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

B. Cursed Legacy

After thirty years of “Tactical Espionage”, the Metal Gear series also deserves a reflection on its rebirth. The future of his legacy certainly seems to be a major concern for Kojima, and it seems to have turned into an obsession during TPP’s development37. Many things in the game hint at this: in various missions and tapes, characters are concerned about what they will leave behind (or what was theirs, and was stolen). Code Talker, in particular, fears for the fate of all humanity, should his precious research fall into the hands of Cipher during mission 35, which is titled “Cursed Legacy”. Skull Face puts his trust in the wrong successor when it comes to the survival of his memes. Huey contaminates his own legacy when he transmits his cursed genes to his child, who he only treats as an experiment subject. Not to mention The Man on Fire, who is also reborn, but only as a living dead, an empty shell, suffering and bringing pain. Brought back from the past, he is literally burning up, furious that he was not allowed to have a future, to have the opportunity to build upon his legacy (the very concrete, profitable Philosophers’ Legacy). As to Venom, ironically, the future he wants to fight for has already, in fact, been stolen from him. Kaz makes that statement in the first mission : “That was some operation we had, huh? Nine years ago… Carving out our own world, making our own future… Then they took it away”. By linking his own professional experience to the scenario of TPP and the whole saga, Kojima invites the player to share his pain and doubts concerning the future of these games which have connected the two of them together for so long.

In some tapes of TPP, one legacy is particularly described as a very serious issue: Big Boss’s legacy. Venom throws a rare temper when Ocelot tells him that mercenaries are trying to imitate “the legend” by maintaining the war economy – and the cycle of revenge, because these soldiers of fortune wish, above all, to acquire nukes38. Beyond the very obvious (and unflattering) comparison between the mercenaries and players, the saga’s values are themselves symbolically put at risk. Not because Metal Gear Solid would fall into oblivion (the mercenaries do not stop talking about Big Boss, quite the contrary) but because its message would be diverted, distorted. “I never said any of that!”, replies Kojima through Venom’s voice. He is shocked that his lessons have been so misinterpreted, worried that they may lead to a whole different goal than the initial one39. The author is very lucid and pinpoints where the misunderstanding comes from. He knows it was inevitable: “The moment any truth is passed on, it starts turning into fiction. The problem is, fiction inspires people more than facts. They’ll never understand what you really wanted”40. Speaking through Ocelot, Kojima does his best to reconcile himself with the fact that he never really found a successor. Because he eventually found more than one: millions of them. Each of us has built our own interpretation (fiction) from the words (facts) he has provided for us. Considering this double-edged will, the author has no choice but to trust us, to hope that we give a boost in the right direction to the series. After all, he cannot do anything anymore: only the fans may now give the right inspiration to the owners of this intellectual property.

More pragmatically and accurately, how did Kojima express his expectations for Metal Gear’s future in TPP? One hint may dwell in the fate of the robot itself, which has always been the very obvious metaphor of the series that bears its name. In MGSV, the fate of Sahelanthropus is to become a trophy. It does precisely so, at the end of mission 31: it just sits there on the R&D platform, like an action figure on a shelf, a symbol of past glory. Venom categorically refuses to use it, yet he does not want to dispose of it. It is a spoil of war, stolen from its creator, and a totem: the static and sterile emblem of a clan, a race.

There is one particular conversation between Venom and Miller that suggests how confused they are concerning the Metal Gear’s fate. It is like overhearing two managers of a certain company41.

Miller : They’ve finished installing Sahelanthropus on the base. It’s ours now.

Venom : Don’t let any of the staff touch that thing – especially Emmerich42.

Miller : (…) Guess he really wants to see his tech stand on its own two legs this time.

Venom : That’s not gonna happen.

Miller : I know it. So you’ve got no plans to make it operational again?

Venom : Damn right.

Miller : What the hell do you want with that thing? (…) All it can do is self-destruct. Sahelanthropus just isn’t a weapon anymore. It’ll draw unwanted attention without even being a deterrent. (…) The weapon’s development strut sank two feet under that thing’s weight. That’s one year’s drop in a single night. We started on reinforcing the strut, but there’s no guarantee it’ll hold up if a storm hits43.

Although Sahelanthropus does not serve its primary function as a weapon anymore, it remains the object of all desire: in episode 51, three different groups fight over it although it has become, quite literally, a pile of scrap covered with moss. Eli sits in the cockpit exactly as he did on his plastic chair: he is using the machine as a throne, and it is enough for him to merely own it. He behaves in the most insulting and contemptuous way with Sahelanthropus, whose power he does understand, but not its symbolic significance. To him, as Huey puts it, this machine is just a machine. But to the Diamond Dogs, it is a sacred object. They deploy all their forces to take it back. Eli loses this battle but, much later, he will take his revenge while piloting an ersatz of Sahelanthropus, another avatar of the same robotic breed. Sooner or later, the threat will be reborn. How ironic that episode 51, which includes this metaphor of the saga’s future, has not been finished! The way the game ends, the Metal Gear will remain forever absent, stolen by a bunch of rebel kids who do not show any respect for anything. They seem to think that owning this rusty weapon will make them as powerful and influential as Big Boss. What kind of evolution do they have in mind for Metal Gear now that they are detaining it? What is the next step in the arms race of this series? And, through this metaphor, what kind of fate for video games, as a whole?

