PROLOGUE: GROUND ZEROES
Discussing Metal Gear Solid V without discussing Ground Zeroes is akin to discussing Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty without touching upon the Tanker chapter. It’s certainly possible, but the Tanker chapter directly sets up the events, arcs, and themes of the Plant chapter. Simply analyzing the latter ignored all the crucial context found in the former. The same can, and should, be said for Ground Zeroes’ relationship with The Phantom Pain. GZ is undeniably an important piece in understanding TPP’s puzzle. While it isn’t handled with nearly as much grace as it should have been, arcs, themes, and characters are all introduced in the prologue that aren’t necessarily reiterated in main game. The Phantom Pain’s narrative absolutely expected its audience to have played through Ground Zeroes. There are issues with this expectation, however; most notably, The Phantom Pain’s apparent lack of interest with everything that occurred in Ground Zeroes.
Recognizing and analyzing Ground Zeroes isn’t so much important to understanding The Phantom Pain’s story as it is important to understanding how The Phantom Pain’s story is told. Narratively, Metal Gear Solid V is the simplest game in the franchise, perhaps to a fault. There are few actual twists; the script tends to be fairly straightforward with intentions and motivations; and many of the game’s arcs and themes tend to just exist in their own bubble without interacting with one another in a cohesive manner. Aside from The Phantom Pain’s signature twist, Metal Gear Solid V lacks that Metal Gear “punch” present in the rest of the series. At least, it seems to. Where MGSV lacks in actual narrative, it attempts to make up for in storytelling; and Ground Zeroes plays a big role in that.
To put it bluntly, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the last time players take control of Big Boss and that’s an incredibly important face for Metal Gear Solid V’s overall narrative, especially since it’s so understated. The twist at the end of The Phantom Pain focuses primarily on the fact that Venom Snake was the playable character and not Big Boss, but it doesn’t touch upon the fact that Big Boss’s last canonical adventure was GZ. This gives the prologue an added sense of mysticism in hindsight and greatly adds to that feeling of “phantom pain” Kojima tries to inject into the story. Phantom pain is the psychological sensation of feeling pain in a limb that has already been amputated. Control of Big Boss is effectively amputated from the hands of the players at the end of Ground Zeroes and, while they don’t know that Venom isn’t Big Boss, the dichotomy between Venom Snake and what fans would remember from Big Boss creates a sort of pseudo-reverse phantom pain where the loss of Big Boss can be felt even though he’s supposedly there when in reality he truly is gone, but replaced with a body double to give the illusion that he never left at all.
It’s an ambitious concept to say the least, but it’s one that works in Metal Gear Solid V’s favor. The plot itself so simple that it needs complexity elsewhere to stand out. The only real issue with Ground Zeroes being Big Boss’ last game playing a role in The Phantom Pain’s narrative is the fact that Ground Zeroes isn’t literally mandatory to playing The Phantom Pain. For a first playthrough, someone can skip GZ on account of it being released independently of TPP and the latter is written, to an extent, with that absence mind. Metal Gear Solid V, in all respects, is the story of Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain working collaboratively, but, as mentioned earlier, the latter seems rather against mentioning the former outright, only referencing what is absolutely necessary and leaving most of what Ground Zeroes established behind.
Tonally and thematically, Ground Zeroes is a very different game from The Phantom Pain. Perhaps it’s because the former stars Big Boss and the latter doesn’t, but there is a massive shift going from the prologue to the main game. Nothing in TPP ever gets as remotely dark as Skull Face forcing Chico to rape and beat Paz, and this incredibly overwhelming detail is completely overlooked after Ground Zeroes. By the time The Phantom Pain rolls around, that overbearing darkness is missing altogether. There are dark moments, but nothing darker than what’s typical for Metal Gear, and they might be even lighter, all things considered. Skull Face is also softened up between games with much of his vitriol and downright diabolical personality toned down. Visually, TPP adds a mask to his design, making him look far less menacing. At times, it’s hard to believe that Skull Face isn’t the character who got replaced between games considering how little his two representations reflect one another.
