[Originally published January 17, 2016]
When we play ludo-linear narrative games, our identity in the game space often forms around the style of protagonist we play as. In some games, we decide whether to role-play as our character – be they a vicious gangster, a valiant superhero, or even someone as grounded as a concerned sister. Silent protagonists came about as an attempt to preserve a ludo-linear narrative while simultaneously allowing players to feel as though they were the character in the space armor/HEV suit/etc. Developers have used many other techniques and tactics in an attempt to circumvent ludo-linear narrative barriers to player-avatar identity, which brings us to Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Kojima’s philosophical springboard for tackling the problem of player-avatar identity is centered around the creation of identity through language; however, he narratively and mechanically subverts this idea within the game space, making the language that defines a player-avatar identity a language of action, rather than words. For Kojima, this is more than the next step towards a totally shared player-avatar identity in a ludo-linear narrative game; this is the next step towards the creation and evolution of a new human identity – one that begins with the act of play.
The game begins with the following quote about the relationship between language and identity: “It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake, our native tongue is our true fatherland” (Cioran 12).Metal Gear Solid V warps this connection, however. Kojima has structured a scenario that separates language identity from the tethers of nationhood. The men and women of Diamond Dogs belong to no nation, having given up their identities to live the life of a mercenary. Big Boss says, “us Diamond Dogs, we don’t have a country to call home. That means we have no past, nothing to prove that we lived” (Kojima, Sahelanthropus  – The Captured Sahelanthropus). Eliminating nationhood from the equation devalues the power language – as words – has over dictating identity. English is spoken as a common tongue, but doesn’t signify loyalty to any sovereignty. English’s presence on Mother Base is characterized as a tool – “we have plenty of [non-English speakers], but the staff use English as a common language” (Skull Face’s Objective  – Whereabouts of the Third English Mating Pair). The operative word here is use. English – as well as the plethora of other languages spoken on Mother Base – no longer holds sway over identity. This doesn’t mean that Cioran’s idea is wholesale-false; rather, Kojima has merely created a scenario within the rules of Cioran’s philosophy that exists outside of its influence. This elimination of national identity allows Kojima to then focus on language, abstracting it from words into action – thereby making the act of play the defining method of identity.
As a first step towards shifting our understanding of language from words into action, Kojima first presents the flaws of words – changing how literally we may interpret Kojima’s inclusion of Cioran. Code Talker says:
America is made up of many peoples, but those peoples never mix. Quite so. One nation, home to hundreds of different ethnic groups. Many of whom stick to their respective living areas – little colonies, not interacting with other groups… American hegemonism was born from the “illusion” that English could unite diverse ethnicities… English enables us to form symbiotic relationships with each other. (Skull Face’s Objective  – Multiethnicity of the United States)
In addition to Code Talker’s conjectures about the failure of language as a means of unification, there is real-world evidence to suggest that language does not create a sense of unified identity. Psychologists Joha Louw-Potgieter and Howard Giles conducted a study examining the social identities that arose among Afrikaans-speaking Afrikaners. They found that – while the examined Afrikaners all spoke the same language, and were all from the same region – these people still created social boundaries based on race and economic status – among other factors. The most important aspect of these segregations is that the Afrikaners used language to create them. Those who fall under the extreme political right “are excluded from the Afrikaner group, and are perceived by Afrikaners as highly dissimilar to themselves… it was decided to label this group Ware Afrikaners (true Afrikaners)… using [the term]… in a derogatory, jocular fashion to describe ‘people who make a “religion” out of their so-called Afrikanerhood” (Giles 267). This reaffirms Code Talker’s statement that separate groups form based on differing languages, but it also suggests that language – interpreted to mean: words – is not what defines identity. In fact, Kojima suggests that words can actually misrepresent identity, similar to the way that Afrikaners used words to impose an identity on perceived lower classes.
Words are also responsible for the exaggeration of Big Boss’ identity.
