed through music at the very beginning, to rendering characters’ visible breath in the cold Alaskan night with the shift to 3D graphics, to the individual blades of grass shifting as you crawl through them in later titles. There is always a sense that you are occupying a place, and Phantom Pain is certainly no letdown there. So, while other players often complain about how long it takes to go from one point to another across the massive open world, I found myself relishing the time I spent in southern Afghanistan and central Africa. I have difficulty thinking of any other game I’ve played with landscapes as haunting as those in Phantom Pain (which probably means I will become even more smitten when I do finally get to Death Stranding). Those Afghan mountains remain on the horizon long after I've stepped away from the screen.

This immersiveness goes beyond the visual and auditory aspects, there’s the emotional component that they build up - one of loss, of ruin, and, somehow… calm as well. (The short story “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” by Jamil Jan Kochai is based around this feeling intersects with family history and a connection to the region being portrayed - I highly recommend it.) One day, a number of weeks months into this playthrough, I was taking a walk after a stressful day to clear my head, and found myself thinking about MGSV and its protagonist. I could absolutely see Venom Snake doing the same thing. When he’s in the field, there's the land, there is the mission, and nothing else but obstacles. And, in that instant, I understood the character in a way I hadn’t in all the many hours I’d already put into the game.

I’m going to assume that readers already know the Big Twist here. The game’s been out for half a decade, and as with film analysis, where we have to assume that everyone in the conversation is aware that Bruce Willis was Norman Bates’s mother Rosebud the whole time, any serious discussion of Metal Gear Solid V will have to factor in the fact that Venom Snake is not, in a literal sense, Big Boss. (Although a lot can be said about the way a public persona can exist outside of the individual embodying it, and how this intersects with the nature of playing an established character in a  video game, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The Twist had been spoiled for me some time prior to starting the game, but I’m perfectly fine with that. If anything, this kept me more engaged, allowing me to pick up on story beats and implications that would otherwise require a second playthrough. So, even before that final, explanatory mission, I knew Venom Snake as a man with an vast empty space where his past should be, given bizarre and contradictory demands, and the torment that comes with trying to reconcile it all.

None of that, though, is visible on the surface. Whether intentional or due to production issues, his affect is flat, his mumbled dialogue distant and trancelike, the character as presented as an emotionless blank, making any characterization realized through setting all the more meaningful. His internal state is portrayed entirely externally, and there’s a lot of "extrnal" for the player to take in. While there are certainly issues to be had with the emptiness of The Phantom Pain’s open world, it’s a pointed emptiness, much like that of the Fallout games, scattered with reminders of the previous inhabitants slowly being reclaimed by nature. It’s notable, too, that all the locations across both installments of MGSV are occupied territories, places invaded and taken over by distant foreign powers. Venom Snake, himself, is one of those outsiders, but his battered visage suggests he has more in common with the land around him than he does the other foreign interlopers. It’s only natural, then, that he takes on several missions on behalf of the former locals, since those same forces have taken his own past from him. But, aside from a few rescue ops, we never see those lost inhabitants, and conjure them ourselves from the places they built, the places they lived. The landscape is both haunting and haunted, still more phantoms in a story rife with them.

Throughout the game, we see places that once served a specific purpose being used once again, by those occupying focus entirely for their own benefit: Da Smasei Laman and OKB Zero are both forts dating back to antiquity, the Mfinda Oilfield is reactivated to cover up far worse atrocities, the Nova Braga Airport is once again a transport hub for those who exploit the land. Again, just as Venom Snake is being exploited and used. The same system that scars and dismembers (both literally and metaphorically) the characters on all sides also scars and ravages the land itself. Compare this to Mother Base, isolated in the ocean as if it sprang from nothing, much like the way Venom Snake sprang fully formed from the unreachable depths of his past. (The codephrase "V has come to" means not only that the has awakened, but that he has "come to" the setting of the game.) And it literally grows as the character does, through his exploits building him an identity and leading to further base development.

And finally, it's telling that, at the very end, you see Venom Snake in a featureless room, without visual context. What individuality he had developed through his experiences is gone, he exists solely in this space created for him by another man, filling the role that man has built for him. But this is in the character's future, chronologically at the moment the player takes on the role of his successor in the original game. And when it's done, you're taken back to your chopper in 1984. Someday, you will stop playing, you will stop existing in this ravaged world, mirroring how Venom Snake will cease to exist within it. But that day has not yet come, there are still stories to be told about broken men wandering broken lands.

- B

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