[Eng] Metal Gear Solid V: The mirror therapy

The idea took its time to come to me, or maybe it was me who wasted time wandering from articles to videos, from forums to discussions. If the game left me with a bitter taste when it was released, it’s because one thing is certain: V is hard to understand. A lot of cut content, a divisive ending, a parallel story, an air of pretence, a feeling of unfinished business… Finally, we have to admit that the game « suffers » from an uncompromising approach from Hideo Kojima. I say suffers because this game is often mentioned as a good game but a bad Metal Gear. I’ve been holding this speech for a long time but I could never get out of it.

The mystery of this attraction could lie in this tweet:

However, the illusion fades, the sight clears, the game slowly reveals its secrets. A lot of studies about it but also around it. Finally, it seemed obvious to me that toHowever, the illusion is resorbed, the view becomes clearer, the game gives up its secrets, slowly. With a lot of studies about it but also around it. Finally, it seemed obvious to me that in order to give back to this game the genius that inhabits it, I would have to understand its title. So I will try to give you an interpretation of the phantom pain and its therapy applied to the game.

The article is very descriptive at the beginning to explain the story and mechanics of the game but I hope you will read well until the end which talks more about the themes and concepts.

Given that the game was released in 2015, it goes without saying that what is written here will necessarily echo other articles or videos, but I want to assure you of the sincerity of my vision when I write these lines. I would like to thank all those who have contributed to shedding light on the shadows, those who have tried to transmit knowledge and explanations. I hope not to betray you and to pay tribute to you through my words. To contribute in my turn to this great exchange of points of view. I like the idea that « 1000 generations of Jedi live through me » but also that I live in the words of others in the same way, in an infinite spiral in search of meaning.

I obviously can’t name you all but thank you.

Finally, it goes without saying that everything will be spoiled, sometimes even other games in the series , and that you should read these lines in your good conscience.

To put it in perspective, phantom pain is a medical term that appears to have appeared in the 16th century through the observations of Ambroise Paré. However, the first person to provide a clinical description was Sylas Weir Mitchell in 1871. The phenomenon is described as a pain felt on an amputated limb, a lost limb, which thus becomes a ghost for the patient. Indeed, the disappearance of the nerve endings does not suppress the neuronal connections, the brain continues to maintain an electrical activity on the areas of the brain that contribute to the nervous return of the lost limb. We therefore have two different levels of information:

  • Nervous information: the limb no longer exists, it no longer sends a signal
  • Neuronal information: the brain still has the area linked to the lost limb, which is electrically active
Phantom Pain

The duality of information generates the pain that patients experience. A tingling sensation on missing limbs. On the other hand it is good to note that this feeling (between hallucination and cognitive automatisms) disappears with time as the image of the body is reconstructed, as the new physical limits of the body are accepted.

The resulting treatment consists of mirror therapy which aims to give the brain the illusion (by visual feedback) that the limb still exists by placing a mirror in front of the existing limb (from the patient’s point of view he sees two limbs) : https://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/videos/la-therapie-miroir-cest-quoi_kffl3z

Venom Snake is the character that the player embodies in MGSV. Following an accident in 1975, V spent almost nine years in a coma. He wakes up in 1984 bedridden in a hospital. Everything is blurred and before finding strength, a second shock will send him back to the bottom of his bed: The accident deprived him of an arm and filled his body with multiple foreign bodies. Teeth, bones, metal… including a massive chunck in his frontal lobe which presses his optic nerve, source of visual alterations for him.

Venom thus carries with him, permanently, pieces of his old friends but also the history of this incident.

Metal Gear Solid V
Venom wakes up, has to learn to walk again and begins crawling.
Here we can see the lense-flare effects that symbolize Venom’s blurred vision.

The first phantom pain that the player will face, through Venom, will be physical and translated by an absent gameplay, a gameplay that the player possess in himself without being able to exploit it.

Following the attack on the hospital by an armed group, Snake is left on his own and unable to escape. Whether it is through the first person staging or through various lense-flare effects (which sometimes mark the hazy mind of Venom, sometimes the pain he undergoes) everything is done to give the player the feeling of being overwhelmed by events. Nothing is going right, everything is out of control and moving too fast for a character who has neither the strength to defend himself nor a clear enough mind to distinguish reality from illusions. It will take the help of a mysterious character named Ishmael and a shot of Dygoxyne to get the machine going.

So we start by crawling… slowly… We waddle more than anything in fact. The gameplay is very basic: we advance in a corridor made of hexagon tiles. As for the phantom pain that fades with time, Venom gradually regains control of his body and we can crawl on all fours and then finally stand up. The reconnection is made and the player recovers the ability to sneak around that created the genre over thirty years ago.

We have, through these progressive steps, recovered the gameplay of the series which ends with the obtention of a weapon and a room to try it out. The player has thus reactivated his muscle memory at the same time as Venom and the phantom pain linked to the gameplay fades away, Snake is back.

Memories are still hazy for Venom who hallucinates a burning whale sweeping the militia helicopter that chases him. An echo to Moby Dick, a king of vision of the future in the form of a reference to the book.

Metal Gear Solid V
Moby Dick symbolically destroys Pequod and Ahab, only letting Ishmael, narrator of the story, escape.

After Ishmael’s disappearance, Venom crosses paths with Ocelot. He is completely lost. The urgency to escape from his attackers pushes him to trust the man who wants to help him.

Metal Gear Solid V
It is interesting to note that very often the game will appeal to the memory of the fan of the saga without Venom having a reaction to the extent of the player.
For example, here, the fan will recognize Adamska (Ocelot) but also the the horse of The Boss, his mother, which Venom will inherit later.

