Initial Thoughts on Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

I apologise in advance for this entry but I have to catch a train to London in one hour! This blog, however, don’t stop for nuthin’ so let’s go ahead anyway.

Other contributors to the blog have written about time in video games and other media and how their perception of an art form is affected by the decades of experience leading up to the moment of consumption. Adam and Mao are better at this stuff than me and I’m not going to try and step on their toes but in lieu of having the free time to write a reasoned and proper blog post I want write a little something about my experience with the recently released Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain because I think Time played a big role in my consumption/enjoyment/reading of the game.

Adam pointed me toward this blog a few weeks ago which discussed the role of the Codec in the previous Metal Gear Solid (MGS) games – a radio device that let the developers “tell not show” by having central characters unload overwhelming amounts of exposition over an effectively blank screen. What struck me most about this piece was that it was unavoidably personal and, for me, the most interesting parts of it came out in the author’s reflection on how their enjoyment of the games changed over time.

I’m not going to copy that here but I do want to say that for anyone(/man) my age who played games growing up in Sony-dominated Europe, Metal Gear Solid was kind of a big deal. For 9 year old Fraser, though, it wasn’t a big deal because it was the closest to films video-games had ever been, or because the story was so good (nuclear deterrence didn’t mean much to this 9 year old). It was a big deal because I could throw guards down staircases into other guards, because I could tap on a wall and run through a puddle and people would hear me and say “Huh?” and come to see what was up.


MGS remained a toybox for me until about 6 months ago if I’m being honest. So many complaints have been levied against the games (objectively) clunky controls but when you’re a kid you don’t question the design choices of a dev team. You simply work within the constraints of the system you’re given – accepting it as “the way it is” because you can’t (or at least I couldn’t) fathom that human beings were behind this bizarre abstract thing.

It wasn’t until I started watching a video series – Metal Gear Scanlon – earlier this year that MGS became about the story for me. Watching Drew Scanlon play through the series – myself removed from any interaction – foregrounded just how incredible(/terrible) the story of these games are and got me super psyched for The Phantom Pain.

So I’m now a bit confused coming to the The Phantom Pain, a game which has pretty much has no story – a game that is pretty much a toybox in which you can do whatever you want with a control system that actually works for the first time in the series. It’s everything I wanted in an MGS game until earlier this year. Now, going to The Phantom Pain I can sort of feel my past and present selves tugging at each other to damn/praise each part of the game. (As if my past were a PHANTOM. Innit.)

Trying to reconcile these two interests made MGSV actually super stressful to play. The game came out last Tuesday and I’d finished it by Sunday. It took 35 hours. I’m also doing a PhD. I also quite like sleep. I also like finishing a game without having it spoiled for me and for some reason 2015 Fraser thinks it makes more sense to rush through a game than simply avoid those corners of the internet where the story may be ruined.

Rushing through the game made me resent a lot of the later missions which, unfortunately, offer the most opportunities to mess about with all the shiny toys. And when the story turned out to be as thin as it is I felt like I had been cheated out of enjoyment of the game even though I had nobody to blame but myself. It’s pretentious to say, but the fragmentation of myself as a video-game fan and consumer of online media in 2015 led to MGSV being a particularly stressful and dislocated experience that, despite the joy it certainly afforded me, made me think lesser of the game. I know that this initial reaction was brought on by my own choice to rush through it (and to buy into marketing materials that promised the closure of the entire MGS franchise (which we already got in MGS4)), but “academicising” about the reasons why doesn’t necessarily help on a moment to moment basis.

There’s a lot I want to say about MGSV – I want to talk about turning a discussion of exploited child soldiers into a Lost Boys narrative; I want to talk about how the unfinished nature of the game might add to a reading of it as a fitting goodbye from the series director, Hideo Kojima; and I want to talk about the ending – but I have to go to London now so that will have to come in the future. Consider this a prologue; as convoluted, messy and self-indulgent as Metal Gear itself.

– Fraser


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