CHAPTER 1: RACE
A. “The run”
The wording of TPP’s first theme sounds peculiar: beyond the harsh, almost provocative dimension of the word, one may wonder if it is not deliberately ambiguous. As absurd as it sounds, “Race” may very well mean “The Run”. Coincidentally, this is how the term has been translated in the French version of the game, and it may not be as awkward as it looks.
The race against time is key to the game design of TPP. The numerous timed missions, although varied in length, always evoke a sense of urgency, which culminates in one of the most shocking and traumatizing parts of the game: the first outbreak at Mother Base. The rhythm then throws the player off. You are supposed to take your time to find the solution to a complex issue, involving detailed elements of micromanagement while carrying out, as fast as possible, a large investigation, which takes the form of a sloppy speed run in which the main objective is to cover for your growing losses. At some point, you are even running after a prisoner who is himself running from his running enemies. It is a race inside a race, inside a race.
Not without irony, it recalls the situation of a development studio torn between its meticulous job and external pressures which, slowly but surely, interfere with its past, present and future efforts. For Kojima Productions members, creating MGSV must have felt like a mad sprint, and the game bears the stigma of this experience. At any stage during development, the clock must have been ticking loudly to the ears of Kojima’s staff, and it is almost natural, inevitable, that the player shares the same fate. Time is of the essence1, and the game’s characters do not hesitate to remind us of that, from the doctor in Cyprus to Zero himself, who bitterly concludes, in the very last audio tape, at Snake’s bedside: “time is running short”2.
As soon as a marathon ends, another one starts. Chapter 2, which holds the ambiguity of “Race” in its title, is mostly – excluding the infamous “repeated” missions – comprised of deviously timed missions. There is no watch or counter on the screen, but the urgency is there: you have to get back some intel from an undercover agent, or some dangerous container, or some embarrassing piece of evidence… It is no coincidence either that these objectives deal with repairing the damage – or preventing further damage – from chapter 1 and the player’s previous actions.
And what about FOB mode, in which the clock is constantly ticking, at all stages. In Forward Operating Bases, time is by far the most decisive factor: infiltrators play against the clock, as well as defenders when they join their base under attack. Once the game is over, there is still a time constraint: the FOB blockade does not last forever, captured soldiers have to be reclaimed rapidly, and the tick of the retaliation clock starts. Players do not get any break, but they are less tormented by their enemies than by the merciless clock which still races when they turn off the console, even when they decide to quit the game for good. We have no choice, as Kaz says at the end of the well-named mission 41, “Proxy War Without End”: in order to survive, “our only option is to fight, and grow… And fight… And grow…”. He delivers this hopeless strategy with the stable pace of a metronome. For many years, survival must have been daily routine for Kojima Productions. And they did survive as long as they could. To question their diligence in such troubled times, to accuse them of having done too little within the deadline, is to misinterpret their work, their objectives, and also to gloss over the intimate bond they wanted to establish between them and the player, through the shared experience of pain.
The ordeal of the one who holds the controller is an endless arms race, war for war’s sake – which, in MGSV, gradually becomes the only objective. Kojima delivers a very pessimistic view on video games. And, as if to rub salt in the wound, this situation extends beyond the fiction: for more than a year now, the gaming community has been confronted with the stark reality of the impossible nuclear disarmament. How ironic that racing is precisely the best strategy to steal nuclear warheads: a haphazard sprint, in full armor with a shield on the back, praying to reach the last platform alive before the defender shows up. In the world of FOBs, it is a viable strategy, but so vain at the same time: any hopes to see the “disarmament ending”, to unlock it ourselves, have been crushed by the December 2015 update. It has handed nuke owners a bunch of wild cards on a silver plate3. Now, unless the rules change again, the race to disarmament will lead nowhere: anyone who gets his nuke stolen has plenty of time to rebuild it, thanks to a longer blockade. In this virtual world, the player’s most precious resource, time, is more generously allocated to the manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction. Their bloody avatar is the proof of their perfect adaptation to the system, to the war economy which protects them. They are not unlike the citizens of Oceania in 1984, symbolically eaten by an industrial machine under the gaze of a giant clock which governs their daily life – and their death.
In the microcosm of video games, we have come to a point where the prophecies from Guns of Patriots in 2008 are horrifyingly accurate4. It goes without saying that the war economy has no interest in resolving the conflict which supports it. No wonder then, that new rules in the game overtly aim at keeping the ultimate ending of MGSV eternally from us, and keeping us lost forever in the limbo of some virtual Valhalla which drains both our energy and time. You wanted TPP to introduce you to the real, the only Outer Heaven? Here it is. And it is not a pretty sight: an endless race on the spot, driven by profit towards our collective peril.
In this living hell, sooner or later, your lower ranked guards will be automatically fired in favor of better recruits. Sooner or later, your hard-earned resources and soldiers will be randomly stolen from you, even if you did not mean harm to anyone. Sooner or later, you will seek revenge and become a demon “for such little weapons as that”5. And sooner or later, every one of us will give their life for Big Boss, losing everything in the process, including our sense of reality and our identity. Hence the other meaning of the word “Race”.