The Metal Gear Solid series has a history with encouraging non-lethal play. From ranking systems that formally reward players who leave no casualties to scenes that have you face the ghosts of enemies you’ve previously killed, it has always been a strong philosophical tenet of the series. In fact, the latest entry in the series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, has been praised for further rewarding non-lethal play. While it may initially seem like the systems in place here encourage a more morally sound approach, if a more difficult one, its initial appearance hides more insidious and exploitative undertones.
In understanding The Phantom Pain we need to understand the role the open world plays in it. Unlike the previous, more linear entries in the series, this one takes an approach favored by Western developers by placing you in an open world set in two large environments, Afghanistan and Angola. Placed within a Cold War timeline, these are places that have been destabilized by Western nations, both through interventionist policies and histories of colonialism.
Concurrently, open world games often reflect colonialist philosophies. Specifically, open world games encourage the steady domination of a landscape in order to make it more favorable to the player, and to exploit its resources. Think of the way the Far Cry games encourage you to raid the area’s wealth, animals and plant life for your benefit. Or the ubiquitous outpost or tower format that sees you eliminate a group of guards in order to secure safer passage or create a continuous stream of revenue. These come in different forms for each game, but the principle is the same: dominate these people and places because it will benefit you.
In this video, Chris Franklin speaks about how win states contextualize play by defining the value of actions by how they push you closer or further to those win states. Within the realm of open world games these actions of domination become a systematic positive. Draining the world of valuable materials and eliminating its wildlife and people pushes you closer to your ultimate goal. It becomes almost a moral good within the worldview of the game. It encourages you to think of people not as humans, but as obstacles to be removed.
The Phantom Pain completes this metaphor, ironically, by the methods with which it encourages non-lethal play. Here non-lethal play is encouraged not by imbuing these non-player characters with humanity, but making them valuable to the player as a resource. While there is still a formal ranking system, its focus on going undetected and performing missions quickly means that in a lot of situations it may actually be preferable to kill enemies than stun them and chance having them regain consciousness. To counteract that, soldiers can be removed from the field by attaching a large balloon that will extract them to your base, but only if they are still alive. They are then added to your staff, boosting the speed of your progress and allowing better tools to be developed.
Players are encouraged not to kill these soldiers, not because of the potential loss of humanity, but the loss of a resource. Killing a soldier means losing an opportunity to make forward progress. This becomes more insidious upon the acquisition of an upgrade to your binoculars that allows you to scan soldiers for their proficiencies. It further defines the worth of these soldiers by how valuable they are to you. As I progressed further into the game, space within my base became more limited, requiring me to pick staff that provided the most benefit in order to operate efficiently. With that in mind I found myself scouting bases beforehand and marking proficient soldiers as ones to capture, the rest becoming “expendable” in my mind. Hearing stories of other players confirmed to me that I wasn’t the only one approaching it this way.
This in turn creates a mentality that reflects a sort of biological determinism, or a belief that aptitudes, and often human value, are determined by biological traits. While soldiers can slowly be trained to become more competent in other areas, they’ll always be limited by their base attributes and skills. In turn, building a strong base and making forward progress becomes a matter of carefully selecting those with the strongest traits and culling members who are no longer useful. There is no space for low ranking soldiers, who become less valuable as a resource and therefore expendable. There’s a through line here in the way that philosophies like these played into justifications for colonialism.
Biological determinism, among other philosophies, created a narrative of the native inhabitants as “savages” who by birth were lower forms of life, and the oppressors as bringing them enlightenment. This acted as justification for the systematic elimination and oppression of these people. Those that weren’t outright killed were often forced into labor or slavery, their worth defined by their ability to contribute to these new colonies.
Of course, religion also played its part in these conquests. It often worked along similar lines, giving the conquerors not only a sense of moral supremacy to those they conquered, but often justifying it as their duty to a greater moral power. Here priests served a vital role in removing the culture and religion of the populace and converting them to theirs. This continues to be reflected within The Phantom Pain. Soldiers extracted from the field are converted to Big Boss’ cause and recruited into his organization, Diamond Dogs, or are held on the brig until their minds are changed.
The game does engage with this briefly: audio tapes describe the process of conversion, and one recorded exchange has Big Boss being assured that all soldiers are there by their own will. It acts as more of a hand wave than a proper justification, and you get the sense that neither Big Boss, or even the game itself, is convinced. Further tapes reveal the deification of Big Boss, with him continually represented as a legendary figure who creeps ever closer to myth. Soldiers fight for him because of their belief in this myth, and his philosophy of a stateless military force. Despite Big Boss’ desire for a place outside of nations he operates as living propaganda, fueling nationalistic fervor and religious zeal in the same ways those nations have been guilty of. He supplies the image and philosophy that makes these soldiers believe they are fighting for a righteous cause.
At this point there are inevitably people who will define these undertones as intentional, as proof of the genius and intelligence of the auteur behind the series. It’s a philosophical head butting contest I find tiresome and counterproductive. For my money, there is little in almost 40 hours of play that directly engages these themes, the conversation between you and the game limited mostly to the game’s insistence that you continue to propagate these colonial systems.
Regardless of that, it’s useful to engage these ideas in the larger context of the metanarrative of both the game and series. How do they contribute to Big Boss’ character arc as the series antagonist? How is this framed by his American national origin, a country that’s shown as both a driving force of conflict and the source of the series’ heroes? Most importantly, what does this say about us, who seem to enjoy this method of accumulating power so much?
Omar Elaasar is a Chicago based writer, artist, and Editor-in-Chief of clickbliss.net. He can be found online as ‘siegarettes’ on Twitter, Medium, and Youtube.