I’ve always denied that video games have anything to do with my near-constant violent urges, but Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has now forced a reassessment of just how desensitised one can become to gore and nudity.
Earlier this week my partner was using the PC to book some train tickets and the next thing I know, she’s joking about having finally caught me looking at porn. Which of course would never happen. “What the hell is this?” she exclaimed, pointing to an image on my desktop.
“It’s okay,” I replied, “it’s just a new poster for the game Metal Gear Solid V.” And then I realised halfway through the sentence that what we were both looking at was a semi-naked woman whose large breasts are dripping in blood. The game’s male lead Big Boss is on there too, but of course, his body is not on show – just his head and shoulders, which are similarly splattered with gore.
My initial reaction to the image had been fairly blasé – “wow, they’re both a bit bloody, oh well just over a month till it’s out”. Following the fairly disgusted reaction it received from a non fan, however, I looked again, and wondered why Kojima had chosen to present the game in such a way.
The most curious aspect is that it’s an atypical Metal Gear Solid (MGS) image. The series’ art style does not glory in needless gore – death animations look agonising and realistic, with the accompanying sound effect a brutal crack of bone. MGS is set in a violent world, and doesn’t flinch from representing violent actions, but it is not a game about meting out violence – it’s about avoiding it as much as possible.
So covering a poster in lashings of ketchup is odd, but then you look at the textures. The blood on Quiet’s face is sparse and dried, before an awkward collarbone transition takes the eye down ... to the breasts covered in rich, liquidy blood, lit and layered in such a way to create the impression of a huge areola. It’s just ... so odd. Is this about showing off the power of the game’s Fox Engine? Or something else?
It’s impossible to shake the suspicion that Kojima’s goal with the poster was to provoke outrage and controversy amid gaming sites and opinion makers, which would in turn, prompt fans of Metal Gear Solid, as well as fans of bloodily depicted digital boobs, to hit social media and angrily defend Kojima’s freedom of speech. These battles have already played out over Metal Gear Solid V, via the guarded yet unsettling suggestions of sexual abuse in prequel title Ground Zeroes, and the revelation that there will be a Metal Gear action figure with – yes – pliable breasts.
All of which is a temporary distraction from the fact that Hideo Kojima’s name is not on the poster in question. Shock! Or at least it would be if this wasn’t beginning to seem like a familiar pattern. In March this year, Kojima and Metal Gear publisher Konami had an apparently acrimonious falling-out, prompting dozens of variously speculative reports about the future of the series, based on the most meagre crumbs of information. The consensus is that Kojima is leaving Konami, and Kojima Productions is closing, but actual facts are thin on the ground. One thing is for sure: MGS fans are not taking it well.
A recent video pointed out that Ground Zeroes features a mission where the player has to erase the logos of Metal Gear games made by Kojima. Other Metal Gear games appear but, if Kojima didn’t direct them, they stay. After you’ve erased all of Kojima’s titles there’s are some brief cameo lines (including one from Kojima himself) before your friend Kaz speaks over the radio:
“You might be able to erase the markings, but the memories will never disappear.”
This mission parallels what happened in March, when Konami released new box art images for old MGS games – with one change: the ever-present mark “A Hideo Kojima Game” had been removed from every image.
If such well-engineered prophecy seems too perfect, then you may be right. Kojima adores playing with audience expectations, doesn’t mind upsetting his fanbase to do so, and has a history of examining behavioural control and media manipulation in the internet age (just play MGS 2 again). Online gaming media shares the bad habits of all online media: listicles, manufactured controversies, insufficient research, groupthink around topics, and so on.
Add to this the fact that the title Phantom Pain references a condition where amputees feel their missing limb. Imagine now that the game launches, accompanied by the howls of fans wailing for their lost hero – who of course remains coy on the details of such injustice. Not only is bad Konami getting rid of the man we adore but – get this! – they’re trying to erase his name from past games! On the internet! Guys we can stop this!
It’s all a bit too perfect a play on Kojima’s own status as The Auteur of Metal Gear Solid, a role he’s always been ambiguous about enjoying, and the modern explosion of fan identification with celebrity. It’s interesting, for example, that despite this apparently acrimonious bust-up and the closure of Kojima Productions, Hideo Kojima himself continues to tweet out promotional stuff for MGS V on a steady routine – including this latest poster. Such facts aren’t questioned because for many Metal Gear fans Kojima is Metal Gear, which is why the bait-and-switch would be so perfect.
It’s not just him, either. One thing about Quiet rather lost in the noise is that she’s an optional “buddy” character in MGS V. There are several of these and, frankly, Quiet won’t play any role in my Phantom Pain experience because I’m choosing Diamond Dog for life. Her prominence in the marketing for the game is entirely because she is a nearly-naked woman with a hot body, but her presence in the game itself will be much slighter if you so choose. MGS 2 exploded at launch because the pre-release hype was all around Solid Snake – who turned out to be only playable in the prologue, after which players controlled the new (and immediately reviled) character Raiden.
The one thing Quiet is good at is getting attention (yes, guilty). And she has done an amazing job of diverting attention from the fact that this year’s biggest game release has a hero who is also unambiguously a terrorist. Big Boss is a rogue actor radicalised by US realpolitik, building his own military nation with the eventual goal of his own nuclear weapon. He’s a neocon’s dream antagonist. MGS V’s prequel was set in prison camps that mirror Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, while the full game takes place largely in 1980s Afghanistan, when Russia was the invading force.
The poster’s Japanese text reads: “Stained in blood, the aftermath of revenge”. Big Boss is a hero to any fan of MGS, because we’ve walked every step of his journey. And here is where his goals descend into simple, bloody revenge – we know this happens, because Big Boss is the final enemy in 1987’s Metal Gear, Kojima’s debut as director and the beginning of the series.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is when the snake will eat its tail. Quite apart from the complexity of its subject, this kind of 30-year setup is why you’ve got to love MGS and Kojima. And it’s why the giant blood-stained breasts are so crass. Whatever his satirical intentions may be, surely Kojima knows better than anyone how a hero can become a villain. MGS V’s image could have done with a bit more class, and a lot less Quiet.
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th July 2015 10.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010