The Phantom’s Pain – A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis

Note – This piece was originally posted at Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics. It has been edited and slightly revised before being posted here.

6/20/19 EDIT – This analysis is now a source for an academic thesis. If you’re a Metal Gear fan, be sure to take the thesis’s survey here: https://wcupa.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0My6TdeXpREbNUF

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Introduction

“Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do? I cheated death, thanks to you. And thanks to you I’ve left my mark. You have too – you’ve written your own history. You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too… No… He’s the two of us. Together. Where we are today? We built it. This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world – and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you, wherever you go. Thank you… my friend. From here on out, you’re Big Boss.”

– Big Boss

When I first finished Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, like so many other players, I was disappointed. MGSV was supposed to be the “Missing Link” in the Metal Gear canon. It was that game that would reveal the bridge between the heroic Big Boss of MGS 3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker, and the grand historical villain of Metal Gear 1 and 2. As expressed by numerous launch trailers and Hideo Kojima tweets, MGSV was going to be a tale of Big Boss’s fall into darkness, driven by an insatiable lust for revenge, a consummate anger lit by his enemies which would scorch his soul until nothing was left but a power-hungry mad man who would threaten the world with nuclear war for the sake of his deluded ambitions.

Instead we got an incredibly weird twist which did little more than retcon patch a largely ignored plot hole in one of the least-played Metal Gear games. We found out that the final boss of Metal Gear 1 was not Big Boss, but a body double, who through surgery and hypnotherapy was made into almost an exact copy of the legendary soldier.

Again, like most other players, when I first finished the game I thought this was a neat trick, a typically crazy, convoluted, but seductively entertaining twist from one of my favorite storytellers of all time. But of course… it was also a major let down.

Finding out that I had just played as some random-ass medic from Militaires Sans Fronteres for the last 80 hours instead of the most important character in the entire Metal Gear canon was certainly a mind-fuck, but also left me feeling deflated. What was the point of it all? Why did I just follow some entirely new character for an entire game who has only a minor, tangential connection to the series’ larger plot instead of seeing Big Boss’s moral/psychological/narrative transformation which is at the heart of the entire series and was supposed to be the entire point of Metal Gear Solid V?

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It wasn’t until I had put over 200 hours into my save file and replayed the entire game for a second time that the impact of Metal Gear Solid V’s story really hit me. Not only does MGSV do exactly what it was advertised to do – reveal the descent of Big Boss from hero to villain – but it does so in a subtle and narratively ambitious manner at a depth not seen in any video game since Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

MGSV is the story of Big Boss’s fall from grace, but it’s also so much more than that. MGSV may very well be Kojima’s magnum opus. The game distills all of the Metal Gear series’ most important thematic elements into a relatively simple story with a deceptively small scale. The reason the vast majority of players didn’t realize this is because, well, Kojima can be too subtle for his own good.

I know that’s a weird claim. Much of the time Kojima is literally one of the least subtle video game developers in the entire history of video games. Throughout the Metal Gear series, he never misses an opportunity for characters to have Ayn Rand-style monologues about their deeply-held political/social/military beliefs. He crafts stories based around ridiculous walking robots with anime-style weaknesses. He uses pee and poop jokes in otherwise serious games about the horrors of modern warfare and post-traumatic stress. Needless to say, Hideo Kojima is not afraid to use his director’s chair to hijack his games to make any point he wants to make or interject any stupid joke he wants to tell purely for the sake of his own creative amusement.

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Yet it is precisely that quality which underlies so much of Kojima’s storytelling genius. In George Weidman’s fantastic analysis of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, he argues that the game’s hidden narrative crux is the layering of goofy elements with paradoxically serious plot points. MGS3 lures the player into a sense of light fun with its James Bond-esque theme song, cartoonish animal hunting, funny radio conversations, and lovable characters, but occasionally snaps back with emotional gut punches which hit so hard precisely because the player isn’t expecting a darker, more serious tone. If most storytellers tried this technique, the narrative would end up feeling confused, if not schizophrenic, but Kojima has such a masterful control over narrative structure and flow that he can make it work.

Similar patterns exist throughout all of the Metal Gear games. Layers are stacked upon layers stacked upon layers stacked upon layers which all add up to ridiculously convoluted stories that work on endless levels. Metal Gear Solid 1 is a cheesy action-story with a legendary badass fighting paramilitary terrorists in a cool doom fortress, but it’s also a meditation on the psychological effects of being a soldier, a primer on the future of genetic engineering, a lamentation of the eternal arms race between major nations, a tale of familial revenge, a love story, a small component of a massive half-century long civil war within a global shadow government, etc. The different layers and plots weave together to create some of the most deeply textured storytelling I have ever seen in video games or any artistic medium.

Kojima’s layered style probably peaked in complexity with MGS2 and in proficiency in MGS3, but I think his work with MGSV may very well be his most daring yet for one simple reason – Quiet.

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No, not the character Quiet, though I like her too. What I mean is that MGSV is really, really quiet. It may be an 80+ hour game with a typically convoluted story including vocal cord parasites, a psychic, a “man of fire,” a metal gear, a private military, nuclear weapons, tons of explosions, and a million other classic and unorthodox elements of a standard action story, but MGSV is also remarkably minimalist.

Venom Snake barely ever says anything. Though I realized during my second playthrough of the story that Venom actually does say more and more as the game goes on, Venom may very well say fewer words per minute of screen time than any non-mute protagonist in any video game ever. He is incredibly quiet.

Understandably, Venom’s near-silence throughout the game was quite baffling to everyone. Before they knew the truth of his identity, people thought it was incredibly weird that this legendary warlord who everyone in the game’s universe worships and who proceeds to rebuild his amazing private army bigger and better than ever, almost never actually says anything. I mean, Big Boss wasn’t exactly verbose in the other games, but he still talked. He still made witty banter with the support squad in MGS3. He flirted with Eva. He personally recruited enemy soldiers. He decided to build Metal Gear Zeke, capture a nuke, and organize MSF. He’s always been kind of the strong silent type, but a charismatic strong silent type nonetheless.

Then when players finally did figure out who Venom was, his silence became all the more shocking. Not only did Kojima force his fans to spend an entire game with some random guy we don’t know who has almost no impact on the overall canon, but this random guy doesn’t even have a personality. He just stumbles around the game like some confused mute getting his ear talked off by Ocelot and Kaz.

What the hell?

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This bizarre emptiness permeates the entire game’s narrative. Though the cutscenes are beautifully crafted, the stupid cassette tapes end up carrying most of the story weight, while somehow being even more passive and boring than Metal Gear’s infamous radio conversations. The main plot is cartoonishly simple, especially by the notoriously byzantine standards of the Metal Gear series. Yeah, the player spends a long time chasing leads and unraveling the mysterious mystery of Skull Face’s plans, but when all is said and done, the main plot for Act 1 can be summarized as “a massive dick wants to destroy the world, so Snake and his army stop him.” Then Act 2 comes along and things get a little more complicated, but also get a lot more episodic. It feels like a scattered collection of random plot threads which tie up one by one (Quiet, Huey, Eli, the Man on Fire, etc.) rather than a cohesive story. Then completely out of nowhere the big secret plot twist is revealed and the game ends.

What the hell?

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The thing is, there actually is an enormously complex and fascinating story in MGSV… but it’s told entirely at the game’s peripheral edges in a highly minimalist form. MGSV is the ultimate culmination of the series’ themes, ideas, and story, but the game’s most important aspects act as a phantom behind the showier and less interesting main plot.

And that’s kind of the entire point of the game’s story.

Metal Gear Solid V essentially does to the player what Big Boss does to Venom Snake. The game uses the player’s expectations to build an elaborate show designed to obfuscate its real narrative intentions. The game’s true story is there; MGSV really is about Big Boss becoming a horrible monster worthy of every conceivable condemnation. But that story is the bedrock layer hidden beneath a million other narrative layers designed to confuse and manipulate the player, in exactly the same way Big Boss and Zero’s whole Phantom Snake project was designed to confuse and manipulate Venom Snake.

And judging by player reactions, Kojima’s ruse worked. Maybe even too well.

After all, after finishing MGSV, how many players actually thought Big Boss was a bad guy? How many people understood he was the series’ main villain?

Did Venom Snake realize what had been done to him when he first heard Big Boss’s “The Man Who Sold the World” cassette tape? Judging by the wry smile on his face, no he didn’t.

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Outline

  • Part 1: The Rise of a Legend – Describes the nature of Big Boss and the background context needed to understand the events of Metal Gear Solid V.
  • Part 2: Big Boss vs. Venom Snake – Describes the events of Metal Gear Solid V within a “Big Boss vs. Venom Snake” paradigm.
  • Part 3 : The Philosophy of Venom Snake – Describes Venom Snake’s interpretation of the Boss’s will and its effects.
  • Part 4: The Phantom Pain – Describes the effects of Metal Gear Solid V’s events on Venom Snake and their results.
  • Part 5: What Does it all Mean? – Describes the player-protagonist relationship and the primary thematic purpose of Metal Gear Solid V

 

Part 1: The Rise of a Legend

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Who is Big Boss? 

Take a step back and consider who Big Boss actually is at the start of Metal Gear Solid V.

Yes, he’s the protagonist of MGS3, PO, and PW. He’s a legendary hero, soldier, and leader. He’s the ultimate mentee of the Boss and seeks to carry on his interpretation of her will. It’s so easy to see Big Boss in this way because it’s the way everyone in the Metal Gear series sees him.

I’d like to suggest that there is another way of looking at Big Boss. In fact, I’d say that Big Boss’s legacy by MGSV is a dangerous legend which is in reality a toxic mixture of genuine heroism and corrosive demagoguery.

Kojima’s cleverest trick of the last three Metal Gear games was to completely contain the player within Big Boss’s self-created world view. The player may know that Big Boss will eventually be the series’ primary antagonist, but when playing through MGS3, PO, and PW, those  future crimes seem so distant and abstract that it can be easy to forget them. In these games Big Boss is not just the protagonist, he also represents the only force standing between the world and nuclear annihilation and/or abject tyranny under Cipher. He is the gruff, charismatic leader of men who stands tall while malicious forces lurk in the background trying to manipulate and undermine peace and liberty. Big Boss is the world’s savior.

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Now take a second and consider what you would think of a real life individual who took the same actions as Big Boss throughout those games.

Imagine there was a real life individual who used to work for the US government on lots of super shady, covert operations, but then he left the US government and created his own private army.

Ok, that’s not that unusual; there are plenty of mercenary companies in the world and some of them were actually started by former spec ops soldiers from national armies.

But what if the soldiers within this army are no ordinary mercenaries working for pay, rather, they are fanatically loyal to their leader. That’s because their boss created and cultivated a cult of personality which framed himself as a visionary leader of marginalized, downtrodden military personnel throughout the world.

Ok, a guy with his own personal army might be kind of scary. But whatever, that just makes him the head of a kooky mercenary company.

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What if some of the soldiers in this kooky mercenary company were formally under the employ of the Soviet Union, terrorist groups (like the Contra), and various oppressive dictatorships?

Ok, that’s bad, but as long they aren’t still fighting for those immoral organizations, it’s not too bad.

What if this guy is willing to work with child soldiers? I mean, he doesn’t go out of his way to recruit them (at least not yet), but if children are fighting on his side in a conflict, he doesn’t mind using them.

Ok, that’s really bad. No children should ever be put in a situation like that. At least it seems like this organization only operates on a small scale…

What if this kooky mercenary company assembles its own private stockpile of armored personnel carriers (APCs), attack choppers, tanks, and modern artillery?

What if it acquires multiple metal gears? Keep in mind that metal gears are de facto WMDs on the battlefield. They are the most combat-effective military unit in existence. They are so technologically advanced that only the US and USSR can build them. Some models are even capable of launching nuclear weapons. Speaking of which…

What if this guy’s mercenary company acquires its own nuclear weapons?

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Well shit, that’s a really big deal. The entire world is afraid of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Iran and North Korea have been trying to develop nukes for decades over the protests of the entire international community. Nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a dedicated terrorist group like ISIS or Al Queida is pretty much a worst-case-scenario for basically everyone in the world. And here we have this de facto warlord with his private army getting its very own nuclear weapons? I don’t think the rest of the world would be too happy about that…

Also, this guy’s mercenary company is headquartered on a massive structure off the coast of South America in international waters. So the guy and his army aren’t actually within any country’s jurisdiction. This means that legally no one can tell him what to do with his massive military stockpile. He’s not elected, or even appointed. There is literally no oversight over him, either within our outside of his organization.

It’s a good thing there’s the United Nations to enforce international law…

Well, nobody could actually prove that this guy and his private army had nuclear weapons, though everyone strongly suspected it. So the UN did try to send an investigation to this guy’s off-shore headquarters, but he refused to allow inspectors for a long time, which only amplified international concerns. Eventually, the guy accepted that the UN wasn’t going to just go away, so he allowed for an inspection.

Well that’s good-

But the guy ordered his subordinates to engage in “document destruction” and “hangar decontamination” and to hide his nuclear weapon and metal gear so the UN couldn’t find it. Meanwhile, the guy infiltrated an American military base to kidnap one of its prisoners so he could personally interrogate her for information.

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So this (hypothetical) amazing soldier quits the CIA, builds his own army (AKA becomes a warlord), moves to a doom fortress on the ocean, recruits a massive army which partially consists of soldiers from disreputable organizations and children, uses his charisma to create a cult of personality to ensure loyalty, assembles a massive stockpile of modern military weapons at a technological level more advanced than even the most powerful nations on earth, gets his own metal gear, gets his own nuclear weapon, refuses any oversight whatsoever from any official government body, refuses UN inspections for a while, eventually allows UN inspections, but hides all of his illicit activities from them.

(And I haven’t even brought up all of the evil things Big Boss does after Ground Zeroes yet.)

What do you think of this guy?

That is Big Boss in a nutshell. Behind all the heroics, speeches, and bad-assery is a single man with an undeniably scary amount of power. He accepts no checks on what he can do. If any real person acted anything remotely like Big Boss does, he would rightfully be condemned by the entire world as a warlord/terrorist who should immediately dismantle his organization, or at least surrender to some significant form of scrutiny.

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But What about Cipher?

Counter argument: Everything Big Boss did was necessary to fight Cipher. However dangerous Big Boss may be, Cipher is undoubtedly worse!

Maybe that’s true, but… well… How bad is Cipher really?

(Keep in mind that we’re talking about Zero’s Cipher, not Skull Face’s Cipher, because Big Boss didn’t even know Skull Face existed before Ground Zeroes.)

Yes, Cipher is definitely bad, I’m not denying that. But exactly how bad are they?

Cipher was founded in the early 1970s by Zero (its de facto leader), Dr. Clark, Sigint, Eva, and Ocelot, and would later include Big Boss as a member for a brief time. Zero’s interpretation of the Boss’s will was to forge a unified world of stability. He believed that mankind was naturally prone to stupid, petty, animalistic squabbles which lead to needless chaos and destruction. Zero saw the heroic Boss’s death as a consequence of such conflict since she was sacrificed to maintain an uneasy peace between the world’s two great superpowers. Thus Zero set out to unify the world under a single organization capable of controlling the natural violent impulses of the common man.

After Big Boss’s departure in the mid-1970s, Cipher’s power rapidly grew until they became a full-fledged shadow government with more real power than the United States government. Aside from Skull Face’s reign over Cipher between (roughly) 1975 and 1984, Zero’s Cipher was the most powerful organization in the world from (about) 1970 to 2014, a 44 year stretch in total. Throughout this entire time period, Cipher would consistently expand its scope of command over the world until it reached literal 1984 levels of control in the 2000s.

During this time Cipher undoubtedly did a lot of shady shit.

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It more or less took control of American foreign affairs, it accelerated weapons research technology to create ever more powerful metal gears, stronger nuclear weapons, the vocal cord parasite, Les Enfentes Terribles, and the Genome Soldier project. It also oversaw the development of sophisticated AIs which would eventually run the entire organization after the incapacitation of Zero. As manipulative and controlling as Zero was, the AIs brought their level of totalitarian dominance to a whole new level through GW’s information control. Although details on the extent of Cipher’s power are sketchy, we know that by the early 2000s they had the ability to completely control the US government (including hand-picking the president) and even to micromanage the flow of digital information on the internet.

