How Metal Gear Solid 5 inspired a bionic arm

Phantom Limb Project brings a prosthetic limb to a gamer amputee

When the three of them first met for coffee, there was a moment's awkwardness as they all took in the name of the cafe. The sign above the London coffee shop door said, "Look Mum No Hands!" James started laughing. So did Sophie and Su-Yina.

As they took their seats, the three of them agreed that it was probably an auspicious name for a venue in which to meet and to discuss a prosthetic arm.

Among other severe injuries, James Young, 25, had lost an arm and a foot when he'd fallen under a train in May 2012, a few years before this meeting. Su-Yina Farmer, head of communications for Konami in Europe, wanted to meet him to talk about how Metal Gear Solid might help him. Her friend Sophie de Oliveira Barata, one of the world's leading creators of custom prosthetics, was there to talk about her passion for designing prosthetics that reflect the individuality and style of their users.

"I didn't know what was happening to me"

As they ordered their coffees, they got down to business. Su-Yina spoke about how she was promoting Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. She'd made a connection to that game's historical use of prosthetics with the cool work that her old friend Sophie was doing. She wanted to create a Phantom Pain-themed prosthetic for someone who could use such a thing, and who liked video games. She could do some good in the world, and it would make for a nice story.

Sophie is the founder of the Alternative Limb Project. Her work includes an arm that looks like it's entwined with a snake, another that is stylishly cybernetic, and one that's a steampunk rhinestone concoction its proud owner calls "Priscilla."

In 2014 Sophie gave a powerful TED talk on the importance of giving people artificial limbs that were literal extensions of their own personality.

During the coffee bar meeting, she admitted she wasn't much of a gamer. She talked about how she liked the idea of a limb based on a science fiction franchise. She added that she could make something really cool, with the budget Konami was proposing.

The three of them spread out some papers on the table. They looked at pictures of Sophie's previous work, and at stills from the Metal Gear Solid series. Then they dug out some drawing pads.

Su-Yina wanted to make something clear. This was all going to be paid for by Konami, and Konami would use it for promotional purposes. But the limb itself had to be about James. He wasn't to worry too much about cleaving to any Metal Gear-related style guides.

James started to talk about all the things he liked in the world of games, sci-fi books, movies and aesthetic styles. He pulled out some notes and photographs that he had collected. He started to draw some pictures. They got down to work.

Early sketch work on James Young's prosthetic

James' Story

James has no memory of the accident that almost ended his life. His last memory was arriving at a train station. "I was heading out with friends, on the [Docklands Light Railway, in London]." he says. "I don't know where we were going, even. Probably something like [nightclubs] XOYO or Heaven. No idea. Then I woke up in a hospital bed."

After he was dragged under the train, he was lifted onto the platform and attended to by one of his friends, who was studying medicine, and then by paramedics, before being sent to the hospital. He was in a coma for two weeks.

He lost a foot and an arm, but that was just part of his injuries. "I was admitted with polytrauma, which basically describes a big fuck-up of one's body," he says. "My story is not just about a foot and an arm. I had multiple surgeries."

He's never sought to entirely piece together those weeks and months. His mother kept a diary of events as they unfolded, but he says he's not ready to look at all that yet.

"My memory post-accident has barely any cohesion. I have a sense of awareness of a few different rooms that I was in, but I feel like visual information didn't really stick at this time, nor what state I was in or what was happening to me. I know my family was there, but I'm not sure who was who."

After some months, he was sent to the Douglas Bader unit at Queen Mary's Hospital in London's Roehampton district, which specializes in civilian amputees.

"As soon as I was allowed a prosthesis, I was able to get vertical again," he says. "Walking was painful, though, and my stump needed more time to get less inflamed, and I had nowhere accessible to be discharged to, so I was stuck in the place for many months. This was extremely frustrating."

In time, he was released. He found a flat and started to rebuild his life. One of the biggest challenges was the pain he felt in his leg, the leg that was no longer there. This is called phantom pain.

Bionic sensors offer control over finger movements

Su-Yina's Story

Konami's Phantom Limb Project seems a long way from the company's core troubles. In the past year it has lost its star developer, and currently has no major releases on its roster.