Ever since the attack on [Big Boss’] unit nine years ago, the name Big Boss has become known the world over… Obviously, as the tales have spread, the truth’s been distorted, painted over. The moment any truth is passed on, it starts turning into fiction. (Kojima, Africa Today  – The Legendary Mercenary)
Not only are words used to distort your identity – Kojima claims that it is impossible for words to be used as an accurate representation of an idea. Truth cannot be communicated through words. It inevitably becomes fiction. It’s important that the identity of the player’s avatar is the one being distorted – right out of the gate, the player is told that words should not be how they define their identity within the avatar. Much in the same way that Big Boss is a legendary character within the world of Metal Gear Solid, he has also become a legendary character amongst gamers and game culture. In rejecting his meme, by personally declaring its falsehood, Big Boss rejects the image both fictional militia and real-life gamers have imposed upon him. This serves to symbolically eliminate the barrier legacy puts between the player and the avatar. In addition to vocal rejections of player-avatar language barriers, Kojima has also included more thematic deconstructions of language – á la The Wolbachia.
When looking at the function of language in The Phantom Pain, we must examine the significance and purpose of the Wolbachia parasite’s role in the game. It acts as a sort of tangible representation of language – pulling it out of the abstract, and reflecting how Kojima’s escape from Cioranism alters the relationship between speaker and language. Code Talker makes it clear that the natural strain of these parasites is “[a creature] with which we are supposed to coexist” (Code Talker and His Research  – Superorganisms). He says that “the parasites are… companions to us. To remove them inevitably harms the host” (Vocal cord parasites  – Resisting the Vocal Cord Parasites). This mirrors how the power dynamic of speaker and language has been equalized. Their words no longer hold power over their identities, even if spoken language is something inextricably human. This is merely the case with the dormant strains, however, so – as it would be remiss to ignore the power of the weaponized strains – allow me to address the way Kojima also deflates the power of the lethal strains of the virus.
No character better represents the threat of the weaponized Wolbachia than Skull Face. Skull Face is the literal embodiment of Cioran ideas about language and national identity. “When [Skull Face] was a young boy, he lost his native language… His country, his family, his face, his identity – everything was stolen from him” (Skull Face’s Objective  – Skull Face’s Origins and XOF). While this would initially seem like an affirmation of Cioran’s ideas, Skull Face – and his relationship with the weaponized parasites – actually highlight further thematic flaws with this concept. As an adult, Skull Face was free to use his mother tongue – Hungarian – whenever he wished; however, his decision to pursue the weaponization of the Wolbachia virus led to the choice he made to abandon his language. Code Talker realizes this, calling him out.
In pursuit of your ‘ethnic cleansers,’ you sifted through many language strains, finding hosts, breeding more and more. You would have been infected in the process. Infected with countless strains. Most likely your mother tongue’s as well. You found that one too, yes? The Hungarian strain” (Skull Face’s Objective  – Secret Recording of Skull Face and Code Talker ).
It was Skull Face’s choice to abandon his language – he was the one to tie the absence of language to his identity. If anything was responsible for the obliteration of his former self, it was Skull Face’s formation of a new identity – one of hatred and violence – and not language.
It’s also important to note that Skull Face is – technically speaking – dead.Code Talker describes the effect the parasites had on Skull Face’s being: “biologically speaking, it’s hard to say how much was his ‘life’… keeping a dying host alive as long as possible, that is the whole point… the parasites live on past the hosts death… there’s no way of knowing when the last cell of Skull Face’s body would die.” (Skull Face’s Objective  – Skull Face’s Demise). Skull Face was a man kept alive by languages that he could no longer speak – by his perceived lack of identity. Even after his true death, the parasites live on within his corpse. While this suggests that language is something that will never die, the idea Skull Face represented – that identity, as nationhood, is defined by language – does; however, while Skull Face is a clear rejection of Cioran ideas, he isn’t the one who subverts them – that would be Quiet.