During the journey between Cyprus and Afghanistan, Ocelot will brief Venom on the milestones of those years in a coma. Nine years have contributed to the legend, from realities to rumors, exaggerations to interpretations.

It seems that the world would have preferred Big Boss dead. To defend himself and survive he will have to rebuild his militia. His first task, after obtaining a bionic left arm , will be to free Kazuhira Miller, his former right arm … Ironic.

Rebuild and take revenge on those who took everything from this private military group: Diamonds Dogs was born from the ashes of MSF. The goal is simple: To grow just to fight Cipher, led by Zero, and take revenge for the events of Ground Zeroes. But let’s start by having a look back at these events since they are at the origin of everything on many levels.

The 1975 events follow almost directly the end of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

Paz, a triple agent (CIA, KGB, Cipher), is found adrift in the Caribbean waters and finds herself detained at Camp Omega, under the control of the US army, controlled by Cipher. The detention center is part of a very confidential list of Black Sites. Clandestine prisons controlled by the CIA but outside the of the United States jurisdiction. Detention and interrogation procedures are therefore outside the United States federal judicial system. So let’s say that prisoners have almost no rights and do not exist in the eyes of the world.

These black sites pose an ethical problem and Ground Zeroes speaks very well about it. This camp echoes very coldly to the detention center of Guantánamo , in Cuba, mainly known for having locked up suspects linked to the attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center. These attacks were claimed by Al-Qaeda whose leader is none other than Osama bin Laden. The history of this camp will however remain a murky area for the rights of prisoners and the ethical definition of the means necessary to fight terrorism. Ground Zeroes deploys the complete panoply: Rape, physical torture, psychological torture, murders, detention in cages, harsh interrogations,…Many things make us uncomfortable in this prequel to The Phantom Pain. Let’s remember that Paz is in her twenties and that Chico is only a teenager at this time. A situation which, again, evokes the reality of the detention of children on this site.

Captured and tortured, Paz will be regularly interrogated and Chico, a child saved by Big Boss in Peace Walker, will try to rescue her. I want to write that it goes wrong! That would be an understatement! He gets caught and will be used to torture Paz psychologically and vice versa. I told you above that the site is supervised by the CIA and thus falls into the invisible nets of Cipher. A man within this organization intervenes on the site to get the answer to a question: Where is Zero?

Paz, a Cipher agent, is the last person who have met with him. Zero hides himself at the head of a complex system of intermediaries, each communicating information to others but not knowing each other. A system which slowly extends its control over the American institutions in the shadows thanks to the almost infinite funds recovered during Operation Snake Eater in 1964. The name of this invisible octopus? Cipher. This is how he protects his identity, but it is also his loophole. No one really knows who is receiving or giving the information. Paz, however, has met him and Skullface, using unethical methods, obtains his position. Two important facts to note as a result:

  • Chico sends a distress call to Big Boss and asks him to rescue him.
  • Skullface “traps” Paz by placing 2 bombs in her body… yes… in her body!

The story will take a dramatic turn when Skullface, under the cover of an inspection by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), will blow up MSF while Big Boss is in a rescue operation for Paz and Chico.

Several important points here:

  • Inspection is a set-up, IAEA will deny that any inspection had to take place
  • Huey Emmerich decided on his own to accept the inspection because, by hiding their nuclear weapon under water, it would allow them to be clean in the eyes of the world.
  • Kaz was against this plan and Big Boss too, but it was already in motion. Big Boss decides to validate the work to hide the Metal Gear Zeke.
  • Skullface acts under the control of XOF at Camp Omega but removes the logo on the helicopters and badges on its soldiers. The group then becomes anonymous while they attack MSF.
  • MSF is a Private Military Company (PMC) without a nation. It is therefore an “on demand” military strike force. A useful group for many covert operations in various countries but also a source of concern when their capabilities are unknown or, on the contrary, revealed. The ideal being that they remain in the shadows.

The base is reduced to ashes but the final blow is dealt to MSF when Paz, throwing herself into the ocean, explodes in flight, sending Big Boss’s helicopter to crash down and leaving its occupants for dead. A macabre plan whose smoke and helicopters were visible from the coast and began to raise questions in public opinion.

  • Ground Zeroes
  • Ground Zeroes

It should therefore be remembered that the event put the United States in a fairly complex situation to manage and turned public opinion towards subjects that they prefer to keep in silence : Black Sites, PMCs, the treatment of prisoners of war, nuclear weapons owned by private military companies, etc. The IAEA and the UN had to write an official statement in order not to get splashed. Some countries preferred to restrict the informations circulating.

1975 is the starting point of a real explosion whose shock wave is both physical and political. Ground Zeroes evokes several epicenters because it is written in plural. Indeed it is the starting point of a process which takes place at both the level of Men (all the protagonists will be affected) and Nations. This title also has a meaning that we will cover to much later.

We have a glimpse here of the idea behind the sentence of mission 46 ironically called Truth.

MGSV Nietzsche

If facts tell us that MSF, the discreet armed wing of various secret interests, is the victim of an attack on the part of XOF, Skullface. History will wirte in the books and press that it was a vendetta between two military powers suspected of holding a nuclear warhead. The facts are therefore interpreted under the sole prism of the information available. But you will see later that it all goes much further and that The Phantom Pain connects its wagons very well with an old theme already addressed in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of liberty: information control.

On these basis, the Diamond Dogs, in 1984, will seek revenge based on the only data they have: What organization is capable of building a false inspection from IAEA? Who can know Big Boss and Miller to the point of making such a precise plan? What is the only link between Paz and MSF? You have it in miles: CIPHER. A shapeless hydra that extends its control over the world a little more each day.

