A History of Violence Part 2: The Phantom Pain

The protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 5, Big Boss, sits in the middle of a helicopter. The text "... I am not afraid." is seen at the bA History of Violence is a series examining games that handle violence in a powerful, unusual or mature way. 

Some story details and spoilers for MGS5 follow.

Military games, most obviously Call of Duty and Battlefield, tend to be about following orders. They place the player into a situation where morality and the objective are clear. The player must simply carry out that objective and enforce that morality. As a result, many games put the player into a military setting, but few place them at the head of it. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain dares to make the player the leader of a military organization. It dares to examine how war shapes both high-ranking officers and lowly cadets. In so doing, it explores how industry, war, and revenge distort our inherent humanity. It explores how we become tools in the hands of war.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain(hereafter referred to as MGS5) begins with the player character, Snake, awaking to their life wrecked. Snake discovers that after his mercenary group was destroyed in a surprise attack, he was nearly killed in a explosion. He has been in a coma for nine years. With all that he has lost, he decides to build anew and seek revenge. Your organization, Diamond Dogs, starts small, but it grows as you complete missions, recruit soldiers, and research new tech. It is in that process that dehumanization begins.

Several pictures of soliders, including group photos and personal shots.

The way in which the game’s systems force you to treat your soldiers is the most explicit thematic use of dehumanization. For example, your organization needs soldiers and they cannot be gained through recruitment and rescue missions alone. You must gain them by brainwashing enemies. Any enemy you physically incapacitate can be transported back to your base. After which, they join your ranks. In MGS5, ideology and political affiliation can be changed. Names can be erased and replaced with a code. Because you can kidnap enemies from multiple sides of a conflict, even former rivals can join forces. There is a kind of equality in this. Diamond Dogs is as color and gender blind as the player allows it to be. However, it also represents a clear removal of humanity. There is nothing to distinguish these men, because they are so rarely distinct. All are nameless faces. This is proved by the game’s more human interactions. You can visit your troops at your base, but they only express adoration and make noncontroversial requests. They occasionally ask you to train with them, which consists of you beating them up. They thank you for it. It is a kind of paradise, but at the cost of what makes these soldiers human.

Furthermore, they are only defined through their relationship to you and their skills. For example, every soldier you recruit is placed into one of several departments: R&D, Combat, Intel, etc. The power of these departments is not only determined by the population of that department, but in the skill of the soldiers in it. At the beginning of the game, you extract every man you come across, because you need to grow. However, as you become more powerful, you begin to slow down. You begin to break down the value of your soldiers to their skills, extracting only those who have high enough stats. You fire longtime soldiers because they are no longer at par. Diamond Dogs is not a place for compassion, but a place for efficiency. The people you employ are literal statistics. They are to be moved and used up as you see fit. The cutscenes show a bond of brotherhood between the soldiers and Snake, but this system reveals a more complex underbelly.

Big Boss carries his disabled friendThe dehumanization extends to the leaders. Snake is defined by his pain. After the surprise attack that drives the game’s plot, his body was painstakingly reconstructed. However, many scars remain. Most notably, he has a missing hand and a piece of shrapnel protruding from his head like a devil’s horn. His injuries act as a visual metaphor for his existence. He carries the revenge he seeks on his body. These wounds even make him a more effective soldier. His missing limb is replaced by a high tech arm, that acts as a weapon that can be upgraded and changed. Beyond his visual appearance, he barely speaks and he is played by a different voice actor than every other game in the series. Through these details, it is clear that he has lost himself to the machine of war.

As another example, your right hand man, Kazuhira Miller, lost two limbs in the explosion that maimed you. Unlike the player, he refuses to replace his lost limbs with prosthetics. He believes that their absence will remind him of what he has lost. He believes that his pain and resentment will make him a better tool of war. The point is not that Miller is less than human because he is disabled, but that he intentionally holds onto his anger to become a warrior.

A man on fire, made of bullets and schrapel, stands in front of a white horse which has a unicorn hornNo character better embodies the game’s metaphors about the dehumanization of war than “the man on fire.” He is a resurrected enemy that has lost all ability to speak or act. He is able to absorb every attack, only to throw it back and cause more destruction. This is a blatant metaphor for the machine of war. The more you attack it, the more strength it gains. The “man on fire” also acts as a foil for the player. His image mirrors the player’s, including the “horn” of shrapnel crowning his head. The cutscenes show him looming over the camera. He embodies the hatred and pain within Snake and thus is able to overpower him. From the early moments of the game, “the man on fire” remains a constant presence and threat. He is a reminder of what you are truly doing.

The lone positive example is Quiet, because she chooses to leave the world of war behind. She is an assassin who attempts to kill Snake, but eventually joins him after he spares her life. She can teleport and is an unnaturally good shot. These abilities are granted by parasites that prevent her from speaking. Clearly, she has also been damaged by war. But unlike Snake, Miller, and “the man on fire”, she is not consumed by it. She joins Snake out of gratitude and remains separate from his military culture. Miller and the other soldiers do not trust her, because she is different from them. She has freed herself from adherence to revenge or war. All other characters circle around Snake. They may not always agree with him, but they defer to him and take his orders. Quiet respects Snake in a way that is beyond that. If the player takes her on missions, she is unpredictable and will take action without player prompting. She disobeys Snake, even as she fights beside him. Partway through the game it is revealed that Quiet’s parasites would infect and kill Snake and the rest of his mercenary crew if she spoke. She was sent to finish him off, but rather than indulging vengeance, she does not speak. Eventually, she parts ways with Snake in order to save the Diamond Dogs from herself. She is the only character to leave voluntarily. She refuses to define herself by the machine she was a part of.  While the other characters embrace pain to become less human, Quiet heals herself and finds her humanity again.

A close up of the female character Quiet's faceMGS5 is a game about self-destruction. It shows us people that enter the world of war and revenge only to become something else. They become twisted and changed, blackened in the fire that consumes all who enter war. It postulates that we become less human as we embrace the machine and more human as we break from it. While the game actively encourages the use of the military industrial complex, it also shows what horror that complex can cause. It shows how war can demonize and destroy us. The titular phantom pain is the loss of our souls. It is the loss we feel when we lose ourselves.

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