The final manifestation of Zero’s plan was the “war economy” in MGS4, wherein the entire world fed into an endless cycle of pointless proxy wars as a means of consuming resources and directing aggression to maintain a balance of power and a peaceful world stage.

So Cipher undoubtedly did a lot of horrible things, but dare I say it also did some good things.

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At the very least, Cipher should be credited with crushing quite a few terrorist operations which had the potential to cause untold death and destruction. Actually, you can look at most of the Metal Gear series as a sequence of instances of Cipher stopping some maniac from blowing up the world.

Cipher’s first major operation was the San Hieronymo incident (Portable Ops) where they helped prevent Gene, a crazed warlord, from seizing the rest of the philosopher’s legacy and launching his own metal gear and nuclear-armed private state. Next Cipher assisted Big Boss in stopping Hot Coldman in Costa Rica (Peace Walker) from launching a nuke and potentially igniting the Cold War. Even after Zero lost control over Cipher during the next nine years, he initiated the Phantom Big Boss Project to jump-start a copy of Big Boss to stop Skull Face from using the vocal cord parasite to annihilate every English speaker on earth (MGSV). Then with Zero’s AIs in control, Cipher stopped Big Boss’s insurrections twice via Solid Snake (Metal Gear 1 and 2, I’ll discuss these more later on), followed by two copycat revolutions lead by Liquid Snake (MGS1) and Solidus Snake respectively (MGS2).

It is undoubtedly true that Cipher played a significant role in creating these revolutions through its own actions (ex. creating Liquid Snake and Solidus Snake to begin with). But even still, Cipher did play a considerable role in keeping the world relatively safe and stable for over forty years while various maniacs kept trying to blow it up. And speaking of one of those maniacs…

I think there’s a good case to be made that Big Boss’s vision of the world is actually worse than Cipher. Yes, Zero’s Cipher sought to create an Orwellian system of political, economic, and eventually information control to limit people’s freedom in order to preserve order through tyranny, and that is definitely not a good thing. But what does Big Boss offer as an alternative?

Outer Heaven.

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What is Outer Heaven?

Outer Heaven is Big Boss’s interpretation of the Boss’s will. Big Boss killed the Boss with his own hands at the behest of distant government officials who saw fit to carelessly dispatch one of their greatest heroes for the sake of political convenience. In response, Big Boss sought to create a world where soldiers are given the highest priority and are never subjugated to the arbitrary whims of other forces.

After the defeat of Gene at San Hieronymo, Big Boss took the remnants of his resources and created Militaires Sans Frontieres, the first manifestation of Outer Heaven, albeit on a small scale. MSF wasn’t just a mercenary company, it was an organization run by and for the sake of its soldiers completely outside the bounds of the world’s governments, including the US and USSR. It’s at this time that Big Boss’s already existing cult of personality warps him into a living legend; the true successor of the Boss in the hearts of the world’s soldiers.

At the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss sums up his philosophy in the following speech:

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.”

(Note the mention of “hell,” a reoccurring motif in MGSV I’ll talk about later).

Again, put aside all of the heroics, pageantry, and the completely legitimate acknowledgement that Big Boss fights the evil Cipher and a lot of other really bad forces and think about what the hell Outer Heaven really is.

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As far as I can tell based on the actions and words of Big Boss, Outer Heaven is the philosophy of a military-centric dictatorship with a reverent attitude towards chronic warfare as a way of life. Yes, it’s admirable that Big Boss wants to protect innocent soldiers from the cold calculus of politics, but the alternative Big Boss offers is to basically hand control of all politics over to the soldiers. Basically Big Boss wanted to replace the world’s conniving politicians and the civilian nations they run with mercenary companies operated by charismatic warlords like himself (and equally unhinged loons like Kaz, Ocelot, etc.)

So Big Boss wanted to put all of the world’s military power under the control of unaccountable soldiers with the explicit intention of using their power to continue fighting the world’s wars for their own personal benefit. This arrangement should supposedly ensure that the type of situation which lead to the Boss’s death can never happen again.

On the other hand, Zero wanted to put the world’s power under the control of a secretive shadow government which would pull the strings behind the scenes to maintain a balance of power and manipulate every individual down to the informational level to prevent the type of divisions that lead to the Boss’s death.

Is Big Boss’s philosophy really any better than Zero’s? Again, Cipher is undoubtedly not a morally good organization, but neither is Outer Heaven. And in retrospect, whatever Cipher’s faults may be, its global multi-decade reign of relative peace seemed a hell of a lot better than letting Big Boss become the single most powerful guy on earth so he can run his metal gear/nuclear-armed military fantasy.

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Big Boss is not a good guy. He may fight lots of bad people, and he definitely accomplishes some good things, but his ultimate goal is just as bad, if not worse than Cipher’s objective.

And yet, Big Boss’s greatest sin was not building an unaccountable army, lying to the United Nations, or even acquiring nuclear weapons. Rather, Big Boss’s greatest crime was something he did to a single man…

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The Phantom Big Boss Plan

During the events of Ground Zeroes, Big Boss falls into a coma (for the second of three times in his life somehow) as does the MSF medic who shielded Big Boss from an explosion. The MSF medic, who later becomes known as Venom Snake, wakes up nine years later, while Big Boss wakes up at some unspecified time before Venom. While both men were unconscious, Zero was poisoned by Skull Face with the English strain of the vocal cord parasite. Zero assumed he would die or at least become incapacitated, so he launched the Phantom Big Boss Plan (PBBP) as a means of striking back against Skull Face and of preserving the life of Big Boss, who, despite their immense differences, Zero still admired.

The PBBP was an operation designed to provide cover for Big Boss while he recovered from his coma and the loss of MSF by setting up an identical “phantom Big Boss” to draw the attention of Big Boss’s global enemies, especially Skull Face.

While unconscious, Venom Snake’s body would be altered by surgery and his personality would be transformed into Big Boss’s through hypnotherapy. In an audiotape Big Boss mentions that Venom was “was always the best man we had” in all of MSF, and therefore probably one of the best soldiers in the world. Add a little bit of the canonically established S3 phenomenon in there (“given the right situation, the right story, anyone can be shaped into Snake”), and it’s entirely plausible (within the rules of the Metal Gear universe) that a soldier could adapt to the personal capability requirements of embodying Big Boss. To support the Phantom and ensure his success, Zero also recruited Kaz and Ocelot into the operation. Ocelot was in on the operation from the beginning but would undergo hypnotherapy so he wouldn’t know Venom’s true identity, while Kaz would merely be misled by Zero.

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Imagine you had the opportunity to get the same treatment as Venom Snake. Forget about becoming a copy of Big Boss for now, and just focus on the nature of the transition.

Imagine that your entire psychological being was eliminated from existence. Whatever personality you have developed over the 20, 30, 40, etc. years of life you’ve lived up until this point is gone. It is no more. Your parents, siblings, children, friends, spouse, partner, pet, etc. will never hear from you again. And you will never remember they existed.

All you are, all you’ve done, everyone you know, all you could be or could have been, is gone.

This is what happens to Venom Snake through the PBBP. We (the players) may not have known anything about Venom before the events of MGSV but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a real person within the Metal Gear universe. He had a life, a personality, people he knew, ambitions, ideas, virtues, vices, and every other facet of consciousness known to man.

And Big Boss lets it all end.

Venom Snake survived as the Phantom Big Boss from 1984 to 1995. During that time, he builds Diamond Dogs up from nothing to the most powerful mercenary company in the world. Venom defeats XOF and stops Skull Face from slaughtering hundreds of millions of people with the English vocal cord parasite. Venom stops Skull Face from selling hundreds of nuclear weapons to various terrorist groups, failed states, and warlords who could terrorize or destroy the world. Venom destroys Metal Gear Sahelanthropus (multiple times) and makes sure it stays in a state of disrepair so no other force can use it for evil. He rescues child soldiers, supports environmental NGOs, and generally runs a productive, benevolent private military company.

Then Venom is killed by Solid Snake, a rookie soldier working for the covert US military organization, FOXHOUND. Big Boss was the commander of FOXHOUND.

During that same time frame, Big Boss wandered around the world playing bit parts in various conflicts and infiltrated the US government to run FOXHOUND. From this position of power, Big Boss covertly built up a secret private army in Zanzibarland, where he would eventually form Outer Heaven and stage his coup against the Patriots.

Let’s look at this another way…

The heroic Big Boss’s best soldier, Venom Snake, is essentially kidnapped, brainwashed, and surgically altered entirely against his will just so he can serve as a long term human shield for Big Boss. Big Boss wakes up from his coma, finds out about this plan and goes along with it. For nine years, Big Boss lets Venom stop Skull Face and take the heat from Cipher, during which time Venom goes through indescribable physical and emotional anguish as he carries the mantle of leadership created by Big Boss, which includes but is not limited to, constantly engaging in warfare, seeing subordinates suffer and die under his command, and fearing for his life every single day. Meanwhile, Big Boss sits in the background of international affairs safety and slowly accumulates power without attracting the Patriot’s attention since they were too busy dealing with Venom. Finally, once Big Boss feels like he is strong enough to launch his revolution, he kills Venom, reassumes command over the Outer Heaven Movement, and more or less steals the reputational and moral credit accumulated by Venom over the preceding nine years to bolster his own coup. 

This is the heart of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This is the moral downfall built up by Kojima throughout the game’s marketing.

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Betrayal

The entirety of Metal Gear Solid V, its themes, characters, place in the overall canon, and the very purpose of its existence, rests on what Big Boss does to Venom Snake. And it’s really the only important plot point that Metal Gear fans didn’t know before starting the game.

MGSV’s numerous trailers leading up to launch reveal just about every major event in the game that relates to the overall Metal Gear canon. Seriously, the trailers prominently feature clips from throughout the mid to late game missions, including quite a bit from “Shining Lights, Even in Death” (Snake walking down a hallway filled with the corpses of his comrades, burning bodies, Snake rubbing ashes over his face, etc.), which is literally the second to last story mission in the entire game. Before the game was even released, an avid Metal Gear fan would have known that MGSV was about Big Boss’s turn to darkness, Big Boss rebuilding his army to get revenge on Skull Face, the rise of a new metal gear (which is entirely revealed in the trailers, a series first to my knowledge), and the existence of every single significant character in the game (Eli, Code Talker, Quiet, Huey, Psycho Mantis, and Volgin all show up in the trailers). Sure, the trailers don’t reveal the full extent of Skull Face’s plans, or Snake’s dealing with a bunch of random African PFs, but these are relatively unimportant plot elements within the grand Metal Gear canon.

Really, the only significant plot point the player didn’t know before starting the game was the final twist: the protagonist of MGSV is not Big Boss.

The key to understanding MGSV is to grasp that the presence of Venom Snake is the only thing that really matters in the story. Sure, there are some interesting (for a long-time Metal Gear fan) details about the backstories of popular characters like Liquid Snake, Psycho Mantis, and Volgin, but those are just amusing asides.

All that really matters is what happened to Venom Snake and how he behaves throughout the story. And to understand the significance of this, the player has to understand one simple, incredibly vital fact:

What Big Boss did to Venom Snake is unforgivably evil.

Ok, technically Big Boss was not the architect of the “Phantom Big Boss Plan,” Zero was. But once Big Boss awoke from his coma and learned of the PBBP, he not only went along with it, but made it an integral component of his long term plans.

This action by Big Boss was not just wrong, it constituted a complete repudiation of all of the principles for which he had stood throughout his life. It was an abjectly monstrous act. It was a betrayal of the ideals he had fought for throughout MGS3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker. It was the singular event which irrevocably corrupted the soul of Big Boss.

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At the heart of the great series-spanning conflict in the Metal Gear universe is an on-going war over the correct interpretation of the Boss’s will. Big Boss may be the more enduring and active character in the series, but the Boss represents the grand narrative’s soul.

Not only was the Boss considered one of the greatest soldiers of all time, she was the greatest military and covert asset the United States had ever possessed. She was the “Mother of Special Forces,” a hero of World War II who stormed the beaches of D-Day and more or less won the entire operation for the Allies. She was also Big Boss’s personal mentor, surrogate mother, and even lover. She taught Big Boss everything he knew about combat and made him the greatest soldier in history.

By the time the player meets the Boss in MGS3, she is a sage, but world-weary individual. Because of her history, the Boss is well aware of the nature of politics, warfare, and the unfortunate results of soldiers caught in the intersection of the two. Thus after an unexpected turn of events (Volgin launching a nuke in the Soviet Union), the Boss is ordered by her country to make the ultimate sacrifice; to end her life at the hands of her mentee for the sake of maintaining the precarious balance of international diplomacy. Thus the most heroic soldier who ever lived was sacrificed on the altar of politics, to be forever remembered as a terrorist and historical villain rather than as the paragon of virtue she truly was.

After the events of MGS3 and a short stint with the newly reformed Philosophers headed by Zero, Snake formed  Militaires Sans Fronteires, a private military company which was essentially designed to prevent what happened to the Boss in MGS3 from happening to any worthy soldier ever again. Big Boss proceeded to recruit hundreds of soldiers into MSF, an army without borders which promised to place the lives and livelihood of its soldiers above all other concerns. It was the sole organization in the world dedicated to treating its military defenders with dignity and honor rather than use its best and bravest men as pawns in convoluted plots to be tossed away for the slightest gain for unseen bureaucrats and politicians.

And then in MGSV, Big Boss does to Venom Snake precisely what the US government did to the Boss in MGS3. Just as the US government sacrificed the life and honor its most heroic soldier for the sake of its diplomatic goals, Big Boss sacrificed the life and mind of his best soldier for the sake of furthering his future goals.

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As bad of a person as Big Boss became between MGS3 and Ground Zeroes (though many fans of the game were too blinded by his charisma to see how evil he had become), Big Boss’s ultimate moral turning point came when he went along with Zero’s plan to use Venom Snake as a phantom.

Up until this point, Big Boss could weakly justify a lot of his actions with an “ends justify the means” argument. Yeah, maybe operating an unaccountable army outside of any official jurisdiction is dangerous, but it’s necessary to fight Cipher. Yeah, maybe collecting metal gears and nuclear weapons puts far too much power in the hands of one man, but MSF has to defend itself against Cipher and all else who threaten it.

After all, MSF was Big Boss’s early incarnation of his dream of Outer Heaven. It was a powerful organization dedicated to protecting soldiers above all else. Big Boss had seen petty politics kill his mentor, one of the most heroic individuals to ever live. And now his former comrade, Zero, was trying to create a global system of totalitarian dominance which would subject everyone, especially soldiers, to its whims. In the eyes of Big Boss and his followers, any measures were justified to combat this threat.

But when the opportunity arose, Big Boss became just like the forces he had always fought against. He betrayed his soldier for the sake of what Big Boss perceived to be more important goals. And not just any soldier, but “always the best man we had” in MSF. A man who nearly died while using his own body to shield Big Boss from an explosion.

Big Boss erased Venom’s mind, enslaved Venom’s life, coercively saddled him with the crippling responsibility to leading a war he didn’t want to lead during its most dire days. Then even after Venom somehow succeeded and thrived under all of that pressure, Big Boss killed his own man simply because he was in the way of his own personal ambitions.

 

Part 2: Venom Snake vs. Big Boss

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Phantoms and Parasites

The nature of parasites is a prominent theme throughout MGSV. In the game, Kojima posits multiple ways of thinking about the relationships between parasites and their hosts. XOF is described as a parasite of Cipher (since it survived and prospered by cleaning up Fox’s and Cipher’s messes) which eventually ended up not just consuming its host, but taking its place. Skull Face described the English language as a sort of “conqueror’s parasite” which latched onto lesser languages and weakened them into obsolescence. Code Talker describes (at length) how an ancient parasite-infected human beings and was initially a detriment to their health, but adapted into a symbiotic relationship with humans by giving us the ability to speak.

In Metal Gear Solid V, phantoms are essentially psychological parasites.

Kaz’s loss of MSF and his limbs drive him into a blind, vengeful rage in MGSV. Rather than attempt to quell his feelings, Kaz feeds them, embraces them as a part of himself. He lets the “phantom pain” caused by the anguish of losing his comrades control his mind and drive him against Skull Face. This relationship between Kaz and his pain becomes just as important as the relationship between any host and its parasite.