Quiet is Kojima’s final step towards transforming our perception of language from words into actions. Her silence doesn’t prevent her from forming an identity. When talking about the formation of an identity within a group, John Edwards writes, “idiolectal usage is a social, or group, phenomenon, on the simple grounds that all (well, almost all) language implies someone to talk to, a communicative intent, a linking of the individual to others” (Edwards 21). If Quiet cultivates an identity and link to others without the use of language, then what defines her communicative intent? This is the point at which Kojima merges the concepts of action and language. Quiet’s attempts to communicate provoke Mother Base’s leaders to examine her use of action. “’It’s not like she’s gonna talk.’ ‘No. Not through words anyway. But what about her actions?’” (Kojima, At Mother Base [Supplemental 2] – Identifying the Infected). Additionally, when Quiet leaves the player her farewell tape, she says, “Vengeance was what drove me to [CIPHER]… the only language left to me, revenge. But the words we shared… no, that was no language at all. That is why I chose the language of gratitude instead, and go back to silence. I am Quiet… I am… the absence of words” (Quiet  – Quiet’s Message). She poses action – revenge and gratitude – as a language. As a character defined by a combination of an explicit rejection of words and the conflation of action with language, Quiet is the thematic endgame of Kojima’s rejection of words as the defining tool of language. She is his means of making action the defining tool of identity – an idea that also manifests in The Phantom Pain’s gameplay.
In an interview with Did You Know Gaming?, Kojima explained the decision to introduce open world gameplay into the Metal Gear franchise. “We just tried to add more freedom to stealth the player will be able to experience. In order to add that freedom, we put in more options for expression” (“Metal Gear Solid V Hideo Kojima Interview Special”). Again, Kojima is conflating play – action – with expression. The freedom that motivated the design of game’s open world systems is what provides players with the ability to express a unique identity. This is the mechanical success of open worlds like the one in The Phantom Pain, and is likely why Kojima – in his attempts to facilitate individual experiences among his players – moved the Metal Gear franchise into the open world, emergent space. Player interactions with game systems follow a cycle called The Probe, Hypothesize, Reprobe, and Rethink Cycle. It occurs as follows:
- The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current
environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
- Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artifact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
- The player re-probes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
- The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis. (dmcclure.com)
In past installments of the Metal Gear franchise, this cycle would eventually end upon completion of the game. The linear encounter progression means that players could optimize the gameplay experience, and that a certain method of play could be considered most efficient. This is why guides and walkthroughs for linear games can provide specific descriptions of the best method of progression in a way that guides for emergent games can’t. Eventually, the feedback results in a single hypothesis, proven multiple times by successful executions of linear encounters. The non-linear mechanical structure of The Phantom Pain, however, provides many variables – time of day, weather, enemy placement, enemy types, enemy alertness, location, and wildlife are just a few factors the player must keep track of – that set the stage for each encounter, meaning that the player will encounter a limitless amount of situations. Limitless situations result in limitless feedback, which means that the player will always form new hypotheses. Without an optimal way to play the game, each player will inevitably find a playstyle that suits them, and the emergent systems will prevent players from having the same experience with the game as one another – even if they may share the same play proclivities. Indeed, Kojima confirms that his intent was to create unique player narratives. “Most people will have different experiences. I want people to tie the stories together in their head, and come up with their own story” (“Metal Gear Solid V Hideo Kojima Interview Special”). This is how the act of play defines who we are. We craft our own stories – our own pasts – that build the persona who we present ourselves as.
In addition to freedom through action, the gameplay is also where Kojima affords the player the most visual freedom when it comes to representing their identity. Kojima is clearly aware that he has a worldwide audience, made up of a plethora of races and genders. As such, players can actually play as characters that are not Big Boss. Once you collect soldiers or POWs from the battlefield, placing them in your combat unit allows you to deploy as them. Even though the character you play as – who can be female, male, black, white, Hispanic, etc. – is no longer Big Boss, every character still refers to you as Big Boss. Since none of the cutscenes are pre-rendered, almost every cutscene allows you to remain as this character. This is likely why Snake’s dialogic presence in this game is notably minimalistic – if he doesn’t talk, then there’s no need to tear the player away from the character they enjoy playing as – the character they identify as. Writing on his experience with this character selection system, game designer Tom Francis said,
I like when people call her Boss. I ret-con that she really was just some random recruit, given one field op to test out the new combat unit idea, and pulled it off so spectacularly that she became the organisation’s primary operative, and now everyone’s just kind of in awe of this very sensible, very practical, mysterious woman who just showed up and killed it… this was the last game I expected to let me write my own story. (pentadact.com).