Perhaps the last major thread noting in regards to Ground Zeroes’ relationship to The Phantom Pain is its antithetical nature towards Metal Gear Solid 2. Like MGS2, Metal Gear Solid V features a prologue with a different, familiar, playable character. Unlike MGS2, Metal Gear Solid V’s prologue isn’t meant to make audiences reflect on the loss of familiarity when transitioning into The Phantom Pain. That feeling is still there, but it’s so understated that it’s missable. This isn’t a mistake or an oversight on Kojima’s part, but a deliberation meant to contrast Sons of Liberty. Metal Gear Solid 2 was partially about demonizing the audience’s desire to be Solid Snake. They can be crafted into Solid Snake, but Raiden’s arc shows that it is in no way worth it, and any given individual is better off forging their own path. Metal Gear Solid V, on the other hand, glorifies the idea of becoming Big Boss to the point that not actually being Big Boss hardly matters. Ground Zeroes is the last time players take control of the original Big Boss, but Venom, in a way, is still Big Boss. It isn’t dwelt upon because it doesn’t matter to MGSV’s narrative, and it’s that philosophy that carries on into the rest of The Phantom Pain. For better or for worse.
CHAPTER 1: REVENGE
Without a doubt, The Phantom Pain features the single strongest opening act in the series on a conceptual level, to the point where it almost justifies separating Metal Gear Solid V into two separate games. Opening up to Midge Ure’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” is a cinematically appropriate introduction that foreshadows Venom’s identity, both through the content of the song and the fact that a cover is playing instead of the original, while building anticipation for the game proper to begin. Once control is given to the player, what follows is a genuinely tense escape mission where Venom has to break out of the hospital he’s being held in with only the help of the enigmatic Ishmael by his side. The mission itself is long and meticulous, but it works in setting up the world of The Phantom Pain, especially in the wake of Ground Zeroes. It’s oppressive, hostile, and features a fair amount of foreshadowing in regards to Venom’s nature as Big Boss’ body double. As far as The Phantom Pain goes, this was as good an introduction we were going to get after MGSV was split in two.
Unfortunately, since there always tends to be an “unfortunately” when discussing Metal Gear Solid V, The Phantom Pain’s introductory mission suffers from the same fate as Ground Zeroes: it simply doesn’t matter in the long run. Key details from it end up playing a role later on, but the actual events of the mission, and the game that preceded it, exist almost in a bubble of their own. The only reason there’s a connecting thread between Ground Zeroes, the hospital prologue, and The Phantom Pain is because the game explicitly says there is one. In terms of storytelling, these three events do not naturally tie into one another. Ground Zeroes and the hospital prologue feel tonally similar, but nothing that occurred at the end of GZ, save for Big Boss’ coma, is touched upon. The hospital prologue and The Phantom Pain share some thematic similarities, but they’re tonally worlds apart and the events that occur within the hospital really only work in service toward Venom’s and Quiet’s character arcs, and even then it’s more in favor of making the twists feel a bit more clever than it is to give them narrative or emotional significance.
In its own bubble, the hospital introduction works tremendously well. At times, it almost feels like the start of a survival horror game where death looms around any corner. That feeling doesn’t translate into the rest of Metal Gear Solid V, though, and that’s a problem. The Phantom Pain brings with it a massive narrative disconnect where arcs, themes, and story beats barely attach themselves to one another. It’s at its most jarring during the game’s first chapter, “REVENGE.” Given the title of the chapter, its contents are rather easy to assume: Venom wants revenge against Skull Face in the wake of MSF’s complete annihilation and Skull Face wants revenge against imperialism by wiping out the English language. As far as motivations go, Skull Face’s is actually rather solid for a revenge story. There are some implications that Skull Face resents Big Boss for their respective roles in Operation Snake Eater, Big Boss serving as the main operative and thus getting all the recognition for killing The Boss while Skull Face acted as his behind-the-scenes clean-up crew, but the focus is on his desire to wipe out the English language to effectively put an end to a history of imperialism.