Likewise, Skull Face suffered immense trauma as a youth, having lost his family, homeland, language, and even his own face (via burning and torture). This trauma hardened in his mind over time and became an enormous source of phantom pain that manifested as a sort of extremist nihilism. Eventually this phantom drives Skull Face to want to use the English parasite to kill all English speakers (because he blames the United States for his childhood) to bring the world into a bizarre state of egalitarianism based on mutual pain and suffering.

Venom Snake is repeatedly referred to as a “phantom” of Big Boss in the post-Truth mission cassette tapes between Big Boss, Zero, Ocelot, and Kaz. The implication is that Venom is a parasite living off of Big Boss. Not in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical or even spiritual sense. Venom is put into Big Boss’s life to live and fight as Big Boss. Big Boss made himself into a legend through his own actions and will throughout his life, and then Venom was granted custody of this legend to continue to Big Boss’s legacy.

In reality, the exact opposite is true. Big Boss is the parasite on Venom Snake.

It is Big Boss who lives off of the efforts and accomplishments of Venom Snake, not nice vice versa. Venom Snake is forced against his will to do Big Boss’s work and then is disposed of at Big Boss’s discretion.

This is the Phantom Pain. It’s the pain Venom Snake feels when he is forced to live as Big Boss. It’s the pain we see throughout the events of MGSV when he is manipulated by his situation, his subordinates, and by his own mind to act against his nature.

Make no mistake about it, Venom Snake is in pain throughout Metal Gear Solid V.

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Revenge

Revenge is the primary motivating factor for nearly every character in Metal Gear Solid V:

  • Big Boss (the real one) wanted revenge on Skull Face and Cipher for destroying MSF, so he goes along with the PBBP.
  • Kaz wanted revenge on Skull Face for destroying MSF so he goes along with the PBBP and works with Venom Snake to destroy Cipher.
  • Skull Face wanted revenge on America for (metaphorically) destroying his native land, language, and family, so he seeks to eradicate the English language with the vocal cord parasite.
  • Quiet wanted revenge on Big Boss for maiming her at the hospital in Cyprus (maybe, I’ll discuss her more later), so she goes undercover in his army with the intention of spreading the English vocal cord parasite.
  • Code Talker wanted revenge on the US government for destroying the Navajo people, so he invented the vocal cord parasite. It might also be argued that he eventually joined Diamond Dogs to get revenge on Skull Face for stealing the vocal cord parasite and using it for evil and/or for holding the Navajo people hostage to coerce Code Talker into continuing his research.
  • Huey’s motivations are a bit more difficult to decipher since he seems to be a compulsive liar. But even still, he ostensibly wanted revenge against Skull Face for destroying MSF, holding him hostage for nine years, and for stealing his metal gear designs, thus he assisted Diamond Dogs. Huey also may have wanted revenge against Snake, Kaz, and/or Diamond Dogs for their general mistreatment of him, so he helped Eli and supporters steal Sahelanthropus, and he triggered the second vocal cord parasite outbreak on Mother Base.
  • Eli wanted revenge against Big Boss for his perceived abandonment of Eli as a child and for supposedly building Eli out of weaker, recessive genes (which is not only not true, but also based on a bad understanding of genetics). Later Eli wanted revenge against Big Boss for essentially kidnapping and disarming him.
  • The Man on Fire, AKA Colonel Volgin, wanted revenge against Big Boss for sort of, kind of killing him during the events of MGS3.
  • The Floating Boy didn’t technically have any desire for revenge himself, but apparently he psychically fed off of individuals he came in contact with who had strong desires for revenge. Hence, control over the Floating Boy jumped between The Man on Fire, Skull Face, and Eli.

There are two major characters who are conspicuously not motivated by a desire for revenge.

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The first is Revolver Ocelot. He may be a key player at Diamond Dogs who helps Venom and Kaz fight Skull Face, but he was never a part of MSF, and therefore was not intimately connected to its downfall and has no specific impetus for hating Skull Face, let alone wanting to get revenge on him. We eventually learn that Zero asked Ocelot to protect Big Boss during his coma and to support the PBBP. Beyond a general loyalty to Big Boss, unfortunately we never get any deeper characterization or a better explanation for his motivations in MGSV. Ultimately, I think this was a mistake on Kojima’s part.

Of course the second character is Venom Snake.

Venom’s ostensible motivations throughout the game are the same as Kaz’s: revenge against Skull Face, XOF, and Cipher for destroying MSF. But there are two problems with this motivation. First, we know it only exists due to the implanted memories and personality of Big Boss. Second, although the MGSV trailers, Kaz, and pretty much everything else in the entire game say that this is Venom’s motivation… we never actually see Venom say anything about it.

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Seriously, Venom never once expresses an iota of anger or desire for revenge against Skull Face, XOF, or Cipher. The player constantly sees Kaz ranting and raving about all he’s lost and his lust for destruction. He purposefully refuses to use a prosthetic arm or leg to maintain the pain from his lost limbs to keep his desire for revenge at a heightened visceral level. He brutally tortures Huey and Quiet in fits of rage. The once measured, calculating man who carefully supported Big Boss during his ascension in Peace Walker is reduced to a cruel maniac in The Phantom Pain who constantly clashes with the more level-headed Ocelot and stoic Venom Snake, even to the point of threatening to murder the latter when he tried to bring Quiet to Mother Base.

And yet Venom never says or does anything to indicate his personal feelings on the matter.

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Recall Skull Face’s death. He loses control over his own metal gear and ends up pitifully trapped under a steel beam with an encroaching fire nearby. Venom, Kaz, and Huey find Skull Face in this position and they naturally offer Venom the opportunity to finish Skull Face off and finally fulfill his supposedly burning lust for revenge. The player ends up in nearly the exact same position from the end of MGS3 when Big Boss stands over the critically wounded Boss and points a gun at her head. In the case of MGS3 the player has no choice but to fire and complete both the Boss and Big Boss’s respective missions.

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But in the case of MGSV, the player as Venom is given the choice of whether or not to finish Skull Face off. Note that in the scene (video here), Venom is just as stoic and calm as ever. He doesn’t appear angry, confused, excited, or to have any other emotion one would typically associate with revenge. If the player chooses not to shoot Skull Face, then Kaz grabs Venom’s hand and forces Venom to shoot him anyway. And Kaz doesn’t just execute Skull Face quickly, rather, Kaz forces Venom to shoot off Skull Face’s arm and leg in a cruel reciprocation of Kaz’s own injuries. They end up shooting Skull Face seven times before leaving him to burn to death (though Huey ends up executing Skull Face anyway).

This is a metaphor for Venom Snake’s character throughout the entire game.

We don’t exactly know how the true Venom Snake would feel about Skull Face, XOF, and Cipher if he hadn’t gone through the PBBP. What we do know is that the real Big Boss has every reason to be as vengeful as Kaz. Because of Skull Face and Cipher, Big Boss lost MSF, lost all of his soldiers, lost nine years of his life to a coma, lost Paz and Chico, and lost his ability to realize the Boss’s vision by changing the world in her image. It’s evident that Big Boss is so enraged by what happened to him in Ground Zeroes that he goes along with Zero’s insane PBBP scheme and proceeds to brainwash and manipulate “one of his best men” for the purpose of unknowingly serving as Big Boss’s human shield just to take a shot at Cipher.

In other word’s Big Boss’s means of revenge were to wipe Venom Snake’s personality, implanted his own personality in Venom Snake, and then unleashed this new “Phantom Big Boss” against Skull Face, with the support of ace soldiers Kaz and Ocelot, while Big Boss himself worked covertly behind the scenes to destroy Cipher once and for all. This is the PBBP.

I think the most ingenious aspect of all of MGSV is that unbeknownst to Zero, Big Boss, Kaz, Ocelot, or anyone else (with the possible exception of Quiet, as I’ll describe later), there happens to be an unexpected twist in the PBBP:

Big Boss’s personality never completely overrides Venom Snake’s personality.

One of the most common complaints from players about MGSV is that Big Boss seemingly reverts from this charismatic, larger-than-life legend, to this border-line mute stoic who, despite ostensibly being the leader of Diamond Dogs, rarely actually makes any decisions. In George Weidman’s analysis of the game, he suggests that this character change was done by Kojima as a means of merging the player with the protagonist, in a similar vein as most silent protagonists in video games, or even the personality-deficient Solid Snake in the early Metal Gear games. As an example, Weidman points to the end of the “Truth” mission when Venom looks at the mirror and sees his reflection as the avatar designed by the player at the beginning of the game.

I think this is a bad misreading of what Kojima intended to do with Venom.

The reason Venom is so quiet and often passive throughout the game is because there is a constant war in his mind raging between his own natural personality and Big Boss’s implanted personality.

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A Different Boss

Kojima promoted MGSV as the Metal Gear game in which we would finally see Big Boss become a villain. He delivered on that promise. But he did so in such a way as to purposefully obfuscate the process. Everyone expected to see Big Boss’s lust for revenge turn him into a madman who would do anything for his cause. Instead Big Boss was already at that point prior to MGSV and the game’s ultimate twist revealed his moral corruption in its most distilled form – the sacrifice of Venom Snake.

But with that being said, what’s the point of MGSV’s plot? I mean, if the PBBP was really all that mattered to story, why did we need to watch Venom build Diamond Dogs and chase Skull Face for 80 hours?

The entirety of MGSV’s plot was designed to demonstrate Big Boss’s evil by contrast to Venom’s actions. Venom looks like Big Boss, talks like Big Boss, and fights like Big Boss, but he doesn’t act like Big Boss.

MGSV is remarkably subtle in this regard. The game masterfully plays with player expectations to obscure how strangely Venom behaves compared to the Big Boss we saw in the previous games. I, for one, remember constantly rationalizing Venom’s actions throughout my first playthrough to try to fit them into my understanding of Big Boss. I thought maybe Big Boss had suffered some sort of head trauma from his injuries, or maybe his defeat in Ground Zeroes had irrevocably humbled him.

Consider this speech the real Big Boss makes to his army at the triumphant conclusion of Peace Walker (video here) –

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.”

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Does this sound anything like the stoic, contemplative Venom Snake of MGSV? It certainly sounds like the stuff Kaz was saying throughout most of the game. It even kind of sounds like an optimistically mirrored version of what Skull Face would say. But it sounds absolutely nothing like Venom.

Compare Big Boss’s big endgame speech to his soldiers at the end of Peace Walker to two of Venom’s speeches in MGSV.

First, Venom speaking to his deceased men after stopping the second vocal cord outbreak in the “Shining Lights, Even in Death” mission (video here) –

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea… I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me… I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.” 

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Second, Venom’s speech to the Boss in the secret, “all nukes disposed” ending (video here):

“I haven’t forgotten what you told me, Boss. We have no tomorrow, but there’s still hope for the future. In our struggle to survive the present, we push the future further away. Will I see it in my lifetime? Probably not. Which means there’s no time to waste. Someday the world will no longer need us. No need for the gun, or the hand to pull the trigger. I have to drive out this demon inside me – build a better future. That’s what I – what we – will leave as our legacy. Another mission, right Boss?”

The two men may look, speak, and fight the same way, and they might even have the same memories and comrades, but they are not the same. Their goals, motivations, and most noticeably, their tones, are drastically different.

Venom may have been surgically and mentally broken down and rebuilt by Zero, but his soul remains beneath the façade. Metal Gear Solid V is all about the surviving aspects of Venom’s self struggling to exist underneath the stifling presence of Big Boss’s artificially imposed personality.

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Big Boss as the Strongman

Big Boss is a classic strongman – an individual who proclaims the moral right to rule in an authoritarian manner due to his own particular virtues.

Consider all of Big Boss’s actions I listed in the Who is Big Boss? section of Part 1. Throughout his career, Big Boss amasses an extraordinarily powerful private military force, armed with modern military equipment, metal gears, and even a nuclear weapon, and then refuses to accept any oversight over his operations. From an outsider’s perspective, the obvious problem with this is that if Big Boss has malevolent intentions he could destabilize the political world order, cause untold destruction, and kill a whole lot of people.

Sure, Big Boss claims that evil powers throughout the world are trying to kill him and destroy his virtuous haven for disenfranchised soldiers, and that therefore he amassed all of his power for self-defense. But how do we know he’s telling the truth? How do we know he won’t change his mind later and decide to use his military arsenal for extortion? Or to invade another country? Maybe he’s a good guy now but he could become unhinged later for any number of reasons and lash out. Maybe he dies or becomes incapacitated and his successor is a more malevolent and dishonest individual like the borderline psychotic Kaz, or habitual master manipulator, Ocelot.

A million different things could potentially change or go wrong and suddenly this allegedly defensive haven for the oppressed becomes the greatest military threat the free world has ever seen.

If somehow a reporter managed to sit Big Boss down in 1975, after the events of Peace Walker but before Ground Zeroes, and ask Big Boss how he can possibly justify his actions, what would Big Boss say in his own defense?

Trust me.

Really. That’s it. That’s basically the only argument Big Boss has on his side. In today’s world, most people don’t trust the governments of Iran, North Korea, or ISIS to possess nukes, but we should totally trust this disgruntled ex-CIA agent with a dark past and a cult of personality to possess the most powerful weapons on earth with no oversight whatsoever.

Why should we trust Big Boss?

Well, because he’s Big Boss. He’s a legendary soldier known throughout the military world not just for his combat skills, but for his part in helping downtrodden people in various conflict zones (or at least San Hieronymo and Costa Rica). We can see that he is utterly beloved by his subordinates, seemingly all of whom would (and some of whom already have) take a bullet for him without hesitation. His history of contact with the CIA, the KGB, FOX, the philosophers, and all those other incredibly interesting Metal Gear characters gives him a unique insight into the political nature of the world and how it should be changed. And of course, Big Boss was the ultimate protégée and killer of the Boss, a practically mythical figure amongst the world’s military personnel. By extension, Big Boss has the most obvious moral claim of being the Boss’s spiritual successor (which is literally reflected in his name) and therefore has the right to claim a mantle of immense power in the world of the Metal Gear series.

In other words, Big Boss should get the unique right to personally control one of the most powerful military forces with absolute authority because he’s just so damn special. Checks and balances, a balance of power, consent of the governed, transparency, democracy, diplomatic cooperation, the United Nations, and everything else like that is rendered utterly irrelevant because Big Boss is such an amazing individual. He’s too noble, too important, too strong to bear the normal societal restraints of mere mortals.

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Power and Authority

Now compare the strongman Big Boss to Venom Snake.

During the events of Peace Walker, Big Boss decides that MSF needs its own metal gear. Colonel Volgin had had his own metal gear, Gene had his own metal gear, Hot Coldman had his own metal gear, and Cipher was in the process of building its own metal gear. Big Boss was tired of being the weaker party in his conflicts. He felt that MSF needed an equalizer on the battlefield, a weapon which could undoubtedly defeat any foe in conventional combat. So he used his resources to develop his very own Metal Gear ZEKE to make MSF a true force on a global scale.

At the conclusion of Act 1 of MGSV, Venom recovers a damaged, yet potentially functional Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Not only was it the most advanced metal gear to date, but it also had the power to deploy metallic archaea, a revolutionary weapon developed by Skull Face which rendered all metals and nuclear materials unusable. Venom could have easily had Sahelanthropus repaired and used it as his very own anti-nuclear weapon. Regardless of the strength of Diamond Dogs, this single weapon would have made Venom’s army one of the most formidable forces on the planet.

Check out the cutscene here. Note the crescendo at 2:48, when the captured metal gear stands at attention in front of Venom and his lieutenants. Right there we see that Sahelanthropus is at Venom’s beck and call. All this strength, all this power in the hands of one great man who can use it however he pleases.

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And yet Venom doesn’t rebuild Sahelanthropus. Instead he claims it as a symbol, or really a monument, for the success of Diamond Dogs. As Venom says in a cassette tape, “Sahelanthropus is a symbol that the likes of us brought at least one crisis to its end.” It’s not a narcissistic trophy of victory, but a piece of evidence of a great and powerful weapon which Diamond Dogs stopped from being unleashed on the world.

A similar pattern exists between Big Boss and Venom with nuclear weapons.

At the conclusion of Peace Walker, Big Boss recovers Hot Coldman’s nuclear bomb and adds it to his arsenal. Of course, he rationalizes this action with the same argument he used to build Metal Gear ZEKE – MSF needs the best possible weapons to ensure its own survival. MSF’s possession of the nuke was eventually leaked by Cipher to the United Nations, thereby encouraging an inspection of MSF. Of course, Big Boss decided to hide the nuke and ZEKE, preferring to lie to the UN rather than risk conflict with the rest of the world’s nations which (not unreasonably) would be extremely troubled at the thought of a rogue private army possessing WMDs.

