Hideo Kojima presents what he calls the biggest game he's ever made
Snake returns to the battlefield in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain as Big Boss, in the midst of a sandstorm riding a white horse.
It is 1984, nine years after the fighting, the destruction and the torture from Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. Snake, no longer comatose, is back in action. He's missing an arm, but it's been replaced by an anachronistic, fully opposable prosthetic limb.
He and his sole companion, Ocelot, mosey along on their horses as a sandstorm envelops the cracked desert. Ocelot hands Snake a canteen, which he struggles to grasp. Our anti-hero, sporting what looks like shrapnel jutting out of his skull, is not, it seems, in peak form.
The storm subsides, and among half-standing Afghani ruins, the warriors stop to survey the landscape. In front of them, in a valley ringed by mountains, is Snake's destination: a base where his comrade-in-arms Master Miller is being held prisoner. The mission — infiltrate and extract — is straightforward. The path to success is not.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is a logistical departure from the long-running stealth series. Instead of discrete, relatively small areas like rooms that, when combined, constitute a playable area, the upcoming entry gives players everything, all at once. There are no load screens, no individual rooms here. Instead, there is a valley that seems to stretch for miles, and players' options are as vast as the expanse in front of the Snake and Ocelot.
Soon, Ocelot is gone. Big Boss — once known as Naked Snake and just Snake, and now also Venom Snake — is alone. He's connected to the central command of his headquarters, Mother Base, with an iDroid. The other anachronistic device, which made its debut in Ground Zeroes, serves as a radio, a holographic map, an audio player and — perhaps most importantly — a way to call in for help from the Diamond Dogs, the paramilitary organization that Venom Snake's other title alludes to.
Snake gets to sneaking.
Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear franchise, is talking to his translator when he points to a water bottle and laughs. He's explaining what open-world gameplay means in the context of the Metal Gear universe, and Kojima uses the water bottle as an anchor. It's a way to explain how The Phantom Pain is open, but not like Grand Theft Auto.
"It's a sandbox, but it's not a sandbox where you can do whatever you want," Kojima says through his translator.
"There's a big map, and you can go wherever you want to go within this map. The time, the weather changes and the missions are really clear. You have to go somewhere, discover something, rescue someone, kill someone, get back something. The mission is really clear. How you achieve the mission — what time of the day, what mood, what method you choose — [you have options]."
Unlike other games that sport the open-world title, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain isn't about laying a single, sprawling map in front of players and letting them go wherever they wish. Here, the open world is about freedom. This is where the water bottle comes in.
"Most games ... let's say you have to rescue someone that is in this corner," the translator says, pointing to the bottled water sitting on the table in front of him. "So you go from point A to point B, you get story elements, you get information, you get whatever. And then you over to here," he says, pointing to another end of the table.
"In our game, the player can just go skip all this, all this, all this," he says, motioning to table's empty space between the bottles. "You can learn or just kind of accidentally stumble and go right here" where the mission ends.
This design is deliberate, Kojima says. It's also, judging by the complaints about length that surfaced after Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes was released earlier this year, easily misunderstood — and, to some, frustrating.
Kojima returns to this idea of player freedom again and again. This is not like previous Metal Gear games, where developers funneled players through a predetermined sequence of areas, dropping story beats along the way. In Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, Kojima is giving players the option to infiltrate their sandbox-style "islands" in whatever way they choose because, to him, freedom is a value. But a consequence of gifting that choice is that players can find and exploit a critical path that could effectively let them speed run a level.
This is not, of course, how Kojima would encourage people to play the game, and The Phantom Pain is peppered with rewards for those who choose to take their time. Though, again judging by the reaction to Ground Zeroes, it's not been easily communicated.
The Phantom Pain is peppered with rewards for those who choose to take their time
"The focus here is, when you clear the missions, something happens," Kojima says. "You learn something about the story, and there are different elements of it. You don't necessarily have to play through all missions, through everything. In the same way a TV series works, you see one chapter. You don't see everything, but you learn certain things about the story.
"I'm not trying to relate all this through cut-scenes. There are cut-scenes, a lot of codecs, a lot of tapes, a lot of text. The user can choose how many to get. They don't need to be in order. They don't need to be all together. But the player will start getting these elements. They're putting the story together, understanding what is happening. They're putting all these elements during the missions together. Put them together, and things will start making sense. The story will come up from there."
The Afghani gameplay demo was an apt example of the freedom Kojima spoke about.
As is tradition in Metal Gear games, you're graded after you complete the mission objectives. The person demoing the game received an S, the game's highest honor. It was almost the platonic ideal of a sneaking mission, as he infiltrated with stealth, lured enemies to their doom and escaped without being seen at nearly every turn. It wasn't a speed run, and he was rewarded for his diligence.
Getting players to understand how the game is designed isn't Kojima's only challenge. The Phantom Pain's protagonist is a known quantity. Metal Gear veterans know who Big Boss is and where he ends up. They know where and when and how he meets his end. Most of all, they know he is the series' legendary villain. Kojima's other challenge is to convince players to inherit the role of a notorious scumbag.