It’s right up there in terms of literary merit with Metal Gear Solid 2’s existentialist and postmodernist themes, but it doesn’t land with as much impact as it should in large part due to the inconsistencies, and downright lack of quality, found in Skull Face’s characterization. In Ground Zeroes, Skull Face is a deranged, yet composed, monster of a man who forces characters to rape one another, kills without remorse, and orchestrates the destruction of a private army players spent dozens of hours building in Peace Walker. All this is done to form a personal connection to Skull Face where audiences will naturally come to hate him and want to get revenge themselves. Conceptually, this is all great as it takes the theme of revenge that would be seen in TPP and extends it outside of the game. The revenge isn’t just personal for Big Boss/Venom, it’s personal for the player. This is a concept that only works if the villain is truly irredeemable, and Ground Zeroes does an excellent job at making Skull Face unlikable without making him a bad character. In fact, GZ Skull Face is one of the most disturbingly compelling villains in the franchise. Come The Phantom Pain, however, and Skull Face is given quite a bit of material to make him more sympathetic.
With any well written revenge story, it’s a given that the antagonist will have motivations that make them believe they’re in the right for their actions. Doubly so considering this is Metal Gear Solid where villains often end up coming off rather sympathetic either through their characterization or ultimate intentions. The problem is, Skull Face is introduced too far off the deep end to be reeled back in. This is a man who forced a child to rape a woman. This is a man who wants to commit legitimate mass genocide. Villains in the series have always wanted to use nukes for their own gains, but they were never so uncomfortably personal in their motivations. It’s not a bad thing to write an antagonist with uncomfortable motivations, but it is a bad thing to do so and then ignore those facets of their character in favor of making them come off a bit more sympathetic.
Skull Face wants to wipe out the English language as an act of revenge because imperialism took his home, language, and culture. In wiping out the English language, Skull Face can fire back at the people who effectively erased him from existence. That is a compelling, uncomfortable motivation that makes him a sympathetic figure in a bubble. In his mind, killing anyone who speaks English will save other cultures and languages from undergoing what he went through. Skull Face’s portrayal in The Phantom Pain cannot be separated from Ground Zeroes, however. Given the nature of Metal Gear as a series, TPP wants players to sympathize and see Skull Face’s point of view, but it wants them to do so without acknowledging the atrocities he committed in GZ. The destruction of MSF is one that’ll always be looming over the player, especially since much of the game is spent rebuilding it under the moniker “Diamond Dogs,” but the player is never expected to think back on what Skull Face did to Paz and Chico.
It certainly doesn’t help that Skull Face is far more affable and friendly in The Phantom Pain than he ever was in Ground Zeroes. His rapport with Venom is downright amicable at times. This is not the same character between two games, and it’s made all the more frustrating because both interpretations are great in their own right, but incompatible together. GZ Skull Face is a purely evil villain the series has never had before. There is nothing redeemable about him, but his sinister presence makes him a foe worth conquering. TPP Skull Face lost his culture and wants to put an end to the very real consequences of imperialism by any means necessary. His actions are extreme, but his motivation is uncomfortably understandable. At the same time, despite some implied resentment, he holds nothing against Venom personally and engages him in conversation whenever possible. One is a monster, the other is a man, and they don’t make a character with more depth when brought together. Rather, they just make Skull Face feel disjointed.
This is to say nothing about the antithetical implications of Skull Face’s character in relation to Venom, specifically regarding nuclear deterrence. Through Sahelanthropus, Skull Face could instill a fear of nukes back into the world. All militaries, in turn, would arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Since every nation would have nuclear weapons, however, no government would actually make use of their nukes out of fear of retaliation. In response, Venom is heavily anti-nuke to the point where The Phantom Pain rewards players for invading others’ bases in order to dismantle any nukes. Making Skull Face an almost shadow to Big Boss works conceptually, but the execution is sorely lacking, especially since Skull Face is neither dealing with the real Big Boss or interested in doing so. Rather, his goal is to get back at Zero who was introduced as the series’ overarching antagonist at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4.