Indeed, for Kojima, the fate of “his” series also begs the wider question of the fate of the entire video game industry: its methods, objectives and philosophy. They all seem blurry to Kojima, as they belong to a future he feels rejected from, a future he is not able to predict. Take Emmerich’s story of the long and burdensome process to create Sahelanthropus44. He says he planned his Metal Gear to be controlled by a human being. But Skull Face rejected this idea, in favor of a certain kind of automatization45 which exceeds the scientist’s competence and undermines his project. Emmerich does not understand this new Metal Gear at all. Its new functions are beyond him, and it is almost by chance that he eventually gets how Skull Face has managed to hijack his creation, to evolve and mutate it46. The same can be said of Ocelot who does not know how to interpret the behavior of the Third Child: “this boy is part of a new age, where nothing we understand about the world makes sense anymore”47. Ocelot is simply not in the loop anymore. The upcoming renewals are completely foreign to him.

TPP also holds a commentary on the future of video games. By ignoring public expectations while still enabling the players, giving them more ground than ever, the game endorses the current trends in the industry as much as it opposes them, like some immune system which cannot completely reject the parasite to which it is bound. Unlike most other products of the same generation, TPP is meant to actively divide its audience, taking us back to long-forgotten debates, away from today’s quest for consensus. The phantom of MGS2 is there, haunting the orange decks of Mother Base, and it reminds us of all the issues Kojima brought forward at the start of this century: in this industry, is there really a place for auteurs who “pull money and recruits” to criticize both their audience and the medium itself, with genuine freedom and self-confidence? Are their games relevant? Welcome? Or are they systematically swept aside by the unmatchable power of the huge dream factory? Kojima has built and jeopardized his career trying to answer these questions. His obsession has always been to find balance between commercial success and commitment to his ideals. Did he ever manage to strike this balance? It’s doubtful. During TPP’s development, he said he was extremely “jealous as a creator” of Vince Gilligan, who he felt found that sweet spot with Breaking Bad. Instead, Kojima flew too close to the sun and burned his wings in the course of a long pitched battle against his editor (and more often than not, against his audience). Despite everything he said, despite his feeling that, since a long time, there had been “No Place for Hideo”, he does not look like he ever meant to give up, at least not before he had explored all options. Today, it is obvious that Konami, among similar companies, hardly ever cares any longer for auteurs and their audience. Times have changed and, in this unreliable industry, products are shaped exclusively by safe financial prospects. Kojima rebelled against such a system from the start. He suffered from it, was rejected by it, but landed back on his feet. What about us? What does September 1st, 2015 mean for us ? Is it “the end of an era”, as TPP’s last trailer ironically prophesized it48? When a company’s marketing punchlines describe so well the dark reality behind a product, it means the sad truth does not even need to be covered anymore.

How exactly does Kojima conceive the new era? The answer lies in Kaz’s infamous “hamburger tapes”. The food metaphor is bold and cynical (very cynical, given that Kojima compares his life work to the international symbol of junk food). Throughout the tapes, Miller uses Code Talker as a taster to achieve the ultimate hamburger, a “product” which he intends to sell massively for a low price. But what Miller is really trying to do is, in fact, to “remake” a traditional recipe which does not belong to him, and make a profit on it. He is looking for “genuine” taste and he thinks it can be recreated artificially through chemicals. The resulting color does not matter, because buyers will only be interested in the prospect of a genuine experience, ignoring the exterior shell.

Interestingly, Miller relies first on natural ingredients, which he does not know how to pick or use: it does not even matter to him if they are fresh, as long as they can “beat the competition”. It is a mistake, of course, according to Kojima. Or is it? After all, Kaz can anticipate many things, such as Code Talker – the “test panel” – who ignores his “quality standards” as soon as he takes a bite. Kaz, always the businessman, has figured out the public craves only for the illusion of genuine taste; they do not need originality49, nor even “high quality products”. A “good” product only needs the correct dose of nostalgia injected into it, as Kojima cynically says through Code Talker. Kaz listens very closely to this, but he does not care about the following advice and leaves before the scientist can finish his sentence50. Armed with this knowledge, Miller finally achieves the perfect recipe (the one which reminds Code Talker of his childhood). Instantly, it becomes the eighth wonder of the world. It is meant to bring an end to hunger and restore international peace – not unlike Cipher’s plans. Pax Hamburgana echoes Pax Americana, or Britannica, or Romana. It is a synonym for world domination, a cultural and economic monopoly “for humanity’s sake”.