David Bowie Diamond Dogs
Diamond Dogs refers to David Bowie’s album released in 1974, itself being a musical reinterpretation of the 1984 book by G. Orwell which also serves as inspiration for MGSV

A mutilated Venom therefore finds a mutilated Kaz too. A pain lives in them that will not disappear, the loss of their men and some of their limbs. This will be the fuel for Kaz’s revenge but the bedrock of Venom’s intentions. Two quite distinct motivations that we do not necessarily perceive at first glance. Especially if like me you experienced the communication around The Phantom Pain as being The fall of Big Boss, the missing link. Two hazy areas that we have trouble seeing after a first completion of the game.

If these notions are today laughed at by a lot of disappointed fans of the game, I think I would be able to show them that everything is there but not as we expected, and above all that it brings a lot to the saga and, in prime, that their reaction was expected or even sought. But I will explain this later.

If Venom walks through the back door into Afghanistan on the back of his horse, we’re going to have to step back to contextualize and talk about it more broadly. I will not retrace the entire history of the Cold War between the United States of America and its allies, the capitalist western bloc, against the USSR and its allies, the communist eastern bloc. I’m just going to clear few things.

This showdown began at the end of the Second World War and ended with the fall of the communist regimes around 1989. It should be noted that it is probably G. Orwell who democratized the use of the term “Cold war” in an essay titled You and the atomic bomb published in 1945 in the London Tribune newspaper. The remote confrontation has many effects on the world at several levels: politic, economic, cultural, sport, scientific,… It is above all a huge period of military and nuclear deterrence, of the arms race which constrains the blocs not to confront each other directly and to deport the conflict to other areas of the world.

What interests us is the context in which the plot of The Phantom Pain will unfold. The Afghan revolution in 1978 and the seizure of power by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. A civil war breaks out between the power supported by the USSR and the Islamists. However, the forces of the power in place are quickly overwhelmed. In 1979 the Soviets intervened to avoid the collapse of the regime they supported by declaring to act for the maintenance of peace in Central Asia.

The risk was in fact too big to see Afghanistan come under Islamist influence and see Chinese or American military bases pop up. Tanks against soldiers armed with rifles on horses. Although on paper the fight seems unfair, the Islamist resistance, by declaring this fight as a “Jihad” (a holy war) galvanizes its troops who organize themselves in guerrillas in a war of attrition. United States, through Jimmy Carter, seizes this opportunity by providing logistical support to Mujahideens (Operation Cyclone) which will keep an asymmetrical war going far too long. A Soviet “Vietnam war” of sort which will largely contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the day. The United States obviously cannot get directly involved in this conflict and this is where PMC makes sense.

The first thing to understand is why Kazuhira is being held prisoner by the Soviet army in Afghanistan. He and his team were training the Mujahideens as CIA intermediaries so as not to involve them. In comparison, it was during this period that Osama bin Laden organized the departure for Jihad fighters from multiple countries towards the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where they would be trained and armed by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) but largely funded by the United States and placed under CIA’s logistic. This parallel is interesting because it was in this very spot, on what Ocelot calls the Zero Line, that Miller and his team were training the fighters.

The Skulls intervened there to decimate his team and take him prisoner. But what is difficult to say is for what purpose?

Quite simply, the task force that chased Snake to the hospital failed in its mission. The only option to get him out again is to capture his old friend and wait for him to show up. This is the reason why the Skulls unit emerges immediately after picking up Miller: they come to finish their job, kill Big Boss.

The second thing to understand in MGSV is that you are acting as an intermediary for various interests. You will often be employed by the CIA, the Mujahideens and even regularly by Cipher themselves. More ironically by XOF through Cipher.

The importance of understanding this subtlety is that your goals are dictated by your employer. When you say that you have to understand that you will only have his version and that by carrying out the mission to the letter, sometimes (regularly in fact), you will be able to realize that there is a manipulation coming from him. Here I will refer you to a very cool video made by Keyser44Soze which retraces the story of mission 3: A hero’s way.

Twitter: @Keyser44Soze / Youtube: Keyser44Soze

Thus, silencing this commander mainly serves the cause of those who destroyed the village of Da Smasei Laman and the group of Mujahideen fighters there: the Hamid fighters. If you killed this soldier during your game I hope you will enjoy this information.

An interesting point to note here is also how Kojima plays with his fans by titling his mission “A Hero’s way”. The player, and especially the fan who expects Big Boss to fall, thinks of himself as the hero of the story by carrying out his mission. As if the hero’s way is dramatic, which is supported by Miller’s phrase in the briefing: “ Nothing personal. We’re only doing this because it gets us one step closer to our goal “. On the other hand, under the light of the video, we finally understand that the hero is rather the commander, the target of the mission, and that it is his morality, his will to spare civilians which is actually “the hero’s way”.

On the other hand, it should be understood that nothing is always all black or all white in MGSV. If this soldier finds the honor of saving civilians, he is nonetheless a pivot of the Soviet scorched earth policy. A tactic that aims to literally leave nothing exploitable after their passage: houses, resources, infrastructure, arable land is mined, etc. Although this soldier has a certain morality, he nevertheless contributes to stoking the fire which pushes civilians to leave their lands and the resistance fighters to take revenge. The captured Soviet soldiers are left in agony, feet, hands and noses cut off: a message for the Soviet soldiers still in office who in turn will burn other villages… and so on.

Come to think of it, the Diamond Dogs are like this soldier: ethics is one thing, but it doesn’t break the cycle.

Anyway the questions remain, who hired us and why?

