THE EVIL SOVIETS
Although many will surely point to the contrary, this is not a political manifesto to convince you into liking Soviet communism or the culture associated with it. This is meant to show you the other side of the argument, and the reason why it’s painful to see a smart and freethinking franchise fall for cheap narrative clichés and regurgitated trite propaganda. This is why it pains me that Kojima portrayed the Soviets somewhat decently in Snake Eater (Volgin’s faction was a rogue extremist element seeking war for supremacy, Khrushchev’s faction sought peace and stability for both superpowers) and then this somehow shifted in Portable Ops, where the Soviet soldiers Big Boss eventually recruits are left to fend for themselves by the USSR in abandoned bases. In Peace Walker, Kojima went as far as depicting an outright evil KGB operative named Zadornov, who supposedly was a pawn of Cipher but fully acting according to the Kremlin’s official plan for Latin America. The plan was to launch a nuclear attack on Cuba from a US base so as to make anti-US sentiment in the region spread unchecked, thus increasing chances for Communism to triumph.
I’d like to believe Kojima isn’t as narrow-minded so as to fall for the propaganda of films he’s known to worship such as “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Rambo III,” so I myself like to believe that Zadornov and his unit were a rogue element seeking to help the USSR through their own extremist ways, helping Paz for his own ends and not acting under the Kremlin’s supposed official plan for Latin America. If Kojima truly wanted to characterize the USSR as a country willing to nuke a Latin American ally to advance their goals, then his storytelling is not above trash like Sniper Elite. Kojima has seemingly redeemed himself in Ground Zeroes by making the player kill US soldiers in a Guantánamo-esque base in Cuba, and making Kaz Miller have reliable KGB contacts “who had nothing to do with Zadornov,” who inform him on the location of some Unitedstatian veterans from the Laotian Civil War wanted for assassinations and war crimes, committed especially against high-ranking Soviet and North Vietnamese personnel, but also against civilian women and children. It’s neat that Kojima gives us this content and makes us help the Communist East if indirectly and for money, but still it’s not enough, especially when coupled with the fact that a large portion of The Phantom Pain will apparently take place in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where Kaz has been seemingly kidnapped and heavily tortured Rambo-style. Needless to say, this is translated into a harass-the-Soviet-Army simulator, the game Stallone dreamed he could have made about Rambo back in the day. In case you think I’m defending the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan because I’m defending communism, you’re dead wrong. There’s a harsher reason. I have to remind you after all, that the people the Soviets were fighting were something more than regular freedom fighters, being more like those who eventually did a little thing called 9/11. That’s right, the current jihadists destabilizing the entire Middle East and taking part in mass genocides of civilians just because they have a different faith, the people Sylvester Stallone dedicated “Rambo III” to.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan happened because of several factors. Although it’s called the Soviet Vietnam because of the hardships and the unwinnable conditions, it wasn’t at all like Vietnam, beginning with the casus belli, the cause of the war. The US Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the USS Maddox was sunk and spiraled into the Vietnam War as we know it, is believed by many to have been a false-flag operation – in the style of the sinking of the USS Maine to drive the Spaniards from Cuba in 1898 – on the part of the US to increase military intervention in Southeast Asia, part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s plan of contention of communism, due to fear of the domino effect, meaning the Western fears of countries falling to communism like domino pieces. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was requested by the newly established communist government in Afghanistan, and the USSR didn’t want to intervene at all. However, they were pushed to do it with what the disastrous new administration in power was doing in Afghanistan, and fearing political instability to spread all across the southern republics like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kirgizstan, which were known to sympathize with the Islamic faith, they decided to intervene. The USSR faced tremendous pressure with the possibility of those republics falling into disarray inspired by the Afghan Muslim cause and rebelling against the orthodoxy of communist State Atheism. The US was obviously already exploiting the situation and helping the rebels through mercenaries and CIA advisers, running guns and money to destabilize the situation further. Aware of this, the USSR had to keep a major military presence. So