This is exactly what Kojima is going for – letting players write their own stories, even within the confines of ludo-linear narrative. He’s allowing players to define their characters however they want to – in addition to action, he’s allowing for players to fit within their preferred notion of the visual. Even the cutscenes that do impose Big Boss’ visage upon the player attempt to push against these limitations, which brings us – at last – to The Phantom Pain’s absolutely bizarre ending.
The ending of Metal Gear Solid V is Kojima’s most direct takedown of the separation between player and avatar. Lots of dialogue in the 2nd person – always important in a video game. “You’ve written your own history. You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too. No. He’s the two of us together. Where we are today? We built it. This story – this “legend” –it’s ours… I am you, and you are me… from here on out, you’re Big Boss” (Kojima, Truth: The Man Who Sold The World: Cinematic). It is revealed that there have been two Big Bosses, and the origin of your Big Boss – a second, new Big Boss – actually ties in with the aforementioned ideas of the player exercising visual identity. The first 15 minutes of the game trick the player into believing that they will be creating the character they will be playing as during the game. As such, the player creates a visage that they wish to play – and there for identify – as. However, before you go under the knife – as it were – you are thrust into action that prevents you – Big Boss – from undergoing the surgery. During the finale’s reveal, your Big Boss looks into a mirror – all while the first Big Boss delivers his speech – and the face looking back is the character the player created. This imbues Big Boss with a hidden, player-created identity, allowing for a sort of coexistence between created identity and ludo-linear narrative. This entire scene – ridiculous as it may be – is about more than a clever visual representation of player identity, however. It is equally centered around the presentation, and subsequent subversion, of philosophical treatments of identity – specifically singular identity.
Descartes – “I think, therefore I am” (qtd. in Owens 207). You’ve heard this before. Descartes is saying is that you are the only you because you are your mind and body. Anything else – like, say, a video game protagonist – is merely an imperfect representation. There are more liberal interpretations of this idea, however, that allow for identity to be shared and influenced by the virtual space; these interpretations boil down to the fact that your experience is real because it is something you were given the ability to enact. “The experience I had, projecting myself into the game world through [my avatar], was real in the sense I experienced it as a result of my actions and it now informs my identity” (Owen 208). Not only does this validate Kojima’s idea of play-identity, it also takes on an interesting meaning when combined with the identity problem the existence of two Big Bosses creates. The only difference between the two is the experiential – the time the player spent playing as the second Big Boss. The implication is that the opening of the game featured a Big Boss – the player’s – that was identical to a version of the original Big Boss, with the same memories, appearance, and goals. For all intents and purposes – there was a moment when the continuity of the Big Boss identity blurred, as there were two replicas utilizing that same identity. This is why, when Big Boss reveals the truth, he can say something that would otherwise be utterly contradictory. “You’re your own man. I’m Big Boss, and you are too. No. He’s the two of us together” (Kojima, Truth: The Man Who Sold The World: Cinematic). Similar to the way that he presents a scenario that contradicts Cioran’s philosophical ideas – yet keeps it from breaking the rules that birthed that philosophy – Kojima evokes the rules of singular identity – albeit, the ones that allow for looser interpretation – to present a scenario that confounds the philosophical conjecture. You are Big Boss, but you’re not. You may share the name, the face – in some instances – and abilities, but you have separated yourself from him via experience – play. You have crafted an identity that the original Big Boss perceives as unique. Kojima has provided you with the tools that allowed you to play your own identity into existence, and he uses the finale to drive this point home.