If I have developed a lot of the story by navigating at the rhythm of the missions until now, it was in order to understand the mechanics of this game between information and manipulation. We will now develop what occupied XOF in Afghanistan.

Skullface has used Afghanistan as a test site for its parasites. In order to ensure that they work under all circumstances, they are deployed on sites that are meticulously selected according to several criteria:

  • Various climatic conditions (Afghanistan, Africa are mentioned in the game)
  • Several languages must be used on the area to confirm the good targeting of the language
  • Low population density to ensure control over the spread of the epidemic

Afghanistan is built on a tribal society with diverse languages and cultures. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks,… The conditions being met, XOF proceeded to the test on the Hamid fighters. The test was a success, the occupants of the fort of Da Smasei Laman disappeared without leaving any trace of fighting. The fuzzy rumor spreads that these Mujahideen succumbed following a new scorched earth operation under the orders of the commander of mission 3: A hero’s way. However, XOF cannot afford to let this soldier answer for his non-guilt nor to intervene directly. Through the system of intermediaries the contract ends up in the hands of Diamond Dogs to silence the commander.

However, the Hamid fighters were also secretly aided by the CIA against the formidable Soviet helicopters. The latter had an experimental weapon of American manufacture: the Honey Bee. The rumor of the disappearance of the Hamid fighters intrigued the Red Army, which invested the fort in search of the technology that had decimated the occupants. The risk for the CIA was that the Soviets would stumble upon Honey Bee and prove their support to the Mujahideen, but also that the technology would be sold and end up against their own units on other fronts. So they contact Diamond Dogs to retrieve the experimental weapon from Fort Smasei.

Venom and his group spend their time chasing Cipher’s trail and surviving XOF’s murder attempts without ever managing to figure out what’s going on. The arrival of a character on the Mother Base will allow us to dive a little further into one of the fundamental concepts of the game and to switch to the African track.

When the mission arrives in the hands of Diamond Dogs, it is a revenge-hungry Kaz who asks us to go and retrieve the scientist who wants to go back to the West. Huey Emmerich, the instigator of the IAEA visit is the target of this rescue mission. He is the one who opened the door to the Trojan Horse and condemned MSF to disappear in 1975. One of the characteristics of this character is that he acts as a mirror for Diamond Dogs. Huey is a scientist, a civilian, which allows him to have an external point of view and, symbolically, each of his interventions will serve to define Diamond Dogs from the eye of the public opinion of the United States, as a witness of their actions seen by the American prism.

Seen in this light, it is not surprising to discover that Huey was supposed to be Ishmael in the first versions of the game. Indeed, in Moby Dick, Ishmael is the witness of Ahab’s adventure, of his quest for revenge, but also the one who narrates the story. A story seen from the point of view of a civilian biased by the ideology that defines his country: American Exceptionalism.

MGSV Yano Famitsu

American exceptionalism is an ideology that stems from the idea of Manifest Destiny that emerged in the late 19th century. Manifest Destiny is the thought that the United States has a divine mission to bring civilization to the West. An idea that can be found in Death Stranding (Kojima’s latest game) in the form of Sam Porter’s main mission.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the special position they hold among nations is due to the fact that the country, the first modern democracy, was built by immigrants. Thus, the structure of their institutions is the result of opportunities and ideals and not constructions like social classes or simple products of history. The very nature of their democracy would thus be the origin of the ambition, a destiny, to propagate it in the world as a source of civilization, freedom and justice.

Huey Emmerich, born in this system of thought, would be the representative of this ideology on board the Mother Base. Firstly, he would bring an external eye to the actions of Diamond Dogs, to present them as murderers or as a threat to peace as holders of nuclear weapons. Secondly, it also allows to represent the shortcomings of the said ideology which justifies all its actions as right or as the good choice to be made while denying the reality of its acts.

Historically and symbolically, Huey is the only former member of MSF to have lost nothing in the 1975 accident. Even worse, he contrasts directly with the pain of Kaz and Venom by having regained the use of his legs thanks to his work. The only losses he suffers during the game are related to his direct choices: StrangeLove’s murder, the loss of his son who is taken from him by Skullface to whom he naively opened the door of MSF, his exile from the mother base which follows the manipulation of the parasites (basis of mission 43: Shining lights, even in death),…

Huey is troubling to the player because he brings up issues from a common sense, civilian perspective. He points out our actions, our image and the implications of our actions as seen by society, by civilians. The player, Ahab, the self-proclaimed hero of this story, will tend not to conform and will therefore develop a hatred for Huey and point out his lies. The player will hate him and justify his actions by rejecting the civilian point of view because he feels he is on the side of good. This process shows just how much of what Huey represents has infiltrated into each of us, into the player’s own thought system. This unquestionable fact gives a new dimension to the objectives of Skullface.

Of course, the idea is not that all players will have the same reaction to this phenomenon, but the game is primarily aimed at those who side with the Diamond Dogs, and everything is done to that end. As players have a varying desire for revenge, Miller’s character design, his unrelenting desire for revenge, will be used in a way that drives them in terms of involvement.

If we take the idea of treating phantom pain through mirror therapy, Kojima uses Emmerich as a mirror for the player. The player will be able to identify the mechanisms that he applies to defend himself and feel right. Venom, on the other hand, does not react like his peers. By accepting to face the facts, by freeing himself from the idea of fairness and by deciding to let Huey live, Snake takes the player against the grain and, by this phenomenon of dissociation, allows him to step back to think of the reason why Venom makes this choice.

The Diamond Dogs follow Kaz and demand Huey’s death to get justice, feeling righteous to do so.
Huey persists in his lies and continues to see himself as righteous, innocent.
Venom decides that they are not fit to dispense justice (breaking with the ideology of American exceptionalism) and exiles him.

