Requiem and Rebirth – Metal Gear Solid V as a new beginning


A. Origins

For it to become the main theme of his ultimate MGS, vengeance must have been lying deep in Kojima’s mind for a long time. Indeed, his cold war with Konami is nothing new. No matter how exactly the “Kojimagate” took place, the relationship had already turned sour a long time ago. After all, what can you expect from the coexistence of a company selling video games and a man telling consumers to switch their console off? At the crossroads of loyalty and betrayal, of laissez-faire and obstruction, of setting boundaries and crossing them, the relationship between Kojima (Productions) and Konami has always challenged the traditional concept of patronage, resulting in a conflict – both ideological and pragmatic – which could never be resolved. Kojima always answered the never ending demand of sequels, even if he may have perceived them as offensive. But he also always added his own touch of rebellion: each MGS was an opportunity for him to express his feelings concerning his professional life and his employer’s behavior. On more than one occasion, he put his popularity and career at stake to convey the message. In this respect, MGSV may very well have been a culmination of merciless revenge, in a tone perhaps more hostile than usual (as foreshadowed in Ground Zeroes with the VIP rescue and the “Déjà Vu” mission). Yet, surprisingly, TPP chooses the moderate way. It takes the necessary time to put things in perspective. It is not anymore about racing, but rather pondering slowly – very slowly – on the implications of revenge. Instead of using all his arsenal aggressively, Kojima seized the opportunity to reflect deeply on a feeling which, in all likelihood, he has experienced throughout his professional life. Because he felt it, fought it and did not let it overcome him, he can give his own opinion on revenge through MGSV’s story and characters.

The outcome of his line of thought is obvious: no matter why revenge is born, evolves or ends, it never leads to anything. Hence the many characters driven by it: revenge has a wide array of forms, but in each of its avatars, the same flaws are noticeable. The process is programmed to fail. Why? Because of one word: “revengeance”. Metal Gear Rising’s subtitle illustrates the absurdity of revenge, which would not need that prefix if it were ever achievable, if it served a purpose other than reproducing endlessly, like a parasite. With that in mind, no wonder Kojima chose to focus on the main vector of this parasite’s breeding: our human flaws when we’re confronted to pain – phantom or not.

First of all: blindness, which leads to devastating errors of judgement. In TPP, this is typical of Miller’s behavior. He suffers symbolically from some kind of cataract (or some similar partial blindness) and wears opaque glasses: this character clearly lacks foresight and judgment. Those are major flaws for Mother Base’s XO, as he may put the fate of his Diamond Dogs on the line. Since the initial subject of his revenge is unspecific and wrong (“Cipher!”), he easily loses track of events and only pays attention to opinions which validate his random hostility. Whatever he does, he is always wrong: he’s mistaken about the nature of his enemy (Zero, Quiet…), about his opponent’s motivation (wrong interpretation of Skull Face’s plan) and about the path to follow17 . Moreover, he always lowers his guard and shows his benevolence at the wrong time18 . Reluctant to exercise self-criticism, supporter of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), Kaz personifies the impulsive nature of revenge, even when it pretends to be fair. Through this character, Kojima states that revenge is never as just and focused as it may seem. It never comes from careful hindsight, never leads to anything (except some brief, perverse moment of satisfaction) and must constantly change its target to try to remain relevant. Eventually, revenge robs its perpetrators of their identity (loyalty), leading them to collaborate with a former enemy in order to eliminate a former ally19. Revenge is a smokescreen superimposed on reality, an inverted mirror, the paranoid fantasy of a man who wants to get back what he lost, although it is impossible.

As for the stubbornness of revenge, it could be personified by Eli. For a twelve-year-old, his thirst for vengeance has surprisingly ripened, so much so that he is the most powerful host for Mantis. His hatred is not impulsive but instinctive, engraved in him since he was born. Yet, it is carefully reasoned, like a philosophy of life, and the character’s leitmotiv (beyond TPP). In 1984, Eli does not have the means to fulfill his ambitions yet, but he stubbornly keeps going, one humiliating defeat after the other, stacking up “game overs” without ever questioning his acts. He never gives up, even at the brink of death, as in episode 51. Stoically, he bounces back and declares, as usual: “it’s not over yet!”… Simply because, for him, it will never be (game) over. His thirst for vengeance goes on even after death. Typically, Eli uses psychological projection: the blame, the justification for revenge, comes from someone else, not himself. He also suffers from a sort of inferiority complex (despite his enormous talent in combat) and persecutory delusions20 which lead to overcompensation: he always wants to seize new opportunities to restore his self-esteem. “That’s right, don’t blame yourself, blame me”, Venom tells him sarcastically. Eli blames the whole world, but he is his own torturer. Through this character, Kojima may have wanted to illustrate how dangerous it can be to follow the path of revenge when there is no need to, when it is only provoked by the existential (genetic) crisis of a rebel without a cause21. Here, the fantasy is strictly paranoid. That is why Eli demands loyalty from other people, while refusing to give his own to anyone (including Mantis, who will end up serving under him).