Alright. Now I’m going to take you on a bit of a detour. It’s related to the idea of identity as play – I promise. It just sounds a little kooky at first. Without further ado, let’s look at what Kojima thinks this means for the future of human beings by thinking about Cyborgs. Not sci-fi cyborgs – with laser eyes and guns for arms – but modern-day cyborgs. First, a definition: “The cyborg is an entity that is part human and part machine, some of each but not wholly one or the other… they use technology to either project themselves into virtual (synthetic) worlds or use it to augment the real world” (Owen 206). Additionally, a cyborg is someone who uses technology to augment the human body. By this definition, it can be reasonably stated that People Who Play Video Games are cyborgs. We enter the virtual worlds of games by means of technology, bringing our identities with us. Also – while we may not directly augment our bodies – when we assume control over a character with abilities beyond our own, we project our physicality into their bodies – in a sense – augmenting our own. This suggests an identity that has no anchor. Its fluidity allows the player to create a game-specific identity whose fullness depends on the rigidity of the avatar’s mechanical and narrative identities. There are several examples of cyborgs within The Phantom Pain – all of whom reinforce the concept of play-defined identity, and apply it to the evolutionary future Kojima sees within games.
Big Boss is a cyborg, in the sense that his bionic arm makes his physical form a literal combination of man and machine, and in the sense that he – as the virtual being through which the gamer’s will is expressed – represents a human-machine identity. By now, it should be clear why he represents unique identity, seeing as this paper has called upon the myriad ways in which he allows the player to possess a unique, fluid identity – one defined by play. His arm is one of the ways by which Kojima visually signifies the link between cyborg and fluid identity. The arm represents the way the character distances himself from his past, and – therefore – an identity defined by narrative. This is what allows him to begin with a clean slate, and define himself through his actions. By comparison, Kaz rejects the use of bionic limbs to explicitly define himself by the past. “I’ve no intention of relying on bionics. Right now I need to keep the pain fresh in my mind… my pain belongs to all our dead comrades. I’ll keep living with it for their sake” (Kojima, At Mother Base  – Bionic Arm). Kaz’s motivations for rejecting the bionic arms – the past – push the idea of “cyborgging” towards the future – towards this new form of identity, defined by play. Snake – and by extension, the player – represents the way the fusion between man and machine is crafting a new definition of identity. Other cyborg characters serve to reinforce this idea as well.
Huey Emmerich is a scientist, a pathological liar, and also a cyborg character. He definitely fits the definition of a cyborg – his bionic “legs are directly connected to his bones… the end result is those legs and his body are fused together” (Metallic Archaea  – Emmerich’s Power-Assisted Exo-Legs). His identity is a little hard to pin down at first, as he is insistent on misrepresenting himself. Throughout his time in the game’s story, he lies about his intentions and actions. His attempts at rationalizing his actions result in a denial of the identity they have created, and – in a final act of defiance against both the Diamond Dogs, and himself – he throws his exo-legs into the ocean upon his exile from Mother Base. Looking down on him, Kaz and Ocelot discuss Huey’s future.
“In no time he’ll be telling tales all about the black-hearted Diamond Dogs. The shining white knight. Blabbering on about our injustice, hiding behind his fool’s idea of morality… And all the other fools will stand around, nodding with every word he says.” “No. One day he’ll see through the lies he’s built up. Realize what kind of man he really is. What goes around comes around. You can’t run from yourself forever.” ([Flashback] Shining Lights, Even In Death: Cinematic)
Even though his final act is a continued rejection of the identity he’s defined for himself, it’s too late for Huey to escape what he’s already engaged in. His words have meant nothing, but – more than that – his narrative has meant nothing. The juxtaposition between Kaz and Snake suggests that cyborgging is crafting a new identity, then Huey’s thematic contribution to this identity suggests that narrative will eventually take a backseat to the play that defines this identity. No matter how hard he has tried to make it otherwise, Huey is defined by his actions – not his false narrative.