These sought-after micro-disconnections between avatar and user, which constitute Venom’s demon nature, are Kojima’s way of intriguing the player about his own reaction to the trial. By redefining its contours (as in the mirror therapy) the player can go beyond his original intentions and realize that he himself is « infected » by this thought pattern.

Metal Gear Solid V
Venom’s demon is the fruit of the hybridization between his original character (the doctor) and the life of Big Boss, who imposes himself on him (the player).

Finally, Huey turns out not to be Ishmael for a simple reason. By representing the United States in a cold war context, he also represents Ahab against Moby Dick, USA versus USSR. In the same way that the USSR also represents Ahab against Moby Dick, USSR versus USA. The theme of revenge thus takes on a rather disturbing reverse of one Ahab against another or Moby Dick against another who mutilate each other in an endless cycle. We must remember here the idea of « just cause ». Each side believes itself to be virtuous and just in its judgment in order to apply it unconditionally.

Ahab is the player in Venom (mainly the one who feels the need for revenge) and the doctor in Venom tries to calm him down, to chase that nature away.

The arrival on board of Emmerich will quickly propel the group on the African track. The missing link of their inverstigation.

Although I could talk here about the geopolitical situation in Africa as we did with Afghanistan, discussing how the continent is at the mercy of various interests that profit from civil wars or generate conflicts in order to intervene and plunder resources. I would not do so in order to shorten the article. The subject would be worth an article by itself as the situation is sadly complex. I hope to have given you a vision on how MGSV tells its story and its geopolitics so that you can take over yourself. So I will quickly summarize the main plot in Africa in order to get to the points that interest us in this article.

The first mission we receive in Angola concerns a pumping station. An oil leak occurs at the Mfinda oil field contaminating the river nearby. An NGO asks us to intervene to stop it. These premises had been abandoned for many years but UNITA recently took control of them. Kaz warns us that it seems that UNITA is receiving support from the United States and that it is possible that we can trace the attack to Cipher.

On the way Venom has to pass through Bwala ya masa, a nearby village that borders the river. First encounter with child soldiers. Once past the village you will come across burnt out houses and a still smoldering mass grave before finally reaching the Mfinda station. The problem is that once the pump is stopped, bodies come to the surface.

We will learn later from Code Talker that Skullface used the area around Bwala ya masa as a test area for its parasites targeting the Kikongo language. But this time the test conditions defined above were not really met. Being a densely populated area, containing the epidemic becomes very problematic. What had to happen happened, the epidemic spread and to contain it XOF burned the area (remember the mass grave) but it was not enough. The larvae of the parasites started to spread through the river contaminating the village downstream. So XOF reactivated the Mfinda station to pollute the water in order to dissuade the population from consuming it.

However, as a player you have just destroyed the station… This is what will later lead to mission 23: White Mamba, a mission in which Eli takes the lead of an army of children after the disappearance of the adults.

By removing the pump, the water became drinkable again. The population started drinking and the parasite spread. Diamond Dogs is thus involuntarily responsible for the disappearance of the inhabitants of Bwala ya masa at this stage of the adventure. But why are only the children left?

You have to go back to Mission 20: Voices to understand this. The children of the mine that Venom saves hire you to go and rescue their leader, Shabani, the oldest among them. Shabani has been sent to Nzo ya badiabulu, the devil’s house, an area that terrifies the local population because those who are taken there do not come back.

Nzo ya badiabulu, the place where Skullface teaches the parasite to recognize languages by selection.

Shabani is in the middle of adolescence, puberty makes his voice change and his vocal cords allow the parasite to nestle there. Thus the « healthy » children did not present any symptoms because they did not reach puberty but they are the ones who contaminated the adults on Mother Base without knowing it.

We learn in Africa that Skullface seeks to create parasites capable of destroying a host speaking a targeted language. An epidemic weapon that can make a language disappear very quickly by killing its hosts. But for what purpose?

Mission 15: Footprints of phantoms sends us on a quest to find Walker Gears. A bipedal weapon that offers a tactical advantage in a variety of terrain. The problem is that these prototypes are sold in the East and West to PMCs working for both UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) and MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola). It seems that Cipher distributes this prototype on the battlefields regardless of the alignment within this cold war. A suspicious decision that raises questions.

Diamond Dogs traces the trail and discovers that in compensation for these Walker Gears, Cipher is getting paid in minerals containing traces of uranium and archaeal metal. I won’t go into all the details. These two components allow Skullface to sell nuclear weapons in kit form that he controls remotely. Thus he is able to flood the world with nuclear weapons and Africa was his testing ground.

Once all the tests are completed, the last step for him is to light the flame that will set the world on fire. Although the Sahelanthropus is technically inoperable, his plan is to show it in broad daylight on an Afghan battlefield to stir up fear. A new bipedal weapon prototype straight out of the Soviet secret bases would quickly bring the Western bloc to a state of high alert. The nuclear arms race would be resumed and would allow the Soviet Union to supply its kits en masse. A world flooded with nuclear weapons, not reserved for nations, but for any group, PMC, militias,…

At the same time Skullface aimed at eradicating the English language and his diagnosis is the following: America pretends to be a melting pot, a place of ethnic and cultural mixes constituting a united people. In fact it is a Salad Bowl, a place where cultures and ethnic groups mix very little and live side by side. The link between these groups is the English language. This lingua franca keeps the society in symbiosis. Since America was born of immigration, since it manages to maintain this symbiosis and maintain its rank among the nations of the world, it is able to do the same with the world. This, according to Skullface, is the basis of American exceptionalism.