Venom Snake’s relationship with nuclear weapons is somewhat more difficult to ascertain. Venom can either build or steal nukes, but only at the player’s discretion via the FOB online mode. Kojima used this online system as a means of putting the player into a simulation of the effects of nuclear weapons on international diplomacy. Players with nukes can launch them at aggressive opponents to cause devastating effects (EDIT – This is not true, I read a bad forum post). Of course, this incentivizes other players to get their own nukes as a means of deterrence via Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

However, I think we can infer that the player’s choice to acquire nukes is essentially a semi-canonical manifestation of Big Boss’s personality in Venom Snake. After all, there is no action in the game which comes close to producing as many Demon Points (which I will explain later is a representation of Big Boss’s influence on Venom) as building a nuke, and no action which eliminates as many points as disposing of a nuke. Meanwhile, if enough players work together to dispose of all of the nukes in the online world, the game triggers the secret ending in which Venom speaks to the Boss about building a better future for the world.

So if the player builds nukes, he turns Venom Snake into the bloody personification of Big Boss. If he dismantles enough nukes, he provokes the ultimate ending of the game in which Venom describes his heartfelt desire for world peace (as I’ll explain fully in Part 3).

As with metal gears, Big Boss arms himself with nukes because he believes himself to be uniquely morally qualified to possess extraordinarily dangerous weapons, while Venom supports disposing of all nukes because he believes no man should possess such immense power.

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Huey Emmerich

Big Boss is a strongman because he believes the standard rules of conduct do not apply to him. Venom repudiates this outlook with his handling of a metal gear and nukes, but the ultimate manifestation of his viewpoint isn’t revealed until the trial of Huey Emmerich.

(As an aside, I think Huey is an absolutely brilliant character in MGSV. He is an example of an ingenious inversion of expectations and reality. Up until MGSV, Metal Gear fans have been conditioned to associate the Emmerich characters [Huey, Hal, and Emma] with physical and often emotional weakness but also moral goodness, empathy, and compassion. Kojima used Huey as a foil to this trend, not only in a broad narrative sense, but even Huey himself uses his weak outward appearance to curry sympathy and pity from his various captors. I may eventually get around to writing an entire separate piece about Huey Emmerich.)

Near the end of Act II, Huey is apprehended by Diamond Dog personnel and placed on “trial” for a litany of charges: conspiring with Skull Face to destroy MSF, working with Skull Face on Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Killing Dr. Strangelove, helping Eli repair and steal Sahelanthropus, and altering the wolbachia to trigger another vocal cord parasite outbreak on Mother Base. That’s a lot of bad shit. Fortunately for Huey, with the arguable exception of Dr. Strangelove’s murder, there is no smoking gun evidence for any of the charges. Unfortunately for Huey, there is nearly overwhelming circumstantial evidence of his guilt on all counts.

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Enraged by the death of their comrades, Kaz and Ocelot lead a mob of Diamond Dog soldiers to restrain Huey, hold a perfunctory trial, and call for his death at the hands of Venom Snake. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game (video here), where the camera is always left near Huey’s perspective so we can see the dangerous position he’s in. The soldiers look like they’re ready to literally tear him apart, and only the stoic presence of Venom Snake stands in their way of doing so. Ocelot silences the crowd with a gunshot and Kaz turns to Venom –

KAZ – “We exist outside the law. What do we do Boss? Just give the order, we’ll handle the rest.” (Here Kaz is siding with the real Big Boss’s view of their place in the world, as individuals with unique qualities which put them above the ordinary restraints of most men.)

Venom pauses to consider the situation.

VENOM – “Prepare a life raft. Big enough for one. Food and water too.”

KAZ – “Boss…?”

VENOM – “He’s leaving.”

KAZ – “You… He’s responsible for… all of this! Think of all the men! He didn’t lose a damn thing! This is the enemy! And he’s here on his knees!

VENOM – “Kaz. You are right, he is not one of us. But we are not responsible to judge an enemy. He leaves Mother Base and that will be the end of it.”

So Venom has a guy in front of him who has probably done incalculable damage to MSF, Diamond Dogs, and Big Boss’s mission. All of Venom’s men want this guy dead and are screaming for his blood. This guy has no known family, friends, or associates who would care if he died, let alone would do anything about it. There is pretty much nothing stopping Venom from executing Huey on the spot, right then and there. It would be the easy, popular, and arguably right thing to do.

And yet Venom lets Huey go because he believes that Diamond Dogs is not in a position to dispense judgement. Big Boss thinks he alone is wise enough to amass the most dangerous weapons in the world and rule as an unrestrained military dictator, while Venom doesn’t think he has the right to punish a single individual despite the overwhelming evidence against him.

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Sure, Venom kills plenty of people throughout the game in Afghanistan and Africa, and has no problem trying to kill Skull Face. But all of these encounters happen on the battlefield where the rules of conduct are distinct. Huey is not a combatant, let alone a soldier. He had surrendered and was incapacitated. He was nothing more than a prisoner living by the mercy of his captors. Venom realized that he is not a judge, jury, nor an executioner, no matter how much Kaz and Diamond Dogs wanted him to be one.

Venom had the wisdom to recognize the distinction between how one should act while in war and how one shall act while at peace, while Big Boss seemed to view the entire world as a perpetual battlefield, where all of his actions are morally permissible by the standard of self-defense.

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Child Soldiers 

Big Boss is open to using child soldiers. Venom Snake is not.

This is a more minor point of distinction between Big Boss and Venom compared to how they use their power or what their ultimate goals are, but it’s still an interesting point of contrast between the two men which indicates how they view the world.

I’m sure the vast majority of readers agree that forcing or even allowing an individual to kill and risk being killed before he reaches a certain state of maturity is an immoral action. The inherent psychological corrosion of child soldiery is a motif throughout the Metal Gear series. For instance, Solid Snake and Liquid Snake discussed the destructive effects of being born and raised for the sole purpose of combat in MGS1 (“You enjoy all the killing”). Raiden’s history as a child soldier leaves him suffering from PTSD, an inability to express himself emotionally, and a general fear of intimacy in MGS2. Sniper Wolf, Psycho Mantis, and Grey Fox are also all former child soldiers who are psychologically damaged by their past.

Big Boss seems to agree with the majority that using child soldiers is wrong if someone else is drafting child soldiers, but is fine with it as long as he is the one training and using the children. This is because, again, Big Boss is a classic strongman who believes that his own unique virtues and qualities put him above the restraints under which all others operate. Only he has the brilliance and good intentions to raise a child through warfare without damaging or destroying the child’s life.

In Peace Walker, Big Boss incorporated Chico, who was twelve years old, and Paz, who was actually twenty-five but pretends to be high school-aged, into MSF to fight Hot Coldman. As with many of Big Boss’s immoral actions, the game cleverly frames Chico and Paz’s roles in a positive light, as motivations for Big Boss and MSF. Paz is the ultimate symbol of innocence and goodness who asks Big Boss to liberate her country, while the rapscallion Chico develops an adorable crush on Paz and plays revolutionary. All of this doesn’t change the fact that Big Boss knowingly used children in his military operations.

This actually becomes a trend for Big Boss during the events between MGSV and Metal Gear 2. While he did save some child soldiers from conflict zones and attempt to reintegrate them into ordinary society (See “Later Career” here), when he finally became the leader of Zanzibarland in anticipation of his grand rebellion, Big Boss launched an ambitious program to recruit disaffected war orphans around the world to train them to be child soldiers in his service.

Meanwhile, in MGSV Venom Snake is contracted to find and kill a group of child soldiers, but instead he decides to bring them back to Mother Base (Venom and Kaz initially give the impression that they will complete the contract by killing the children, but only so they can trick their client with an audio recording which makes it seem like Venom executed the child soldiers). Upon arrival, Venom actually does consider retraining the children to serve as soldiers in Diamond Dogs (“I think he’s tougher than he looks. A little training and he’ll make himself useful”). Given Big Boss’s views on the subject, this could arguably be considered a product of Big Boss’s personality in Venom.

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But instead (video here) –

KAZ – “You probably noticed on the way in we’ve expanded housing. They’ll have their own quarters, separate from ours. Won’t be counted as staff. (The player could literally control Chico and Paz as staff members in Peace Walker.)

VENOM – “So, what, we’re running a daycare now?”

KAZ – “They’ll learn how to read and write, do basic jobs.

VENOM – “A chance at a real life… Just not from behind a gun.”

KAZ – “Being behind a gun’s what we do Boss. There’s not room for angels in our heaven.”

(First, note the irony that Venom’s chance at a normal life had been permanently stolen from him by Big Boss, but now Venom is trying to give what he could never have to others.)

In a broad sense, Big Boss’s willingness to use child soldiers and Venom’s unwillingness relate to the way each character views his role in the world, as described in the Power and Authority section. Though Venom doesn’t explicitly say much on the matter, we can infer that he has the same qualms as most people about child soldiers. Only people who choose to fight should do so, and children are too young to responsibly decide if they should kill people and risk being killed, especially given the grave psychological repercussions typically associated with sustained combat. Meanwhile, Big Boss may seek to rehabilitate common child soldiers, but he apparently believes his own abilities and world view permit him the unique privilege of recruiting and training his own child soldiers.

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Quiet

This section is a bit more speculative. The problem is that we simply don’t know that much about Quiet. But even still, there is some evidence that Quiet’s character arc is predicated on the difference between Big Boss and Venom Snake.

What we do know about Quiet is that she was a XOF assassin sent into the Cypress hospital to kill Big Boss (who was really Venom Snake). But the real Big Boss successfully defended Venom by setting Quiet on fire (twice) until she jumped out a window. Quiet’s injuries would have killed her, but she was saved by a parasite treatment which gave her the abilities she uses throughout the game. Quiet was then purposefully infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasite by Skull Face and deployed to Afghanistan to purposefully get captured by Venom so she could be brought back to Mother Base and spread the infection. But after meeting Venom she apparently changed her mind, and then later become quite enamored with him, before eventually sacrificing her own life to save his.

Where things get hazy is trying to determine exactly what Quiet was thinking and why. First of all, there’s the question of why she agreed to a suicide mission for Skull Face in the first place. In her final monologue, Quiet herself says (recording here), “Vengeance is what drove me to them… the only language left to me, revenge.” Also, Code Talker states in a cassette tape (recording here) that “part of her still wanted revenge… against you [Venom].The implication seems to be that Quiet chose to go on a suicide mission to kill Venom out of a mighty desire for revenge, but it’s not clear what for. Was it because of the injuries she sustained while trying to kill Venom in Cypress? If so, shouldn’t she have noticed that it wasn’t Venom that set her on fire (she wouldn’t have known the real Big Boss did it, but that doesn’t matter)? And why would she blame Venom for hurting her when Quiet was trying to kill him? It’s pure self-defense.

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We also don’t have a clear sequence of events in Quiet’s motivations once she is captured by Venom. Her mission was just to spread the vocal cord parasite, so all she needed to do was speak to Venom, but she chose not to. Then throughout the game she formed a deep bond with Venom, somewhat reminiscent of Big Boss’s relationship with the Boss (a bond of respect and admiration rather than romance). Eventually that bond became so intense that she was willing to unleash the infection at her own expense to save Venom, thereby sacrificing her own life to save Venom’s.

Basically, Quiet’s arc isn’t well explained. We know what happens, but we don’t really know why it happens.

Regardless, my speculation is that Quiet wanted revenge against Big Boss for the injuries he had caused her. She was so enraged and consumed by vengeance that she accepted Skull Face’s plan to be used as a vector for the vocal cord parasite against Big Boss, even though it would certainly kill her. But when she met the man she thought was Big Boss, he was subtly different that she thought he would be. Her curiosity caused her not to unleash the parasite, and instead she became invested in Venom.

The two formed an odd kinship, probably based somewhat on their similar demeanors. Both Venom and Quiet are, well, quiet. They both largely communicate through subtle looks and body language instead of the grandiose speeches typical of Metal Gear characters (like Ocelot, Kaz, and Skull Face). And they were both true warriors who lived to fight on the battlefield.

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My supposition is that Venom’s unique qualities endeared him to Quiet, and thus caused her character arc. Quiet expected to meet Big Boss, and that her desire for revenge would drive her to kill herself and him at the same time, but instead she met Venom and formed a deep bond.

It’s difficult to say what exactly it is about Venom that she preferred over Big Boss, but I think we can chalk it up to Venom’s stoic, more benevolent demeanor. Thus, Quiet’s arc and the preservation of Diamond Dogs from the English strain of the vocal cord parasite are yet another example of Venom’s divergence from Big Boss.

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Fighting vs. Plotting

MGSV is about Big Boss’s ultimate betrayal of his own principles in the form of the Phantom Big Boss Project. Prior to this point, I would argue that Big Boss was certainly a villain of some sort, but at least he was a well-intentioned villain. Soldiers are often reduced to sacrificial pawns by distant governments concerned with more abstract matters than the lives of combatants. While Big Boss’s attempts to build a private army constituted a legitimate threat to most of the world, he was also a great ally to disaffected soldiers who needed a cause to protect their interests.

But Big Boss’s decision to go along with the Phantom Big Boss Project was a rejection of this ideal which would be continually repeated by Big Boss going forward. From that point on, Big Boss put his goals above all other considerations and had no qualms whatsoever about sacrificing the lives of others to accomplish his intended ends. This predatory outlook on the world stands in stark contrast to Venom Snake’s actions throughout MGSV as Venom consistently fights for the sake of his subordinates even at great personal risk and harm.

This trend is a continuation of a common motif seen throughout the Metal Gear series. Typically, heroic Metal Gear characters (early Big Boss, Solid Snake, Raiden, etc.) accomplish their goals through personal and direct combat. Meanwhile, Metal Gear villains (Volgin, Solidus Snake, the Patriots, Zero, later Big Boss, etc.) try to accomplish their goals through indirect means often involving absurdly elaborate manipulations and conspiracies.

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Consider the plot of MGS1. Solid Snake is tasked by the US government with infiltrating Shadow Moses so he can kill Liquid Snake and the other FOXHOUND terrorists, dispose of their nuclear weapons, and stop them from extorting the US government. So with nothing but a cool suit, some cigarettes, and an off-site support team, Solid Snake singlehandedly arrives at the base and infiltrates it himself.

Meanwhile, Liquid Snake can’t figure out how to activate his captured nuclear weapons so he creates a secret plan to trick Solid Snake into doing it for him. This plan involves using Decoy Octopus to impersonate a dead hostage, killing Kaz and having Liquid impersonate him to constantly provide false information to Solid Snake, and more or less allowing Solid Snake to infiltrate Shadow Moses in select areas so he can get where he needs to go to accidentally activate the nuclear weapon.

And at the same time as that, the US Department of Defense didn’t actually send in Solid Snake to defeat the terrorists, but actually just to spread the FoxDie virus they infected Solid Snake with without his knowledge, so they can recover all of Liquid Snake’s stolen military material intact.

And at the same time as that, US DoD employee Naomi Hunter was actually secretly subverting the US government’s FoxDie plan by modifying the virus in accordance with her own plans to get revenge on Solid Snake for killing Grey Fox (who, unbeknownst to Naomi, was actually still alive).

And at the same time as that, Ocelot was actually deployed by Solidus Snake, the president of the United States, to provoke Liquid Snake’s whole operation to see if a successful revolt against the Patriots was possible and to distract the Patriots from Solidus’s own operations.

And at the same time as that, Ocelot was also really working for the Patriots and was just going along with Liquid Snake’s and Solidus Snake’s plans to maintain his cover.

And at the same time as that, Ocelot was secretly loyal to Big Boss all along and was plotting to one day launch his own Outer Heaven style insurrection, but he had to remain a Patriot spy to monitor their activities.

That’s a lot of layers of treacherous plotting overlaying Solid Snake’s relatively straightforward actions.

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The commonality between all of these villainous plots is a willingness to subjugate and manipulate others for the sake of one’s goals; individuals with their own lives and wills are reduced to mere pawns on a chessboard. Whether it’s Liquid Snake manipulating Solid Snake into working against his own objective, or the Patriots creating a massive system of global information control to manipulate the entire world into operating according to their designs, Metal Gear villains virtually always operate through indirect plots.