as you see, the difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan was that the US was invading and destroying a small country from the safety of home like it usually does, while the USSR was defending its own structural integrity, facing the prospect of secession in its own territory like the US during its Civil War. Can you imagine what the US would do if a united socialist Latin America was right at its doorstep and even convincing its own states of seceding? Yes, exactly, suppress it and block it like they did with Cuba and are doing now in Venezuela, or even worse, a full-scale military invasion as in the case of Grenada. Citing the previous example of the Civil War, the US did precisely that, keep the southern states in check by accepting the will of the union under threat of military intervention. When the states seceded, a war erupted. The USSR did this with its Warsaw Pact allies during the Invasion of Hungary and the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, countries which didn’t want to conform to authority from Moscow. Whether you agree with one faction or another is irrelevant; the point is, a country will fight and use force to maintain its integrity, and can’t be blamed for it. Right here in Spain we’re divided between granting independence to Catalonia or not, and the extent to which both factions go stinks of self-righteousness for the sake of self-righteousness, never of rationality. It’s not about being nice and fair with everybody, it’s about defending your power and fighting for it. Through the apolitical MSF and Diamond Dogs, Kojima seems to share this view, and I believe we’re about to see it in its full-grown state through the narrative of MGSV.
So, from this perspective, I don’t know what to expect from The Phantom Pain, but I sure hope it doesn’t end up being a missed chance. I know the game isn’t headed in this direction, but the possibility that some sections of The Phantom Pain may take place in Latin America as opposed to just Afghanistan and Africa would be priceless. What if Big Boss had to attack US-backed dictatorships and save gullible soldiers enforcing oppression by recruiting them into Diamond Dogs? There’s no shortage of places to do it either, and the historical context is right up the game’s alley; the dictatorship in Uruguay, my country, ended in 1985, Paraguay’s ended in 1989, and Chile’s in 1990. In Nicaragua, the bloody fight between Sandinistas and Contras lasted from 1979 until 1990. The Salvadoran Civil War, with the country’s right-wing military being backed by the US, lasted from 1980 until 1992. These last two conflicts in particular would have been amazing to visit considering the game’s mechanic. They certainly would add some weight to the story and contrast it with the situation the Soviets faced in Afghanistan, so as to see brutality from both sides and perhaps judge by ourselves the nature of superpowers and their influence in smaller countries by proxy war.
However, for the time being, we’re stuck with Afghanistan and supposedly Africa, and nothing else. I don’t care how massive the maps can be, at the end of the day, it’s just two locations, even less than MGS4 now that I think about it, and it doesn’t really give the game much variety or contrast. Also, to my judgment, setting the game in the Soviet War in Afghanistan seems a little conservative, like going back to MGS3, really playing it safe for Western audiences, almost paying a loving homage to Rambo and definitely missing a chance to be truly bold, particularly considering that this was the Soviet’s Vietnam, that the Soviets were fighting against crazy jihadist extremist that eventually started 9/11 and started other terrorists acts in Europe and the Middle East. One thing is infiltrating a US torture prison in Cuba and another killing Soviet paratroopers doing their duty. And so you know I’m not a hypocrite, I wouldn’t even prefer a setting where Big Boss harasses the US war machine in Vietnam, since US soldiers – despite committing heinous atrocities and defending imperialism – were also surviving their own hell and doing their duty at the end of the day. It was the government’s whim after all, with the soldier getting the short end of the stick as per usual. It’s very different to kill US servicemen than killing CIA black ops in Latin America or US Marines guarding a secret torture prison in Cuba. Many of the people playing these games might have relatives who are veterans of wars and, despite the intrinsic “righteousness” of the war, I think a US soldier in Vietnam would consider a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan a comrade in suffering if they ever met. This is the problem that arises from portraying real conflicts such as this in such an accurate manner. It’s not something fictional you can have escapist fun with. I’m sure many Russian players would dislike having to kill their own fathers or grandfathers with Big Boss. I’m not sure about US players, but would they enjoy harassing the Marines not in a US torture black site, but in the middle of Vietnam where they were serving?