Then comes pride: it is Skull Face’s business. His thirst for vengeance is unique in the game, because it is shown in a realistic, positivist, utilitarian light. In his own words, the circle of revenge is a necessary evil, the only thing which makes the world go round. He has survived the fire which burns inside him long enough to come to the conclusion that these flames are also his only reason to live, and he takes great satisfaction in it. Of all TPP’s characters, Skull Face is the only one cynical enough to consider his thirst for revenge as something good, a form of well-being, a gift from heaven he wants to share with the whole world. Kojima may want to show, through this character, the vanity of revenge22 , which remains, despite any seemingly universal reach, a selfish achievement, and nothing more. Skull Face shares this pride with Genocidal Organ’s antagonist, John Paul, who also justifies his fantasy of almighty power with a so-called benevolent purpose for humanity (or rather, a part of humanity, the one which shares his identity). The irony of it all lies in the legacy of both characters: the tool of their vengeance will be recovered by someone else as they wished, but their “noble” ideals will not be of any interest to this heir who will, in turn, make a selfish use of it, because of different personal traumas. The legacy of revenge is therefore always incomplete: only hatred goes from one host to the next, and the reason for vengeance remains always personal, biased, unjust.

The odd one out, Huey, personifies the cowardice and ordinary cruelty of revenge, the kind of vengeance which is carried out only in ideal conditions, anonymously, from a safe distance. An adept of sneaky plans and disproportionate casual violence, Emmerich shows the realistic and ugly side of revenge, through horrible acts carried out by a common man. Among all TPP’s characters, Huey is, by far, the cruelest one. He is also the only civilian. In a blood-curdling twist, Kojima chose to turn the most harmless of Peace Walker’s characters into a murderous psychopath for whom vengeance is so ordinary that it does not even need any motive or target: as the song goes, “it’s just means to an end”23. Huey’s cowardice also lies in his habit to bury his head in the sand, to commit violence without acknowledging it24 .

What a fine bunch of scoundrels, desperate to get their revenge on life. And yet, we still miss one: the one who has the privilege to stand on both sides of the screen. By putting players in Venom’s shoes, Kojima forcibly includes them in his experiment. Unsurprisingly, he gives gamers their usual role, that of the “proxy”, the manipulated soldier, convinced to do good, even when his acts are evil. Looking back at Kojima’s former lessons, it is obvious that this particular human flaw inspires him the most fear, as it combines all the other ones: blindness, stubbornness, pride and cowardice. Like Venom, players welcome the legacy of revenge with open arms, and apply their own motives to it, convinced of their heroism. The parasite of the infinite cycle of violence could not have hoped for a better host. As evidence of this, TPP’s multiplayer modes make the circle of retaliation go round and round on Konami’s servers. They feed on our flaws to fuel, potentially forever, a war economy which, through free rewards and paid privileges, ensures that Metal Gear survives and keeps the wheel turning. Besides, didn’t we, the players, inspire this perpetual state of revenge? Ocelot seems to think our avatar, Venom – the vessel of our thirst for virtual vengeance – may have provoked the Man on Fire’s awakening through The Third Child. After all, these two parasitized characters are simply reacting to an atmosphere of violence. It is our desire to wake up in our virtual warrior’s shoes which sets the machine of revenge in motion. In this sense, we are truly Captain Ahab.

“Perhaps there are moments when even your thoughts affected him as well. Everything was powered by anger, malice, revenge. (…) It’s you that awakened the boy’s powers. But there’s more to it than that. I guess the anger emanating from you was something he could truly relate to.”25

This last sentence refers to the player’s and The Third Child’s shared hatred. The lust for violence can easily bind a fictional character and a real person, a player and a machine. There is also a deep bond between The Third Child and Eli, that little boy who wears on his jacket the two words which symbolize all our fictional defeats. That “game over” is the source of all our desires for revenge, the cause of an endless virtual war.

Revenge assumes many other forms in MGSV26 but these few examples already tend to show that Kojima has thought this matter out, from every angle. It also helps understand why he refused to become himself the host of this “acid”27. However, the creator of all these revenge-fueled characters has no illusions: like Skull Face, he knows full well that the world (both virtual and real) revolves around the thirst for vengeance. But not the kind of vengeance which binds a small group of mercenaries to a huge, omnipresent, invisible enemy. Not the kind which deals with shotgun dismemberment either. Not even the kind which, as a rule, relies on inflicting damage. Simply the kind of vengeance which dictates all relations between living creatures, on whatever scale, from nuclear explosions to microscopic parasites. Kojima knows his creative development at Konami was the result of a gradual opposition of forces, a series of seemingly paltry retaliations which, nonetheless, determined his life. Eventually, the battle started to drag along and the author may have thought, like Quiet, that the only language left to him was revenge: the mechanical process of retaliation in the war economy, and the dark place it all leads to.

17 In episode 13, whose title refers to the lack of visibility in darkness, Miller does more harm than good by deciding to attack the factory.
18 He welcomes the children with open arms, ignoring the fact that they may carry the infection. Later, he also refuses to acknowledge Eli’s threat.
19 In Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
20 No one wants him dead, though. Other characters are mainly indifferent to him, including his “father”: “Treat him like another human being” (“Les Enfants Terribles” tape).
21 His “cause” is only that he considers himself to be inferior, which is a pointless statement to build his revenge on, as it is completely wrong.
22 “Pretentious to the end”, as Kaz says at the end of chapter 1.
23 Why does Huey mutate the Wolbachia and repair Sahelanthropus? Certainly not to take his revenge on Diamond Dogs. He is only doing it for himself, as a last resort to leave his mark in the world through what he does best: engineering weapons of mass destruction.
24 “I can’t just kill anyone whenever I feel like it. I’m a normal human being. I would never do that.” (Questioning Huey [3])
25 “The Informant’s Report”
26 Take, for instance, the game’s geopolitical context : civil wars, genocides and conflicts are often described as acts of revenge.
27 From the Mark Twain quote in TPP’s E3 2014 trailer.
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