It's one of those positives that occasionally emerge from the frigid landscape of corporate messaging, an idea that just about everyone can get behind.

Like most good ideas, it came from one person drawing a line between two different things.

"Sophie is a good friend of mine," says Su-Yina, who has worked at Konami's London offices for more than a decade. "When we all learned about the story of Metal Gear 5, and how it involved Snake surviving this horrendous explosion and losing an arm and having this bionic arm put on him, I thought it would be interesting to get Sophie to make a prosthetic arm inspired by Metal Gear."

"The tagline for the questionnaire was, are you an amputee gamer?"

In her LinkedIn profile, Su-Yina says her job includes being a brand ambassador and "placing community at the heart of communication and activities." Throughout the project, her team has maintained a blog detailing its work.

"Sophie's work has always been about raising awareness of disabilities and changing our perceptions, so I thought it would be really cool to work with her. We proposed the idea to [Konami's Japanese headquarters] and they loved it. Sophie was on board with working with us. So that's how it started. Then we had to find James."

Sophie placed a message and a questionnaire on her website looking for a candidate who might want a prosthetic styled on a violent action video game.

"It was very gamer-specific," says Su-Yina. "I think the tagline for the questionnaire was, 'Are you an amputee gamer?' James was aware of Sophie's work and he was following what she was doing."

Sophie's Story

Sophie graduated from University of the Arts London in 2004, with a first class honors degree in special effects prosthetics for film and TV. She worked as a sculptor for bespoke prosthetics, while experimenting on more outlandish ideas in her spare time. In 2011, she launched her own company, which has proven to be a big success. As well as the TED talk, her work has been covered in various outlets including The Guardian, The Irish Times, CNN and The Atlantic.

"I've worked with amputees for about 12 years now," she says. "I was just making realistic limbs before. I do still believe that's really important service to provide, really helpful to people, but not necessarily for everyone. I think it's important to have a choice.

"It's empowering for a person"

"Many people feel, 'Why should I have something that tries to look like a regular limb when it clearly isn't? I'd like it to be true to what it is and celebrate that difference, really.' In turn, on a bigger scale, they inspire other people to celebrate their differences.

"The interaction they have with the public changes. Rather than people looking over and staring or trying not to stare or feeling some kind of pity, instead they're looking in some ways with envy. People come up and say, 'Wow, that's really cool.' I've heard people say, 'I really wish I could have an arm like that.' Which is ridiculous. But it's a very different situation to what people were in before. It's empowering for a person."

This matched James' view when he started checking out the variety of prosthetics on show at Sophie's website.

His standard prosthetic, supplied via the U.K.'s universal healthcare system, is functional. "It's beige-y, plasticky, quite heavy," he says. "It's just using cheap materials, I guess. A quite chunky plastic material with a gripper on the end. To be honest, it doesn't get a lot of use. It's not worth the effort of wearing under my clothes and getting sore and not being able to take it off."

Still, when he saw the commercial for a gamer who might like a prosthetic designed by Sophie, he decided to apply.

The arm takes shape

The Metal Gear Connection

It's not really accurate to call James a Metal Gear fan. Growing up, he played Xbox. Metal Gear games were only available on PlayStation platforms. Even so, he liked action games.

"I originally found out about them through the HD Collection on [Xbox] 360," he recalls. referring to the 2011 re-release. "But I've just now bought myself PlayStation 4, so I'm going in for the exclusives on that as well. I'm expanding."

He played Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, released last year. The game begins with a major character in a coma. "The opening sequence was kind of intense for me," he says. "It displays the conditions I've been through in quite a good way. That shocked me when I started. It was a reminder of what I'd been through.

"I haven't actually completed it, not that it's easy to complete, because it's kind of open. I find it really difficult to maintain covert operations. I'm constantly failing. I need to be more careful."

Still, a deep affinity with all things Solid Snake was not a part of Sophie's questionnaire. It was enough for her and for Su-Yina that James' broader cultural tastes fit in nicely with the Metal Gear aesthetic.

"James was the perfect candidate," says Su-Yina. "We were lucky to find him."