"The game starts in 1984, and the end of the game, everyone already knows ... where Big Boss creates Outer Heaven," Kojima says. "Through this game, I want to go along with the player to help Big Boss get there.
"Everyone knows Big Boss becomes the enemy and Solid Snake becomes the player, in the villain's story. This is very delicate. This is something very difficult, for the player to become the bad guy, the villain. But I have to balance it in a way that the player understands why this is happening, where this is all coming from. Gameplay-wise, I don't want people to stop playing. 'I'm becoming the bad guy, I'm done with this.' I have to keep some heroism in this character."
Big Boss does bad things, and the people surrounding him have bad things done to them, as the ending of Ground Zeroes showed. The prologue's potent themes of child soldiers and war crimes and violation are there to serve a purpose that The Phantom Pain will reveal. Big Boss may be bad, but he has his reasons. He doesn't seem to be advocating for relativism so much as he's headstrong about dealing with deliberately uncomfortable themes. To Kojima, players' experience is lot like watching Walter White in Breaking Bad.
"The guy's becoming the bad guy, right? By watching the process — in our case, by playing the process — through this process, people will understand what's going on. There's this kind of double bonus where you don't want the character to go in there but, at the same time, you kind of want them to get their revenge and get through this.
"This is something I'm putting a lot of emphasis on: How to make this balance and how to make this the right way."
Back in Afghanistan, in the valley where Master Miller is being held, Big Boss sneaks his way through the desert. From a vantage point above the village, he marks all the enemies he can see through his binoculars. This gives him total battlefield awareness because he'll be able to track their positions.
In Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, it's up to you whether you infiltrate during the day or at night, so Big Boss smokes a virtual cigar and waits for time to pass. Guards shift on and off of duty as the moon comes out. He marks each in turn. Venom Snake knows them all by now.
The run rises. He moves in.
With his iDroid, he calls in an airdrop. A recurring Metal Gear meme, the cardboard box allows him to sneak through the valley relatively undetected. When someone spots the mobile cardboard box and moves to investigate, Big Boss waits it out. At the last moment, when the guard seems about to kick the box, Snake pops out the top — a new twist on an old item — knocks the guard down and attaches a balloon to him. Within seconds, the unconscious soldier is jettisoned off to Mother Base, where he'll become a Diamond Dog and a follower of Big Boss.
"Originally," Kojima says in the post-demo interview, "a huge part of the fun is just look at the map and ask, 'How do I get in here? What time of the day would be better? Should it be day or night? What route should I take? What approach?' That was a huge part of the game that should be ... this is an element I'm definitely trying to include in this game."
Several minutes of sneaking and collecting soldiers later, Big Boss competes the mission objective and calls in for evacuation, just like in Ground Zeroes. Also an airstrike to distract those who remain. He returns to his ocean hideout in the cargo bay of a helicopter. Infiltrate and extract.
Mother Base will look familiar to those who've played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It bears a striking resemblance to Big Shell, he offshore facility where most of the PlayStation 2 game's action takes place. In The Phantom Pain, Mother Base is the fount from which your airdrops emanate. It's where your soldiers gather intelligence and provide it to you on the battlefield. It's also a vast repository of the people, vehicles and sheep to which you attached your balloon-powered Fulton surface-to-air recovery system on the battlefield, which was used most prominently in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
These are the systems Kojima develops to surround the story. The narrative is important, but the game has to be fun to play first.
"Nowadays we have a lot of linear games," he says. "I'm trying to make something different. I'm trying to focus on keeping the player's freedom and, at the same time, being able to relate a story. This is my biggest focus right now: How to tell a story without taking away the freedom a player should have."
Metal Gear games require players to muster an immense amount of suspension of disbelief. To fans, this is something we accept. To my colleague Owen Good, who sat beside me watching the Afghanistan demo running on a PlayStation 4 at 1080p and 60 frames per second, The Phantom Pain looked like an outlandish mishmash of absurdities. And he's not wrong. Could the all-in-one holographic iDroid communicator have existed in 1984? Nope. Could it exist with today's technology? Not a chance. Does it do awesome things, and is it fun as hell to use? You betcha. It's not that those of us who've been sneaking through Metal Gear games for decades don't know this. It's that we do, and we accept it because, even though it's weird, what you get to do is cool. And that cool weirdness all because of one man's vision.
More than perhaps any other franchise, this series bears the stamp of its creator, who has been making Metal Gear games almost non-stop since the mid-80s. He has occasionally expressed his desire to move beyond the stealth genre that he pioneered and the series that defines him as a developer. He hasn't often.
Instead, Hideo Kojima is ensconced as the video game equivalent of Steven Spielberg — a director who only makes the biggest of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. But fame and budget doesn't make developing games easier than it used to be. The bigger the game, the bigger the risk. And he says Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is the biggest game he's ever made.
"This is my challenge right now," he says, "to keep creating good things with the authorship I want while developing AAA games."