His ambition was to destroy the English language in order to destroy American cohesion, to isolate again the ethnic and cultural groups within the United States. But also to remove the hold of American imperialism on the world.

Skullface considers that unifying the world requires strengthening cultures. If Zero seeks to make it a melting pot united under a system of information and language control, Skullface seeks to make it a Salad Bowl free of American imperialism. Without a lingua franca the world will once again be in a state of observation, division and the search for nuclear deterrence will create the status quo through the threat of retaliation. This is his way of interpreting the vision of The Boss.

This character alone embodies the idea of the cycle of revenge. He is a pure product of war and geopolitical interests. He was born in Transylvania shortly after it was returned to Hungary in 1940 following the second Vienna arbitration. Nazi Germany aimed to weaken Romania, which was waging a « cold war » against it, by allowing Hungary to annex Transylvania, but the failure of negotiations led Berlin and Rome to impose the decision. Hungary, in order to obtain the favors of the Reich, declared war on the USSR on June 27, 1941 with nearly 200,000 men who joined the Eastern Front. The debacle of the battle of Stalingrad in 1943 made them leave the war. In 1944, Hungary was one of the last allies of the Reich, which tried at all costs to maintain this alliance in order to benefit from its wealth, but especially its oil refineries.

That same year, the Allies retook the base at Foggia, which exposed Hungarian territory to American bombing, and in October the USSR completely invaded Transylvania. This invasion led to the battle of Budapest, which allowed the USSR to place a political pawn at the head of the country in the person of Béla Miklós. Supported by the Soviets, he signed the armistice in 1945, thus declaring war on the Reich.

In this war, Skullface will lose everything as a child. His body burned to the ground and his country ravaged by multiple wars, he loses his cultural references and identity. By becoming the last witness of the identity of his universe, by losing the words of his mother tongue, he transforms himself into an arm of justice for those who are no longer there to take revenge. He switches from Ishmael (the witness) to Ahab in a struggle against those who use information and language to wage wars that inexorably lead to the corruption of people’s identity. After having avenged his people in his young career as a spy, he turns his vengeance against Zero and his codes, against American imperialism.

Venom having stopped the release of the ST84, the plan fails, no nation will have carried its eye on the advertising Metal Gear. However, one entity will not forget… Cipher.

In the end, the game from the hospital boils down to running after Cipher for revenge and ultimately understanding that Cipher is just a shell within which Skullface hides, acts and feeds like a parasite hidden in a body. After all, the word Cipher has an Arabic root, Sifr, which means « the void ». The quest of Diamond Dogs is symbolically pointed to the void, there is nothing at the end, not even the possibility of revenge. This is not a random choice. I think that Hideo Kojima is pursuing an artistic vision that takes birth, in my opinion, with MGS2.

First of all, video games are not only entertainment but also a medium capable of conveying messages. The gamedesign of its games always aims at transmitting concepts, emotions and thoughts. For example, MGS talks about the relationship with genes and MGS2 about the relationship with memes.

MGS Keywords
MGSV Keyword

Secondly, video games are capable of being an art form that cannot be approached like cinema. To give you an idea: in Sons of Liberty Raiden is built in the image of his player who thinks he is Snake, a legend. He has white hair to symbolize his naivety, he is effeminate to contrast with Snake, his mission is modeled on the events of Shadow Moses. The whole game is a meme of the 1998 opus in order to talk about what identity means in a society whose codes are projected by memetic. Thus, after being digested by the equivalent of a whale (which relates to the theme of Pinocchio’s naivety) Raiden finds his way and abandons firearms to use the Katana given to him by Snake, then rejects the player’s identity to become himself. You can read Flying_Fox’s excellent article on Metal Gear Solid 2 (@flyingfox1984)

MGSV continues this vision. In a classic video game, chapter 1 of MGSV would have served as the main storyline and the end would have come with the fall of the Sahelanthropus and the dismantling of Skullface’s plans. This structure, with an ending boss and credits, hasn’t changed much since Mario. It is the simple structure of a narrative that closes each of the storylines it has opened. The hero frees the princess, happy ending. The hero defeats the villain’s plans, and curtain. But as we saw above, MGSV places a mirror (Huey) in front of the player to break this idea of the righteous hero.

MGSV Yano Famitsu

MGSV will break this narrative code on both axes creating the current I like to call Post-Mario:

  • Skullface is not a boss. It is impossible to get revenge and even in the cinematic about his death it is Huey who kills him while shouting for victory.
  • Skullface’s death is not the end but rather the beginning of the end for Diamond Dogs. That’s the point I’m going to develop.

By these means, Kojima hopes to provoke a feeling of « non-achievement » in the player, a kind of phantom pain. He deprives him of his goal and pushes him to continue in a chapter 2 that differs from the first in its structure. The player, always fair and virtuous like Huey, will therefore transfer his « pain » to other elements. The game, Konami, Kojima, a little bit of everything (and I unfortunately know what I’m talking about having been one of them).

Revenge doesn’t take the pain away, nor even the hate. It doesn’t make up for the loss but simply makes you hideous.

In addition to being able to break the codes of video games, chapter 2, which is unfairly considered incomplete, will allow Kojima to show his player how the world really works from a political point of view.

From the moment Skullface dies, we understand that something is wrong. If there is one thing to keep in mind, it is that Skullface disappears without ever having really existed in the eyes of the world. Sahelanthropus has been stopped before making the expected show. So there are still two English strains of parasites in the wild but neither the USSR nor the USA have the information on these data. Only XOF is aware of this and continues to exist within Cipher.