Yes, I know I am perhaps looking too deeply into it and that the ideological themes in MGSV will perhaps see past all that and focus on a more fictional, bigger picture than the narrow scope of “East vs. West” or “capitalism and communism.” That’s why the only reason I can think for choosing the Soviet War in Afghanistan as backdrop in today’s geopolitical climate is to compare it to the current US Invasion of Afghanistan, maybe to make some meta-criticism of it and once again hint at the nature of superpowers being all the same. One day you have Soviet soldiers with Hinds planting Soviet flags in your country, and the next you have US soldiers with Humvees and planting US flags. But judging by Peace Walker’s anti-Soviet rhetoric I fear perhaps something less brainy about the decision to set for Afghanistan. Here’s hoping that half of the game doesn’t take place just in Afghanistan, and that we may get to battle some Unitedstatians to at least balance it out, as in Peace Walker or Ground Zeroes, where at least the prisoners of the US are shown to be treated in inhuman conditions just like in real life. They say Ground Zeroes might return in The Phantom Pain, but we don’t know in what way or if The Phantom Pain will merely include the prologue for us to play if we missed Ground Zeroes on its own.
If Kojima wants to criticize both sides and represent them as equally cynical superpowers I applaud the decision, as there is obviously some truth to that, and he is entitled to his own views. But I think now that more and more gamers are getting officially tired of Soviets-as-evil memes in the media, especially in this type of field, where neoconservative Reaganist propaganda litters the FPS genre through atrocities such as the Tom Clancy brand, and games like Homefront, Battlefield and Call of Duty. It’s not relevant in this era we are living in now, and it definitely feels clichéd and lazy, especially if aimed at the new generation most gamers represent. We are currently walking towards a new era, an era where the US will not be the sole superpower and its unilateralist vision of a new world order will be no more. I know the setting is 1984, but considering this is supposedly his last Metal Gear game before he officially leaves the series to his younger staff, I think Kojima should be more concerned with criticizing the current, waning superpower which will become the main enemy of Big Boss in his later years instead of vilifying a Soviet Union we know will inevitably collapse. The Soviet Union has already paid for its mistakes and crimes in history. Let’s leave it alone already.
Another point of criticism can be found in the E3 2015 trailer, when Skull Face speaks of his origins:
“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong. Words can kill.”
Being Hungarian, he can only be referencing the following contemporary events; the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918; the Romanian occupation of Hungary after the Bela Kun revolution in 1919; the Czechoslovak and Yugoslavian territorial changes and conflicts starting from 1920; the Nazi occupation during WWII; or the Soviet occupation after WWII. We don’t know how old this guy is and how many events he lived, but given the time period of the game, it’s bound to be related to the Nazis or Soviets if he’s not too old, and he very well may be, as this is Metal Gear and 70-odd year-old characters are not really hampered by age.
But the invading army of Skull Face’s country is not really that important; what is is the fact that Skull Face was deprived of, perhaps, his Hungarian language to some extent (he speaks Hungarian in Ground Zeroes), and the theme that languages unite people have to be analyzed within context; Hungarian is a language that no other country in the world speaks, and Hungarians need desperately to learn languages such as English or German to be able to function outside of their country, or to understand the outside world. Minorities there speak Yugoslavian and Czechoslovak languages too, meaning they also have to learn Hungarian if they want to operate within the larger framework of Hungarian society. So I don’t really understand what all the fuzz is about, given I’m interpreting this correctly. Hungary is incredibly multicultural and has been controlled and influenced by foreign powers time and time again, but then again, that’s the story of Europe in a nutshell.
Skull Face later says:
“America is a country of liberty, a meeting of immigrants. Instead of simply assimilating, its citizens live alongside others. So the Major sought a system that used information, words, to control the subconscious.”