Miller brings up the same kind of fantasy when he introduces the well-named Human Intelligence Exploitation Company. His description51 of the HUEC network conveys a very pessimistic fate for the video game industry, between outsourcing and obsession with profit. It is the same with Skull Face’s plans to transport and control nuclear weapons. Like the hamburgers, it is just a recipe for which, as explained by Code Talker52, all the ingredients are contained in the convoy we must steal in mission 16. The scientist overtly compares the materials in the truck to culinary ingredients (yeast and flour). From the slightest trace of uranium, archaea can produce weapon-grade uranium. What we have, then, is yet another “product” (that is how Skull Face describes it, and rightly so, as he intends to sell it “on the streets”). It is initially harmless, easy to transport (“do-it-yourself nuke kits, complete with user’s manual”, as Ocelot says). Once it reaches its destination, the product “cooks” itself and reveals its final, extremely dangerous form: a nuke which enables the seller to control it and, by extension, the buyer. What is the plan? To saturate the market with these virtual nukes which act as Trojan horses for Skull Face and his personal profit. It is, again, a very cynical view on the future of video games that Kojima shares with us. Or is it already happening?

It is obvious enough that, through this metaphor, Kojima anticipated how TPP would be delivered to our homes (including the user’s manual), how Konami would facilitate the acquisition of nukes in the game, and how FOB would become one giant war economy. “Sahelanthropus was a marketing tool to sell nukes all around the world”, Ocelot says53. This time, Kojima does foresee a future for his series, and he cleverly uses the story of MGS1 to describe it: “Cipher won’t forget. They’ll already be working on something. Quietly, beneath the surface. They’ll use the pieces of data scraped together from this incident to build their own bipedal weapon. It’ll take them a long time to complete it but for now the greed sector have found their new life’s work”.

Created in 1979 by a few artists who wished to live off their creativity, Activision is known as the very first independent game company. Today, it has become the biggest player in the industry. No doubt Kojima kept that kind of thing in mind when, six years ago, he designed a game about a tiny dissident military group evolving into an international nuclear threat. Like PW, MGSV deals with greed, losing sight of one’s ideals – and one’s soul. Like Breaking Bad, it deals with the selfish and dangerous excesses for which every human endeavor paves the way. In MGS4, Kojima already dreamt of going back to square one, or rather zero. He thought it would eventually happen, maybe in less painful circumstances.

It did happen: on 16 December 2015, he was reborn. And perhaps this is exactly what MGSV, and all its narrative efforts, were meant to lead to.

37 It was an obsession in MGS2 already: “What is our legacy if we cannot pass the torch? Proof of our existence, a mark of some sort”, says Solidus.
38 Africa Today [1], tape 1.
39 It was also shown in Peace Walker, through the consequences of deterrence which brings war instead of peace. In “Metallic Archaea [1]”, Ocelot tells Venom that the South-African nuclear program was a response to MSF owning a nuke. “It wasn’t just South Africa. Your presence pushed a lot of countries to get nukes.”
40 The mass-production of Walker Gears is just another misunderstanding, a wrong interpretation of what Zeke stood for. Walker Gears are, as the title of episode 15 says, the footprints of a phantom: as usual, the game makes us run after the perverted shadow of former glory.
41 Sahelanthropus [3]
42 Kaz makes more or less the same statement in the fourth tape of “Questioning Huey [1]”: “Emmerich will remain here on Mother Base but not as a Diamond Dog. I still don’t trust him (…). We need him alive but we have to restrict his movements. He can only go where we tell him. And of course, the interrogations will continue.”
43 These last few sentences form a surprising metaphor. They refer to the fall of a slump in some performance indicator (a decisive one for the company, which is slowly “sinking”), all because of the weight of that Metal Gear. Expensive efforts have been carried out to maintain the delicate balance of the structure, but it is doomed anyway, at it goes on sinking year by year.
44 Questioning Huey [1], tape 3.
45 The same kind of automatization is mentioned regarding the uncontrollable proliferation of Walker Gears, a “new generation” of robots.
46 In the first tape of “Vocal Cord Parasites [3]”, Code Talker explains the goal of the experiments at Nzoyo ba Diabulu : to mutate the parasites, one generation after the other, so that their effects are more predictable. “Mutation and selection. No different to breeding roses”, the scientist says, echoing the symbol of the blue rose from MGS4 (an aberration created through the manipulation of genes, in order to control nature).
47 The Man on Fire [3], tape 2.
48 That trailer was apparently done without Kojima’s involvement.
49 Lamb, cotton candy, flashy colors… So many unconventional – and ultimately useless – ideas which may have come from what Kaz experienced as a young boy fed with “frankenburgers”.
50 That second piece of advice may have been to find between originality and novelty, or between tradition and innovation.
51 At Mother Base [1], tape 3.
52 Metallic Archaea [4].
53 Skull Face’s Objective [1], last tape.
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