While Snake and Huey’s relationship to their cyborg traits are significantly tied to the idea of a new form of identity, the most evolutionarily important cyborg relationship in the game is between Eli and the Sahelanthropus metal gear walker – who both, even alone, represent new evolutions. Eli is a new evolution of human being. He is a clone of Big Boss, fated to become Liquid Snake in the Metal Gear chronology. Additionally, he possesses psychic abilities that gives him the ability to pilot Sahelanthropus. Sahelanthropus suggests a next step in cyborg evolution. The name of this metal gear comes from the hominine species of the same name – a common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and also one of the first bipedal human ancestors. Sahelanthropus’ relation to its hominine namesake imbues an evolutionary connotation to a cyborg’s fusion between human and machine identities. Not only is it also the first bipedal walker of its kind, it can also be considered a common ancestor – this time, between humans and machines. At one point, the Sahelanthropus walker is even referred to as an “anthropoid ape” (Questioning Huey  – Emmerich’s Research History). When these two forces of evolution come together, the Eli-Sahelanthropus cyborg becomes the closest analog to the relationship between player and game that can be found in The Phantom Pain.
The connections are fairly inherent – Eli takes control of something more powerful than he is, using joysticks and interfaces to act and react using the functions provided to him. The psychic link between Eli and Sahelanthropus is somewhat similar to the way that Kojima believes that players interface with a game. There is a mental bond that must occur in order for the player to actually control the game – an investment, an engagement – in the same way that an individual must have psychic powers in order to pilot Sahelanthropus. The connection these partners share with evolution, cyborg identity, and the gamer suggests that Kojima sees dismantling the line between gamer and game will lead to some sort of evolution – be it one of identity, or consciousness.
If you need any more convincing that Hideo Kojima believes that the next evolution of will be one that comes from video games – one defined by play – then look no further than the mission statement of his new development studio, Kojima Productions.
We are Homo Ludens (Those who play)
From the moment we enter this world, we instinctively invent ways to have “fun,” and share our inventions with those around us. We are not asked to do this, nor do we need reasons to create. It is simply who we are.
We find one another and compete with one another. We laugh together and cry together; all while playing together. Our experiences bind us and liberate us. To share our most valuable experiences, we create stories, invent tools, and evolve the art of play. Play has been our ally since the dawn of civilisation.
“Playing” is not simply a pastime, it is the primordial basis of imagination and creation. Truth be told, Homo Ludens (Those who Play) are simultaneously Homo Faber (Those who Create).
Even if the earth were stripped of life and reduced to a barren wasteland, our imagination and desire to create would survive–beyond survival, it would provide hope that flowers may one day bloom again. Through the invention of play, our new evolution awaits.
Kojima Productions — We are Homo Ludens. We are those who play.
Hideo Kojima (kojimaproductions.jp)
Though this touching, hopeful mission statement is easily Kojima’s most heartfelt and direct expression of The Phantom Pain’s themes, I think that it’s also possible that he – jokester that he is – may have hidden this very message in plain, goofy sight. A sequence of tapes follow Kaz testing out various burgers on Code Talker in an attempt to create the perfect burger, and it is on their findings that I would like to leave you.
Kazuhira, it takes more than premium ingredients and a clever recipe to satisfy the palate… the palate seeks one thing… Chemical additives… In seeking coexistence with nature’s blessings, not everything can remain in its natural form… We could say that if man is a part of nature, the work he does is also part of it. What is important is the balance. (The Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller  – Kazuhira Miller’s Epiphany)
This game has been all about balance: balance between narrative and player, identity and evolution – all carefully crafted and laid out to create the best product. Anyone can direct a well-made game with a clever story, but – if they don’t facilitate the outcome they wish to procure – they will have failed to achieve greatness – as defined by Mr. Kojima. Clearly this is an idea he has taken to heart with his Metal Gear swan song. As for Kazuhira’s hamburger, Code Talker makes his opinion clear: “It’s… It’s… It’s… It is perfect” (The Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller  – The Ultimate Hamburger).
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