Alright … so, in 1984, at time when the Soviet Union existed, which was a country larger than the US and the largest in the world for that matter, with so many ethnicities with their own languages and culture, this seems too idiotic a comparison. The US? Seriously, Kojima? That’s the only country you could come up with that has a multicultural society of immigrants to contextualize your themes with? I understand the themes, but again, this seems neglectful of European culture. A man from Hungary cannot just barge in and spew things like these. Europeans in countries like Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Russia are in contact with different languages spoken in their own provinces or in bordering countries, and they don’t necessarily lack “a meeting of immigrants.” Just look at Spain or the UK, where aside from heavy immigration, nationals living merely 2 kilometers apart in different towns have completely different accents or employ different usages for words, and sometimes they barely understand each other despite being born in the same country and speaking the same language, so imagine a different one! Knowing the same language doesn’t precisely guarantee unity; Latin America has been a witness of that for too long now, and in recent times, so has Russia.
I experienced the problem of same-language incompatibility myself after moving from Uruguay to Spain, from a Spanish-speaking country in America to a Spanish-speaking country in Europe, so you can imagine the difference was greater than say, moving to Argentina or Chile. It’s just like US and British English, really. The general accent sounds completely different, with even characteristic sounds unique to Castillian Spanish (European Spanish), all the mundane words are different, and so is slang and popular expressions. There are countless regional languages and dialects too. Of course the general language can be “understood,” but you get tons of situations where, for example, a “truck” is not a “truck,” but a “lorry,” and so on, not to mention the accent the word is spoken with, adding to the trickiness. I had been in contact with Galician grandparents from my father’s side since I was born, but the cultural shock was still very massive when I switched countries, as I was in “their” land now, not dealing with Spaniards adapted to Uruguayan society, but with native Spaniards. I was 14 back then, and I too had to “relearn” how to speak, although I never abandoned my accent and my distinct way of talking, unlike some compatriots who chose to fully mimic the local accent so as to be more accepted. It is traumatizing to some extent, because it’s not just language, it’s a completely different way of thinking and seeing the world conveyed through the language, like seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, and choosing to not adapt fully so as to abandon your accent does shun you and make you feel like the environment doesn’t understand you as much as it could. So you’re forced to think differently and thus act differently from what you are used to, and at times it seems that you’re changing into a completely different person until you get home with your family and seem to regain control over your original and true self. But you cope with it. Everyday. You have to. People in these multilingual and multicultural countries have to live alongside people from other backgrounds and lose some of themselves in the process, some more than others, some more willingly than others. It’s inevitable.
In Canary Islands, where I used to live, I attended high school with a student population consisting of roughly 1.000 students from over 100 countries, most of them Spaniards, but still an insane amount of American, European, African and Asian nationalities. Speaking English and Spanish helped me plenty to merge with so many distinct nationalities, unlike Spaniards, who mostly kept to themselves and ignored foreign students because they just couldn’t fully communicate with them. Foreigners couldn’t relate to Spanish culture either, and formed tight-knit groups of their own, isolated from the dominant culture that surrounded them. It’s obvious that languages unite people and shape their mentalities and cultural viewpoints. The capitalist West was dominated largely by English and the communist East by Russian. Up to this day that still persists, although English has spread with the Western victory in the Cold War. Then again, Russian has also expanded through the importance of Russian business and Russian entrepreneurs and oligarchs investing in Western countries. But it can’t be denied who’s got the upper hand; if there’s any form of cultural or linguistic dominance, it comes from the Anglo-Saxon world, invariably. The Russian world doesn’t dish out summer blockbusters, trending books, popular videogames and top-of-the-chart songs. All of that comes from the Western hemisphere, especially North America and Europe. So this “America is a country of liberty” nonsense and the “language is a tool of oppression” thing seem like they could work extremely well if used ironically or to make criticism of both superpowers, but not in the way they seem to be handled.