There’s something to be said about the nature of phantom pain in this regard, especially since Skull Face effectively spends all of the first chapter accomplishing nothing. He’s not actually going head-to-head with Big Boss, meaning he can’t get revenge on Zero by hurting Venom; Big Boss and Zero aren’t even on speaking terms at this point, so getting revenge through Big Boss was already pointless; and Zero is already on his way to his deathbed, utterly demeaning Skull Face’s desire for revenge. On a thematic level, it all works, and revenge’s relationship with The Phantom Pain’s relationship with phantom pain stands out as one of the few things Metal Gear Solid V’s narrative does truly well. It’s hammered in all the more at the end of the chapter when Huey kills Skull Face in the name of revenge after Venom leaves him alive to suffer, thus robbing Venom and the player of all agency. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion that perfectly captures the futility of revenge and the essence of phantom pain. It’s just unfortunately tied to an inconsistently written villain.
In many ways, the first chapter is very much its own game with a proper beginning, middle, and game. It isn’t a particularly impressive one on the narrative side of things considering how little actually happens in the story, but it feels complete from a plot and thematic standpoint. All things considered, it might even feel more complete than the game’s actual ending. While the second chapter does tie up Venom’s and Quiet’s loose ends, everything else ends in an incohesive manner that may as well have been a cliffhanger. Chapter one doesn’t serve as a final conclusion to the series, but neither does chapter two. Metal Gear Solid V is a game destined to fail at bringing the series full circle, so why not end it at a point where the story at least feels complete in a literary sense? Regardless, The Phantom Pain was obviously never going to end with just one chapter.
It was going to end with two.
CHAPTER 2: RACE
For all its faults in characterizing Skull Face, tonal dissonance with Ground Zeroes, and a generally simplistic plot, The Phantom Pain’s first chapter was at least thematically cohesive. The theme of revenge is handled in an unsatisfyingly satisfying way that caps off the chapter appropriately. Come chapter two, “RACE,” however, and all that thematic cohesion is lost. Simply put, there is no central unifying theme of race in chapter two. If anything, REVENGE focused more on the concept of race considering Skull Face’s background, his desire to wipe out the English language, and the fact his ashen skin made it impossible to tell what “race” he was at first glance. The chapter actually named after race, on the other hand, does nothing with the idea. There is the Kikongo infection storyline that ends with Venom needing to execute his soldiers to prevent the parasite from wiping out his whole base, but that’s only very thinly connected to the concept of race.
Since chapter two’s title cannot be referring to racial relations, what else can “race” stand for? If it’s referring to the arms race then, once again, the concept is more at home with chapter one than chapter two as that’s the chapter which actually features nuclear weapons prominently. If not racial relations or the arms race, only a race to the finish line is left. That’s most likely not the intent behind the title, but it’s the only meaning that fits. Chapter two is mostly just filler. With the exception of Quiet’s character arc coming to an end and the resolution of the Kikongo infection, nothing narratively major happens in chapter two. In fact, it’s also significantly shorter than chapter one. In many ways, it feels like a literal race to the credits. At the very least, they’ll be scrolling rather quickly after starting the chapter.
So with no central theme or plot thread to unify the events of chapter two, how does it all feel? Disjointed, to say the least. Chapter two is a narrative low point for Metal Gear Solid as a whole. Much of the game is formatted in a pseudo-television structure where each mission acts as an almost “episode,” but this ends up hurting the game’s story since missions rarely ever connect into one another. There are exceptions, and they do stand out as particularly strong, but the end result is most of the game’s plot feeling like filler. RACE isn’t all bad with both main story lines having some interesting gameplay consequences associated with them, but the actual story is painfully bogged down by a lack of themes and quality.
In the case of the Kikongo infection, the emotions are all where they need to be. Forcing players into gunning down soldiers they personally recruited, and possibly even played as, is an appropriately cruel way of adding weight to the infection. It’s perhaps built up for far too long with some annoying gameplay consequences early on, but the payoff is emotionally phenomenal and serves as the only real piece of organic development Venom gets all game. It’s clear that killing his own men shakes him to his core, and this personal attachment to his soldiers separates him from Big Boss. The original leads from a distance and shows no remorse in losing MSF or forcing one of his soldiers to undergo a personality death in order to become his doppelganger, but the duplicate cares for his men like a family. This is an important distinction that needed to be made for Venom to stand out as his own character. It’s only a shame the actual infection has little thematic relevance and is so disconnected from everything else happening in the story.