Metal Gear Solid 5
That Metal Gear Solid aesthetic

Winnowing Ideas

At that first meeting in Look Mum No Hands, James pulled out a huge file of stuff he wanted to propose as inspiration.

"I came with 4 inches of pictures, because I had an absolute plethora of different styles I could have gone for, mostly science fiction," he recalls. "It took a lot of effort and energy for us to find the right direction and get everything narrowed down, get everybody on board with what I was trying to explain to them."

They met on another dozen occasions, each time winnowing ideas while presenting new directions. They found a new place to hold their meetings, with more table space. It also sold really good shawarma.

"We went for something that looked like it was assembled in a factory"

"They kind of got to know us," he says. "We had a table and we'd just whip everything out. Sophie would draw. I'd try and draw, but I'm not really that good. Eventually, after many of those meetings and a lot of coffee, we got everything narrowed down."

In terms of the Metal Gear vibe, they decided to use that as a starting point, not as a destination.

"We didn't want to limit ourselves at the beginning," says Su-Yina. "We just said, let's brainstorm and think of James' dream arm. What does he want?"

"You could call Metal Gear a reference, I guess," says James. "We went for something that looked like it was assembled in a factory, stamped together and bolted with panels. Just like [Snake's] arm has that vibe to it."

"We looked at the whole Metal Gear world," says Su-Yina. "We looked at the cyborgs, Raiden, the Beauty Beasts from Metal Gear 4. We took details like the barcodes and little rivets and the joining lines in the bodies of the mechanical beings, and we drew inspiration from that.

"It was always really important to get a combination of what James felt would be aesthetically pleasing and true to him, but also could look like it came from that world," says Sophie.

Sophie de Oliveira Barata sculpts a model for a leg prosthetic

Gadgets and Bionics

The limb isn't just about aesthetics and identity. It also has functions that are particularly useful to James, and that came out of those meetings. Some of them are pretty minor, like storage spaces for his meds.

Perhaps the most useful one is an elbow separation that allows part of the arm to be easily disconnected when, say, James wants to take off his jacket but doesn't want to undo the entire arm.

"Just, for example, if I'm getting in a car and I want to drive, my old prosthetic arm ends up getting in the way of the steering wheel," he says. "I can't just whip it off with a nice smooth mechanism."

The new arm also features bionics that allow basic use of its fingers. Sensors placed into the harness pick up muscle movements. This allows James to shake people's hands using the prosthetic, among other uses.

"I can consciously control the muscles without too much effort," he explains. "It enables me to interact with the hand. It changes the mode of the hand, which is great. They've thought of loads of ways I can interact with the controls and change what functionality the hand is going to be doing, what grasp it's going to be doing.

"I can cycle through each one to get to the one I want. With buttons in the arm I can change which group of movements it's doing. I can make it carry shopping or do dirty gestures."

James Young during a fitting session

On a Mission

James works a job where he talks to doctors about the drugs they prescribe to patients. He believes showing up at meetings looking like a futuristic cyborg warrior might be counterproductive.

"I don't want to look like I'm going to go and kill someone," he jokes. "I didn't want the matte black deadly assassin thing. It's got to be a soft, fairly neutral color that blends in with a lot of clothing.

"But also, the finish of it is so nice that it's got its own character and qualities. It represents me through the effort we've all put in, looking at every shape and crease and panel."


James sees himself as as part of Sophie's wider mission. "I'm really averse to the pity," he says. "It's kind of frustrating for people who are just getting on with their normal lives, rolling in their wheelchair down to get some snacks or whatever, and everyone's going, 'Aw, can't believe that's happened, that's horrible.'

"If you see someone wearing this piece of equipment, they're not even going to be looking at your face. They'll just be going, 'What the hell is that?' This is someone who is clearly continuing with his life and doing something. It's a completely different thought process.

"This is an awesome opportunity to get people thinking about, what is a body? What can a body consist of, and in what configuration? I want to get people's minds on the thought of bionics and artificially augmenting their bodies. They go together. The technology for both is the same thing. Neural interfaces and ways we can engage with computing and technology in the future. It's cool to be a part of something that's a key marker for moving on in technology."Babykayak

James is currently running a Gofundme campaign to raise money for titanium implants in his leg. You can find out more here.