The much maligned ending of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has left some fans soured, but not everyone thinks so.
Changing a long-running series can be tricky. You never see Mario sway too far from the flag pole or Grand Theft Auto back off from its exaggerated realism, and what’s happened to The Phantom Pain is a prime example of why. A lot of fans are split and unsure of how effective this transition to open-world stealth really is, or how the episodic story really feels when compared to the rest of the series.
As you can see in my review, Metal Gear Solid V felt to me like an unparalleled gaming experience that mingles at the top of my imaginary “Games of the Century” list. That experience included dodging tank shells, making organic, instantaneous decisions to further a mission, and deriving so much from the part that a lot of negativity seems to be focusing upon, the game’s ending. Other factors, such as Konami’s year-long mudslide of bad press, seem to be really focusing a ray of sun-fueled hatred onto that one particular spot. This feels incredibly unfortunate as the last cutscene-and-change works for the game on so many levels and, while not clearing up every hole, creates a credible bridge between The Phantom Pain and the original Metal Gear. This is a bridge that deserves appreciation for its involved risk and, even if you still don’t enjoy it, a full dive into the fog from whence these phantoms emerged.
There will be so many spoilers to come, so please avert your eyes if you are sensitive to reading a lot about Metal Gear Solid V.
There seems to be two elephants in the room that need to be addressed posthaste. First, the “Episode 51” exclusion from the game that makes many feel as though the game is incomplete. Eli and the future Psycho Mantis basically have Sahelanthropus’ husk, the English parasite strain and child soldiers in their own island that needs to be cleansed with fire. Drama ensues around a fight against the husk and the kids, potentially setting Eli into his collision course against his own gene pool.
After watching this, you can see at least one reason why Hideo Kojima cut it from the game’s end area: it adds nothing to the story. Eli’s motivations are already clear when he takes off from Mother Base (he says them!), Psycho Mantis is already established as attached to him, Sahelanthropus has been made useless, as revealed in the tapes, by Snake’s previous onslaught; there is no lore-based reason for that episode to exist. Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid had experience with Gears, had his allies from before, and had an awareness of his brother, which are all accounted for and addressed without that scene. Would another fight against Sahelanthropus feel pretty awesome? Absolutely, but it would have added nothing to the lore and nothing to the game itself, especially after the revelations in Episode 46.
Which leads straight into elephant number two: this is a game with a numeral for “5” in the title coming in the middle of probably the longest and most complex gaming series ever conceived. This was never going to be Guns of the Patriots levels of conclusion and satisfaction because of its placement and Kojima’s desire to let the player think through the conclusion for themselves. This is a series, and the answers to all the questions won’t be in every single entry.
Metal Gear Solid V is a game featuring phantoms almost exclusively with the two main ones, Skull Face and Venom Snake, embodying the two paths that most other phantoms in the game follow. Skull Face lived his entire life as one, evolving to fit his master at the time and even moving behind Big Boss in Snake Eater in unseen ways. Even when he died, Major Zero wasn’t finished with him; Skull Face was born officially when Zero infected his body with parasites, resurrecting and making him unable to die in a natural way. The agent that became Skull Face wanted to die, and as a phantom, embraced that honor and release. Zero, in resurrecting him against his will, gave him another way; if he couldn’t die and was going to live despite his choosing, then he would exist and matter in a way that no phantom ever could. He lashed back against Zero and the world, turning his final master into the decomposing, brain-dead phantom we see him as in Guns of the Patriots.
Even so, Skull Face would never come to matter in the world’s eyes and, therefore, never “exist.” He died a phantom thanks in part to Huey’s itchy trigger finger. Sahelanthropus, his parasites, Code Talker, Quiet, the Man on Fire; all of these factors he worked so hard to cultivate ultimately only fought other phantoms, leaving nothing behind for anyone to discover besides fire and smoke.
Venom Snake took almost the exact opposite path in Metal Gear Solid V. This nameless, elite soldier was hypnotized into thinking he was Big Boss, gaining to ability to lie to himself on a visual level thanks to Ocelot and Major Zero’s techniques. At some point though, V came to; Venom Snake reawakened within a body that resembled Big Boss’ and he remembered who he was again. This seemed to happen around the time of the second infection on Mother Base as he really seems to take hold of the Diamond Dogs family and his leadership of that family.