As for Quiet, her ending doesn’t do much to salvage the disaster of a character she is. She wants revenge on Big Boss for burning her alive, tying into the themes of revenge found in chapter one, but she also falls in love with Venom adding an interesting spin to the concept of revenge. The man she wants to kill is now the man she loves. It’s perhaps a bit cliched, but it’s something that hasn’t been done in Metal Gear before. That’s where that concepts stops, though. For the majority of the game, Quiet does almost nothing to act on her vengeance. She even rejects the Wolbachia treatment later on out of her desire to infect Big Boss with the English parasite and wipe out Diamond Dogs, but that thread ultimately goes nowhere. All this is done so that, when Quiet finally speaks to Venom at the end of her arc in chapter two, she has to disappear before the parasites hatch and infect him.
Quiet’s arc is surprisingly inorganic for a character whose scenes stand out as some of the most organic in Metal Gear Solid V. Her introduction is sudden and tense, and her character defining moments come up seemingly at random, yet naturally, after landing on Mother Base. The progression of her arc, however, is virtually non-existent. Quiet grows to love Venom, but that’s really the extent of her character outside of wanting revenge on him, as well. Quiet is an underwritten love interest which is not a problem the Metal Gear series has had before. Meryl has an incredible arc in MGS whether she lives or dies; Rosemary has depth and her relationship with Raiden is dynamically real; EVA is working against Big Boss during the entirety of Snake Eater, but she still clearly has feelings for him and her relationship with The Boss adds layers to their relationship. Quiet has nothing to offer Venom, and Venom has nothing to offer her. Kojima went on record and said that audiences would feel “ashamed of [their] words and deeds” upon realizing the truth behind Quiet’s design, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of, at least from an audience perspective. What’s shameful is how poorly written her character and arc are compared to the series’ rather strong track record of female love interests. Quiet is a love interest first, a gameplay device second, and a character third.
Without a central unifying theme, chapter two suffers considerably. Focus is put onto a character who has no character and the Kikongo infection, while emotional, lacks any meaningful thematic connection to the rest of the game. There are other plot threads at play like Huey’s banishment from Mother Base and Eli hijacking Sahelanthropus, but the latter storyline goes absolutely nowhere. Quite literally, too, since the mission that would have resolved Eli’s robbery was cut from the final game. As is, Eli floats off in the world’s most advanced Metal Gear with a young Psycho Mantis and the two are never seen or heard from again. It’s not as if the first chapter didn’t have its disconnected story lines. The Man on Fire’s role feels more like fan service than anything else, but it could at least be tied back to Skull Face somehow. Chapter two’s events have no center that they can call back to.
Chapter one already felt disjointed thanks to the tonal dissonance between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, but chapter two takes it to an extreme. Skull Face is but a memory, Ground Zeroes’ themes and tones are non-existent, and the only narrative thread that ties chapter two to the rest of Metal Gear Solid V is the formal reveal that Venom was not Big Boss all along. Even then, chapter two sort of just happens and ends out of the blue. The final mission comes out of nowhere, it isn’t actually a brand new mission, instead forcing players into redoing the hospital prologue, and it ends with Big Boss informing Venom that the two of them are both Big Boss. Although there’s foreshadowing to the reveal throughout the whole game, there’s no real build up to it. Chapter two comes and goes without leaving any real impact on the series or Metal Gear Solid V as its own entity. It’s also doubtful this is a case of phantom pain considering how bare bones chapter two feels in comparison to the first. There’s almost no new content. That’s not a feature, that’s a lack of time. Chapter two will ultimately go down as the disappointing last third of Metal Gear Solid V. One has to wonder why Kojima even bothered separating the game into chapters if there were only going to be two.
Except there were actually meant to be three.
