As the strange tale of Kojima’s meta-narrative becomes more complex and epic, when can we expect to see him tip his hand and explain everything? Why hasn’t he done this yet? Why does he keep his genius secret?
The short answer is that, over time, Kojima has learned to embrace being misunderstood. But he also uses games as social experiments in order to prove his points and challenge perceptions of the times, instead of taking the easy route and explaining his personal story.
The long answer is deeper than that.
He sees his own experiences as microcosms of how the world works. This is why his Metal Gear stories almost all double as allegories for his own struggles. Metal Gear Solid V is going to thematically revolve around cultural divides, conflicting interpretations, and misunderstandings themselves — which is no coincidence. Instead of explaining himself in interviews and hoping people “get it” (which he is smart enough to know is unlikely to “redeem” him even if he tried) he wants to put players in his own shoes and force them to get a taste of his own dilemmas through Big Boss’ path to infamy. Big Boss was always misunderstood, which is why Kojima has latched onto him as a protagonist.
It all comes back to Metal Gear Solid 2, of course. MGS2 was a naive attempt to break away from his fate (of being stuck between serving fans and churning out predictable, “safe” sequels for his employer) in one big, controversial riddle. Ironically, the backlash only bound him even more closely to that fate. Ever since then he’s been on a mission of vindication and revenge, to earn his freedom the hard way. He doesn’t have the Western alpha personality that revolves around self-assertion and free market opportunism; Japanese creators tend to be locked into their companies for life, with extreme pressure to be honorable (which amounts to obeying their contracts and their sense of obligation). He has practically begged for freedom time and again, and begged players to put pressure on Konami on his behalf. Ultimately, he still feels trapped, but he’s decided a long time ago to use his position to his own advantage as much as possible, and turn his burden into opportunities.
When I imagine being in his position, I think of years of my life being consumed by one massive, demanding project after another, each with enormous pressure both financially and critically, with his name/reputation under the gun constantly. These projects are his life, and their reputation is his legacy. MGS2 had raised a very troubling question about whether Kojima was a fraud intellectual who “doesn’t know what people want”, and he still feels that deep sting of mockery to this day. In Japanese mythos, scars and wounds are often shameful reminders of the past; they burn and sting when the person sees a reminder of the original incident, and drives them to hatred and revenge. ”The Phantom Pain” seems to relate to these concepts heavily, and I have no doubt that it comes back to the “wounds” of mockery and criticism he still carries, which all stem from misinterpretation and cultural divide. He wants revenge — to kill his own White Whale.
I have been reading Moby Dick, and it’s a bewildering book, often more of an encyclopedia than a work of fiction. It’s not a compact story of revenge and obsession, but a comprehensive resource of all information related to whaling, sea life, and cultural cross-pollination, which happens to also be intersected by a meandering tale of a whaling captain who lost his leg to a legendary sea creature called Moby Dick.
With MGSV, Kojima is making the obvious comparison of Big Boss to Captain Ahab, but he’s also including the theme of a small, highly devoted unit collected from around the world under the power of a madman driven by hate. A lot of Moby Dick relates to the strange tribes and cultures that are forced to somehow work together to run the ship under extremely dangerous circumstances. The fact that Kojima labelled his own team “Moby Dick Studios” when the game was first being revealed is probably a big hint that he considers his own diverse, international staff of employees to be his whaling crew, joining him on his own Pequod, to take down his own demons whether they realize it or not. Captain Ahab was willing to go to hell itself to fight Moby Dick; Big Boss is willing to go to hell itself to fight Zero; Kojima is willing to go to hell itself to fight his demon: the critics who amputated his creative freedom and left him with the scars of humiliation that follow him to this day.
Kojima has said he wants to make another Metal Gear Solid game, starring The Boss herself, back in World War II. He also seems to be enjoying MGSV quite a bit, and we know that he loved creating Peace Walker. Post-MGS4 Kojima is not a tortured soul, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want revenge, and isn’t determined to do what it takes to prove his point. As I said, I believe he has learned to embrace misunderstanding and wants to use his burden (of being stuck with writing/directing the franchise) to his advantage. Peace Walker’s story of the journey from simple mercenary to a global nuclear power reflects Kojima’s journey from a small time employee in a game company to the leader of his own international production company, and both stories involve being pulled constantly between ideology and pragmatism. Metal Gear Solid V is about being unable to let go of the past suffering, if I’m not mistaken, and the cycle that is produced by that inability to let go — that need for revenge. “Phantom pain” is the feeling of pain coming from a limb that no longer exists. The brain is receiving signals and interpreting them, but there’s no limb or nerve-endings to speak of. This happens to real amputees often, and even though the wound may be very old and completely “healed”, the neural map for it still believes it’s receiving signals, whether it’s normal sensations, or pain. In this analogy, Kojima has his own phantom pain — unable to forget old losses, even though the wounds are long healed and (mostly) forgotten.
There are probably a few more interpretations that would work and I’m sure it will become more rich and nuanced when the game is released, but the point is, I’m beginning to feel confident that Kojima is letting his own experiences shape this project once again. One thing I do know is that Big Boss is supposed to become a hero and a madman, playing both sides, loyal to nothing, and unable to escape the battlefield; these are all things Kojima may be feeling about himself.
Big Boss is forever misunderstood. MGS4 tries to teach us that there are some things you can’t pass on through genes or your memes, and this is called a person’s “SENSE”. Misinterpretation, misunderstandings, and the cycle of revenge and prejudice that is created from being unable to effectively communicate our “sense” is quite natural to explore at this point. Kojima has tried to pass on his “sense” so many times, and watched it fail over and over again. He has lost the battles he really wanted to win, even though he always survives to fight another day (minus an arm, leg, or comrade). The survivor stays in the battlefield, and the loser is freed from it.