Tradition and Metal Gear Solid V

I’m terribly conflicted about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

On the one hand, this is Metal Gear, surely, in some respect. A perfectly self-serious plot dabbling with bouts of sheer silliness (and giant fire whales). A whole lot of stealth, and various means to encourage stealth. Lots and lots of missions that are, in exclusion from the rest of the game, extraordinarily well-designed to accommodate too many play styles to list (that requires you to play missions again, but why not, right?). A host of unique gadgets, and characters, and things to do!

But, that other hand is a VERY big hand. Metal Gear does not make the transition to the open world as smoothly as I imagined. Last year, I played Ground Zeroes and enjoyed it. It felt focused, well-designed, and lacked the fat of games with such open structure. The base, while small, felt gigantic in comparison to previous Metal Gears, and that sense of linear, yet-sort-of-not progression with myriad secret methodologies proved fun for about 10 hours (!) on the same map. I honestly enjoyed it much more than the vast majority of people, and could see where Kojima wanted to go.

The Phantom Pain, on the other hand, quite simply appears too big even in the Afghanistan section. Metal Gear plays a whole lot like Assassin’s Creed in a lot of ways now, from the psychological hook of being a kleptopmaniac collecting things/people/animals, to the development of a team on a magical base where you research and purchase new weaponry. In a lot of ways, Metal Gear Solid V lifts tons of mechanics wholesale from that series; clearly, Peace Walker took a whole lot of inspiration from Assassin’s Creed II, and Metal Gear Solid V furthers that intertwined system of mechanics.


No doubt, I feel the hooks in my brain, the desire to keep playing this jumbled mess of a thing. The game remains fun, but is it really fun or am I just imagining it? Open world games burn me out, with their tireless efforts to keep you collecting things, but here…it seems different, somehow. Metal Gear Solid V makes no qualms about being a game. It knows it’s a game, and doesn’t care; Kojima knows it’s a game, and he can throw whatever he wants into the mix. Customize your base, your helicopter, what music plays through your loudspeakers (especially for the PC version!). Make the game your own. And, I guess, I’m just not into that. I still hate traveling around the open world, waiting for helicopters to arrive, and all the time-wasting measures of Mother Base (hey, you can’t do this without missiles, go recruit some guys or something), but I find it strangely endearing.

The problem, then, lies in one question: is this MGS? I’m not sure, even after playing the game for fifteen hours. The story comes in bits and pieces, mostly through the occasional cutscenes and audio tapes; neither means really duplicate, or best, any of Kojima’s previous craziness. While The Phantom Pain refuses the baggage of series canon (the very thing that brought us Metal Gear Solid 4, the World’s First 15-20 Hour Film), it also loses some of Metal Gear’s identity in the process. Could we say it turns the paradigm of the series since 1998 onto its head? Absolutely! But I’m not sure if the risks pay off.

When I think of the game, I don’t think “Metal Gear”, and I certainly don’t think “this is the resolution to the series!”. Instead, the more common though to mind is “Splinter Cell in an open world”. The game takes precedence for the vast majority of the time. My guess is that Kojima wanted players to make their own fun, and stop worrying about playing the role of Big Boss (just like Metal Gear Solid 2, I suspect). Metal Gear fans can become self-serious about the “chronology” of the series, but I doubt Kojima had that in mind. Remembering that he delves into the realm of 4th wall breaking postmodernism, I suspect (even at this point) that you’re actually playing yourself, not Big Boss. Your choices matter precisely because you actually play yourself…although you actually wear the face of some other guy. So, Hideo Kojima simply unlocks the player from all the baggage of the series and tells us to go hogwild. Do what you want. Make your own game.

phantom cigar

Hey kids, need a light?

But what if I don’t want to do that? Well, I guess the game would fall flat. I’m not one for “personal expression”…but maybe that’s the whole point of MGSV, and I’m just being a silly curmudgeon. Maybe you just need to let go of that ever-present word – “expectation” – and just enjoy it for what it is: a weird, open world stealth game that clearly cost too much to make ($80 million dollars) and also appears unfinished (due to the Kojima-Konami debacle). This game breaks nearly every tradition of its own series and, somehow, became a better video game – even at the cost of its “plot”, which if the Internet tells us anything contains massive holes. And now everyone get to make their own Metal Gear, not the one of the “auteur”, but the one they decide.

You could be like me, a horrible mass-murderer who literally gets bored of waiting for guard patrols and sends a helicopter gunship into a base full of soldiers while a-ha’s “Take On Me’ screams through the newly-installed loudspeaker. As I snipe from afar and throw grenades at distracted soldiers (first shooting out all the lights – it’s a night attack!), I think to myself “is this really Metal Gear?” Maybe that’s just tradition talking. Maybe you just need let go of your preconceived notions of what something should be and stop designing a world with arbitrary rules and structures. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, as I continually prescribe things for games from my little Internet soapbox here on Theology Gaming. Some things were made to be broken, so that something far greater can emerge as a result. Do you worship the self-created reality of tradition, or is it just a mask to hide your own insecurity about change? I think, in this case, it’s probably the latter hitting the former squarely in the face…

Then some Pharisees and scribes *came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,”he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:

This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

Matthew 15

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.