CHAPTER 3: PEACE
Call it cut content, phantom pain, or an impossible incentive, but “PEACE” is easily the most baffling aspect of The Phantom Pain. Literally disconnected from the rest of the game, TPP’s third chapter will apparently only trigger when all the nukes in the game have been dismantled. It’s an idea that goes hand-in-hand with Metal Gear Solid’s anti-nuke messages, but it’s also an impossibility. There is simply no way players will ever stop building nukes online and, with the advent of hackers, there is no way all those nukes will get destroyed, if even for a brief moment to trigger chapter three. On top of that, there’s no proof chapter three would bring with it any content. In fact, all evidence points to the idea that chapter three would bring nothing with it but a new cutscene where it’s revealed the last nuke has been decommissioned. PEACE means nothing in the long run because nothing can actually occur under the moniker of PEACE. Except for one stowed away storyline.
Hidden to a fault, Venom can bump into Paz on Mother Base during chapter two. In doing the missions associated with her character, Venom will slowly come to the realization that Paz isn’t real. It almost feels like a shame this piece of story is tossed so haphazardly into chapter two, but where else could it go in a game without a third chapter? Metal Gear Solid V is unfinished. That’s not speculation, that is a fact. It is clearly incomplete on a gameplay and narrative level which required shuffling. It’s entirely possible Paz was meant to be shoved into chapter three were there more time. Perhaps not as the main feature, but as side content. After all, PEACE is Paz’s namesake. It’s only natural Venom would have to come to terms with Paz’s death in a chapter inherently associated her.
Regardless of where Paz’s subplot was meant to be placed, the concept behind Venom needing to accept her death through hallucinations he’s been having is an important one that ties into Ground Zeroes in a big way. Venom clearly feels guilt over what happened on Camp Omega to the point where his psyche creates a version of Paz that’s alive so he won’t have to deal with the consequences of missing the second bomb. This is made all the more impactful with the revelation that Venom is actually the medic who performed Paz’s surgery, bringing with it the question of how much of himself was Venom allowed to keep.
On one hand, he’s fine to accept himself as Big Boss at the end of the game. On the other hand, Big Boss isn’t the type of character who would feel a particular amount of guilt over Paz. His goal in going to Camp Omega wasn’t even primarily to save her. Rather, the guilt feels more in-line with Venom and serves to separate the two characters further. In placing Paz’s subplot into chapter three, the title “PEACE” takes on a new meaning: peace of mind. Accepting Paz’s death and his role in her death is important for Venom as a character even if the audience never gets to see the result of such a development. Venom believes himself to be Big Boss, but Paz is proof that the medic is still alive within him, allowing both characters to exist in their own right.
ENDING: THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
Without a doubt, The Phantom Pain features the single worst ending act in the series on a conceptual level, to the point where it in no way justifies separating Metal Gear Solid V into two separate games. In forcing players to replay the incredibly long opening mission, MGSV takes one of its best aspects and turns it into tedium. The idea of reusing the beginning of the game as the ending is an interesting one, and it almost makes sense given the nature of the game, but it just goes to show how little content chapter two really had. It’s all style, no substance, and that just doesn’t fly for Metal Gear Solid at this point. Replaying the opening is horrifically boring and adds nothing new to the experience other than a few scenes with Big Boss. The only real reason to endure the mission is to get to the twist and watch the credits roll one last time.
Although the build up to the twist and ending is as awful as it could be possibly be, the actual revelation is perhaps Metal Gear Solid V’s strongest moment. Completely antithetical to MGS2’s message that Raiden should not want to be like Solid Snake, MGSV embraces the idea of making the audience Big Boss. Venom wasn’t the real Big Boss all along, but he was, because he thought he was Big Boss. Players were never really Big Boss, just playing as him, but playing as him was enough to be Big Boss. Venom is a message to the audience that they deserve to be Big Boss and they were Big Boss all along. In the same way time was kind to Raiden, time will likely be kind to Venom. He is a well realized character who separates himself from his origin while embracing it head on once he learns the truth. At the end of the day, Metal Gear Solid V is about embracing one’s role as a legend.