It should be pointed out that Skull Face is completely erroneous in his assertion, and that what he says is furthermore completely unrealistic; immigrants in the US have to adapt to US culture or die, facing not only a reduced quality of life if they don’t because of miscommunication, but also racism and lack of integration within the system, like in any other country. It is true that large communities are created, spreading their own language and culture and isolating themselves from the nation they live in, but at the end of the day, they are an integral part of that community; in the US, immigrants need to speak some English if they want to operate within US framework, and have a minimal understanding of its culture and values if they want to be accepted by other Unitedstatians. Any citizenship test requires you to speak the language and know about the history and culture of the country, especially in the US. So what is this nonsense? As I said before, I understand the themes that want to be illustrated through Skull Face’s monologue and the plot of Zero conquering the world through language like in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but they’re still illustrated idiotically and are worlds apart from what we saw in the script of previous games, when stuff actually made sense. Regardless of the intention behind those lines in relation to the plot, the lines by themselves aren’t bulletproof like in MGS2. Nothing in MGS2 can be so easily dismissed as these lines.
What also bothers me in that line is the overused and trite cliché of “America the land of liberty for immigrants.” Do people in the entertainment industry (especially non-North Americans) actually enjoy promoting the same stereotypes over and over or are they gun-coaxed by the company they work for? In videogames and films (I repeat, from non-North Americans) we see the same stone-age sociological dynamics spreading the same stories all the time; immigrants go from all over the world to the US because their own countries suck and let them down. As if no other country has ever experienced immigration aside from the US. Spain is a “land of liberty” for many Africans, Middle Easterners, Asians and Latin Americans, not to mention fellow Europeans. The UK is one too. They come here desperately and en-masse, however they can, jumping anti-immigration fences, in the landing gears of planes, and in overcrowded boats managed by mafias, risking death and deportation, the difference being that Europe doesn’t have an associated cliché of a statue that greets them at the coast when they make it through. Uruguay (and Latin America in general) was once the “land of liberty” for starving immigrants from war-torn Europe. My father’s parents crossed the ocean for that, and two generations later, I went back to where they came from. The Statue of Liberty isn’t exclusive to the United States.
Alliances change with the times, and so do the situations of countries, their economies, their living standards, the sociological stereotypes associated with them and the way they are perceived and valued at a global level. Why aren’t we seeing this from Kojima, then? Why are we trapped with the older-than-injustice “America, land of liberty” cliché when even Unitedstatians are crossing the ocean for better opportunities in Europe, Latin America and even Asia? Are the developers not aware of the changing winds of contemporary geopolitics and want to convince us that everything will always be the way it is? I’m not saying this because I hate the US or anything like that; it’s the tired clichés in narratives that I hate, which are most unbecoming in the state the world is in today, and in a franchise like Metal Gear. And this bothers me more particularly after playing Peace Walker, as if all the pro-Che Guevara US criticism about the US being a force for ruthless imperialism never happened.
In MGS2, when Sergei Gurlukovich says during the Tanker Chapter to Olga that “America is a country of liberty,” the line is used completely ironically; he doesn’t know anything about the Patriots and how the US is actually ruled! Forget about Sergei as a character or what he meant to say to Olga; that’s Kojima using dialogue to make a really ironic foreshadow that we have not the foggiest idea about yet. And it works wonderfully after seeing the bigger picture. I hope this is the exact same situation. I really I do; but something tells me otherwise.
