Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain essay, analysis, and critique
Metal Gear Solid 5 has been out for awhile; now that the dust has settled, it’s time to discuss Big Boss’ arc. Metal Gear Solid 3’s literary lineage was fairly clear: an homage to James Bond and the spy thrillers of the 1970s. Metal Gear Solid 5’s influences, on the other hand, are harder to parse. I’m going to argue that The Phantom Pain’s literary contemporary is The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.
Dorian Gray is about a beautiful man whose good looks lead him down a path of indulgence. Early on, he has his portrait painted by a friend, which we quickly learn ages in his place. Dorian hides the painting in his attic, but his life heads in a downward spiral all the same. As Gray’s life decays, so too does the painting; with every missteps the man makes, the painting transforms to reflect his inner demons. The novel ends with Dorian trying to absolve his sins by destroying the painting. The twist is that Dorian’s body is found old and shriveled, while the painting has once again changed to show a beautiful young man.
Unlike the novel, almost everyone in Metal Gear Solid 5 is in on the secret except the player. The game has a mechanic where your horn grows the more you kill (the portrait becoming more deformed, the more evil you become.) We are Big Boss. Our face full of scars, a missing arm, and a voice that isn’t even our own. Skull Face may be a flimsy character, but his appearance is a symbolic one: he is Snake in a 100% pure evil manifestation. Both characters are immortal but at varying stages of becoming disconnected from their humanity. You can argue Quiet is the other side of the spectrum: she starts off trying to murder Snake, but ultimately becomes his saviour. In the end, it is Big Boss (a snake bite) that gets rid of her forever.
In gothic literature, there’s a point of no return; a moment of reckoning where someone makes a choice they can’t come back from. In Sardonicus, it’s when he defiles his father’s grave for wealth. In Frankenstein, it’s when Victor abandons his creation. For Skull Face, it’s when he rapes and tortures at Camp Omega (you know that old song and dance, sigh). But what is it for Big Boss? Is it when he makes his own army, profiting on the lives of others? Coerces others to kill for him? When he didn’t shake that guy’s hand at the end of 3!? Of course not, the moment of no return for Big Boss was when he was forced to murder the most important person in his world in Metal Gear Solid 3.
In Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain we’re already evil. We’re evil at the end of Snake Eater, and we’re evil in Ground Zeroes. And if Snake is already a villain, then Metal Gear Solid 5 a paradox; a story about his descent that’s already reached a pinnacle. There is no arc; in The Phantom Pain Snake stays the same. At the very end of the game, when the curtain has been lifted, we’re given a close-up of Big Boss’s face. No scars, or scratches. No horns. He appears just as he did at the end of Snake Eater. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, we’re confronted with our mirror image, and it looks nothing like us. Big Boss then literally blows smoke in our face, before we shatter our reflection and turn to face our end.
Please consider donating to Castle Couch. All of our content is handmade with real love — we couldn't do it without you.