Venom will mix his destiny with that of Skullface and complete his mission to the end. When he dies, Big Boss will inherit the whole thing at the end of the race by standing up to Cipher.

This idea explains very well the passage in this corridor where Big Boss becomes Venom and ends as Skullface.

If the first chapter is a race to get information, the second chapter is a race to hold back the leaks of that information. Diamond Dogs inherits Skullface’s plans and the responsibility towards the entire world that comes with them. Indeed, the first mission after Skullface’s death is to find a CIA agent with information about the parasites. We can’t let this technology fall into the wrong hands. The next mission is to recover the work of Code Talker before Cipher. Then you have to get the data about the Man on Fire and the third boy before the KGB. The problem is that it never stops and at the same time the rival PMC’s are gaining weight. Diamond Dogs is thus stuck plugging information leaks (like Skullface did before him) in the middle of a race for resources between PMCs.

Chapter 2’s structure is much less linear and will therefore pose a problem for players. Indeed some missions in the game have prerequisites to be available. For example, to unlock mission 41 you will have to complete mission 38 as well as the side missions 147, 148 and 149. Mission 38 is unlocked through mission 35 and also the secondary operation 113 and a mission of your choice. This system is voluntary, it allows to set up a routine but also a fatigue. Getting to the end of the game thus becomes a real job that consists in accepting missions to grow and unlock other pieces of the story, slowly, with difficulty. You may even miss complete arcs that are essential to a good understanding of the game.

Seen from this angle it is normal that many players gave up during the second chapter because the structure is oriented to discourage or at least to be laborious . The fun, the hero’s story, switches to real work. Almost tedious but fortunately MGSV has a very solid and varied gameplay. Many of the characters we gathered during chapter 1 will leave us in chapter 2. If Diamond Dogs wants to survive and maintain its ability to protect the world from Skullface’s legacy, it needs to grow and build new bases, recruit new staff, get new vehicles, etc. Hideo Kojima goes beyond pure entertainment with this chapter 2. Where usually the narrative structure of games carries the message, it is the structure of MGSV itself that will deliver it.

The name of Mission 41 conveys this idea: Proxy war without end.

But more than that! Seen from this point of view the whole gameplay loop of MGSV makes sense. Influencing, recruiting, growing, getting equipment,… everything serves a purpose from the beginning. It is not a gimmick for fun only. The gameplay is linked to the purpose until the end in this ambition to grow, unlock the scenario and get stuck between cursed heritage and war economy.

The means that served the objectives will slowly become the objective itself.

MGS2 Fatman
Fatman in Metal Gear Solid 2

In this context and with the scheme where the player leads a PMC that must maintain its position among other PMCs, MGSV offers a multiplayer in which players can attack the base of other players. Far from being trivial, it constitutes the final opening of the game to close with the saga, with Metal Gear.

Image from the intro of the game

If Kojima reminds us that this is not MGS5 but MGSV, it is because the game is not a sequel but a convergence. Two pieces of a saga that come together. Two destinies that share the same legend.

Metal Gear Solid V
The V: two sequential lines, two exclamation points that meet at a point.

The story of V never really ends. We know where it ends up in Metal Gear, but that space is never completely filled by the game. There are several reasons for what many consider to be an unfinished game.

Let’s start by simply defining the final situation of the game. A PMC that has contributed to various wars for various interests around the world inherits the knowledge of a biological weapon, a bipedal tank erected as a statue, a military power dedicated to infinite growth, and potentially two divergent tasks depending on the players:

  • the construction of nuclear weapons as a mean of deterrence against players. Indeed, one of the rules of the game is that having a nuclear force makes you immune to intrusion by rivals (except for players who meet the hero point requirements) at the cost of demon points.
  • the dismantling of nuclear weapons, the reward for which is obtained through a common effort. This is the ultimate ending of the saga in my opinion for its anti-nuclear message.

In both cases Diamond Dogs become over time an imposing military power and a threat to world powers. It is therefore not surprising that public opinion will eventually turn its attention to them.


This leads me to the second point. Cipher has more and more control over the United States and its control tool, AI, is starting to do its job of selecting informations for its society. Individuals build themselves into a social group and make decisions on the basis of selected information, presented in a defined light. These manipulated individuals elect representatives who defend the values thus acquired and perpetuate the cycle. An echo chamber the size of a nation.

Through information control Cipher controls the context, can write history and give direction to the future: Unite the world by exporting its culture and moral. Exporting its social values via private companies like McDonald’s, Coca Cola, General Motors, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook,… Via television series or the film industry like Holywood or Disney. But also through conflict as we saw in MGSV.

Thus, in 1945, 57% of French people thought that the USSR had contributed the most to the war against 23% in 2015. For the United States on the contrary the figure is 20% in 1945 against 54% in 2015. (Source Ifop)

1984 IngSoc
« Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past » G. Orwell – 1984

The amplification of American exceptionalism by the PATRIOTS system thus leads the United States to intervene against the PMC. It necessarily leads to declare Diamond Dogs as a threat to world peace and, in reaction, Venom to build Outer Heaven in a fight against Cipher and its control system. Ironic after destroying Skullface and his plans.

MGS3 built the legend of Big Boss on the ashes of The Boss. MGSV transforms the legend into a terrorist as we can discover him in the following opuses. This cycle continues… after all there is only room for one Snake? No…

MGS4 Big Boss

We can bring the facts closer to our reality. I am taking a huge pinch here but I still have to address it without comparing the situations.

We must remember the time when Bin Laden was presented as an agent of peace in the press. From the time when the United States financed his struggle blindly to win a victory against the Soviet bloc, even though some Mujahideen like Commander Massoud refused to collaborate with him and later fought against the Taliban at the head of the Northern Alliance.