Now compare Big Boss’s actions before and after Ground Zeroes. Prior to it, Big Boss fit the traditional mold of a Metal Gear hero. In MGS3 he was deployed to stop a group of terrorists seeking to ignite the Cold War and he personally infiltrated their operations to stop them even while various secret villainous plots swirled around him (governments fighting over the Philosophers Legacy, the US government sending the Boss on a suicide mission, etc). Even when Big Boss acquired his own armies in Portable Ops and Peace Walker he still personally fought the vast majority of his battles through direct military action.

Then after Ground Zeroes Big Boss becomes just like the plotting villains he had always vowed to fight. Instead of reraising his own army to fight Skull Face directly, he goes along with Zero’s Phantom Big Boss Plan to create a phantom to fight his war for him and distract Cipher for over a decade until he was ready to launch is own insurrection. Make no mistake about it, this plan is based on widespread deception, manipulation, and even a sort of quasi-slavery. Big Boss chooses to become a classic Metal Gear villain who sticks to the shadows and achieve his goals via treachery rather than traditional heroic action.

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A good example of this in practice (besides what he does to Venom Snake) is Big Boss’s treatment of the employees at the Cypress hospital. While Big Boss uses Venom as a sort of metaphorical human shield to keep Cipher’s attention, he uses the hospital employees as literal human shields. That is, Big Boss was aware that Cipher was trying to kill him yet he chose to keep Venom in a civilian hospital in an attempt to hide in public. In practice, this placed all of the hospital employees and patients in a great deal of danger which eventually resulted in their horrifying deaths.

To clarify, the risk Big Boss forced on the hospital employees was no accident. Ocelot explicitly argues for using the employees to protect Big Boss in the “Doublethink” cassette tape, and apparently Big Boss goes along with it (full audio here):

“We’ll be putting the people in this hospital in the line of fire. They’ll be your shield, and a necessary diversion. To buy us some time.”

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Thus while Cipher still deserves the lion’s share of the blame, there is no doubt that the heroic Big Boss should also be blamed for all of the horrible deaths we see at the very beginning of MGSV.

It’s an open question as to why Big Boss embraces this approach after the events of Ground Zeroes. Some players criticized MGSV for making Big Boss’s turn to villainy (though I maintain Big Boss was already a villain and just became a far worse one) so abrupt and without obvious cause. My speculation is that the events of Ground Zeroes proved to Big Boss that his old tactics couldn’t possibly be effective in the long run. No matter how famous he became, no matter how many men he attracted to his cause, Cipher could always undermine him with acts of treachery.

Thus after Big Boss watched his entire private army get destroyed by an ambush in a single evening, he decided to change his tactics. He noticed that Zero had more or less successfully created a powerful shadow government in the US entirely through secretive byzantine plots, so Big Boss embarked on his own secretive byzantine plot to destroy Cipher.

In contrast to a Big Boss who relies on treachery and (metaphorical and real) human shields, Venom Snake is a front line leader who constantly fights for the sake of his supporters. Recall that Venom never truly shared Kaz’s lust for revenge against Skull Face, but rather pursued Skull Face to prevent him from doing more damage to the world, especially his own soldiers. In the last third of Chapter 1 especially, Venom’s primary motivation was to stop the spread of the vocal cord outbreak amongst his own men.

When the second vocal cord outbreak occurred on Mother Base, Venom risked his own infection to single-handedly enter the quarantine platform to investigate. This decision unfortunately placed him in the horrifying position of having to massacre his own men. The psychological cost of this action was enough to provoke one of the few bursts of intense emotion we see from Venom in the entire game and trigger an appearance of his Demon form.

In the aftermath of the second outbreak, we saw Venom go through the funeral proceedings for his soldiers. He literally tasted one of his men’s ashes, rubbed the rest of the ashes on his face, and vowed to never forget the men who fell in his service. His eulogy is (in my opinion) one of the best lines in the entire game (again, video here):

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea… I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me… I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”

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That scene truly drives home the difference between Big Boss and Venom Snake. The former will endanger the lives of dozens of innocent people so he can preserve his plan to kidnap and brainwash his “best man” (who nearly died trying to save Big Boss’s life) so he can unknowingly serve as a human shield while Big Boss lives in safety. The latter will… well, do and say everything in that cutscene.

 

Part 3: The Philosophy of Venom Snake

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A Different Path

As has already been stated, revenge is a prominent theme in Metal Gear Solid V. Kojima suggests that the quest for revenge leads to endless cycles of transgression and retaliation. When a person, organization, or country is wronged, it gains a desire for revenge and strikes back against the offender, which subsequently produces a desire for revenge in the original offender, which causes it to strike back, etc. This creates “an endless seesaw of blood and violence,” as Kaz calls it. Hence, Big Boss/Kaz and Cypher, the USSR and the US, the Soviet army and the Mujahedeen, Skull Face and the world, and all of the PFs in the war economy are locked in endless cycles of revenge-fueled violence.

This process represents an obstacle to the Boss’s dream of a unified world. If it is taken as a given that people fight, and that fighting is naturally divisive, how can unity be achieved?

Zero’s solution to this problem is to manage the chronic cycle of violence by controlling the context in which the fighting occurs. This initially takes the form of Cypher’s presence as a shadow government in the United States, which later evolves into the AIs’ control over information flow, and finally plateaus with MGS4’s war economy.

Big Boss’s solution is to embrace the fighting by accepting it as a natural form of stability. This is essentially the thesis of Outer Heaven. War as a constant. War as a way of life. There will always be wars and soldiers to fight them, so these soldiers should dictate how and why such wars are fought. As one such soldier, Big Boss figures that he may as well accumulate as much power as he can and usher in the era of chronic warfare.

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As a philosophical follower of Big Boss, Kaz espouses this philosophy throughout most of MGSV. Due to the loss of MSF and his limbs, Kaz is gripped with a desire for revenge against Skull Face that plunges him into a nihilistic rage, ironically not unlike Skull Face.

“We pull in money, recruits, just to combat Cipher. Rubbing our noses in bloody battlefield dirt… All for revenge.”

“The world calls for wet-work, and we answer! No greater good. No just cause!”

“We hold our rifles in missing hands. We stand tall on missing legs. We stride forward on the bones of our fallen. Then, and only then, are we alive. This pain… is ours. And no one else’s. The secret weapon we wield. Out of sight. We will be stronger than ever for our peace… Sahelanthropus will unleash that thirst onto the future. Those were his last words. Pretentious to the end. Still…doesn’t feel like this is over. And I’ll never be whole again.”

Skull Face’s goal is similar, albeit more immediately destructive. As he describes it –

“I will exterminate the English language. With this, I’ll rid the world of infestation. All men will breathe free again – reclaim their past, present, and future. This is no ethnic cleanser. It is a “liberator,” to free the world from Zero. Let the world be. Sans lingua franca, the world will be torn asunder. And then, it shall be free. People will suffer, of course – a phantom pain. The world will need a new common tongue. A language of nukes. My metal gears shall be the thread by which all countries are bound together, in equality. No words will be needed. Every man will be forced to recognize his neighbor. People will swallow their pain. They will link lost hands. And the world will become one. This war is peace.”

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This reference to George Orwell’s 1984 is Big Boss’s philosophy incarnate. The “peace” in “war is peace” is not the absence of violence, but a reference to a form of stability through persistent violence. To Big Boss, it is the elusive and inherently temporary stretches of peace which ultimately lead to the subjugation of noble soldiers at the hands of distant politicians. It was the desire for peace between the US and USSR which incentivized the US government to sacrifice the Boss in MGS3. It was the desire for eternal peace (under the threat of nuclear annihilation) which incentivized Hot Coldman to use Peace Walker to nuke the USSR. As Liquid Snake would later express in MGS1, it is peace which leaves soldiers with nothing to do, no purpose, no guidance, no reason to live.

War may be bloody and cruel, but it is stable. While at war, the enemy and the ally are clearly demarcated. The Soviet and Mujahedeen soldiers who fought and died during the Afghan war may have been tragic, but they all knew what they signed up for. Likewise for the African PFs and the various private armies and militias locked in eternal conflict in MGS4. These warriors had a goal, a purpose. They knew who they were, what they were doing, and why. Without war, they would be nothing.

This is why Big Boss wants war for the sake of war. Warfare for the sake of no greater goals than some sort of immediate emotional catharsis, which only produces a reciprocal need for violence, which leads to a never-ending cycle of war. Zero understood this idea and his AIs would base their “war economy” on it. But while Zero subjugated the soldiers of the world to his endless conflicts for the sake of total control over all humanity, Big Boss wanted endless war for the sake of soldiers (and especially for the sake of himself).

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This is the legacy Big Boss left for Venom Snake when he agreed to use Venom in the Phantom Big Boss Project. Venom was meant to continue Big Boss’s work in creating an Outer Heaven-like organization to fight Cipher’s world dominance and push the world closer to a state of chronic warfare for the sake of its soldiers.

And yet, Venom Snake chose a different path.

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Here is Venom’s speech in the secret “dispose all nukes” ending again (video here) –

“I haven’t forgotten what you told me, Boss. We have no tomorrow, but there’s still hope for the future. In our struggle to survive the present, we push the future farther away. Will I see it in my lifetime? Probably not. Which means there’s no time to waste. Someday the world will no longer need us. No need for the gun, or the hand to pull the trigger. I have to drive out this demon inside me – build a better future. That’s what I – what we – will leave as our legacy. Another mission, right Boss?”

The “Boss” Venom refers to here is not Big Boss, but the Boss. This speech represents Venom’s clearest statement of his interpretation of the Boss’s will. To Venom, the Boss didn’t want to unify the world through totalitarian control like Zero, nor through mutual tragedy like Skull Face, nor even through endless soldier-centric warfare like Big Boss. Rather, the Boss wanted to unify the world through peace.

The bolded section is extremely important in the quote. Venom is fighting for his own obsolescence. He wants to create a world in which heroic men don’t need to create powerful armies outside the boundaries of organized nations to fight scary global shadow governments and continue endless wars for their own sakes. He doesn’t want people to have to collect metal gears and nuclear weapons to survive.

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Now compare Venom’s speech to Big Boss’s speech at the end of Peace Walker (video here) –

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.”

Notice how Big Boss has the same sense of historical awareness as Venom. Like Venom, Big Boss believes the existence of a force like MSF is a product of the times, in the sense that fighting (whether in the form of revolution, criminality, or terrorism) is a necessary function of survival in the modern world. Both men basically agree on this premise.

4 MONTH LATE EDIT (since I somehow missed this crucial conversation at the end of Peace Walker) –

Kazuhira Miller: Snake? you still here? C’mon, let’s go back.

Naked Snake: I’m not going back.

Kazuhira Miller: Huh?

Naked Snake: I’m done.

Kazuhira Miller: Snake you don’t mean…

Naked Snake: I’m done looking for the truth.

Kazuhira Miller: What are you saying, Snake?

Naked Snake: I was wrong.

Kazuhira Miller: C’mon boss, everybody’s waiting for you.

Naked Snake: …she betrayed me, Kaz

Kazuhira Miller: she what?

Naked Snake: in the end, she put down her gun… and when she did… she rejected everything in her life up to that point, including me.

Kazuhira Miller: what do you mean?

Naked Snake: in giving up her life she abandoned everything she was as a soldier…

Kazuhira Miller: and you consider that betrayal…

Naked Snake: I won’t make the same choice as her, my future’s going to be different…

Kazuhira Miller: then…

Naked Snake: yeah, that’s right… from now on… call me BIG BOSS!

END OF EDIT…

But Venom’s fighting has an endpoint. He sees himself and his role in the world as a temporary necessity given the times (ie. the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, Cipher, etc.) but fights to make the world peaceful so warriors like himself are no longer needed. Venom wants to break the endless cycles of violence which plague seemingly every aspect of the Metal Gear world. He wants to see an age when he and all other soldiers can lay down their guns because there will be no need to fight anymore.

In other words, Big Boss fights for the sake of fighting, Venom Snake fights for peace. This explains the divergence in Big Boss’s and Venom Snake’s actions and ideas described throughout this analysis.

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Big Boss builds his own private army to launch endless wars. Venom builds his own army only to fight Skull Face and later the remnants of Cipher. Big Boss sets himself up as a strongman whose judgments are above the considerations of all other individuals and institutions. Venom refuses to set up or enact laws, choosing only to use his military power in reaction to threats posed by others. Big Boss acquires his own metal gear and nuke to destabilize the world and cause conflict. Venom chooses not to use a metal gear or nukes to do the opposite. Big Boss uses child soldiers because chronic military conflict is a valid way of life, so why shouldn’t children be introduced to warfare? Venom rejects the use of child soldiers so they can live life in peace, away from the battlefield. Big Boss will sacrifice his soldiers for his greater goals because war will always cause death and carnage, so what’s one more soldier fed to the grinder? Venom will do everything he can to save his soldiers because he ultimately wants a world of peace where everyone can live free of the threats to life and sanity posed by war.

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Kaz The Convert

Consider how unusual Venom’s drive for peace is in MGSV. As already described, just about every character in the game is motivated by a desire for revenge, which is thematically linked to a never-ending cycle of violence. Big Boss, Zero, Skull Face, and Kaz are all well-aware of this phenomenon and actively encourage it in some form. Only Venom has a different philosophical outlook from these characters. However, the character arc of Kaz is based on a revenge-driven character realizing the error of his ways and embracing Venom’s peace-oriented philosophy.

Kaz initially represents the most archetypical example of a tragic revenge narrative in MGSV. His pain and hatred are visceral in nearly every scene, especially when compared to his rather jovial disposition in Peace Walker. He spends nearly all of MGSV ranting and raving about Cipher, Skull Face, and all that he has lost, even while Venom Snake stoically stands by, seemingly not consumed by the same anguish. Kaz’s rage drives him to disregard all motives for fighting or even living besides revenge. Again, two key quotes –

“We pull in money, recruits, just to combat Cipher. Rubbing our noses in bloody battlefield dirt… All for revenge.”

“The world calls for wet-work, and we answer! No greater good. No just cause!”

In this sense, Kaz represents Big Boss’s philosophy incarnate. He is locked into the never-ending cycle of violence fueled by a raw emotional desire for catharsis. He doesn’t care about justice, helping people, or accomplishing any greater good through warfare, he only cares about satisfying the burning hatred in his heart. In turn, this philosophy will only inspire other individuals, both those who follow or are harmed by men like Kaz, to continue the cycle of violence with no end in sight.

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But near the very end of the game, right after “Shining Lights, Even in Death,” Kaz changes his tune. The turning point in this arc is somewhat underemphasized because it doesn’t happen in a cutscene or even a cassette tape, but rather while Venom is sitting in his helicopter in between missions. Yet, it is one of the most crucially important lines of dialogue in the entire game from a character and thematic perspective (full video here, starting at 30:15) –

“Boss, I don’t know how you do it. I… all I could do was obsess over revenge, dragging my comrades along the way. But even after all we’ve accomplished, the phantom pain… never let up. If anything, it just got worse… But you understood that from the start, didn’t you? From the moment you opened your eyes in that hospital you knew it wouldn’t go away. You’ve been fighting the pain and confronting your phantoms the whole time, knowing full well the battle would never end, not till the day you died… I respect that now, more than ever. It’s an honor and a privilege Big Boss.”

The bolded section is another concise description of Venom Snake’s character conflict throughout MGSV. From the moment he opened his eyes in the hospital, Venom struggled between the influences of Big Boss imposed upon him and his own personal philosophy. For the most part it seemed that Venom’s own mind won out in that conflict, leading to Venom constantly acting differently than characters in the game and we (the players) would expect Big Boss to act in the same situations (as described in Part 2).

But the presence of Big Boss still lingered in Venom’s mind. The drive for revenge, for mindless, endless violence, was always there. As will be described in Part 4, this presence manifested as a Demon, which Venom saw himself as whenever he committed great acts of destruction for the sake of the position Big Boss thrust him into. If Venom chose to succumb to the Demon, then he would become another pawn of Big Boss and continue building a world fit for the horrors of Outer Heaven. But instead Venom chose his own path and accomplished an enormous level of good during the events of MGSV.

(Unfortunately, I do think that eventually Venom does surrender to Big Boss at the end of the game, as I’ll describe later on.)