With that in mind, he comes to the last scene of the game, listening to the tape entitled “From the Man Who Sold the World.” He is aware now of his duality, of this voice on the tape being that of Big Boss proper, and that he is and has been a phantom for the duration. He doesn’t exist and can’t. That is until Big Boss says those magic words that give the awakened Venom Snake the chance to become a legend, “From here on out, you’re Big Boss.” What follows feels brilliantly simple and demonic all in one flow:
Venom now has his mission, shown on the side-B of that tape as “Operation Intrude,” but also has his chance to exist. Skull Face squandered his chance on vengeance whereas Venom Snake looks poised to simply surpass the original Big Boss. He no longer seems contented to follow and protect his sworn leader, especially not after hearing the unbridled trust of his own men as he had to shoot in the head, or saving the world from Skull Face’s nuclear saturation. The pain of not existing weighed upon Venom Snake to such a degree that what was meant to be a temporary passing of the torch turned into an outright betrayal of their mission at some point in the series. Venom has a need to exist and will do so by making his own plan, to infiltrate Cipher and kick start the original Metal Gear, his own way under the guise of the legendary soldier himself.
Kaz followed a similar path as revealed in the post-credits scene, as did Huey beneath his sadistic actions. Almost all of Big Boss’ former allies, in fact, are driven by the need to exist and make their mark to such as extent that they end up forsaking him both directly and indirectly. You can make a valid argument that Kaz is the biggest traitor of them all as he had full awareness of the real Big Boss being elsewhere and the phantom status of the entire Mother Base, but he didn’t care. He wanted his revenge against Cipher and Major Zero in such an intense, aching way that the real Big Boss was dead to him after all they’d been through together.
Where the bow of Metal Gear Solid V really wraps tightly is in the series of cassettes entitled “The Truth Records.” Even the implication that this little section of tapes – just 12 out of the dozens you receive – is the one zone where the truth can be heard should intensify your focus tremendously as the spools roll. Major Zero is heard at length in captivating interactions with Paz, Kaz, Ocelot, Skull Face, and even Big Boss when he was still in a coma.
So much is revealed about this big brother antagonist and his almost terrifying level of control and paranoia, including the melancholy fact that Cipher and Zero had nothing at all to do with the Ground Zeroes incident. Skull Face was acting alone and was punished for his transgressions by Zero himself. The Major was responsible for moving Big Boss, keeping him safe, and developing Venom Snake’s mind into that of a phantom, even at one point going to Cyprus personally and actively pleading at his friend Jack’s bedside for him to wake up before it’s too late.
Of course, it would be too late when Big Boss awoke, leading directly to the events of Metal Gear Solid V where Kaz is pushing Venom Snake to the front of the line with a rifle, ready to shoot at fog and phantoms. Another factor in play is the fact that Venom Snake is the one holding these tapes, and is the only one who has the truth readily available. Big Boss is still weaving his plan off-screen with his only friend Ocelot giving him bits and pieces of information, but Venom, as evidenced by that sly smile and rejection of his demonic, phantom form, holds the power.
In an interesting way, the end of The Phantom Pain also seems to work as a fourth-wall metaphor where Big Boss is talking directly to the player. This could be interpreted as a farewell from Kojima even with his Big Boss creation days, supposedly, behind him, his hope being that we players carry on this legend until the end of time. As it stands, this really feels like a metaphor for the part of the story that a lot of people overlook in the gameplay and organic approaches to bases and combat. You’re literally creating the legends that soldiers will tell of Big Boss, feeding into your heroism or demonic meters where legions of soldiers will come to respect or fear you and your growing horn. It serves as a reminder that the player has told and created just as much story in The Phantom Pain as Kojima and his team, and those tales of heroism, or otherwise, can live on beyond the game.
Legends in the gaming industry rarely change in meaningful ways. Color palette swaps or location differences are almost never allowed to touch what really draws players to a specific character or franchise. Metal Gear Solid V is a rare example of diversion in story and gameplay at once, combining the two in a way usually reserved for RPGs while making each player their own personal series protagonist. The complete picture – as complete as it can be – comes together in that ending in ways both expected and unexpected, subtle and loud, and certainly in a way that deserves to be talked about and appreciated. If you don’t like it still, then stick to your guns. But at the very least, respect Kojima for putting his legend at stake just to bring the gaming world something it had never experienced before.