Despite what we may see in MGSV, the balance of the series remains balanced, at least in terms of ideological or cultural bias. MGS3 featured a largely positive portrayal of Khrushchev’s USSR and anti-Stalinist plot while also being critical of the US; Peace Walker featured an equally anti-US and anti-Soviet plot, but Coldman was acting on his own even if he was the CIA’s station chief in Latin America, whereas Zadornov was seemingly acting under the KGB’s official orders, making the USSR more of an antagonist than the US, so this gives me reasons to be so skeptical about how the USSR will be portrayed in The Phantom Pain, as the series seems to be spiraling in that direction. Nevertheless, I don’t think Kojima takes sides in this, he probably sees beyond and considers each side trapped in power politics and military industrial complexes, nothing related to ideology but power. Still, even if its unconsciously, I can’t help but sense Kojima will surprise us with the most blatant anti-US game ever made, secretly disguised as “Rambo III” so Westerners may swallow the pill. Big Boss became the enemy of the capitalist West after all, so I don’t think we will see a very positive depiction of the US. We can’t; it’s the Reaganist 80s after all. Kojima cannot criticize the aggressive US Latin American intervention in one game and call the US “a country of liberty” in the next. It goes against everything he taught us through MGS2, MGS3 and Peace Walker. Thus, I fear a “Rambo III” simulator.
Everyhing’s still too ambiguous to make me swallow my words and my criticism, but there are some elements in the game that could do so; there is a poster in the E3 2015 trailer that features Big Boss, in an Orwellian fashion, with the text “Big Boss is Watching You!” As you know, 1984 is relevant in many ways, it’s George Orwell’s infamous novel, it’s also the year the game takes place in, etcetera. I can see the Patriot world-domination elements are there, also seen in Skull Face’s and Ocelot’s dialogue about language, so there’s hope for the game to be highly critical of superpowers and the nature of war, of society, of gaming’s current status and the ideology behind them, yet still, I don’t believe these themes are handled as well as in previous games, and most of all, I’d hate it if they had the same Western clichés and rhetoric found in Peace Walker’s anti-Soviet plot, which otherwise had a ton of pro-Che Guevara stuff and anti-US narrative, but managed to at the end, somehow absolve the US of its crimes and blame it all on the USSR; even the Latin Americans kicked the Soviets out, despite historical evidence of absolutely no ideological rifts between countries like Cuba and Nicaragua and the USSR, adding to the ridiculousness of the affair.
The aesthetics in MGSV so far really point to a stylish and perhaps nostalgic simulation of “Rambo III,” if not for kicks to prove a point that the audience craves and expects this personalization. It’s also the most accurate rendition of the Soviet Army in the games, from the Telnyashka-wearing VDV troops to the Russian voice-acting. In previous iterations, Kojima failed to provide us with a truly Russian feel, not even granting the Russian soldiers in MGS3 dialogue in Russian. Thankfully this has been changed in MGSV, but nowadays younger audiences, I believe, are more accustomed to hearing Russian because of precisely, Soviets and Russians are being featured constantly as enemies in videogames. The fact that in MGS3 the soldiers speak with goofy Unitedstatian accents, instead of fake Russian ones like in MGS2, somehow tells me Kojima wanted to make us feel as if we were ambiguously shooting Unitedstatians. It’s very interesting, given that MGS3 wasn’t originally going to be made and that Kojima was sore about the backlash of MGS2 (apparently people complained about the MGS2 fake Russian accents as being terrible). So giving the soldiers Unitedstatian accents and explaining it with a meta-reference as it being due to Snake speaking Russian well feels weird, almost as if Kojima were deliberately giving the finger to people who complained, and to pit you against Soviet soldiers who speak just like Unitedstatians, thus removing most of the US-inspired anti-Russian feel of the previous game. But most likely, it was done to spite fans who complained about the accents in the first place. Whatever the reasons for these choices, it cannot be denied. Kojima, judging by what he shows us through his games, falls for the Western rendition of generic evil Russians as in the case of Volgin and Zadornov, and has yet to create a unique Soviet character who doesn’t fall under this category. At least Khrushchev was given a break.
Whatever the case, and to be fair, MGSV still needs to be released for me to be proven right or wrong, and there’s certainly a lot of material which has been shown to us that would suggest the biggest criticism of contemporary politics and society (not to mention gaming industry meta-references) we’ve ever received from the series. But I’d suggest to tread with care with what we’ll be given. There’s room for plenty of skepticism, and a game this big, with such a complex development history, can fail in a lot of ways.