For Kaz, this statement is a repudiation of Big Boss’s philosophy that he had so consummately embraced throughout MGSV. This occurs not just because Kaz gets revenge on Skull Face and finds that the emotional victory doesn’t relieve his pain (as stated in his speech when Sahelanthropus is delivered to Mother Base), but because Kaz notices Venom’s similar emotional struggle throughout the entirety of MGSV. Granted, Kaz doesn’t know the truth behind Venom’s identity, but he does know that Venom has just as much of a reason to desire revenge as he himself does, yet despite its dark allure, Venom decides not to succumb to this desire.

It is no coincidence that Kaz’s arc completes its turn after the events of “Shining Lights, Even in Death.” This mission and its aftermath brought the full consequences of Big Boss’s philosophy to a visceral point for Kaz. Seeing his soldiers brutally and pointlessly killed by the vocal cord parasite and then executed by their commander was a wake-up call for Kaz about the true consequences of pursuing a never-ending cycle of violence fueled by the emotional pain which Kaz so coveted throughout the story.

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With that primer, it was Venom Snake’s heartfelt speech at the end of “Shining Lights, Even in Death” which ultimately showed Kaz the error of his ways. This moment reflects a similar thematic instance at the very end of Peace Walker. Both games end with a significant set-back for Big Boss/Venom. In MGSV, it’s the second vocal cord parasite outbreak, and in Peace Walker it’s the discovery that Paz was a Cipher agent all along.

In response to his set back in Peace Walker, an enraged Big Boss vows to his soldier –

“We will forsake our countries. We will leave our motherlands behind us and become one with this earth. We have no nation, no philosophy, no ideology. We go where we’re needed, fighting, not for government, but for ourselves. We need no reason to fight. We fight because we are needed. We will be the deterrent for those with no other recourse. We are soldiers without borders, our purpose defined by the era we live in. We will sometimes have to sell ourselves and services. If the times demand it, we’ll be revolutionaries, criminals, terrorists. And yes, we may all be headed straight to hell. But what better place for us than this? It’s our only home. Our heaven and our hell. This is Outer Heaven.”

This is Big Boss urging his soldiers to embrace on the cycle of violence. Kaz apparently completely buys into this philosophy and carries it in full force in MGSV.

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But after Venom Snake suffers an even worse set-back at the end of MGSV, he resists the call for emotional outbursts and revenge-fueled violence. Instead we get a solemn funeral where Venom initially decides to dump the deceased soldiers’ ashes into the sea, as is custom for Diamond Dogs. But at the last moment he changes his mind:

VENOM – “I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea… I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me… I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”

KAZ – “We’re not burying them at sea? What then?”

VENOM – “We’ll make diamonds from their ashes. Take them into battle with us.”

KAZ – “Shining lights to our brothers in arms… even in death.”

VENOM – “We are Diamond Dogs.”

Venom realized that dumping the ashes into the sea was symbolic of forgetting the contributions of the dead soldiers. In the world envisioned by Big Boss, soldiers would constantly fight and die for no greater purpose. Scattering ashes of the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives for Diamond Dogs’ mission to the heartless sea would be a confirmation of Big Boss’s worldview. It would reduce heroes to insignificant ash in an endless oblivion. It blows away in the wind, gets absorbed in the water, and ultimately amounts to nothing.

Rather than rouse his troops with a speech that inspires destruction, recklessness, and outward lashing, Venom focuses inward. He speaks directly to his dead comrades and vows to remember their accomplishments and keep their legacy alive by literally carrying their remains into battle. In death, these Diamond Dogs become literal diamonds, the hardest substance on earth, a beautiful material which lasts forever and whose essence never fades.

These diamonds symbolize Venom’s commitment to his own philosophy in opposition to Big Boss’s. He doesn’t want himself or his men to fight and die for nothing. He wants them to fight for good, to leave a mark on the world. He wants them to matter.

(We can also see Venom’s decision to spare Huey Emmerich’s life at his trial as a practical manifestation of his philosophy. The desire of Diamond Dogs and especially Kaz to execute Huey in retaliation for the second vocal cord parasite outbreak is directly in line with Big Boss’s view of the world as an endless cycle of emotion-fueled violence. But Venom intervenes and breaks the cycle, choosing peace and life over revenge and death.)

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Kaz witnessed both Big Boss’s speech at the end of Peace Walker and Venom Snake’s response to the second vocal cord parasite outbreak at the end of MGSV. Big Boss’s philosophy primed Kaz to become the man he was throughout MGSV but Venom’s philosophy made Kaz second guess himself. Kaz could tell that Venom had the same inclination for revenge, but actively fought against this “phantom” (or really Demon) for the sake of his own philosophy that diverged from Big Boss’s. That is, a philosophy that strives for peace instead of endless war. Then Kaz saw the true effects of Big Boss’s vision in “Shining Lights, Even in Death” followed by Venom’s measured response and commitment to honor the dead rather than mindlessly pursue destruction. This prompted Kaz to finally see the error of Big Boss’s ways and become a convert to Venom’s philosophy.

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An after-effect of this arc can be seen in the post-credits conversation between Kaz and Ocelot (full audio here). Kaz discovers the truth about Venom Snake’s true identity at some point after the events of MGSV. Ocelot explains Big Boss’s plan and Kaz’s role in it. But instead of accepting his role (the way Venom snake unfortunately eventually does), Kaz rejects it. He vows to support “the phantom” and Big Boss’s sons against Big Boss to create a worthy leader of the movement.

Kaz never gives an explicit reason why he makes this choice. Undoubtedly, Big Boss’s manipulations played a major role in alienating Kaz, which reflects the way the player should feel about Big Boss as well. But Venom’s actions throughout MGSV and their effects on Kaz also likely encouraged Kaz to reject his former idol.

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The Possibility of Peace

Venom Snake is a wholly unique character in Metal Gear Solid V, and arguably a unique character in the entire series. After all, the Metal Gear series is all about war. Nearly all of the (many many) characters are soldiers or connected to fighting in some way. The nature of being a soldier and what it does to an individual is one of the central themes deliberated in every game, from Liquid Snake’s suggestion that soldiers learn to love killing in MGS1, to the emotional destruction of Raiden in MGS2. The Metal Gear series takes place on battlefields, from the perspective of soldiers who know little about the world outside of soldiering, and truly have warfare as a way of life.

The point is that Venom’s philosophy is an aberration in the Metal Gear series. Lots of different Metal Gear characters have lots of different goals, but in one way or another, their goals tend to feed into a consistent cycle of violence upon which the Metal Gear world is built. Characters like Big Boss, Zero, and Skull Face merely recognize this natural cycle as a constant and try to steer it in a favorable direction. In opposition, Venom tried to end the cycle entirely.

This is an incredibly ambitious goal for Venom, even if he’s probably not entirely consciously aware of it. With so much of the world lined up against Venom, it’s easy to see his goal as a pipe dream. Afghanistan and Africa are still locked in endless proxy wars. Eli, despite the best efforts of Venom to put their conflict aside, constantly wages a war against Venom (though it’s possible that the cut content implies a conclusion to the fight). Psycho Mantis is still flying around, psychically enflaming grudges. Cipher is still out there in an alternative form fomenting the cycle.

But the narrative of MGSV also suggests that an end to the cycle is possible. Kaz is a die-hard proponent of the cycle of violence who renounces his old ways. Likewise, Quiet goes through a similar arc of desiring revenge only to completely reverse course as a result of her interactions with Venom. With the power of Diamond Dogs, Venom manages to put an end to Skull Face’s plans, which by Skull Face’s own admission, are purely a product of the cycle. Venom also honors the memories of his dead soldiers instead of “scattering” them to the “heartless sea” and spares the life of Huey Emmerich. Above all, the “nuclear disarmament” ending suggests the possibility of relative global peace, or at least a reprieve from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The only characters in the Metal Gear series with a similar philosophy to Venom are Solid Snake, Otacon, and arguably the Boss. Solid Snake and Otacon work together after MGS1 in Philanthropy to stop the proliferation of metal gears and hopefully avoid future global conflicts. Eventually they fight Liquid Ocelot’s GOP system in MGS4 and succeed in accomplishing Venom Snake’s ultimate mission of creating a world where soldiers are no longer needed, at least for the purposes of chronic, global warfare.

Thus, one way of looking at MGSV is as the series’ thematic proclamation that peace is difficult to achieve, but it is possible. Venom Snake was put in an extraordinarily precarious position where it would have been extremely easy for him to continue and perpetuate the cycle of violence, but he chose another path. He wasn’t entirely successful in his efforts to create peace, but he still managed to achieve a lot of good during his time as Big Boss’s phantom. And just as Venom Snake fought a (mental, internal) war against Big Boss, it would be the man who went on to kill Big Boss who would ultimately carry on Venom’s legacy and complete his mission for peace.

 

Part 4: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V’s subtitle, “The Phantom Pain” has a few prominent reference points throughout the game. Most notably, Big Boss and Kaz both lost limbs when MSF was destroyed in Ground Zeroes. Thus during the events of MGSV, they both contend with literal physical phantom pain where their limbs once existed. Kaz even refuses to use prosthetic limbs as a means of maintaining his phantom pain. This phantom pain also exists in a metaphorical mental form as the grief these characters feel for their lost comrades. Similarly, nearly every character in the game is motivated by some form of revenge and feels metaphorical phantom pain for their losses.

While these references are meaningful, I think they miss the single most important meaning of the game’s subtitle.

“The Phantom Pain” refers to The Phantom’s Pain. And the Phantom is Venom Snake.

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The Demon

Throughout MGSV, Venom is repeatedly referred to, and represented as, a Demon. Consider the following:

  • The “Demon Points” system, wherein Snake receives Demon points for performing evil acts (killing people, developing nukes, etc.) and loses Demon points for good acts (capturing soldiers, saving animals, etc.). If the player receives enough points, Venom Snake’s “horn” grows in increments. At the maximum point level, Venom is permanently drenched in blood and becomes “Demon Snake.”
  • Venom is seen as “Demon Snake” during two key cutscenes, including the end of “Shining Lights, Even in Death” after he kills his own men to prevent the vocal cord parasite from spreading, and at the end of the “Truth” mission when he punches the reflection of himself.
  • This conversation between Kaz and Big Boss shortly after Venom awoke from his coma:

KAZ – “Cipher sent us to a hell but we are going even deeper. Take back everything that we have lost.” 
VENOM – “Kaz, I’m already a demon.

  • Various Skull Face quotes:
    • “You look well-rested, Big Boss… My, my, how you’ve changed. You became a demon for such little weapons as that?”– In reference to the Honey Bee in “Where do the Bees Sleep?”
    • “You too have known loss, and that loss torments you still. You hope hatred might someday replace the pain, but it never goes away. It makes a man hideous, inside and out. Wouldn’t you agree? We both are demons. Our humanity won’t return. You. Me. We’ve no place to run, nowhere to hide. And that’s why I’ll show you my demon.”– Upon Skull Face meeting Venom in the “Skull Face” mission.
  • Venom Snake’s speech in the secret “Disarm all Nukes” ending -.
    • “I haven’t forgotten what you told me, Boss. We have no tomorrow, but there’s still hope for the future. In our struggle to survive the present, we push the future farther away. Will I see it in my lifetime? Probably not. Which means there’s no time to waste. Someday the world will no longer need us. No need for the gun, or the hand to pull the trigger. I have to drive out this demon inside me – build a better future. That’s what I – what we – will leave as our legacy. Another mission, right Boss?”

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The Demon is Big Boss’s persona in Venom Snake. It is the metaphorical representation of Big Boss’s hateful, destructive personality, in contrast to Venom Snake’s levelheaded, benevolent personality.

The Demon points system keeps track of the death and destruction caused by Venom as a result of becoming Big Boss’s phantom. The player gains demon points by killing people (enemy or friendly soldiers, hostages, etc.) and especially by developing nuclear weapons. The player loses Demon points by capturing soldiers, saving wounded soldiers, rescuing animals, and disarming nukes. Essentially, the player becomes more of a Demon by causing destruction and reduces his Demon by doing the opposite.

Most players will likely find themselves drifting into Demon territory throughout their games. The implicit suggestion is that the destructive activities are natural products of Big Boss’s endeavor (ie. building a private army and engaging in endless warfare) while only particularly willful attempts to go against this tendency can produce good outcomes.

We see the Demon incarnate only twice throughout the game, but both times are instances when Venom is experiencing the greatest heights of pain and destruction caused (either directly or indirectly) by his actions as a phantom Big Boss.

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The first instance occurs when Venom finishes executing the last of the vocal cord parasite victims on the quarantine platform on Mother Base in the “Shining Lights, Even in Death” mission. Though we don’t know much about Venom’s life prior to MGSV, we can infer that he never imagined being thrust into a position like this. The entire level is played more like a horror game than as a stealth/action game, with dark lighting, eerie sound effects, and mournful music. The quarantine platform really is a metaphorical hell for Venom Snake, and the horrifying process of dragging himself through it makes him a Demon.

We know that the infection must be prevented from spreading and that therefore killing the Diamond Dog soldiers in the right thing to do. But that probably doesn’t make it much easier for Venom in the heat of the moment. He still has to see his men suffer, lose their minds, and die at his own hands. In a story which largely consists of Venom Snake fighting through a torturous mental anguish thrust on him by Big Boss, this level represents the apex of his pain. Venom becomes a Demon here because that’s how he sees himself after massacring his own men. In other words, Venom associates the horrors of this event with Big Boss, whose personality Venom is unfortunately burdened with.

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The other time the Demon appears is at the very end of the “Truth” mission, which I’ll describe in its own section.

Skull Face brings up Demons multiple times, both in reference to Venom and to himself. This is actually a really clever way to elaborate on Skull Face’s character and reinforce the Demon-Big Boss connection.

Since Skull Face doesn’t know that the Big Boss pursuing him is actually Venom Snake, he reinforces the idea that Big Boss is the Demon. Recall that Skull Face’s job prior to Ground Zeroes was to clean up after Big Boss’s operations at FOX. Thus, Skull Face has a detailed understanding of Big Boss’s past and his tribulations, including his relationship with the Boss and the true nature of her mission in MGS3.

Skull Face knows Big Boss well. Skull Face knows what Big Boss has gone through, the betrayals he has faced, the pain and loss he has felt, and ultimately what all of those experiences made him become – a Demon.

Then there’s Venom’s reference to “this demon inside me” during his speech to the Boss in the nuclear disarmament ending. This is one of the most direct instances of contrast between Venom and Big Boss throughout the entire game. Big Boss chose to use nuclear weapons for his own ends in accordance with his strongman outlook. In contrast, Venom ultimately pursued complete global nuclear disarmament, the success of which is treated as the ultimate ending to MGSV. And though Venom celebrates this ending, he also recognizes that his job is not done because the influence of Big Boss (ie. the Demon) still exists within him.

This Demon is Venom’s ultimate enemy. It is the drive for power implanted in Venom by Big Boss which causes untold death and destruction.

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Skull Face

Skull Face’s primary relevance in MGSV was more or less laid out in this launch trailer.

At the 2:20 mark there’s a great shot of Big Boss walking down a hallway towards the camera. He morphs between his different appearances in each of his games until he becomes Venom Snake in his Demonic form, complete with his elongated horn and blood-drenched outfit. At that point, a fire starts at the bottom of the screen which becomes more and more intense. With a final flare, the flames recede to show a skinless Venom Snake still with his horn. Eventually this form morphs into Skull Face and the sequence is ended with a title screen reading Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Skull Face is a representation of what Venom Snake could become if he is destroyed by his Demon (that is, if his mind is broken by Big Boss’s will).

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Skull Face and Venom Snake have weirdly similar backgrounds.

Skull Face was born in a rural area of Romania which was controlled by Romania, Hungary, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union at various points throughout his childhood. These transitions and the violence that accompanied them left a strong impression on Skull Face –

 “I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders, I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed, too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong. Words can kill.”

His parents were killed in an Allied bombing raid that also resulted in Skull Face being badly burned by rapeseed oil. His injuries would scar him for life and be further exasperated while being tortured by various foreign governments. Skull Face eventually became an assassin and bounced between numerous factions until he was recruited by Zero at the SAS. He would later follow Zero to the CIA and run XOF.

According to Skull Face, his entire life and sense of being were irreplaceably destroyed in his childhood. Ownership over his land was constantly changing hands, the language he had to learn kept changing, the culture he had to adapt to kept changing, his family was eliminated, and even his face was forever removed from existence.

Does that sound like any other character in MGSV?

