It has haunted us for so long, has intruded in our lives for so many years, that we forgot to what extent The Phantom Pain is a game title like no other. As soon as it was announced, it challenged everything MGSV was supposed to stand for: the game was not supposed to be a phantom76, but a huge, larger than life, highly publicized production. It was not expected to be a vector for pain, but the opposite: a haven of joy, the very best of entertainment (which, by definition, is supposed to divert us from pain). Yet it was, in the end, an elusive specter which, in more than one promotional trailer, replaced the saga’s title, making it disappear from the screen along with it.
One does not name a video game as a clinical case or a medical treatise. But Kojima did. Maybe because he felt he could breathe into these two words as much lyricism as in the titles of his previous experiments: among the most obvious examples, Sons of Liberty, Guns of the Patriots and Peace Walker are terms which designate the person to whom the games are addressed. You are what you play, and The Phantom Pain is the continuation of this process.
It is easy now, four years after the title was revealed, to forget how much symbolic meaning it holds. The painful past of the characters is ours, as well as the author’s. That is what we share with him, at this particular milestone of our common path, our common interest in the media which binds us together. It is obvious now, but it has not always been so. Whatever we suspected, we never had any idea that we would be so involved: while watching TPP’s trailers, we eagerly expected to witness one man’s downfall. But the truth is, he refused to go along with it, and he made us witness our own. The last glance Big Boss throws us means only one thing: he wins and we lose. He starts over, and we are finished. Or rather, we are in a state of perpetual stagnation: when he gave this title to his game, focusing on the pain rather than the remedy, Kojima already knew we would not be able to free ourselves from the past, from our successive virtual identities and our endless revenges – all the whimsical fantasies which flow like venom in our veins and those of our avatar.
Code Talker may be the one who sums up best Kojima’s point regarding the notion of phantom pain, in a conversation with Kaz:
Kaz: We defeated Skull Face. But it didn’t lessen our pain. It’s a pain we’ll never be rid of. I see that now. But I thought I could burn it away. In the end, all I burned was our own men.
Code Talker: We both allowed revenge to crawl into our minds and lay its eggs (…). There is no choice but to live in that pain… Be symbiotic with our vengeful nature. Whatever we do, we must not allow that thirst for revenge to control us.77
In other words, we must learn to cope with the emotions which come from loss, all the while being careful that they do not get the better of us. Our pain must remain phantom, detached from us, although it lives within us like a parasite and keeps reminding us of its presence. That is what The Boss said in MGS3 when she compared pain, as Code Talker did, to a creeping, sneaky creature.
“There is nothing left inside me now. Nothing at all. No hatred, not even regret. And yet, sometimes at night, I can still feel the pain creeping up inside me. Slithering through my body… Like a snake.”
Even the most virtuous people are continuously tortured by pain: they can escape everything but pain. That is why Kojima’s advice is so difficult to follow. It implies we let ourselves be overwhelmed by emotions while keeping a cool head, that is to say, refusing to let these emotions bind us to the past, prevent us from moving forward. “In our struggle to survive the present, we push the future farther away”: Kojima, as lucid as he has ever been, realizes he has postponed his departure far too long, thus robbing us, and himself, from the opportunity to be left in front of a “blank space”, a fresh start.
In the eyes of Kojima, going back to square one is not a failure: on the contrary, it is a very positive situation. To understand why, let us go back to MGS4 and James Howell’s interpretation of the word Sense.
Sense describes a state of spiritual or creative stagnation – a rut. Sense is a set of patterns capable of defining the self, but those patterns may also chafe the self if allowed to circumscribe future growth.
This stagnation is opposed to the Taoist concept of p’u, the return to an innocent and neutral state, “the uncarved block that represents receptivity, passivity, and the simplicity of beginnings”. Undoubtedly, to an author like Kojima, such a state of grace is an ideal, a source of inspiration so much more helpful than the constant repetition of the same old habits which, although they are part of an artist’s identity, prevent him from going forward and trap him in a fruitless circle. To an author, habits are the opposite of renewal, and stagnation is a fate worse than death. Kojima does not hesitate to remind it to us in P.T. as well:
“Dad was such a drag. Every day he’d eat the same kind of food, dress the same, sit in front of the same kind of games… Yeah, he was just that kind of guy. But then one day, he goes and kills us all! He couldn’t even be original about the way he did it. I’m not complaining… I was dying of boredom anyway, But guess what? I will be coming back, and I’m bringing my new toys with me.”
