Nobody would accuse the Metal Gear Solid games of having stories that are easy to follow, but Metal Gear Solid V takes “dense” to a new, decades-spanning high.
That’s because MGS V is mired in some of the deepest and densest lore in the entire series. It’s a direct prequel to the very first game in the franchise: Metal Gear. The 1987 original set up the story for the entire franchise, but MGS V doesn’t just lead up to it-in many ways, it effectively rewrites it.
The Metal Gear Solid series has been reframing the past events in its lore since Metal Gear Solid 3, but far more than the post-credits cutscene of Metal Gear Solid 4, MGS V looks to change everything: especially the plot of the original Metal Gear.
Except it doesn’t, because MGS V’s story, unfortunately, doesn’t make a ton of sense.
The Big Boss Problem
At some point during the course of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, it seems, creator Hideo Kojima decided to pivot the story back toward being about the series’ first antagonist: Big Boss, the one-time leader of protagonist Solid Snake’s American special operations unit, Foxhound, in 1987’s Metal Gear. Big Boss is the evil bad guy of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and he’s the most obvious and perfunctory video game villain of possibly all time.
In Metal Gear, Big Boss sends you into Outer Heaven, a sort of soldier-nation that apparently has nuclear capability and is holding the world hostage. There, you discover Metal Gear, a walking tank that can cross basically any terrain, making the entire world a viable target for a clandestine nuclear strike. Then you discover the truth: the guy in charge of Outer Heaven, and the nuke, is Big Boss himself. He sent you in thinking you’d fail, because plot twists.
You kill Big Boss in Metal Gear and stop Metal Gear and everything’s good. And then in Metal Gear 2 you do it again, only this time you fight cyborg Big Boss who apparently wasn’t dead, and this time Big Boss tells Solid Snake that he’s Snake’s father. Yeah.
Big Boss went on through the proceeding Metal Gear Solid games as a corpse everyone wanted for cloning reasons, because he was apparently the greatest soldier ever (although, of course, he wasn’t actually dead). And it turned out Solid, Liquid, and another Snake bro called Solidus were all clones of the original Big Boss. The guy was a big deal.
But then Metal Gear Solid 3 happened. Kojima went back to the Cold War to tell the backstory of why Big Boss decided to create Outer Heaven in the first place (he wanted to create a nation where soldiers wouldn’t be exploited by governments), and why he went all dark side (he was forced to kill his mentor in order to prevent a worldwide nuclear war, thanks to the clownish Cold War escapades of politicians).
Seems like at some point, the character of Big Boss became really important to Kojima. Metal Gear Solid 3 recontextualizes the man. Metal Gear Solid 4’s ending is dedicated to making him a good guy from the right point of view. And Metal Gear Solid V straight-up rewrites his story.
Becoming a Demon Apparently
Spoiler alert, because here comes the big twist of MGS V: the Big Boss you play in that game is not the same Big Boss you played in MGS 3 or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The player character is, in fact, a medic who served under Big Boss during the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Big Boss and the medic both explode in a helicopter crash, and at that point, several other characters decide to use the medic as a Big Boss decoy.
So through absolute miracles of plastic surgery (okay), voice modification (…kay), and hypnotherapy (umm…), the nameless helicopter medic becomes legendary soldier Big Boss. The story of MGS V is about decoy Big Boss attempting to restart Mother Base, simultaneously a private military company and a safe haven for soldiers to live free of ideology or country (although … hey Big Boss, you know this whole thing is itself an ideology, right).
While the real Big Boss is off doing the whole “not getting killed” thing, decoy Big Boss has some struggles. He deals with being maimed by the attack in Ground Zeroes. He fights and gets revenge on Skull Face. He has to deal with some betrayals (or believed betrayals) and some other heavy encounters, like rebellious child soldiers rescued from Africa and a parasitic outbreak in which he has to shoot a bunch of his men to save the rest. It’s safe to say that decoy Big Boss goes through some shit, and you could understand if he comes out of it ruthless, hardened and jaded-you know, on the verge of villainous.
All of which is good, fascinating stuff, especially since MGS V is actually reworking the entire story of the original Metal Gear. Big Boss doesn’t send you into Big Boss’s base in the original game anymore, now that we know this new information. Big Boss actually sends you to decoy Big Boss’s base. And Big Boss doesn’t magically revive at the end of Metal Gear to be the big bad guy in Metal Gear 2. Instead, you kill decoy Big Boss in Metal Gear, and fight real Big Boss in Metal Gear 2.
Still with us? Okay, good.