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Ok, it’s not an exact comparison, but still, Venom Snake’s transition into Big Boss’s phantom is similar to Skull Face’s childhood. Like Skull Face, Venom loses most of his personality due to external factors forced upon him. He may keep his language, but like Skull Face dealing with different languages and cultures, Venom’s view of the world and morality are greatly altered. Likewise, Venom loses his face and his proverbial invader gives him a new face of his own choosing.

Skull Face’s response to losing his entire sense of being as a child was to develop an insatiable hatred for the conquerors of the world who use language imposition as a basis for control over conquered populations (since this is what Skull Face believed happened to him). He saw the United States as the ultimate practitioner of this strategy. Thus –

“I will exterminate the English language. With this, I’ll rid the world of infestation. All men will breathe free again – reclaim their past, present, and future. This is no ethnic cleanser. It is a “liberator,” to free the world from Zero. Let the world be. Sans lingua franca, the world will be torn asunder. And then, it shall be free. People will suffer, of course – a phantom pain. The world will need a new common tongue. A language of nukes. My Metal Gears shall be the thread by which all countries are bound together, in equality. No words will be needed. Every man will be forced to recognize his neighbor. People will swallow their pain. They will link lost hands. And the world will become one. This war is peace.”

In a broader thematic sense, Skull Face can be seen as an individual who was ruthlessly oppressed and manipulated by individuals until his very sense of being was lost, and as a result he just “snapped.” The Skull Face we see in MGSV is a nihilistic mad man who uses the tools taught to him by his oppressors (covert and military skills) to destroy his oppressors.

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Imagine that Venom Snake has three possible paths to take after waking up in 1984 at the start of MGSV:

  • Path 1 – Embrace the Demon (Big Boss’s will)
    • Venom becomes a perfect phantom of Big Boss, does everything that Big Boss would have done in the same situation, and works towards building Outer Heaven.
  • Path 2 – Resists the Demon
    • Venom retains as much of his old self as possible, acts differently from Big Boss whenever possible, avoids becoming a strongman, and builds Diamond Dogs in accordance with his own vision as a benevolent haven for soldiers rather than as Outer Heaven.
  • Path 3 – Mental Collapse (Skull Face’s path)
    • Venom’s mind rejects Big Boss’s will but also forgets his old self. He is left as a nihilistic madman filled with hatred but with no valid outlet for his anger, so he turns against the world.

Within this paradigm, Skull Face represents (arguably) the worst-case scenario for Venom Snake. In a series filled with villains who use manipulation to achieve their ends, Skull Face represents the ultimate backfiring of such designs.

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Truth 

So MGSV is all about how Big Boss kidnaps and brainwashes Venom Snake so he can use Venom as a phantom to build up his legacy and a human shield to distract Cipher. Big Boss is the ultimate villain of the story because he betrays his best soldier and metaphorically does to Venom what the US government did to the Boss, which was the event which catalyzed the creation of Cipher and Big Boss’s plans for Outer Heaven in the first place.

In Mission 47- Truth, Venom receives a cassette tape from Big Boss which reveals the entire operation.  Big Boss’s message (full video here) –

“Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do? I cheated death, thanks to you. And thanks to you I’ve left my mark. You have too – you’ve written your own history. You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too… No… He’s the two of us. Together. Where we are today? We built it. This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world – and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you, wherever you go. Thank you… my friend. From here on out, you’re Big Boss.”

There is a lot of crucial information packed into this short scene. I think it’s possibly one of the most brilliantly subtle scenes Kojima has ever made, but if it has one problem, it’s that it might be a bit too subtle for its own good. My supposition is that the vast majority of players misinterpreted what actually happens here. Or more accurately, they only understood half of what really happened.

Most players got two messages from this ending:

First, Kojima is passing the narrative torch from his own hands to the player. He is saying that the player is just as in control of the Metal Gear saga as he is. Thus Big Boss is revealed to be the avatar the player-created at the beginning of the game. The true protagonist, Venom, is a blank slate embodiment of the player rather than a typically flamboyant, fleshed out Metal Gear character, like the real Big Boss. Given that MGSV is supposedly the final Metal Gear game (at least under Kojima’s direction), this is a farewell thank you from Hideo Kojima and his team to the fans who have supported the series over all these years.

Second, upon hearing the truth of his origin, Venom Snake smiles, thereby signifying his acceptance of his fate as Big Boss’s phantom and willingness to continue Big Boss’s legacy. Thus the long-standing canonical plot hole of Big Boss dying at the end of Metal Gear 1 is rectified since we now know that Venom Snake was the real antagonist of the game that got killed by Solid Snake.

The first point is probably true, but is of relatively little importance since it doesn’t deal with the game’s plot and themes.

The second point is half true but misses crucial information.

Let’s start from the beginning of the Truth cutscene…

The scene takes place after all of the events of the previous missions in MGSV. This means that the second vocal cord outbreak has already occurred, Huey is already exiled, Quiet is already gone, etc. Venom walks into a bathroom somewhere on Diamond Dog’s Mother Base. He examines and feels his face in the mirror from multiple angles. He then opens his cassette player to reveal the “Man Who Sold the World” cassette tape, which he received from Big Boss (by mail?). This reveals that he has already heard the tape, though likely not long ago (perhaps right before entering the bathroom? Maybe that’s why he went there, to be alone and get to a mirror). He has been examining his face to see if he can remember his old appearance but apparently can’t.

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But after looking at the tape for a few seconds and placing it on the counter in front of him, he looks back at the mirror and sees his real face in the reflection. This is Venom remembering his old appearance. Again, he examines his face from multiple angles, touching it at different points to remember how it used to be. Then he flashes back to the events on the helicopter during the aftermath of the attack on MSF’s Mother Base, during which time he operated on Paz to remove a bomb from her body and then shielded Big Boss from the second bomb’s explosion.

Venom then puts the cassette tape back in the cassette player to listen to it again. While Big Boss is talking, Venom stares directly at himself in the mirror and later puts his head down. When Big Boss says, “You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too…”, Venom lifts his head and looks at himself with attention. He stands up straight. Then when Big Boss says, “This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world”, Venom even gives a subtle nod. This indicates that he understands what Big Boss did and why. The implication is that hearing this tape suddenly makes a whole lot of things make sense for Venom Snake. His mind has been at war with itself throughout the events of MGSV and here he finally gets some clarification as to why.

Finally, at the conclusion of the tape we hear Big Boss say, “From here on out… you’re Big Boss.”

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Venom’s half-smile is jarring. It’s one of the few times in the entire game that we see him outwardly emote, let alone with a smile. But it’s not a joyful smile. It doesn’t signify happiness or levity. It’s what I would call a “darkly triumphant” smile. Venom realizes the full scope of what Big Boss has done and the power that has been given to him. As Big Boss says, Venom has the ability to change history, to alter the world in accordance with his will. Thoughts of Venom’s true identity and what he has lost fade into the background as the allure of what Big Boss has given to him comes into focus.

This is the final takeaway that most players got from this cutscene. They believed that once Venom knew of his role in Big Boss’s plot, he accepted it and played out his part until his death in Metal Gear 1. The rest of the scene tells a different story.

Venom flips over the cassette tape to reveal “Operation Intrude N313.” He puts the tape in a nearby Sony Walkman (I think) and plays it, though we don’t hear what’s actually on the tape.

Then a subtle time shift occurs. Prior to this moment, we could see a Diamond Dogs logo on the wall behind Venom. Now it’s an Outer Heaven logo. This indicates a ten (or eleven) year jump to 1995, the year of the Outer Heaven uprising in Metal Gear 1. From that game, we know that “Operation Intrude N313” is the code name for the operation and therefore we can infer that on the other side of the cassette tape is instructions from Big Boss on how to build up and launch an Outer Heaven rebellion against Cipher.

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The camera pulls back from the Walkman and reveals Venom Snake once more entering the bathroom. This time he is completely drenched in blood and his horn is at full size. Venom Snake is in full Demon form. He turns to the mirror and stares at himself. He looks miserable, enraged, defeated. In his sole display of anger in the entire game, Venom strikes the mirror with his mechanical arm (which is his non-dominant left arm, so not a natural physical action) and shatters it to reveal his non-Demonic early Big Boss form. The Venom behind the mirror turns around with dismay and walks away into a smoky, dark oblivion.

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What does this all mean?

At the end of the events of MGSV, Big Boss sends Venom a cassette tape with two sides. One side reveals his true identity (“The Man Who Sold the World”) while the other side gives Venom instructions on what to do over the next ten years, including the final step of launching an Outer Heaven revolt (“Operation Intrude N313”). Venom accepts the role given him by Big Boss and follows the tape’s instructions. Ten years later, Venom is in the midst of his rebellion orchestrated by Big Boss when he realizes that he has become the Demon he always feared.

Remember that the Demon is the symbol of Big Boss’s personality inside Venom. Apparently despite all of the ways Venom resisted Big Boss’s influence throughout MGSV by making decisions which diverge from what we would expect of Big Boss, Venom ultimately succumbed to Big Boss’s will and became the Demon after all. In this moment, likely a pause between battles in the midst of his (literally) bloody rebellion, Venom truly sees what he has become. He realizes what he has given up, what he has lost, all that he has destroyed, all of the lives he has ended, and all in the ultimate service of a hypocrite who sacrificed his best soldier’s being and life for the sake of some convoluted scheme.

Venom punches the mirror with his mechanical arm. Just as the mechanical arm was supposed to replace his lost real arm, Big Boss’s will was supposed to replace Venom’s true self. Put another way, both the mechanical arm and Big Boss’s will could not replace the phantom pain Venom feels for his old self.

The broken mirror reveals Venom as he was immediately after waking up as Big Boss, not in his Demonic form. This is the Venom that existed throughout the events of MGSV. It’s the Venom who chose not to build nukes, use metal gears, execute prisoners, use child soldiers, fight from the shadows, and otherwise be the man Big Boss wanted him to be. It’s the Venom who could have been. It’s the personality that the real Venom abandoned once he heard “The Man Who Sold the World” cassette tape from Big Boss.

This Venom turns and walks off into nothingness. This symbolizes that he is lost to history. No one will ever remember who Venom Snake was or what he did, both the good and bad. His subordinates all thought he was Big Boss. Zero is braindead. The real Big Boss will never tell anyone for fear of diminishing his own legend.

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The real Venom Snake ends up as nothing more than a phantom.

Aftermath

There is one more speculative plot point which perfectly wraps up the relationship between Big Boss and Venom Snake – Big Boss ordered Venom Snake’s death.

Admittedly, this is never explicitly stated in any Metal Gear game. All we know is that while Big Boss was the commander of FOXHOUND in 1995, he ordered Solid Snake to infiltrate Venom’s Outer Heaven base in South Africa in the midst of its global rebellion (Operation Intrude N313) and that Solid Snake succeeded in killing Venom. Then, four years later, Big Boss launched his own nearly identical rebellion from his Outer Heaven base in Zanzibarland.

We don’t know exactly what Venom and Big Boss were thinking here. In his MGSV analysis, George Weidman suggests that Big Boss sent Solid Snake after Venom because Big Boss thought Solid Snake was a rookie soldier with no support who would never succeed. But we know from the post-Truth mission cassette tapes in MGSV, as well as from Solid Snake in MGS1, that Big Boss was well of aware of his familial connection to Solid Snake and therefore knew of his extraordinary combat abilities.

A more likely explanation is that Big Boss purposefully deployed Solid Snake to kill Venom Snake because Big Boss wanted to singlehanded launch his rebellion against Cipher, but couldn’t do so while the “phantom Big Boss” was still at large.

Given that we know Big Boss conceived of Operation Intrude N313 all the way back in 1985 (or earlier) and that Venom appeared to accept his role as Big Boss’s phantom in the “Truth” mission, we can infer that Big Boss ordered Venom to launch his rebellion in 1995.

One potential motivation for Big Boss here was to try out a sort of “test run” for his eventual rebellion. Perhaps he wanted to see how Cipher would respond or how he could improve upon Venom Snake’s efforts.

Another potential motivation is that Operation Intrude N313 gave Big Boss an excuse to dispose of Venom Snake via his command position at FOXHOUND. Given that Big Boss came up with Operation Intrude N313 long before he took over FOXHOUND, this might be unlikely, but it’s possible that he anticipated his rise to a position of military prominence during the eleven year period between Venom’s awakening in 1984 and the launch of Operation Intrude N313 in 1995. In this case, Big Boss essentially created a fixed timetable for his Phantom Big Boss Plan complete with an expiration date for Venom Snake.

More importantly, a thematic point which supports the argument that Big Boss purposefully killed Venom is the claim often repeated throughout the series that “There’s only room for one Boss.” Ocelot says it in MGSV’s post-credits sequence (video here). Liquid and Solidus Snake likewise echo these sentiments in MGS1 and MGS2. The idea is that the title of “Boss” contains such enormous prestige and legitimacy that it cannot possibly be shared for long. The Boss lost the title to Big Boss. Big Boss shared his title with Venom Snake. Once both men were defeated, Liquid Snake, Solidus Snake, and even Ocelot (sort of) attempted to garner it for themselves.

With this understanding, Big Boss likely killed Venom Snake in 1995 as a means of clearing the field for his own ambitions. Venom had outlived his utility for Big Boss and no longer served a roll in his schemes.

 

Part 5 – What does it All Mean?

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The Nature of Legends

Metal Gear Solid V is the ultimate display of a theme commonly found throughout the Metal Gear franchise: legends are inherently distortionary.

All the way back at the start of the series with Metal Gear 1 and 2, Kojima subverted expectations with the surprise twist that the main antagonist of the games was none other than Solid Snake’s commander, Big Boss.

Then in MGS1, Solid Snake is a world-renowned hero amongst soldiers and covert-ops personnel. His legendary feats inspired Meryl, a rookie soldier with no real world experience, to try to become an elite fighter. Throughout the game, Snake consistently dispels the legends surrounding his past and chastises Meryl for believing in them. To Snake, his legend is more myth than reality, unfortunate exaggerations of his actions which gloss over real moral ambiguities and give him more moral credit then he’s due. In his words, “The real me is no match for the legend.”

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MGS2 not only continued this theme, but brought it to a meta-narrative level as well. Within the story, Solid Snake is again the subject of distortionary legends which are copied and borderline worshiped by Raiden. Outside of the game, Kojima used this same paradigm to manipulate player expectations. He promoted Solid Snake as the protagonist of MGS2 (Solid Snake is a legendary video game hero of sorts) only to subvert expectations by secretly putting the player in control of Raiden for the vast majority of the game. Being the diametric opposite of Snake both physically and mentally, Raiden served to deconstruct the nature of Snake as a video game legend.

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As a prequel, MGS3 took the series back before its earliest chronological period to portray the origin of many of the legendary individuals and ideas in the series. In this sense, MGS3 is something like mythology within the Metal Gear series. We got to see the origin of legendary villain Big Boss, the Patriots, Ocelot, covert operations within the series timeline, and even the origin of the titular metal gear weapon. In doing so, MGS3 offered a different perspective on many existing components of the series which helped to clarify their true nature, for good and ill.

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MGS4 is about the end of legends. As the chronologically final game in the series timeline, pretty much all of the major characters, events, and operations of the previous games were legends of sorts within the Metal Gear universe. By which I mean, MGS4 takes place eight years after MGS2, over a decade after MGS1, and multiple decades after every other game in the canon. So the likes of Big Boss, his sons, the Patriots, and the various revolts against them had faded into the Patriots’ GOP system’s new world order. To most of the characters in the present, the events of the other games were distant memories, and anyone or anything still left alive/around was, well, old.

Thus MGS4 showed us “Old Snake,” an 80 year old Ocelot, a weirdly mature Meryl, a crumbling Shadow Moses, Metal Gear Rex as a pile of rubble, and Zero as a decrepit vegetable. Thematically, MGS4 demonstrated what happens when legends stick around for long enough. Legends are inherently distortionary, and the static nature of legends in comparison to the natural entropy of passing time tends to cause legends to further diverge from reality the longer they last. Thus the unstoppable legendary soldier Solid Snake ends up as a wheezing old man who keeps throwing out his back.

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Finally we come to MGSV, which I would argue takes the most comprehensive look at the nature of legends of all the games in the Metal Gear series.

