Tactical Storytelling Action
The recent “Definitive Experience” rerelease of The Phantom Pain and Ground Zeroes made this week as good a time as any to look back at Metal Gear Solid V. Patrick Lee took a particular interest in Phantom Pain’s alternate ending, scenes from which appeared in the supplementary materials of the game’s collector’s edition. Without the thematic resonance of those scenes, Patrick argued, Phantom Pain was left with an ending that wasn’t much of an ending at all, neither to its own story or the one Metal Gear had been telling for decades. Down in the comments, readers discussed several scenes that also made for meaningful endings to the game. Mr Smith1466 broke down a few. (Obviously, the following discussion will address specific plot details from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Skip ahead if you’d rather avoid those.):
As nice as a completed version of Mission 51 would have been, I think the base game still adequately ends the series, it just does it in a much different way than we would have liked. There are basically three endings in the game: Skullface’s death, which ends the traditional revenge plot; the final M. Night Shyamalan plot twist ending; and, crucially, the second ending with Quiet’s final mission.
Everyone either betrays or somehow fails Snake by the end. Huey screws everyone over. Mother Base is ravaged by a virus. Kaz goes nuts. Ocelot never betrays anyone (for once in the series) but it’s revealed that he never gave a crap about the player’s character. The only one who doesn’t betray you is Quiet (literally the person everyone on the base thought was a traitor). But this just makes Quiet’s final mission all the bleaker. The two of them share a final moment, and to protect Snake and the world at large, Quiet abandons him forever. This is made all the sadder by the fact that to get this final mission, the player has to invest heavily in Quiet’s buddy ranking, meaning you share Snake’s personal investment in her.
Snake loses everything on some level. All he has left is his identity, and even that is cruelly taken from him by the plot twist. Snake smashes the mirror and accepts Big Boss’ legacy because at this point, what the hell else is he to do with his life? He’s forever cut off from people like Kaz and will have to deal with the fact that his beloved soldiers are loyal to a phantom. It’s not a stretch to assume that after the events of the game, he increasingly builds a cult-like fanatic love for himself and eventually creates Outer Heaven, because again, what the hell else is a phantom of a legendary soldier to do?
But I think there’s a danger in taking the final twist too literally. I partly see it as Kojima’s little gift to the players. He’s basically minimalizing the character of Big Boss in the larger narrative in favor of the player. What was Big Boss doing all game? Who knows or cares! The player was the one building an army and hanging out with a one eyed wolf. I think the intent is meant to be that when one plays a later game in the series and hears of the legendary Big Boss, the player can think “no no, not Big Boss. I was the one who created this legend!” This is something Kojima essentially tried to pull with Raiden in MGS2. Give the player an avatar so they could feel like they eventually stand alongside the legendary Solid Snake. Whether or not this worked in either case is a matter of debate.
Several other commmenters keyed in on that final Quiet scene as the game’s most poignant emotional climax. Son Of Now See Here summed up why:
I feel that the moment Quiet leaves is the functional end of the game, and the end of Nameless Medic Guy, the player’s character. She’s the only character in the entire game whose actions are motivated not by the legend and philosophy of Big Boss but rather things that Nameless Medic Guy did and choices that Nameless Medic Guy made. The moment she leaves is the moment Nameless Medic Guy dies. Nothing left in the game is about him. After that, there’s only Big Boss, and all that’s left is for you to build Outer Heaven in an attempt to fulfill Big Boss’ dream and get rocket launchered to death.
In Someone Else’s Shoes
This week, I reviewed Mafia III, a game that proudly attempts to take on racism in America. While I thought not all of its methods were well considered and implemented, it should be lauded for tackling this issue head-on, as opposed to substituting elves or aliens for the targets of social injustice, and for using its Grand Theft Auto-style open world to illustrate the more subtle forms racism takes in this country. Expanding on that latter point, DrFlimFlam reckons this is an important and unique property of games that, while definitely present in many parts of the industry, has largely been passed up by its biggest creations:
Reading about the more subtle elements makes me think there’s a powerful game here stuffed into a blockbuster. It’s like how BioShock Infinite, a game I love, could have been even better if it were more committed to its warped vision of paradise and less about powers and murder sprees. In much the same way, it seems like there could be a fascinating game about the experience of being black in America, what it’s like in different neighborhoods, what it’s like watching people eye you a bit longer than they should or a police car slowing down to take your measure.
One of the great things about video games is the way they can put you in someone else’s shoes. Most games, especially the big ones, become power fantasies, but it’d be interesting to see a game that lets you see the experiences of others in a less advantageous position: A migrant who doesn’t speak or read the language of their new country, a persecuted racial or religious minority in a divided city. It’s not normally what we think of games as, but it could be a powerful tool for empathy, for really seeing life through another person’s experiences.
Duwease continued that thought with a few notable games that have successfully used this idea:
I think having a player experience someone else’s shoes through play is one of the unique advantages games have as a medium, and one I hope they learn to explore more. Done right, it builds empathy and understanding, as you make choices yourself and understand why you did.
For instance, games like The Walking Dead have created increased empathy in me for people who make bad snap decisions, tamping down my tendency to Monday morning quarterback. Once I was put in a (lower stakes) situation and saw myself make decisions I immediately regretted under time pressure, I understood. Or something like Papers, Please, which used the perilous finances of your family (and the threat of hours of lost game progress) to get you to make decisions that a person at a comfortable remove would decry as immoral. It drives home the mundanity of evil when you are the one taking bribes and enforcing cruel laws for a government you don’t even like because you need extra money for food or are worried about the consequences of being caught showing kindness.
And Wolfman Jew points out the key to effectively using this technique is to manifest the effects of your character’s identity while your playing, as opposed to just in dialogue or cutscenes:
It’s a nice contrast from how, say, Skyrim or Mankind Divided try to include parables about racism but limit it to narrative sequences or dialogue. When I first played Skyrim, I was a lizard person (who are discriminated against by the majority population), and all the super hardcore racist characters treated me pretty much how they would if were human.
If a game wants to analyze, deconstruct, or speak to something, it really needs to think about how to use it in play. Stuff like altering how the police react differently depending on your environment or making spaces more or less (mostly less) available are important, because they make the player interact with this culture and environment. Plus, it allows the developers to tell a more interesting story that isn’t dependent on exposition, and it provides unique scenarios that give the work an identity. It’s weird how few examples there really are in games. And usually they seem to be of the “minor thing that’s been slightly altered,” when complex and systemic changes would be more powerful.
TheOligarchicMe remembered an interesting example of a game that becomes very different if you play as a woman:
Mount & Blade: Warband lets you choose to start as a man or a woman, as well as a noble or a peasant, and warns you that your female warrior will be less respected in medieval times. Half the lords dislike you instantly (and you can challenge them to duels if they insult you), you won’t be invited to be a vassal, kings won’t give you property unless you play politics or conquer it yourself, it takes a higher “renown” score before nobles accept you, and it’s much more difficult to find a noble husband than a wife.
That does it for this week, folks. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all again next week!