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Metal Gear Solid 5's best secret: You can play the campaign as a woman

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Much has been written about the juvenile design of Quiet, the improbably naked sidekick in the Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. But, for all the justifiable anger about her character, almost nothing has been written about the secret new female protagonist in Metal Gear.

I’m calling her FemSnake.

FemSnake is awesome. She’s on the title screen. Soldiers stop dead in their tracks and sharply salute her. "Thanks for saving those kids, Boss," they say.

Revolver Ocelot speaks to her in reverent tones, reporting on mission outcomes. When she interrogates a prisoner, she demands "Out with it!" and my heart skips a beat.

femsnake 1

FemSnake stands in ironic contrast to Quiet. FemSnake wears full military armor, form-fitting, but tough and realistic. Everything about her demands to be treated like a professional and not a sex object. Accompanying her is a sexist train wreck of a design, a woman designed to be ogled while never speaking a word. Quiet is a capable soldier who looks like anything but.

Some people will tell me FemSnake is not really Snake, and it’s true. She’s a prisoner you rescue on a mission, but you do get to play almost every mission as her. She can be your protagonist, and is included in many of the cutscenes. She runs Mother Base. She commands the game’s soldiers. She is fully voiced, and her acting is even more menacing than Kiefer Sutherland’s. This is my title screen, featuring my game's hero:

mgs gif

I’ll tell you how to unlock her. But first, let’s back up. Let’s look at some of the design decisions in Metal Gear Solid V that are meant to make most gamers feel like they’re Snake — including gamers that are not white.

A silent protagonist

I was confused when David Hayter tweeted that he wouldn’t be returning as Snake. As a hardcore fan of the series, I couldn’t imagine long codec monologues with anyone but Hayter. Now that I’m 30 hours in, this design decision makes total sense.

Wanting to capture a wider audience, Metal Gear has gone the Portal route with Snake — our now near-silent protagonist. The story happens around him, with imaginative characters like Ocelot, Master Miller and Skull Face providing much of the personality and voice acting. Snake watches everything unfold around him.

femsnake 2

Goodbye, long discussions about nuclear disarmament. Hello, adrenaline-filled setpieces and systems that hint towards for-pay DLC. Just like the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Call of Duty franchises, Metal Gear is going for a more mainstream appeal. For that to happen, the angst-ridden, talkative version of Snake had to go.

In fact, Snake himself barely even matters in this version of Metal Gear. That’s why the game teases you with changing Snake’s character’s race and face in the opening, a feature that delighted my Asian husband. As the online component comes next month, players will represent themselves as their custom avatar. The technical term for this in gamedev parlance is "player agency," giving you control over your game world.

FemSnake is a design compromise to allow female players to play as a woman. And make no mistake, including her was a feature that took quite a bit of development resources from the Metal Gear team. They had to alter the game’s armor implementation to work with her different body proportions. They had to bring in a voice actress. They had to code scenes so Sutherland’s line reads would appear as captions and not voiceover in many scenes. What they did to make this happen across so much content was neither quick nor easy. Someone cared about this feature.

How to make this happen

How do you unlock FemSnake? Go to Prisoner Extraction 02 in Side Ops, which seems to always spawn the otherwise extremely rare woman prisoners. This unlocked my FemSnake, who was assigned the random codename "Obsidian Mole."

Then, when choosing a mission, go to Character and you’ll be able to play the rest of the game as her. Her combat stats rise as you play, primarily affecting your health pool — but any other differences between Snake and FemSnake were not perceptible to me.

After you’ve selected your new character, you’ll see them in everything but fully-voiced cutscenes for the remainder of the game, including the title screen. This trick can also be used with any rescued prisoner you’d like to represent you instead of Snake, including those of different races.

This is a nice step forward

Metal Gear fans are used to duality in how the series treats women. I was astonished by the excellent portayal of Meryl Silverburgh when Metal Gear Solid came out in 1998. You felt her emotions, you understood her as a person and cared about her. And then, you burst in on her in the bathroom, creepily staring at her butt and watching her change from her uniform.

That’s how I feel playing this latest Metal Gear. I’m both elated and troubled. In researching this piece, I saw hundreds of articles critiquing Quiet’s design. But I didn’t see a single article praising Konami for including an inclusive design compromise that boosts my own enjoyment of the game. You can play through almost the entirety of the game as a woman hero! Or a person of color! This is great news, and needs to be celebrated.

So, to all the team and Kojima Productions, I want to say thank you for this inclusive game design. FemSnake is a huge step forward for the series. None of the core Metal Gear console games have had a female protagonist, and even Metal Gear Online omitted women.

We can’t just critique the steps backwards, we need to notice the steps forward. FemSnake salutes you.

Metal Gear Solid 5: Gamescom 2015 trailer