It Still Doesn’t Work
Presumably, Kojima created MGS V both to add context to the later seeming evil-doer-ness of Big Boss, and to create a situation in which the story can simultaneously support Villain Big Boss and Good Guy Big Boss. They’re two different people, in fact. Big Boss has an evil twin.
Except that evil twin isn’t so evil, and MGS V does a terrible job of selling that angle of the story.
Despite several characters mentioning that decoy Big Boss (he’s called Venom Snake in the game, so we’ll go with that) has “become a demon” in his struggle to get revenge on Skull Face for killing his men and nearly killing him, that never actually seems to be the case. Players make choices about how they handle situations throughout the game-lethal or non-lethal, execute targets or kidnap them and let them join up with Big Boss’s military outfit, and so on-and while it’s not advertised, the game keeps track of all this. There’s a hidden “Demon Points” system that notes how evil you are, and it alters your appearance accordingly to be more demon-like.
Too bad everything in the game encourages you to be a good guy.
All the gameplay incentives in MGS V make lethal actions a sort of dumb way to play, long-term. Why shoot guys in the head when you constantly want to kidnap them to join Mother Base and bolster your forces? Why kill assassination targets when it’s always better to recruit them? Why be evil when it’s so much more literally rewarding (if not morally rewarding) to be good?
And then there’s the story. Some dark stuff goes on aboard Mother Base, that’s for sure. Venom Snake’s lieutenants, Revolver Ocelot and Kaz Miller, get paranoid about traitors on the base and torture people repeatedly-but Snake doesn’t. He’s often the guy stepping in (after a fair amount of torture has happened, to be fair) to put a stop to it. But he’s never the torturer, he never rants bitterly about revenge (like Kaz), he never uses excessive force or treats anyone cruelly in the story.
Snake even rescues child soldiers. Repeatedly. The game explicitly forbids you from killing them as soon as they show up, and despite a cutscene that fakes like Snake’s about to murder a cell full of kids, it’s all just a big ruse.
All of this is to say that Venom Snake is a pretty good guy. Not the best guy, certainly. But he also doesn’t descend through the course of MGS V to becoming a heinous, megalomaniacal villain in Metal Gear. In fact, he seems to be a pretty heroic character by the end of the story.
And that’s probably because the story is unfinished.
Rushed, Disjointed, Confusing
Metal Gear Solid V’s story is split into two chapters. The first concerns the main plot of Venom Snake tracking down and stopping antagonist Skull Face. But then that just … ends. It’s followed by Chapter 2, which is supposed to be about how Venom Snake goes on without a clear foe to battle. Without the drive for revenge, how does Venom Snake just live in the world?
Unfortunately, it’s very clear that Chapter 2 is missing huge, important chunks of the tale, with the assumption being that MGS V was taking too long and costing too much, and eventually was forced out the door. The game is missing a clear ending (the Venom Snake/Big Boss twist is its final cutscene, which wraps up nothing) and several of the biggest plot threads are left dangling. All the most important stuff that happens in MGS V is off-screen or unresolved.
Venom Snake has some tough moments in MGS V, but whenever he’s tested, he always comes out more heroic in the story than he went in. If Kojima’s intent was to provide a good reason for Big Boss to go from battling to create a better world for soldiers while also resisting the Illuminati-like new world order of his former allies, to also be a nuke-bearing murderous dick in Metal Gear, well-he failed. MGS V doesn’t really pave the way. If anything, it feels like more of the story is waiting to be told.
That’s to say nothing of how little sense it makes that Big Boss sends Solid Snake to fight Venom Snake when the pair are working toward the same goal: Big Boss’s soldier utopia. This doesn’t rewrite Big Boss’s intent for assigning the mission, and in fact, the “ending” of MGS V has Big Boss tipping Venom off to Solid Snake’s mission. The false-flag idea of setting up Solid Snake to fail is unchanged. So what was the point of rewriting this, except to undo the original Metal Gear/Metal Gear 2 death-faking?
MGS V is a plot twist that doesn’t fit with Metal Gear’s plot. There are some potentially fascinating thematic implications in the Venom/Boss bait-and-switch, not the least of which is that the legend attached to the “Legendary Soldier” story of Big Boss seems to have gotten away even from the man himself. But overall, MGS V is a lot of work to alter the story of an 8-bit game with minimal dialogue that was built on a goofy plot twist. And in all the biggest ways, it fails to do it.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory: How to Get Off Your Podunk Planet and Master the Final Frontier. When he’s not overthinking game stories, rewatching the films Alien or The Thing. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two annoying cats, and can be found on Twitter at @philhornshaw.