Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a videogame ultimately about loss, personal pain, self identity and our perception in the eyes of others. This is all set to a globe sprawling revenge epic taking in duelling private armies, the cold war, giant robots, viral pandemics and revenge. All for revenge as the promotional material proudly displayed.
The player character of Venom Snake (also known in the series lore as “Big Boss” for reasons I will touch on later, but in this one game, he is differentiated as Venom Snake) is of greatest interest to me and as a protagonist one of the few videogame characters I can identify with on some base levels.
As a primer, you should know that I, your humble writer, am currently suffering from and undergoing treatment for experiences, depression and anxieties that have left me a virtual recluse, distant and missing things considered vital to the human experience. Venom Snake’s past and traumas couldn’t be more different to mine, but his mental situation at the time of The Phantom Pain’s events look very familiar to me as I play in my current situation and a possible warning if I don’t at least try to help myself.
Venom Snake’s tale starts 9 years prior to the events of the game, playable in a prequel title named “Ground Zeroes”, as legendary mercenary soldier codenamed Big Boss infiltrates a US military base in Cuba to rescue two captured members of his private military force ” Militaires Sans Frontiers” as back on their offshore base of operations, a nuclear inspection team arrives to check their facilities. This is all a ruse and the visit is a front for an assault by a US special force unit Boss helped create that destroys the base, kills innumerable personnel and leaves Big Boss gravely injured and in a coma for 9 years.
Boss awakens in a Cyprus hospital rebuilt but broken. The betrayal scarred his face, took his left arm and left metal shrapnel embedded in his skull. Boss survived in body, but not in mind.
Throughout the game, as the newly moniker-ed Venom Snake surrounds himself with a new army and undertakes dangerous missions in an effort to root out the enemy unit & uncover their nefarious plans for world domination, many of whom suffer from their own loss or traumas, Venom proves himself to be very different version of the character seen in earlier games (some taking place after the events of this game, positioned as connective tissue between iterations).
Big Boss is a leader, equal parts soldier and philosopher. Venom Snake is distant, quiet, cold and monosyllabic in equal measurements. Venom is clearly suffering a severe depression, but he still fights because that is all he knows, now accompanied by a thousand yard stare.
That love of distance and inability to engage with others hits home with me the hardest. Venom spends the entire game barely speaking unless spoken to and choosing to communicate business and instructions distantly through menu systems and technological devices, not unlike how I find myself frustratedly reaching out to the wider world from the safety of my home through my phone in place of potentially awkward embarrassment or ridicule.
The cautionary aspect of all this is that the game world bends over backwards to accommodate Venom’s neuroses and anger. In reality these are gameplay contrivances to make the game engaging to play, but Venom receiving a cutting edge prostheses to enable him to fight, an army of support staff to supply new weapons and technology for use in the field and incredible allies that can almost win every battle all help Venom delve deeper into his murky quest for vengeance, offering up encouragement and justification for every action. In short, they are enablers.
Even we as the player play our part in Venom’s condition. We as an unseen, unknown entity directly control his physical movements and make decisions for him that affect his mental state on screen. I as the player am able to play the role of Venom Snake for my own power fantasy of being a badass, grizzled and world weary mercenary on a quest for bloody revenge and save the world in the process, but I can also be the impulse in Venom’s head that governs self image and self preservation as I decide to pacify enemies or eliminate them, or to wash the blood and grime of battle from Snake’s uniforms or let it fester as grisly trophies. These are mine to choose. I am the mental illness that decides whether Venom can wash, or function or care or not. I have a similar battle in my own mind more often than not, and is not one that’s easily won.
The game ends with a revelatory breaking of the fourth wall that directly addresses the player’s own input into the game and in a way, writes the player’s actions as Venom Snake into the series wider canon. We the player learn at the same time as the character that Venom Snake is not Big Boss after all, but a former underling surgically and psychologically altered to be a stand in, thus avoiding any issues where events in the game threaten to contradict the series’ canon. Venom Snake is playing the role of Big Boss in the public eye while the real Boss works behind the scenes setting up events seen in games later in the timeline where he becomes a principal antagonist for a new player character. It’s an ending I’ve seen praised and scorned in equal measure and it’s one as a fan of the series I must confess some disappointment in the writers hand waving of any dissonance between Big Boss the sympathetic protagonist and Big Boss the despot he becomes. MGSV was announced as a “missing link”, detailing Snake’s shocking fall from grace in a manner we as players could experience first hand and even influence. What we actually get is a message from the real Big Boss telling us that what we’ve done doesn’t matter, and events in the series will carry on regardless of our actions & decisions as Venom Snake.
All for Revenge? Not even close.
So what about Venom Snake? How in his addled mental state does he deal with the knowledge that his entire existence is a fabrication? He smiles. This is the cautionary aspect of observing Venom Snake I spoke of earlier. Instead of addressing his issues, maybe even rebuilding his own identity or forging a new one, we see Venom choose to embrace and carry on living the lie, happy in the delusion that his actions are ultimately meaningless, in short, Venom Snake gives up, shown walking willingly into a fog that could represent his nihilistic mindset with a readymade excuse to do so, absolved of any responsibility.
Venom falls so deep into his illusion that he willingly gives up any sense of self to be someone else. A stretch it may be, but I often struggle with self image and identity. Mental illness limited my life and eventually took most of it away, leaving me (so I often think) as a shattered husk, an illness with a person attached instead of the opposite. Tempting as of often is, to embrace that thinking wholeheartedly is ultimately ruinous, potentially isolating me even further and possibly leading to even worse outcomes.
Playing through The Phantom Pain again recently after finally reaching what felt like rock bottom and beginning an often tough process of rebuilding myself is a wake up call. In among the gameplay and house-proud, base building meta-game I was able to see a fundamentally broken lead character who while somewhat relatable, is actually the worst possible hero I’ve ever had the opportunity to inhabit and a stark reminder to keep working no matter how difficult the terrain gets.
At the moment I am my own Venom Snake, a broken facsimile but unlike the game, I am trying to escape the fog and be myself again and hopefully I shall succeed.
Thank you for reading.
Martin S Dixon
All tips gratefully received here.