In MGSV, revenge always bears devastating consequences. They can be sneaky, and reveal their impact only in the long term. Sometimes, though, you cannot miss them, and they will directly alter your experience of the game. That is because the backlash of vengeance often channels complicated emotions, which Kojima felt and shared with us through the story and characters.
What does revenge lead to? First of all, the void. Emptiness. That is the infamous phantom pain from the title, the shadow looming over MGSV. It is particularly obvious during a sequence which has been highly criticized for its so-called lack of respect for video game traditions: mission 31 and the absence of a boss battle against Skull Face. In complete disbelief, the player gets robbed of his vengeance and witnesses a massive theft orchestrated by The Third Child, Eli, Huey and Kaz. It is the heist of the century: the player’s revenge is stolen, in record time, by a bunch of losers and two kids piloting a robot. No grandeur, no class. The incredible violence of Skull Face’s dismemberment is a stark contrast to the respectful killing of The Boss. Far from the pure, holy ending of MGS3 – one of, if not the most memorable parts of the series – we are lost in the saga’s scum, the dark side of canon, the ugly story of Big Boss’s two proxies28. One comes to wonder whether, by setting a parallel between these two scenes, Kojima wanted to show that killing The Boss and Skull Face are, in fact, equally unheroic: saving the world by spilling blood is always a mistake. Our disturbed reaction to mission 31 is understandable: we are used to Hollywood’s just causes and problem-solving vendettas, used to feeling the catharsis which stems from them. In this respect, MGSV follows MGS2’s footsteps: the conclusion of chapter 1 does not bring enough satisfaction or – even worse – any feeling of achievement. As shown by Skull Face’s pitiful death, there is no simple solution to a complex problem. Mission 31 leads to a void similar to the one felt by Leonard in the film Memento. It must somehow be filled – by a second chapter, equally deprived of any outcome, in which the deaf and blind “proxy war without end” is not all that different from Leonard’s life. We know, thanks to a small note in TPP’s official guide book, that Kojima deliberately wrote the end of chapter 1 like he did. It just had to be: any hint at a usual, positive outcome would have distorted the meaning of this scene. Any additional interaction with Skull Face would have justified revenge and turned it into an emotional achievement, like killing The Boss was.
After the target of revenge has disappeared, the vacuum must be filled with new objectives, and new emotions. For many players, the instinctive choice was to reject what they had just seen, through doubt, anger and regret; emotions which are also displayed by Venom and Miller in the last cutscene of chapter 1. Normally, following this kind of narrative trauma, the game’s design would come back to its usual course, and new objectives would be more than enough to reel the player back in and help him overcome his mixed emotions. TPP does not do that. Bitterness looms over the second chapter, during which you are simply supposed to try to fix what has been broken, under the inquisitive eye of Big Boss. The white whale is gone. All that is left is the ordinary, wearisome life of a legendary mercenary’s proxy, which leads to the revelation that – surprise! – you are living the ordinary, wearisome life of a legendary mercenary’s proxy. The delusion of heroic revenge comes up against the harsh reality, or rather the “Truth”. The acid comes back more strongly than ever, but its corrosive action is a lot less spectacular and pleasant than what the trailers hinted at. With good reason: this time, on the stage of the pixelated fantasy theater, it is not only the puppet who is in pain, but also the puppeteer. The real revenge in TPP is not where it was supposed to be, that is in the fictional world. It grows out of frame and contaminates the player’s reality, his feelings, as he sits in front of the screen which, to Kojima, is more than ever a medium of genuine interaction with his audience. Everything takes place in that small, magic space between the player and the pixels, a space which other games usually try to avoid, or hide, or fill, because they think it is a gaping breach in a bearing wall – whereas it is just a “gap in the door”, as Kojima describes it in P.T., a game in which he extensively analyzes that magic space he is obsessed with, “the moment our hands overlap”29.
Revenge overflowing from the screen, parasitizing the player’s reality, is less a form of attack than an invitation to wake up. It is less a void to fill (for instance, with a third chapter) than a page to turn. The endless cycle of retaliation is inevitable, maybe even necessary to our evolution, and is in our nature. But we are asked to overcome its sterility, to leave aside pain and misconception, ultimately the worst advisors, and acknowledge the truth: every act of revenge is a waste30. No one will ever be powerful enough to break the cycle through sheer violence without fueling it at the same time. As mission 45 shows, in a scene which foreshadows Big Boss’s demise and his failure to protect himself from the cycle of revenge he initiated, one snake always hides another. The only way out, as the mercenary will do at the end of his life (and Kojima at the end of his career at Konami) is to lay down his arms, to bring back one hundred to zero.
Yet, although MGSV sounds like the requiem of a cycle of revenge, it also holds the promise of rebirth: that of the player, the game, and the author.
30 That is what Code Talker finally understood: “Whatever we do, we must not allow that thirst for revenge to control us.” (What happened in the laboratory )