Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear is still the definitive franchise for stealth-based action, but over time it’s undergone many a metamorphosis. Originally born from Kojima’s love of old spy films and a need to make compromises for the MSX2’s limited hardware, Metal Gear’s genre-defining stealth gameplay hooked players by the thousands when it hit PS1. And as the series moved into 3D, its cinematic roots would become one of the driving forces of modern gaming. Its world was given depth in more ways than one, suddenly brimming with expansive lore and geopolitical conflicts bordering on the absurd (many involving cowboys and vampires). It’s only gotten crazier across ten (canon) games. From 2D to 3D, from Dualshock 1 to Dualshock 4, Metal Gear has evolved and adapted like something something nanomachines. But with the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima is showing us another side: one that’s finally starting to take the Metal Gear universe seriously.
The Metal Gear series pitches a thoughtful and provocative narrative focusing on all the spy fiction and political uproar that made films like Mission: Impossible and Escape From New York such cultural spectacles. At first glance, the original Metal Gear Solid is drenched in seriousness. Solid Snake’s grizzly snarl and badass headband are now gaming mainstays, and his sneaky moves set the standard for future covert agents like Sam Fisher. Snake’s anti-heroism defines his character in Metal Gear Solid as the plot thickens with more and more political jargon being tossed between heroes and villains alike. It’s a mature game, one that puts potent subjects like nuclear war and genetic engineering on an interactive stage.
But Metal Gear has always had another side. As the series progressed, the lore became more and more complex. We’re at the point where one of the most important questions in the series can only be answered in singsong: “La-li-lu-le-lo.” Metal Gear’s narrative has becoming nigh-impenetrable to the average gamer. Its lore is so labyrinthine and incoherent that it’s funny… and that’s become its focus. Sure, the stories in each game have their moments of seriousness and generally come to solid conclusions, but along the way they become convoluted to the point of self-parody. The series plays more like a satire of conspiracy theories than a serious examination of their implications.
That’s what makes Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain so important for the series: it embraces maturity. Prior to Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear’s increasingly gritty and poignant setting has made its convoluted dialogue and crazy,anime-esque boss fights feel out-of-place. Even with their superb endings, Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots show Kojima being as frivolous as possible with their stories. With Peace Walker and later Ground Zeroes, though, the series has taken a turn. The goofiness that was present in Snake Eater doesn’t stand out quite as much. Ground Zeroes specifically, despite its total disregard for the fourth wall in its ‘hostage situation’ side mission, is dark, gruesome, and unsettling – a stark contrast to the clairvoyant trolling of Psycho Mantis or the bee armor of The Pain.
With a narrative that screams “military drama” instead of “spy spoof”, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain shows that despite its near-satirical past, Metal Gear can rise to the challenge of delivering a powerful story to rival big-budget films. Kojima has grown since he lovingly ripped off John Carpenter in the 80’s, and his decision to finally let his cherished series grow with him could redefine everything we know about Metal Gear.