As with Portable Ops and Peace Walker, much of MGSV is based around the legend of Big Boss. The tales of his past deeds and combat ability enable him to inspire soldiers and build an army with ease, at least by the standards of any normal person. When Venom Snake wakes up in 1984 and begins his quest to take down Skull Face, the greatest asset at his disposal is simply the possession of Big Boss’s reputation. As Ocelot says to Venom upon arriving in Afghanistan:

“You’re a legend in the eyes of those who live on the battlefield. That’s why you have to handle this mission yourself. How and where you make it, well that’s up to you. Now go! Let the legend come back to life.”

A wonderfully subtle touch in MGSV is how Venom manages to rapidly build up a private army to go after Skull Face despite not doing or saying much of anything.

You would think that it would take a lot of effort to convince soldiers to abandon their country or organization to work for a private military company, especially when the company is directly opposed to their old organization. Yet Venom effortlessly recruits hundreds of ex-Soviet, PF, and even XOF soldiers to his cause. In Portable Ops Big Boss originally made the conversions by personally engaging in philosophical debates with his POWs. It’s implied that he kept doing that for a while, until eventually he could delegate the conversion tasks to subordinates and also rely on the momentum of his reputation. But even if Big Boss wasn’t personally sitting down and speaking to his every recruit, he was still maintaining his popularity through his decision-making and charisma.

Venom Snake is many things, but he is not classically charismatic. Throughout much of the game, he barely says anything even when someone else is talking directly to him. Yet this new army rises around him simply because the legend of Big Boss had grown so strong in the world, especially since his mysterious disappearance nine years prior to the start of MGSV.

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While much of the world remains mesmerized by Big Boss’s legend, Venom Snake grapples with it within his own mind. As mentioned before, the conflict between Venom Snake’s own personality and Big Boss’s implanted self form the basis of much of the conflict in the game. From another perspective, it can be seen as a contest between Venom’s natural inclinations and externally imposed expectations fueled by Big Boss’s legend. This doesn’t apply to every divergence between Venom’s actions and Big Boss’s as listed in Part 2, but it applies to a few of them.

For instance, Kaz and the rest of Diamond Dogs expect Venom to execute Huey Emmerich, in part because they expect the legendary Big Boss to embrace his incarnate greatness and dispense judgement like the strongman he is. Clearly Venom struggles with his decision for a bit, before ultimately sentencing Huey to exile, leaving a raging Kaz to scream in Venom’s face while being watched by a speechless Diamond Dogs mob.

But the most important clash of Big Boss’s legend and Venom’s personality occurs at the very end of the game during the Truth mission reveal.

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Once again, here is Big Boss’s message for Venom Snake:

“Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do? I cheated death, thanks to you. And thanks to you I’ve left my mark. You have too – you’ve written your own history. You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too… No… He’s the two of us. Together. Where we are today? We built it. This story – this “legend” – it’s ours. We can change the world – and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you, wherever you go. Thank you… my friend. From here on out, you’re Big Boss.”

I know I’ve repeated this quote numerous times throughout this piece, but that’s because it’s so important. It’s a great encapsulation of the way Big Boss sees the world and deals with others. Big Boss frames his appeal to Venom as a heroic call to action, a request for assistance. He simultaneously aggrandizes his own place in history while explicitly elevating Venom to his own level. At the same time, he paradoxically further elevates his status by grounding his appeal in familiar language; by personally thanking Venom and referring to him as a “friend” Big Boss makes his request all the more emotionally resonant. It really is a beautifully written bit of persuasive speaking from Big Boss.

Of course it’s also nothing more than a collection of sleight-of-hand manipulations and lies.

Big Boss recklessly disregards all concerns for Venom’s will and life for the sake of his own elaborate plot. Venom is reduced to nothing more than a pawn, and an entirely ignorant and unwilling one at that. It’s unclear exactly why (or when) Big Boss sent the “Man Who Sold the World Tape” to Venom, but based on its contents, it’s clearly meant as a rallying call to shore up Venom’s loyalty for Big Boss’s future plans.

Big Boss does this by appealing to his legend, and extending the prestige and power attached to it to Venom. In doing so, he enhances Venom’s loyalty, pride, and sense of purpose, thereby clouding Venom’s sense of context. The obvious crimes Big Boss committed against Venom – the kidnapping, brainwashing, manipulation, and literal physical mutilation – are forgotten. Venom accepts his role and dives head-first into a mission to spread Big Boss’s destruction to the world, proudly carrying out the will of an awful individual who betrayed his most sacred principles.

As great as all of this is on a thematic and plotting level, the true genius underlying it all is that what Big Boss does to Venom Snake, is exactly what Hideo Kojima does to the player in Metal Gear Solid V.

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The Raiden Gambit

The protagonist fake-out in MGSV is essentially a revamped version of Kojima’s “Raiden Gambit” in Metal Gear Solid 2, but with a different goal in mind. To recap:

Kojima marketed MGS2 to make it seem like the protagonist was everybody’s favorite video game legend, Solid Snake. In reality, Solid Snake was only the player-character for the first tenth of the game, at which point he was replaced by Raiden, an entirely new character that was the opposite of Solid Snake in pretty much every way imaginable. Solid Snake is dark, stoic, muscular, has a deep voice, is a loner, is a legendary combat veteran, doesn’t speak much, and generally represents all things badass. Raiden has flowing white hair, is angsty, has a high pitched voice, has a girlfriend in mission support, is a rookie, constantly asks questions, and more resembles a Final Fantasy character (especially Tidus) than a classic Western hero.

The point of Kojima’s twist was to reinforce the core thematic elements of the game on a meta-narrative level. MGS2’s plot concerned the Patriots building a new AI tasked with processing (ie. censoring) digital information to create a global information context conducive to controlling the population in accordance with the Patriots’ will. It is eventually revealed that Raiden’s entire mission was actually a part of an elaborate experiment conducted by the Patriots to test their information control thesis. They wanted to see if they could craft a rookie soldier into an obedient, but effective agent, in the mold of the legendary Solid Snake, despite being put under immense mental stress. The experiment was a success, partially because of Patriot manipulation, but also because of Raiden’s naïve emulation of Solid Snake.

On a meta-narrative level, Kojima took on the role of the Patriots and the players were surrogate Raidens. Kojima carefully crafted a narrative about what MGS2 would look like by producing purposefully inaccurate marketing that made Solid Snake appear to be the protagonist in a straight-forward action-adventure game. The players fully bought into this story, lured not just by Kojima’s manipulation but also by the emotional appeal of once more playing as fan-favorite Solid Snake.

Upon realizing the true nature of MGS2’s story and protagonist, players universally felt sucker punched. The rug was pulled out from under their expectations. The carefully-constructed context of elaborate manipulations came crashing down, and players perceptive enough to grasp the full extent of Kojima’s vision gained a sophisticated understanding of the nature of information control, context-building, and manipulation.

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The Long Con

It’s easy to mistake the Big Boss fake-out in MGSV for a pointless retread of the Raiden Gambit. Indeed, the new twist has a lot of similarities with the old one and certainly reinforces a lot of the same themes MGS2 addressed regarding the nature of information control and psychological manipulation. But I also think it takes the protagonist switch to a whole new level, by elevating these themes beyond the confines of a single entry in the Metal Gear series to the entire series.

In MGS2, the relationship between Raiden and the Patriots is mirrored by the relationship between the player and Kojima. In MGSV, the relationship between Venom Snake and Big Boss is mirrored by the relationship between the player and Big Boss (and indirectly with Kojima). The key difference is that Kojima’s manipulation in MGS2 occurred primarily outside of the actual game, via marketing. On the other hand, the primary manipulations in MGSV not only occur within the game, but within the cumulative narratives of MGS3, PO, PW, and GZ.

The narrative structure at play within the in-universe chronological first-half of the Metal Gear series is similar to that of a lot of David Fincher and Martin Scorsese movies (ie. Fight Club, Social Network, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, etc.). All of these movies follow a character, movement, or organization which the viewer knows to be evil or misguided in some way, but finds likable and compelling anyway due to some mixture of charisma and raw emotional appeal. For instance, it’s easy to get caught up in the magnetic personality of Tyler Durden and raw emotional catharsis of Project Mayhem in Fight Club even though the viewer should realize that Tyler’s whole movement is self-destructive nonsense.

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The key to the success of these stories is to complete enwrap the audience with contextual information which overwhelms the more measured, rational appraisals of the people and issues at play. This is why nine-tenths of Fight Club consists of watching the mopey narrator live vicariously through Tyler Durden, the coolest guy in the world.

Likewise, all of the Metal Gear games starring Big Boss as the protagonist bring the player through the same process. From MGS3 to GZ the player never leaves the perspective of Big Boss. We see the world of Metal Gear entirely through the lens of the legendary soldier and his proto-Outer Heaven movement, with little concern for how an impartial spectator might view his actions.

Kojima builds up this narrative with deafening skill. The player knows that Big Boss will eventually become the primary antagonist in the entire series, yet we can’t help but fall in love with the handsome, rugged, swarthy, charismatic badass who fights the good fight against evil forces of tyranny for the sake of the poor and disenfranchised. We know his motivations. We have felt his losses. We saw the Boss’s death and the reasons for it. We watched as callous governments disregarded the lives of heroes. We completely sympathized with Big Boss’s pain and anger.

So of course we cheered Big Boss as he amassed an unaccountable private army. The vast majority of players still probably supported him when he became a nuclear power, hid from UN nuclear inspectors, and more or less became a fugitive warlord. Every action seemed to be perfectly justified in the moment. Big Boss needed to create an army to protect himself and his comrades. He needed to keep making it stronger to oppose Cipher. He needed to lie to the international community for the sake of survival. All of the major powers of the world are hopelessly corrupt or being actively manipulated by a creepy shadow government, Big Boss is the only force for justice out there!

Kojima advertised MGSV as the game which showed the final moral downfall of Big Boss, but that was just another sleight-of-hand manipulation. Big Boss was already a villain. He may have been fighting other villains, but that doesn’t make him a hero. This would be apparent to any impartial observer, but to die-hard Metal Gear fans who had followed Big Boss’s adventures since MGS3, he was a beloved hero.

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One interesting difference between the twists in MGS2 and MGSV is that while Raiden certainly emulated Solid Snake, he was obviously still his own, independent person. But in MGSV Venom Snake literally thinks he is Big Boss, just like the player. And the player-protagonist connection doesn’t end there.

Though we know very little about Venom Snake’s background, we can infer that he had a similar relationship with Big Boss as the player. Venom wasn’t a part of the events of MGS3 but he joined up with Big Boss’s mercenary band some time during the events of PO and PW, presumably for the same reason all of the other recruits did: he was inspired by Big Boss’s charisma and legend. So both Venom and the player are locked into a tunnel-vision perspective of Big Boss’s legacy which exaggerates his good qualities while downplaying or entirely ignoring his bad qualities (as is the nature of legends according to the overarching narrative of the Metal Gear series).

This puts both the player and Venom Snake in the same bizarre mindset throughout MGSV of constantly trying to rationalize Big Boss’s behavior.

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We are Big Boss

From the player’s perspective, the alleged Big Boss of MGSV acts nothing like he does as the player-protagonist of MGS3, PO, PW, and GZ. He barely speaks (at first), and even when he does utter a few words here and there, it’s in a passive manner to ask for clarification or answer specific prompts. He doesn’t really make decisions (at first), despite his code name literally referring to his authoritative decision-making ability. Instead of acting like the grizzled, charismatic legend we expect, Big Boss spends much of the game stoically watching as Kaz and Ocelot give speeches, fight, wax poetically about the nature of warfare, and generally hog all of the obvious personality.

But that’s all just surface-level details of Big Boss’s character; the most significant divergence from player expectations was Big Boss’s arc. Before starting MGSV, every player already knew that Big Boss becomes a villain. Actually they knew this well before starting MGSV. They knew it whenever they played through their first Metal Gear game, whether it was in 1987 with Metal Gear 1 or in 2010 with Peace Walker. And even if they hadn’t been following the story or had forgotten it, Kojima made it explicitly clear in MGSV’s marketing that the game would show Big Boss’s moral downfall. On top of all of that, the marketing gave away most of the core plot, gave Big Boss an obvious evil motivation, and more or less spelled out a direct character arc – “Big Boss is so consumed by a desire for revenge that he betrays the Boss’s legacy” – before any player even started the game.

Yet nothing like that showed up in MGSV. The guy we thought was Big Boss not only didn’t follow down the expected character arc, he actually went in the complete opposite direction. Instead of raging against Cypher and Skull Face, Big Boss solemnly committed to his mission while constantly calming Kaz during his conniptions. Instead of debasing himself in evil acts, Big Boss goes out of his way to be benevolent by rescuing animals and child soldiers, protecting his subordinates at all costs, and refusing to use a metal gear.

All the players were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell was going on. My theory while playing through MGSV for the first time was that Big Boss’s injuries had left him brain damaged in some typically elaborate Metal Gear way that severely altered his personality. But of course that still didn’t answer the question of why Big Boss was written this way in a narrative sense.

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From Venom Snake’s perspective, Big Boss’s behavior was… even more bizarre. As already stated, we can speculate that Venom spends the entirety of MGSV locked in a mental battle between his “natural self” and the imposed Big Boss personality. Not only is this implied by many of Venom’s unexpected decisions throughout the plot, but also by Venom’s character progression. He starts the game as an entirely passive borderline mute, but slowly becomes more talkative and authoritative until he actually makes legitimate speeches at the end of the game.

Another way to think of this conflict is as Venom’s attempts to reconcile his expectations of Big Boss’s behavior with his own inclinations. This explains Venom’s arc from passivity to leadership. At the start of MGSV, Venom is still trying to figure out how to act under the pressure of social, environmental, and psychological expectations for him to be Big Boss. His response is to passively go along with whatever is suggested of him by his advisers. But as the plot progresses, Venom apparently realizes the discrepancy between Big Boss’s view of the world and his own, and therefore begins to follow his own path. It’s important to note that this arc is not just psychological, but also ideological, as indicated by the consistency of Venom Snake’s choices with his own unique view of the world (as outlined in Part 3).

In other words, both the player and Venom Snake are caught in a process of trying to rationalize the discrepancies between the legend of Big Boss and his manifestation in MGSV.

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I think this is the core thematic essence of Metal Gear Solid V.

MGSV is about a lot of things: the nature of cycles, revenge, parasites, language, culture, violence, mercenaries, the Cold War, WMDs, deterrence, child soldiers, biological warfare, genetic legacies, etc. But Hideo Kojima purposefully centered the story around a particular character and plot twist which overshadows everything else.

Kojima created Venom Snake to provide MGSV with a character who was simultaneously a player-surrogate and his very own unique character in the Metal Gear series. As a play-surrogate, Venom is initially enamored by the legend of Big Boss, has had similar experiences with Big Boss as the player, and literally believes he is Big Boss. As his own character, Venom develops his own interpretation of the Boss’s will which greatly diverges from Big Boss’s and stands as perhaps the only legitimate alternative to widespread death and destruction offered by the many claimants to the Boss’s legacy in the Metal Gear series.

Combined, these two elements of his character enable Venom to act as a huge thematic nexus within Metal Gear Solid V. His character design and progression throughout the game is the ultimate representation of the folly of legends. Kojima asserts that legends are dangerous because they inherently distort the true nature of their subjects – an idea which Venom constantly has to grapple with.

Venom and the player thinks they are literally a legend (Big Boss) but they are not. Other characters and the player expect Venom to act in accordance with his legend, but he doesn’t. Even apart from Big Boss’s legacy, Venom’s accomplishments appear to be building up their own legendary figure, but he ultimately ends up erased from history.

And just like Venom’s relationship with legends, players expected the protagonist of MGSV to abide by the narrative expectations set by legendary video game creator, Hideo Kojima, but it didn’t.

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But that’s ok. Kojima did something else instead. He created one of the boldest, most subversive narratives in video game history (again). He created a work which deserves to be endlessly analyzed and studied to get to the bottom of its meanings and purpose. I don’t claim that this analysis is the be-all-end-all explanation for Metal Gear Solid V, but I hope it will provide a valuable contribution to players who continue to pour over this masterpiece.

One thought on “The Phantom’s Pain – A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis

  1. I have nothing interesting to say but thank you so much! I’ve really never thought about all of it like that and this whole post was so good. It’s legitimately a shame that this doesn’t get more attension when there’s so much attension to detail here it’s amazing. Honestly this analysis is a masterpiece itself!

    Like

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