This is Kojima’s true objective with MGSV: to break the circle, be reborn and create a new one, with brand new toys. Like a springboard, MGSV was made to lead to that goal. The entire game is a large metaphor of its author’s situation at a turning point in his life, the time to mourn and then contemplate the future with confidence. To paraphrase James Howell again, this time from his MGS2 formal analysis, the game’s key does not lie in its script, or its narration, but in the purpose they both serve. It is fortunate that MGS2 and MGSV share the exact same purpose: to free their author and audience from a vicious circle. One may have done it too early, and the other one too late.
Arguably, this freedom has been the goal of every MGS done by Kojima. He continually invites the player to “pick up the torch” (Snake in MGS2), “learn the rest by [him]self” (The Boss in MGS3), “see the outside world with [his] own eyes” and “find a new lease on life” (Big Boss in MGS4). MGSV is the culmination of the author’s stubborn determination to prevent his main audience, the “digital natives”, from becoming “digital naives”, trapped in their digital prison. TPP is one last wake-up call – or, literally, awakening – for our consciences numbed by our deliberate submission to an endless cycle of virtual revenge, in a universe where we find it hard to draw a distinction between what is aggressively imposed on us, and what is freely passed on to us. To our potential rebirth, the game opposes some kind of living hell: the limbo of a fiction being held hostage, where the player himself will be held at gunpoint as long as he serves that one-eyed Big Brother whose face he happily wears.
“How long will we be tormented by what he left behind?”, Kaz asks at the end of mission 3178. Good question. We should wonder ourselves, particularly those who still think there is some kind of substantial outcome to chapter 2. The answer is so simple that it eludes Miller completely: we will be tormented as long as we decide to barter our identity, to obey our thirst for revenge. So the time has finally come to “let the world be”, to feel the joy of having been a part of it – but also the despair of having been robbed of our “Peace Day”.
The last part of Paz’s Diary might as well have been told by Kojima himself. This nonexistent young woman, who vanished long ago, is the perfect vehicle for her creator’s thoughts. He never experienced “Peace Day” either, no more than the player. Paz’s words are particularly hurting, they are “words that kill” if we consider they are addressed to us: none of our actions in this fictional universe have any sense, nor do they carry any noble intention or potential redemption. It does not matter if we are having the dream79 or if we built it, because it has no end, no outcome. Paz’s final tape puts an end, in the most dignified way, to a second chapter designed as a frightening parody of video games, a depreciation of the great ambitions of the media, with a very pessimistic view on the responsibilities of its creators80. Like the world war in 1984, our virtual conflicts will never lead to any form of peace81. Fortunately, Paz’s last words compensate for this gloomy picture. While Mother Base – the symbol of a blessed era – never was the perfect heaven Kojima is looking for, it did temporarily serve as a place of “hypocritical peace”. It filled him with joy: he hopes we felt it as well, and that it will help us free our “real emotion”: the one which originally stems from pixels, but then thrives away from the screen, onto the fertile soil of the “blank space” of our choice.
Why not go along with that plan, after all ? Like Kojima Productions, we are able to “stand tall on missing legs”, turn pain into might, venom into antidote, requiem into rebirth. Like the people who made the game, and thanks to the experience they shared with us through their work and characters, we remain shining lights, even in the death of the virtual world which used to bind us together. And it is right then, through the gap in the door, “the moment our hands overlap”, that the truth is revealed to us, in the form of a familiar message already heard ten years ago, a prophecy fulfilled: “we have no tomorrow, but there’s still hope for the future”.
Hope? Seriously? For us who would rather “hold our rifles in missing hands” than letting them go?
Maybe. If we could just…
77 What happened in the laboratory .
79 The unfinished movie presented in Jodorowsky’s Dune (which Kojima mentioned more than once during and after TPP’s development) was supposed to “open the minds” of its viewers, to wake them up. Jodorowsky admits that his movie exists only as a dream”. But he adds that “dreams have the power to change the world”.
80 “That was our business… War. We bought our daily bread with money paid to us for killing. Maybe us getting killed was just balancing the scales.” (Paz’s Diary )
81 “Nothing will bring me back”, says the character whose name means “peace”.
Flying Fox has presented us with a monumental analysis worthy of discussion. He is on Twitter here, and he would like to know what you think! The themes of The Phantom Pain have yet to be fully explored by the MGS community, and I think this is a landmark in furthering our understanding. It’s a game about regrets, faulty logic, delusion, and ambition at the same time. Every character has something to offer us — some insight into the history of Hideo Kojima that we should explore. This may be the first game since MGS2 that makes more sense as an allegory than as a straightforward story; the final postmodern trick of the series’ creator. If that’s the case, would it soothe the “phantom pain” we’ve all felt after playing it?