Which is a problem in and of itself, because the point of Big Boss’ saga was to chronicle his downfall, not glorify him to the point of allowing players to call themselves Big Boss. The twist itself is great, and one of the best in the entire franchise on a conceptual level, but it goes against the entire notion of Big Boss’ downfall. It can be argued that Big Boss forcing a medic to undergo a personality death for his own selfish means was the real turning point, but it should not be argued because Metal Gear Solid V is in no way subtle enough for that to be the case. That idea could work in the pre-Peace Walker games, but by no means post. Kojima’s writing simply got simpler after Metal Gear Solid 4. That doesn’t mean Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V are lacking in nuance, but they in no way match up to the level of quality and coherence found in the earlier games.
The lack of Big Boss’ downfall is especially frustrating considering every game starring him after Snake Eater, with the exception of Ground Zeroes, simply repeated his character arc from MGS3. Big Boss’ entire saga essentially builds up to him going into a coma and control being given to Venom. The Phantom Pain technically isn’t even a Big Boss game since Venom’s arc is very much specific to him. As a result, Big Boss’ arc is left incomplete by the end of the game and, by extension, the series. This is to say nothing about the fact that his character arc was actually finished by the end of Snake Eater, but Kojima decided to push it even further effectively meaning Big Boss’ arc concluded, was rendered incomplete by Portable Ops and Peace Walker, and then ended incomplete with The Phantom Pain. The tragedy of Big Boss isn’t his downfall. It’s the fact his arc ended perfectly in Snake Eater, but was forced to arbitrarily keep going.
Big Boss aside, The Man Who Sold the World is a bad ending not because of the twist, but because of everything around the twist. There is no build up, there is no pay off, and the final mission does nothing to connect the player into the ending. Metal Gear Solid had a sense of genuine finality; Metal Gear Solid 2 outright told players to turn off their PS2s; Metal Gear Solid 3 forced the player to kill The Boss; and Metal Gear Solid 4 featured one final torture mission with the microwave that really embodied Snake’s pain and then immediately transitioned into one of the greatest final boss fights in gaming. Portable Ops and Peace Walker, while not on the same level, at least had engaging set pieces for their endings. Metal Gear Solid V simply reuses the tutorial mission without changing the gameplay. It’s blatant padding and a disgraceful conclusion to the game’s own twist.
What’s saddest about Metal Gear Solid V’s conclusion is that it genuinely feels like very little has happened. Big Boss’ character arc hasn’t advanced; Big Boss hasn’t turned into the villain he was promised to turn into; Venom has no real impact on the series’ legacy as a character; and MGSV brought up more questions than it answered. As the final missing link to Metal Gear’s puzzle, it’s hard to accept that this is the series’ true finale. Konami might develop more games with the Metal Gear title as evidenced by Survive, but they won’t be directed by Kojima. The latter few games certainly lacked in comparison to the first few, but they were still stories told by the original author. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid is over, and it ends with Venom Snake walking off to his death. Perhaps that’s a fitting conclusion to end the franchise on in its own right. After being given the title of Big Boss, players have to watch their surrogate march off only to be killed by the series’ original protagonist. Metal Gear Solid V ends up meaning nothing in the long run since Solid Snake never discovers Venom’s identity; Big Boss never seems to care about his body double; and Zero ends up trying to make amends with Venom instead of Big Boss, ensuring no closure is given to their relationship. Intentional or not, for better or for worse, The Phantom Pain leaves only a phantom pain.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.
The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.
In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?
The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.
Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!
As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?
World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.
The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.
Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.
You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?
PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home. When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.
One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?
I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.
You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?
Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.
There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”
You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?
I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.
Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?
It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.
At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?
He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.
Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?
I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.
As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?
I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.
Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?
I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!
Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?
No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.
Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect?
Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.
A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.
Indie Games Spotlight – Looking Ahead to 2020
The year is coming to an end. The holidays are just around the corner. We’ve already published our list of the best indie games of 2019 and now it is time to start looking forward to 2020. In what is sure to be our last Indie Games Spotlight of 2019, we take a look at some of the indies set for release next year. This issue includes a student project that led to the creation of an indie studio; a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game; and a comedic occult adventure game that takes place during World War II. All this and more!
Imagine, “if Limbo and Portal had a weird baby.”
