Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - Strength in Weakness

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Today marks the release of the latest installment in Konami's hit tactical espionage series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Since few games are more renowned for their deep, cinematic story lines than designer Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear titles, I thought I'd celebrate the occasion by examining how MGS5 reaches narrative heights above even its acclaimed predecessors.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for those who haven't played the game's intro or seen this trailer.

Perhaps the most recognizable part of the MGS series' successful storytelling equation is its characters. From its roster of Snakes big enough to fill the Well of Souls, to Revolver Ocelot, Hal Emmerich, Frank Jaeger, Meryl Silverburgh, Colonel Roy Campbell, and a veritable army of other vivid personalities, Metal Gear excels at characterization.

Why are the series' characters so compelling? Mainly because Kojima uses a time-tested characterization method from books and film. Whenever a character is introduced, within minutes of coming on screen, you learn his goals, what stands in the way of achieving those goals, and the consequences of success or failure.

Knowing the goals, obstacles, and stakes confronting a character is all that's really needed to make you care for him. In fact, characters don't even have to be especially likable for us to root for them. Just look at the Punisher, Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler, and Tywin Lannister. But Kojima goes the extra mile and gives minute details on almost every speaking character that round them out and make them seem real, right down to Solid Snake's penchant for wild blueberries.

Yum! Who can blame him?
Pretty much the whole Metal Gear series can boast of nuanced, three-dimensional characters. Where MGS5 goes above and beyond is in its intense application of another potent storytelling device:

Start your main character in a position of weakness.

The only kind of character that audiences like better than one who strives against adversity in pursuit of  a goal is an underdog who strives against impossible odds for a nigh unattainable goal. Think of Luke Skywalker taking on the Galactic Empire, Bilbo Baggins burgling Smaug the Golden, or young Link facing off against Ganondorf, Prince of Thieves.

Cheering on the underdog is an almost universal phenomenon. We identify with characters who start weak and finish strong because we want to accomplish the same transformation. In fact, a key purpose of storytelling since time immemorial has been imparting and gaining the wisdom necessary to triumph in everyday struggles.

As Neil Gaiman explains brilliantly:
...books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
Neil specifically mentions books, but the same can definitely be said for games. And few games present a character's journey from weakness to strength in order to make a physical, mental, and spiritual escape better than Metal Gear Solid V. Because no game I've ever seen starts the main character in a position of such extreme weakness.

If you haven't watched the video above, take a few minutes to check it out--especially the game play footage in the second half. MGS5 begins with a literally crippled protagonist. Freshly awakened from a coma, "Ahab" is denied the use of his legs and one arm. He must actually crawl to freedom.

MGS5 Hospital

Not content with this grueling scenario, Kojima raises the stakes and the tension by pitting his handicapped lead against a team of heavily armed and highly trained assassins. Then he ups the ante again by adding seemingly preternatural horrors to the mix; and again by disabling the main character's other arm!

The fact that Kojima so profoundly hobbles the player-controlled character without sacrificing the player's agency or fun earns him a place among the greatest storytellers in any medium or genre.

One last note: the effectiveness of the underdog conceit largely depends on the implied promise that the initially weak character will gain the strength to overcome his opposition. Suffice it to say that, after a harrowing nightmare of scurrying behind cover to escape the brutal fate coldly dealt out to the innocents around him, seeing "Ahab" finally wrap his one good hand around the grip of a gun was among the most cathartic gaming experiences I've ever had.

That's how you know you're doing it right.

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