These years of support and struggle have not brought Afghanistan out of the civil war. The United States was ready to do anything to destabilize the region and supported Pakistan, which in turn supported the Taliban. This led in 1996 to the establishment of Mullah Omar’s power after the almost complete conquest of the country by the Taliban. The American Secretary of State at the time, Madeleine Albright, declared that this was « a positive step ».

In 2001, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bâmiyân, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, moved the international community. Pakistan denounces the extremist policy of the Taliban, which they have supported for many years. The same year, Commander Massoud was assassinated and two days later the 9/11 attacks took place.

Although it is not necessary for the story, it is not surprising to find in the cut DLC Kingdom of the flies a final image showing the World Trade Center and referring directly to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Liquid’s catchphrase « Not yet. It’s not over yet » indicating that the cycle of revenge continues unabated. The Statue of Liberty symbolizing the idea of American exceptionalism, the freedom to bring to the world.

A liberation objective that will take place… in Afghanistan. In a war against terrorism in 2001 and a complete reversal of American international policy towards Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

So we also understand the symbolic choice of the name Ground Zeroes. Ground Zero designating, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the former location of the World Trace Center.

End image of MGSV’s abandoned DLC

The phantom pain seen by MGSV is ultimately on two levels:

  • Historical, geopolitical and ideological
  • Individual, physical and psychological

It is this idea of history that disappears when the world applies itself to twisting the facts in a way that makes nuances and points of view disappear. It is the history that disappears when the position of dominance allows a nation to crusade and define just causes with dubious means. A phantom history that changes with time according to interests.

At the individual level, it could be summed up as the little pieces of ourselves that we lose through compromise and justification. These pieces of ourselves that we silence in order to integrate into an ever increasing conformism by dividing ourselves into ever smaller groups. It is the lost identity of individuals under the influence of a society guided by biased information systems and various influences.

1984 Orwell
Metal Gear Solid V

If the whole story of MGSV is about how a legend becomes a terrorist and seems to end negatively, I think that its structure conveys a positive message. The strength of MGSV is Venom, another symbolic meaning to the V in this opus.

Venom is a demon, a former war doctor in whom the psyche of Big Boss has been forced. In other words: the fan and his experience. He is a hybrid being who has his own pains while accepting those of the player. Although he is relatively quiet to give the players room to talk, he will mostly have his own demons and intentions. Paz’s arc is, in my opinion, revealing his primary identity and the internal conflict that plagues him.

The idea is that Venom is neither completely Big Boss nor completely the player. He takes on a legend, accepts it, and the player’s interpretation of events will give him a degree of freedom of action. On the other hand, the doctor in him, the distance he takes from the player in him, will tend to exorcise himself through the choices he makes alone. For example, taking the player against the grain with Huey’s trial, accepting the latter’s reprimands after mission 43 or saving the children from the mine. All of these choices contrast with the idea of a factual « descent into hell » of Big Boss.

In this absence of an end, this large free space, the player becomes Big Boss himself and takes on the weight of the whole. This division between Venom and the player shown symbolically in the cinematic at the end of mission 46 is for me the symbol of the ambition of the game. A mirror therapy in which the player can feel his « degree of infection », understand the workings of history and redefine what he thinks about the world and himself.

Venom disappears behind the void of the mirror, taking on the role of Big Boss for good. The player self-missions (MSX) for the beginning of Metal Gear, becoming Solid Snake.

Venom, having absorbed Skullface’s legacy, disappears from history to make one with the legend of Big Boss. I remind you the idea of the V, the convergence of fates, present on the logo of the game. From this point of view, MGSV completes the saga. On the other hand, the game also resumes its infinite cycle and from this point of view, the game never ends.

The converging V can therefore be taken as a diverging V from the point of view of these two « ends » that live at the same time. But also to mean the separation between the saga and the player. An exit for him to this cycle.

The fact that MGSV concludes on a blurred area, an infinite space that never fully closes with Metal Gear allows the player to be left behind in the FOB cycle. But unlike many revenge stories, The Phantom Pain doesn’t really end on the very classic, flat emptiness of our actions. Emptiness is an observation and Kojima proposes to go beyond it in the direct line of Sartre’s existentialism.

In this system, he will be able to make his ideological choice between deterrence and working for denuclearization. It is a struggle between several world views:

  • Pessimists who think that it is impossible for everyone to make peace and that the best choice is therefore to protect themselves
  • Optimists who think it is necessary to work for peace
  • Those who navigate between the two who simply do not produce or dismantle nuclear weapons

The player can therefore experience the natural alchemy of the world that makes relations between countries, ethnicities, beliefs and indeed the denuclearization of the world, complex. It gives weight to the term « peace effort ».

MGSV does not give the answer to the question « what should I do? » or « what should I think? Kojima offers his player to experience and reflect on it himself, to extract his own truth from it all. Since this race does not make sense, it is up to each player to give a meaning to his or her existence. It is up to each player to face the world and to make his own diagnosis about his identity and his reason for living.

MGSV Nietzsche

MGSV is therefore a work that goes beyond its status as a game. It enters my conception of the Post-Mario to transmit to its player an experience that will live with him. Like a chapter 3: Peace that does not exist because it is up to the player to build it.

« From here on out, you’re Big Boss », in this empty space « Tomorrow is in your hands »

MGS, Kojima, PS4, PS5, Death Stranding, SONY, V, PHANTOM PAIN, Snake, Venom Snake, Truth, Vérité, Ocelot, Kaz, Skull face, Hideo

Une réponse à “[Eng] Metal Gear Solid V: The mirror therapy”

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