Aspyr and Tunnel Vision Games announced that their long-awaited, award-winning puzzle game, Lightmatter, arrives on Steam on January 15, 2020.
Lightmatter is an atmospheric, first-person puzzle game set inside a mysterious experimental facility where the shadows will kill you. The game tells a sci-fi story about a maniac inventor who has created the ultimate power source called Lightmatter. Players must explore the facility in an attempt to discover the hidden plot while facing challenging puzzles that require mastering different light sources to survive.
Not only does the game look great but what’s even more impressive is that Lightmatter originally started out as a university project where a group of Medialogy students wanted to explore lights and shadows as the primary gameplay mechanic in a puzzle game. After creating a 15-minute prototype, the team offered it as a free download on Reddit. To their surprise, the game became an overnight success with thousands of downloads and multiple accolades from game conferences around the world. It didn’t take long before they created Tunnel Vision Games with the mission to take the light/shadow concept further and turn it into a fully-fledged game. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nine Witches: Family Disruption
Investigate the Occult
Nine Witches: Family Disruption is the comedic occult adventure game you’ve been waiting for. From Blowfish Studios and Indiesruption, the game takes place in a rustic Norwegian village on the fringe of World War II, where a supernatural scholar investigates the Nazi’s plan to conjure a dark ancient power and strike a devastating blow to the Allied powers. Players must investigate their plots by communing with a variety of eccentric characters from the realms of both the living and the dead. It’s your job to unravel a mystical mystery and put a stop to the Okkulte-SS’s evil schemes before it’s too late.
“Nine Witches: Family Disruption was born from my desire to blend world history with magic and my personal sense of humor,” said Diego Cánepa, designer, Indiesruption. “I’m grateful Blowfish Studios are using their powers to help me bring the game to consoles and PC so this story can be enjoyed by players across the world.” If you like indie games with beautiful, retro-inspired pixel art and a comical story dripping with gleefully absurd, dark humor, you’ll want to check this out. Nine Witches: Family Disruption summons supernatural hi-jinks to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for Windows PC in Q2 2020.
Explore a mysterious ship.
Ahead of next year’s anticipated release of Filament, Kasedo Games & Beard Envy have revealed an exclusive look into the making of the upcoming puzzle game with the first in a series of short dev featurettes. Developed by three friends in the front room of their shared house, Filament is a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game centered around solving sets of cable-based puzzles whilst exploring a seemingly abandoned spaceship. According to the press release, Filament lets you freely explore the mysterious ship, solving over 300 challenging and varied puzzles in (almost) any order you like.
If you’d like to learn more, we recommend checking out the short episode series which explains the complexity and variety of puzzles and offers an insight into how the game was made. Filament will release for PC and consoles next year.
West of the Dead
The Wild West has never been this dark.
Announced at X019 in London, West of Dead is a fast-paced twin-stick shooter developed by UK-based studio Upstream Arcade. The game stars Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) as the voice of the main protagonist William Mason, a dead man awakened with only the memory of a figure in black. His existence sets into motion a chain of events that have truly mythic consequences.
Thrown into the unknown procedurally generated hunting grounds of Purgatory, your skills will be put to the test as you shoot and dodge your way through the grime and grit of the underworld. No one said dying would be easy and West of the Dead will surely test your skills. The battle for your soul will take place on Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2020.
The Red Lantern
Survive the Alaskan wilderness in this dog sledding, story-driven, rogue-lite game
We first took notice of The Red Lantern during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year and ever since we’ve been impatiently awaiting its release. The Red Lantern is a resource management game where you and your team of five sled dogs must survive the wilderness and find your way home. Set in Nome, Alaska, you play as The Musher, voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange), as she sets out to train for the grueling Iditarod race.
The game combines rogue-lite elements into this story-driven adventure game, where hundreds of different events can occur—like fending off bears, resisting frostbite, attending your dogs, or receiving a signature moose-licking. This might be the first and last dog-sledding survival game we will ever play but that’s fine by us because judging by the screenshots and trailer, the game looks terrific. The Red Lantern is Timberline Studio’s debut game and is funded by Kowloon Nights. The game will be releasing on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2020.
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